An Insistent Fireman
In 1938 Archbishop Fulton Sheen remarked, "There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church, which is, of course quite a different thing."
Half a century later this assessment is still painfully accurate. Vast numbers of people badly misunderstand Catholicism. For example, we've all heard the charge that "Catholics worship statues," a claim made frequently by folks who are sincere but ignorant in their opposition to the Catholic Church. The charge is not true, of course, though many think it is. It's so outlandish it can take on comic proportions.
Recently, two of us from Catholic Answers pulled up in front of a Chicago parish where we were to conduct a seminar. The rectory's front lawn sported a statue of Our Lady of Fatima accompanied by statues of the three children, Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta, kneeling in prayer in front of her. I turned to my colleague in mock seriousness and said, "What a great religion! Not only can we Catholics worship statues, but our statues can worship statues."
Seeing humor in misconceptions can be a salve for Catholics, but it doesn't help non-Catholics mired in misunderstandings. We need to be effective in explaining what the Catholic Church teaches and why--and why all people should be Catholic.
The more winsome and compelling the explanations, the greater the number of converts there will be. This is demonstrated by the increasing flow of conversions (and re-conversions) inspired by writers such as John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, Thomas Howard, Sheldon Vanauken, and Alan Schreck.
And there's an added benefit: Catholics who do their homework in order to better catechize their neighbors (such things as daily Bible reading, a consistent prayer life, the study of Church history and doctrines) wind up catechizing themselves in the process.
But not everyone is receptive at first to examining the mountain of biblical and historical reasons one should become Catholic. Many, perhaps most, are more susceptible to conversion after they've had a chance to see from a distance what Catholicism is, viewing it as a whole rather than as a collection of constituent doctrines, customs, and personalities.
Christopher Derrick senses this need and goes a long way toward satisfying it in That Strange Divine Sea: Reflections on Being a Catholic. Derrick tackles this topic with gusto and succeeds wonderfully in connecting with his audience. Through ingenuity, humor, and keen insights he imparts the feel and texture of Catholicism.
Repeatedly I found myself saying, "Yes, that's exactly it!" And it's no surprise, since Derrick, a pupil and close friend of C. S. Lewis, writes with the same lucidity and power Lewis had. Through analogies and personal anecdotes Derrick persuades the reader that the Catholic Church is more than a collection of beliefs. He leads him to see (even if he may not admit it) that the Catholic Church is home. With deft strokes Derrick paints a vivid and attractive image of the Catholic Church. What to some may seem a remote and uninteresting religion is shown to be our absolutely vital link with God.
We must ask ourselves, why is the Church misunderstood by so many?
Derrick unflinchingly explains that people misunderstand Catholicism because we Catholics do such a poor job (or no job at all) of explaining it and living it. It's no wonder many folks never think to ask why they should be Catholic as opposed to Baptist, or Lutheran, or whatever. And that's the area where this book can be so helpful. It aids us in better explaining not just the "what" of Catholicism, but, more importantly, the "why."
Among Derrick's many analogies, one stands out as particularly useful in the service of explaining the purpose (or what many are fond of calling the "mission") of the Catholic Church and attracting people to enter it. He likens the Church to a fireman, after first setting the stage by framing a standard complaint against Catholicism:
"The trouble with your Church . . . is that it will bully people. I'm perfectly willing to listen to the ideas and recommendations of any man or institution. But I like to take my time and think things over: I don't like to be ordered about and hustled along. Everything of that sort is such terribly bad manners; and that's always been the Catholic style. It puts people off."
In response, Derrick relates the following story. A philosopher, comfortably ensconced in his upstairs study, was engaged in a written debate with a colleague on "certain ultimate questions," a debate which very well could have "gone on forever, saddling neither party with the burden of any final conclusion."
"Suddenly . . . an amazing thing happened; the window shattered inwards with a loud crash, to reveal a grimy and helmeted face. The philosopher looked up in outrage. But before he could begin to protest, he was rudely shouted down.
"'Come here! Quick! I can get you safely down this ladder if you do exactly what I say!'"
"'What on earth are you talking about? And what the hell do you mean by . . .?'"
"'No time to argue, you fool, the building's on fire! It'll collapse in only a few moments! Can't you smell the smoke? Now hurry!'"
Derrick continues: "Now this philosopher was a true lover of wisdom, well accustomed to the precise analysis of concepts. It was very much to his credit, I thought, that he overcame his natural anger at this intrusion and started to point out the intellectual weaknesses of the fireman's position.
"'My dear fellow,'" said the philosopher, "'don't shout at me like that. Yes, there is a smell of burning, now that you mention it; and it is compatible with the hypothesis that this building is on fire, though of course with any number of other hypotheses too. . . . Now we should submit that question to empirical verification. . . And I assure you that the experience of being carried down a very tall ladder, by a perfect stranger and in the dead of night, is one that can be assessed with equal validity in a number of different perspectives, not only in yours! And you gave yourself away, of course, when you demanded instant blind obedience to yourself as a condition of being saved. We've seen that kind of thing so often before--some fierce dogmatism, offered as 'truth' when in fact it only expresses the speaker's desire to dominate and control. So, my dear fellow, if our discussion is to be a fruitful one . . . .'"
"But unfortunately, the building collapsed at that moment. The fireman had a narrow escape but survived on his ladder; the philosopher plunged down into the fiery depths, still philosophizing as he went. How sad! He was a very good philosopher."
Derrick reminds us that good news can come in two forms, depending on the urgency of our circumstances: "There are some situations in which we can say, 'It's all right! You can relax, there's nothing to worry about.' But there are other situations in which we need to speak in different terms and--so to speak--in a different tone of voice: 'Careful, now! You're in a hell of a mess, but I can get you out of it if you do exactly what I say!'"
That second tone of voice, firm, uncompromising, urgent, is the way Jesus speaks to us in the Gospels, and, as Derrick points out, the way the Catholic Church has spoken for the last two thousand years.
"It sounds urgent and commanding, perhaps even fierce, but it's still a voice of good news and love. The background questions are real. 'Can this fireman save me, on lines wholly determined by himself and calling for uncritical obedience on my side? Does he offer the only possible escape? Might there not be other rescuers, or even another escape-route by which I can save my own life?'
"Nobody can hope to understand the characteristic behavior of the Church, or the point of 'being a Catholic,' unless he habitually sees the human condition in terms of desperate urgency."
Quite so. Peter, Paul, Ignatius, Polycarp, and the rest operated on that principle and, as a result, drew untold millions into the Church. We moderns should learn from them and re-awaken our sense of urgency--before it's too late.
-- Patrick Madrid
That Strange Divine Sea: Reflections on Being a Catholic
By Christopher Derrick
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983
Available from This Rock through the Mini-Catalogue.
How Not So Odd of God
There's a scene in Hannah and Her Sisters in which Woody Allen, who believes he is dying, is explaining to a puzzled Catholic priest why he's thinking of converting to Catholicism.
"Well, you know, first of all, it's a very beautiful religion," he says. "It's a strong religion, it's very well-structured. . . . I'm talking now, incidentally, about the against-school-prayer, pro-abortion, anti-nuclear wing."
Tongue-in-cheek observations about the inroads of modernism into the Church aside, Catholics might well wonder whether there is anything about the faith that would especially attract Jews, and, if so, why there aren't more Jewish converts. The Ingrafting: The Conversion Stories of Ten Hebrew-Catholics answers both questions.
Each account in this anthology illustrates the citation that opens the volume: "Is it possible God has rejected his people? Of course not. . . . It will be much easier for them, the natural branches, to be grafted back on the tree they came from" (Rom. 11:1, 24).
What strikes the reader of these stories is the unexpected variety of their backgrounds, conversions, and present situations. Some of these converts "come out of the richness of Jewish orthodoxy," others from "the modernity of reformed Judaism," and still others from "the emptiness of contemporary atheism."
Some conversions were sparked by symbols (one woman telling how she saw the cross everywhere: in transverse wooden beams, crisscrossed pencils, the latticework of a window frame, the shape of a shadow on the wall). Some sprang from conversations with Catholic friends who were willing (and able) to express their faith and the reasons for it.
Some began with books such as John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua (a perennial convert-maker available from This Rock). Some were moved by movies (A Man For All Seasons and Becket, both of which were instrumental in my conversion as well).
Some were attracted by the joy and celebration of Christmas. And one was apparently converted by repeatedly receiving the Blessed Sacrament while still a non-Catholic (not that we recommend this, since it is improper--though apparently this person was unaware of the impropriety).
The present circumstances of the converts are no less diverse, though it is striking that all of them have become or are studying to be either priests or religious (professed or lay).
One of the priests, Elias Friedman, a Carmelite monk in Haifa, Israel, helped found the International Hebrew Catholic Association, an organization for Jews who become Catholics.
Another priest, Arthur Klyber, founded and directs Remnant of Israel, another organization enabling Jewish converts to network and to share their faith with their fellow Jews. Raphael Simon, a former medical doctor and psychiatrist, is now a Trappist priest and retreat master. The closing essay is by a young convert preparing for the priesthood.
Of those who are now members of religious orders, two (a husband and wife) belong to the third order Dominican community in Kentucky of which Fr. Klyber is the chaplain, one is a secular Franciscan and registered nurse who lives at home with her parents as a Catholic in a Jewish household, one is a Maryknoll sister who served as a missionary in the Philippines and Central Pacific islands, and one is a lay contemplative living in a Jesuit house. The anthology also includes an essay by the editor, Ronda Chervin, who is Professor of Philosophy at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, California.
What is heartening in these essays is the ability of people to see "the unbroken continuity," as one essayist puts it, between Judaism and Catholicism--far more continuity, in fact, than exists between Judaism and non-Catholic forms of Christianity, which have little sympathy for such concepts as a sacrificing priesthood, efficacious sacraments, authoritative tradition, or prayers for the dead.
In these and other regards Catholicism shows itself, and not Protestantism, to be the true heir of the Old Covenant, the fulfillment of its promises and prophecies. If this is the case, then why don't more Jews become Catholics--or Christians of any stripe?
The first reason is that many Christians have been guilty of the sin of anti-Semitism. The second reason, ironically, is that, in overreaction to this sin, many Christians feel it is "unecumenical" to invite Jews to become Christians. Such Christians feel that in reparation for any insensitivities of the past we should now adopt a non-evangelizing attitude toward practitioners of the Jewish faith.
All the writers featured in this anthology, while deploring the anti- Semitic attitudes and actions of the past, emphatically encourage us to carry out, faithfully and charitably, Christ's command to preach "the gospel . . . to the Jew first and also to the Gentile" (Rom. 1:16).
In his article Elias Friedman boldly states that "the Jewish problem," as he puts it, can only be explained in the light of Jesus Christ, who is also the solution to this problem.
By the first statement he means that the dispersion of the Jews for nearly two millennia can only be accounted for by the deity of Jesus Christ and the fact that he punished the Jews by the loss of their temple (in A.D. 70) for rejecting him as their Messiah.
He also means that (as he develops more fully in his book The Redemption of Israel) national conversion to Christ is the only thing that can provide lasting social and spiritual identity to the people of Israel, and he reads Romans 11:25-32 as prophesying just such a national conversion.
(Other Jewish apostolates, such as Father Klyber's Remnant of Israel, disagree on this point; they don't feel that Scripture indicates any special role for Israel as a nation in "the last days.")
This book should spark a greater interest among Catholics in the unique challenges involved in successfully communicating the Catholic faith to our Jewish friends.
The Church has always been blessed by the conversion of Jews such as Edith Stein and Hermann Cohen (both of whom are being proposed for canonization), David Goldstein, Karl Stern, Raissa Maritain, Herbert Ratner, Cardinal Lustiger of Paris, and Israel Zolli (the former Chief Rabbi of Rome, who was so impressed by what Pius XII did to save Jews during World War II that he converted to Catholicism and took the Pope's baptismal name, Eugenio). Let us pray that we are blessed by many more.
-- Gerry Matatics
The Ingrafting: The Conversion Stories of Ten Hebrew-Catholics
By Rhonda Chervin
Petersham, Massachusetts: St. Bede's Press, 1987
Available from This Rock through the Mini-Catalogue.