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Catholic-Lit Revival: A Review of 'The Mystery of Things',by Matthew Lickona
It’s a love story, a murder thriller, and a religious drama all wrapped into one. Is Debra Murphy’s 'The Mystery of Things' the next great work of Catholic literature?

Desperate Episcopalians A Review of The Book of Daniel, by Matthew Lickona
If you need proof that liberal religion is completely exhausted, tune in to ‘The Book of Daniel’. Despite all the hype, NBC’s controversial new series violates television’s most important taboo: It makes sin boring.

Non Serviam: Martin Scorcese's 'The Departed,' by Matthew Lickona
If you look past the brutal violence, the  harsh language, and the stark portrayal of evil (hey, it’s a Scorcese movie), you’ll find that in ‘The Departed’ goodness is worthwhile for reasons deeper than earthly success or happiness.

Swimming with Scapulars: Lent and Its Discontents, by Matthew Lickona
When I was confirmed at age fifteen, I took St. John the Baptist as my confirmation saint. ‘A voice crying out in the wilderness,’ I thought, full of adolescent pride. By Lent of 2003 I was a little older and a little more humble—if only as a result of years of sin and failure to do much crying out... An excerpt from the new spiritual memoir, ‘Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic.’

True Confessions of a Young Catholic: An Interview with Matthew Lickona, by Angelo Matera
In his spiritual memoir, ‘Swimming with Scapulars,’ 30-year-old Matthew Lickona lays bare the soul of a young traditional Catholic. We spoke to him recently about his book, his faith, and what it’s like to be the literary envoy for the ‘New Faithful’ Catholic revival.

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Father Matrix

The recruiting poster showed a young Catholic priest in cassock and sunglasses, doing his best impression of Neo from ‘The Matrix.’ The priest as hero. Is there a problem with that?

I tend to clam up around priests. Most often, I find myself at a loss for words, even with priests I like, priests I find personable and interesting. Alcohol helps lubricate the social machinery, but I rarely get a chance to mix priests and alcohol. One chance I did get came about ten years back—an old Irish priest had paid a visit to my hometown parish, and my parents invited him to our home for Sunday dinner. Before we got to the part of the conversation where he mentioned his opinion that women should be allowed into the priesthood (my poor mother; I could hear her thinking, "Oh, Father..."), my sister-in-law asked him how he came to discern his vocation.

"I didn't want to leave school," was his mild, matter-of-fact reply. "If I wanted to keep going to school, I had to enter the seminary."

Presumably, God's will entered into the matter somewhere, and there was the fact that he had remained a priest for decades to consider, but the answer he gave was perfectly worldly. I was hesitant to criticize it. I imagined that many a man had given similar reasons throughout history—especially in those days when the Church was the chief preserver of the intellectual life. And such men had served the Churchsome well, others surely less well, but still they served.

Would someone embrace a lifetime of celibacy because of a poster designed to turn youthful heads?
So now there's a poster going around featuring a young Catholic priest in cassock and sunglasses, doing his very best impression of Neo from The Matrix. He looks terribly cool, even if the poster idea borders on silly in some eyes. The priest who designed it says, "Today's seminarian is engaged with the world, but is also committed to orthodoxy, like John Paul II," and, "People love heroes. The poster personifies the priest as hero." If it is silly, it's easy to forgive. I don't agree with the criticism I'm running into here and there that what we need are good men, not (ahem) poster-boys—men committed to the service of Christ, not men concerned with looking countercultural and hip. Is that really a danger? Is it really so likely that someone would endure years of seminary formation and embrace a lifetime of celibacy because of a poster designed to turn youthful heads?

Gone, or at very least faded, are the days depicted in the short fiction of J.F. Powerswhen the priest's power in the community was awesome, when crossing the priest could have serious consequences. As far as I can tell, few men these days are signing up for the seminary so that they can lord it over the rest of us. Gone are many of the worldly trappings—for every priest with a summer house on Long Island, there's another like my former classmate who says, "I have lots of women who cook for me: Betty Crocker, Marie Callender, Mrs. Stouffer. And I'm very good with a microwave." And in this country at least, there are easier ways to get a college education. Even the boys' club of the altar servers is gone. Is it so terrible to use a cultural icon to make a valid point: that the priest is a special sort of someone, a Chosen One called to a special sort of service? More generally, must we reject any admixture of worldly interest in our priestly aspirants?

Few men these days are signing up for the seminary so they can lord it over the rest of us.
But back to me and priests. When my grandmother died this spring, we discovered a priest in the family—he presided at her burial. My parents were delighted with him young, easygoing, Irish-American. They flew him out from New York to join our family for a few days during our annual summer gathering. I liked him immensely, and not just because he praised my selection of Italian wines (he had spent part of his seminary formation in Rome). I got over my usually tied tongue. Here was a regular guy, despite his somewhat irregular life—wry and friendly, capable of both the light touch and the thoughtful counsel.

I suspect he was "committed to orthodoxy"he showed us a vitamin bottle marked B-Orthodox Pills (a supplement for the spine, naturally)—but there was nothing harsh or dogmatic about him. I talked to him about his attempts to provide real pastoral care to people stopping by for sacramentsco-habitators seeking weddings, would-be godparents who didn't attend Mass, etc. I joked with him about the state of the Church. And I knelt before him—four feet of kitchen table-turned-altar between usas he celebrated the Mass in my living room. As he vested before Mass, he explained each garment, each step, each prayer. My boys watched him closely. It was marvelous.

December 8, 2005

MATTHEW LICKONA is a staff writer and sometime cartoonist for the 'San Diego Reader', a weekly newspaper. He is the author of 'Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic.'

This essay originally appeared in the San Diego News Notes. Reprinted with permission. ©2005, San Diego News Notes. All rights reserved.

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