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Mark MossaDecember 06, 2004
Letters to a Young Catholicby By George WeigelBasic Books. 208p $22.50

Reading George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic is a bit like watching Kevin Costner attempt a British accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. You can see that he’s trying, and for stretches he gets it, but despite his best efforts he can’t avoid returning to his normal way of speaking. So, too, of George Weigel’s attempt at a "youthful" accent. You have to give him credit for trying to speak a positive message about the Catholic Church to young people, for it is something they desperately need. Still, every time you think he’s got it, he reverts to his high intellectual and ideological self. This makes his sincere attempts to connect with young people seem artificial. (In the book, for example, G. K. Chesterton becomes simply GKC, as if he were a rap artist.)

The result is a work that will be inaccessible to most young Catholics. Given that in the first chapter he is already talking about Nietzsche, Sartre and what he calls "debonair nihilism," and his use of presumptuous openers like, "Sometime, when you’re in Florence... the book might be more accurately titled, "Letters to a Young, Middle- to Upper-Class College-Educated Catholic." Weigel is just not speaking to the majority of young Catholics who have peopled my classroom and youth ministry programs in the last 15 years.

Despite these limitations, the work shines in places. The author’s evocation of the Catholic sacramental imagination as an optic through which we see the world is compelling. His chapter "Mary and Discipleship" is one of his best, showing the value that reflection on Mary’s life can have for overcoming youthful fear of commitment. His contemplation of Chartres Cathedral and our need for beauty is Weigel at his most lyrical, though he teeters on the brink of proclaiming all things past beautiful and all things present ugly, a hazard throughout this historically minded travelogue.

Two of the central chapters represent, successively, the low and high points of this work. The first, "Why and How We Pray," is vintage Weigel, a sustained attack on contemporary liturgy and worship ("The Catholic Church has failed its Lord times beyond numbering"). Worship God only because God is to be worshiped, he suggests; our experience of worship doesn’t matter. Forgetting his audience, he trashes "the Phil Donahue-style priest," a reference that will leave readers under 30 scratching their heads.

More disturbing is the way he begins that same chapter, offering, presumably, a role model in Father Jay Scott Newman. He quotes, at length, the inaugural sermon of this new pastor, introducing himself as "a priest of the New Covenant in the presbyteral order." As Weigel excerpts it, this new pastor presents his fundamental duties as being "to teach, to sanctify and to govern" and goes on to explain how "presbyteral ordination configures the man ordained to the Person of Christ the Head and Bridegroom of the Church in such a way that he is able to stand in the Person of Christ and act in his name for the welfare of the whole Church." It’s hard to imagine that Weigel thinks such self-importance in a priest is a good thing, especially given the way such attitudes contributed to the church’s sexual abuse scandal.

The next chapter, "How Vocations Can Change History," the best chapter in the book, and a relief after the previous one, could easily stand alone. Introducing the vocational journeys of the Polish martyr Jerzy Popieluszko and the Polish pope Karol Wojtyla, Weigel paints a picture of two humble and heroic priests. With his reflection comes sound vocational advice, absent the backsliding into ideological agendas that mars the other chapters. Popieluszko’s murder by the Communist government in 1984, Weigel says, teaches the important lesson that "faith has consequences," as does Wojtyla’s courageous underground training for priesthood during Nazi occupation.

Weigel encourages young people to think in terms of vocation ("something you are"), not career, "for people determined to live the truth of who they arepeople determined to live vocationally - are the most dynamic force in history." In this chapter, Weigel maintains his accent from beginning to end, and speaks to young people most powerfully. I will recommend this chapter to my students, as well as his handy summary of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, which is presented earlier in the book.

Obviously, there are things to recommend in Letters to a Young Catholic. But ultimately, one senses that the Catholic world Weigel presents in these pages, filled with certainties about what is good and what is bad and largely lacking in complexity, is as hermetically sealed as the idyllic Catholic boyhood with which he begins. Though he says, "for Catholics, suffering is a vocation," there is no evidence that he has ever suffered, especially from doubt. And while clearly not his intention, his "Matrix"-like conclusion, "Welcome to the real world," signals the end of the reader’s vacation in George Weigel’s world and the return to a less black-and-white Catholic reality.

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