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The Power of Literature (And the Holy Spirit)

Third in a series

OBSERVING COLLEGE students and also talking with other college professors has called my attention to what I consider a serious problem. There seems to be a dramatic change in the reading habits of contemporary college students. I don’t know the cause. But I know I have to try to motivate students to read more. When people read serious literature, anything can happen. The Holy Spirit breathes where He will.

I live in the same building that houses college seminarians from the Archdiocese of New York, the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Diocese of Rockville Centre, most of whom attend St. John’s University in Jamaica, and most of whom I teach.

When I was a student in the college-seminary many years ago, there was a Thomas More Reading Club in which we read a novel just about every month. Recalling some of those meetings, which were moderated by the late Msgr. Eugene Molloy, I am reminded of what a wonderful experience those discussions were.

To encourage contemporary seminarians to read novels that dramatize the lives of priests, I have started a Catholic Novel Book Club at the college seminary residence. The plan is to read one novel a month. There are no term papers or exams, and no academic credit. The goal is to gather and talk about great literature. We had our first meeting a few weeks ago. The novel I chose was Graham Greene’s masterpiece, “The Power and the Glory.”

The first meeting was a roaring success. It brought back wonderful memories for me because the seminarians’ reaction to Greene’s novel was the same reaction I had when I read the novel as a college seminarian. Another novel I hope to devote a meeting to is Shusaku Endo’s “Deep River.”

In my Philosophy of Literature course at St. John’s University, “Deep River” is one of eight Catholic novels that I assign. When we discuss it in class, I bring in a former student who took the course about 15 years ago. Back then, he argued with me and insisted that it was not a Catholic novel. I invite him back to try to persuade my current students that “Deep River” should not be part of the course because it is not sufficiently Catholic. Some years he convinces the students, some years he does not. He never convinces me. I think the novel is profoundly Catholic.

There is one scene in the novel that I always find provocative. There is a character named Mitsuko, who seems to hate God and seems to be incapable of loving anyone. However, she is fascinated by a young man, Otsu, who is studying for the priesthood and who eventually becomes a priest. She cannot understand why he would want to be a priest and why he chooses to live the way he does after he becomes a priest. His ministry is in India helping invalids – mostly Hindus – into the Ganges River, which Hindus believe is sacred.

Mitsuko finds this incomprehensible. She cannot understand why he would devote his life as a priest to this ministry. In trying to explain, he tells her that if Jesus was alive, this is what He would be doing. This makes little sense to her.

She also notices some young nuns, members of Mother Teresa’s order, helping people into the Ganges. Eventually, she speaks to one of the young nuns.

Endo writes the following:

“‘I’m a Japanese’ Mitsuko spoke to the Caucasian nun. ‘Can I ask you why you’re doing this?’

“‘What?’ With a look of surprise, the nun opened her blue eyes wide and stared at Mitsuko.

“‘Why are you doing this?’

“Her eyes still brimming with surprise, the nun slowly answered ‘Because, except for this … there is nothing in this world we can believe in.’

“Mitsuko had a hard time hearing whether the nun had said ’except for this’ or ‘except for him.’

“Mitsuko knew that if the nun had said ‘except for him’ the nun was referring to the God to whom Otsu had dedicated his life.” (p. 215)

When I first read that scene it moved me profoundly and also inspired me. It still does. I am wondering what the seminarians will make of it. The Holy Spirit breathes where He will.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).

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