Mark Sullivan

November 30, 2009

Evangelical college launches a program to study Church Fathers: Study more typical of Catholic schools, gains respect at Wheaton College

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A version of this article originally appeared in the November 29, 2009 issue of Our Sunday Visitor

“We are striving to create a center where discussions between Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox can happen. A place where we can come together and say, ‘What is this that we call our common faith, and how do we each contribute to a better understanding of that,’” George Kalantzis, director of the new Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies, told Our Sunday Visitor.

Patristics is the study of the earliest Christian teachers, also called the Church Fathers. Depending on the list, the Church honors about 100 Church Fathers who have the following characteristics: orthodox doctrine, holiness of life, Church approval and antiquity.

“What is missing in American Protestantism is an understanding of the richness of the early Church,” Kalantzis said. “One looks at reformers such as Calvin, Luther and Wesley and one sees the dependence on the early Church. The Reformation itself is a call to come back to the Church. It is a call to the Church to come back to the tradition of the Church.”

“Wheaton has always been at the forefront of that evangelical call to be faithful to the Bible and the faith of the Church,” Kalantzis said. “And now we have an opportunity to have a programmatic relationship with that.”

It is not unusual for Catholic colleges to have patristics programs. The Catholic University of America and the University of Notre Dame are known for theirs, for example. But a Protestant college?

“For Protestant schools, we are the first to have a center. There are a number of Protestant schools that have a person who teaches patristics, but no one else has a center and resources as we do,” Kalantzis said.

The center, which officially opened this fall, already has a small number of graduate and undergraduate students. According to the center’s website, the center’s mission is to foster “systematic study in the fields of patristics and early Christian literature by engaging in sustained teaching, research and publication related to the early Church.”
Reading deep

“Most Christians look at the early Church and find quotes that support their position and move forward from there. But that is not study. That is pillaging,” Kalantzis said. “We need to delve into it and truly live with [the Church Fathers] and understand them, where their conflicts were and what their thought patterns were. How else are we going to understand our faith if we don’t understand those who delivered it to us?”

Undergraduate students at Wheaton will be offered a two-year certificate program in early Christian studies. They will have core courses in the history of Christianity, reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, and doctrine (Christology or Trinitarian theology). Students will have a number of electives that can mix with other disciplines such as art or music.

A graduate research fellowship will be available for master’s students as well as an early Christian studies emphasis for masters and doctoral programs. The center will offer lectures and conferences on patristics and early Christian studies given by scholars from all three backgrounds.

“We are cultivating a culture of going deeply into the primary sources by reading the Fathers and Mothers of the Church in their own language,” Kalantzis said. “Wheaton already has strong Greek and Latin programs. Hope-fully in a few years we will be in a position to add more.”
A wish granted

Wheaton would have been just another school with one person teaching patristics if it weren’t for the generosity of Frank and Julie Papatheofanis, who are funding the center. The Papatheofanises are Orthodox Christians and medical doctors, and Julie Papatheofanis is a Wheaton graduate.

The Papatheofanises had been considering ways to bring Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox together for some time. “We felt that if you look at the three traditions … there are common origins in the first 500 years of Christendom. Although we all recognize it, we haven’t had a chance to emphasize it in a way that allows the Catholic and Orthodox traditions to engage with the Protestant tradition,” Frank Papatheofanis said.

When the couple approached the administration at Wheaton about opening the center, it came as a complete surprise.

“It was a surprise, but a surprise that was hoped for,” Kalantzis said. “I came to Wheaton with the idea of strengthening the patristics program. Wheaton has a long tradition of engaging with other denominations and with the early Church.”

That tradition is what appealed to the Papatheofanises. “We viewed Wheaton as a very strong school academically that also plays a prominent role in the evangelical community and higher education,” Papatheofanis said.

“What Frank and Julie did was make a statement that the great tradition is not owned by a denomination, but is the heritage of the Church universal,” Kalantzis said.
Patristics revival

Many Catholics have taken a renewed interest in patristics through Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly talks on the Church Fathers. But the idea of evangelicals studying patristics is an altogether new trend.

“Over the last 10 or 12 years almost all of my graduate students that came to do a doctorate in patristics have been evangelicals. That is a profound shift from when I started out, when it was just Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians,” said Robert Louis Wilken, professor emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.

Wilken is a convert to Catholicism and the author of “The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God” (Yale University Press, $19), a book Kalantzis assigns to all his classes. Last month, Wilken gave the center’s inaugural lecture, titled “Going Deeper into the Bible: The Church Fathers as Interpreters.”

“Evangelical scholars and thinkers of the last generation have begun to connect with the larger Christian intellec-tual tradition,” Wilken said. “They realize that the Bible is not all there is, and that Calvin and Luther are not all there is. In that sense, the evangelicals are building the continuity and intellectual depth to their own tradition.”
Consistency with mission

“We were clear that this was not an effort to proselytize students to Catholicism or Orthodoxy,” Papatheofanis said. “It was an effort to round out the education of Wheaton students with these faith traditions that they haven’t been exposed to,” he said.

Kalantzis acknowledged that young people sometimes find new homes in different traditions but he doesn’t seem threatened. “For me as a patristics scholar and an evangelical, the beauty of studying the early Church is that our denominationalisms do not apply to them,” he said. “We all have common formulations of faith — the creeds. The things that divide us are much later than these early traditions of the Church.”

“We didn’t want to threaten their mission in any way. We wanted to make it clear that this had to make sense for them as an institution. On their part, they didn’t think this would undermine their institution, it would enhance it,” Papatheofanis said.

Wilken doesn’t see a threat to Wheaton’s mission either. “It doesn’t mean that they are all going to say, ‘we all should become Catholic.’ It means that there is going to be an evangelical community in this country that is much more attuned to the larger Catholic/Christian tradition, and that will enrich their life and enrich the lives of Catholics,” Wilken said.

It could actually be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

“The Catholic Church has a role in society that the evangelicals are not able to have,” Wilken said. “But the evangelicals have a kind of fervor and commitment in their own lives that is often missing from Catholicism. They can complement one another.”

Mark Sullivan writes from Pennsylvania.
Who are the Church Fathers? (sidebar)

The Fathers of the Church, also called the Apostolic Fathers, are some of the earliest Christian intellects to have influenced the understanding of the Christian faith. Having lived in the years immediately following the apostles, they also were the ones closest to the teachings of the apostles. The Church Fathers’ writings, sermons and examples of pious lives played a significant role in defending and spreading the faith in those early years of the Church, and as a result, are studied today for their seminal insights.

Pope St. Clement I (d. 97), the third successor of St. Peter, is the first of the Apostolic Fathers. Others include: Papias, Hermas, Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch. Gregory the Great (d. 604) is considered the last of the Western Fathers and in the East, John Damascene (d. 749).

November 11, 2009

A Curious Mix of Sophistication, Sin, and Piety: The debunking sociologist Rodney Stark on the Cursades

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This article originally appeared in The Catholic World Report in October, 2009.
Interviewed by Mark Sullivan
When an agnostic professor from a secular university writes a book defending the Catholic Church using sociology, it gets noticed. It also makes his fans eager for his next book.
Rodney Stark’s latest book is a popular history of the Crusades, God’s Battalions: The Case for The Crusades. Writing a popular history is a departure from Stark’s usual work as a sociologist, but it’s not much of a stretch. Stark began his career as a journalist and has read military history his whole life.
Fans of Stark’s influential book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries won’t be disappointed. God’s Battalions continues in the vein of the Rise of Christianity. In fact, after he completed God’s Battalions went back and rewrote The Rise of Christianity. His conclusions are the same. It’s just three times longer.
Stark has created the odd niche of the secular scholar defending the Catholic Church against the anti-Catholic bias present in much of the history books. Almost miraculously, Stark’s conclusions about the rise of Christianity fit exactly into the post- Vatican II vision of the Church and the universal call to holiness.
For those unfamiliar with The Rise of Christianity, Stark argued that Christianity grew at the blistering pace of 40% per decade not because of miraculous mass conversions but because of the personal apostolate and witnesses of the rank and file Christians. They took care of the sick, which made the sick people more likely to recover than their pagan counterparts. The pagan doctors were the first to leave town when the plague hit.
The Christians were faithful in marriage, didn’t use contraceptives, and didn’t leave unwanted children to die in the gutter. The pagans would often “expose” their daughters because they were less useful than sons. The side effect was that eventually there were very few pagan women. If a man wanted to get married, he’d have to marry a Christian woman and many were converted.
To use a military metaphor, in the siege between the pagans and the Christians, the Christians simply outlasted them.
Stark’s explanation of the growth of Christianity has been accepted by many scholars and even got him nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Since writing The Rise of Christianity, Stark left the University of Washington. He is now affiliated with Baylor University even though he is not actively teaching. In other interviews he has identified himself as an independent Christian. All of this clearly plays into how Stark handles the history of the Crusades.
What is the difference between the rise of Christianity and the rise of Islam?
Rodney Stark: One was a matter of conversion and the other a matter of conquest. The assumption in a lot of the histories of Islam is that once the Muslims got there and conquered the country, everybody was a Muslim. But that just wasn’t so. It took 100 years before as many as half of the people in these countries converted to Islam. It was until around the 13th century that Islam got tough on domestic Christians and forced a lot of conversions. Up until that point the Christians and Jews were staffing the bureaucracies.
Why have the Crusades been such an attractive topic for critics of Christianity?
Stark: Plain ignorance. They don’t like military history. They don’t think there is such thing as a just war. There is a streak of pacifism that seems to come through quite strongly. There is also a good dose of anti-Catholicism in it. Let’s blame the pope for another one of his dirty deeds. That is very ignorant because no attempt was made to convert the Muslims in the near east until the Crusader states were established. There were more Muslims than anybody else. They were left in peace. It was not an issue.
There is also the standard of wanting to blame the West for why things have gone wrong. There seems to be an intellectual pay-off for that.
I suspect the book is going to be very controversial which I find to be very odd because all these wonderful historians have written these great books that aren’t getting through to anybody. Since I’ve read military history my whole life but never written any, I decided to go ahead and write the book myself. It was a great deal of fun.
How has the role of the scholar changed?
Stark: If you look at the best-seller non-fiction list and it’s blink and wink and stink. The earth is flat. There aren’t books on the Crusades. Today I received a wonderful book on Churchill that won’t be on that list. Sometimes it seems that someone should write a popular version of things. I was reading a lot of these books on the Crusades anyway, so I had a good start.
Some of these studies are wonderfully done. Riley-Smith reconstructed who went on the First Crusade, and amazingly, it turns out they were all close relatives. [Jonathan Riley Smith has written a number of books dealing with the Crusades.] On the Second Crusade, they were all the children and grandchildren of those who went on the First Crusade. Even so, most of the knights and nobility in Europe didn’t go.
Are you surprised at how popular your work is with Catholics?
Stark: From time to time I take shots at people for the anti-Catholicism that has really been a black mark on a lot of English and American history up until recent times. There are a lot of things that are badly distorted. Is there a scarier phrase than the “Spanish Inquisition?” And yet there is a whole bunch of wonderful recent history that suggests that it was mostly a force for moderation and restraint. But the Brits decided to make it into this hideous thing. That war was a long time ago, and it’s time we got over it. [Stark’s book For the Glory of God devotes a whole chapter to debunking the severity of the punishments assigned during the Spanish Inquisition.]
Is there anything that the critics of the Crusades are overlooking?
Stark: Given the time and place, I think it’s remarkable that so many people went at such an enormous cost. There were all of these great lords who bankrupted themselves in order to go. Knowing that they weren’t going to get any reward at the other end. There’s a comparison I like to make that I think is very important. About 20 years before the First Crusade, the pope called for a crusade to Spain. Spain was nice and close. The Muslim territories were pretty wealthy, and there were land and titles to be had. Nobody went. So they asked for a crusade 2500 miles away in the middle of nowhere, where there is nothing to get, and 100,000 knights said, “let’s go.” The reason they went was purely religious. Jesus had never lived in Spain. These things are so simple that academics can’t often understand them.
Can you briefly describe the religious context of the time?
Stark: Pilgrimage was a very big thing for the nobility at this period. They were a strange group of people. They were wild, they were bloody, they were sinful, but they were very religious. They were constantly in a situation where their confessor was telling them, “You’re in deep now. You’re going to have to do some atonement. Maybe you ought to walk bare-foot to Jerusalem.” That had been going on all the time. When the pope said that this is a pilgrimage that is going to clear the slate [atone for all sins]. That mattered to a lot of people.
Also, a lot of people had relatives that had been abused when they had taken pilgrimages. I think it’s amazing that you got all these guys to get together and make this enormous effort. It was two years before they got to Jerusalem. And there were not many of them left when they got there. They had eaten their horses, but they pulled it off. It’s pretty impressive.
How were the crusaders able to win?
Stark: They had superior tactics and better armor.
Was it just the tactics and armor?
Stark: The other thing was that they didn’t turn and run. They were really dedicated, and they would hold the line. The Muslims were basically light cavalry and that doesn’t work very well against heavy infantry. You ride around and shoot arrows at them, and it doesn’t seem to matter much. Again, and again the Crusaders won when there was no reason to suppose that they could, but they thought they could.
They sound like football players.
Stark: They were a rowdy bunch. But when somebody has a vision and says, “We need to fast for three days and then march barefoot around Jerusalem,” they would do it. It was an interesting mix of sophistication, sin, and piety. These guys were bad on the seven deadly sins–especially the coveting.
It’s not uncommon for football players to be devout.
Stark: There were guys that would walk all the way from Iceland because their confessor told him he had to. The masses weren’t really religious, but the nobility was. Most of the medieval saints were from the nobility. I studied about 500 of them and looked at their family background once as a lark. I think 20% of them were the sons and daughter of kings.
Could the unity in the ranks of the Crusaders be traced back to the idea of a pope? The Muslims seemed to fight a lot amongst themselves.
Stark: The big problem was that the Byzantines were not reliable and not honorable. But the guys who marched out there, if there were some political problems between them, those problems had gotten worked out long before they got to the battlefield. They were unitary. They stuck together.
I think it was in the Crusaders favor that there were so many different kinds of Muslims in the area with different political connections. Only in Saladin’s time did the Crusaders really get attacked from every direction by big unified force. That was bad news, they had a really close call then. When the Turks took over, that’s when the whole thing fell apart. I’m not sure if it would have ended then if Europe hadn’t gotten tired of paying taxes to support the Crusades. They even used word like “quagmire.” It made me think of the Vietnam War the way the rhetoric was going on towards the end of the 200- year period.
It’s also reminiscent of the rhetoric regarding the current war in Iraq.
Stark: People are fairly predictable on a lot of these things. Taxes are not popular. The first Crusaders went on their own money. But when kings started going, they figured they could tax instead of taking the financial risk.
Were the Crusades inevitable or could they have been avoided?
Stark: If the Christians could have made a deal with the Muslims, that the pilgrims would be safe going to Jerusalem and that they wouldn’t bust up any more of the holy places the crusades would never have happened. It’s a little like the Middle East today. You can’t make peace.
It’s been almost 1000 years since the Crusades. Yet anyone looking to bash the Church always refers to them. Has this been effective? As a sociologist, what do you see as the trends in Christianity?
Stark: The draw [to Christianity] is stronger than ever. What’s happening in Latin America is astonishing. The weekly mass attendance among Catholics is in the 50 and 60 percent range. In some countries weekly mass attendance is at 70 percent. As the Protestants have moved in, the Catholics have responded. The higher the proportion of Protestants in any Latin American country translates into a higher rate of mass attendance among Catholics.
That happened in the United States in the middle of the 19th century. The Catholics getting off the boat weren’t very Catholic. The Church learned how to function in a competitive situation. One of my favorite stories is that John D. Rockefeller gave the Baptists some chapel railroad cars in the 1890s. They would run them into the mining towns out west and park them on the side. You would hold church there until you had enough of a congregation to build a church, and then you moved the chapel car on to the next town. Eighteen months later, the Catholics had chapel cars out in the west. No fooling around here jack! It was very good for the Church, and so it’s been in Latin America. Nobody went to Church in those places 40 years ago and now the Churches are full. The Church is not going away.
Have you covered that topic in any of your books or articles?
Stark: I just did this last week. Nobody has had decent data on how many Catholics and Protestants there are in Latin America. There aren’t many surveys done. Gallop has this phenomenal thing going called the Gallop World Pole. They have been doing annual poles in 156 nations, and they let me look at them. They have two years in the bank now. They ask people what their religion is and how often they go to church. You just peel out Latin America and go wow! Protestants are up to 38% in some of those countries. But the Catholic Church has never been stronger and that is a wonderful irony.
Africa is my next project.
What about China?
Stark: They aren’t permitted to ask religion questions in China. Foreign firms aren’t allowed, but the Chinese can. At Baylor, we paid a Chinese firm to do a huge survey. It’s good for some information, but it does not tell you how many Buddhists or Christians there are. The Chinese are pretty smart. If you’re a Christian and somebody asks you to do an interview you say, “no.” And if you don’t say no to do the interview, you say, “No, I’ve never been to church.”
Just based on our survey with all the defects, there are at least 40 million Christians in China. But the number is probably closer to 75 million. That’s a lot of Christians given that 30 years ago they would kill them if they found them.
If you go to the University of Peking in Beijing, there are so many Christians you would think the whole country was Christian. The professors are all Christians of fairly recent conversion. Mostly they’re Evangelicals. All of these people have had big conversion experiences, but there is an organized Catholic Church that has some problems with the government.
Is there a competitive streak in you with challenging the anti-Catholic bias?
Stark: I suppose, but you look at it and say that’s unfair and that’s untrue. It motivates me. I was raised in a very anti-Catholic environment and saw through it. To be raised Lutheran—almost every sermon is about the wicked Catholic Church because that is what Martin Luther left us. But it didn’t take.

October 28, 2009

Church’s role in fight for equality: Southern journalist reflects on how seeing men and women religious on picket lines influenced his faith

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Journalist and professor Danny Duncan Collum remembers well the sight of priests and nuns on the picket lines during the civil-rights era.

“It was 1968, the heart of the civil-rights movement. The Franciscan mission to the black community in my hometown of Greenwood, Miss., had become an organizing center for the black community’s boycott of downtown merchants,” he said. “I belonged to the First Baptist Church, and they had ushers posted outside the door to keep black people from coming into the church during services. The ushers were needed at that time because the civil-rights workers would try to attend the churches as part of their forced desegregation campaign. I was 14 years old and starting to have my own ideas. I knew this wasn’t right.”

Duncan Collum’s experience led him on a 20-year journey to the Catholic Church. Along the way he read the writings of Dorothy Day, journalist and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and the major documents of the Second Vatican Council. These writings encouraged his desire to work with the poor, first in Washington, D.C., and then in rural Mississippi.

In Mississippi, he and his wife, Polly, founded St. Matthew’s parish in the town of Ripley through the Glenmary Mission. Polly was the pastoral coordinator and Danny, who is a professor of literature and journalism at Kentucky State University and a regular contributor to Sojourners magazine and U.S. Catholic did research for his “Black and Catholic in the Jim Crow South: The Stuff That Makes Community” (Paulist Press). The book compiles the oral histories of members of Holy Family Church in Natchez, Miss. Established in 1890, it was the first black parish in Mississippi.

“The Catholic Church had a huge role in creating a core of leaders for the civil-rights movement. The priests and religious who taught in the mission schools in the South were generally well educated, and because it was a mission, had come from someplace else. The resources and connections they provided had the effect of giving their students and parishioners confidence,” he said.

One of the by-products from the U.S. Catholic Church’s decision to start separate ethnic parishes for the newly free African Americans was that it created a place to gather. It should be noted that the Church’s decision to start ethnic parishes was consistent with how it handled the immigrant population in the North.

Many of the ethnic African-American parishes opened schools that were open to the larger community, which also began to draw in converts. Racism was not one of the three R’s that the sisters taught at the schools, said Duncan Collum.

“Many of the guys that I interviewed for the Holy Family book said that the nuns wouldn’t let the students call them ‘ma’am.’ They had to look the sister in the eye and say, ‘Yes, Sister’ or ‘No, Sister.’ This had an effect when they had to deal with other white people in the large community. They knew how to deal with white people as equals. There were no other places where this daily intimate contact took place. This didn’t happen in the black public schools because none of the teachers were white,” he said.

The Duncan Collums are no longer missionaries in north Mississippi, but St. Matthew’s continues to grow.

“We thought that we would slowly build a parish through conversions, but right when we got there the furniture factory that employees 2,000 of the 20,000 people that live in Tippah country hired hundreds of Mexicans who had lost their jobs in southern California. We would have 30 people at a typical English mass on Sunday. If there was a baptism in the Mexican community we would have 200 people show up — which is unheard of for a rural parish.”

This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor on July 8, 2007.

October 12, 2009

Flannery O’Connor’s writerly vocation: Biographer examines faith’s integral role in author’s literary works

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“What kept me a skeptic in college was precisely my Christian faith,” author Flannery O’Connor confided to a young college student 15 years after she had finished college.

While some students “lose” their religious faith when they take a modern philosophy course in college, O’Connor went deeper into Catholicism. O’Connor’s classmates found it entertaining.

“We would run across campus, sometimes trying to hide our pajamas under our raincoats, to get to class. Flannery was always there bright and ready to argue with the professor,” recalled Helen Matthews Lewis, a classmate of O’Connor at Georgia State College for Women.

Even as a college senior, O’Connor was able to go to the blackboard and diagram the differences between St. Thomas Aquinas and modernism.

It is just one of the many details about O’Connor’s life collected by Brad Gooch in his new biography, “Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor” (Little, Brown and Company, $30).

“I was surprised at how early in life O’Connor had begun to take her faith seriously. She was a serious writer and a serious Catholic from very early on,” Gooch, an English professor at William Patterson University in New Jersey, told Our Sunday Visitor.
‘Literary nun’

In a sense, O’Connor has two audiences. There are fans of her writing who see her as a major figure in 20th-century American literature, and there are those who appreciate her fidelity to Catholicism and see her as a future saint or doctor of the Church.

Neither group is exclusive, of course. In fact, it makes her that much more of a compelling figure. The challenge for a biographer is how to satisfy both sets of O’Connor admirers and compete for a reader’s time with the 70 other book-length studies of her and 195 doctoral dissertations.

“I tried to present her life of faith the way she presented it,” Gooch said. “She didn’t want to marginalize that aspect of her life, and neither did I.”

For the lack of a better term, O’Connor is sometimes described as a “literary nun” because she was devout, well educated in her faith, remained single and lived on the family farm in Milledgeville, Ga., not in New York City.

Gooch devotes about 25 percent of “Flannery” to O’Connor’s childhood, the Catholic family, community and schools in which she received her earliest formation.

O’Connor was born Mary Flannery O’Connor on March 25, 1925, in Savannah, Ga. She was named Mary because she was born on the feast of the Annunciation.

O’Connor had enough contact with nuns in school to be able to discern that her vocation was not to the religious life but as a layperson and artist.

“For her, writing was a craft and a spiritual vocation. She believed the writer was responsible for making the best story that she could make. In doing so, she was able to match piety with literary excellence,” Gooch said.
Shocking themes

It was an idea she got from reading Jacques Maritain’s “Art and Scholasticism.” Maritain was among the greatest scholars of the 20th century on the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. This influential, but difficult, essay was Maritain’s attempt to apply the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas to art.

“It’s a very liberating concept. It’s much easier to draw evil characters. It’s difficult to write about love and compassion without it being dead on the page,” Gooch said. “She was able to have both in her stories.”

O’Connor also understood that the modern reader needed to be shocked to recognize spiritual themes. Subtlety just would not do in an overstimulated culture, which explains why many of her stories are filled with freaks and violence. Main characters blind themselves, get mauled by a bull, and whole families are murdered in cold blood.

When the Misfit kills the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and says, “she would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” the result is not just shock or black humor. The reader sees the grandmother receive grace right before she dies. The grandmother doesn’t recognize grace until she is staring down the barrel of a gun.

Gooch doesn’t attempt to explain O’Connor’s fiction by tracing parallels in her personal life, but he does point out places where her life and art overlap.

When she was diagnosed with lupus at 26, O’Connor had to re-evaluate her expectations for her life. Her father had died within three years of being diagnosed with the disease, so she really wasn’t sure how much time she had left.

“O’Connor said she was the Prodigal Daughter. She left Georgia with the intention of staying away, but had to return because of illness,” Gooch said.

“I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense, sickness is a place more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow,” O’Connor once said.

She did travel to Europe for a few weeks, stopping in Lourdes, France.

“I prayed there for the novel I was working on, not for my bones, which I care less about,” O’Connor recalled about the trip.

“I find her inspirational in being so disciplined in her work. She was working on her last story on her deathbed, after receiving last rites,” Gooch said.

Lupus, an immune system disorder that can affect multiple organs, imposes severe physical limitations on the life of its victims. O’Connor accepted her limitations and reached out to the world from her sickbed. She wrote three letters a day and would apparently write back to anyone who wrote to her. Some of her letters were collected and edited by her friend Sally Fitzgerald and published as “The Habit of Being.”

Eventually, many of her pen pals would travel to Milledgeville to see her. She would sit on the front porch and talk about religion, literature and her collection of birds — mainly peacocks — running through the yard.
Hard work and grace

Still, O’Connor scholars want to know how O’Connor was able to be so creative. Unfortunately, no amount of analysis of what she read, who she knew and what they talked about answers that question. Gooch doesn’t speculate. He doesn’t need to.

It is pretty obvious that O’Connor received special graces from God and then worked hard to put them to good use. She was aware of this. Why else would she keep carbon copies of all her letters?

Consider the following stroke of good fortune. The modern philosophy professor that she argues with as an undergrad ends up getting her a scholarship for graduate school at the University of Iowa. Initially, O’Connor was a newspaper cartoonist and wanted to pursue journalism, but when she got to Iowa she transferred into the creative-writing program — known as the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. It was one of the first masters of fine arts (MFA) programs in the country. The director, Paul Engle, would bring in the best literary minds of the day — John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren. All of these writers/critics affirmed her talent.

Then she met poet Robert Lowell — a convert to Catholicism, but lapsed at the time. Lowell and O’Connor were both staying at Yaddo, an artist’s colony in upstate New York. Lowell went beyond merely affirming her talent; he became her advocate.

In the span of a few days, Lowell introduced her to publisher Robert Giroux, and Robert and Sally Fitzgerald. All three were Catholics and would become close colleagues and lifelong friends. Giroux would be her lifelong publisher. He had recently had a surprise Catholic best-seller with Thomas Merton’s “The Seven-Storey Mountain.”

Unfortunately, Lowell is known more for his bouts of mental illness than his poems. During their friendship, Lowell returned to the Church, and during bouts of mania he would canonize O’Connor, which made her uncomfortable.

But it was Lowell who brought her to the dinner party of Mary McCarthy and Bowden Broadwater where she uttered her often-quoted defense of the Eucharist, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”

When Lowell heard that O’Connor died, he wrote to Elizabeth Bishop, “in a blunt, disdainful yet somehow very unpretentious and modest way, I think she knew how good she was.”

Or more precisely, O’Connor knew how good God had been to her.

This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor on April 15, 2009.

October 9, 2009

God’s truck-drivin’ man: Author recalls his great-uncle, who was the Spiritans’ last religious brother serving in East Africa

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The first and only time I met Uncle Billy I was disappointed. I was hoping he was like Santa Claus. As long as I could remember, my dad and my grandfather told me that I had a great-uncle who was a missionary in Africa who lived in the bush and had a big white beard.

The family called him Uncle Billy, after his birth name William Sullivan, but his friends in Tanzania called him Brother Francis. In 1953, he was in the first group of Holy Ghost missionaries to go to East Africa. Before he died in March at the age 90, he was the last brother.

The last time he came back to the United States was in the mid-1980s. I remember him sitting quietly at the kitchen table in my parent’s house. He wasn’t a big storyteller. We had to ask him questions like, “What do you eat for breakfast everyday?” He grew up on Staten Island, but a loud New Yorker he was not.
Keep trucking

He was in his 70s, but he had a serious set of arms. Not overinflated products of the weight room and protein drink. His arms were sculpted by over 40 years of building chapels, seminaries, hospitals, mission houses, schools and roads. If he didn’t get those arms swinging a hammer, he got them behind the wheel of a seven-and-a-half-ton truck crisscrossing the unpaved roads of the bush country without power steering.

As he got older, he was ordered to get smaller trucks until, finally, he was ordered to get a driver. To which he replied, “I get more tired when someone else drives.”

The bigger his truck was the more food he could carry to the starving Maasai — victims of famine and a corrupt government. It was his overwhelming passion. He would spend what little pocket money he had on food for them.

Between Duquesne University and the North American headquarters for the Spiritans (Holy Ghost Fathers), numerous priests from East Africa move through Pittsburgh. Whenever I hear a priest mention that he is from East Africa, I introduce myself as the great-nephew of Brother Francis Sullivan. On many occasions I found myself in a bear hug: “Oh, my friend Brother Francis! He loves the bush. He goes into the bush. He gets sick. We take him back for some rest. He gets better, and then he’s back into the bush.”

It was an honor for him to be allowed to die in the bush.
Building the Church

My family was able to attend the memorial Mass the Spiritans had for him in Pittsburgh. The vain part of me wanted to hear stories about the thousands of Maasai that Brother Francis brought down to the river to be baptized, who then carried him back up to the village on their shoulders like the winning coach in the Super Bowl. I know that is not the way God operates usually.

Instead, Brother Francis built the churches where the converts went to Mass. He built the schools where the Maasai children could learn. He built the hospitals where the sick were treated. He built the houses where the priests lived so that they would be safe and get the rest they needed to carry out their priestly duties. He built the seminary where the men called to the priesthood could receive formation so that they could go out and preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments. He literally built the Church.

In all the letters I received from him, I don’t think it ever occurred to him that he was more extraordinary than Santa Claus.

Mark Sullivan writes from Pennsylvania. This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor on October 4, 2009.

October 1, 2009

Messages of Redemption get lost amid the shock: Catholic elements of lyrics by The Hold Steady’s Finn easy to overlook

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When was the last time a rock musician, in the prime of his career, went on record saying that he liked to go to church? It doesn’t happen often, but that’s exactly what Craig Finn of The Hold Steady told NPR a few months ago.

Finn was being interviewed on “Morning Edition” last July in support of the band’s new album titled “Stay Positive,” which was one of the most anxiously awaited of the year by Catholic and non-Catholic rock fans alike.

Secular rock critics wonder aloud if he’s going to go Christian rock on them. Catholic rock fans ponder if he’s going to be the Flannery O’Connor of rock music or just another guy hijacking the faith to get some publicity.

Numerous requests to interview Finn for this article received no response.
Distorted views

To be exact, Finn said that he liked going to church, even though he doesn’t go regularly but is starting to go more often. He described himself as religious not spiritual — an obvious reversal of the standard rock-star claim to be spiritual but not to believe in organized religion. Finn also told NPR that he is fascinated by people who are smart enough to make good decisions but continue to make bad ones.

The problem is that even though Finn’s songs are filled with Catholic themes of sin and redemption, his descriptions of those sins are so shocking that they overshadow everything else — including any artistic reason for being shocking. In contrast, O’Connor would use shocking acts of violence in her stories to illustrate God’s grace.

The Hold Steady’s second album, “Separation Sunday,” was released in 2005 and brought the group to national attention. It was a concept album about a “prodigal daughter” who was raised Catholic but falls into drugs and a destructive lifestyle before returning to her faith. At the end of the album, she goes to confession and then tells the priest at Easter Mass “how the Resurrection really feels.”

Instead of orchestral strings and angelic choirs driving home a tearjerker ending, it’s distorted guitars and Finn shouting, “she said don’t turn me on again [to drugs]. I’d probably just go and get myself all gone again.”

It’s creepy, but any listener who would be interested in the girl’s conversion would have probably tuned out long before the last song on the album. Like maybe the first line on the album, where she says she’s going to have to go with whoever can get her the most drugs.

Coming from a longhaired, ripped jean wearing, strung out rock star the lyrics would be cliché. But the disturbing phrases coming from the shirt-and-tie wearing, churchgoing, baseball-watching Finn is a dramatic contrast. The rock critics love it. After “Separation Sunday,” The Hold Steady landed on the cover of The Village Voice with a sidebar detailing the numerous Catholic references throughout the album.
Getting old quickly

There’s no law that says that rock music and Catholicism have to be at odds. Many musicians have been devout Catholics and great artists — just no one in the rock medium, yet. Finn is either trying to be the first or at least follow in the footsteps of his “catholic” rock forefathers: Phil Lynott of the 1970s classic guitar rock band Thin Lizzy, Paul Westerberg of the Midwestern punk band The Replacements and Bruce Springsteen.

Finn gets an A in music history for making those connections, but as long as he continues with the shock, the Catholic element of his writing will be overlooked.

The lyrics don’t make for great rock ‘n’ roll, either. Great albums and great bands are great because they still sound good after multiple listens. Shock gets old really quick. Hopefully, Finn will take his own advice from the title cut and “start to think big picture, because the kids at the shows will have kids of their own.”

This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor on October 26, 2008.

September 26, 2009

Yes, you can question the Lord. Bishop Robert Baker talks to OSV about the ‘questioner’s prayer’

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Prayer is usually divided up into four distinct types: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and expression of needs. But Bishop Robert Baker of Charleston, S.C., observes that a fifth type, the questioner’s prayer, often gets misunderstood.

“When we’re confused or in a quandary, one of the sincerest prayers we can address to God is the prayer that expresses our confusion in a heartfelt manner: ‘How, God? When, God? What, God? Where, God? Who, God,’ ” writes Bishop Baker in the introduction to “The Questioner’s Prayer” (OSV, $9.95).

Bishop Baker wrote the book after the illness and death of his brother. It is Bishop Baker’s attempt to “help give voice to the questions you have for God in prayer — from a perspective of faith.”

He spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about the need to understand this type of prayer.

Our Sunday Visitor: Many of us feel we shouldn’t question God and his motives. It sounds like you are saying otherwise.

Bishop Robert Baker: There’s a difference between a question and a doubt. A question is a sincere attempt to find an answer and is also open to an answer. Doubt denies God’s presence and there_fore his ability to answer.

Also, some people have the mistaken notion, “Who am I to be asking questions of God?” Questioning God is an appropriate method of prayer, and it isn’t a sign of a lack of faith. In fact, we should be asking questions. As our pope said recently, “We have to ask questions. Those who do not ask do not get a reply.” If you look at how Jesus taught you will see that many of his teachings were the result of people asking him questions.

OSV: Why haven’t we heard more about it?

Bishop Baker: Questioner’s prayer is something that has been dealt with only indirectly, except for the past two popes. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have spoken to modern man by addressing his deepest concerns. That is the same approach I used in the book. Prayer is bringing everything that concerns my life and my pastoral responsibilities to God. I ask God how to handle certain pastoral situations.

OSV: Do you ask a lot of questions?

Bishop Baker: Yes. And I learned very early on that if you’re pursuing truth, then there is no need to be afraid of asking questions. The truth stands on its own. Questions are good if they honestly pursue the truth. The only way to get to the truth is by asking questions. Who hasn’t asked the questions: “How am I going to pay these bills?” “What should I do with my life?” I found that the more questions I asked the more truth I found.

OSV: Everyone would like to pray more and pray better, the problem is finding the time. How do you manage to pray given the busy life of a bishop?

Bishop Baker: Prayer is the center of my life. I have a sense that God is with me always. The scandals and day-to-day con_cerns don’t weigh me down. I have a chapel with the Blessed Sacrament at my house where I try to do mental prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours, Stations of the Cross and the Rosary.

I try to space out Liturgy of the Hours, but sometimes I have to do them together, but I never omit them. I tell young priests that the only reason to miss Liturgy of the Hours would be serious illness. The power of liturgical prayer and Mass is bet_ter than private prayer. At Mass, Jesus is praying with his Church and in universal prayer.

Praying the divine office is essential to anyone involved in pastoral ministry. Ministry flows from prayer not the other way around. I was ordained in 1970. My generation was too social-Gospel oriented.

OSV: What advice do you have to add prayer to our lives?

OSV: I encourage families to start by keeping the Sabbath by making it to Mass on Sundays. That is the first step toward living for God instead of for ourselves. I also remind people that prayer of interrogation is also prayer of transparency — being totally open. If you’re not questioning you may be hiding something from God.

Questioner’s Quick Starter Kit

How could God expect me to be a good (fill in the blank)?

Lord, are we on the threshold of your return?

What can I expect when I leave everything to follow you?

Where are you, Jesus?

Who can be saved?

Mark Sullivan writes from Pennsylvania.

This article originally appeared in OSV on July 22, 2007.

June 7, 2008

First Friday with Mac Martin–6/6/08

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Since I wrote that profile of bluegrass legend Mac Martin last spring for OSV, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to see him play again so I could introduce myself. Maybe even hang around backstage and do another story.

I saw that he was playing on June 6th at the Mt. Lebanon First Friday Concert series. It had a Catholic ring to it. With St. Bernards being right there on Washington Rd, I pictured Rt. 19 closed, a big stage set up in the middle with food vendors–gyros hopefully. The paper said he was playing at 6:30. Perfect family event.

I don’t know what I was thinking. They would never close Rt. 19 at rush hour. But I still thought the road would be closed as I drove down Rt. 19, and there was Mac Martin and the Dixie Travelers playing on the sidewalk in front of the National City bank for about 12 people.

One advantage of watching a band play on the sidewalk is that you are looking across the band. Mac’s son playing guitar has the same profile and had the same drops of sweat rolling off his nose in the 90+ degree heat. Bluegrass is a vocation passed down through generations of a family. I wish I had the focus. I wish I could be totally into bluegrass.

“It’s a beautiful form of music. You can express so many different emotions through it,” Martin told me between sets. He was getting a book for someone out of the trunk of his Suburu, and Celeste, James and I were standing there.

“Bluegrass comes from here (he pointed to his heart). We don’t play a lot of notes. The music comes from the inside,” he said looking at my son. He had caught the attention of some of the audience by keeping time with the band on the front of his stroller.

“At least we’re not playing in the mud,” Martin said when I mentioned it wasn’t much of a stage.

This year on their tour Radiohead is using environmentally friendly lighting. Colin Greenwood is concerned it may get a little cold on stage so he’ll wear some extra clothes.

A bluegrass legend is happy not to play in the mud. A bunch of his children and grandchildren were there watching. It looked like they were asking for money to go get ice cream during the break.

The First Friday Concert was interesting. Lots of double strollers and 20somethings drunk on three beers at happy hour. We opted to head north and check out the Mt. Lebanon Firehouse–which has those classic arches over the bays of the garage.  Even though they pulled the fire trucks out two minutes after we left, it was a successful family outing. Bluegrass and fire trucks.

December 6, 2007

Wouldn’t it be cool if Bruce just released a single instead of an album.

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My thought for the day. I would have gladly paid $15 for Bruce Springsteen to edit out all the other songs on Magic besides “Radio Nowhere.” The same goes for the new Son Volt record. Why not just release a single?

December 5, 2007

I Just Want to Hear Some Rhythm

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I popped in the new Springsteen album on the way to work today and concluded that I am completely unqualified to say anything objective about his music. I grew up in New Jersey in the 1980s. We would sing Springsteen songs on the bus to and from school. No matter how out of control the production is on the new album–when I hear Max laying into the drum kit–I’m into it. Long live The Boss.  May the miraculous medal he wears around his neck have an impact.

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