Monday, October 11, 2010

talkin' angels to a bunch of (curious) materialists

Recently an upper-level religious studies class at Arizona State University came to the Catholic Newman Center, where I work as a priest, as part of a class observation project. They came to observe the strange and exotic behaviors of us Catholics in our native environment, the Mass. Afterwards, they wished to engage in a two-hour question and answer session with me, a priest.

So that is exactly what we did. It was very interesting.

ASU is in many ways a typically twenty-first century American university: a surface-level pluralism appears across the student body, while what actually pervades their way of thinking and believing (very generally speaking) is a vague and often unreflective--but strong nonetheless--brand of materialism and Enlightenment-style suspicion of religion.

What the heck am I supposed to preach to these kids at Mass? That's what I thought as I prepared for Mass that day. Part of me was hoping for a nice, vaguely spiritual ordinary-time feast which wouldn't cause too much cognitive dissonance to my young materialist and anti-Catholic compatriots. So I opened the "ordo" to check the feast day and got the exact opposite of what my bashful side wished for: a feast of great Catholic verve, color, and snappiness.

The Feast of The Archangels, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.

I'll spare you the details of my homily and talk with the students and say this: Catholicism is at its most fascinating, most riveting, most attractive when it doesn't re-package itself to suit modern intellectual tastes. I was tempted to tuck tail and say the squishy swill they wanted to hear: "Catholicism like everything else out's about being nice, and just being yourelf!"

But, alas, a) that's really boring and b) that's totally not true. Heck, Catholicism is about angels, in a huge way. The more I spoke this, the more interesting things became, the more confident I felt, and (it seemed to me) the more the non-Catholic group sat up and showed some curiosity about it all.

Catholicism becomes inviting when its "thick" worldview--God, angels, heavenly temples, exorcisms and all--is presented without the weak-sauce blushing demanded by Enlightenment-style philosophical systems that can't understand it. With all the proper intellectual nuance, to be sure. But without blushing. If St. Michael is real (which he is), there's no need for it.

Do we really believe in angels? Uh, yeah, we do. Shoot, we know their names (a few of them), for crying out loud. To speak to a large group of students of any number of religious, ethnic, and ideological backgrounds is a privilege. But to speak about angels and archangels was a true delight. It snapped me out of my own fearful tendencies to pander to the intellectual pre-commitments of an audience, in exchange a more reasonable and Catholic model in which I proposed to them a more Biblical and historical (and less Cartesian) worldview.

I challenged my open-eyed interlocutors to consider reality on the broadest possible spectrum (perhaps angels are real after all), and to also consider that maybe, just maybe, materialism (the belief that only physical things are real) is a narrow-minded and weird and rationally untenable position to hold.

Strangely, the topic that garnered the most attention is the existence, nature, and attributes of angels. Maybe it was safer for these students than asking questions about God and Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. But that's fine, isn't it? The students were, as far as I could tell, authentically interested and curious. They seemed a little surprised that much of what Catholics believe about angels comes less from the Bible and more from philosophy (e.g., the nature of how angels know things intuitively, choose, move, etc.)

They giggled--but only a little--when I told them that, if they wish, they can pursue their questions about angels in a field called "Angelology," which is a rich and impressive field in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

If, like Blessed John Henry Newman said, a University is a meant to be a place where all the human areas of knowledge and understanding come in contact with one another, then perhaps Angelology at ASU isn't so strange after all.


  1. Love it! Thank you! Your blog is a gem, and deserves a wide hearing. My daughter is a sophomore at UofA, and is active at Newman there. She is excited to read your blog. :)

  2. I'm glad I started reading your blog.

  3. We were sad when you left St. JOA, but know how truly blessed the students are in having you there full time..may the Lord continue to inspire you and continue to give you the courage to speak the truth! May your Guardian Angel lead and guide you.
    Love your blog...we pass it on!

  4. Fr. Muir, the Theology Department of the Jesuit university that I attended offered a survey of religions course, too. Although, the Catholic mass field trip was not to the beautiful campus church but to one outside the university walls, a very tiny modern church with a very hippy mass, and there was no question and answer session with the priest afterwards (actually, that was probably a good thing.) It is sad that the Jesuits at my alma mater, in my opinion, are leading students astray from the truth. ASU students are very blessed to have you and Fr. Clements. Keep up the good work sowing those seeds of truth!