Because Father Giussani Wrote This


Today’s Magnificat offers a quotation from the founder of Communion and Liberation, in honor of Labor Day. Like much that Fr. Luigi Giussani wrote, it invites us to bring our faith directly into our daily working lives:

We must always remind ourselves that our first work does not arise from the capacity to create new structures, but rather it is . . . a sensibility to the common and singular needs that exist: the use of your intelligence and energy to assist in the creation of a more human environment in the situation where you are.

If I understand Father Giussani, to be a Catholic is to work. Happy Labor Day!

Because of My Father I

My father came to me in a dream just before dawn this morning, and though I promised Ferde I’d turn off the blog machine until Monday, my father is a higher authority even than Ferde.

In my dream my father was sick, weak with fatigue and nausea just as he was last summer, his last summer, when he was dying of melanoma. He walked toward me dressed in black and slumped into my arms and said, “Oh, my son.” I helped him to a chair, which in my dream was one of those schoolroom chairs with the flip-up seat and fold-down desktop. He slid into it, and I noticed that he was wearing a black cowboy hat, a darker version of the one he wears in the classic picture of Dad as a child, dressed as a cowpuncher. Then I woke up. I said my morning prayer of thanks and got up. Katie asked me what time it was. It was five o’clock. “Had a dream about Dad,” I said, “and he was sick, but it was OK. It was a loving dream.”

And so to blog . . .

My father, so proud of me and so supportive late in life, especially I think when I “went Catholic,” was present at my first communion and confirmation in March 2008. He had become my best male friend in the years just previous. We played a lot of golf together, and took three long trips: a cross-country train trip, a roots trip through Minnesota and the Dakotas to see such sights as his parents’ birthplaces, and finally a Civil War battlefields trip in 2007. Eighteen months later he was dead.

I want to be clear that my father was fully healthy at the time of my reception into the Catholic Church. I did not “fall into the arms of the Church” with grief over my father’s illness or death. At least, we thought he was healthy. But a lesion that had been removed three years before had left its biochemical traces apparently, and the insidious, incurable melanoma found its way into his system. By the time he was scanned, the week he turned 83, there were tumors dotting his abdomen. The regimen of chemo prescribed by his oncologist was purely pro forma.

My father’s last summer of life was my first summer as a Catholic. Viewed selfishly, there was something of the Resurrection for me in this. My earthly father was giving way, but my heavenly father was taking over. Well, OK. I didn’t really think of it that way at the time.

What I experienced was the extraordinary grace of being surrounded by the Catholic Church, and especially by friends like Ferde and Father Barnes, as the final events of my father’s life unfolded. The grace of being able to give him, I imagine, some small measure of spiritual comfort when I told him and wrote him, as I did, that I firmly believed he was in good hands. (A devout Episcopalian and faithful churchman, I trust that Dad believed it anyway.) The grace of sitting with him in his hospice room and ultimately sleeping in that room for four nights during his final week, and reading him psalms from the Liturgy of the Hours, even when he was apparently unconscious. He would rouse now and then and smile wanly at me. There was a quiet of heaven in that hospice room.

Dad’s illness and death on September 23, 2008, brought us all together. The photo shows Dad and me with my younger brother, David, Dad’s namesake. Dad loved David, as he did all of his children. By the time he passed away, each of Dad’s six children and all of his eleven grandchildren had ample opportunity to say good-bye, to tell Dad just how much they loved him. For each of us at one time or another, he was what the psalmist says: our rock, our refuge.

Dad is gone now. The rock remains.

(I have titled this post with a Roman numeral. It’s obvious to me that this will not be my last world on Dad.)

Because of the Evidence

Anyone arriving at the base of Mt. St. Helens in the weeks following the 1980 eruption would have known something huge had happened. They would have needed no photographic images of the eruption itself, like the one shown here. They would have needed no eyewitness accounts. All they would have needed to see was the thousands of bare tree trunks aligned in one direction after the primary shock hit. Something happened here, they would have been forced to conclude. Something huge happened.

This is another reason I am so confident being Catholic. When I was a child in Minnesota, I distinctly remember two things: being afraid of death and thinking, if Jesus Christ really really existed, as the Bible says, then I have nothing to worry about. Today, I no longer worry so much about death. Whoever created this world is infinitely good, and whatever awaits me after death is therefore good, too. But sadly neither do I have such childlike faith in the Bible accounts of Christ’s life.

Doubts crept in along the way, doubts encouraged by our culture: What if the whole New Testament story was just a massive conspiracy among a few power-grabbing Apostles, who concocted the story of the Resurrection and used it to control minds for two thousand years? What if the search for the historical Jesus finally turns up another Piltdown Man, a fabulous hoax that has hornswoggled humanity for two millennia? What if scholarly criticism eventually pokes so many holes in the Gospels and other contemporary accounts that even the existence of a man (forget about God) named Jesus of Nazareth is thrown into doubt? In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis convincingly held that Jesus must have been one of three things: liar, lunatic, or Lord. But what if he was a liar or lunatic and all the rest of them—Peter, the other eleven, Paul, the early bishops of Rome—all of them built the lies or lunacy into an organization that controlled human thought from the year 35 forward?

These are doubts which others no doubt have shared, cast in a thousand shapes and colors.

But I have faith today, and this faith is not “merely” the faith of a child (though I hope someday to rise again to that level). My faith is multifaceted, but in the end it is based on evidence. Consider what happened after Christ’s death.

How to account for all these trees lying in perfect alignment? How to account for the speed with which the Gospel spread throughout the Mediterranean basin and beyond—without the sword of Islam or the naval might of the British empire in its heyday? How to account for the uncountable numbers who martyred themselves in Christianity’s first three centuries, for what? lies? lunacy? How to account for the rich and internally consistent development of teaching by the Church Fathers in the years leading up to the remarkable St. Augustine? How to explain the burgeoning of the monastic movement following St. Benedict in the fifth century? How to explain the tenacity with which Catholicism, and particularly its monastic communities, preserved Western culture for another 1000 years, until the Protestant rebellion tried to destroy its very foundations?

I was reminded of these questions on August 24, when the Church celebrated the Feast of St. Bartholomew, Apostle. The office of readings for the day offers a homily by St. John Chrysostom, in which he considers the evidence. How, he asks, could twelve uneducated men have so changed the known world?

How could men who perhaps had never been in a city or a public square think of setting out to do battle with the whole world? That they were fearful, timid men, the evangelist makes clear; he did not reject the fact or try to hide their weaknesses. Indeed he turned these into a proof of the truth. What did he say of them? That when Christ was arrested, the others fled, despite all the miracles they had seen, while he who was leader of the others denied him!

How then to account for the fact that these men, who in Christ’s lifetime did not stand up to the attacks by the Jews, set forth to do battle with the whole world once Christ was dead—if, as you claim, Christ did not rise and speak to them and rouse their courage? Did they perhaps say to themselves: “What is this? He could not save himself but he will protect us? He did not help himself when he was alive, but now that he is dead he will extend a helping hand to us? In his lifetime he brought no nation under his banner, but by uttering his name we will win over the whole world?” Would it not be wholly irrational even to think such thoughts, much less to act upon them?

It is evident, then, that if they had not seen him risen and had not had proof of his power, they would not have risked so much.

But why Catholicism, Webster, as my friend Dave asked? Why the Catholic Church and not one of the thousand splinters that were once the Lutheran rebellion? That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? These utterly convincing events of the first Christian centuries are the very foundation of the Catholic Church, and while there are indeed many odd towers and buttresses and even gargoyles built on that foundation, if I want to get back as close to Jesus as I can, as close as possible to the volcano, there’s really only one place to worship.

Because of Ferde


I first saw Ferde Rombola in the pulpit of St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in our town of Beverly, Massachusetts. He is the Monday-morning lector. As a retired professional actor, he has a powerful baritone delivery. After mass, I approached him outside church and said he reminded me of an Old Testament prophet. I think he liked that.

None of us became Catholics all by ourselves. We all felt called by something, some might call it God, some Jesus Christ, some the Holy Spirit, some just a sunset. And none of us can remain Catholics all by ourselves, either. I imagine that even a hermit is sustained by connections, if only a friendship with Christ. But for those of us who choose to live in lay communities, friendship is essential. It is hard to sustain faith, to sustain prayer and service without someone to remind us, someone to throw an arm around our shoulder or kick us in the ass. As my big brother in the church, my occasional drinking buddy, and my conscience, Ferde Rombola is such a friend.

I could not be a Catholic today, not the Catholic I am today, without him.

And how could you not love a face like that? This fish wanted to kiss Ferde. Can you blame it?

Because Ultimately It’s Not About Politics


I am amazed how quickly this blog spreads and comments make their way back to me. My first post was just eighteen days ago. In fact, I began writing “Why I Am Catholic” mostly for my wife and daughters—to share with them my joy in being Catholic—and they continue to receive each of my posts automatically by e-mail. But others have been touched. It must be the work of the Holy Spirit. Or as my pal Ferde put it when I e-mailed him my astonishment, “Webstah, have you ever heard of GOD?!”


“I LOVE this blog that I have discovered,” a woman wrote.


“Thank you for reminding me of one of the reasons that I remain a Catholic,” wrote another, who read my post on Kristin Lavransdatter.


Most touching for me was the fellow convert, a man, who wrote, “I just want to say that I really appreciate your posts and look forward to reading in the future. I was confirmed a few years ago and your posts really resonate with me, and it’s just really pleasing to see someone so open and honest about their faith. Words often get in the way of faith, but yours are adding to mine.”


That captured best what I am attempting here: an honest, non-doctrinaire testimony to the joy I have discovered in being a Catholic. I cannot imagine my life now without the Church.


Someone alerted me to a blog that had mentioned “Why I Am Catholic.” The blog is The Anchoress of First Things. I’m so new to this blogging business that I don’t know how to create a direct link in that sentence yet (promise I’ll learn) but you’ll find an Anchoress link under “Blogs & Sites I Read.” It’s worth regular reading. Gotta love this lady: she’s writing at 4 or 5 in the morning, God’s hour.


I Googled The Anchoress and read her comment: “Added to my blogroll,” she wrote 9/2/09 at 2:13 p.m. (she also writes in the afternoon and evening), “a terrific blog written from a very faithful but center-mildlyleft position, ‘Why I Am a Catholic’ . . . ”


Now, I’m never going to look a gift “terrific” in the mouth and I appreciate the insight “very faithful,” though it was arrived at with very little data. My priest and confessor might be a better judge of that. But “center-mildlylefty”?! First Things First: I do not dispute this description. Not my point at all. What is remarkable to me is how quickly I earned that political label. Have we Catholics become that political?


First, how did she arrive at this designation? I’m almost as new to Catholicism as I am to blogging, but I imagine there are clues in every sentence I write. Just one example: Having America magazine alphabetically first in my list of “Blogs & Sites I Read” (and therefore a notch ahead of The Anchoress) is an immediate red flag. I have been a Catholic long enough to have heard the joke—


What are the three things God does not know? (1) How many orders of Franciscans there are. (2) How much money the Dominicans have. (3) What the heck the Jesuits are doing.


This is obviously a conservative’s joke. I know by now that, to some, Franciscan means “whatever,” and Jesuit means “liberal,” and America is a Jesuit magazine. A very good and balanced magazine, I think, and yes, its editor, Fr. Jim Martin, gave me a shout-out in his blog because I gave his book a shout-out in mine, so there. But what makes America “liberal”? I don’t have the discernment to say exactly. I imagine that while upholding the sanctity of life, America desists from throwing Molotov cocktails into pro-choice picket lines. And the Jesuits are smart, free thinkers—kind of like William F. Buckley, who was never accused of liberalism and who was, if you’ve been reading, a subject of one of my posts. And they are all spiritual sons of St. Ignatius, and I defy anyone to label him “liberal.”


But let me not stray. Amid my wife’s initial astonishment when I first told her that I was converting to Catholicism, the next sentence out of my mouth was: “I am not becoming a Catholic in order to get into political arguments with anyone. I am becoming a Catholic in order to pray and attend mass and receive the Eucharist and honor my God and thereby, I hope, improve the life of my neighbor.”


In recent days, we have witnessed a brouhaha over Cardinal Seán O’Malley’s presiding “in choir” at the Kennedy funeral. Please—please read his blog post about this. (Again, no link here but there’s another one to your right under “Blogs & Sites I Read.”) Like our pope—my pope—Cardinal Seán is committed to dialogue with those who disagree with the Church’s position on the sanctity of life. Prayer still works, and compassion. Most other tactics—and tactics are often all that differentiates Catholic “liberals” and “conservatives,” who agree on the sanctity of life or otherwise are not Catholics—are the down-and-dirty tactics of political life.


I think my wife, Katie, put it as well as I can, when we discussed this issue in detail. It seems to me, she said, that the Catholic Church risks becoming a wing of the Republican Party. Exactly. We saw that last election, when FOCA was the focus of vitriol against Obama, and we see it again now that a whole “wing” of the Church (see how political we are?) is aligned against the president’s health care initiatives.


If each of us is first and foremost a political being, with a political label immediately affixed to our foreheads the moment a word is out of our mouths, what’s the point in being Catholic? Let’s just all be Republicans, or whatever may be the conservative label of the month.


I have never been a political being, and in this post I am sure there is a large dose of naiveté. I do not dispute this. I am, however, a Catholic, and this is another reason why: Though it is completely illogical and completely apolitical, I look at the world and see all of its terrors (abortion, wars, genocide, racism, crushing poverty, AIDS), and I pray for it daily. Will my prayers help? I believe so, as St. Thomas believed so, and that makes me a Catholic.


When I die and my eulogy is spoken, I pray that the speaker will not say that I was a faithful Democrat or a Republican, or a righty or a mildlylefty, nor even that I was a writer or publisher. It’ll be OK with me (and I’ll be listening) if they mention that I was a good father and faithful husband, because those designations are much closer to my faith experience than any others. I do want to be a father and husband worthy of the Fourth Commandment’s honor.


But above all, I pray that when my eulogy is spoken, the speaker will say that I was a Catholic, and perhaps on a bit more evidence than “The Anchoress” had when she labeled me, that I was a faithful Catholic. What else matters?


(Finally here, a word of thanks to my fellow parishioner at St. Mary Star of the Sea, Adam DesRosiers. A fine young artist and photographer, he took several of the images I’ve used in posts, including this lovely detail from one of our Stations of the Cross. Please come see our church in Beverly, Massachusetts, some day. It is truly beautiful, as captured in Adam’s beautiful images.)

Because Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Catholic

A Jesuit priest, Hopkins was virtually anonymous as a poet in his life. He gave up writing poetry when he entered the Society of Jesus, but a superior urged him to write a poem in honor of five nuns killed in a shipwreck. The result was his dense epic “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” Still he earned no fame as a poet, though he continued to write, AMDG, and a friend published the first volume of his poetry after Hopkins’s death.

I go for simpler fare. This sonnet is a favorite of mine. To me, it’s about the constant renewal of the world, the Church, and our faith:

“God’s Grandeur”

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost o’er the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Because of Daily Mass

Like an ice hockey game, my spiritual life has had three periods.

From birth to fifteen, I attended church with my parents—first a Congregational parish that I remember mostly as Sunday school; then an Episcopal one, where I was confirmed and served three years as a conscientious acolyte. Then I went to boarding school and fell away from Christian worship.

From fifteen to fifty-six, two years ago, I was adrift with some dear friends in a life raft. At boarding school and college, I was enticed by the variety of Eastern spiritual goodies on offer in the late 1960s. Eventually, I was introduced to an approach that was congenial to me. No details here. It is enough to say, without selling this approach short (I repeat, it was my life raft), that in the particular milieu in which I encountered it (and with the particular dear friends), my practice boiled down to efforts of mindfulness, directed inward toward myself and outward toward others. This practice gave me an internal stability and a limited self-awareness for which I am grateful, and it helped smooth my path to the Catholic Church. Still, it was what I would characterize as Christianity without Christ—one of many cousins, maybe even a great uncle, in the broad twentieth-century family of humanistic self-improvement disciplines that promise, You can do it yourself. The psychologist Abraham Maslow used the term self-actualization. Think of the promise here: You can actualize yourself. You can make yourself real! It is a wonderful term—if you live in a world without a Creator, where the only means to grace is tugging on your own bootstraps. After forty years of huffing and puffing, I have realized that I am not that strong. I never achieved lift-off.

Then the horn sounded for the third period and I became a Catholic. (The thrilling mix of metaphors in this post would put a diabolical smile on the face of my eleventh-grade English teacher, Henry Ploegstra. Let’s see, you’re wearing boots, and your life raft is adrift in the middle of an ice hockey rink, which must have melted during the second period . . . heh, heh, heh . . . C-minus!)



I became a Catholic the day I began attending mass every morning at seven. While I was not formally received into the Church until six months later—and while I know that many devout Catholics do not or cannot attend daily mass—it is daily mass that explains as well as anything why I am and remain a Catholic. It is in the daily repetitive experience of the liturgy—reinforced by readings in The Liturgy of the Hours and daily visits to our Adoration Chapel—that Catholicism has become the pervasive influence in my life. Not that I never forget. I always forget. Aren’t I a man? But the liturgy calls me back again. And again. And again.



This week, I am on vacation in Maine. The nearest Catholic Church is thirty minutes away, and while I would be happy to schlep into Ellsworth every morning, I’m just as happy spending the time with “Queen Kathleen,” my bride of twenty-five years. This week we are effectively celebrating our silver anniversary.



But I still miss mass. I miss my parish and my pastor. What exactly do I miss?



I miss the quiet that comes over the church as sixty, seventy, eighty of us gather each morning and wait for the Introit. (I have been in parishes where a constant chatter before mass clutters the atmosphere, but thankfully, St. Mary Star of the Sea in Beverly, Massachusetts, is not one of these. Father Barnes wouldn’t stand for it.) I miss seeing how still everyone else is: kneel, sit, read, contemplate—hardly a head moves after we’re all seated. I miss the calm that comes over me, and I miss waiting for Flo Marchegiani to stand as the mass begins. (Flo is seated across the church from me and has a clear view into the sacristy. She is the first to see the lector and Eucharistic minister enter ahead of the celebrant, and she obviously relishes being first to stand. Keeping a bead on her with my peripheral vision, I relish being second.)



I miss observing feasts and memorials. Being away this week, I am missing only one memorial in the Proper of Saints—Gregory the Great, pope and doctor. I was home at the end of last week for memorials to St. Monica, St. Augustine, and the beheading of John the Baptist, and by Tuesday, September 8, I’ll be home again, for the Birth of Mary. I miss the daily scriptural readings as they unfold within the liturgical year, and I particularly miss the homilies of Father Barnes, who is always teaching.



I miss the reenactment of the Last Supper. I miss the Lord’s Prayer. I miss the sign of peace, with all the little rituals we morning regulars have developed for greeting each other. (Flo and I save each other for last, with shy little waves across the aisle.) I dearly miss the Eucharist.



I miss the final blessing, and I miss waiting respectfully on my feet until Father Barnes has disappeared again into the sacristy. As much as anything, I miss the deep sense of peace and joy that has infused me by the moment I kneel one last time toward the tabernacle and walk back down the aisle. Usually there are friends gathered outside the church, greeting each other—the Pietrini brothers, John, Frank, and Tony; Tom Finn and one or more of the lonely unfortunates he seems to keep an eye out for; Ellen and, when she can make it, Carol; Frank Gaudenzi, with his trademark fist pump and motto, “Go easy!”; Carrie and Frank Kwiatkowski; and of course my big brother, Ferde Rombola, than whom I have no greater friend in the church. I miss you all very much.



There will be no fourth period in my spiritual life. I’m home now, or will be on Monday. Still, there could be an overtime, and if so, I’m looking forward to it. I’ve heard it’s glorious, and lasts forever.

Because We Live in a Dark, Dark Time

 Why did we all think we were so smart?

The 20th century brought mankind no closer to the truth, no nearer to happiness than it was at the end of the 19th. Arguably, things got worse.

There were countless medical advances, including “miracle” antibiotics, yet we ended the century beset by the worst contagion since the Black Death. It’s called AIDS, and while it may be under relative control in the affluent USA, it is decimating Africa. The United Nations and others made well-intentioned efforts, yet we had more wars and killed more people with “smarter” weapons than in any previous century in history. Psychoanalysis spawned an almost limitless movement of “self-help,” but there’s more mental illness in America today than a century ago.

As psychologist James Hillman has it in a disturbing book title, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse. More hypotheses were explored by more scientists in the 20th century than in all the previous centuries combined. More trees were destroyed to print more circular arguments. More children were murdered before they had a chance to be born.

How can we possibly believe in progress? How can we be so smugly self-satisfied?

Darwin, Marx, and Freud stood at the head of the century offering new visions, dangling new utopias. But science, sociology, and psychology have led us nowhere new. We’re the same fallen bunch, killing each other, destroying our planet, and justifying it all with the tools of self-hypnosis provided by the media, the internet, and our own suggestibility.

It makes a man proud to be a Catholic.

The Catholic Church teaches that the truth is not arrived at by dialectical reasoning. (What happened to Marxism anyway?) Neither is truth arrived at by scientific experimentation (unless truth includes the atom bomb, cloning of humans, and the potential to create viruses that could wipe out mankind).

Truth comes by way of Revelation, and we have had that Truth for 2000 years now. God gave us his final Word on the subject in the Roman province called Palestine during and through the life of a Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth. As St. John of the Cross wrote, God has nothing more to say.

I have chosen to illustrate this post with Jules Bastien-Lepage’s painting of Joan of Arc because (a) I love it and (b) it is an image of small-R revelation. Joan is listening to an angel (he’s hovering in the tree behind her) and the angel is telling her to get on a horse and get across France. History, and the detailed transcript of the trial that led to Joan’s martyrdom, tells us what happened after that.

There’s another reason for this image: God may have had nothing more to say after the Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord, but he keeps sending us little reminders, by the agency of the Holy Spirit. Every time things look dark, he sends us a saint or two. At the end of the Middle Ages, when the Church was mired in corruption and error, along came Dominic, Thomas Aquinas, Francis, Clare, and others. When the Protestant Reformation threatened to scuttle 1500 years of Catholic culture, along came a whole army of saints, including Charles Borromeo, Teresa of Avila, and her student, the aforesaid John of the Cross.

Cut to the present day. When the Archdiocese of Boston looked like it might collapse in disgrace, along came Cardinal Sean O’Malley; along came young pastors like Fr. David Barnes and Fr. Dan Hennessey; along came a new generation of committed young men swelling enrollment at St. John’s seminary. There is a palpable vitality in Catholic Boston today, and in parishes like ours in Beverly. Eucharistic Adoration has gone perpetual in Boston for the first time in forty years; our Adoration chapel in Beverly is attended sixty hours a week.

Explain that with dialectical reasoning or scientific hypotheses. We Catholics have a different explanation. We call it the Holy Spirit.

Because I Have Daughters

A child of the 1960s, an aging peacenik, I imagine that I smell suspiciously liberal to some of my more conservative Catholic friends (and most of my Catholic friends are decidedly conservative, hewing closely to Church teachings on social issues). Confronted with their adamant views and with the Church’s unequivocal teaching on abortion, on women in the priesthood, and on other related issues, I have known for a while that the time would come when I would have to come clean with my thoughts on these issues. I started this blog. My foot is in it up to the eyeballs now. As St. Jimi of Hendrix famously said, Time has come today.

I am the father of two beautiful, bright, independent-minded young women. Both are intrigued with my conversion experience. I’m sure that they wonder what I think about these and other issues. For myself, being their proud father makes these issues realer than real. If something is right or wrong for the women most precious to me on earth, and that includes my wife Katie, then how could it be otherwise for the woman farthest from me on earth?

St. Thomas More was a father of daughters, including reputedly the smartest Englishwoman of her generation, Margaret More Roper. I’m sure his relationship with Margaret and his other daughters conditioned his attitudes. I revere his memory and ask myself where he would stand today on abortion, on women in the priesthood. I know where he would stand: with the Church.

I think of St. Francis of Assisi, who had no children, and ask myself where he would stand, and I have a different answer: Francis would stand in the middle of the road kissing a leper. If Francis had any response to abortion, it would be prayer and prayer alone. I don’t think politics factored at all into his spiritual life. Obedience, yes, not politics. Francis renewed the entire Church at a time of crisis, while More was “merely” a martyr in a crisis involving a tyrant with a highly developed sexual appetite.

I will come back to Thomas and Francis, but first a sidebar and then the firing line.

Sidebar: I did not become a Catholic to wrangle ideologically with people to the left and right of me, and I do not write here from an ideological position. I write, as God gives me the strength and wisdom, from the heart. I became a Catholic to get closer to God and to serve my neighbor better in the years that are left to me. Endless political wrangling is a zero-sum game, because if there is one thing you can be sure of, it is that you will always find someone to the right and left of you. I have an uncle who is to the right of Attila the Hun, but there’s always Saruman, there’s always Joba the Hutt.

I have always been against abortion. Katie knows this about me and I trust my daughters do too. Since the time Katie became pregnant with our first child, Martha (photo, right), there has never been a doubt in my mind about the issue. Katie and I did not take prenatal tests to determine whether Martha was healthy. We did not know her sex in advance. We were prepared to embrace her, or him, whether she or he had ten fingers or none. God is great. Martha has not only ten fingers but also a Phi Beta Kappa key from the University of Chicago.

When Marian was five days old, my mother, visiting, walked through the nursery and saw that the baby was not breathing. EMTs and ambulances were summoned, and ten frenetic minutes later we were in the emergency room waiting for word. And the word was good. Despite any oxygen-deprivation that may have occurred, there is nothing wrong with that brain: Marian was designated a Carolina Scholar by UNC Chapel Hill, earning a full ride on her merits, and will graduate next spring with a degree from the Kenan Flagler School of Business. I am privately hopeful that she will support me in my old age.

How could I have ever considered abortion? For financial advantage? For convenience? And if Martha or Marian becomes pregnant? I have already told them what I want them to know about this: If you have any doubt about keeping the child, give the child to me and your mother. We’ll raise your child. We’ll raise our grandchild. I know they know where I stand on this one.

Choice? Let’s talk about choice, and here some Catholic ideology may slip in, though my heart continues to speak first. When you talk about choice, you are talking about choosing not the meaning of motherhood, not the extent of women’s rights. You are choosing where you stand on a far bigger issue, in some ways the biggest. Choose: Either we are created by God or we are the result of an accidental collision of chemicals, a genetic biproduct “cultured” inside a woman, as in a test tube. That makes the woman a test tube and all of us, the woman included, dispensable. Scrape out that culture, dump the chemicals, and you have cut our link to God. Cut God out of the picture and it’s only a matter of time until the Apocalypse. Believe me, it won’t be pretty.

Women in the priesthood? That’s an easy one for me. Neither of my daughters wants to be a priest. If they did, they could be ordained in a Protestant denomination. But seriously: What are the Protestants doing now, ordaining women? Playing catch-up after 500 years? Look at the role of, the reverence accorded women in the Catholic Church: Mary, Agatha, Teresa, Catherine, Therese, Elizabeth, Theresa (lots of Theresas) . . . How many hundreds of Catholic women through the ages have been acknowledged as spiritual leaders by their Church? How many Episcopalian women have been acknowledged as spiritual leaders by theirs? Oh, some women who happen to have been Episcopalian are remembered for their contributions to society, but within the church? The line of authority is unequivocally patriarchal. So now you’re going to ordain women? Please. That’s called caving.

Pope Benedict, “my pope,” has a pretty good answer on this whole question of women and the priesthood. He said, “The Twelve with whom the Last Supper was celebrated were in fact men. Yet if we understand correctly the role of service in the Church, then we will also get the emphasis right. And the answer is that Mary is higher than Peter.” The point is that the Church is not about worldly power, or shouldn’t be, and believe me, my pope realizes this. The Church is not or shouldn’t be about politics. It’s about service. It’s about devotion to and service in the name of our creator. It’s about God.

Thomas More was a politician, until he saw that politics would get him nowhere but the chopping block, whereupon he went publicly silent and privately prayerful. Francis was never a politician. In these two saints, I see two possible responses to the abortion issue, and I think I see the analog of two present-day positions: that of the Vatican and of certain American Catholic bishops who vehemently oppose abortion to the point of denying communion to politicians who support it. It was curious to see how quiet the Vatican was while certain bishops were railing against the University of Notre Dame for allowing Obama to speak at commencement last spring. And how kindly my pope welcomed our president a few weeks later.

I go back to Thomas More. In the movie “A Man for All Seasons,” my favorite all-time, hands down, there is an early scene between More, played by Paul Scofield, and Cardinal Wolsey, played by Orson Welles. Exasperated that More refuses to meddle in the politics of winning a divorce for Henry VIII, the cardinal sputters, “God, you would like to rule the kingdom with prayers, wouldn’t you?” More answers, “Yes, I should.”

Like More, I should like to win the abortion issue with prayers, because I think prayers work, while I question the value of the endless wrangling from the right and left that has been going on in the thirty-five years since Roe v. Wade, through administrations Democratic and Republican. Did abortions decrease at all during the eight years of Bush 43? I don’t think so.

Let’s all pray for an end to abortion. Meanwhile, oh, dear, conservative Catholic friends so close to my heart, I am deeply proud to be a Catholic and as comfortable as an old shoe with the Church’s position on these social issues.

Because of Cesareo

I imagine that all of us have angels in our lives. We may not see them, but I imagine it’s hard to escape their influence.

Not all angels are dressed in shimmering white. Not all of them have wings. Some are bossy (the archangels), some whisper and flutter. Some fight (Michael). Some fall (Lucifer). The whole business of angels is complicated. One of the most significant angels in my life is Cesareo Pelaez, 76 today and battling the consequences of a stroke but 37 and a regular hurricane when I first met him in 1970. (That’s Cesareo on the right in front, with my brother David, wife Katie, and daughter Marian.)



Cesareo Pelaez landed in my life when I was nineteen, during my own fall from A student at premier boarding school to C student at premier liberal-arts college. But hey, it was 1969. My wheels were spinning, even though I knew that what I wanted and needed most was spiritual direction in my life. Cesareo provided that, directly and indirectly. It’s the indirect part that led to my becoming a Catholic nearly forty years later.

For reasons too complex to entertain here (the direct part), I took several long trips in Western Europe with Cesareo. I was five years removed from dedicated service as an altar boy at my family’s Episcopal Church and, except for Christmas and Easter, and “chapel” events at the aforesaid boarding school, I had not attended church in those five years.

In Europe with Cesareo, I did not so much attend church as explore The Church, the church of his devout youth, the Roman Catholic Church. This was not on the program initially; remember, this is the indirect part. But in every city and town, it seems now in memory, Cesareo’s Catholicism, brewed up in the hothouse of Cuba in the 1930s and 1940s, bubbled to the fore, and I, the nineteen-year-old non-Catholic, learned about Catholic culture.

After a while, it was quite common for us to take in Mass at Notre Dame or Montserrat or St. Peter’s or San Damiano; it was par for the course if we stopped into a Catholic bookstore and browsed for an hour; and a day at the Prado was spent mostly in front of saints and Madonnas. We visited Lourdes three times and walked in the candlelight processions of thousands, chanting the Rosary simultaneously in three or four languages—although that does sound impossible, doesn’t it? Memory is a funny thing. We visited Assisi and gawked at the intact body of St. Clare, 800 years old but seemingly fresh and firm as a daisy. Cesareo knew the precise location of the obvious icons (the Pieta in the first chapel to the right inside St. Peter’s) and the less obvious (the Moses at San Pietro in Vincoli). We saw them all.

Thirty-five years passed. Cesareo and I worked as business partners, usually harmoniously. Each of us started our own businesses—he a world-famous magic show, me a couple of far less celebrated publishing ventures. The businesses continue to exist within a block of each other on the main street of our town. Our homes are a mile apart, also on the same street. Cesareo is my friend, my former mentor, but first and foremost one of my archangels.

I suspect that all of us who have converted to the Catholic Church can point to some Cesareos—angels who came fluttering or flying or storming into our lives, bearing, maybe in spite of themselves, the Good News.

I would not be a Catholic today without Cesareo, and for that I will be forever in his debt.

What are the names and stories of your angels?


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