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Dive into intellectual depth of Catholic tradition

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As I write this, I am currently attending the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors convention in Dallas. It is a week of formation, learning, friendship and sharing of stories regarding how the work of vocations is going across the country.

The good news: priestly vocations across the country continue to rise. Seminaries are reporting full enrollment. Dioceses are reporting larger numbers of seminarians than they have over the last 30 years. The men presenting themselves for the priesthood continue to be of a high quality of personal, spiritual, pastoral and academic gifts, and they are ready to lay it all down in service of the Gospel and the church. It is an exciting time to be a vocation director!

But there is also a sense of the fact that there is much work to continue to be done, and it was highlighted in such a drastic way in our opening keynote address. Father Robert Barron, rector of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary, was remarking on when his niece was a senior in high school, and he happened to see the books that she had to read in preparation for her final year of high school: Shakespeare’s Hamlet; Dante’s Divine Comedy, in Latin; and a high level physics textbook (she was obviously a pretty bright young lady). Then he noticed her religion textbook. He was aghast to see it was covered with cartoonish pictures, bright colors, big print, etc. It was a comic book!

His conclusion: we have succeeded in dumbing down our religion to a comic book. No wonder so many of our teens and young adults succumb to the trappings of the “New Atheists” who dominate the online chat world. They attack our tradition with pithy sayings they have learned from so called “new thinkers,” when really it is simply a rehash of the same old things we have been facing since the beginning.

Rather, what we must continue to realize is the richness and depth of our Catholic tradition and help not only our young people to explore that richness, but every single Catholic to dive deeper into the depth and beauty of our heritage. As Father Barron remarked in his keynote: we have the longest and richest intellectual tradition operative in the west, why are we so ashamed of it?

How do we attack this program, then? First, by beauty. Beauty can engage the heart in ways that a triumphal attitude of truth cannot. The Lord of the Rings is a beautifully Catholic vision of the cosmic struggle between good and evil. To walk into a great Cathedral is lose your breath in majesty. A Mass, well celebrated with all its richness, engages every sense of the human person. All of these can draw the heart closer to God and lead the mind to desire more.

And more there is! There is great Catholic literary tradition that is just waiting to be explored: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh; The Confessions of St. Augustine; the writings of Flannery O’Connor; in addition to the aforementioned The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. All are imaginatively Catholic in their beauty and scope.

In a more contemporary theological approach, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s great trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth is approachable and manageable by the average Catholic reader, and is a wonderful insight into the mind of a great Catholic intellectual who has wrestled with these thoughts and ideas over nearly sixty years of priestly ministry.

More than anything, this approach keeps Jesus Christ from being merely a figure in history. He is so much more than that; He is Savior and the great protagonist in the story of our salvation. What a beautiful and passionate tradition do we find ourselves when we are immersed in the depth of His mystery lived out over the last 2,000 years.


Father Schnippel is the archdiocesan vocation director.

This column originally appeared in the October 2013 edition of The Catholic Telegraph

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