The Fireside Chats: Move along

fire-25743_1280When I was a junior in high school, and I had to begin my college application process, I only wanted two things: Catholic and Chicago. Or, at least, Chicago-ish.

For me, this meant applying to the University of St. Francis in Joliet, and to Loyola University Chicago. I got into both. I chose Loyola, because Chicago.

Some of my high school counselors and teachers were visibly disappointed with my choice. With my GPA, I could “aspire to more.” I could have done Notre Dame’s Great Books program. I could have gone to Harvard. I couldah been a contendah.

Instead–as I was told by a friend whose uncle worked at Loyola, and who therefore claimed to be in a position to know–I had chosen an athenaeum whose last entering class had an average ACT of 19. I wasn’t a 19. I was a 32. A 32 should act like a 32. This meant giving at least a nominal flail in the direction of the Ivies.

If I wanted to stay in the area, I should have picked Northwestern. So went some of the muttering. Or, perhaps, the University of Chicago. Such places were like the Ivy League. They’d help move you along in life. Nobody much knew where they’d move you to. But “moving along” was considered important.

Around the same time, my congressman came to my high school to give a speech. A bunch of local pols joined him onstage, gazing down at us teenagers. Hizzoner’s speech concerned a new south suburban airport.  Continue reading

As it was in the beginning

When I consider how I came to be Catholic, I must keep several things in mind: mixed marriages, Joseph Stalin, the Cold War, and the late-night burning of the VFW.

My grandmother was born on a farm in Soviet Ukraine in 1928. Her family belonged to the Orthodox Church. Stalin was in power, but some places of worship remained open.

Grandma remembered how, as a small child, she watched her much older brother get married in the church. She sat on a family member’s shoulders, looking over the heads of the crowd. She had a bird’s-eye view of the flaring candles and incense smoke, the processions and crowns, the icons of the saints, the robed and hatted priest.

That was her last childhood memory of religion. Stalin’s grip tightened. The village church in which her brother and sister-in-law had exchanged their vows became a barn. In it, animals ate at the trough and slept in the hay.

When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, they took many people back to Germany who were not Jews. They included Grandma. The Nazis placed her with a German family as a household servant.  Continue reading

Ite, missa est

Where my career on the Young Adult Catholics blog began. Big Star Restaurant, Wicker Park, Chicago. Via

Where my career on the Young Adult Catholics blog began. Big Star Restaurant, Wicker Park, Chicago. Via

[This piece is my cross-posted valedictory for Young Adult Catholics. But fear not: my work at this site will keep going strong.]

“You do know the young adult group has a blog,” my friend told me.

It was an 85-degree evening in August 2010. We sat in front of a gas station in Chicago’s Wicker Park that had become a restaurant, which is the sort of thing that happens in Wicker Park. We were eating artisan tacos and drinking Goose Island, which is the sort of thing you do in Wicker Park.

A month before, I’d taken a trip to Boston. There, I’d audited a graduate course taught by liberation theology pioneer Gustavo Gutierrez. I was at a point in my life when I was stuck. Upon returning home, I felt I’d been given a huge shove to do something with my life right now, and to do it for God’s justice.

By the end of July, I had connected with Call To Action. I started volunteering there. I proceeded to announce it on Facebook. That’s where my friend saw it. She messaged that we should talk.

She had once worked for CTA. Now she was telling me about their young adult ministry, CTA 20/30. Which, she said, had a blog.

“You need to get a column on that blog,” she emphasized, apropos of nothing. We weren’t talking about writing, or my being a writer, at all. Her instruction came from thin air.  Continue reading

In memoriam: Francis Cardinal George (1937-2015)

I often disagreed with him. I often said so.

I believed, and still believe, that such is my responsibility as a baptized person. Indeed, it is an article of faith with me that every baptized person–not just the clergy, or bishops, or pope–must exercise the ministries of “solicitude for the church,” and “the confirming of the brethren.”

And so I said what I had to say. I could say it with a razor-edged tongue, as I did here.

But that was not all there was to what I said. Nor was that all there was to him as a person. For as I further noted, in the same place:

In 1999, I was news editor for the paper at my Catholic high school, and Cardinal George presided at our all-school Mass. I asked our principal if the cardinal would let me interview him. She didn’t see why not.

After Mass, George toured the school and ended up in the library, where I waited with a mini-tape recorder. I shook his hand and asked if we could talk. He said of course. We sat down, and the cardinal waited with seemingly infinite patience while I tried to get the recorder to work (I’d never used one before).

I finally got it going. By now, George had acquired a plate of refreshments. We talked through his impressions of the school, the vocation crisis, and the upcoming Jubilee Year 2000 as he ate crab salad and bruschetta and drank diet Coke from a plastic cup.

The cardinal nodded sagely at every question and gave long, thoughtful answers, apparently in no hurry. He didn’t look over my head to see who else he should be talking to, even though by now the library was filling up with VIPs. They had to wait their turn, because I mattered.

When we finished, he nodded again and said he liked my questions. This was not disingenuousness or mere politeness. One of our exchanges, about whether society has a crisis of religion or a crisis of love, appeared in his column in the Catholic New World about a week later.

I was a student who had sprung upon George from nowhere in the middle of a public reception. But he treated me as though I had called in advance from CBS or NBC.

Even as I became a very different kind of Catholic, who winced when the Cardinal sputtered and fumed–something that seemed to increase as he got older–I remembered that day. It told me something true about him, about who he really was. I never forgot it. Because I never forgot it, I never disliked him; because I never forgot it, I will miss him.

The first man with his job who lived long enough to retire from it, he wanted a long retirement in which to hear confessions, write books, and counsel seminarians. He didn’t get it. I am very sad that he did not.

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Anima ejus, et animae omnium fidelium defunctorum, per misericordiam Dei, requiescant in pace.

In memoriam: Robert McClory (1932-2015)

On Good Friday, I boarded the Metra Electric train to the Chicago Loop. There, I represented Call To Action at the annual Good Friday Walk For Justice, which is sponsored by the 8th Day Center For Justice.

The walk is a modern-day Stations of the Cross that examines contemporary social issues at each station. Each station has a different organization presenting it. With CTA program director Ellen Euclide, I read for the Fourth Station, “Helped In The Struggle.” It focused on the struggle for justice within the church.

Other Call To Action folks were there. They included our colleague, retired chapter liaison and development director Bob Heineman. As Ellen and I completed our station, near the Chicago Board of Trade, Bob looked grim. He told us he had a new message on his voice mail. He needed to check it now.  Continue reading

An Aside: American Jesus

It is Saturday evening. I am in a car. I am on my way to a Bulls game. I approach the junction of Route 30 and the I-57.

I look to the left side of the junction. I see a giant building that looks like a convention center. In fact, I think it was a convention center at one time. It is possibly the one where I walked the stage for my high school graduation.

It is no longer a convention center. It is now the sleek, hulking, concrete-and-glass campus of something called “Believers Church.”

To the right side of the junction, directly across from Believers Church, I spy another church. It looks like a big brown box. I can’t see the name. But I know what it is. It bears a giant, golden light-up cross and crown.

The brown box adjoins a hotel. I imagine couples from my high school sneaking here after prom, to do what it is you do after prom. They’ll look out the window of their room. They’ll see the glowing cross and crown. They’ll learn to have either more guilt, or less guilt, for reasons of more or less value.  Continue reading