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Two new books by New York priests, Father George Rutler's "Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive" (Scepter, 2010), and Father Benedict Groeschel's "Travelers Along the Way: The Men and Women Who Shaped My Life" (Servant Books, 2010), offer character sketches of people in modern America who have influenced them in their quest for holiness. Both books are great reads, shimmering with characters that exude much holiness, humanity and humor.
Not surprisingly, some of the same people are sketched: Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Cardinal Terence Cooke, Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Avery Dulles, the outstanding Jesuit theologian who converted to Catholicism while at Harvard and went on to teach at Fordham University, Father Richard John Neuhaus, another convert, who created and brilliantly edited First Things magazine.
Only Father Rutler sketches Blessed John Paul II, presumably because he had personal interactions with him that Father Groeschel didn't, and only Father Groeschel sketches Mother Angelica, who founded EWTN and hired both Fathers Groeschel and Rutler to host their own shows on cable. (Father Rutler doesn't sketch Mother Angelica because he is only writing about those who have died.)
Both books, each in its own way, offer extremely important testimony to the reality of holiness in the Catholic Church in modern America. This is important because we are all too familiar with the bad news about the Church and the sins of Church people. Obviously, the priestly sex abuse scandals still haunt us, and we are familiar with the phenomenon of Catholics who are unfaithful to the Church's doctrinal and moral teaching. Think, for example, of the numbers of Catholics who get divorced. (A recent sad example is Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver.) We need realistic reminders of the Church's holiness.
How wonderful is it, then, to read about the Capuchin Father Solanus Casey, whose heroic virtue has been decreed by the Vatican, and who lived with the young novice Benedict Groeschel in the 1950s: "As a young novice, I was unable to sleep one night. Finally, I gave up trying, and about two o'clock in the morning, I went down to the darkened chapel to pray. I assumed I would be alone, but it turned out that I was not."
"As I turned on the two strong lights that were trained on the altar, I discovered Father Solanus in front of me, kneeling on the top step in front of the tabernacle. Seeing him was a shock, because he was clearly in some kind of ecstasy and completely unaware of my presence. He didn't even realize that I had turned on the lights. His eyes were fixed on the door of the tabernacle. The arms of this elderly man were extended outward in prayer, and as the seconds passed, I realized he was absolutely unmoving; his arms did not tremble in the slightest."
"I watched for a few minutes, and during that time he did not move at all. I then put out the lights and went back to my room, feeling very embarrassed."
Or Father Rutler on Wellington Mara, the owner of the New York Giants and architect of the National Football League: "the father of eleven children and grandfather of more than forty. He and Ann attended daily Mass all their lives and raised their children in the faith. When Christmas approached, his note on the refrigerator, where teenagers were wont to gather, read, 'No Confession, No Santa.' The rosary he was buried holding was not decoration: he prayed it constantly each day....The long lines at his wake over two days and the overflowing cathedral and stopped traffic in midtown Manhattan were tributes to a grand man."
Be amused and enthused and edified by the wonderful men and women that these holy and eloquent priests have written about. Learn how attractive and compelling holiness really is.
Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.