The book collects about 30 of the Pope’s weekly general audiences from 2006 and 2007. What was it about these homilies that made you want to write a study guide to go along with the collection?
Amy Welborn: I’ve always felt that Pope Benedict is a great teacher. You know, I’m a teacher and I’m always on the lookout for great teachers. He understands where people are in their lives. He understands the modern person. He understands the tradition deeply. And he has this uncanny ability to connect it all.
I saw that on display in these general audience talks. They were relatively short, very focused on one or two apostles. He did a very basic catechesis with historical instruction on each one and then he draws out not only theological points about the Church in general—about the nature of authority and the nature of Church—but he draws out personal points in which each of the disciples have qualities or problems that are recognizable in our own lives as disciples of Jesus. He invites the listener to consider that and to draw inspiration and hope from each of these apostles.
So it’s this wonderful complete package: solid catechesis and the opportunity to learn about the apostles and the nature of the Church, and then to reflect on the meaning of all of that in our own lives.
As a person who’s been in parish ministry, who’s done adult education, I know that there is a real dearth of quality adult education materials out there for Catholics. It struck me that because of the lengths of these talks that they were really well suited to being packaged in a way that would be helpful to pastors and directors of religious education bringing them to the people in their parish.
How much experience have you had in Catholic education?
Welborn: I taught in Catholic schools for a total of nine years. I was a director of religious education in a parish for four. I’ve been writing full time since 1998, and I’ve done a lot of speaking in parishes.
What do you think of the state of Catholic education in the US today?
Welborn: It’s been better and it’s been worse. I think we’re in a transition period. I was born in 1960, so I received my own formation in the late ’60s and I went to a Catholic high school in the ’70s. It was terrible in that period. The content was gradually stripped out of everything.
That mode of thinking in that period was that there are two aspects to learning: the cognitive and the affective. Previous religious education had emphasized the cognitive, particularly utilizing the demon of rote memorization. Therefore, what needed to happen was an emphasis on the affective: What does this mean to you?
That came to predominate in Catholic education beginning when I was in school and continuing for a long time. We’re still battling that, but it’s definitely improved. Catechetical materials for children and youth are much better than they were—they are more content oriented and visually attractive, and most of them have good teacher manuals.
The problem is that when you look at Catholic history, the faith has never been passed on predominantly in classroom situations. The faith has been passed on in families and in parishes and in communities. You can have really nice catechetical materials in which you have kids learn about a saint each week and you introduce them to various devotions, but if all of that is absent from parish life, and if all of that is absent from the life of Catholics, which it is for the most part…It’s something that any teacher of, particularly, the humanities can sympathize with. Think about the poor teacher trying to teach Shakespeare or Chaucer to kids who go home and are on the Internet for four hours and then are playing video games and doing all kinds of other things. It’s not just a religious ed problem; it’s a cultural problem. What we are trying to transmit in a classroom setting isn’t reinforced culturally.
In the Catholic setting, that means it’s not reinforced in most parishes. There’s no Catholic life that continually reinforces the Catholic faith. Our churches are bare. Kids don’t have the opportunity to study murals and pictures of stained glass and they get bored.
Catholic education is getting better in the classrooms but we haven’t grappled with the bigger cultural issue of a community’s responsibility to transmit the faith outside the classroom setting.
Getting back to adult ed for a minute, it’s a real problem in the Catholic Church. I think it’s a crucial problem that we have to deal with. In Protestant churches, there is a tradition of adult Sunday school. I have Protestant relatives who hardly ever went to church service but they always went to Sunday school. We don’t have that tradition, we don’t have that expectation. We associate religious education with schools. So once you get through eighth grade, or once you graduate from high school, or once you get confirmed, that’s it. We don’t communicate to people that they have a responsibility to continue to be formed in their faith. Talk to any religious ed person who works with kids. They will say, “We don’t need the kids once a week for an hour; we need the parents once a week for an hour.”
Do you think that this more theological pontificate will make a dent in the problem?
Welborn: I think so, not just because it’s a theological pontificate but because he’s a really good teacher. God bless John Paul II, but I do think Benedict’s writing is more accessible, perhaps because it’s less philosophical than John Paul’s was. Because he is a teacher and because there has been this explosion of interest and more accessibility through the Internet, I do think it will make an impact down the line.
Your study guide suggests a different order for discussing the addresses than Pope Benedict’s original order of delivery, saving the talk on tradition for the last of 12 lessons. Why the change?
Welborn: Because I felt that there needed to be a wrap-up session. I thought that instead of ending with that last [talk] on women, a good wrap-up that encompassed everything would be a better way to end the sessions
What moved you to write your books on The Da Vinci Code and Mary Magdalene?
Welborn: My immediate response to the novel The Da Vinci Code was dismissive. “It’s only a novel.” I wrote a review of it for Our Sunday Visitor and thought that was the end of it.
But as months went on, because of my online presence and because people knew I had a background in Church history, I started getting a lot of e-mail from people dealing with the questions raised by The Da Vinci Code in their parishes, in their families, among their friends, who—and this gets back to the adult ed problem—didn’t feel that they knew how to answer them, who didn’t know how the Bible came to be, who didn’t know how to answer questions about Mary Magdalene or the apostles.
And so I saw it as a teachable moment. I saw it as a moment to look at something that’s incredibly popular—six months into it, it was already a bestseller and didn’t show any signs of abating—and that sparked a lot of interest. You see this moment in the culture when people are thinking about stuff that happened in the first and second centuries of Christianity and you say, “Wow, let’s use this to teach them the truth.”
Someone involved with the book said you could have an adult ed session in the parish that you advertise as about the history of Christianity, the first three hundred years. Five people would come out. But if you had an adult ed session about “The truth behind The Da Vinci Code,” you would have hundreds of people come out, and you could accomplish the same thing. I gave talks where I had 800 people in a parish come out to hear about Constantine and the establishment of the canon. I just saw it as a real opportunity.
Speaking of your online presence, you recently shelved your popular Web site, which had served as an online Catholic clearinghouse for religion stories, and launched a more personal blog instead. Why?
Welborn: When I got into blogging six years ago, in September 2001, I started because I was still writing columns for the Catholic press and had developed some sort of audience through that and I wanted a venue to continue that online, to test out ideas and share notions.
Somehow my blog evolved into this Catholic clearinghouse and it became unwieldy for me personally. I was getting 25 e-mails a day asking me to post things—post a link to this blog or this cause—and I don’t have a lot of time. I have small children and I have a writing career. And I had to make a decision. The hour or two I was spending doing Catholic clearinghouse work was time that was taking away from my writing.
I’m trying to move my writing into writing fiction. I’m trying to force myself to be more contemplative and to write more deeply, and that kind of blogging doesn’t lend itself to that mindset at all.
Given the size of your audience, why didn’t you make the blog pay its way by adding ads?
Welborn: I could do ads. I’ve never taken advertising simply because I wanted the freedom to walk away without feeling guilty about it. I’m 47 years old. I’m trying to break into fiction writing and I’m 20 years behind everybody else who’s trying to do that.
I think I’m a decent writer but I want to be better and constantly updating a blog, five to ten times a day, and always looking for links [can wear you down]. And it’s not just throwing links up there; the kind of blogging that I was doing requires you to answer the e-mail, make sure that it’s balanced, check out things and make sure they’re for real.
The effect of spending time on the Internet for me is that I know a lot, but I don’t know if I’m wiser. That really started to eat at me. There’s a lot of information out there and I love information, I love passing on information, but it’s a time issue.
What are your thoughts on Pope Benedict expanding the use of the traditional Latin Mass?
Welborn: I think it’s fascinating. It’s very good. It fits right into what I understand about Benedict’s thinking about liturgy and historical continuity and truth. What the motu proprio is essentially about is priests’ rights. The essence of it is that any priest can celebrate this privately and so on. To me, it is about bringing things back to the way that they should be in terms of practice and what the clergy have the right to do in terms of the rite, and that’s great.
It’s interesting to watch the reactions to it. I think in the end it is going to be very beneficial. What it has already done since it was promulgated, and even in the year running up to it (during which it was rumored to be in preparation), has prompted all kinds of conversations about issues like reverence, what are we doing when we go to Mass, and sacrifice. It’s prompting us to think about liturgical music in a different way than we have in the United States for the past 30 years, to reconsider Gregorian chant, and so on.
If part of the Pope’s purpose was this cross-pollination, in which an openness about celebrating the Mass of Blessed John XXIII leads to reconsidering and reevaluating how we are doing the Novus Ordo, the Mass of Paul VI, then that is something that is very long overdue.
Last year I did a media day in the Diocese of Camden. I was talking to the communications director and the diocese had just completed a year-long self-evaluation process of looking at how things are going and what the people want and need. And the communications director, who had accompanied the bishop to all of the listening sessions, and gone over all of the evaluation forms, said that when it came to liturgy, the number one thing people said they wanted was “more Latin.”
He wasn’t sure that they exactly wanted more Latin. His opinion was that for them, what Latin symbolized was more reverence. They wanted their liturgies to be more solemn, more reverent. For them, Latin was a catch-all way of expressing that. I think that’s true and this opening up of the celebration of the Tridentine liturgy is already prompting a lot of conversations that people wouldn’t have been having 15 or 20 years ago in liturgical circles. You just weren’t allowed to talk about things like chant and silence, so I think it’s great.
Jeremy Lott is a contributing editor to Books & Culture and author of In Defense of Hypocrisy.
Amy Welborn is a popular Catholic author, editor, and blogger. She has written more than a dozen books, including the Prove It! series for teens, Here. Now.: A Catholic Guide to the Good Life, and the Study Guide for the Apostles. She has been published in periodicals from First Things to the New York Times. Welborn’s newest study guide is a supplement to talks delivered by Pope Benedict XVI and collected by both Ignatius Press (Jesus, the Apostles and the Early Church) and Our Sunday Visitor (The Apostles). She spoke to CWR in August.
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