What does it mean to be Catholic? That’s a critical question at a time when Church leaders don’t always have a compelling answer.
To be Catholic, of course, is primarily tied to mysteries that can’t be touched (Thomas notwithstanding). But Catholic roots, smells and bells, and years of tradition and culture are, indeed, tangible, even if the Trinity isn’t (save for a shamrock helper).
George Weigel, in his recently released Letters to a Young Catholic takes a vivid tour of that which is Catholic. As the author puts it, “while Catholicism is a body of beliefs and a way of life, Catholicism is also an optic, a way of seeing things, a distinctive perception of reality.“
In some ways the title of the book is deceiving: At a comfortable size, and well organized, the book–while especially useful for young Catholics whose formative years may have lacked the all-encompassing richness of Catholic culture that Latin-praying/Baltimore Catechism-taught students of yesteryear (many of our parents) were seeped in–is a tour any Catholic or inquirer will enjoy journeying with.
You literally do tour, in words, some of Christianity’s historic sites, both parochial and more traditional–including (speaking of Baltimore) Weigel’s Baltimore childhood in the late 1950s and early ’60s to St. Peter’s in Rome.
Weigel–whose 2002 the Courage to be Catholic is a must-read modern classic (there is also his mammoth and authoritative papal biography)–accomplishes in Letters to a Young Catholic the important task of reminding readers, or perhaps introducing to some the idea, that Catholicism is a way of life, and that it changes life with its “distinctive optic.” Weigel puts it this way:
Catholicism is the antidote to nihilism. And by “nihilism,” I mean, not the sour, dark, often violent nihilism of Nietzsche and Sartre, but what my friend, the late Father Ernest Fortin (who borrowed the term from his friend, [Allan] Bloom), used to call ‘debonair nihilism’: the nihilism that enjoys itself on the way to oblivion, convinced that all of this–the world, us, relationships, sex, beauty, history–is really just a cosmic joke. Against the nihilist claim that nothing is really of consequence, Catholicism insists that everything is of consequence, because everything has been redeemed by Christ.
And if you believe that, it changes the way you see things. It changes the way everything looks.
From providing a relatively casual guide on how to worship (anywhere) to recommending the best restaurants when pilgrimaging (on the Via Appia Antica in Rome, visit the church but “the Quo Vadis Restaurant is a tourist trap”), Weigel shows many facets of the Catholic world.
Weigel reminds Catholics in all walks of life of their obligations to freedom, justice, and beauty. In Letters, Weigel has only a limited amount of space to cover a remarkable amount of ground. But even on the toughest of topics–life and death, and suffering–he manages to quickly hit important notes, quoting Scripture and giving the reader something to work with, plus tying these deep issues into the hottest and most crucial public-policy and morality debates of our day.
George Weigel wants the reader to “see, hear, touch, feel, and taste that, in the Catholic view of things, we meet God through visible, tangible, audible things–including the Church itself and the sacraments the Church makes available to us.” The effect of Weigel’s book is to remind–a young person, or a Catholic who feels a little overwhelmed by current headlines involving the Church, or a non-Catholic considering conversion–that the Catholic Church is much more than the parish I might be attending right now. It’s a Church with a deep and rich history and culture–and, of course, teachings and gifts of faith. And it’s one you can clearly see Weigel loves, even with all of its real (sometimes grave) human flaws and quirks–as so many of us do. Knowing G. K. Chesterton’s favorite pub won’t alone engender such love (though depending on the time of day, it sure might help), for sure, but the sum total of this book is to convey a cross-section of all that is Catholic, helping anyone who reads it become a fuller Catholic–and a decent amateur tour guide. Another book might aid a richer spiritual renewal or pass along more strings of old-time Catholic stories, but this one is one-shop stopping, doing a manageable–and enjoyable–amount of both, which is no small feat or favor. I expect Letters will be a long-time Catholic-culture classic.