St. John Paul II, family life, and a Wyoming ranch

Jared Staudt

Twenty-five  years ago, St. John Paul II released his Letter to Families, Gratissimam Sane, on Feb. 2, 1994. The letter is known for the arresting claim that “the history of mankind, the history of salvation, passes by way of the family…. I have tried to show how the family is placed at the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love. To the family is entrusted the task of striving, first and foremost, to unleash the forces of good, the source of which is found in Christ the Redeemer of man.”

John Paul rightly pointed to the battle surrounding the family today. We have seen a dramatic decline in the number of marriages and children born in our country and we now must fight for the integrity of education in order to keep our children rooted in the truth. Despite the fact that John Paul recognized the enormous importance of family for society and the Church, we do not see enough emphasis placed on supporting families. We now realize, and studies bear it out, that families provide the most effective means of forming children in the faith, preparing them to become the next generation of disciples. Parents have more influence on the faith of their children than anyone else.

In light of John Paul’s teaching on the family, the Archdiocese of Denver is working to build up family culture. The great pope taught that the faith must be lived as a culture, a way of life, and that the best way to form Christian culture is in the home. Following upon the archdiocese’s move to restore the order of the sacraments of initiation, moving confirmation back to its historic place before first Communion, we have been emphasizing the necessary role of the family in catechesis. To support this needed emphasis on families, the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries has begun offering one-day Building Family Culture retreats at parishes to help families grow in prayer and to learn how to live faith more in the home.

In addition to these one-day retreats in parishes, we are partnering with Cor Ministries of Wyoming Catholic College this summer to offer a five-day Family Ranch Retreat from July 5-10. The extended time at the ranch will give families the chance to get away and bond while horseback riding, rock climbing, hiking, canoeing, and spending evenings around the campfire. Kids will have activity time each day while parents explore the spiritual life in relation to family culture. Find more information at corexpeditions.org/family-ranch-retreat.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Church’s beautiful vision of family life, in addition to John Paul’s letter, a new book may also be helpful, A Catechism for Family Life: Insights from Catholic Teaching on Love, Marriage, Sex, and Parenting (Catholic University of America Press, 2018). The editors, Sarah Bartel and John Grabowski, follow the traditional catechism question and answer format, proposing key questions related to marriage, vocational discernment, sexuality, parenting, and challenges facing the family. They select the answers from Church documents, such as papal encyclicals and other writings from the popes, Vatican offices, and the Second Vatican Council.

Here’s one question Bartel and Grabowski ask, and which I hear often: “It feels so hard to manage all of the electronic media in our home. Should we just get rid of our television?” Although they don’t provide a black and white answer, the editors share wisdom from two popes, first from Francis: “In the prevailing culture, priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional. What is real gives way to appearances …. New patterns of behavior are emerging as a result of over-exposure to the media. As a result, the negative aspects of the media and entertainment industries are threatening traditional values, and in particular the sacredness of marriage and the stability of the family” (169). And from John Paul II: “Parents … must actively ensure the moderate, critical, watchful and prudent use of the media, by discovering what effect they have on their children and by controlling the use of the media in such a way as to ‘train the conscience of their children to express calm and objective judgements, which will then guide them in the choice or rejection of programs available’” (171).

As parents, we must embrace our role as disciple makers, forming our children in faith and guiding them through the pitfalls of our culture.

COMING UP: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.