Sir Alec Guinness is one of the most recognizable actors of the 20th century. While he appeared in lots of films over the years and won many awards, he is best known as having played Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.
What many people don’t know about him, though, is that at the age of 42 he converted to Catholicism – in part because of a miracle.
[See also: The Amazing Deathbed Conversion of Oscar Wilde]
Guinness was born in 1914 in London to a broken family. He never knew his father and grew up in poverty. Though he was confirmed in the Anglican faith at 16, he was unsure of what he really believed about religion. Over the next few years he bounced around Presbyterianism, atheism, Marxism, Buddhism, and even attended a few Quaker meetings. Like a good Englishman of the early 20th century, though, he had no interest in Catholicism.
While rehearsing for the play Hamlet, an Anglican priest approached him and explained that he was blessing himself wrong and showed him the correct way. Something about the encounter had a spiritual impact on him, and he regained some interest in Anglicanism.
He was drawn further into the Anglican faith in the turmoil of World War II, but it wasn’t until 1954 when he was 40 years old that he had another experience that would open him to considering Catholicism.
He was in France working on the film Father Brown, based on G. K. Chesterton’s well known fictional crime-solving priest. He was playing the title role and so was dressed up as a Catholic priest. While walking down the street in priestly attire, a local child spotted him and mistook him to be a genuine Catholic priest. The child ran up, grabbed his hand trustingly, and walked with him down the road.
The trust and affection the child had for Catholic priests had a deep impact on him and made him start to seriously consider Catholicism. He later explained:
“Continuing my walk, I reflected that a Church that could inspire such confidence in a child, making priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming or as creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.”
Soon after, his son Matthew contracted polio and appeared to be close to death. Desperate and seeking divine help, Guinness started dropping by a local Catholic church to pray.
He made a deal with God: if God healed Matthew, he would allow his son to become Catholic if he wanted.
Against all expectations (miraculously?), his son recovered! So Guinness and his wife enrolled him in a Jesuit school. A few years later, Guinness, his wife, and his son all converted to Catholicism.
Guinness remained a faithful Catholic the rest of his life until he died in 2000. May he rest in peace!