WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 14, 2004 (Zenit.org).- A myriad of places and people have shaped George Weigel’s understanding of the Church, and he hopes to give direction to young Catholics by telling what he’s learned along the way.
Papal biographer Weigel shared with ZENIT the impetus behind his new book, “Letters to a Young Catholic” (Perseus): to suggest to young readers that there is an entire Catholic “world” to be discovered — and that discovering it is a way to deepen one’s spiritual life and understanding of the faith.
Weigel is a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the John M. Olin Chair in Religion and American Democracy.
Q: What inspired you to write this book specifically for young Catholics?
Weigel: It was less inspiration than the suggestion of Elizabeth Maguire, publisher of Basic Books. Basic has an ongoing “Letters” series — “Letters” to young doctors, lawyers and so forth — and Liz asked me to try “Letters to a Young Catholic.”
When I hit on the literary device of a “tour” of the Catholic world, or at least those parts of the Catholic world that had shaped my own understanding of the Church, the whole thing fell into place. I love working with students and this was a way to extend that work to a wider audience.
Q: You dedicated the book to the past participants of the Tertio Millennio Seminar, a program you direct in Krakow every July. How have the young people who have participated in this program shaped your outlook on the problems and promise facing the Church today?
Weigel: They’ve given me an enormous amount of hope. We’ve had about 450 young Catholics from North America and the new democracies of east central Europe come through the program these past 12 years. Their determination to lead fully Catholic lives, and to reshape their societies in the process, is inspiring.
Q: What are the strengths and gifts of this “rising generation” in the Church? How can they contribute to a bright future for the Church in the world?
Weigel: The best thing this generation has going for it is its dates-of-birth — which is to say, this is a generation that wasn’t stewed in the juices of the ’60s.
A lot of the students I meet today are refreshingly open to an encounter with the fullness of Catholic truth. That openness is a blessing, and I think it’s generational.
On the other hand, very few younger Catholics today have much experience of Catholic culture. “Letters” is an invitation to explore some of the great “places” of Catholic culture, en route to deepening one’s understanding of Catholic truth.
Q: “Letters to a Young Catholic” focuses less on the notion of Catholicism as a creed, but instead as an “optic,” or a way of looking at the world. Can you describe what it means to have a distinctively Catholic optic? Should every Catholic’s be the same?
Weigel: You can describe that distinctive Catholic optic in several ways. The title of Flannery O’Connor’s collected letters, “The Habit of Being,” is one way — life isn’t just one thing after another; our lives are “playing” within the cosmic drama of creation and redemption and sanctification.
Or you can call this Catholic optic the “sacramental imagination.” It’s a way of seeing the things of this world as the materials through which the really real world — which is the world of transcendent Truth and Love — is manifest to us.
You can call it the Catholic “both/and.” Catholicism is Jerusalem and Athens, nature and grace, contemplation and action, institutional and charismatic, and so forth.
Every Catholic will “see” things through this Catholic optic a little differently, but the basic sensibility — “the world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it — will remain the same.
Q: In your book you note some of the people and places that have helped form your own experience of Catholicism. Besides John Paul II’s impact on your life and thought, can you share a few of these experiences of grace with us?
Weigel: The “tour” in “Letters” is an extensive one: the intact Catholic culture of the Baltimore in which I grew up in the late ’50s and early ’60s; the “scavi” beneath St. Peter’s in Rome and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; Chesterton’s favorite pub and Cardinal Newman’s rooms in the Birmingham Oratory; a modern martyr’s grave in Warsaw and a vibrant parish in Greenville, South Carolina; Chartres and Flannery O’Connor’s farm.
Each of these special places helps us “feel” or experience certain truths of Catholic faith in a particularly intense way. That’s why we visit them in “Letters” — so that my readers can get the “feel” of them and so that I can share what I learned in these places.
Q: “Letters to a Young Catholic” is a powerful example of sharing the glories of the Church — and its vision of Christian humanism — through authentic products of Christian culture such as architecture, painting and music. How can Catholics better use these great resources of culture as tools of evangelization?
Weigel: There’s been an awful lot of dumbing-down of Catholic culture — architecture, music and the plastic arts — over the past 30 years. The fact that a lot of Catholics are discovering icons as a way to pray and a way to “mark” their homes or offices tells us that the Catholic taste for the beautiful has not been lost, though.
In the book, I suggest that Chartres is the most remarkable building in the world and the Sistine Chapel is the world’s most remarkable room. But you don’t have to go to Europe to find architectural, decorative and musical beauty in the service of worship and catechesis; you can go to St. Mary’s Parish in Greenville, one of my tour stops.
Catholics in the United States tend to be a little insular. I hope these “Letters” suggest to eager young Catholics that there’s an entire Catholic world to be discovered out there and that discovering it is a way of deepening one’s spiritual life and one’s understanding of the Faith.
Putting the World Youth Day in Cologne on your schedule now is a good idea — then go and discover other parts of the Catholic world. You can take a lifetime doing that, and it’ll be time very well spent.