Mark Sullivan

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.

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