Arts and Culture

Catholic Librarians and Life’s Great Mysteries

Back in August, I was invited to deliver the opening address at the annual conference of Catholic librarians on Oct. 21. The talk was to be delivered on Zoom which I had only done once previously. I was honored to have been invited. Probably about two hundred would hear the lecture. Because October seemed to be the distant future, I don’t recall having any clear ideas about what I might say in my presentation. The theme of the conference was “Catholic Libraries in an Age of Uncertainty.”

As October grew closer, many ideas and insights that I have come across in my many years of teaching philosophy came to me as thoughts that could be shared with Catholic librarians. What first appeared as “could be shared” gradually became “should be shared.” Preparing the lecture I had an experience that I often have when preparing a homily. I often give homilies that I would benefit from hearing. I don’t know whether this is an experience that many homilists have. As my lecture took shape, the importance of the role that Catholic librarians have in contemporary culture became more and more obvious to me. That was accompanied by my appreciation of how important the lecture could be.

I divided my remarks into two sections: First a discussion of some of the problems librarians face today, second some words of encouragement trying to help librarians avoid discouragement.I tried to do help them by reminding them that their vocation was very important, perhaps especially important today.

Even before commenting on some of the problems that librarians are confronted with today, I made the following statement:

“I wish to begin this lecture with the most important comment that I am going to mske. If there is anyone present through zoom who does not think that his or her vocation as a librarian is an important vocation, I am here to tell you that your vocation is incredibly important. Being a Catholic librarian has always been an important role to play in society but today it may be more important than ever. You are called to play a role in saving lives. I am not exaggerating. You are called to help potential readers to encounter through reading the great mysteries: the mystery of freedom, the mystery of love, the mystery of God. Libraries house marvelous mysteries and part of your vocation is to help people encounter those mysteries.”

One great obstacle that Catholic librarians face is the same obstacle that I face teaching students philosophy at Sr. John’s University. The obstacle is how much the philosophical vision of secular humanism pervades our culture. It seems to be present everywhere. I tell my students that if they choose to be religious believers in our culture they should be ready to be counter-cultural, to be ready to swim against a tide that not only does not encourage religious belief but at times militantly opposes religious belief.

Another obstacle facing Catholic librarians is the gospel of consumerism. We are encouraged in our culture to evaluate people not by the type of human beings they are but rather by their possessions.

Consumerism is like a gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that we are loved by God, other people are precious in God’s sight, and that God is a loving Father, loving us beyond our imagination. The gospel of consumerism tells us that our value is in what we possess. We are consumers. Our neighbors are people we want to have more than and God is the value of the realities we possess. We are encouraged to judge others in terms of their possessions, in terms of the type of cars they own or the type of houses they live in, or the type of schools they have their children attend.

The third obstacle is the technological revolution that is taking place. The experience of every teacher I know is that a serious contemporary problem is that many students just don’t read. Perhaps that is not a totally new problem but it seems to be especially serious today because of cell phones.

I deeply believe that Catholic librarians have an incredibly important vocation and I hope they believe that they are called to change people’s lives. I think we should think of libraries as buildings housing literature that contains the great mysteries: the mystery of freedom, the mystery of love, the mystery of God. The task, and it is not an easy task, is to put readers in touch with those mysteries. The difficulty of that task is more than equaled by its importance. I try to help students encounter those mysteries at St. John’s. I don’t have any practical suggestions to help librarians with their vocation except to tell them in every way I can and as often as I can that their work is extremely important.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.