Monthly Archives: January 2013

Brother Jim Fitzgerald, CP

Yesterday, Fr. Jerome Vereb took three of us on a trip through Brother Jim Fitzgerald’s Pittsburgh. We went first to Knoxville, where Jim as little boy of 5 or 6, studied in the 1930s under some teachers from Pittsburgh’s famous King’s School for Oratory and began his career as a child actor in radio. Pittsburgh then was a center for commercial radio broadcasting in the United States.

White building to left of picture

King’s School: White building to left of picture

Jim’s mother, sensing possibilities for her talented child, got him jobs on KDKA and WWSW. When World War II broke out, Jim became a regular announcer at WWSW as a high school student and in his later years had his own show and worked in different radio stations in the northeast. He died a Passionist brother last December 15th.

On Sunday, we celebrated a memorial Mass for Jim with his family and friends at St Paul’s Monastery, Pittsburgh.

Jim was an extraordinarily talented man, intelligent, a gifted speaker, and yet simple and deeply spiritual. I suppose his simplicity was the reason he liked stories of the desert saints, who lived in Egypt and deserted places in the middle east from the 3rd century onward.

One of the saints he liked was John the Short. A little man. Stories describe him as very human and very heroic. Here are two:

It was said of John the Short that one day, fed up living with others, he decided to live an angelic life by himself, so he left his monastery and went into the desert. Night came, and sounds of wild beasts and strange movements in the dark. There was no place to sleep or food either, so John decided to go back to his community.

His knock on the door was answered by a voice from within: “Who is it?”

“It’s me, John,” he answered.

“John doesn’t live here any more.” The voice inside said. “He’s living with angels.”

“No, no,” John said, “ It’s me. Please let me in.”

“Well, all right, I’ll let you in,” the voice said, “ But remember, we’re not angels here, we’re human beings. If you want to live with us you have to take us as we are.”

It was said of John the Short that he went to his spiritual guide one day and asked, “What shall I do? And his guide gave him a stick and told him to go plant it in the desert and water it.

John went and planted it in the desert and watered it, for three years.

After three years, the stick began to sprout green leaves, then new branches and finally lush grapes.”

His guide came and took the fruit into the church and holding it up before everyone said: “Behold, the fruit of loyalty.”

The Long Loneliness

On our retreat this week on the American saints I recommended Dorothy Day’s autobiography “The Long Loneliness.”  I have the original edition with Fritz Eichenberg’s haunting illustrations from 1952, reprinted in 1981 with an excellent introduction by Daniel Berrigan. I wrote about Dorothy before.

The Long Loneliness is filled with stories of ordinary people Dorothy met during her early years, like the poor elderly lady in bed in Kings County Hospital when Dorothy was a nurse there. The woman demanded her wig.  Easy to dismiss the woman, since she was well cared for, Dorothy writes, but more than love, the woman wanted respect. ( p 88) Dorothy was certainly at home with humanity, broken humanity. I hope this book lands in many people’s hands as a result of new interest in her.

Her separation from her companion after the birth of her daughter, Tamar, offers an heroic picture of faith, stark faith. (138 ff.) It’s one of the highlights of the book. “Diligo” “To love” means also “to choose” she writes.  I found her description of Foster, falling apart as he loses her and sees some of his secular hopes dashed, a touching picture of the darkness unbelievers face. She doesn’t dismiss or belittle him.

Dorothy wasn’t a solitary person. She needed people:

“I had heard many say that they wanted to worship God in their own way and did not need a Church in which to praise him, nor a body of people with whom to associate themselves. But I did not agree to this. My very experience as a radical, my whole make-up, led me to want to associate with others, with the masses, in loving and praising God.” (139)

I also recommended “The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg, Milwaukee University Press, 2008.

Ellsberg chose that title for her diaries from her entry from February 24, 1961. ‘Today I thought of a title for my book ‘The Duty of Delight’ as a sequel to “The Long Loneliness.” I was thinking how, as one gets older, we are tempted to sadness, knowing life as it is here on earth, the suffering, the Cross. And how we must overcome it daily, growing in love, and the joy which goes with loving.”

That phrase is also found in the lovely postscript of “The Long Loneliness.”

Besides the books, The Catholic Worker website  offers a wealth of information about this wonderful woman. Worth looking at, and following.

Talking About Saints

I’m beginning a four day retreat for seminarians at the Jesuit retreat house in southern Maryland today.  I’ll be speaking to them about American Catholic spirituality as we see it in our saints and other important figures of our church.  I’ll use the US Catholic Catechism for Adults as a basis for my talks. One of its features–which I’ve commented on recently– is its insertion of stories of the saints and others into the catechism to illustrate its teachings.

You can’t expect the short biographies in the US Catholic Catechism for Adults to tell you everything about these personalities of our church and their impact on our church and our world, but they are a start.

As I see it, writings about the saints has changed in recent times. For one thing, saints are more than people we pray to for some favor or miracle-workers we marvel at. They tell us how to live in this world.  They are part of the communion of saints. “From their place in heaven, they guide us still.” (Preface of the Apostles)

Recent studies on the saints tend to dwell on the world they lived in and how they helped to shape that world. That’s also our task: to live in this world and to prepare it for God’s Kingdom that’s coming.

You can’t understand someone like Dorothy Day, for example, without looking at the social history of the United States from the 1930s onward. She reacted to the problems of her time, and so should we.

Recent studies on the saints tend to be less panegyric. Saints are not perfect. Writing on the saints follows the recent trend in biography which tries to tell as much as can be known about figures in the political or social or intellectual or religious worlds, their faults and failures as well as their virtues and accomplishments.

I hope to talk this week about Elizabeth Seton, John Neumann, the Jesuit Martyrs, Dorothy Day, Pierre Tousaint, Mother Cabrini and Theodore Foley.