Maine: The “Least” and the “Most” Christian State

MAPThe Huffington Post reported on the to-date most comprehensive statistical study of religious bodies in the U.S. and, specifically, a state by state look at the percentage of Christians, as self-reported.* Maine fared the worst, with only 27% identifying as Christian, while Utah was at the top with 78%. Northern New England is among the least Christian in the nation, according to this 2010 study, and I would venture that at least the Maine stats are lower in 2015 than 2010. Saint Joseph’s College is the only Catholic college remaining in Maine, and there are but three Catholic high schools, two in Portland and one about 45 minutes away, in a state that covers a huge geographical area.

When I moved to Maine almost three years ago, it was a shock to the system. I had to work harder at being “intentionally” Catholic. Most churches have only one Mass on Sundays, and it is even more difficult to get to Mass on Holy Days of Obligation. Because of the shortage of priests, they have become like the “priests on horseback” of old, traveling great distances to attend to the sacramental and pastoral needs of the faithful in parishes consisting of “clusters” of individual churches several towns apart. I taught the high school faith formation class in the local church, with a scant four regular students attending, all girls in grades 9-12, one of whom was my daughter. This is vastly different from the metro-NY area from which I came, where there was a palpable Catholic rhythm to life that was easy to spot for the aware. I could roll out of bed any time on Sunday and find an available Mass in any number of churches close to home. Daily Mass was a breeze, with so many options, and just five minutes from my house was a shrine with priests to hear Confessions from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., and if the penitent needed absolution right away, a priest would answer the door until 11:00 p.m.

SJCSaint Joseph’s College has become a Catholic haven, of sorts, for me, because during the school year we are blessed with a priest on campus who offers weekday Masses and a Sunday afternoon Mass that late sleepers can appreciate. Everywhere I look I see crucifixes, meatless cafeteria-food Fridays in Lent, and opportunities for prayer. I pass the welcoming statue of the Venerable Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, and the college campus regularly peppered with quotes from her, such as:

Mercy receives the ungrateful again and again, and is never weary of pardoning them.

If the love of God really reigns in your heart, it will show itself in the exterior.

No occupation should withdraw our minds from God. Our whole life should be a continual act of praise and prayer.

As I turn into the campus driveway every morning (aptly named McAuley Drive), I pass the sign bearing our patron’s name and offer a little prayer to Saint Joseph for the well-being of our college community.

While the state of Maine may be the least self-identified “churched” population, the “state” of Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Community may be among the most “churched” population in the nation. Our large body of online theology students comes from all over the United States and beyond its borders to learn and drink in the beauty of the Catholic faith. Our on-campus and online theology faculty possess the Mandatum to teach according to Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Our theology family-at-a-distance, by virtue of being tethered in mind, heart, and spirit to our beautiful campus on the shores of Sebago Lake—dare I say—maybe inches us towards the “most” Christian state—if not in the whole perhaps in the little plot of land in Standish, Maine, where Saint Joseph’s College calls home.

Patricia Sodano Ireland is Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Program Director of Online Theology Programs at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.


That Awkward Moment When…

Besides being the first Sunday of Lent, February 22 also celebrates the Chair of St. Peter and the feast of St. Peter the Apostle. These are no small matters. Peter, that most rambunctious of Christ’s disciples, is also the most human. The Gospels depict his bravery as well as cowardice, his faith and his foibles. Peter first declares Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God, for which Christ recognizes him as the Church’s foundation (Matthew 16:16-19). On the other hand, to save himself Peter quickly denies Christ three times (Mt 26:69-75, Mk 14:66-72, Lk 22:54-62, Jn 18:16-27). Peter and Paul join to make their contributions to the Church (especially so at Rome). The Catechism copy-cropped-img_0320.jpgcelebrates St. Peter’s charism for visible authority while reminding us that the Marian charism—the one of interior holiness—always precedes the Petrine (#773). There are other feast days involving Peter (June 29—Saints Peter & Paul, November 18—dedication of the basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul). These very particular, apostolic reminders link us—in our own locations—to the universal Church that that these apostles founded to proclaim the Gospel.

All that being said, the Islamic State’s recent executions—the burning of a Jordanian pilot, beheading 21 Coptic Christians with a threat to conquer Rome—render moot many, if not all, academic considerations of martyrdom. After all, it’s one thing to write about it; it is another matter entirely to confront the actual, visible reality. I know St. Peter was a martyr; he and so many thousands of believers since have found in Christ the courage to confront death. If we are honest, though, we cannot escape the awkwardness of writing while others actually live.

That living of the faith requires truth-telling. The Catechism discusses martyrdom under the Eighth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16). God is the source of all Truth, and in Jesus Christ God’s truth is made wholly manifest (#2465-6). All Christians are called to witness to this Truth; the martyrs, in dying, bear supreme witness. They also, through their death, fully imitate Christ (#2472). Sometimes martyrs are well-known, others dwell even in death in relative anonymity.  They now rest with God. Meanwhile back here on earth the Church memorializes all the saints—starting with the Blessed Virgin Mother—and thus the martyrs to illuminate the links between the earthly and heavenly liturgies (#1195). These examples encourage and exhort us in our own journey to God.

In the Lenten season the Church encourages us to renew our practice of prayer, fasting, and alms. This requires humility, a virtue rarely praised or valued today (cf. #2559). By knowing we are not God we are thus able to starting praying to God (and with the saints). Humility also forces us to realize, in occasionally awkward ways, that all our words and gestures do not mean much. In 1970 Peter Berger wrote: “In a world full of Nazis, one may be forgiven for being a Barthian.” Referring to the strident style of Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), Berger meant that, in extreme circumstances, unrepentant declarations of gospel truth might be permissible. Perhaps some Christians have spent the last forty-five years wondering if the world has yet filled up with enough Nazis so they can finally start evangelization. The martyrs did not wait, and through their deaths have testified to the good news.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

Enroll in the School of Forgiveness

To err is human; to forgive, Divine. The old adage about God’s mercy and our frailty provides a tempting means of letting ourselves off the hook when it comes to forgiving others. After all, as “mere humans,” we’re weak, fragile and subject to every whim, distraction and opportunity for self-indulgence with which we’re presented. According to this line of thought, “I’m only human,” becomes a defense for wrongdoing that (if we’re honest) each of us has employed at one time or another. Doing what is right and just at all times is impossible for us, so we might as well not worry about striving too hard to hit the mark. As for forgiveness: it’s a goal, but not one we’re expected to consistently attain because some things are just too awful to forgive (human weakness, after all). All of the “tough stuff,” the hard things in life, and those that require a lot of extra effort – those are things God can do, but not us “puny humans.”

Today is Ash Wednesday, the gift the Church gives us as a call to self-reflection and repentance – and to the realization that we are to strive toward the Divine. It is the Forgivenessbeginning of the Lenten season, and an opportunity to truly walk with Jesus as He makes His way toward the Cross. For Eastern Catholics, this season actually began two days earlier. Monday marked the first day of The Great Fast (as it is called in the East), and it begins, in a way, by refuting the adage about forgiveness being strictly God’s province.

The day before The Fast begins is known as Forgiveness Sunday, wherein we remember the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, and the beginning of the path toward salvation. Vespers are celebrated in the evening, and end with a Service of Mutual Forgiveness, in which everyone – from the priest, to the altar servers, to the people in the pew – approach each other individually to ask for and receive forgiveness with these words:

Forgive me, a sinner.
God Himself forgives you.

It is often difficult for us to “work up the courage” to examine our consciences and “enter the box” to confess our sins. Yet the experience of God’s grace, and the relief of letting go of the dead weight of sin that gets in the way of experiencing true love and peace, calls us back again and again. Entering into the Holy Mystery of Confession is essential for our spiritual (and general) health year round, but it’s especially important at the start of, and throughout, The Fast.

Just as important is our willingness to let go of our pride and face each other in a stance of humility and openness: to ask for forgiveness, and be willing to forgive. Neither is easy. Depending upon the ways we’ve hurt others – or been hurt by them – it can feel equally as impossible to ask forgiveness as it is to grant it. This is why the Fast is so important for us, not simply as a spiritual discipline, or the fulfillment of a requirement. Self-denial – breaking out of the cocoon of self-centeredness – is the introductory course in the School of Forgiveness. It’s a course we all need to repeat again and again, but the Teacher is patient and willing to tutor us in the ways of love and surrender.

“To err” is human, inasmuch as our inclination toward sin is our inheritance from the fall of our first parents. Yet to forgive is human, too. To forgive is to be authentically human; humanity made possible by the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity. Jesus, Son of God, took flesh and became human so that we could become like God.

If it’s been a month – or it’s been years – since you “stepped into the box,” stop where you are and examine your conscience. Go to confession at the first opportunity you can. Then examine your conscience again and forgive those who have hurt you. If you can do it in person, go to them in humility and love. If that’s not possible, forgive them in your heart and pray to God for them. Revise the adage and give it new meaning in your life: To err is human; to forgive, authentically human through the grace of the Divine Savior.

Forgive…because God Himself forgives you.

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

What’s the difference?

The Gospel reading for today (Mk 1:40-45), the last Sunday before Lent begins, provides a direct link to what Pope Francis discusses in his Message for Lent 2015.

While the title of the Message is “Make Your Hearts Firm,” Francis writes from his greatest concern over a “globalization of indifference. … a problem which we, as Christians, need to confront.” The whole salvation message, that Jesus came, was incarnate, lived, breathed, taught, and healed, was crucified, died, was buried, and rose from the dead, leads us to believe that God is not indifferent to us and to our world.

In today’s Gospel reading, a man with leprosy essentially says to Jesus, “if you care, you can make a difference in my life.” Jesus was not indifferent; he was moved with pity and reached out his hand – a movement of caring, compassion, personal risk, and desire to make a difference in the life of another person. “Christians are those who let God clothe them with goodness and mercy, with Christ, so as to become, like Christ, servants of God and others.” (n. 1)

indifference3The world is big, her problems are many, and with so much information instantly available to us, it can be overwhelming. “What difference can I make?” I ask myself. As I write this, it is snowing yet again. Each individual snowflake might seem insignificant, but the combined effect of the snowflakes makes mountains of snow – stops traffic, bends trees, and sags roofs – and who is to say that it isn’t just one more snowflake that would cause the tree or roof to break? While the effects of snow might be destructive (if not merely inconvenient!) it provides a good example of the impact of the efforts of each of us. We make a difference every time we choose to act with intentionality – with compassion.

The call to Consecrated Persons this year is to live the present with passion. Passion is as far from indifferent as one can get! In this Lenten Message, Pope Francis says, “how greatly I desire that all those places where the Church is present, especially our parishes and our communities, may become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference!” (n. 2)

How do I witness the indifference of society? Do I feel that my efforts are of no use and fall into the safety of indifference? “As individuals too, we are tempted by indifference. Flooded with new reports and troubling images of human suffering, we often feel our complete inability to help. What can we do to avoid being caught up in this spiral of distress and powerlessness?” Pope Francis asks (n. 3). With this question, he offers us three answers:

  • First is the call to prayer. To pray is not to do nothing! To truly pray for the needs of my brothers and sisters means that I have allowed their need to enter into my heart, that I recognize an injustice, that I acknowledge our interconnectedness – our communio.
  • Second is the call to action. “We can help by acts of charity,” the Pope tells us (n. 3). We cannot solve every problem on our own, but we can help and contribute to organizations that work for the good of our sisters and brothers both near and far. During Lent, what if I decide what to give out instead of what to give up?
  • Third is the call to conversion. The recognition that members of my family, my human family, are in need, “reminds me of the uncertainty of my own life and my dependence on God and my brothers and sisters.” (n. 3) This balance of needing both God and others is to keep my feet on the ground – I am not the savior of the world, nor am I the savior of myself!

I am limited and needy and therefore can find that vulnerable place of communion with those whose need might be a little more obvious – the person with “leprosy” who crosses my path and says to me, “if you care, you can make a difference in my life!” The choice, to not be indifferent, to make a difference is enough to change the world one person, one encounter, at a time. What will you give out this Lent?

Sr. Kelly Connors teaches Canon Law for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

The Jesus Effect

pope-francis-vaticanMuch has been made of the so-called Francis Effect in the public relations game the secular media plays with the Church. At first, it seemed a boon to the Church, though the jury is still out as to its lasting impact. But even Pope Francis himself would agree that it is not the Francis Effect that we want in our lives. It is a genuine encounter with Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We want the Jesus Effect.

The name Jesus means “God saves”. We hear these phrases often – “Jesus saves” or “You must accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.” And these things are true. Jesus does save us from the power of sin, and he is very, very personal. He knows each one of us intimately, and longs for us to know him just as well.

In coming to know Jesus, we come to know our true selves. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We know this God has revealed himself to be nothing other than LOVE itself. God is love – we read it in John’s Gospel. We are made in the image and likeness of LOVE. When you look in the mirror, do you see LOVE looking back at you?

We all try to be loving people. And we know from experience that when we love, we are happier. If we are made in the image of LOVE, then, when we love, we are being our true selves. This is why the more we get to know Jesus, the more we come to know our true selves. We are made to love. We are made to love and to be loved. We are always loved by God – this is what enables us to know how to love others (and to actually do it!). The power of this love is far more powerful than the power of sin. Both powers are more powerful than we are. We easily become “slaves to sin” because, without the power to overcome it, we can only give in to it. But with the power of love – AH. We are no longer slaves – we are free to love, free to be our true selves. You can see why it is so important to be in relationship with Jesus always, to seek him out, and to value every encounter with him.

I struggle to find words that adequately describe the power of this love experienced in an encounter with Jesus. Powerful, yes. Safe and secure. Energizing. Liberating. I think depending on where we are in our lives and what challenges we are facing, this love will have a different effect on us. It is interesting to look at some examples from the Scriptures of people who encountered Christ, and ponder the Jesus Effect in their lives.

John the Baptist (Luke 1:39-45/ Matthew 3:13-17)

visitation-1John the Baptist first encounters Jesus while both are still in their mothers’ wombs! When Mary arrives for her visit to Elizabeth, John leaps in her womb – he leaps for joy. He recognizes the presence of Jesus, and is happy – so happy he can’t control himself. He wants to come out and play with Jesus. The joy present in that moment is immense.

Can you think of a moment when you encountered Jesus and simply experienced pure and utter joy?

This same boy who recognized Jesus from his first encounter becomes the one who facilitates the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to the world. John was baptizing people as they acknowledged their sins, but he was always fully aware that he was merely preparing people for their encounter with Jesus – calling them to repentance so that when the One who could forgive sin and conquer it –really take its power away – arrived, they would be ready to hand over their sins and be purified with love. John knows that Jesus does not need to be baptized for the sake of forgiving his sins – Jesus doesn’t have any! But Jesus tells him to do it anyway. The humility of John to do as he is told by Jesus, even without understanding, is rewarded with the voice of God affirming Jesus’ identity. His encounter with Jesus resulted in a trust in his way.

Can you think of a moment when you did something you felt God was calling you to do, even though it didn’t make any sense to you?

In our baptism, we die and rise with Christ – united to his Paschal Mystery. Our original sin is washed away – our lives controlled by sin dies, and a new life – freed by love – rises. Our dying and rising is united to Jesus’ death and resurrection – our lives become witnesses to the power of love over sin. Baptism is first a personal union with God – but in becoming personally united to God, we become joined to all the others who are united to God, and we love who are not yet united to God as God loves them. We desire that they, too, will come to know the love of God that we know. We become a community; we become church.

Now, just because we are baptized does not mean we are all loving and never sin. We know that’s not true! But God’s love for us is so great that he gives us many opportunities to become reunited to him. The most powerful opportunities are those we are given by participating in the sacramental life of the Church. Baptism brings us into the loving embrace of our God – the rest of the sacraments sustain us in that love. They are genuine encounters with Christ, and they have a Jesus Effect on us.

The Jesus Effect is not always one of joy. In Luke’s gospel, we meet someone who encounters Jesus and, instead of leaping for joy, breaks down in tears.

The Pardon of the Sinful Woman (Luke 7:36-50) is one of my favorite Scripture passages. Imagine what it must have been like to meet Jesus while he walked the earth. This woman’s response to meeting Jesus was one of utter humility and repentance. The two go hand in hand. You can’t really be repentant without being humble first. Humility enables us to acknowledge that we are not perfect. Humility is the greatest form of honesty, I think. We acknowledge who we are in front of God – not in front of anyone else, not compared to anyone else. It is just our true self – and how well we are being that (or not). Her response to Jesus was so beautiful because in it, she is saddened by her own sinfulness, while being completely overwhelmed by the forgiveness offered to her. Her focus is completely on Jesus. She is not distracted by the others present who speak ill of her. The power of the love of Jesus is so strong that it overshadows their sneers. Imagine that!

Can you think of a moment when you encountered the love of God so strongly that it silenced all the negative voices around you, at least in your ears? Now – can you think of a moment when you were that love of God to another?

The sacrament of reconciliation is an intense moment of this kind of love, and the season of Lent of a perfect time to encounter Jesus in this way. We can bring anything to confession, and Jesus will give us graces to overcome these temptations. He judges us only to save us – he judges what it is in our lives that is keeping us apart from him – and he tells us to stop doing these things – AND he gives us the grace to do so. He doesn’t leave us hanging. He wants to be intimately united to us. He gives us all we need to do it. This is the Jesus Effect – and it is everlasting.

Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Online Theology Programs for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

What is Really Important?

This coming week, we celebrate Random Acts of Kindness Week! Why is it, as a society that we wait for special occasions to do the things we should do regularly? For example, at Tmother-teresa-kindness-quotehanksgiving, we donate to our local food pantry. At Christmas we buy a present for an orphaned child. The list goes on. And yet, without that special occasion, we move back to the routine of our lives, centered around what is on our own personal agendas. With Random Acts of Kindness Week upon us, some of us will once again use a special occasion to take the time to do something nice for someone else. Such acts of kindness make us feel good for the moment. Think about that “feel good moment” for a moment. Wouldn’t you like to have that feeling more often? If so, what is stopping you? For some of us, we get caught up in the mundane tasks required of us each day. For others it is because we have too much on our “to-do” list already. Either way, we lose sight of what is really important.

What is really important? We were put on this earth to imitate Christ; to do good deeds for the benefit of others; to act in a manner where we should expect nothing in return for kindnesses extended to others. We were put here to follow God’s will. What do you think He is asking of you today? Is He asking you to make your laundry your number one priority, or is He asking you to feed the hungry, clothe and shelter the poor, care for the sick and elderly, and love your neighbor as your top priority?

I have a challenge for you: Rather than performing one act of kindness this week, give thought to how you can incorporate kindness into your daily routine. Make it a part of your character. Lent is swiftly approaching. Perhaps, rather than giving something up, like chocolate, how about using this time to build new habits of virtuous behavior related to acts of kindness? Here are just a few ways that you can do this and have that feel good moment on a routine basis:

  • Donate your time to a local food bank or homeless shelter.
  • Donate your talents in helping others learn what you already know.
  • Donate your money to sponsor a child in need.
  • Volunteer at a hospital.
  • Visit the elderly in nursing homes, and give your love.
  • Visit the imprisoned and share your faith.

I challenge you to embrace that feel good moment more often! I encourage you to grow closer to God through acts of love and kindness extended to your neighbor. It might mean reprioritizing your life slightly to make room for the Holy Spirit to work within you, but the joy that you will feel by doing so will last a long time.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23).

Allow the fruit of the Holy Spirit to blossom within you! Be kind to others!

Virginia Lieto teaches in the Catechetical Certificate Program for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Encounter with Saints and the Mission of All the Baptized

One month ago, I had the privilege of celebrating Mass on the altar above the tomb of St. John Paul II. Our small pilgrimage group had requested a Mass at one of the altars, either in the crypt or in St. Peter’s Basilica itself. We never expected that we would be given this particular altar, and all in the group were rather excited. One of my friends, who is an American serving on the general council of his religious community, asked me hoMass at JPII Altarw we had arranged it. He had been trying for months through various contacts in the Vatican. I told him how we asked simply for a Mass in the basilica. Of course, he was very surprised that no special arrangements had been made. I was simply thankful to the Holy Spirit for arranging it and giving both the pilgrims and me such an important spiritual opportunity. As we made our way to the altar of St. John Paul, we went by the tomb of St. John XXIII. I hope someday to celebrate a Mass on the altar above his tomb as well. Both are personal heroes of mine because of their efforts to expand the role of all in the Church, especially the laity, which was so central to the charism of the founder of my religious community, St. Vincent Pallotti. In his homily for their canonizations, Pope Francis spoke about the efforts of these two popes in this regard:

John XXIII and John Paul II cooperated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church in keeping with her pristine features, those features which the saints have given her throughout the centuries.

The renewal and updating of the Church called for by the Second Vatican Council, initiated by St. John XXIII, is central to the work of the New Evangelization as articulated by St. John Paul II. This work continued through the efforts of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, especially in the Synod on the New Evangelization, and is finding even greater momentum through the witness of Pope Francis. All of them, along with Blessed Paul VI, the teaching of the Council, and Church leadership in general, have called all of the baptized to engage in greater co-responsibility for the life of the Church and for the work of evangelization.

When Pope Francis canonized St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II together, various pundits, both in Church and secular media, were quick to give their sometimes very simplistic analysis of the message that he was trying to convey. If there was any “message”, I believe that it is a continued or re-commitment to the on-going renewal of the Church in trustful cooperation with the Holy Spirit and in prayerful communion with the saints.

St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II were both visionary leaders who put forward programmatic plans for not simply renewal of the Church as an institution, but renewal of all the baptized in faith and holiness who are called to go forth into the world and renew it as well. In 1959, St. John XXIII said, “Profession of the Christian faith is not intelligible without strong, lively apostolic fervor” (Princeps Pastorum, 32). The Second Vatican Council confirmed this understanding in Lumen Gentium through its teachings about the Universal Call to Holiness and the role of all the baptized in the mission of Christ. St. John Paul II was one of the drafters of the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem) along with the then Rector General of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate, Fr. Wilhelm Möhler, S.A.C. St. John Paul taught in his apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici, which followed the Synod on the Laity in 1987, that

The Second Vatican Council has reminded us of the mystery of this power and of the fact that the mission of Christ – Priest, Prophet-Teacher, King – continues in the Church. Everyone, the whole People of God, shares in this threefold mission’” (14).

Sharing in the mission of Christ is not simply staying within the confines of the church building. Instead, especially in this time of the New Evangelization, all of the baptized are called to recognize that they are followers of the Christ who are sent on mission by him. In fact, Pope Francis even calls the baptized, in Evangelii Gaudium, “missionary disciples” (120).


Fr. Frank Donio, S.A.C., is Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center and teaches for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

“But What Does It Mean?”

An Appreciation and Assessment of Father Thomas Berry, CP
on the One Hundredth Anniversary of His Birth [November 11, 2014]


T. BerryI continually meet people who express appreciation for the wisdom of Thomas Berry [1914-2009] as the “bard of the new cosmology.” Each seizes on some different dimension of the accomplishments of this great man. I have been privileged to know him both as Father Thomas and simply as Thomas. I cannot begin to express the debt of gratitude that I owe to him as a priest and as a teacher and mentor. Thomas married my wife and me, and baptized our first son. But above all he was one the great masters in our intellectual journey. For forty-two years until his death in 2009 he and I talked about the books he encouraged me to read and to study. Since I met Thomas in 1967, roughly about half way through his own journey as a scholar, I first knew him as he was completing for himself the intellectual foundations for his The Great Work: Our Way into the Future [1999] and for The Universe Story, co-authored with Brian Swimme [1992]. Knowing about these intellectual foundations adds even greater depth to an understanding of these later works. In fact I wish I had known him even earlier in his more formative years when he read his way through the Patrologia Latina, the great collection of the Fathers of the Church. He was deeply informed by the neo-Thomists of his youth, Joseph Gredt and Aimee Forest, and by the historian, Etienne Gilson. I wish I could have been there when as a young teacher, at the same high school seminary that I later attended, he tried unsuccessfully to get high school seminarians to read Augustine’s City of God and The Communist Manifesto. On the day I met, while I was still in college, we talked about the relationship of religion and culture found in the historical works of Christopher Dawson whom he claimed as one of his inspirations.

As he did for so many, he encouraged me to study the religions of Asia. Thus four years later, he encouraged me to concentrate my graduate studies at Fordham University in the history of religions. I had the honor of being his graduate student and also was appointed his assistant at the foundation of the Riverdale Center for Religious Research in Riverdale, New York. I remember the hot summer afternoons when we moved his extensive library of books in wash tubs in order to clear the old house for renovation as the Riverdale Center. Thomas and I, under the supervision of Father Ernie Hotz, spent several days knocking down old plaster walls with hammers. During my first summer with him each morning he taught me Sanskrit and each evening he would bring me books to read: McNeil’s The Rise of the West, Beckett’s Endgame, Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, van der Leuuw’s Religion in Essence and Manifestation, Fung Yu-Lang’s History of Chinese Philosophy, Neumann’s The Great Mother, and de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Even then his attention was on issues of the environment. We read Commoner’s The Closing Circle and Dubos’ So Human an Animal. I helped Thomas plan his week-long summer conferences: “The Counter Culture,” “Symbolism,” “New York as Sacred City,” “Energy: Its Cosmic-Human Dimensions.”

In his courses Thomas introduced me to Lady Murasaki, Confucius and Mencius [“no one should call themselves educated if they have not read Mencius”], Teilhard, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Black Elk, and Krishna [somehow he missed Muhammad; I think it was deliberate!]. He encouraged me never to forget Thomas Aquinas. He directed my dissertation on the Bhagavata Purana, stressed the importance of divine affectivity, and how to make comparisons in similarity and difference. He persistently asked me, “But what does it mean?” Amazingly he affirmed me as a young scholar; he told me to write the entire dissertation before showing it to him. It took me four months. From 1982 to 1996, each winter, I spent two weeks with him studying. In the nineties we discussed for several years Cajetan’s commentary on Aquinas concerning creation out of nothing and the analogy of being. For our last meeting, my wife MaryAnn, Brian Brown, and Amarylis Cortijo visited him in Greensboro, North Carolina. He had had a stroke and was aphasic He couldn’t read but he could remember. He remembered which passages for me to read aloud from Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles.

In sum, for my own scholarship as an historian of religion, I learned three things from Thomas. (1) The world religions have conflicting soteriologies that include contradictories. Thus Berry never spoke of convergent “ways to the center.” For the next forty years, this conclusion placed me at odds with the prevailing currents in the theology of religions. Only with the emergence of comparative [and contrastive] theology has a countervailing assumption begun to be given a hearing. (2) Fr. Thomas worked from the style of cultural history of Christopher Dawson. He maintained that the problematic of the present time is cultural, not theological.[1] He stated to me that there was nothing basically wrong with the classical theology of God. Characteristically he bragged that he had never read anything by Karl Rahner.[2] (3) I learned: go deeper in theology and not to innovate. I would add that Ewart Cousins also taught me that Paul Ricoeur was perhaps naïve about second naïveté, since there was nothing naïve about first naïveté. Depth need not be achieved by innovation. Fr. Thomas’ later development of an ecozoic spirituality, which, while not completely dismissive of, is at least inattentive to, the redemption, I have chosen not to follow.


I think it is unfortunate for those who encountered Thomas Berry in his later years after The Great Work [1999] that they don’t know about Thomas’ intellectual development from the thirties to the sixties. Augustine’s The City of God is central to Thomas’ historical perspectives with its emphasis on the biggest picture possible, on convergent historical factors, and on cultural impact. With Augustine Thomas searched for the broad unfolding of human, and of cosmic, history; of the entanglement of the divine and the human. He wanted to know where history was going. This emphasis on Augustine also explains why Christopher Dawson influenced him even though he never [rarely?] cites him. Dawson understood that religion was the key to understanding culture. When Thomas called himself a cultural historian he meant it in the sense that Dawson did, not in the anthropological sense of Kroeber and Kluckhohn. His dissertation at Catholic University in 1948 on Vico illustrates what I am saying here. It is basically an essay on Vico’s thought. It would not pass muster these days as a dissertation. But it very much shows the direction of Berry’s thought, and his practice as a cultural historian. In the early fifties he studied the great neo-Confucians, especially Chu Hsi [12th century A.D.]. This is important because Thomas juxtaposed neo-Confucian cosmic humanism dialectically with Augustine’s and Aquinas’ monotheism. In the later fifties he discovered Teilhard who for him synthetically pulled the two strands together and from which Thomas derived the basis for his environmental and ecological work, even while he could be very critical of Teilhard.

I think Thomas in the forties and fifties should be situated as a historian of thought, and then from the sixties on as an essayist of genius. He had found his genre. Unfortunately, Thomas never produced a major historical work. Nonetheless, his insights are conveyed and shaped by the “essay” which may be the perfect vehicle for what he wanted to say, for the audience he wanted to reach, and for the way he wanted to impact that audience. He appreciated other essayists like Emerson, Annie Dillard, Rene Dubos, Wendell Berry, Teilhard, etc. The essay, with its carefully-crafted prose and poetic resonance, channeled and focused his thinking. What he wanted to say he would say in ten pages of careful prose that he reviewed again and again. He also delivered these essays in spoken form. Usually he stayed very close to the text. His phrases and modes of thought were repeated again and again in his essays, even as they unfolded over the decades. He never got involved in academic games of publication and scholarship, and in the intricacies of detailed research. He read foundational texts directly and worked off of them, e.g., Augustine in Latin, Chu Hsi in Chinese, the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, the Communist Manifesto, Teilhard, Jung, etc. Many of the dissertations of his doctoral students were about significant Hindu and Buddhist texts, and about Native American myths and rituals, and what they mean to a contemporary. This approach allowed him to read the ancients as if he and they were contemporaries. Their thought spoke directly to him in the present. Thus he did not get bogged down too much in historical contextualization. This is both a gain and a loss. It means that his major points may on the whole be true, but his historical illustrations may fall short. Historians may be impatient with him, from the historical point of view rightfully so.

As I stated above, I would join Thomas each January for a two-week intellectual retreat. We discussed Thomas Aquinas and his doctrines of analogy and of creation. These discussions show that in his last years, in private conversations, he was very interested in the most important question from his earliest studies as a seminarian: is the universe self-explanatory or not? Yet he rarely alludes to these themes in his essays. Back on him as a historian, he works into his essays a thesis that Christianity since the Black Death, the Reformation, and the Counter Reformation has overemphasized redemption at the expense of creation theology. This he thinks contributed to the ecological crisis. This thesis is stated but never demonstrated with convincing historical evidence according to contemporary historiographical criteria. I am not sure I support this thesis. In fact, I know I don’t. However I think it can be sorted out of his thought without losing its overall value and impact. [He would not have agreed with me]. This is the strength and weakness of Thomas Berry as an historian. He was an “essayist” and direct reader of texts. He was a humanist in the classical sense even as he resituated the human project into the Universe Story: “the basic mood of the future might well be one of confidence in the continuing revelation that takes place in and through Earth”

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

[1] Thus I have found the reflections on culture of Tracy Rowland, Charles Taylor, John Milbank, and Joseph Ratzinger very helpful.

[2] This is ironic because, when Fr. Berry told me that, I was working with Fr. McCool on The Rahner Reader. My contribution was to provide the index.