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Weigel’s “Letters to a Young Catholic” is A Spiritual Journey Through Catholicism

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A tour of places and people who formed the writer’s faith

Jay Scott Newman is a priest in the Diocese of Charleston. Though a friend, it has been years since we have seen each other, perhaps twelve. Our family heads to Charleston annually to visit my wife’s family, and when Newman was in a neighboring Charleston community, we saw each other more.

But he took off for Rome, and then to Pontifical College Josephinum to teach (where on exchange, I did some of my Lutheran seminary work years before). Then he took up pastoral duties at St. Mary’s Church, Greenville, South Carolina. Greenville is one of those places you can’t get to easily from Charleston (when one is in Charleston visiting family).

We first met because of my in-laws. They happened to be parishioners in Newman’s parish, and they insisted we meet. We did, dutifully, but happily discovered we liked each other. Some few years after that, I invited Newman to speak at a conference I was holding in Kansas City at my Lutheran parish. I also invited him to stay over and preach that Sunday following the conference. (It was only after he accepted that I mentioned that on the Lutheran calendar it was Reformation Sunday.)

He is among the best of pastors I have known. His leadership at St. Mary’s Church is praised categorically: homiletically, liturgically, pastorally, and theologically. He is also a heck of a nice guy.

When Newman and I met, naturally we began ticking off names, searching for mutual acquaintances among writers we knew and admired most, just to get a sense of where the other one stood. As I said, this was a dutiful first encounter. But among the names we dropped was George Weigel’s.

I was only mildly surprised, then, to find Newman and St. Mary’s Church employed prominently in Weigel’sLetters to a Young Catholic.

Actually, I went searching through the book expecting to find both St. Mary’s Parish and her pastor. I found an entire chapter, “Why and How We Pray,” and in that lesson readers learn why exactly Fr. Newman moved the tabernacle back to the center of the sanctuary, from which it previously had been moved, and did that within fifteen minutes of his arrival.

Weigel of course is the biographer of St. John Paul II, A Witness to Hope, the standard reference for his life and work. To say Weigel is a frequent contributor to First Things magazine is to understate the pace and energy of his writing, there and elsewhere. He is incisive, to use an apt cliché, on about everything. He knows Vatican politics and can summarize in crystallized language the real issue confronting the coming Synod on the Family, namely, how do we do moral theology. As a Catholic layman, his is an appealing voice from within the Church.

Currently he is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and Chair of Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., which is sometimes dismissed by critics as a fevered skunk works swamp for slinking neocons. It is rather more than that, but that is another story.

Letters to a Young Catholic is a spiritual journey through Catholicism, a literal one tied to places and people, and a literary journey as well, taking us to Baltimore and Milledgeville, St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai to the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, Greenville and St. Mary’s, Auschwitz, Kraków, Chesterton’s favorite London pub, and others.

Each place becomes a place for Weigel’s wide-ranging reflections on truth, moral beauty, history, theology, all sifted finely. These themes become examinations of faith for those who wonder “what it means to be a Catholic in the twenty-first century.” It is, he says, an “epistolary tour of the Catholic world,” those parts of it―people and places―that have formed his own experiences as a Catholic.

There are some books one returns to, time and again. Richard John Neuhaus does that for me withFreedom for Ministry. Weigel has done that here. If the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I keep on the bed stand for insomnia, comes off dry and humorless for you—sounding like a Romanesque committee report that lacks any of the distinctive joy that ought to illuminate one’s faith in Christ and his truth—read Weigel’s Letters. It will be of immense help.

Russell E. Saltzman, Aleteia’s book review editor, is a web columnist at First Things and lives in Kansas City, Missouri. He can be reached at russell.e.saltzman@gmail.com.

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