What inspired you to write this book,
I guess I was looking for a new way to try to explain the faith. There are only a few really fine books out there. Archbishop Chaput has a beautiful one, , and George Weigel's is another one.
But for the most part, I find that too many books, even if they're good and solid and written by well-meaning people, kind of drain the life out of the faith. A lot of them take to citing and explaining doctrines, and "proving" things with Scripture texts and early church fathers. Those kind of books have their place, and they do a lot of good for a lot of people.
But there's a lot of other people for whom the problems of faith and belief aren't doctrinal but existential, for lack of a better word. Most of the books out there, again Chaput and Weigel would be the exception, don't get you to the heart of the affair—why is this faith something worth living for, why are people ready to die for it?
Everything we’re supposed to do and be as Catholics is about proving God’s love to the world.
Those priests being killed in Colombia in recent weeks, that bishop gunned down in Kenya in mid-July—they aren't dying for a really coherent set of doctrines, or because Catholicism was the most compelling argument they discovered in the marketplace of ideas.
Our faith is really very simple and beautiful—God is real. He loves us, so much so that he showed his face to us in Jesus, and he has given us a path for sharing in his life as his sons and daughters in the church, which is a kingdom that begins now and continues in a world without end. If that core message gets lost, no matter how accurate our presentation of the faith, it won't speak to lots of the people we meet on the streets or in our workplaces, or even in our families. So I hope there's room for this little book, which tries to take a kind of different tack.
Why did you call it the Catholic "Passion"? What does "passion" mean for you in this context?
It comes from , the 3rd-century church father. He talked about God's "passion of love"—how God loves each one of us so much that he was willing to suffer what we suffer, to share our human lot in life so that we could share in his divine life.
It occurred to me that God's passion of love is really the Catholic passion. Everything the church does—from the ordinary preaching of a priest on Sunday morning, to the hidden sacrifices that a Catholic mom makes for her kids, to the martyrs whose blood is still being spilled every day around the world—all this continues God's passion of love. Everything we're supposed to do and be as Catholics is about proving God's love to the world, and inviting people to share in that love, which starts in this life and promises to continue beyond the grave.
What do you mean by your book's subtitle, that we have to re-discover the power and beauty of the faith?
This church, this faith, is more than 2,000 years old. It's easy for us to forget our heritage or to think we've heard it all before. For example, there was an article in the New York Times a couple weeks ago New Artists Who Are Motivated by Christianity. Reviewing an exhibit of new Christian art, this writer begins with a kind of astounding statement—that he can't think of a modern artist who has made faith central to his or her work. You see this kind of religious amnesia again and again in our culture. You'd never know that we're living in a period where Christians are doing extraordinary things. Or that most of the great art in the West—from painting and sculpture, to classical music and poetry—is animated and inspired by Scripture and in many cases was commissioned and created by Catholics for religious purposes. Not to mention our institutions, our philosophy and ethics—all have been shaped by Christian ideals, yet our culture seems to want to leave it all behind, to move into some "post-Christian" moment.
Sure, it’s scary. But it’s the peak of love. It’s what we’re all looking for … that Somebody to give our life to without holding anything back.
Sure, a lot of this "amnesia" is part of a deliberate attempt by opinion elites to erase our memory of our Christian roots. The problem is that it's working. And lots of Catholics need to rediscover their roots and their historic culture. Michelangelo, Mauriac, Messiaen, Dante, Congdon, Hadyn, , who just died in '99 and was the greatest sculptor of our times, in my opinion—all these people that I mention are a part of our family, they shared in the same Eucharist, they hoped for the same life to come. They're part of God's passion of love and we should know them, know their work. What they did with their lives should inspire us to do beautiful things for God and to use the grace we're given to try to change the world, even that little corner of the world where we find ourselves.
Why did you choose to take the approach of putting an emphasis on the "lives and works of flesh and blood Catholics"?
I guess because I like stories. Jesus taught with stories. What are the gospels and Acts if they're not first a collection of stories in which flesh and blood people are brought into a life-changing encounter with Jesus? Why do we retell these stories every day in the Mass except to prepare us to become part of that story, as we experience our own life-changing encounter with Christ in the Eucharist. Catholics have always been taught to meditate on the mysteries of Christ and the lives of the saints. I wanted to present the faith as a compelling way of life. And it seemed natural, most Catholic, to do it by way of story and memorial.
Who did you write this book for?
People we all know, really. Some are devout Catholics who want to take their faith deeper into the mysteries of God's plan. Others are those folks we all know in the workplace or in our families. Folks who think they don't need a church or God. Folks who have written off the church as irrelevant or as some kind of reactionary, hidebound institution of arcane rules and dogmas. I'm not trying to make anybody Catholic with this book. It's an invitation for these people to learn a little more, maybe to come to an understanding that Catholicism offers something they need. At least I hope they'll appreciate why, for a lot of us, it's the only thing worth living for and giving your life to.
Reading your book, the beauty and richness of the faith comes across clearly. But in the daily experience of many Catholics, the experience of the Church, especially in her liturgical life, is empty and formal. What do you say to those who say they're "not being fed" in the Catholic Church?
I'm probably the wrong person to ask. There's a lot of grumbling among Catholics about the liturgy. Some folks complain that the homily is bad and the hymns are lousy. Others say they don't get anything out of Mass, because it's just rote ritual. I don't have any patience for any of this talk. All I can ever say is that I am the biggest liturgical abuse I find in every Mass I attend. I'm the only empty thing I find in every Mass. It's me who comes to Mass far less than fully prepared to meet my Maker. It's my mind that rambles while the priest is up there praying on my behalf. Is it the priest who's just going through the motions—or is it me?
Everybody expects the Mass to deliver the goods. But we forget that love is an exchange of gifts, and that in every Mass, God expects us to deliver ourselves to him, too—totally, completely.
Many of the quotations you chose are from saints and church fathers. How can people today relate to their experience? How can we overcome the perceived abyss between those who are heroically holy and the rest of us "Joe six-packs in the pew"?
The saints, have stood the test of time. They lived in the same world we live in and faced the same struggles—trying to make a living, trying to raise up their kids right, trying to resist selfish desires and temptations, trying to keep the faith in a culture that's either indifferent or actively opposed to the faith. A lot of them got killed for their efforts, but they all made it out of this world alive, forever; they made it through into perpetual light.
How do we relate to them? First by realizing that the "perceived abyss," as you put it, is really that—a conjuring of our own fears, or a failure of our imagination. We're afraid to be holy like these people are holy, and so we imagine this abyss. We say, "I could never be a saint, those guys are really special. I'm just a regular Joe."
But one of my points in the book is that way before believers were called Christians, they were called "saints." That's why Paul addressed his letters "to the saints" or to those "called to be saints." And this basic Catholic truth runs from the Bible all the way through to any sermon you're likely to hear from Benedict XVI. We're made for this stuff. We've been put here to become saints. We probably won't have to face a firing squad like , but we're called to live a holy life wherever we are and whatever we're called to do. Sure, it's scary. It's going to mean changing our hearts and our ways of thinking and living. But it's the peak of love. It's what we're all looking for, that something, that Somebody to give our life to without holding anything back. Even if the church never canonizes us, we're all supposed to be living like we've got the first name, "Saint." I guess that's why I quote them so much. They can show us the way because they've already been down this road we're trying to walk.
If Jesus isn’t the face of God … then we’re all in big trouble.
You begin your book in Nazareth and Jesus as God incarnate. What are the most important truths about Jesus that you believe we need to emphasize and rediscover today? Why?
The most important truths are the ones we repeat every Sunday in the creed—that Jesus is true God and true man and that he humbled himself to suffer and die for our salvation.
Unfortunately, this is a belief that's taken a lot of hits in recent years. Why is it that every Easter and Christmas the news magazines and the cable channels trot out these "special reports" on scholars working to discover the "Jesus before Christianity" or the "Jesus of history," who's supposed to be a totally different guy than the "Christ of faith"?
However sincere many of the people in this effort might be, the result has been to create a climate of suspicion and doubt. This is the origin of things like The DaVinci Code, really. We're supposed to think that the church has been pulling a fast one on us all these years, that everything we've been taught to believe about Jesus is a fabrication, a distortion of the historical "truth" about him.
A lot of these so-called authorities miss the irony that all they're really doing is recreating Jesus in their own image, or more likely, the image of somebody they'd like to be. That's why all the historical Jesuses tend to look the same—they're hip, sexy, charismatic, they speak like Kung Fu or some other '70s wiseman or poet. They have no scholarly basis for these kind of caricatures. I hope I'm not being uncharitable, but this stuff would be laughable if souls weren't at stake. A lot of good people, even people who still attend Mass every week, are being sucked in or confused by what amounts to an academic parlor game.
If Jesus isn't the face of God, if he's just a kind of unshaven junior professor on the tenure track; if the church is just another human institution and not a divine-human communion through which Jesus continues his work among us—then we're all in big trouble. But the fact is that this isn't the picture of Jesus that emerges from truly in-depth and honest scholarship. The Jesus we pray to and the Jesus we believe in is the Jesus of history. It's that simple. And the best of modern scholarship, Protestant and Catholic, shows us that. And without pretending to be a scholar, I try to reflect this scholarship in my book.
A recurring theme in your book is personal relationship, from the inner life of the Trinity to the relationship between husband and wife. Why did you choose to emphasize this relational and personal aspect of the faith?
The short answer is: the Bible made me do it. As I point out repeatedly in the book, there's a divine purpose, a reason why there's a marriage in the Garden of Eden in the Bible's first pages, and a marriage between the Lamb and the new Jerusalem, the church, in the Bible's last pages. In between we have the prophets describing God's relationship with Israel as that of a husband for a bride; we have Jesus calling himself the "bridegroom," and Paul speaking of the people he's baptized as being "espoused" to Christ, and of the church being one flesh with Christ. If we believe, and I do, that the Bible is God's word in human words, then there's something profound in all this. It's not just a nice figure of speech.
There is no more intimate communion possible in human experience than the nuptial communion of husband and wife. And that's the kind of relationship that God wants with each one of us. Some of the saints I write about testify to a mystical experience of this kind of love. But all of us get a taste of it, however fleeting, every time we take holy communion, which is a participation on earth in the marriage supper of the Lamb going on in heaven.
Can you tell us about your own background and faith journey?
I'm a 40-something Catholic, was raised in a good Catholic home, went to Mass every Sunday. Nothing extra, no family rosaries or pilgrimages, no Scripture reading. But I learned from the solid virtues and moral strength of both my mom and my dad. And the older I get the more I realize that their example of virtue was what kept the door to faith and devotion open for me. I drifted away from the faith in college, became an example of how a little learning can make you quite a dumb guy. I read a lot of Nietzsche and Marx, bought all the "opium of the masses" and "god is dead and Christians killed him" rhetoric that one tended to pick up on campuses in the late 70s and early 80s. When I graduated, I was working in Washington, D.C., as a business reporter. I worked hard, played harder, was living a far from resolute life.
I had never felt the church had anything to say about my life or the world I live in.
One day I found a copy of John Paul II's in a used book store, bought it for a quarter, and took it home. What I read changed my life. I had never felt the church had anything to say about my life or the world I live in. Here's the pope talking about Jesus as the answer to the arms race and Jesus being the only one who could show me who I really am. I read everything I could find by the pope. A little later, while on business trip, I started reading a Gideon's Bible in a hotel room. Again, only because John Paul was always talking about Scripture. It was the first time I ever opened a Bible. I took it home and kept reading it over and over. And I just kind of kept reading my way back into the church. Eventually I went back to graduate school to study Scripture and religion. After that I landed a series of jobs writing about the church. I've been doing that for the last 16 years.
In addition to John Paul II, which writers have influenced you the most over the years?
In high school and college I read tons of fiction and poetry. I don't do much looking back, but if I did I think I'd find that Dostoevsky and Melville, who were my favorites, first stirred the religious impulse in me. The Confidence Man and The Idiot were huge for me at one time. When I was coming back to the church, of course, it was John Paul, especially the first two social encyclicals, and the trilogy on the Trinity. Ratzinger's two letters on liberation theology were important. I read Neuhaus' when it first came out. That was powerful. It changed my orientation to the culture and opened my eyes to a whole dimension of the faith that I'd never thought about before.
Dorothy Day was probably my biggest influence. I spent an entire winter in a library every night reading and photocopying everything she ever wrote in The Catholic Worker. A lot of that went into a book I did a few years back. She showed me how Catholicism could be a total way of life. Because she was such an incredible reader and was always writing about what she was reading, she was my gateway into this whole world of Catholic culture-novels, social theorists, artists, poets, philosophers. I wanted to read everything she read. And I'm still trying. In recent years, Daniélou, De Lubac, and Ratzinger helped lead me deeper into the church fathers and the treasures of the liturgy. Mauriac's novels and prose remain important. At the moment, I'm on an Evelyn Waugh kick.
You wrote of marriage and family as nothing less than a revelation and sacrament of the Trinity. What have been the fruits and challenges of having this vision and living it out in your own life?
Marriage and family are the great schools of divine love. That's certainly not an original thought, but it's my daily experience. I've been married for 20 years and we have five children, aged 16 to 6—so every day school's in session!
If I want to learn what it means to say that God is a merciful Father, all I have to do is look at my relationship with my kids—can I love them like God loves me, can I show them the mercy and wisdom that I expect and experience from him? If I want to know what Jesus means when he says that true love is laying down your life for your friends, all I have to do is swallow my pride and curb my selfishness every day and become the friend I should be to my wife. It's a tough school. But again, it's part of that family-mystery that's revealed in Scripture and the church. Why did our Lord come to us as an infant, to be raised in an ordinary human family?
You included a compelling story about Eugene O'Neill's agonizing struggle with God in the face of so much suffering and evil in the world. Have you wrestled with this question and problem in your own life?
Like a lot of folks, I've had direct, personal contact with evil. I had a brother who was murdered when he was 18; I was 20 at the time. A guy he worked with shot him through the head and dumped his body in front of our house for my mom and dad to find on a Sunday morning before church. I'll never forget our family on our knees in the front yard praying when we all knew he was dead. It's not the kind of systematic, ideological evil of the French Revolution or the Nazis in Poland, or babies dying in Somalia, but it rips a hole in your family and in your heart that's hard to repair. That was almost 25 years ago, but you know, my family still kind of lives with this daily. And everybody who's had this kind of experience of loss, whether it's violence or some other tragedy, know what this is about.
The only answer for me, for my family, for Gene O'Neill, for everybody else, is the Catholic answer: evil works through our human freedom to close ourselves off to grace, but our suffering is taken up in a mysterious and redemptive way in the cross. If we don't believe this, then innocent suffering in the world truly has no meaning, and that's what causes the existential anguish that O'Neill carried through until his last days. And I think it's that kind of hidden anguish that's underneath so much of the agnosticism and atheism of the educated today.
This way of living, which is how Catholics have been living for centuries, has the power to change the world, one heart at a time.
Where do you see personal examples of the "power and beauty" of the faith today?
Where I see it most is in the people around me—my wife, our friends and family, the priests I see every day at Mass. Our friends are all ordinary people, working ordinary jobs—lawyers, doctors, teachers, autobody repairmen, artists, real estate brokers, stay-at-home moms. Yet in their own quiet way, they're striving for holiness in the everyday things they do. There's something so beautiful and inspiring about the sacrifices they make, their devotion. The priests we have in our school and in our parishes are great men, too, laboring under enormous pressures and workloads. It's inspiring. For all these people, their faith means not necessarily seeing any fruits of their struggles in this lifetime. They know that, they're good with that. But this way of living, which is how Catholics have been living for centuries, has the power to change the world, one heart at a time.
Pope Benedict preached to around one million young people in Germany last week. If you could speak to that many young people, what would you tell them about living the faith?
I'd tell them, "You ought to read this book, The Catholic Passion. I think it might do you some good."