St Josemaría Escrivá and me

St Josemaría Escrivá and me

Today was the feast day of a saint who is very dear to me. In St Josemaría Escrivá I see an inspiring model for current-day priests, engaging with a secular and in some respects ‘post-Christian’ culture.

Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?, since I am a member of Opus Dei. But that’s confusing the cart and the horse. I was attracted to Opus Dei only after reading and coming to love St Josemaría.

When I left home at 18 to study in Melbourne, I was both idealistic and sceptical. At 18, who isn’t? I was attracted to Christ and his Gospel, but I was disillusioned with a Church which was bereft of authority. The scandal of clerical abuse and its cover-up was in the headlines and on my mind, and lacklustre liturgy and preaching didn’t help either.

My Catholic identity was tenuous. I may have been easy prey for the evangelical Christians on campus, except that my childhood love of the saints — St Thérèse especially — had not left me. The distant figure of Archbishop Pell also commanded respect, if only because he spoke boldly and against the tide, and he had been chaplain in my first years at primary school. Still, I did not know personally any priests, nor did I want to. I doubt I’d ever have changed denominations, but I was probably on track to become a “mere Christian,” cultivating a personal spirituality and private prayer life, independent of “organised religion.”

Nonetheless, one’s first year at university is a time to explore everything. I attended the meetings and functions of all sorts of clubs and societies, from the fickle (the Chocolate Appreciation Society; the Free Beer Society) to the radical (the Socialist Alliance; the Citizen’s Electoral Council). I watched the Students for Christ debate the Humanists, and I joined an evangelical Christian book club. An invitation to dinner at an Opus Dei study centre was just one more function to add to the list. I was supposed to attend a preached meditation (whatever that was), but I was running late, and arrived just in time for Simple Benediction. The presence of a fully fledged chapel in a suburban house — not to mention the unfamiliar sight of a priest in cassock and the alien sound of Latin (the ritual concluded with the Salve Regina) — quickly convinced me that I had encountered a cult which was far removed from mainstream Catholicism. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the conversation and debate at dinner, which covered such diverse topics as the best imported beer, the Australian wheat price, and the cultural influence of Peter Sellers. Much to my surprise, religion wasn’t mentioned at all.

Subsequent invitations to meditation and dinner were gladly accepted, and I was impressed by the spiritual content of the preaching, and the easygoing warmth of the rest of the evening. This stood in stark contrast to my encounters at the evangelical book club, which were terminated after my Catholic background was discovered, and I was forcefully and repeatedly subjected to anti-papist rants.

Still, I sustained a polite disinterest in Opus Dei until I was given a copy of The Way, a small book of spiritual maxims which made “Father Joseph Mary Escriva” famous decades before anyone had heard of Opus Dei. Several weeks passed before I picked it up, but when I did I couldn’t put it down. Its insights startled me. It was as though Josemaría had read my heart and mind, and spoke directly to me. Moreover, there was a warmth and attractiveness to his style which had me looking for more.

It all happened quite gradually of course, but looking back, I think it’s fair to say that St Josemaría taught me to love the Church just as I already loved Jesus Christ. Thus this video — which I had not seen before today — is a very apt illustration of that style:

I think it’s also fair to credit St Josemaría with my priestly vocation. Years before I thought of becoming a priest, I thought of becoming a saint. That has its roots in my discovery of St Thérèse’s “Little Way” at eight or nine, and Mum’s assurance that God calls us all to be saints. This is St Josemaría’s message too, and I was able to discern a priestly calling only after adopting the sort of prayer life he recommended for lay apostles.

There Be Dragons is an average movie of uneven quality, but it does a very good job depicting St Josemaría’s vision. I’m proud and humbled to call myself one of his spiritual children.

The debate about the debate

The debate about the debate

It’s not as compelling as the debate itself of course, but the ensuing discussion about Monday’s Q & A is nonetheless quite interesting.

I made a rare visit to the Catholica forum board on Tuesday, to gauge the reaction of Catholics who don’t think like me. I didn’t perservere with the whole thread, but the first few posts credited Pell for not embarrassing the cause. In Catholica land, that’s high praise indeed!

In contrast, a similar discussion on Fr Z’s blog was critical of Pell, especially for his claims about Adam and Eve. Fr Z himself posted the video without comment, though he does defend the Cardinal’s claim that atheists can go to Heaven.

Andrew Bolt, as is his wont, turned to the data. In his blog on Tuesday, he awarded the debate to Pell, on the basis that Pell’s citations were vindicated, while Dawkins’ were not. Quadrant, too, refutes Dawkins’ assertion that Hitler was a Catholic.

In his newspaper column yesterday, Bolt (a self-described agnostic) developed Pell’s argument that Christianity restrains the pursuit of power while atheism gives it license. But he also unearthed an admission from Dawkins himself that Hitler was no Christian. (An online subscription is normally required to access News Limited columns, but if you arrive at an article via Google, you can read it in full.)

Most interesting of all was Greg Sheridan’s analysis. Here’s how he starts:

There were times in Monday night’s great debate . . . when you felt the boxing authorities would step in and call a halt to the bout. Dawkins was so obviously boxing above his weight division, was so completely outclassed in all aspects of the encounter, that you felt the event promoters were being cruel to him.

Sheridan’s piece most closely accords with my own analysis. Dawkins landed very few blows; he really was outclassed. Pell landed several, though it must be admitted he also clobbered himself a few times, without any help from Dawkins. Still, I’d argue that Pell won emphatically.

Not everyone agrees. The Age’s Karl Quinn declared it a draw (a judgement apparently lost on his sub-editor). Others insist that Dawkins won hands down. Which goes to show, I think, that one’s pre-established position on the question of God determines how one judged the debate.

Pell versus Dawkins

Pell versus Dawkins

One of my very first posts on this blog related to Cardinal Pell’s effective witness as a controversialist. (I’ve given up trying to retrieve the archive. No great loss to posterity, I’m sure.) It seems apt that the subject should be revisited so early in the blog’s second incarnation.

Last night’s Q&A discussion between Pell and Richard Dawkins was entertaining if nothing else. If you missed it, you can catch it on iView, or watch it on YouTube:

It was good TV. It didn’t have to be. The recent debate between Dawkins and Rowan Williams proves that! The BBC compared that exchange to “a rather polite philosophical chess game.”

I don’t think anyone would characterise last night’s encounter in such terms. A few cheap shots were attempted on both sides. And the disagreements weren’t exactly friendly. But it not only made for better TV, it also made for a more satisfying intellectual exchange.

We tend to say that passion obscures reasonable argument. I’m not so sure. Pell v Dawkins was a contest filled with a passion which lent itself to a clarity of ideas. In contrast, Williams v Dawkins was urbane and arcane, and frankly obscure.

I’d be surprised to learn that Pell or Dawkins won over any of their respective antagonists. But that’s not really the point. Both parties succeeded in revealing the heart and soul of the debate over God. They each presented the big ideas which underpin their competing philosophies. For that reason, last night’s debate was a worthy exercise, and it was also an edifying one. In the life of the mind — and, I would argue, in the life of the polis — robust debate is better than no debate.