The “Golden Summer” of Patrick Madrid

In his brand-new book Why Be Catholic? Ten Answers to a Very Important Question, well-known Catholic author Patrick Madrid gives a comprehensive overview of what he does best: teaching, explaining, and defending the Catholic faith.  Ahead of his visit here to Washington this Saturday, June 21st, where he will be signing copies of his new book at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, I had a chance to read his latest release.  A combination of solid, readable apologetics, and personal examples of how faith and real-life events often interact, this superb overview of the Catholic faith and the challenges it has faced and will continue to face is a genuine pleasure to read.

If you ever wished that you could have Madrid, one of the most competent, well-spoken, and clear voices speaking on behalf of the Church, available to you 24-7, or you’ve always wanted to get an overview from a well-informed source about why we practitioners of popery believe what we do, you will find much to learn from and savor here.  Yet as rich as the book is in explaining the underpinnings of Catholic teaching, from the Sacraments to the Papacy to the Communion of Saints, what I personally enjoyed most was the thread that ties the combination of narrative and apologetics together, a time the author refers to as his “golden summer”.  By this, Madrid doesn’t mean an idyllic, hedonistic moment in the sun.  Rather, he’s referring to a period that one can look back on and say, “Here’s where it all started coming together.”

Chances are, you’ve had one of these “golden summers” as well, perhaps not even in the summertime.  It’s a stretch when some interest strongly asserts itself, or an endeavour comes to fruition, when everything seems to be clicking.  Sometimes it can even be a period of personal growth through the intervention of a crisis or challenge, when you realize that you are capable of doing a great deal more than you would have believed at the start.

In Patrick Madrid’s case, the “golden summer” in question was the summer of 1977, when he spent a considerable amount of time over at the home of his then-girlfriend.  The 17-year-old Madrid had grown up in a devoutly Catholic home, but was still in that nebulous period between childhood and adulthood in the faith, where the cradle Catholic can go either way.  Through his interactions with people of other faiths, or indeed no faith at all, he was beginning to realize that he did not have answers to those who challenged the basis for his belief in Catholicism.

Enter his girlfriend’s father, armed with notoriously anti-Catholic comic books known as “Chick Tracts”.  He liked to take Madrid aside into his study, when the young man came over to hang out at their swimming pool, and challenge his beliefs about Catholicism.  At first, Madrid was overwhelmed, because although he sensed that his girlfriend’s father was wrong, he didn’t know how to respond to the man’s claims.

At the same time however, Madrid realized that he had a wealth of research and reading material available to him at home, thanks to his parents’ library of Catholic books.  Over the course of that golden summer, Madrid would grow into a better understanding of his faith through research, interactions, and debates with his girlfriend’s father.  In the process, without even realizing it, he was laying the foundations for what would become a career as a prominent Catholic apologist, writer, speaker, and broadcaster.

There are many other areas of the book I could point to as being worthy of your attention, but two other aspects of it particularly struck me.  The first is how it begins: whether you’re a Catholic or not, you’re going to be blown away by the first chapter.  Madrid takes no prisoners in pointing out that the Catholic Church has done a lot of very, very sinful and stupid things, including the still-festering sores of the clergy sex abuse scandal, and how the clergy and bishops have failed us.  Yet he also excoriates a society which has fallen so far into celebrating, rather than shunning, the seven deadly sins, that we are reverting to the kind of selfish, me-first pit of paganism which it took centuries for Western civilization to crawl out of.

Second, Madrid peppers his chapters with fascinating stories of truly remarkable experiences from his own life, which for him illustrate how God moves in mysterious ways.  From narrowly missing being a passenger on a jet destroyed in a mid-air collision, to how he unexpectedly brought a fallen-away Catholic back into the fold after he thought he blew it, Madrid is constantly reminded of the fact that God has something for him to do, and he needs to move as he is directed.  More of us, myself included, need to remember to keep that in mind when we’re not entirely sure of what we’re doing or where we’re going.

Whether you are interested in Catholic apologetics and spirituality, or simply enjoy clear, authoritative writing, Madrid’s book is an excellent addition to your summer reading list, and one I suspect readers will return to again and again, as a resource for explaining Catholicism to others.

Why Be Catholic Patrick Madrid

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Kindred Spirits: St. Catherine of Siena and Sigrid Undset

Today is the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena: mystic, stigmatic and Doctor of the Church. The writings of St. Catherine (1347-1380) have inspired many people down the centuries, but among the most interesting examples from comparatively recent times is the Norwegian Nobel Laureate, Sigrid Undset (1882-1949). I will spare the reader any vain and pitiful attempt on my part to analyze the sometimes above-my-head ideas related by St. Catherine. Instead, I draw attention to the work of Undset, whose admiration of this remarkable 14th century saint led to a wonderful, accessible reflection on St. Catherine and her writings.

Sigrid Undset was one of Norway’s most important modern writers. In recognition of her talents, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 – back when one actually had to be able to write, bring about peace, etc. to merit the award. Her trilogy “Kristin Lavransdatter”, set in 12th century Norway, ought to be required reading for all Catholics. Herself a convert to Catholicism, the 20th century Norwegian writer, Undset, found much in common with the 14th century Italian writer, St. Catherine.

Both women were Third-Order Dominicans, and lived in times when the Church appeared to be in danger of disintegrating. Indeed, Undset’s conversion from secular atheist to fervent Catholic was considered a tremendous scandal both among the Low-Church Lutherans and the no-Church intellectuals of her countrymen. Yet like St. Catherine fighting against a tide of materialism in her own day, Undset encouraged the faithful to fight back again the secularization of Western society.

Undset’s magnificent spiritual biography of the saint, “Catherine of Siena”, was published posthumously in 1951. It is a fitting introduction or companion for those interested in learning more about St. Catherine, written in a thoughtful and sensitive style that is typical of the author’s other works. The fact that Undset was so interested in the Middle Ages, not just in her own country but in the idea of Christian Europe, allowed her to build a bridge for us between our own day and a world which may at times seem very foreign to our experience.

Like many of us, Undset recognized the fact that the writings of this great Italian mystic are not always easily accessible for the modern reader. Apart from most likely not having had any mystical experiences, the modern reader most certainly did not have the benefit of growing up in the more deeply spiritual world of Medieval Europe. Yet she saw that, as in St. Catherine’s day, man’s perennial tendency to either ignore God completely or remake Him in our own image leads to evil results.

In “Catherine of Siena” Undset opined that the problems of the modern age grew out of a denial of man’s being made in the image and likeness of God, and all that entails. In order to justify his own bad behavior in violation of the natural law and the teachings of Christ and His Church, man can convince himself that sin is, in effect, virtue. If we have “ceaselessly stained and crippled the image of God in ourselves,” she writes, “we have succumbed to our desire for power and flattery, to our passions, hate and revenge, lust and ambition.”

In Undset’s view this paradoxical mindset leads to impotence, or destruction, or both. She notes that modern men are always planning utopian visions of the future, only to tear them down: man accomplishes something good, and almost immediately sets about destroying it. There is no sense of planning or preservation, all is caprice, shallowness, and pique. “We are afraid of change,” she writes, and yet simultaneously are “afraid of stagnation. We love old things and institutions, and will have something which is new and different.”

St. Catherine’s dogged perseverance, such as in trying to get the Papacy to return to Rome from Avignon, impressed Undsett tremendously: particularly because the saint seemed so often to be fighting a losing battle against the materialism of her times. Undset points out that the efforts made by St. Catherine to persuade others to take the right path were pursued with the full understanding of the saint herself that she might very well never see their fruits. In this, Undset says, St. Catherine drew closer to Christ:

She gave of herself until her physical life was used up; in a fight whose final results she was as sure of, as she was sure that she would not see many victories on the battlefield of this world. But in fact Our Lord has never made any promises regarding the triumph of Christianity on earth – on the contrary. If we expect to see His cause triumph here, His own words should warn us: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith upon the earth?” He did not tell us the answer.

Undset points out that even in the Middle Ages, when Christianity was in full flower all over Europe, there were still plenty of people who refused to follow Christ. She counseled that those who speak of “the bankruptcy of Christianity in our times” ought to keep this in mind, as well as Jesus’ own aforementioned speculation from St. Luke. God gives us no promises about the safety of the Church – other than that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

Living as do we, in an age of horrors which St. Catherine could not have imagined in her most intense mystical experiences, Undset championed the idea put forward by St. Catherine’s example that the single soul must stand up to be counted. Undset reminds us that, whatever the world may say, “every man is born individually, and must be saved individually.” This last point is an important one, for it gives us cause to not only hope but to continue to act in accordance with God’s Will for us, even if we feel we are all alone or there is seemingly little or no possibility of stemming the tide.

One of St. Catherine of Siena’s most famous counsels is: “Be what you are meant to be, and you will set the entire world alight!” Undset must have taken that counsel very seriously, for she “put herself out there”, as the saying goes. She may have lost the respect of some of her peers by rejecting secular materialism, but she gained the far greater blessing of Christianity in return. Let us hope that God, in His Mercy, has not only gathered her to Himself, but also that she and St. Catherine have become friends in heaven, given what extraordinary women each of them in her way was upon earth.

St. Catherine of Siena by Sano de Pietro (c. 1442)

Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht

Church Vandalism in Spain: Credit Where It’s Due

Who would have thought that, in the 21st century, one would be able to regularly blog about or even tweet regarding acts of church vandalism in Spain? From Madrid to Barcelona and beyond, it seems that every week there is a new story of uncivilized, sometimes politically motivated, acts of violence against the fabric of the Church. As appalling as these events are however, it is extremely important to stress that cooler heads must prevail when reporting on these events. Not every physical attack on a church building comes about as a result of political action.

Recently for example, I learnt of a new act of vandalism in the historically important city of Burgos, located in central Spain. Two 13th century statues on the main entrance portal of the church of San Esteban (i.e. St. Stephen) were decapitated sometime late on Holy Thursday or early in the morning of Good Friday by an unknown person or persons. San Esteban was built between the 13th and 14th centuries, and is considered by some architectural historians to be the most important example of Gothic church architecture in the city after the Cathedral of Santa Maria La Mayor. It was declared a National Monument of Spain in 1931, and at the present time it serves as the Altarpiece Museum for the Archdiocese of Burgos.

This morning Spanish authorities announced the capture and charging of an individual in connection with the case. The heads of the statues of St. Peter and St. Lawrence were recovered by the National Police from the individual, and these have been returned to the church for restoration. The defendant is a local man, who had been arrested and charged recently with antiquities theft in another matter, but was out on bond at the time of the San Esteban incident.

From the beginning the Archdiocese of Burgos has been very careful not to jump to the conclusion that this was an anticlerical act, and expressed its belief that this was probably an act of theft. Vandalism of ancient churches to feed the black market in looted antiquities is a problem throughout Europe, and Spain is no exception. When the incident was first reported, a spokesman for the Archdiocese noted the important detail that the heads were taken away, rather than left at the scene, as would normally be expected from leftist vandals. Nor was there any accompanying graffiti or other indications to suggest that the vandalism was a politically motivated act.

A similar, commendable restraint was shown by the Archdiocese of Barcelona and local authorities last week, when the sacristy of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia was torched by a mentally ill man. Neither the Archdiocese nor the police alleged that there was any connection between the individual and leftist anti-Catholic actions. By taking this cautionary approach in Burgos, Barcelona, and elsewhere, the Church is doing exactly what it needs to do, even if authorities are often powerless to prevent vandalism – politically motivated or not – against its property.

There is a trait in the Spanish character at all points along the socio-political spectrum to jump to conclusions about the cause or motivations behind an act, which at the moment the Church appears to be avoiding institutionally, unless there is undeniable proof of an anti-Catholic motivation. Perhaps the most famous example in recent years of the Spanish tendency to form an opinion with insufficient evidence occurred on March 11, 2004, when the Madrid subway system was bombed three days before national elections were scheduled. The conservative government and some elements of the media immediately blamed ETA, the Basque separatist group, which denied all involvement – and admittedly the charge against them seemed rather bizarre to outside observers at the time, including this writer, since attacks like these are not the usual m.o. for ETA.

Through subsequent investigation it quickly came to light that the Madrid subway attacks were carried out not by Basque separatists, but rather by Muslim terrorists. The public reaction against the conservatives for making ETA the scapegoat for 3/11, as the subway bombing has come to be known, was harsh and swift; the small lead which the conservatives had enjoyed as the election was drawing to a close completely evaporated. This catapulted Mr. Rodriguez Zapatero and the Spanish Socialist Party into office, where they remain at the present time.

There is without question a rising sentiment of anticlerical fervor in Spain, and this needs to be addressed both through engaging those who seek to harm the Church, and by insisting that civil authorities do their job to maintain law and order. However, the bishops, the media, and the laity need to act with restraint when assigning blame to acts of Church vandalism. Tarring with too a wide brush will only hurt the perception of the Church in the court of public opinion, creating a “boy who cried wolf” situation. And it is among the members of the law-abiding public, Catholic or not, where the real power to combat deliberate acts of anticlericalism resides.

The 13th century statues of St. Peter (L) and St. Lawrence (R)
on the entrance portal of San Esteban in Burgos, prior to last week’s vandalism