SWIMMING WITH SCAPULARS: TRUE CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG CATHOLIC. By Matthew Lickona (Loyola Press, 3441 North Ashland Ave., Chicago, IL 60657, 2005) viii + 278 pp. PB $19.95
Pastors, bishops, sociologists and others who want to get some insight into the minds of young, practicing Catholics today should read Matthew Lickona, a writer for the San Diego Reader who has produced a short but charming book, winsomely written, which gathers together many of his previous writings in the San Diego News Notes. The resulting book—which fits generally into the genre of religious confessions or spiritual autobiography—rummages through the first couple of decades of his life and is a meandering but coherent retrospective of someone who is constantly trying to live in the world but not of it.
Lickona’s life has only recently begun—he is 32. This relatively short book, therefore, is not a strict or comprehensive autobiography and does not have a tight, controlling chronology to it. Its method, rather, is both diachronic and synchronic, and his style is relaxed, his manner reminiscent. The singularity of this book lies in the fact that unlike many who choose to write about the Church and their experiences of it, Lickona actually believes and lives what the Catholic Church teaches—and not simply the popular or trendy bits, either, like being against the Iraq war. No, Lickona—and his wife—believe such horribly retrograde things as not abusing the marital bed by introducing artificial contraceptives into their divinely iconic conjugal communion. Lickona also believes the traditional Eucharistic doctrine of the Church (“Listen. I have a secret. I eat God, and I have his life in me. It’s the best thing in the world”) as well as her traditional practices of prayer, fasting, and penance. Lickona, to his credit, believes what the Church teaches in these matters and others, but is also able to recognize how bizarre such teachings and practices sound to some people and he is therefore continually trying to find personal ways of explaining them without banging people on the head with a catechism.
For all that, Lickona is no saint and no crusader for the Church—as he himself admits repeatedly. He is—as we all are in the Church militant—very much a work in progress. What is insightful about this book for pastors especially is that the young people in the Church of today who are committed to sanctity do not wish to have their progress toward God interrupted by clerics and hierarchs who dumb down doctrine, vulgarize liturgy to appear “hip,” or fail to take action against priests who abuse children or theologians who abuse their positions to teach heresy. Young Catholics want to be strengthened and challenged by Tradition, which is rich and satisfying when presented in all its beauty and rigor. As T.S. Eliot put it in his famous 1931 essay, “Thoughts After Lambeth,” “you will never attract the young by making Christianity easy; but a good many can be attracted by finding it difficult: difficult both to the disorderly mind and to the unruly passions.”
Lickona’s passions and failings are on display—but only in a salutary, and never a salacious, manner—in this book, but so are his efforts to live a faithful Catholic life in the modem world. On balance, as he admits repeatedly, the world often gets the better of him and he finds it very difficult to share his faith: “my sense of my own faith is deeply personal. It’s intimate, almost like sex is intimate. I am not ashamed to be Catholic, but I have a hard time proclaiming it.”
In the context of this book, that sentiment is commendable: it saves the book from becoming a preachy, pushy tract. Instead, we are given glimpses of his many failings (each of us will sympathetically recognize at least part of himself in some of those) and of halting attempts to witness to his faith with his friends and co-workers. Such insights into trying to live a faithful but ordinary Catholic life are found throughout this book, which should be read not only for the sociological insights it offers into a new generation of Catholics, and not only because its amusing, bracing honesty offers readers much with which to sympathize and reflect upon in their own life, but because, at its best, this book gets out of the way—like St. John the Forerunner—and allows Christ and the Church to shine through, inspiring the doubting reader to wonder about their truth-claims and even, on occasion, inspiring the reader to prayer.
Rev. Adam A.J. DeVille
Saint Paul University