The Story of One Soul...So Far...

Jun 6


Lisa M. Hendey

Lisa M. Hendey

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O.K., I’ll admit it…he had me with title. Before I even cracked the cover of Matthew Lickona’s new book Swimming With Scapulars: True Confessions Of A Young Catholic (Loyola Press, April 2005, hardcover, 278 pages), I found myself intrigued. Gratefully, having now read and re-read the book in its entirety, I’ll say I was not disappointed. As a matter of fact, this book is among my favorites for the year – not because I agree 100% with everything Lickona writes in this memoir, but because of his stunningly gifted delivery and the honesty with which he shares his soul.


Swimming With Scapulars is the story of one young man’s journey of faith. The faith involved happens to be Catholicism,The Story of One Soul...So Far... Articles but the appeal of this book is not found in its theology, but rather in the glimpse it gives us into the development of spirituality in this young man. Lest you think that Matthew is out to paint himself a saint, he’s not - he shares his shortcomings, the temptations he faces, and his sins with a forthrightness that leaves you feeling like you really know him by the book’s end. Many of my favorite passages in the book deal with Matthew’s relationships with family – his parents, his brother, and now his wife and children. Treat yourself to the experience of reading Swimming With Scapulars – you will find yourself entertained, enlightened, and perhaps even inspired to examine the development of your own “soul story”.

Matthew Lickona shared the following on publishing his first book, family, and his take on the future of the Church.

Q: Matthew, I know that you've been writing professionally since 1995, but what prompted you to write this book and has it met your intended goals?

A: To some extent, I was carried along, so much so that a person might be tempted to call it providence. My boss at the San Diego Reader, Jim Holman, also publishes four Catholic newspapers, among them the San Diego News Notes. The book began when he asked me to write a column for the News Notes about my spiritual life. I wasn't sure how much I'd have to offer - I'm hardly a spiritual giant - but I started digging around my interior and writing about what I found there. I was also allowed to comment on my experience of religion, the Church and the culture at large, from books to Satan to Mass to movies. After about five years, my wife Deirdre (among others) started urging me to consider making a book out of columns. Eventually, I came around to the idea; I thought the columns provided an interesting portrait of a member of an interesting subculture: the young Catholic struggling to embrace the faith in its fullness. After Loyola Press bought the book, I reworked it into something of a memoir - the story of my soul so far. As far as goals, I'd like to see the book give pleasure and find a wide audience, of course, and maybe spark some interest in and conversation about the faith as I've experienced it.

Q: How would you describe Swimming with Scapulars to someone who hasn't yet read it? Who is your intended audience?

A: I would describe the book as the story of a young man's gradual immersion in the Catholic faith. There's no slam-bang moment of conversion or repentance, but there is a growing understanding, acceptance, and even love of the mysteries, the richness, and the demands of that faith. Along the way, I try to give an honest account of my interior life, to show that the Church is full of sinners (me), even as those sinners try to advance in holiness. And I think I give some idea of how the world looks through my eyes. I don't know if I have an intended audience; I'd like to see it read by believers and unbelievers, Catholics and non-Catholics, Catholics who agreed with me and those who don't. I suppose I'd especially like to see younger people read it and get a sense that living the faith is possible, even in the midst of failure and sin. And more than possible - worthwhile, supremely so.

Q: In the book, you eloquently describe the influence of your parents and your brother, Mark on your own faith formation. What important lessons have you learned from your parents and from Mark about living the Faith?

A: This is an enormous question; I'll just take a few things from the top of my head. From my parents, certainly the absolute necessity and primacy of prayer. They both start each day with it, and it makes a tremendous difference. From my father, the importance of witnessing in the face of hostility and turning the other cheek. He fights the good fight at work - he's a professor at a state university - and in the Church, but he does not give in to acrimony. Often, he is silent in the face of criticism, even when it gets outrageous. From my mother, the importance of acceptance. My brother was more of a model to me of how a young Christian lived and thought, deeply in the world but not so deep as to lose perspective.

Q: As a father yourself, how do you strive to share your faith with your own children? What do you hope for the future of the Church they will grow up in?

A: I think that for children, an important part of faith formation is the establishment of habits. The habit of attending Sunday Mass. The habit of prayer before meals and bedtime. When they get old enough, the habit of confession and reception of the Eucharist. Habits carry you when the will is weak, and they are most easily established in youth, I think. That's the groundwork. On top of that, there is answering the barrage of questions that children have, and even some preaching. It's taken years, but I've finally started to convince my eldest that things won't ever satisfy him. I try to make conversation about religious matters an ordinary, everyday event; that's how it was for me when I was growing up. That way, I'm hoping, the faith will start to work its way into everyday corners of their souls, and not be reserved for "religious occasions." And because I am an authority, I model God for them in some way, so it's crucial that I teach by example. It's harder to imagine them believing in a loving God if they don't have a loving father on earth. They learn about love from the way I treat them, and from the way I relate to my wife. What do I hope for the future of the Church? That it will more perfectly carry out its mission to bring souls to Christ, and that it will be a vibrant Church, fully engaged with the world and sure of its own foundations.

Q: Tell us a bit about your time at Thomas Aquinas College and how you met Dierdre. I know that you contemplated a vocation to the priesthood - have you ever regretted not following that path? What have you learned from your wife about the vocation to Catholic family life and parenthood?

A: Thomas Aquinas College was where the I started to discover the richness of the faith: its intellectual tradition (we read a great deal of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas), its devotional tradition (Eucharistic Adoration, the scapular, prayer to the saints, etc.), and its doctrinal tradition. I didn't make it an explicit goal, but while I was there, I began to reconnect with the tradition of the Church, to see it as a guide and an inheritance. It's worth noting that while TAC is a Catholic college, and believes that the fullness of truth is found in the Catholic Church, the Church does not enter classroom discussion. It's not a theological college; it's a liberal arts college. We read the Great Books of the Western canon and we discuss them. You can't shoot down the empiricists by saying that the Church teaches otherwise. Outside of class, in the general culture of the school, is where I made all these discoveries about the faith. It wasn't perfect; there was sin there like anywhere else. But I loved it; it was a sort of four-year retreat from the world for the sake of intellectual formation. I should have been a better student, but I still reaped many benefits.

I met Deirdre soon after arriving at the school. Though she was older, we were both freshmen; everybody starts as a freshman at the college and progresses through the same program. Each year builds on what came before. When we met, she was dating a friend of mine whose - but I knew his heart belonged to someone else.

We both worked on campus the following summer, and became great friends. She had such a wit, but she didn't use it as a shield; she was comfortable with sincerity, the intimacy of genuine friendship I think that's also when I discovered what a fantastic cook she was. I ate many dinners on the porch of her dorm - no boys were allowed inside - and I was astonished at what she could turn out with little more than a hotplate and a microwave. And she drank bourbon. We fell in love about halfway through Junior year. By then, all thoughts of the priesthood had vanished. In fact, they vanished soon after I arrived at the college. I think maybe some of my initial leanings were due to my situation in high school. There, I was the odd man out - the celibate, the guy willing to argue against abortion, the guy who was serious about his Catholicism. Not to say I was alone in this, but it certainly wasn't the norm. Perhaps some of my leanings toward the priesthood came from feeling of haven taken a somewhat different path than many of my peers. At college, I was just another Catholic. The attention I paid to religion wasn't something that set me apart. I've never regretted not pursuing a priestly vocation. Sometimes, I feel a little guilty - we need priests so badly, and here I am, happily married, enjoying all sorts of natural blessings. But it's not like signing up for the military, where you can go if you think you're needed. You have to be called.

I've learned a great deal from my wife. She's far more selfless than I am, and she works a lot harder. Yet she complains less. She is deeply devoted to my happiness and the happiness of our children. I don't think I'm a total flop as a spouse, but she is to me a model of self-emptying love. Our marriage has been a happy one, and I like to think I've grown as the job of being husband and father demanded it. You start to get used to giving over, you develop a feeling of never having done enough. Hopefully, it inspires you to try a little harder. Christian marriage is a vocation; it's not simply what people do. It's our particular path to heaven, our best means of learning to love.

Q: You really lay your soul open in this have you dealt with readers' reactions to the book, including those closest to you and some who may be critical of your work?

A: Actually, reader response has been mostly positive, some of it amazingly so. I like to think that has something to do with the degree of honesty in the book, which is something I sought after. I didn't want a memoir that sailed off into happy platitudes or airy abstractions. I wanted something grounded in experience, and that will mean, among other things, sin. I tried to make it clear that I wasn't holier-than-thou, just interested in being holier than I am. Those closest to me have been very kind. There was one person who really hammered the book, first on Amy Welborn's blog and then on, and that did get me upset, because I didn't think she read the book carefully. But my father has always said "it is a luxury to be understood." I've tried not to get upset. I posted a response on the blog, but I mainly tried to correct the record, not argue with her impressions.

Q: This year has been an historic one for our Catholic Church. As a young Catholic, how have you responded to the passing of Pope John Paul II and to the election of Pope Benedict XVI? What role will your generation play in the Church of the new millennium?

A: I'm almost 32; that puts me on the older edge of what people are calling Generation John Paul II. He is the only pope I can remember having prior to Benedict XVI, and I had (have) great reverence and admiration for him. But I was not a disciple, not the way, say, my sister-in-law Lisa was (is). I didn't read the encyclicals. I didn't attend World Youth Day. I didn't get involved in discussions of his philosophy. My loyalty was to the Church - which is not to say that I thought the Pope was somehow opposed to that. I just didn't focus on him, for good or ill. Nor have I read much of what Benedict wrote when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, though I hope to at least partially remedy that. From what I have seen so far, I like him very much.

As for what role my generation will play, please don't make me say that "I believe the children are our future." Instead, let me quote from my father's book Character Matters, in which he quotes Abraham Lincoln. "A child is a person who is going to carry on what you have started. He is going to sit where you are sitting, and, when you are gone, attend to those things which you think are important...He is going to move in and take over your churches...The fate of humanity is in his hands."

I think it's safe to say that the Church, at least in this country, has been going through a rough patch of late. If the "New Faithful" find what they're looking for - and I hope they will - then I think it bodes well for the Church. We're short on priests; a faith worth dying for is a faith worth giving up the blessings of married life for. We need to re-evangelize the West; a faith worth living for is a faith worth telling somebody about, and actually living for it will be a powerful first step in evangelization. I don't want to get all pie-in-the-sky; I don't imagine that all the Church's problems are about to vanish. But I think the "New Faithful," sound a hopeful note.