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The Mean Grace of Flannery O’Connor
“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
– Flannery O’Connor
I didn’t care for it the first time I read it. No – let me rephrase that. The first time I read it, I was repulsed by it. Flannery O’Connor’s writing had been recommended to me from a close friend. A southern Catholic fiction writer, Mary Flannery O’Connor lived with her mother, raised peacocks while writing two novels and just over two dozen short stories. It would be forty-five years after her death that I found myself reading her iconic and harrowing short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”.
But don’t let the title of her stories, the bespectacled innocence of her photograph, or the reclusive, respectable life she led in the home with her mother fool you. Flannery O’Connor’s writing could be downright vicious and raw. Her characters are often crude, unkempt and ill-educated. Bereft of redeeming qualities and brimming with flaws, it is easy to repelled by them and the path their lives are taking. And yet, with writing that is so vivid, so animated, so…real, it is difficult to release yourself from its grip. So it is at this time, with her reader duly ensnared, that Flannery unleashes her power. In the case of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (spoiler alert…), Flannery stuns with the slaughter of a thoughtlessly chattering grandmother and her family by a fugitive killer known as the Misfit. It hit me right between the eyes – and, frankly, I didn’t like it. Gratuitous violence. Irredeemable characters. Pointless plot. I was not impressed.
That said, it was in 2008 that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was interviewed by Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes. Justice Scalia relayed a high school anecdote that has stuck with me since I first heard it.
“I have – one teacher I remember was an elderly Jesuit at Xavier (high school in New York City) from Boston. He had a Boston accent. Father Tom Matthews, and he taught me a lesson that I’ve recounted in some of my speeches. He taught me what I refer to as the Shakespeare principle.
The class was reading one of the Shakespeare plays, ‘Hamlet’ or whatever, and one of my classmates or whatever, sort of smart aleck kid, John Antonelli, as I recall. It’s ridiculous I would remember his name. But [John] made some really smart aleck sophomoric criticism of the play, and Father Matthews looked down at him and he said, with his Boston accent, ‘Mister, when you read Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s not on trial. You are.'”
And so it was for me and Flannery O’Connor. As I read her work, Flannery O’Connor was not on trial. I was. Sheepishly, I have to admit that I had similarly grossly misjudged the great G.K. Chesterton in the past (see my previous post “Finding My Way to Orthodoxy” https://acatholicthinker.wordpress.com/2012/11/22/finding-my-way-to-orthodoxy/). The work of Flannery O’Connor could be harsh, violent and discomfiting. And yet it is also thick with truth, grace and redemption. To the superficial reader, a yarn filled with unattractive figures on ill-fated endeavors may be all that is perceived. But to those willing to consider her work more deeply, powerful themes of deeply religious truths become apparent. Perhaps the greatest and most pervasive of these truths in Flannery’s stories is the pain, suffering and “meanness” that often accompanies the beautiful grace of God.
But how is it that I came to the realization of the depth and quality of this once-scorned (by me) writer? First, conversations with my good friend kindly encouraged me that I may be wrong in my initial dislike of Flannery. Effectively, he reminded me that Flannery is not on trial – I am. Second, reading the writings of Flannery in the form of a posthumously published collection of correspondence titled “The Habit of Being” captivated me. These letters to friends and associates, never intended by the author to be released, are a masterpiece of deep thinking, religious conviction and endearing wit. Without pretense or puffery, Flannery shows a clarity of thought on the most human of concerns that is gripping in its sage-like quality. Particularly impressive to me is her insight on suffering and grace – not only how it figured into “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, but how it figures into our every day life. When Flannery O’Connor explains her novel, I am interested. When she explains her faith, I am entranced. On suffering and grace, she writes,
“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.”
“This notion that grace is healing omits the fact that before it heals, it cuts with the sword Christ said He came to bring.”
“[The trendy “beat” writers] call themselves holy but holiness costs and so far as I can see they pay nothing. It’s true that grace is the free gift of God but in order to put yourself in the way of being receptive to it you have to practice self-denial.”
And when explaining (what I considered incomprehensible) “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to a friend,
“There is a moment of grace in most of the stories, or a moment where it is offered, and usually rejected. Like when the Grandmother recognizes the Misfit as one of her children (a child of God) and reaches out to touch him. It’s the moment of grace for her anyway – a silly old woman – but it leads him to shoot her. This moment of grace excites the devil to frenzy.”
The frequent pairing of suffering and grace was captured in a moment between a violent Misfit and a cackling old woman. Suddenly, what I failed to understand became clear and the story had a significant impact on me. After all, aren’t the greatest stories we encounter in our Faith ones riddled with suffering (the taunting of Noah, the slavery of Moses, the guilty infidelity and murder perpetrated by David, the lonely pregnancy of Mary and the Passion of the Christ) and subsequent grace (the deliverance of the Ark, the arrival at the Promised Land, the redemption of David, the Assumption of Mary and the Resurrection and Reign of Christ)? And yet, so often while the suffering is painfully apparent, we often are blind to moments of extreme and beautiful grace in our faith and in our lives. These are moments which Flannery O’Connor shares with us again and again.
One last question may be posed before a person would embark upon reading the raw and challenging works of Flannery O’Connor. What did she know about suffering and grace? At the age of twenty-six, Flannery would be diagnosed (like her father before her) with systemic lupus erythematosus (“lupus”), a disabling rheumatologic condition. Through chronic pain, recurrent illnesses and medication side effects, Flannery would write with keen insight, acerbic wit and devout Catholic faith. Thirteen years later, she would die. She was only thirty-nine years old. Flannery O’Connor knew suffering and she knew grace – a mean grace.
The Centrality of Christ
“Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
– Matthew 21:42
“I ask myself: ‘What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What should I do for Christ?’ “
– Pope Francis
Six months. That is all it has been. Six months. And Pope Francis has clearly made his mark. Elected after a brief conclave in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication, Pope Francis has brought a fresh style and puckish unpredictability to the See of Peter. Whether leaping off an uncovered Pope Mobile to embrace a handicapped child or paying his own hotel bill shortly after his election, whether wading deeply into crowds to listen and offer impromptu prayers or calling several letter-writing supplicants, this Pope has placed a very clear and personal stamp on the Papacy. It seems that everyone is paying attention – as well they should.
What has been interesting, however, is the reaction to the Pope’s most recent interview – a 12,000 word exchange with a Father Antonio Spadaro, who represents La Civilta Cattolica and a co-operative of several other Jesuit journals. The interview was tastefully conducted with deference appropriate to the subject and the occasion. The best interviews are devoid of the personality asking questions and suffused with the personality of those answering the questions. The questions were few and the answers were deep and thoughtful. It seemed this was the greatest exchange to date on the spiritual worldview of the 266th Bishop of Rome.
And yet, there was controversy. Surely, a wide-ranging and candid dialogue on matters of spirituality between a Jesuit editor and a Jesuit Pope could avoid contentiousness among its analysts, couldn’t it? In a word, no. Immediately after its release, the various media outlets went into overdrive to bring their respective constituencies what they heard from the Pope. In the process of reading the interview in its entirety, I vowed to myself not to get one glimpse of the spin that pervaded the internet and news programs about “what the Pope said”. I literally had to implore my wife, who playfully teased me, NOT to tell me what the New York Times had to say. Not that I couldn’t guess. Soon enough, I would find out as would the rest of the world.
It doesn’t take a great deal of intelligence or insight to identify how the Pope’s words would be portrayed. Here are just a few samples in case you missed them:
Pope Says Church is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control – New York Times
Pope Francis: Catholic Church Must Focus Beyond “Small-Minded Rules” – CBS News
Pope Francis Is a Liberal – Slate
The Pope’s Real Message – National Review
Pope Warns Church Focusing Too Much on Gays, Abortion – Wall Street Journal
Additionally, it should come as no surprise that after reading the complete interview, I (like many) was left wondering if many of the journalists actually read the same interview that I did. But this is not the insight I wish to share. The shortcomings of a media consumed by deadlines, profit-generating, sensationalism and knee-jerk analysis is nearly as old as time itself. After all, didn’t the serpentine devil perform the first “spin” on Eve regarding what God really “meant and did or did not say”?
What struck me about the interview with Pope Francis was its “Christ-centeredness”. While the media persistently sought to frame up his remarks as conservative or liberal, ossified or revolutionary, the Pope’s words genuinely deflected these labels by returning again and again to Christ. How interesting to find the words “abortion, homosexuality and contraception” relentlessly pervading the stories written by the grand, truth-telling media and yet there was an utter absence of the word “Christ”. Not so for Pope Francis. His words anchor themselves in the Messiah, the Savior of Mankind. It is a discussion rooted in discernment, in mercy, in humility, in calling and in the inextinguishable love of God for his broken but hopeful children. As the Pope said,
“I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.
The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.
How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.
Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”
“I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”
“We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”
“We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound.”
What saddens or frustrates about the larger media is the attempt to conform Pope Francis and his words into the support of a political worldview, an ideology or a policy. Even further exasperating are the attempts to juxtapose Pope Francis against his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI whom Francis says,”has done an act of holiness, greatness, humility. He is a man of God.” In fact, any true and honest evaluator of the work and legacy of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis cannot escape the conclusion that through their respective strengths (be they Benedict’s considered intellectual rebuttal to postmodern moral relativism and extraordinary contribution to interpretation of Vatican II and liturgical integrity or Francis’ missionary zeal and approachable evangelism), they both indisputably serve one master alone: Jesus Christ.
What has been most jarring about Pope Francis’ interview is that it is so jarring. There is a fresh, applicable repeated theme of the Centrality of Christ. We are reminded that Christ is not a means to the end of a better political system, the righting of a social wrong or a self-satisfied ideology. Christ is the End in Himself. The Author of Love Himself is the focal point, the end goal, the sole object of our complete devotion. For from Christ comes all good. He is the source of Truth, Goodness and Beauty. He is the origin of Faith, Hope and Charity. From Him comes Prudence, Temperance, Courage and Justice. No great calling or aspiration truly succeeds without Him. But it is up to us to discern, to pray, to hear our calling and to answer it in love, faith and humility with eyes fixed on Christ. Pope Francis has reminded us of this. But is this novel? Of course not. Perhaps we have heard it before.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”
– Revelation 22:13
“Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes?'”
– Matthew 21:42
“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'”
– John 14:6
“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’ ‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’”
– Luke 10: 38-42
The cornerstone. The Alpha and the Omega. The Way, the Truth, and the Life. The better part. And so it seems, that the majority of the media deliciously, sensationally and reliably missed the enduring point of Pope Francis’ interview. It was nothing less than the Centrality of Christ. Perhaps Pope Francis is onto something. Perhaps we should be too.
In Praise of “Stupid Questions”
– Matthew 18: 3-4
“There is no such thing as a stupid question.” My professor looked at me as he said this. Smiling and reassuring, he invited me to proceed with my question. I had heard this before – the famous “stupid question” line. We all had. And here we were, in our first year of medical school, hearing it once again. And so, a little anxious and sheepish, I asked, he answered and the class moved on. Yet I didn’t necessarily feel better. Instead, I wondered for the next ten minutes if I sounded like a complete idiot asking about something that presumably everyone else clearly knew. This was not the first (nor the last) “stupid question” I would ever ask.
“Stupid questions” create a great deal of angst in our world. Classrooms, locker rooms, lunchrooms, and boardrooms are filled with people who fear that “one moment” in which they ask a question which is publicly (or privately) deemed “stupid” by a mass of peers (and, perhaps, an authority figure) resulting in utter embarrassment. “Stupid questions” provide material for sitcoms and movies (both comedies and dramas) with hilarious or tragic outcomes. Why is this experience so pervasive? Because we all understand what it is like to be a bit insecure about what we know and do not know. Even more, we fear acute humiliation if this deficit in knowledge is unfortunately paraded for all to see. As such, embarrassment can be a potent deterrent preventing us from finding the answers we so desperately are seeking. Even a giant such as Abraham Lincoln couldn’t escape the fear of the “stupid question” by eloquently quipping,
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
It has been seventeen years since I sat in that medical school classroom. Yes, there are things that I know and things I don’t know, and there still remains the fear of the “stupid question”. Yet, I now look at this question in a very different way. While I am in no way eager to ask the “stupid question”, I am now very thankful for it. First, the “stupid question” often represents a pressing concern about a fundamental issue that is not understood. Often, notwithstanding a sting of sheepishness, the answer to the “stupid question” enlightens, clarifies, and sticks. Whatever short-term pain is endured, the longer term value exponentially overshadows it. Second, over the years I have heard a significant number of “stupid questions” asked which helped me better understand a concept and reassured me that I wasn’t the only one struggling with it. Finally, the fear of the “stupid question” has motivated me to be a little more prepared and simultaneously to take myself a little less seriously.
While I have come to a degree of comfort with the “stupid questions” in my life, I realize how indebted I am to the disciples for the “stupid questions” they asked of Christ. Time and time again, this motley crew of fishermen and tax collectors barraged Jesus with questions that must have tried His patience. And yet He answered them with the infinite patience and wisdom that only God can offer to His hungry children. We cannot truly appreciate the eternal benefit gained from a discipline asking the “stupid question” for us because it prompted Christ to teach on an issue poorly understood and of pressing concern to His children. With no disrespect to Lincoln, thank God the disciples did not follow his advice.
Just consider the questions the disciples asked:
Would you teach us to pray?
What must I do to earn eternal life?
How many times must I forgive my brother?
Why were we unable to cast out this demon?
Who will be greatest (among us) in the Kingdom of Heaven?
Is it better to feverishly work or to listen to Your Word?
Shouldn’t this oil used to honor you be sold to serve the poor?
What did that parable mean?
How are we going to feed all these people?
These “stupid questions”, as I have been trying to explain, are truly anything BUT stupid. They ask questions about fundamentals and first principles that are not well-understood. They sought simple explanations of truth from Truth Himself. They were unabashed and earnest in their attempts to understand Christ. And Christ loved them for it. In effect, these are the greatest questions that could have been asked. And they resulted in explanations by Christ that taught the Lord’s prayer, the need for utter love and devotion to God and neighbor, the importance of infinite forgiveness, the value of prayer and fasting, the need to serve and adore Christ, the simple and complex meanings of Christ’s teachings, and the role we have in serving others in tandem with God. The disciples asked and Christ answered vital questions essential to living holy Christian lives. Were there times when the disciples were sheepish for their questions or actions? Absolutely. Consider when James and John asked to sit on Christ’s right and left hand, or when Peter asked if he should build tents for the apparitions of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration. But it is man’s fallibility that Christ, better than anyone, understood. It was for this reason that He came to teach. It was for this reason that He came to die for us. It was for this reason that He allowed His disciples (and continues to allow us) to ask Him “stupid questions”.
The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, once noted,
“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”
As previously noted, Christ taught,
“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
“There is no such thing as a stupid question.” Amen.
My Priest, My Friend
I had never been through it before. And when it came down to that last moment – a moment to say goodbye, I didn’t handle it as well as I thought I would. I choked up. With a small line behind me, my two young daughters clinging to my legs, and my wife beside me, I literally began to cry as I said goodbye. Father Michael Reding, my parish priest, was leaving. And it wasn’t easy for me.
Father’s departure was not completely unexpected. In fact, he had been with our church for a longer period than is typical for most priests – thirteen years. Furthermore, his move to a new parish was not unlike what most “cradle Catholics” (other than the very young) had seen throughout their lives. It is common and regular practice in the Catholic Faith that priests move within their diocese to serve another parish after a set amount of time. Exceptions regarding length of time are made when special social or financial circumstances deem that a transfer would be disruptive (e.g. in the middle of a major capital campaign). It is a thoughtful and orderly process that is classic for Catholicism. A little change, a little pain, but ultimately a transition considered beneficial for pastor and parish alike.
And yet, this was the first time I would experience this change. I am, after all, a convert. While I had attended many Catholic churches in the run-up to my conversion, it was Father Michael Reding at St. Bartholomew’s Church who was my priest. In saying this, I intend no strange or selfish possessiveness, but rather I try to emphasize that it was under Father Michael that my wife and I
ceased our alternating Sundays between the Catholic and Lutheran churches. It was under Father Michael that my second daughter would be baptized (in the hands of the gregarious and warm Deacon Rick Witucki). And, to steal the words from G.K. Chesterton, it was under Father Michael that Catholicism caught me “with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let [me] wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring [me] back with a twitch upon the thread.” In effect, under Father Michael, I became Catholic.
Now, Father Michael would never be bold enough to accept credit for playing an instrumental part in my conversion. Instead, he would credit the mystical pull of the Holy Spirit. With this, I would agree. But, in my estimation, along with my wife, two dear friends, and a stable of thinkers like G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, and Pope Benedict XVI, the Spirit worked through Father Michael Reding.
At first blush (no pun intended), Father seems somewhat shy. A self-described introvert, he would not be the first to sign up for a corny church promotion or draw attention for rousing humorous anecdotes. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t do any and all for his church (including the occasional corny promotion), nor that he is humorless. Rather, it means he knows his strengths and is comfortable in his own skin. Father brought a thoughtfulness rooted in his deep Catholic faith, a steadiness of hand through the Church’s sex abuse crisis, a fiscal discipline reflecting his wise business background, a deep appreciation and support of sacred music and art (bringing extraordinary sculpture, architecture, and music to life in St. Bart’s Church), and a genuine kindness rarely found in those overworked and under-resourced.
But what I found most striking about Father Michael was his profound depth. There have been no small number of times that I have approached Father with a simple question or confided in him about a complex concern. In doing so, I found he possessed three exceedingly rare gifts. First, he has an uncanny capacity to listen. Next, he demonstrates no quick impulse to give a canned theological answer (in effort to save time, of which he must be surely short). Finally, he provides a thoughtful, Spirit-led (I would reason) insight that has never failed to enlighten me. While these three strengths might seem common and obvious, I would heartily argue that they are among the most rare you can find in the modern world, and especially coinciding in one individual. As a practicing physician and a voracious reader of great theological thinkers, I feel I may speak credibly on the virtues of thoughtful interpersonal skills and wise insight. Father Michael is truly blessed.
In addition to Father’s thoughtful personal touch, I found the Mass he conducted riveting. It was in these Masses I first recognized that what I was witnessing – what I was a part of – was a very Holy Event. The atmosphere of Mass was suffused with deep reverence. The lilting music, the dignified readings, the intellectually and mystically rich homily, and the holiness of the Eucharist were all guided by the ginger and steady hand of our priest – Father Michael. A deep sense of community and a thirst for the life-giving Body and Blood of Christ were fostered. In Father was found a model of someone genuinely and profoundly tapped into the richness of Catholicism which, in turn, made me want to deepen my relationship with Christ. In Mass, I found that the experience of Faith is equally, if not more, powerful than the intellectual intrigue of Faith. For that, I am deeply grateful.
As his final Mass drew to a close, a wistful, nostalgic video played showing where Father and the parish have been in his thirteen year tenure. A newly constructed worship space, sculptures of the crucified Christ and Holy Family, elementary school upgrades, and expanding staff…but all of this was peripheral to the soft, steady, holy mission to love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. There was never a question that, under Father Michael, the Church is a Church, not a business. And it lives and breathes the Grace of God to all of its wounded, imperfect, and yearning parishioners (I being a foremost sinner among them). Amen to that.
When the video drew to a close, Father received a much deserved standing ovation and then spoke words of humility and gratitude. And it was then that it truly hit me about how beautifully God provided a shepherd to his flock in Wayzata, MN. I have no doubt that Father Michael was one of God’s many acts of Grace in my life. Father closed by saying (to my rough memory):
“Though we now go on separate paths, we travel together to The Lord.”
It made me think of the hopeful nostalgia G.K. Chesterton possessed when he described his anticipated heavenly reunion with a favorite author Charles Dickens, but even more with all our loved ones and friends “at the Tavern at the End of the World”:
“The hour of absinthe is over…But we have a long way to travel before we get back to what Dickens meant: and the passage is along a rambling English road, a twisting road such as Mr. Pickwick travelled. But this at least is part of what he meant; that comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travel; but that rather our travels are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure for ever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters: and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.”
And, so, as I stood before him at the end of his final Mass as priest at St. Bart’s, I choked up. I was awash with emotion that imperfectly said, “There are few people in my life that I really admire, that I really look up to, that I listen to earnestly because I learn something and am consequently made better just because I listened”. And even though I said something far less articulate and far less memorable, in the end I wanted him to know how valuable he has been to me and my family. I wanted him to know that my faith (and life) are richer because of him. I am proud to say that Father Michael Reding was My Priest and My Friend. God bless him as he begins anew.
Serendipity with a Source
The Pope and the Journalist
“Have in you the mind of Christ…Learn to think the way Christ thought; learn to think with Him…This thinking is not intellectual thought; rather it is also thinking with the heart.”
– Pope Benedict XVI
It was April, 2005. I was not Catholic. And I did not anticipate becoming Catholic. It was, thus, with a certain curious detachment that I witnessed the momentous events in Rome transpire. After decades of charismatic leadership and years of painful physical degeneration, the iconic Pope John Paul II died. Subsequently, the arcane gathering known as “Conclave” ensued to select a new Pope. Frenzied media commentary soon began about the fate of the Catholic Church, the possible theological, philosophical, and political change in Church policy, and, of course, the leader under whom such change would likely occur. It was a time for “Honest Journalism.” Ah…”Honest Journalism”. And so being a cool dispassionate observer, I drank in the coverage.
At the time this was occurring, I was vacationing in Mexico and had just finished Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi’s “His Holiness”, a biography of John Paul II. Irrespective of my Protestantism and mild suspicions about the power and influence of the papacy, it was difficult not to be drawn into the remarkable life of Pope John Paul II and the robust physical and historical Church he represented. Even if I wasn’t Catholic, it was clear that the Catholic Faith was an international force to be reckoned with and, as a result, warranted a certain respectful attention. And attention I would give. I read news periodicals and journals, consumed wall-to-wall news coverage of the funeral and conclave, and ardently began to wonder who would fill the very large shoes of “John Paul the Great”?
It was at this time that I first heard his name. Joseph Ratzinger. Among the “Papabile”, or “pope-ables” being described by the media, Ratzinger’s name emerged again and again. While there were others (whose names have now faded due to the ultimate remarkable legacy Pope Benedict XVI would leave), Joseph Ratzinger was early considered a front-runner to become the “Heir to Peter”. And yet in the midst of the accolades offered to the memory of John Paul II and the laudatory media profiles of pet favorite Papabile, Joseph Ratzinger was far from positively characterized. As John Paul II’s Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (which, we were reminded countless times, is the successor name for the original Congregation of the Inquisition) for twenty-four years, Joseph Ratzinger was charged with the maintenance of the orderly observation of the doctrine of the Catholic Faith. This, being no simple job, required consideration of all issues including bioethics, the fidelity of religious orders and educators to Church doctrine, and examination of political Catholic movements such as liberation theology (among many others). In a role that involved deep respect for tradition and periodic discipline of doctrinal deviations, Ratzinger was no media darling. Dissenters came out from all sides to dub the German Cardinal as “God’s Rottweiler”, “The Grand Inquisitor”, and the “Panzer-Cardinal”. Insinuations of hidden scandal were floated about: “Wasn’t he in the Hitler Youth?”, “Didn’t he fight for Hitler’s army?”, “Is he as ruthless as he seems?”. From the beginning, a dark cloud surrounded this man. And I…I just consumed it. After all, my sources were unimpeachable. It was “honest journalism”. Ah, yes.
Let us now move forward to present day. It is Spring, 2013. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has retired after serving nearly eight years as Pope Benedict XVI. And I am now a Catholic. Out of my earlier years of dispassionate observation emerged an insatiable hunger to learn more about (and practice) this Faith of rich, Christ-centered mystical and intellectual tradition. In simply paying more attention and considering my sources, it became clear to me who Pope Benedict XVI was and what he has accomplished. Pope Benedict XVI’s years have been marked by remarkable achievements including addressing the deplorable priest-sex abuse scandal, further advancing Catholic reconciliation with Orthodox, Anglican, and Jewish faiths, growing deeper intellectual dialogue with Islam, articulating the gravity of the modern “dictatorship of relativism”, reforming the liturgy of the Mass to be more faithful to the original Latin, penning three extraordinary encyclicals on the supernatural virtues and a scholarly trilogy on Jesus Christ, and galvanizing Catholic youth with massive gatherings and a new Youth Catechism (“YouCat”). And yet these extraordinary accomplishments achieved by an elderly “caretaker” Pope would receive little credit, much less attention. If anything, criticism was the order of the day. It was simply a matter of “honest journalism”.
Needless to say, having seen the stark disconnect between the reality of this Pope and the perception that was sold by the larger media (when any story was covered at all), I was slipping into cynicism. That is until I read Peter Seewald.
Peter Seewald, a German journalist with an impressive resume, found himself undertaking a life-changing enterprise. In 1989, Seewald was asked to be a leading journalist for a well-funded start-up magazine that would, in his own words, “[Test] entrenched opinions, [find] new approaches, and [make] further discoveries.” Like many endeavors, Seewald would cite this experience as one of richer import because he and his colleagues, now in their late 30s, with kids, a little more careworn and a little less naive, discovered a more mature sense of and thirst for “meaning” in the stories they would produce. As he would recall,
“A new word came to the center of our considerations: MEANING. As [my colleagues and I] were discussing it, a silence suddenly fell. We were shocked at ourselves. Twenty years earlier we had trampled on everything that smelled of MEANING, of education, respect, or humility. Yet we now felt, especially when we were exhausted on Monday mornings and telling of our weekend with the children, how painfully we missed these norms, after all.”
And yet, this “sense of meaning” would recoil at any suggestion that this meaning could be rooted in religion. Instead, there was a cool and trendy ignorance of faith. Seewald first noted “In our editorial team, if you knew three out of the ten commandment, that was enough to make you an expert on theology.” But going further, the media milieu in which he found himself (and of which he was surely a creature) was not simply ignorant of, but rather antithetical to faith. Seewald notes,
“The real problem, however, was the pressure of public opinion. No one was free from it. We people of the media had enthusiastically built up this enormous wall of secular dogma – that is, what one should think, do, and wear – and had then bowed down before it ourselves. Today, the paradigm of our world view is beginning to change again. The ideology of my own generation, which advanced the reconstruction of society for four decades and determined the climate of opinion, has lost its creative power. Yet there was still firmly embedded in the media a postmodern litany that cast suspicion upon everything to do with believing. To be more exact, that had to do with CHRISTIAN belief.
People judged the Catholic Church with particular harshness. It was forbidden, on pain of the utmost scorn, to leave one hair of her head untouched. And conversely, any colleague who, like his predecessor, and his predecessor in turn, opened fire on this rather battered structure was considered a candidate for a medal of bravery…Anyone who dared to come out publicly as a Christian must in any case feel as if he belonged to a forbidden organization. At any rate, there had to be something wrong with him.”
Thus, it was during a particular brainstorming session with the editorial staff that Peter Seewald, a lapsed Catholic and creature of the modern media, accepted an assignment. He would interview Joseph Ratzinger, the Cardinal and Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the [Catholic] Faith. The motive for the story? Seewald described,
“[Ratzinger] was obviously one of the most hated men in the world. A first class subject. Our idea was very simple. Generally speaking, any mention of Ratzinger’s name provoked particular reactions – but basically, people knew very little about the man. Who is he, actually? What motivates him? What makes him the way he is?…[He] had to be, from all you heard, a brusque and severe sort.”
And so began an extraordinary endeavor that would forever change one journalist’s life. But it would first require work – honest work. Seewald’s sound practice and integrity as a journalist is palpable in his writing. First, he performed immense research on his subject by pouring over original compositions, speeches, and archival materials by and about the Cardinal. A broad outline was constructed about Ratzinger the person, his enthusiasms, profession, health, contacts, and politics. Next, extensive interviews were undertaken with close associates (supporters and detractors). The insights of these recollections were then cross-referenced with additional interviews and previous research. From Ratzinger’s fluency in nine languages to his appointment to the vaunted Academie Francaise, from his extensive academic accomplishments to his deep love of Mozart, from his “inexhaustible memory” to his characteristic searching gaze, from his ineptitude with technology to his sleeping tendencies, from his scholarly role models to his penchant for veal sausages – Seewald was truly getting to know his man.
It would soon be time to meet him. But before he did, Seewald outlined the results of his research into four summary points:
“The attitude and argument of the Guardian of the Faith [i.e. Cardinal Ratzinger] were roughly portrayed thus:
Point One: The Catholic Church is not some construction, but is HIS Church, the Church of the Lord. The faith is not constantly having to be reinvented; it is already given through Jesus Christ. The Word is with the legitimate shepherds, and not with the experts, the professors, who contradict each other and compete with each other to produce the most convenient opinions.
Point Two: A genuine understanding of Christianity is possible only in faith, and not with the one-sided approaches of history, sociology, or psychoanalysis. Faith soars above the teaching office of intellectuals.
Point Three: It is not Christians who set themselves up against the world; rather, ‘the world is outraged whenever sin and grace are called by their proper names.’
Point Four: After all the exaggerations of an indiscriminate opening to the world, a restoration is thoroughly desirable. ‘And besides,’ says the Cardinal, ‘it is already under way in the Church.’
Peter Seewald, the seasoned journalist and lapsed Catholic, found himself in a difficult and quite unanticipated position. Even before the first meeting with the Cardinal, he found himself trying to reconcile unexpected discrepancies. Who was Joseph Ratzinger and how could there be such a disconnect between the darker popular perceptions of Joseph Ratzinger and the rather impressive reality that Seewald seemed to be discovering? Perhaps the interviews would shed some light.
Indeed, they would. Joseph Ratzinger would welcome Seewald to their first interview with a warm, German-drawling “Jaaaaa”. A higher-pitched voice. A small, delicate frame. Seewald would see the Cardinal as friendly, warm, confident, yet somewhat fragile. He was genuine and humble. A patient listener yet eloquent speaker, Seewald would explain,
“He had, as it were, a very impassioned way of speaking, both lively and witty. His hands gesticulated, and his eyes flashed. He chose his words carefully, but without trying to impress us with stylistic exaggerations, and you did not need a university degree in order to understand him. Certainly, the construction of many of his sentences had the quality of a musical composition, and if at all possible he would round off his longer explanation with a point, so as to make them even smoother.”
Over the course of several days, Seewald and Ratzinger engaged in deep, intense exchanges lasting hours at a time. The topics were unrestricted and wide-ranging. Questions posed were followed by sharp, probing but respectful follow-up questions. Personal biography and Church policy, nuanced theology and hard-knuckled politics, topics of humor as well as deep pain were explored. And the only stipulation Joseph Ratzinger placed on the project was the right to read the book before publication – with no amendments offered.
The transcripts (which is effectively what Seewald’s three ultimate books are) of dialogue between these two men are nothing short of stunning. To see a journalist ask honest, educated, and relevant questions on matters of faith is refreshing. To then see a Catholic priest/theologian eloquently answer them in an open, honest, and understandable fashion is deeply heartening. It is this type of dialogue that I would describe as Spirit-filled. An honest seeking of and exchange over Truth. A dialogue of the first-order. A rarity, to be sure.
This dialogue revealed the considerable genius of Joseph Ratzinger, but also the honest and evolving worldview of the atheist, Peter Seewald. As one reads Seewald’s works, it is easy to grow more appreciative of the gifts of Ratzinger and the legitimacy of his worldview. But it is also apparent that Seewald himself begins to grasp the Cardinal’s insights and is starting to undergo his own honest, personal transformation. Some excerpts further illustrate:
“I was able to observe and also to grasp that the renunciation of truth solves nothing, but leads, on the contrary, to the tyranny of arbitrariness. All that can then remain is actually merely what we have decided and can exchange for something else. Man is degraded if he cannot know truth, if everything, in the final analysis, is just the product of an individual or collective decision.” (Joseph Ratzinger)
“What do you want to achieve?” (Peter Seewald)
“I want to make available to a new age the essentials of the Christian faith, and I have the calm certainty that this is not a private battle. That our Lord, who is behind this, is always the stronger. For that reason, I feel confident and unperturbed.” (Joseph Ratzinger)
“What is important to you?” (Peter Seewald)
“Being able to say something that is not entirely without significance for tomorrow. I am concerned to fight for the formation of the age, to defend a certain heritage. I try to say what seems right to me and leave the outcome to Providence. – And the older you get, the more important it is, for me too, to be in conversation with the greats [of Church history].” (Joseph Ratzinger)
“Many people look to their faith for help in times of trouble and sometimes it works, but sometimes you have the feeling, ‘My God, where are you? Why are you not giving me more help when I need you?'” (Peter Seewald)
“We are not spared these dark nights. They are clearly necessary, so that we can learn through suffering, so that we can acquire an inner freedom and maturity and, above all else, a capacity for sympathy with others…For in those instances when it gets under our skin and goes to our heart, there are quite different factors in play that cannot be explained by universal formulae but can only ultimately be worked through by undergoing personal suffering.” (Joseph Ratzinger)
“For Ratzinger, God’s intervention in this world through Jesus Christ is an absolute reality, which permeates not merely his view of the world, but his entire existence, to his very nerve ends, twenty-four hours a day. People need to recognize anew, he says, that the faith of Christians is an encounter with something sublime and beautiful. Only then would they be able to understand that the doctrine of the faith is a key with which one can unlock the mystery. A convincing image, I reflected. For it follows from that that it makes no sense at all to alter the key in accordance with one’s own notions and interpretations. They may well look more modern. But they would of course no longer fit the lock.” (Peter Seewald)
“An old story occurred to me. When we are born – so says a Jewish tale – an angel comes and lays his finger on our mouths. Forget everything you know, the angel means. Some while later, when the light of the world goes dark again for us, we are all wrinkled, just as we were at the beginning. But what have we learned in the interval, so often full of fear and misery, but also full of joy and fulfillment?”
The remainder of the story is best and brilliantly told by Peter Seewald (and Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI) themselves. Over two decades, Peter Seewald would produce three masterful books of frank, brilliant dialogue between a thoughtful, fair journalist and a brilliant, honest professor-priest. Salt of the Earth (when Cardinal Ratzinger) , God and the World (when Cardinal Ratzinger), and Light of the World (when Pope Benedict XVI) created an enormous sensation. Subsequently, Seewald published Benedict XVI: An Intimate Portrait to contextualize the unlikely journey on which the Cardinal and he found themselves. The works were complex in the depth of research it took for a Peter Seewald to assimilate and interpret, and the decades of prayerful, intellectual endeavor to become a Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Yet, the works were also simple. Because they were honest. And they were honest in their search for Truth.
An epilogue to this story is noteworthy. In 2005, during Conclave, I thought I was well-served by the “Honest Journalism” covering the proceedings and characterizing Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. I was wrong. “Honest Journalism” instead means working extremely hard to collect your data, scrupulously assimilate and analyze it, and follow it to the Truth – even if the Truth goes against your livelihood, your biases, and your deeply ingrained worldview. After his years of work with the Cardinal and prayerful consideration, Peter Seewald would be transformed. As he recalls it,
“I was now convinced that there are indeed answers that illuminate man’s existence and that can help him on his way. The only thing still standing in the way of my return to the Church, which had started when I had accompanied my children, was the scruple that it might look like a cheap marketing stunt for the book, under the caption: “Cardinal Converts Communist to Catholic Church”. So I did it silently – and secretly rejoiced. The voice of my heart spoke without reserve in favor of this step, and my reason said, ‘What do you have to lose? Your unbelief? That’s no loss. On the contrary, there can be no disadvantage in a writer setting a good example for his readers.’ The art of being received back again is called ‘reconciliation’ by the Church, and when it was over, Father Winfried, a Franciscan, who as the town’s parish priest had given me the decisive shove, fetched a bottle of Enzian from the cupboard, happy that someone was coming back to join the ninety-nine sheep he just about had.”
Indeed. And it all began with “Honest Journalism”. Thank you Peter. Thank you, Holy Father. Thank God.