In his first letter, George Weigel describes growing up in a Catholic neighborhood in Baltimore during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Catholics had distinctive customs and religious practices that gave them a different outlook on life. Borrowing a term from the writer Flannery O’Connor, Weigel calls this unique outlook the Catholic “habit of being.” O’Connor exemplifies the Catholic habit of living and viewing the world in her letters and stories, which present the world as the arena wherein the drama of creation, sin, and redemption is constantly being reenacted.
Weigel’s second letter explores the scavi, or excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica, where the first Roman pontiff’s remains were discovered in the 1940’s. Peter’s tomb manifests the “grittiness of Catholicism”: the real, tangible truth of God’s revelation to humankind. Peter, who was apparently a normal, flawed person, was chosen to be the foundation on which Christ built his church because Peter was seized by love for Jesus and had undying faith in him.
Next, Weigel journeys to the Holy Land, beginning at Mount Sinai, where God revealed his law to Moses. Today, St. Catherine’s Monastery stands on the site and houses a famous icon called Christos Pantokrator, or Christ the All-Sovereign. The icon is meant to make Christ present to those who encounter it; indeed, both the humanity and divinity of Jesus shine forth through the icon. Weigel proceeds to describe the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, where Jesus’ body was anointed after the Crucifixion. Here Pope John Paul II concluded his 1990 pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The Dormition Abbey is the final stop on Weigel’s expedition to the Holy Land. The abbey is dedicated to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who allegedly “fell asleep” and was assumed, body and soul, into heaven. Weigel finds that Mary serves as the model of Christian discipleship because her obedience to the word of God is the proper disposition of God’s awesome power.
England is the next location on Weigel’s exploration of Christendom. The first stop is the Oratory in Birmingham, where John Henry Newman lived. Here one can view the desk where Cardinal Newman penned his classic Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864; History of My Religious Opinions, 1870). In this work, Newman asserts that religious truth is not determined by humans but rather revealed by God. Faith requires obedience to God, and through obedience humans are truly liberated.
Next, Weigel visits the Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub in London that was frequented by literary great G. K. Chesterton. The pub typifies Chesterton’s “sacramental imagination” in that it shows how God reveals himself through the goodness of his creation—including good food and drink. Weigel then tours Howard Castle in Yorkshire, where the British Broadcasting Corporation filmed its production of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited (1945, 1959). Waugh’s book conveys important lessons about conversion and about human and divine love.
Weigel’s next letter describes the awe-inspiring beauty of the Sistine Chapel. Here Michelangelo’s famous frescoes express the magnificence and sacramentality of the human body. Likewise, John Paul II’s “theology of the body” affirms the transcendent dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God. In his twelfth letter, Weigel returns to the theme of beauty, describing Chartres Cathedral in France. Chartres lies on the borderland between the mundane and the transcendent; it manifests the Catholic “both/and”—the notion that the reality includes both the visible and invisible, both the material and transcendent.
Weigel visits St. Mary’s Church in Greenville, South Carolina. The community at St. Mary’s was transformed by a dynamic priest named Jay Scott Newman. By insisting that Jesus Christ be the focal point of the Church’s liturgical and prayer life, Newman reinvigorated the congregation’s faith and desire to praise God. However, Weigel explains, prayer is not simply a matter of satisfying personal desires; rather, it is the proper response to God, who initiates the longing in humans to love and praise him.
Weigel’s eleventh letter takes the reader to the North American College Mausoleum in Rome where former seminarian Frank Parater is buried. In 1919, Parater consecrated his life to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; three months later he died, suffering from rheumatism. Suffering is a profound mystery that makes sense only through the eyes of faith. For the Christian, death is not the final story: Eternal life awaits those who have been redeemed by the suffering and death of Jesus.
Weigel treats the theme of freedom while visiting the Old Cathedral in Baltimore, Maryland. The cathedral was designed to be a metaphor for Catholicism and the United States; its architecture evokes the spirit of the American founding and the ancient traditions of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. According to these venerable traditions, freedom must be connected to moral truth. As Servais Pinckaers, professor of moral theology at the University of Fribourg, remarks, true freedom means “freedom for excellence,” not simply doing things “my way.”
Weigel visits Poland, a deeply Catholic country with a tumultuous past. While the Nazis occupied Kraków, a young man named Karol Wojtya (later, Pope John Paul II) discerned his vocation. Wojtya was convinced that God had preserved his life for a special reason, and he decided to give himself completely to God; it was a decision that changed the course of history. Next, Weigel tells the story of Father Jerzy Popieuszko, who encouraged his congregation at St. Stanisaw Kostka Church in Warsaw to pray for the Polish Solidarity movement. In 1984 Popieuszko was murdered by the Polish Secret Police; however, his martyrdom inspired the Polish people to seek freedom, which was accomplished after the Revolution of 1989. Weigel describes the Basilica of the Holy Trinity in Kraków, a recently restored Gothic cathedral with a vibrant spiritual life. Here crowds of young people flock to worship in what Weigel sees as living testimony against the bankruptcy of secularism. Christian humanism, rooted in the virtues of faith, hope, and love is the true alternative to the modern, secular worldview.