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George Weigel is a noted Catholic theologian, a leading commentator on religion and public life, and the best-selling author of The Courage to be Catholic, The Truth of Catholicism, and Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II. He is a Senior Fellow of  the Ethics and Public Policy Center and is the director of the Catholic Studies program at EPPC.

His most recent book, Letters To A Young Catholic, is a tour of the Catholic world meant to help readers understand how Catholicism fosters what Flannery O’Connor called “the habit of being.” Taking the reader by the hand, Weigel embarks on a journey to Catholic landmarks as diverse as Chartres Cathedral and St. Mary’s Church in Greenville, South Carolina; the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and G.K. Chesterton’s favorite pub. Weaving together insights from history, literature, theology, and music, Weigel uses these touchstones to illuminate the beliefs that have shaped Catholicism for two thousand years.

IgnatiusInsight.com recently had the opportunity to talk to Weigel about Letters To A Young Catholic.

Ignatius Insight: How did Letters To A Young Catholic come about? What do you hope to accomplish with it?

George Weigel: Basic Books has a series, "The Art of Mentoring," which includes Letters to a Young Doctor, Letters to a Young Lawyer, and so forth. The publisher, Liz Maguire, with whom I'd worked on The Courage To Be Catholic, asked me to do Letters to a Young Catholic. My initial answer was "No." I'd already done a book of popular apologetics, The Truth of Catholicism, and I couldn't see myself getting interested in another such exercise. But Liz kept pressing, and when I finally hit on the idea of the "tour" – doing the book as a walk around the Catholic world, hanging arguments on places and experiences – I got interested. The book was a lot of fun to write, and I hope it introduces the riches of Catholic faith, life, and practice to Catholic young and not-so-young alike.

Ignatius Insight: You write, "Catholicism is realism." Can you unpack that phrase a bit? How is that different from saying, "Catholicism is true"?

Weigel: Catholic faith, like any other life-forming commitment, is an optic on the world. My claim is that Catholic faith helps us see the world as it is. In the book, I mention the writer Caroline Gordon Tate saying that, after her conversion, she didn't have to make up a new world for each of her short stories; she just had to take the world as it is.

When I say "Catholicism is realism" I also mean that Catholicism takes the world with the seriousness the world deserves – as the arena of God's saving action in Christ. People who imagine themselves "worldly" usually don't get one-half the world's drama. People who watch "The Passion of the Christ" do.

Ignatius Insight: Letters To A Young Catholic discusses the life and work of the great Catholic novelist and short story writer Flannery O'Connor. What impact has she had on your own writing and thinking? What can young Catholics today learn from her?

Weigel: As I indicated in the book, I'm a great fan of Flannery O'Connor's letters, especially when she's trying to explain Catholicism to an anonymous correspondent who thinks of herself as a skeptic or agnostic. O'Connor was a terrific amateur theologian, and that comes through in her letters. Catholics of all ages can learn a lot from them.

Ignatius Insight: At one point you contrast the buzz word "spirituality" with the Catholic religion. What are the important differences between the two and why is there such an attraction to "spirituality" over against "religion"?

Weigel: I don't want to be excessively critical about "spirituality," because what flies under that flag is often rooted in an inchoate but real sense of the emptiness of life without God. What I try to suggest in Letters, following Hans Urs von Balthasar, is that while a lot of what calls itself "spirituality" today understands itself as the human search for God, Christianity is something different. Christianity is God's search for us in history and our learning to follow God's path through history, which is the path to the Kingdom.

"Spirituality" as it's understood at your local megastore is often what the Jewish scholar David Gelernter calls "ice your own cupcake" religion. Catholicism is emphatically not "ice your own cupcake" religion.

Ignatius Insight: You introduce and explain the concept of "sacramental imagination." What is it and how does it goes against stereotypes that people have of Catholicism?

Weigel: Why do we have "sacraments"? Because the world has been configured by God in a "sacramental' way, i.e., the things of this "real world" world can disclose the really real world of God's love and grace. The Catholic "sacramental imagination" sees in the stuff of this world hints and traces of the creator, redeemer, and sanctifier of the world – Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry being one obvious example of this. The stereotype is that Catholicism demeans the world. On the contrary: Catholicism says that the stuff of this world is the medium through which Christ is present to his people in baptism, the Eucharist, matrimony, and the other "sacraments" of the Church.

Ignatius Insight: Poland has played a special role in your life and you write about it in several places in Letters To A Young Catholic. What has been your relationship with that country and what does it mean to you as a Catholic?

Weigel: I've stopped counting the number of times I've been in Poland, but it must be well over two dozen by now. Poland to me means a rich network of friends, an extraordinary history, and the world's most intact Catholic culture. The Church in Poland has a unique chance to be the "Church in the Modern World" envisioned by Vatican II. In doing so, Poland could, once again, help save Europe.

Ignatius Insight: In a chapter about beauty you write that "Chartes Cathedral is the most extraordinary building in the world" and describe it as "an antechamber to heaven." Why have western Catholics lost an appreciation for beauty and how it relates to the supernatural? What can be done to change this situation?

Weigel: I think the fact that so many Catholics are buying icons and praying with icons suggests that Catholics haven't lost a taste for beauty, even if those who design our "worship spaces" (to indulge one of those hideous AmChurch neologisms) have. One of the reasons why "Magnificat," the monthly missal/prayerbook, is so successful is that it's beautiful. People instinctively understand the connection between beauty and truth, and between beauty and prayer. As for what to do about it – in terms of church furnishings and decorations, liturgical vestments, and so forth – I think people should tell their pastors, "That's ugly. It demeans our worship. Why are we using it?" And then be prepared with alternatives.

Ignatius Insight: Concluding the book you state that "the twenty-first century world is not becoming more secular," but the world "is becoming more intensely religious." What opportunities and challenges does this state of affairs hold for the Catholic Church?

Weigel: That would take a book in itself to answer. The obvious opportunity is to seize the moment and begin in earnest the "new evangelization" for which John Paul II calls. Catholicism in the United States is still dominated by an institutional-maintenance mentality, rather than an evangelical mentality. So perhaps the evangelical energy will come from outside the usual structures of Catholic life – from the renewal movements that have already shown a dramatic capacity to advance the new evangelization.

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