By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK – From his perch on K Street at the Catholic Information Center (CIC), Father Arne Panula shepherded some of the nation’s power brokers into the Catholic Church. Yet the oft-quiet, cerebral Opus Dei priest, who died last year after a long and public battle with cancer, is remembered by those closest to him not for his influential connections, but for his selfless and tireless sacrificial work behind the scenes.
In the final months of his illness, noted author and cultural commentator Mary Eberstadt spent time with her long-time friend, chronicling his thoughts on everything from classical music to the clerical sexual abuse crisis.
In Eberstadt’s new book, “The Last Homily: Conversations with Fr. Arne Panula,” she captures the mind of a dying man who seemingly has never had a clearer picture of life’s priorities and purpose.
Crux: You spent more time with Father Arne than arguably anyone else in those final months. What did you learn about him that you didn’t know before?
Eberstadt: Like many other friends who lined up to visit, I was struck, first, by the overwhelming joy with which Father Arne raced to the finish line. That was one unexpected lesson of our last talks together. He was luminous throughout every single conversation – jocular, focused, animated – as if the death cells detonating inside him were somehow converting instead into a glowing energy source.
He also laughed more than once about the unlikeliness of this book project, which he saw in manuscript form right before he died (as explained in the Introduction, the backstory to The Last Homily is proof positive that Providence has a droll side).
These conversations were also absorbing lessons in books and ideas, of course. The range of Father Arne’s mind can be glimpsed in the footnotes, which I added later so that readers could follow up on his abundant references.
On a more subterranean stratum, conversing in those closing months taught one more and most important lesson. It shocked me into apprehending as never before what sanctity might look like.
Catholics are taught that all love is sacrificial. We sometimes see the truth of that teaching play out in our own lives. But sacrificial, I came to understand, needn’t be a dour word! The example set by Father Arne’s dying revealed a deeper reality: Self-sacrifice, done right, is an act of joy. In some way that passes understanding (at least mine), the two are joined at the root.
I had never seen that truth embodied as formidably as in the example of Father Arne.
It’s been over a year since he died. What’s his legacy to you?
In a sentence: Holiness is possible after all.
That’s one take. I wanted the book to include others, so there’s an Appendix in which names both known and unknown share their own thoughts about Father Arne’s work. All of these stories are inspirational. Some are intensely moving. Contributors range from anonymous individuals to nationally known figures. These include Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute; Hadley Arkes, renowned professor of constitutional law, who was brought into the Catholic Church through the agency of Father Arne; and other men and women of note (including my interlocutor here at Crux!).
The closing contribution in the Appendix comes from Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and founder of PayPal. He and Father Arne enjoyed an intellectual friendship stretching back over decades, first forged when Father Arne was a young chaplain on the Stanford University campus and Peter Thiel was an undergraduate. From different perspectives, they found themselves united against the antinomian mantra of “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go!” They remained in ongoing conversation and philosophical comradeship until Father Arne’s death.
Why, in your view, would someone – especially an individual without any religious convictions – seek to read and reflect on the thoughts of a dying priest?
Death has a neat way of making ordinary preoccupations and divisions superfluous. Throughout his last months, as in his ministry, Father Arne focused on profound and elemental questions inescapable for all of us, whatever we think (or think we think) about religion or anything else.
Who am I? Why am I here? How can I find love? What’s the recipe for leading a good life? Where and how can I best help others?
These are just a few of the eternal vexations to which Father Arne brought distilled wisdom and wit, delivered with infectious good cheer.
Montaigne, following Cicero, said that to philosophize was to learn how to die. Sitting with Father Arne during his hospice time demonstrated repeatedly that living well and dying well are indistinguishable.
Both you and Father Arne shared a passion for mentoring young professionals. Why is that?
Many people – too many – dismiss the Millennial generation and other young adults as lost causes and snowflakes. Father Arne had a different idea, one that I share.
Hand wringing about generational deficits doesn’t help. What matters is understanding the toxic influences on today’s teenagers and young adults – and offering a radically different, remedial, elevated view of humanity superior to that presented by the low-down secularist culture.
In one of our conversations, for instance, he digs into the idea that many people born after the 1960s aren’t only unknowing about the human patrimony of Western civilization. They’ve been purposely deprived of it, including in the most elite educational institutions, by faculty suffused with a toxic variety of “isms”: post-modernism; deconstructionism; the overall “victim-ism” of identity politics; and other destructive trends that shortchange young minds.
To paraphrase Marx, many critics of what now passes for Western culture have only (mis)interpreted the world. Father Arne saw the brokenness out there as a great spiritual opportunity to change the landscape, one soul at a time. Throughout his work, he leveraged that insight to the hilt.
We’re living in a time where the clerical sexual abuse crisis in this country has re-emerged and it’s arguably the worst crisis the Catholic Church has faced since the Protestant Reformation. How do you think Father Arne would approach it?
Our conversations turned a couple of times to the related priestly sex scandals of 2002. I’ll extrapolate from what he said there.
He attributed the “Long Lent” of 2002 to lack of religious discipline; the failure of religious men and women to live as religious; the infiltration of erroneous ideas rooted in psychiatry; and the time of “great confusion,” ushered in during the 1960s and 1970s.
He also said: “With young priests, I always tell them: you’re public enemy number one for the devil. If you’re a force for the good, you’re definitely on his radar screen.”
In “The Last Homily,” Father Arne weighs in on a wide-range of topics, from dating to metaphysics to addiction and depression. How is a celibate priest, in your view, able to expertly command such a range of issues?
Just as Shakespeare didn’t need to be a woman or a pauper or a sprite to write such characters into immortal existence, great empaths – like Father Arne – seem able in some similar way to “read” people across the spectrum.
For me, one of the most piercing moments in these conversations came during a discussion of addiction, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and related modern maladies. His dissection of these woes and their origins is striking. But what impressed me most was a throwaway line at the end: his concluding observation that he’d never experienced such troubles himself.
The idea that any modern being might be uninfected with one or more of these signature diseases of our time came as a shock – let alone one who had attended Harvard and other elite venues, and who knew the dominant, a-religious, post-Sixties culture inside and out.
Yet there this priest was, days away from dying, smiling and explaining almost sheepishly that he didn’t know what it was like to feel anxious, or lonely, or depressed.
Such was one example of a soul that would seem extraordinary in any place or time, but especially, it could be argued, in our own.
I hope that readers of all kinds will draw hope and intellectual sustenance from the thoughts of this prodigious leader – and inspiration from a spiritual example so contrarian to our times, and so invigorating precisely because of its nonconformity.