Patrick Novecosky spoke to John Zmirak, a contributing editor at Godspy.com and former editor of Faith and Family magazine, and Denise Matychowiak, a private chef who served as food editor at Faith & Family magazine, about faith, food, fun and how their new book aims to make bad Catholics into better ones.
Novecosky: John, tell me about your faith upbringing.
Zmirak: My high school was run by disaffected Catholics constantly attacking the pope and denying major aspects of the faith. I thought it sounded pretty good until they questioned the Eucharist and they explicitly denied transubstantiation, the virginity of Mary and the infallibility of the pope.
So I did a bunch of research and hitchhiked to classes at St. John's University [in Queens, N.Y.]. I pretty much learned the faith and spent the next three years trying to get the high school religion teachers fired.
Novecosky: You tell the story of going to see Pope John Paul II at Madison Square Garden in 1979. How did that affect your formation?
Zmirak: At the time, I was still under the influence of my religion teacher. I thought, "Oh, what a dear old man. What a shame he has these quaint old fashioned ideas. If only he'd grown up in America, he'd be more modern and enlightened."
A little later, when I started doing more reading and thinking, I realized what a twit I'd been and what an insidious influence they were. Reading the Pope's encyclicals, seeing his courageous stand in Eastern Europe, and his attempts to bring order to the Church in a chaotic time, I began to find him an inspiring figure.
Modern Catholics don't know how to incorporate the faith into their daily lives. Celebration is the way to do it.
Novecosky: In the book, you introduce readers to the Vatican Space Program. Just what was that?
Zmirak: In the book, we lightheartedly theorize that Pius XII announced the Assumption in 1950 as a way of beating the Soviets into space. I think Pius XII's poetic side wanted to remind people that heaven was not about shooting rockets into space but about attaining holiness and unity with God. Who did that first—other than Christ—but Mary? It's sort of entertaining and inspiring to contrast our technological attempts to enter the heavens with the entrance of Mary into heaven.
If you go to , we have an animated commercial, which is a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It shows Pius XII writing up a scroll about the Assumption of Mary and throwing it up in the air, then we see Mary shooting into the air and planting the Vatican flag on the moon. I'm confident this has not been done before.
Novecosky: What was the most inspiring saint story you came across?
Zmirak: St. Vincent de Paul. He was somebody who arose at a time when the Church seemed, on the surface, strong but in fact it was riddled with corruption and worldliness, and the poor in France were completely neglected. A lot of the clergy were worldly or not educated in the faith. He worked on both tracks—caring for the poorest of the poor, for prisoners and for the starving and for prostitutes, while also setting up programs to educate the clergy so they could really know their faith and teach it to the laity. In the book, I call him "The Godfather of the Soul," saying that he did as much for the Church as James Brown did for funk.
Novecosky: What was the weirdest story you came across?
Zmirak: St. Rose of Lima was undoubtedly nuts-chew-the-paint-off-the-wall crazy. She wanted to be a nun, and she was very attractive, so her parents wanted to marry her off and men were constantly courting her, so she ruined her face with acid so men could leave her alone.
Novecosky: In your book, you suggest theme parties for saints' days. Did you really have all the parties?
Zmirak: Most of them, and we're planning to have the rest.
Matychowiak: Modern Catholics don't know how to incorporate the faith into their daily lives. Celebration is the way to do it. Every day has a designated saint and I really think it's important to celebrate these, to have the rhythm of fast and feast in our lives.
Novecosky: What is the place of humor in explaining, defending and living the faith?
Zmirak: I think it's important that we don't seem naive to unbelievers, that we don't seem like hopelessly earnest people who have an unrealistic attitude toward human perfectibility or sinfulness. Having a supernatural overview of the world helps you see the absurdity of so many things in the secular world.
I think it's important that we don't seem naive to unbelievers, like hopelessly earnest people who have an unrealistic attitude toward human perfectibility or sinfulness.
Novecosky: What effect do you hope the book will have on readers?
Zmirak: We hope it will stun them into silence. No, I'm just kidding. We hope that people will see that there's nothing unsophisticated about having an orthodox Catholic faith in the modern world, in fact, that we can be every bit as informed and clever and engaged in the world and we can be more culturally sophisticated than the unbelievers who have a rather simple reductionist view of the world.
Matychowiak: There's real theology in it, and we think that the humor is disarming enough that people will read it and be surprised, and say, "Oh, I didn't know that the Church taught that."
Novecosky: How is the book different than other books that target the same readership?
Zmirak: We're trying to target a wide readership. We're trying to target both Sunday Catholics and disaffected Catholics, as well as what you'd call orthodox sub-culture Catholics. It's different in that we try to take for granted that the reader is probably a mediocre Catholic who wishes he were better.
Novecosky: What's next for you?
Zmirak: We're collaborating on another book called The Bad Catholic's Book of Booze. We're going to look at the role of wine and spirits in the Old and New Testaments and the role of monastic orders in making some of the best wine and beer and liqueurs in the world like Chartreuse, Trappist ale, and the wines of Burgundy. We'll talk about the theology of wine, like why the Church uses wine—not grape juice like the Protestants—in celebrating the Eucharist, and the fact that Christ's first miracle was the wedding at Cana. It will be a similar project in the same spirit.
Mother Teresa thought she was a bad Catholic, so the chances are that if you think you’re a good Catholic, you’re a really bad one.
Novecosky: No pun intended?
Zmirak: That's the thing with us—all puns are intended.
Novecosky: What led you to the titles of your books? What if you're a good Catholic?
Zmirak: Mother Teresa thought she was a bad Catholic, so the chances are that if you think you're a good Catholic, you're a really bad one. We're using the theological reality that being a faithful Catholic is hard. Nobody does it very well. We're doing this as an outreach to people who may be somewhat distant from their faith to draw them a little closer.