The timelines that chronicle the rise and fall of disgraced media baron Conrad Black contain all the relevant dates. The purchase of his first newspaper, the Eastern Townships Advertiser, in 1966; the acquisition of conglomerate Argus Corp. Ltd. in 1978; the 1985 takeover of the London Telegraph, marking his debut as a Fleet Street publisher; his fabled 1992 marriage to journalist Barbara Amiel; his appointment to the British House of Lords in 2001; and of course his arrest on charges of fraud in 2005.
Not always included in these summaries is the date that may well be the most important in the months and years ahead: In 1986, Conrad Moffat Black, then 42 years old, abandoned his Anglican upbringing and, under the tutelage of Cardinal Emmett Carter, then archbishop of Toronto, converted to Roman Catholicism.
He has been a devout parishioner ever since, attending Sunday mass regularly, seeking out the company of Catholic priests and going so far as to build a small prayer chapel in a courtyard of his 15,000-square-foot, nine-acre Toronto mansion at Park Lane Circle. Both Cardinal Carter and his successor, Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic, served at the consecration of the chapel. The copper cupola that graces the top of Lord Black's three-storey, 15,000-volume library is modelled on the dome of St. Peter's in Rome.
Over the past two decades, it was to Cardinal Carter and other religious figures that Lord Black frequently turned for solace from what he perceived as the slings and arrows of outrageous media commentators and corporate enemies.
If Lord Black's appeal of this week's 78-month sentence on fraud and obstruction charges fails, it is to his faith that he is likely to turn to sustain him through the travails of prison life.
Two weeks ago, Lord Black had dinner in Chicago with his friend and mentor, Father Raymond de Souza, chaplain at Newman House at Queen's University in Kingston. According to Father de Souza, Lord Black seemed "tranquil and engaged in affairs other than his own," and "told me that his faith had not flagged, even under what he regarded as unjust suffering."
Lord Black, Father de Souza observed in a recent column, "will face much more suffering in the months and years ahead." Although "suffering tends to destroy, even to drive one to discouragement and despair °K it can be an occasion of purification and even redemption."
Michael Higgins, a Catholic layman, broadcaster and president of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, says he thinks "Conrad has internalized and appropriated dimensions of the Catholic tradition that define his spirituality. To the degree that it's authentic, and I think it is, it will sustain him. I think he won't draw so much on priest confessors, but on his internal resources, as a person who has drawn on his faith because it matters." Dr. Higgins interviewed Lord Black for his book, My Father's Business: a Biography of Gerald Emmett Cardinal Carter.
Dr. Higgins noted that the public is often cynical about religious conversions that occur during incarceration, but said, "that's not the case with Black. It's not a crutch for him. It's made sense of his life for a long period of time."
Throughout his legal ordeal, Lord Black has stoutly protested his innocence. In a recent interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., for example, he said it had been his "honour to show the shortcomings of the plea-bargain system and the corporate governance zealots. I am innocent. When you are innocent and when you are wrongly accused, how do you conduct yourself? Do you roll over and say: 'Well, I'm innocent and since I've been found guilty, I'm going to be humble and full of remorse?'É|"
But if there is no remorse, can there be spiritual repentance? As Dr. Higgins observes, "the sacrament is based on confession and a genuine act of contrition, predicated on the fact that one believes one has sinned and needs repentance. If he does not, how can he authentically seek forgiveness?"
On the other hand, Dr. Higgins noted that Lord Black "has persuaded himself or is genuinely convinced he is not guilty and as a consequence is incapable of admitting remorse, because that would be admission of wrongdoing. We may well think he has a narrow view of reality, but we can't assume he was acting in bad faith. Most certainly he will see his travails as another phase brought about by factors outside his control and be strengthened by them."
In his book Lord Black: The Biography, George Tombs points out that Lord Black does not like to be questioned about his faith. But he quotes Peter White, Lord Black's old friend and first partner in the newspaper business, saying, "There are a few things that I think motivated him to be a Catholic he basically takes the historian's view that if you're going to be a Christian, you might as well be a mainstream Christian and go right back to the source, which is the Holy Mother Church, and not get involved in any of these offshoots, like the Anglicans, or any of the other Protestant religions. °K But I also think that Conrad loves the pomp and ceremony and all the physical aspects of the liturgy, which are so theatrical and are so impressive and have done a great deal over the years, over the centuries, to keep the faithful interested."
In an interview with Vogue magazine last summer, Lord Black said he had been seeking solace from God, adding that it had been helpful to read "apposite passages from ecclesiastical authors, especially Cardinal [John Henry] Newman," and to converse with "several very knowledgeable clergymen."
Not much is known about Lord Black's intellectual interests in Catholicism, but to the extent that he has a mentor, it may well be Cardinal Newman, a 19th century English priest who converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism at about the same age as Lord Black.
Among Catholics, Cardinal Newman is associated with conservative thinking; he opposed liberal-minded reform within the Church of England.
Interestingly, Lord Black delivered a eulogy at Cardinal Carter's Toronto funeral in 2003, and cited a sentence from Cardinal Newman's Second Spring, a long sermon, which he called "a source of inspiration for dark days." It reads: "We mourn for the blossoms of May because they are to wither, but we know withal that May shall have its revenge upon November, in the revolution of that solemn circle that never stops and that teaches us, in our height of hope ever to be sober, and in our depth of desolation, never to despair."
In another pre-sentencing interview, Lord Black said he believed in "the prosecution of criminals and if I was guilty, my sense of guilt and shame would have required me to [plead guilty]. Cardinal Newman said, 'Our conscience is God speaking to us.' I agree with that."
To the extent that he seeks the ear of prison chaplains, Lord Black is likely to find good listeners, suggests Toronto Deacon Bert Cambre, who works with inmates of the city's Don Jail. "We listen very carefully, rarely talk about the crime itself, talk about how to find God in the circumstances, and assure him that God loves him regardless."
Dr. Higgins speculated that Lord Black might use his prison time not to write more political biographies, such as those he has written about former Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis, and former American presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, but to works based on self-scrutiny and his own spiritual development.
The powerful prison writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister murdered by the Nazis in 1945, and Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, a letter written to his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas, might serve as models. "My sense is he is quite fearful, but does have the mettle and is the kind of person to work a special alchemy. He could produce a great work of apologetic literature, blasting his adversaries but with poignant self knowledge."
Wilde's De Profundis opens with the lines: "Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods and chronicle their return. With us, time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain."
Before his sentencing this week, Lord Black seemed increasingly reconciled to his destiny, telling the CBC in an e-mail: "Prison would be a bore, but quite endurable. °K I can get on with anyone and adjust to almost anything, and I don't consider [prison] shaming."
In his column this week, Father de Souza noted that "the court has determined him to be guilty, and in the eyes of the law his suffering will be deserved. He believes himself innocent, and how an innocent man handles punishment is one of the great tests of character. That is the trial that now begins."