From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism by Chris Haw. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Ind., 2012). 236 pp.,. $14.95. Fearing the Stigmata: Humorously Holy Stories by Matt Weber. Loyola Press (Chicago, 2012). 224 pp., $13.95. Reviewed by Graham Yearley/CNS
The conversion experience or return to Catholicism autobiography is a well-known subcategory of Catholic nonfiction.
Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Sua Vita and Trappist Father Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain are two of the most famous works of this genre that bring together autobiography with theology. Chris Haw’s From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart and Matt Weber’s Fearing the Stigmata add their own twist to the genre.
Haw was baptized a Catholic, became an evangelical Protestant with his family and eventually returned to the Catholic Church. But, like those earlier works, Haw interweaves an apologia, a defense of the church through his personal experience.
The Willow Creek of the title is Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., which the Haw family joined when Chris was a teenager. Haw and his family drifted away from Catholicism by the time he was in grade school and the family moved to the Chicago area.
A sprawling, "ZIP-code-sized" mega-church in the suburbs of Chicago, Willow Creek attracts thousands each weekend to its lively, rock-concert-like services. Haw, who loved punk rock before he came to Willow Creek, was hesitant initially to embrace the easy Christian pop music that is so central to the worship of the community.
But he was drawn toward the thousand-strong young people’s group and their commitment to social justice issues and the enlivening, celebratory worship of Willow Creek. In time, he even came to enjoy the tamer rock music.
In 1999, Haw went to the Philadelphia area to attend college at Eastern University, a Christian college. He was immediately attracted to a student group that worked with homeless people by getting to know them individually and sharing their experience of sleeping in doorways and eating in community kitchens.
The events of 9/11 had a personal impact on Haw as his father was an American Airlines pilot who flew regularly into the Boston and New York airports but was at home that day. But Haw’s opposition to the ensuing invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq increasingly alienated him from his friends at Willow Creek, who fervently supported the American presence in the Middle East.
In 2003, Haw went to Belize to study with the Creation Care Study Program, which encouraged holistic thinking on the relationship between our beliefs in God and the growing global ecological crisis. When he returned to the United States, his concerns about homelessness, ecology and social justice led him to move to Camden, N.J., one of most polluted and crime-ridden cities in America.
He attended a community church but occasionally worshipped at Sacred Heart, a Catholic church across the street from the house he was rehabbing. He felt drawn to the extended Good Friday liturgy, realizing that the rituals that Willow Creek eschewed because they were based on pagan rites, held a strong attraction for him.
The second half of From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart is a series of defenses against the charges made by evangelical churches against Catholicism: the dividing up of Christianity into denominations, the upholding of tradition with Scripture, the emphasis on ritual, the position of priest and laity, and the Catholic perspective on the material and sensual as good and not evil.
While Haw offers nothing theological that is revolutionary, his renewed love for the Catholic Church seems earnest and thoughtful without being blind to wrongs committed by the church. It is a perspective, I think, that many lifelong Catholics will find counters the common view of new Catholics as zealots uncritically embracing the church.
Weber, the author of Fearing the Stigmata, is definitely not a new Catholic. Raised in an Irish Catholic family in the Boston area, Weber was educated exclusively in Catholic schools until he went to Harvard. By the time he was an undergraduate, he was already an experienced television journalist and commentator, contributing videos on a weekly basis to CatholicTV and seen by over 10 million viewers internationally.
Fearing the Stigmata is a collection of short autobiographical sketches that Weber calls "humorously holy stories." Whether a reader finds Weber funny or not is up for debate, but no one can question Weber’s unbridled love of Catholicism. There is not a saint or sacrament or religious order Weber doesn’t adore.
Reading Fearing the Stigmata is like being transported to another time, namely the 1950s, as the changes brought by the Second Vatican Council don’t seem to have made any impression on Weber’s church.
It comes as a shock to realize that Weber is only 27 and not in his 60s. Weber’s church is full of fun and joy; families are close and never dysfunctional. It is a view of Catholicism that makes it hard to understand why anyone complains about it, let alone leaves it.
Reading Weber’s stories is like visiting Disney World — it’s fun while you’re there, but there is a kind of relief when you leave and feel oddly grateful for the grit and challenge of life.
Yearley graduated from the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, with a certificate of advanced study in theology.