The trip to Detroit for the Lessons from St. Paul Conference was another immersion into one corner of the Church's rich and extremely diverse life - the sort of corner that doesn't get talked about much on Catholic blogs.
First of all - the area of Detroit near Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a blast zone, one of the most desolate places I have ever been. Sacred Heart is a magnificent brick ecclesial fortress surrounded on one end by streets full of homes that are ruined or abandoned and the vacant lots where homes once stood. The irony is that Sacred Heart is the western terminus of one of Detroit's most famous neighborhoods: Boston-Edison, filled with magnificent homes build in the 1905 - 1925 period when the seminary was built and when Detroit grew from the 19th largest city in the US to the fourth largest. (Detroit's population has halved since 1950.)
The driver of my sedan from the airport warned me in graphic terms of the dangers of the neighborhood and emphasized that I could not walk outside the fenced and guarded seminary campus because prostitutes and drug deals filled the streets after nightfall. He was a cheerful, semi-literate man who struggled to find Chicago Blvd on his GPS because he thought it began with "C-H-A", and made it clear that he had spent a lot of time in the rough end of the city. Even Nora, the efficient secretary who was the organizing force behind the conference, was clearly worried when I was late arriving at the seminary because I had an airport meeting with an editor from Servant books.
The seminary itself is vast and echoing in the grand old Catholic style: A four story square that is 600 feet long on each side. There were 325 at the conference and the great hulk easily accommodated the crowd. I was told by one seminarian that archdiocese had considered moving the seminary at one point but was told that, even abandoned, the building would survive for 450 years, a half ruined castle.. So today, 90 college and graduate level seminarians live and study there.
About the topic de jure this weekend around St. Blog's. I found out that Notre Dame had invited President Obama to give this year's commencement address on Saturday when a conference attendee asked Archbishop Chaput about it. As Tom Peters over at American Papist noted, the Archbishop invited those present to make their feelings known - charitably - in a letter to ND's president. (Archbishop Chaput emphasized the importance of charity in doing so. He said that he gets lots of critical mail and a goodly amount of it is not charitable.)
Here is CNA's coverage of Chaput's speech. Since I had left home early Friday morning before I heard about the Notre Dame kuffufle, I didn't realize that Chaput's remarks would get the sort of coverage they have. I'm used to a much higher level of obscurity at the sort of events I frequent.
Chaput also gave an interesting and appropriate answer to questioners who asked that the US Bishops respond to the Notre Dame invitation with a single voice. First of all, he noted that he did not expect the US Bishops to do anything as a body. He then pointed out that taking prophetic political stands is not really the center of a bishop's job. A bishop's primary job is uniting the Catholic community. Chaput then turned to the lay men and women in his audience (the vast majority) and issued a challenge. He said that it was the Church's teaching that, ultimately, protecting human life at all levels really is a lay responsibility and he encouraged us to take up politics as a career.
But his response seemed to deflate his questioners a bit. It was as though they desperately wanted to believe that if all the US bishops spoke with a single voice, the 65 million Catholics of the US would just snap to and abandon their divisions on this topic and that ND and the new administration would crumble in the face of an irresistibly united Catholic community. There would be no need for the long, bloody slog and inevitable partial-victories of grass roots and national politics; for the long obedience of personal evangelization, formation, and social entrepreneurship around the life issues.
I spoke after the Archbishop and the talk on Evangelizing Post Moderns seemed to go reasonably well. I had people coming up all day to thank me for it in very strong terms. At least two dozen told me that they were very interested in possibly attending Making Disciples this summer in Colorado Springs. And I was showered with some great evangelization resources of interest that I will be blogging about as well. Two break-out sessions on discerning charisms followed in the afternoon and I was done.
I got to catch up with an old friend, Tim Ferguson, (who graciously ran my little book table for me), met Margo Brown again, a regular ID reader, and meet some new people including members of the wonderful, out-of-the-box, faculty at Sacred Heart.
As a seminary and Catholic intellectual institution, Sacred Heart is certainly atypical in my experience. In the evening, I listened to a panel of Roman (Gregorian) trained scholars of Scripture, preach on the message of St. Paul with passion, exuberance, and drama. It wasn't just an academic lecture. It wasn't a cool head trip. These men were disciple-scholars and their intellects were integrated with their hearts, their souls, and their lived experience of following Christ personally.
It was very refreshing for me personally. They looked like they were having way too much fun. I suspect that there is genuine Christian community among the faculty. No wonder Sacred Heart is offering the only pontifical degree program in the world on the New Evangelization. Preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and making disciples is the underlying passion of so many of the faculty.
An unlikely spiritual beacon in inner city Detroit. Nazareth.
The drive back to the airport was another part of the adventure. My driver was a Chaldean Iraqi who had lived in the Detroit area for 30 years. (Detroit has the largest number of Arabic speakers in the US.) He was raised within the Chaldean Church, which is in communion with Rome but six years ago, his wife had started attending a local Arabic language evangelical community. In order to convince her that she was wrong, he attended a few meetings, ended up "accepting Christ" and now evangelizes his passengers in his sedan car. His Bible and some reference books at the ready in the front seat. I encouraged him to talk about his experience.
As he put it, when he attended the Chaldean church, he "went in dummer and came out dummiest". Going to church had no meaning, it was just something you did. "We had no Bible in our house at all." What struck him so forcibly about the evangelical preacher was that he quoted constantly from Scripture. My driver talked about hearing a Catholic priest on the radio say that we are saved by our works.
How badly I wanted him to meet those disciple-Scripture scholars that I had just left behind me at Sacred Heart! But I told him about the conference and explained that the Church does teach that we are saved by grace alone and by faith in Jesus Christ, not through our own goodness, even though many Catholics do believe that they will be saved because they are good. As he dropped me off at the airport, he walked around to shake my hand and said "The Lord be with you" and I responded "Arrabumaakum."
He started and his eyes widened at an obviously Anglo woman knowing the phrase and repeated the short form "Rabumaak?" (It is the greeting that evangelical Christians in the Arab world give one another, the Christian variation on the Muslim "Allahmaakum". The Lord, Christ, be with you.)
I pray that my short time with him helped build a bridge of trust that may one day, help him rediscover Jesus Christ and the Scriptures at the heart of the fullness of the faith in which he was raised. All I could do was chip away a bit at his distrust.
Just another instance of the old ID truism: "If we don't evangelize our own, some one else will do it for us. If we don't form our own, someone else will do it for us."