The greats make a come-back

Although my high school years coincided with the Age of Aquarius, I was spared the kind of reading lists that now imagine Dan (DaVinci Code) Brown to be a serious writer, or that ignore the great 20th century authors whose fiction reflects the Catholic sacramental imagination: Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Evelyn Waugh, to name just the all-stars. It’s virtually impossible to escape high school today without having to read Kurt Vonnegut’s vastly-overrated Slaughterhouse Five; it’s entirely possible to spend four years studying English in a Catholic high school without ever having heard of Death Comes for the Archbishop (and yes, I know Willa Cather wasn’t a Catholic, but the Catholic imagination permeates her fiction).

My English teacher from 1967 through 1969 was Father W. Vincent Bechtel: a holy terror, as we thought of him then, but a man I now revere for having thrown me into the deep end of the pool of Anglo-American literature. Father Bechtel had his intellectual quirks; a summer program at Johns Hopkins got him transiently infatuated with Freudian literary analysis, which led to some odd readings of Herman Melville (but later caused me to laugh out loud at the send-up of the Freudians in Fred Crewes’ masterful parody of trendy literary criticism, The Pooh Perplex). In the main, though, Father Bechtel was a classicist: there is a literary canon; educated people have read it, or at least read seriously in it; learning to appreciate the canon is part of becoming the trustee of a civilization. These days, kids may read two or three novels over the summer and another one or two during the school year. Under Father Bechtel’s tutelage (as I remember it now) or reign of terror (as I thought of it then), we read five or six novels during the summer and at least another half-dozen during the school year (not to mention plays, poetry, and short stories).

Shouldn’t everyone do high school English twice — the second time, when we’re old enough to appreciate it?  My dog-eared copy of Paul Horgan’s Things As They Are — arguably the best novel ever written about boys growing up — testifies to the number of times I’ve returned to a masterpiece to which Father Bechtel first introduced me when I was fourteen or fifteen. Each time, I find a new insight; but would I have gone back to the book a second (much less tenth) time if Father Bechtel hadn’t planted the seed early? And please don’t get the impression that Father Bechtel was a stick-in-the-mud. He had us read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and the canonical American moderns: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson. At the same time, though, we were baptized by immersion into the Brontes, Conrad, Dickens, Hardy, Hawthorne, Henry James, the aforementioned Melville, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain.

I mention all this, not to skip down memory lane or repeat what Adam reportedly said to Eve on their way out of the garden (“Things just aren’t the way they used to be.”). Rather, I want to salute Chicago’s Loyola University Press for its new series, “Loyola Classics,” which is bringing great novels forged by the Catholic imagination back into print. The first in the series, Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue, took me back to a book I’d found saccharine in high school — but which I now found more intriguing. Others include Rumer Godden’s marvelous novel of vocation, In This House of Brede; Evelyn Waugh’s Helena (for which I had the honor of providing an introduction); Morris West’s The Devil’s Advocate (written two decades before the author sadly slipped into a terminal case of liberal bitterness); Nikos Kazantzakis’s St. Francis (demonstrating how catholic the Loyola Classics consider the “Catholic novel”); and John R. Powers neatly named Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? The plan is to do eight books a year — which, over time, will introduce a lot of great books to a new generation of readers.

So: Catholic educators, take notice! Dan Brown certainly isn’t all there is, and neither is Kurt Vonnegut. And remember — from the other side, Father Bechtel is watching.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash