The most common prayer request I receive is from anguished parents whose loved ones no longer practice their Catholic faith. The way back is a path often overlooked.
Awhile back, I wrote a post that most readers seemed to think was one of my dreaded science posts. So some who might have benefitted from it avoided it like the plague. I rather liked that post which often means that most others would not. So the response to it was really cool.
I don’t mean cool in its usual modern sense. My post got the digital cold shoulder, but maybe you will give it another shot for its message is an important one. The overlooked post is “Misguiding Light: Young Catholics Leaving Faith for Science.”
It describes what seems to have become a recognized phenomenon. Families raise their offspring as devout Catholics then send them off to college – sometimes even a Catholic college – only to discover that their faith in God and their Church has been replaced by science.
The most common prayer request that I receive from readers of These Stone Walls is a plea for my prayers for their loved ones – husbands or wives, brothers or sisters, occasionally even parents, but mostly adolescent and young adult children – who have drifted away from the faith into which they were born.
Parents anguish about this despite the fact that adolescent apathy and rebellion are as old as the human race. It is for good reason that Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) to demonstrate our Father’s longing for our return.
A lot of people think that the word, “prodigal” refers to the resolution of that story, the return of the son, but it doesn’t. It refers to someone who is reckless, wasteful, someone who squanders his inheritance to become spiritually impoverished. It’s the perfect Gospel event for any parent who anguishes over a loved one’s loss of his or her inherited faith.
What I was trying to give to these parents in “Misguiding Light” was a little cerebral ammunition to help counter their sons’ and daughters’ religious exodus if it was based on a mistaken belief that science renders God obsolete. Trust me, it doesn’t.
In fact, there are a few paragraphs in that post that should be a “WOW!” moment for even the most science-inclined young person whose Catholic identity is in its death throes. This is why I write an occasional science post. It’s because developing some understanding of science, and adopting an attitude that religion and science are not an ‘either/or” proposition, helps build a bridge for dialogue.
THESE ARE THE TIMES THAT TRY MEN’S SOULS
Some of this parental anguish is also directed at the age in which we live. Many parents feel that they just cannot compete against the lure of a digital world into which their adolescent and young adult children are plugged in around the clock. It’s a trend that coincides with disintegrating families, the great polarization within our culture, and, most sadly of all, the diminishment of fatherhood and the role of men.
Ever since the tragic mass murder of 17 high school students by a fellow student in Parkland, Florida, we have noticed a distinct change in the traffic at These Stone Walls. For week after week since that day, the most read post here is not the one I write each week, but rather one I wrote six years ago: “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men.”
In the week after the Parkland tragedy, that post’s shares on Facebook and other social media shot up to 14,000. Someone reposted it as an article on LinkedIn Pulse where it was viewed 2,500 times in just a few days.
I think people are coming to know instinctually that our society is in trouble, and it is unclear whether the disintegration of the family unit is a symptom or a cause. I think it is both. Another recent post on These Stone Walls that skyrocketed in social media was “Finding Your Peace in Suffering and Sorrow.” It struck a nerve of social anxiety and was posted on social media nearly 10,000 times within three days after being posted.
That post cited an article by columnist Peggy Noonan entitled “Who’s Afraid of Jordan Peterson?” (The Wall Street Journal, Jan 27, 2018). Formerly associate professor of psychology at Harvard, Jordan Peterson has taught psychology at the University of Toronto for 20 years. Peggy Noonan cited an excerpt from his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
Professor Peterson’s reflection on the state of chaos in our culture is turning out to be an important social commentary worthy of our attention. While writing this post, I happened to stumble upon an interview with him by Fox News host, Tucker Carlson (March 7, 2018). The topic was the growing problem of disaffected young men left adrift by the disengagement of masculinity in modern culture.
Professor Peterson warned that fatherhood is waning because men and masculinity are targeted today in an ideological war that characterizes all men as potential abusers. The great mystery is why men are retreating from this battle. Jordan Peterson said that “It is very difficult to fight an ideological war.”
The media, and especially social media are today’s battlefield, and men are not showing up for the battle. A result is something for which Professor Peterson warns will have dire consequences for manhood. In schools across the continent, young men are not being educated so much as they are being indoctrinated into a radical feminist ideology about the value and meaning of manhood.
Tucker Carlson appeared stunned by this, and after a moment of silent reflection he said, “I agree entirely.” So do I. A part of that indoctrination for Catholic youth has been the growing, media-fueled dismissal not only of the value and role of manhood, but of fatherhood, of priesthood, of celibacy, and ultimately, of God. Men are acting in a way that elephants would never tolerate. They are just going gently into that good night.
For over two decades, young men have been paying the price for this father-absence. What is happening in schools across America is not just a matter of guns. Has anyone noticed that not a single adolescent girl has been the subject of mass killings in a high school?
WHAT YOU HEAR IN THE DARK
But before pursuing any further the dread of seeing our young abandon their faith, it might be more productive to take a hard look, not only at the forces that drive them away but also at what draws others to it. As often seems to happen when I want to explore such a thing, my roommate comes up with an answer even before he knows the question.
A few nights ago, Pornchai “Max” Moontri was watching a show on PBS-TV. The episode was about an early Australian prison. The history was interesting. As the Industrial Revolution got underway the galloping crime rate in Britain’s crowded cities created a demand for more and harsher jails (or “gaols,” Down Under).
With the loss of its American colonies in 1783, Britain no longer had a convenient place to send its criminals. Australia seemed a suitably distant and terrifying destination for the British system of exiling convicts as punishment. The first such prison colony was established in 1786 at Botany Bay in New South Wales, near Sydney, not far from where These Stone Walls is published.
Life in the prison colony was harsh. Pornchai was struck by the worst punishment of all, and the emptiest. It was solitary confinement in a pitch black cell with no visible light. It often led to madness. Pornchai was especially moved by the story of a prisoner who learned to maintain his sanity by throwing a small button into the darkness of his cell, hearing it bounce off the concrete walls. Then he would crawl around systematically on hands and knees in the dark until he found it.
Pornchai said that, two centuries later, he employed that same strategy to preserve his sanity during a grueling – not to mention cruel – three-and-a-half year stretch in solitary confinement after he went to prison at age 18. Deprived of all human contact, he focused on a pebble he found on the floor. In the darkness, he would throw the pebble and spend hours on his hands and knees systematically searching for it. He did this hundreds, if not thousands, of times.
As I listened to this, I recalled a brief story that Pornchai once wrote about solitary confinement in a “supermax” prison. He wrote it as an essay for an English Composition course while completing his high school diploma in prison in 2012. The teacher asked Pornchai’s permission to publish his essay. It was picked up by a prison reform site, SolitaryWatch.com and published as “Welcome to Supermax.”
Pornchai was sent from there to the New Hampshire prison where we met in 2006. Had he been there just a little longer, he might very well have been one of the case studies for a PBS Frontline production about solitary confinement in that supermax prison. This was an especially dark time for Pornchai, though it is today made less so by the hope and faith he has discovered.
On the same day this is posted, March 21, marks 26 years since the day of his offense. He was a homeless 18-year-old on the streets alone in a country and culture that was utterly foreign to him. The reasons for this will become part of a future post.
On March 21, 1992, Pornchai was intoxicated as he walked into a Bangor, Maine supermarket. Chased into the parking lot, he ended up in an altercation with a much larger man who tried to stop him. In his intoxicated state, the struggle became intense. The next morning, he awakened in a jail cell, charged with the murder of 28-year-old Michael Scott McDowell for whom he now prays intently, and asks you to do the same. It was 26 years ago.
LET THEM SEE YOU BELIEVE
I used to wonder what exactly it was that brought Pornchai Moontri from the madness of solitary confinement to a life of faith. He has suffered a lot, more than anyone I know, and the utter rage that life had built within him was a formidable foe when we first met. How does someone come from such an experience to a life of faith as a devout Catholic convert while others born into it just let it fade away?
Pornchai triggered a long internal pondering on the night he told me the story of searching in the dark for a pebble for hours on end in solitary confinement. He said that anything that gave even the slightest meaning and purpose to his prison brought some welcome sanity to an otherwise empty and soul-destroying existence.
It’s one of the great mysteries of life that the evil inflicted on a person by others can be drawn out to actually become a catalyst for faith. So what was it that opened Pornchai’s heart and soul to hear something in his darkness? I asked him that question. It turns out that it wasn’t something that he heard, but rather something that he saw.
When Pornchai and I first became roommates in early 2007, we had already become friends. But he was still too close to the traumas of his previous life to cope with any of the higher virtues such as trust or hope.
In the cell where we lived then, his bunk was above mine. The only other “furniture” in the cell were two concrete stumps. His stump was closest to the cell door which meant that I had to pass behind him to get in and out of the room. He could not sit on his stump at all because of this.
Because of the traumas he endured at the hands of men, he could not bear to have a man pass behind him unseen. So when Pornchai was in the cell, he was always on his top bunk sitting in a corner from where he could survey the entire room. I did not know this at first but suspected it to be the case, and I found it to be profoundly sad.
On Sunday nights when I wanted to offer Mass in that cell, I had to wait until very late after the final prisoner count at about 11:15 PM. Only then could I take out the necessary items for Mass without arousing suspicion and calling undue attention to it. By then on most nights, Pornchai was fast asleep.
Though we were friends, His inner proximity alarm would still awaken him whenever I moved about the cell. He said that on those Sunday nights when I thought he was asleep, he was actually laying there up above me in the dark watching. At first, he said, the ritual of the Mass was very confusing to him, but after a while…
“I saw the reverence and started to believe that you really believe in what was happening in the Mass. It was the first time in my life that I was ever in the presence of a man who was a true believer in anyone or anything but himself.”
It was then, he said, that he started to sit on his concrete stump and let me pass by behind him unnoticed. It was the onset of trust. Pornchai started lying awake on Sunday nights just to watch me offer Mass, and it gave him peace. Then one Sunday he asked if he could stay down there with me for the Mass.
I told Pornchai then the story of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, his giving his life to save another prisoner, and the story of why I keep his image on the dim, dented mirror in our cell. It was
because of this that, when These Stone Walls came into being in July of 2009, Pornchai wanted my first post to be “Maximilian Kolbe and the Man in the Mirror.” A year later, Pornchai “Maximilian” Moontri became a Catholic on Divine Mercy Sunday.
I know it sounds simplistic, but before your loved ones come to the shallow grave that is their investment in this world alone, let them see you believe. It may seem a small thing now, but it’s for eternity. Believe, and let them see you believe.
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Please share this post. You may also like these other posts in anticipation of Holy Week: