Book notes: A book that makes Catholicism seem hip

Book notes: A book that makes Catholicism seem hip

By Fr. Radmar Jao S.J.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be a Catholic, young (“emerging”) adult in the 21st century? This is a fundamental question we vocation ministers ask ourselves as we accompany young women and men on their journey toward understanding, both intellectually and affectively, how God may be inviting them into a deeper relationship with God’s self, and thus into a life of service for and with Jesus Christ. After all, isn’t that what vocation discernment is all about?

Matt Weber’s engaging book, Fearing the stigmata, (Loyola Press, 2012) gives us a glimpse into the world of a young adult’s perspective of Catholicism, and it begins with a humorous admission of how his fourth grade religion teacher unknowingly drove him to fear any semblance of holiness by simplistically explaining to him that St. Francis’ stigmata was a result of his being a “good Catholic.” It’s no wonder Weber “went home that night and did a little more sinning than usual, just to be certain [he] wouldn’t receive the stigmata.”

Thus begins our entertaining journey into the culturally Catholic world of the book’s author—a 27-yearold Harvard graduate and Catholic TV personality. Each chapter is a humorously written vignette (of the almost sound-bite length that young adults are accustomed to) of a moment in Weber’s life that conveys his thesis: pursuing a “good Catholic life” should be done in “whatever way you can, [taking] this charge with an adventuresome spirit” (161); all of it done publicly, boldly, and with a lot of good humor. I have to say, his writing style makes Catholicism sound really hip, which is one of the book’s strong points, and what I imagine will sell many copies.

The problem, however, is that he never mentions the challenges of being, let alone remaining Catholic in an ever-growing secular world. He focuses on the externals of Catholicism, such as sacramentals and attending Mass, and he makes it all seem like a lot of fun. But he doesn’t explain with any depth why his Catholic faith is important to him. Nor does he answer the question that I believe many young adult Catholics ask themselves: “Why be Catholic at all?” especially when you can still make a difference in the world and even be considered a good person, without going to church or praying the rosary or even believing in God.

As vocation ministers, we must continually grow in our understanding of why many emerging adults behave the way they do when it comes to their faith. For example, the most recent Pew report ( on the increasing number of “nones” in society (those who don’t subscribe to any particular religious institution) was most helpful for me to understand some of the challenges to our work as vocation ministers. This valuable information also helps us “target” our marketing and vocation promotion efforts, as well as open up avenues for conversation with candidates about their prayer life, desire for community, and motivations to live a life of service to the church and the world.

Fearing the stigmata is a good read for anyone who finds herself or himself on the margins of our Catholic faith; seekers in search of any form of connection with anything Divine, perhaps even teetering on whether or not to leave the church because of this or that controversial social issue that they may find problematic to reconcile. Weber faithfully demonstrates that our faith can be filled with joy, our liturgies can lead to spiritual health, and God can be found in our everyday encounters with one another, despite what the rest of the world says. To his credit, Weber makes Catholicism something worth belonging to. However, if I were a discerner reading this book, I would be left feeling a bit empty because I’m already at a point where I’m not asking whether or not God is active in my life. Rather, I’m discerning how God is active and what that means for me.

Weber’s book gives us 33 chapters of witty stories that chronicle his journey through young adulthood. Yes, his Catholicism is an important part of his identity and his drive to represent it to his generation is something to be commended. But I wouldn’t say the experiences he shares in the book would be helpful to the women and men who discern a vocation to priesthood or religious life; women and men with a deep desire for what St. Ignatius would call the magis, the more, as they recognize a burning need to do something of more significance and meaning with their life. But what the book perhaps lacks in spiritual depth, Weber more than makes up for with his wit and gift for storytelling.

For example I found the chapter on how he got involved with CatholicTV very compelling. His creative and successful pitch to the producers and eventual rise to become the CatholicTV voice of his generation drove me to watch a few of his clips online (he’s got quite the personality and energy and seems to be the kind of guy I’d like to sit down with for a cup of coffee or even a beer).

I couldn’t resist laughing out loud reading about his joining a “gang”—an altar boy gang, that is! “We did not have guns and knives or drugs and tattoos; we had albs, ciboriums, corporals, cruets, pyxes, boats, and a really nice lavabo. These were the tools of the trade” (42). This rang true with my own experiences of growing up as an altar boy. Though I never looked at it as joining a gang, it was one of the more salient experiences that influenced my discernment to become a priest.

And I thoroughly enjoyed his story of “babysitting” a kid while working as a production assistant for Milwaukee’s Miller Park baseball stadium. His description of calling the boy’s mom and how it quickly devolved into sounding like a kidnapping is classic comedy for the movies.

That said, I would not include this book on a recommended reading list for potential discerners who, presumably, have moved one or more steps deeper in their relationship with the Lord, which compelled them to contact us in the first place and begin their discernment process. I still wish he had included more about his pursuit of a deeper relationship with God and maybe even given us a glimpse into what motivates him in times of doubt and difficulty in living his Catholic identity in an increasingly secular world.

Perhaps I’m placing unrealistic expectations on a book that was not intended to be a vocation promotion tool that answers that burning question we vocation ministers desire answered: “What is preventing young women and men from even considering religious life?” That’s what slogging through the Pew research report is about, and not as enjoyable. Also, nothing indicated to me that Weber himself is representative of young adult Catholics, so it’s not a book to help vocation ministers grasp a different generation. But if you want a quick, enjoyable nighttime book to read, Fearing the stigmata is worth having on your nightstand.

Father Radmar Jao, SJ is originally from a Valparaiso, IN family of nine children. He currently serves as the Vocation Promoter for the California Province of the Society of Jesus. Before entering the Jesuits in 2001, Radmar enjoyed a successful acting career in Los Angeles, appearing on film, TV, and stage and now uses his acting skills to witness to his faith and calling as a Jesuit priest.

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