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Heartland Patristics

I’m just back from snowy Des Moines, Iowa, where epic winds brought the temperatures down to negative thirty and the snowdrifts up to five feet. I will never again call Pennsylvania weather “winter.”

But my reception could not have been warmer. I arrived Tuesday as the guest of Mark and Katherine Dowdell Hommerding and their lovely family. They’re friends of mine from way back, and Mark was just received into full communion with the Catholic Church last Easter. To give us an opportunity to celebrate together, Mark booked me for three talks on the Fathers, two radio shows, and a book-signing.

Well, the weather froze out the first two talks, but everything else went as planned. My Thursday-evening talk was probably the only thing that wasn’t canceled in Des Moines. I talked about martyrdom and Eucharist, building on the treatment in my book The Resilient Church. In spite of the horrible weather, we drew a hundred and thirty people.

Many of them came back the next day for the book-signing at Divine Treasures bookstore. Run by Lois Brookhart and Sue Greenwood, the store has been going strong since 1992. It’s a big shop, and its abundant stock is chosen with loving care. I’m convinced that the angels guide these two ladies — not just because they have the best selection of angelology books I’ve ever seen in a bookshop, and not just because of the constant apostolic conversations that take place there. I believe it because I’ve seen it in action.

I had spent much of the previous week trying to track down a copy of an extremely rare book, Kilian Healy’s The Assumption of Mary. (Go ahead, try and find one.) No luck whatsoever. The booksellers all say they have long waiting lists for that title.

So at Divine Treasures Sue is telling me how she and Lois just bought out the stock of another Catholic bookstore, and some of the books were pretty old. She pulls out one with a clearance tag — and guess what it is.

That’s right: Kilian Healy’s The Assumption of Mary. My eyes popped, and my jaw dropped. I thought to myself: “Oh, she’s just doing this because of my conversations last week.” Then I came to my senses: “Wait a minute … This woman didn’t know me last week!” My angel was winking at me.

Sue gave me the book. Life is so good.

Then this wonderful guy walks into the store — Iowan through and through, blue jeans and flannel shirt. He comes over to my book table and introduces himself. Turns out he’s a Des Moines priest running errands and getting car repairs on his day off. He bought several of my titles as gifts, so I instantly recognized him as a man of great wisdom, discernment, and sanctity. He told me about his ministry, covering several parishes and including several ethnic communities. He was so joyful and matter-of-fact about labor that seemed to me Herculean, if not outright Basilian.

As he was leaving with the books he’d bought, I said wryly: “Thanks for feeding my children.”

And he said, perfectly straight: “Thanks for feeding mine.” And, man, I got all choked up.

Remember to pray for Father Glen.

Anyway, I was pleased to see that parishes in the Des Moines area are celebrating the Church’s Year of the Priest by organizing group studies of my book Sharing Christ’s Priesthood: A Bible Study for Catholics. I did it for our priests, so I’m happy to see this title catching on.

I was most amazed, though, to learn that St. Joseph’s Parish in Des Moines had drawn the theme for its annual novena from my book The Fathers of the Church. This year, the nine lectures will focus on the “Great Fathers of the Church.” The organizers, who came out to my talk, explained to me that they got the list from my book, but had to add a Father in order to get nine — the necessary amount for a novena. So they promoted St. Cyril of Jerusalem.

Here’s the lineup:
– Fri., Jan. 8, St. Athanasius (preached by Msgr. Robert Chamberlain)
– Fri., Jan. 15, St. Ambrose (preached by Msgr. Joe McDonnell)
– Fri., Jan. 22, St. John Chrysostom (preached by Msgr. Lawrence Beeson)
– Fri., Jan. 29, St. Gregory the Great (preached by Deacon Fred Pins)
– Fri., Feb. 5, St. Augustine (preached by Bishop Richard Pates)
– Fri., Feb. 12, St. Basil the Great (preached by Fr. Joseph Pins)
– Fri., Feb. 19, St. Jerome (preached by Msgr. Frank Bognanno)
– Fri., Feb. 26, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (preached by Deacon Larry Kehoe)
– Fri., March 5, St. Gregory of Nazianzus (preached by Deacon Troy Thompson)

You have to love any place that has its cathedral dedicated to St. Ambrose. But Des Moines is beyond the beyond. The winter weather was necessary, so that I could have a constant reminder I wasn’t in heaven. Where else are the Fathers so exalted?

My host, Mark, by the way, is the greatest photographer since Yousuf Karsh. I’m not exaggerating. I once witnessed a U.S. bishop enter a bidding war with a distant employer over Mark’s services. The bishop lost, of course.

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Atlanta Book Study

Atlanta’s Cathedral of Christ the King is sponsoring a six-week lecture series based on my book Sharing Christ’s Priesthood: A Bible Study for Catholics. It starts Sunday, January 24, in the parish’s Hyland Center, and the lectures will be given by priests of the Archdiocese. Coffee will be available at 10:15 am, lecture begins at 10:30 am. The lecture series is free. They’re making the book available for $10. RSVP to or 404-267-3671 and indicate if you will need a book. Click here for more information.

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St. Agatha: Patroness for Ailments of the Breast

Because of the tortures she endured in martyrdom, St. Agatha is also patroness of women who live with diseases of the breast. My one-time editor Paul Zalonski has a deep devotion to the third-century martyr. In the past he has sponsored and publicized her devotions. At his request, we’ve posted a prayer for St. Agatha’s intercession. This year he’d like to invite you to a special St. Agatha’s Day event.

In Celebration of the Feast of Saint Agatha
The Church of Saint Catherine of Siena
and the
Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York

Invites you to Vespers and Benediction
with the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick
for women and men living with Breast Cancer

February 5, 2010 at 7 pm.
The Church of Catherine of Siena
411 East 68th Street
New York, NY 10065

As you know, Saint Agatha is the patron saint for those living with diseases of the breast. People for centuries have had a devotion to Saint Agatha for many reasons, not least is her powerful intercession before God on behalf of those dealing with breast cancer. It is for this reason that we are having a Vespers with Benedictine service with the sacrament of Anointing. The sacrament of Anointing is to strengthen, heal and sustain those who receive it.

Please let your friends know about this extraordinary opportunity for prayer and healing on the Feast of Saint Agatha.

Father Jordan Kelly, OP will be presiding and preaching assisted by other Dominican, Franciscan and Diocesan priests.

Saint Catherine of Siena Church is administered by the Dominican Friars who also have a special healthcare ministry at the Hospital for Special Surgery, NY Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center, Sloan-Kettering and Rockefeller Univ. Hospital. At these 4 prestigious hospitals in NYC the Dominican Friars Healthcare Ministry works with the spiritual and ethical needs of people associated in some way (patients, family members, clinicians).

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Lend Me Your Irritation

O wad some Power the giftie gie us.
To see oursels as ithers see us!
Robert Burns

At Christmas, my beloved niece Melissa notified me that I had achieved my little bit of fame and could now retire. She explained that I’d been featured — with photo and a resume of sorts — on the website Am I Annoying or Not?

I just got around to checking it out, and she’s right!

If you’ve read my blog for more than a week (Hi Mom!), you already know that I’m annoying — though you probably could come up with better reasons than you’ll find in my brief for nomination. Tom Jefford, the guy who posted it, never mentioned my punning, snoring, stammering, or foot odor, to cite just a few examples.

Mercifully, Tom the Nominator noted just a few obvious deficiencies. He also said some very kind things about me and my work.

I would, however, like to take issue with a few details in his brief for my canonical status in the Hall of Annoyance.

First: my degree is in English, not Journalism (as he stated). We English majors like to make that annoying distinction. The degree is from Penn State, and that in itself is annoying to many people. I received the university’s Oswald Award “for achievement in journalism and mass media” — probably the source of Tom’s confusion — but that recognizes work in the field, not in the classroom.

Second: Tom is needlessly annoyed by what he perceives as my authoritative status. Rest easy, good man. No one outside the state asylums considers me an authority on anything. I don’t claim to be a scholar. I don’t try to hide my lack of advanced degrees. I’m a reporter covering a certain beat. Yes, it helps if a journalist covering the field of oncology happens to hold a degree in medicine — but very few do. Then again, few oncologists can write about their field in a way that ordinary people can understand. I believe that the Fathers belong to everyone, not just scholars. I also believe that Christians outside the academy should be made aware of what the good scholars are doing. Unless someone volunteers for the job of patristic journalist and publicist, it ain’t gonna happen.

I’d like to plead “not guilty” to Tom’s charge that my works are “cut-and-paste.” I do begin with Lightfoot and the old ANF and NPNF translations, which I acknowledge everywhere, but I perform major surgery on them before I include them in my books, and I do consult the originals when I can and when I need to. I can’t say I “know” the original languages the way native speakers did, or the way a doctoral candidate should, but I did well enough way back when to get A’s from Sister M. Herberta Burns, IHM, who was no easy grader. Like most journalists who have a beat, I know my limitations, and I rely on good interpreters, including a luminous one named Jefford.

In making his case, Tom observed that “Many, if not most Christians, don’t know or care who the Church Fathers were,” and I’m afraid he’s right. Alas.

But enough. As I said, Tom found some extremely kind things to say about me. And he placed me on his lists with some remarkable people, like Justin Martyr. And, so far at least, less than half the people who voted found me annoying. That could change, now that my kids know the voting is still open. In any event, the results show me to be twice as annoying as Justin Martyr.

So I’ll be grateful for the gift the Giftie gave me for Christmas: to see myself as others see me!

I hate to look a gift horse in the mouth, but … I am deeply — deeply — disappointed that Tom never mentioned my punning.