Perspective is at least as important when reading the signs of the times as it is in landscape painting. And so, in this autumn of our Catholic discontent, I was particularly grateful to hear from an old friend, Nina-Sophie Heereman, who offered some needed perspective on the Catholic circumstance in the United States.
I first got to know Nina Heereman in Rome some 10 years ago, when she was doing Christian formation and spiritual direction with women from the University of St. Thomas, who were in the Eternal City as part of the late, great Don Briel’s Catholic Studies Program. Her story was so striking that I recounted it briefly in The End and the Beginning (the second volume of my John Paul II biography), to illustrate the late pope’s transformative impact on men and women from a variety of backgrounds. And Nina’s background was certainly intriguing.
A German baroness by birth, she had grown up in what she described as a “Catholicism hollowed out…a shell with no serious sin and therefore no state of grace [and] no encounter with Christ.” Then, after a powerful experience of the eucharistic Christ at World Youth Day-1997 in Paris, and after pondering John Paul II’s own vocational discernment after seeing him in Rome in 1998, Nina Heereman became a committed missionary disciple, taking vows as a consecrated laywoman in radical dedication to the New Evangelization.
After earning one of the world’s toughest doctoral degrees, in Sacred Scripture, she is now assistant professor of theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California, and it was from there that she recently wrote me:
“Against the black foil of so many negative headlines, haunting us for more than three months now, I am delighted to share the good news that for me — a German — moving to [the] San Francisco [archdiocese] feels like having fumbled through my mom’s fur coats only to find myself in Catholic Narnia! I lack the words to describe my joy at serving a truly Catholic bishop with such a clear vision for the renewal of the Church. Honestly, I had not a clue what I was signing up for. I always knew that the American Church was in much better shape than any Church in Europe, but I did not have the slightest idea that it was so much more alive. Now, granted, I might have unwittingly stumbled upon a particularly Catholic pocket of the country, but that is rather unlikely for I am in the heart of Silicon Valley, which is not…famous for its devotion to Catholic doctrine.
“….Never before — and I have lived in six important Catholic institutions so far — have I encountered a faculty that in its entirety embraces the teachings of the Catholic Church and is fully committed to teaching the same. On my first day the rector of the seminary, Father George Schutlze, said ‘We are celebrating ‘Humanae Vitae’ and then proposed a reflection on it for our faculty retreat…Archbishop Cordileone [then] came and addressed the faculty with the same words, adding that the connection between the dissent from ‘Humanae Vitae’ and the current crisis was evident. I was…hardly able to believe my own ears, that I actually heard a shepherd of the Church speak up for the truth of ‘Humanae Vitae.’ ‘I must be in Narnia and Aslan is back,’ was my only thought. As you know, being European I had never heard such clear, courageous, and prophetic words out of the mouth of a local bishop…
“In brief, I thank the Lord for having brought me here…It is so liberating to live my faith ‘out in the open.’ In spite of everything the newspapers say, the future of the [Latin-rite] Church belongs to the U.S.!”
Baroness Doctor Heereman is no naif. Multilingual, experienced in the ways of the world she is eager to help convert, an adult rescued from shallow Euro-secularism by personal friendship with Jesus Christ and now holding one of Catholicism’s most distinguished academic degrees, Nina is very much worth listening to. Especially when she bids those dispirited by today’s Catholic crisis not to fear the future, and to get on with living the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19.
That doesn’t mean backing off from essential and painful reforms in American Catholicism. Not at all. It does mean designing and implementing those reforms with evangelical intent.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.