Q&A: Look Again, Thomas! by the Sisters of Life helps children see the world, people through God’s eyes

Roxanne King

“Left and right, up and down, straight and crooked, and all around they went…” so goes the delightful new children’s book by the Sisters of Life, Look Again, Thomas! In it, armed with special “seeing glasses,” the boy Angelo leads his stand-offish neighbor Thomas on a journey that helps his little friend to see the world through God’s eyes and to discover the beauty, good and love in it and in people.

Although authorship is given to the Sisters of Life, the order founded in 1991 by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York to protect and promote the sanctity of human life, Sister Elizabeth Ann Binder, 53, wrote and illustrated Look Again, Thomas! and the order’s previous storybook, the tender I Would Climb Any Mountain for You.

Originally from Milwaukee, Wis., Sister Elizabeth Ann graduated from the University of Dallas and worked as a graphic designer for 12 years before entering the Sisters of Life in 1997. She currently lives in her order’s new convent and house of prayer in Washington D.C., where she designs and does the layout for the Sisters of Life magazine, Imprint.

Sister Elizabeth Ann was recently interviewed by the Denver Catholic. The interview has been edited for space.

Denver Catholic: What prompted the book?

Sister Elizabeth Ann: The book was inspired by a young boy named Angelo Pio. Angelo’s mother, Gina, discovered during her pregnancy that her child had Down Syndrome. Experiencing unbelievable pressure, Gina called a priest friend who encouraged her to call the Sisters of Life.  She moved in with the sisters soon after and gave birth to her baby boy. Angelo Pio was beautiful from the time the sisters first saw his little sweet face. Since that day, Gina and Angelo have been bright lights in all of our lives.

When I first began thinking about the message I wanted to communicate through a children’s book, Angelo immediately popped in my head. Angelo has this amazing ability to delight and wonder in the beauty and goodness all around him.  He sees goodness everywhere. Like other children with special needs, every day he greets people with a purity and innocence.  I’ve often thought that Angelo is not the one with the disability — we are. His love isn’t conditional. He sees people and the world around him through God’s eyes — and he calls each of us to see with that same “God vision.”  And I think his blue glasses added just the right touch to the story.

DC: The story centers on two boys and unfolds over one day; describe that day.

EA: Two boys, Angelo and Thomas, put on their “seeing glasses” and take a wonderful trip through forests and ponds, hills and deserts.  As Angelo and Thomas later reflect on their day, Thomas begins to realize the importance of looking beyond the surface of things to seeing the deeper realities within. And most especially “looking again” at the people he meets, beyond what someone looks like, what they can do, or what they have, and finding the goodness within their heart — and then encouraging another in that goodness.

DC: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

EA: The realization that each person is a unique, beautiful, unrepeatable gift to the world. We can judge people so superficially by what they look like, what they do (their capabilities) or what they own. We fail to meet the real person inside when we do this. And we deprive ourselves of discovering and delighting in that unique “something” that this person holds within that reflects some aspect of God never before seen. We deprive ourselves of the gift. See them as God sees them. He loves them unconditionally. He desires to be close to them. He wants them to grow and become more of who they ARE each day. The gift of encouraging others in their goodness. The gift of being that “shooting star” that leads others to Christ. The reality that YOU are good. As St. John Paul II said, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, we are the sum of the Father’s love for us.” In a world that has lost a sense of the unrepeatable beauty and sacredness of every human person, we need to be people with eyes that see.

DC: Why the Sisters of Life authorship?

EA: The books communicate a message that every Sister of Life desires to communicate — that you are good, beautiful and sacred. That you are loved by God who had you in his mind and heart for all eternity. And because of this your life has tremendous meaning. People desperately need to hear the truth of that today.  If you are called to be a Sister of Life you simply have a burning desire to share that with everyone you meet. The children’s books simply express what is on the mind and heart of us all — this charism of life. The book is from us all!

To purchase Look Again, Thomas! (Hardback, $25) and I Would Climb a Mountain for You (Softcover, $12), visit sistersoflife.org.

COMING UP: Historical clarity and today’s Catholic contentions

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One of the curiosities of the 21st-century Catholic debate is that many Catholic traditionalists (especially integralists) and a high percentage of Catholic progressives make the same mistake in analyzing the cause of today’s contentions within the Church — or to vary the old fallacy taught in Logic 101, they think in terms of post Concilium ergo propter Concilium [everything that’s happened after the Council has happened because of the Council]. And inside that fallacy is a common misreading of modern Catholic history. The traditionalists insist that everything was fine before the Council (which many of them therefore regard as a terrible mistake); the progressives agree that the pre-Vatican II Church was a stable institution but deplore that stability as rigidity and desiccation.

But that’s not the way things were pre-Vatican II, as I explain at some length and with some engaging stories in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books). And no one knew the truth about pre-Vatican II Catholicism better than the man who was elected pope during the Council and guided Vatican II through its last three sessions, St. Paul VI.

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII, thought to be an elderly placeholder, stunned both the Church and the world by announcing his intention to summon the 21st ecumenical council. That night, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (who would be known as Paul VI four and a half years later), called an old friend. An experienced churchman who had long served Pius XII as chief of staff, Montini saw storm clouds on the horizon: “This holy old boy,” he said of John XXIII, “doesn’t know what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”

That shrewd observation turned out to be spot on –– and not simply because of the Council, but because of the bees and hornets that had been buzzing around the ecclesiastical nest for well over 100 years.

Contrary to both traditionalist and progressive misconceptions, Catholicism was not a placid institution, free of controversy and contention, prior to Vatican II. As I show in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, there was considerable intellectual ferment in the Church during the mid-19th century, involving great figures like the recently-canonized John Henry Newman, the German bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (grandfather of modern Catholic social thought), and the Italian polymath Antonio Rosmini (praised by John Paul II in the 1999 encyclical, Faith and Reason, and beatified under Benedict XVI). That ferment accelerated during the 25 year pontificate of Leo XIII, who launched what I dub the “Leonine Revolution,” challenging the Church to engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic tools in order to convert the modern world and lay a firmer foundation for its aspirations.

American Catholicism, heavily focused on institution-building, was largely unaware of the sharp-edged controversies (and ecclesiastical elbow-throwing) that followed Leo XIII’s death in 1903. Those controversies, plus the civilization-shattering experience of two world wars in Europe, plus a rapid secularization process in Old Europe that began in the 19th century, set the stage for John XXIII’s epic opening address to Vatican II. There, the Pope explained what he envisioned Vatican II doing: gathering up the energies let loose by the Leonine Revolution and focusing them through the prism of an ecumenical council, which he hoped would be a Pentecostal experience energizing the Church with new evangelical zeal.

John XXIII understood that the Gospel proposal could only be made by speaking to the modern world in a vocabulary the modern world could hear. Finding the appropriate grammar and vocabulary for contemporary evangelization didn’t mean emptying Catholicism of its content or challenge, however. As the Pope insisted, the perennial truths of the faith were to be expressed with the “same meaning” and the “same judgment.” Vatican II, in other words, was to foster the development of doctrine, not the deconstruction of doctrine. And the point of that doctrinal development was to equip the Church for mission and evangelization, for the modern world would be converted by truth, not ambiguity or confusion.

Over the past six and a half years, it’s become abundantly clear that more than a few Catholics, some quite prominently placed, still don’t get this history. Nor do the more vociferous elements in the Catholic blogosphere. Which is why I hope The Irony of Modern Catholic History helps facilitate a more thoughtful debate on the Catholic present and future, through a better understanding of the Catholic past.