A pastor in full

George Weigel

Almost a quarter-century ago, Father Jay Scott Newman, back in Rome to finish a graduate degree after his priestly ordination in Charleston, took me on an extended ramble around the Eternal City: my first hike up the Aventine; my first visit to the crown jewel of paleo-Christian architecture, Santa Sabina; my first exploration of Santa Maria in Cosmedin – and, later in the evening, some essential instruction as to what you don’t put on a pasta dish featuring seafood (hint: a certain hard cheese). I had a grand time but little idea then of the impact Father Newman would have on my life and work in the future. Now, as he celebrates the silver jubilee of his priestly ordination, it’s time to do some of what our evangelical Protestant friends would call “witnessing.”

It was Father Newman to whom I turned in 1997, when I had to construct a comprehensive outline for what would become the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope; and it was Father Newman who graciously hosted me in his rectory in Hanahan, South Carolina, as I figured out, schematically, how I was going to ride the biographical tiger, rather than it riding me.

It’s Father Newman I’ve called on hundreds of occasions to share a joke, commiserate over some ecclesiastical folly or another, or just blow off steam; he’s always there, and he’s always helpful.

It was at Father Newman’s current parish, St. Mary’s in Greenville, South Carolina, that I launched Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church – which was entirely appropriate because the first part of the book is really his, as it draws on conversations we had had in his rectory, and on his experience of living the New Evangelization in what was once the thoroughly Protestant Bible Belt. America is blessed with many great parishes (a facet of our ecclesial life one wishes were better appreciated in Rome). I know of none better than St. Mary’s in Greenville, where the entire parish is, as Pope Francis urges, “permanently in mission,” empowered by biblically-rich preaching, nurtured by a beautiful and prayerful liturgy that embodies Vatican II’s liturgical reform at its finest, and led by a pastor who makes evangelization a priority.

It’s been my privilege to know many fine priests over some seven decades. They have taught me, inspired me, chastised me, and, I trust, sanctified me. And I count many exceptionally gifted priests as good friends today. None of them will mind, I hope, if I say on this anniversary that Father Newman has lived the priesthood of the New Evangelization in a singular way. The invitation to his anniversary celebrations was headlined, “Where Did Twenty-Five Years Go?” I have some ideas of where they went, and I’d like to share them.

They went into honing a first-rate mind. The current concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra once told me that, when he and Scott Newman were growing up in North Carolina, Scott “was the smartest kid in the state.” Over the past twenty-five years, those intellectual gifts have been used deepen a priestly understanding of the Paschal Mystery, which a young Scott Newman first experienced at Princeton during his early undergraduate years – an experience that would eventually take him far beyond the atheism he once thought appropriate to the intellectually serious.

A well-tuned intellect has, in turn, been refined by a priestly heart. Long before “accompaniment” became a Catholic buzzword, Father Newman demonstrated how to walk with the souls in his pastoral care, be they cadets at The Citadel, rural folk, or the educated and accomplished parishioners he’s formed into missionary disciples in Greenville. The confessional has played a large role in his pastoral life and his priestly maturation, and those he has taken under spiritual direction have much for which to be grateful.

And those 25 years have been spent in pondering and then implementing a grand strategy for the Church in America in the 21st century. Inspired by John Paul II’s Redemptoris Missio, Father Newman dubbed this program “Evangelical Catholicism” and then brought it to vibrant life in his parish. Pastors interested in seeing how the New Evangelization is done right, in challenging cultural circumstances, should spend a week at St. Mary’s Greenville.

Ecce sacerdos magnus qui in diebus suis placuit Deo. (Translation and appropriate musical settings available on request.) Ad multos annos!

COMING UP: The 2018 Summer Reading List

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The vacation season is an opportunity to escape TwitterWorld and do some serious reading. These books will help make your summer enjoyable, instructive, or both.

Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, by Todd S. Purdum (Henry Holt): From Showboat (1927) through The Man of La Mancha (1965), musical comedy was America’s most successful native art form, and at the center of that bountiful harvest of story and song were Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. This tale of their collaboration, replete with inside-Broadway stuff, is also laugh-out-loud funny at certain points. Throughout, and while acknowledging their human flaws, Purdum helps us get to know two creative geniuses who lifted the spirits of tens of millions through entertainment that didn’t appeal to derangement.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles (Viking): Count Alexander Rostov, sentenced by a post-revolutionary Soviet court to spend the rest of his life in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, is the central character in the most charming new novel I’ve read in years. Inside the Metropol, where he’s reduced to waiting on tables, the witty Count Rostov creates a humane world of friendship, fidelity, and appreciation for the finer things of life while communist goons demolish the old Russia outside the hotel’s doors. The politics are kept in the background, however, and Towles’s touch is both deft and light in depicting a man who refuses to betray the truths about human decency with which he grew up – no matter how politically incorrect they may be at the moment.

Alexander McCall Smith, perhaps best known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, is also the author of four hilarious sendups of German academic pretentiousness: Portuguese Irregular Verbs, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances, and Unusual Uses for Olive Oil (Anchor). The misadventures of the obtusely arrogant and inept Prof. Dr. Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld may remind some of certain personalities on today’s German Catholic scene; but I couldn’t possibly comment on that.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, by Franz Werfel (Verba Mundi): Before leaving on a flight to Australia in 2001, I asked the editor and critic Norman Podhoretz, “What are the great long novels you think I haven’t read?” He immediately named Werfel’s story of the Armenian genocide during World War I, which easily got me from Los Angeles to Sydney. The story is gripping, but above all, Musa Dagh is a fine study in character – especially the qualities required of leaders under grave circumstances. Which gives it a certain contemporaneity.

World War II at Sea: A Global History, by Craig L. Symonds (Oxford University Press), offers a panoramic view of the effect of sea power on history between 1939 and 1945. Symonds’s emphasis on the merchant marines of various powers, the fragility of maritime supply chains, and the American capacity to build the shipping that made possible the logistical support for U.S. armies fighting simultaneously in Europe and Asia, adds an often-overlooked dimension to the story. Enjoy it yourself; but consider it, too, as a gift for a millennial who thinks “Midway” is just the name of a Southwest Airlines hub in Chicago.

What Will Dr. Newman Do? John Henry Newman and Papal Infallibility, 1865-1875, by John R. Page (Liturgical Press): Drawing on a decade of Newman’s wide-ranging correspondence, Page paints a portrait of the Catholic intellectual as churchman: someone determined to remain faithful to the truth, who knew how to be constructively critical; someone who didn’t break into hives when his ecclesiastical opponents made serious mistakes; someone convinced of the capacity of history and the Holy Spirit to see the Church through stormy times. In brief, another tale for this ecclesiastical season.

American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith, edited by Daniel Okrent (Library of America): The prologue, a mini-memoir, is worth the price of the entire book, but while admiring Red Smith’s prose about everyone from Seabiscuit to Willie Mays, don’t miss Dan Okrent’s fine introduction and its crisp analysis of what makes for great writing, about sports or anything else.

And if you’ll permit, let me mention my own latest offerings: Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II (Basic Books) and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press). The former is, I hope, entertaining, the latter, I trust, instructive.