Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
So last Friday morning I got up with the owls and headed down to SeaTac at 4 AM to go speak at the Defending the Faith conference at Franciscan University in Steubenville. Wheels up at 6 AM and I was already exhausted, so I conked out (sort of) and slept till Michigan, where I caught a plane from Detroit to Picksboig and was met at baggage claim by the first of an innumerable number of incredibly competent and well-organized conference staff people from Franciscan University. He motioned me over to the other traveler who he was assigned to drive to the campus: Dr. Peter Kreeft, who is one of my heroes and fave writers. We hail-fellow-well-met each other and then trundled off to the car chatting about all sorts of things (he is an extremely engaging conversationalist).
The conversation continued as we drove back to campus (which is two states away since you have to go through that skinny little part of West Virginia before you cross the Mighty Ohio River and reach the eponymous state and with it, Steubenville. We compared notes on favorite science fiction (Me: Eifelheim. Him: A Canticle for Leibowitz). Things almost came to blows when I said I thought Doctor Who the greatest sci fi series for TV (he's a Star Trek: The Original Series man). But cooler heads prevailed and we went to dinner as friends (even though I was right and he was wrong). I wish now I'd also thought to recommend Babylon 5, which is what Tolstoy would have written if he'd written sci fi fantasy for TV.
In between these musings, he also told me of the most spectacular conversion he ever saw: a former student who had been an atheist (ex-Catholic). He was brilliant, got A's in his sleep, had a photographic memory and was as rich as Midas cuz daddy was a heart surgeon. He got into drugs and alcohol, but could handle it and so graduated with a med degree and got a red convertible from dad to celebrate.
On the night of his graduation, he drove to a bridge with the full intention of taking it at 100 MPH and committing suicide for the simple reason that he had everything and his life was completely empty and meaningless. Speeding toward the bridge, he suddenly saw, looming up in front of him, a giant purple hippopotamus. (He swore he was stone cold sober.) Stopping the car, the kid said "Who are you?" and the hippo replied, "I'm God and I want you to do what I say."
The kid agreed and the substance of the command was "Repent. Believe in Jesus Christ. Go to Bible school, become a pastor, save souls." The kid asked, "Why are you a purple hippopotamus?" and God replied, "Because you were so far gone this was necessary to get your attention." The kid obeyed, went to Bible School, became a pastor, and helped inner city kids get off drugs and alcohol. One of Peter's students knew somebody he helped, and that's how word got back to Peter that this brilliant former atheist was now a pastor. Peter met him and got the whole story first hand. A lulu of a conversion story proving yet again that God is weird and that he loves you and has no concern for his own dignity when it comes to emptying himself for our salvation.
Anyway, we got up to supper and I got to see old friends and meet new ones. Jeff Cavins was there because he'd just finished a scripture conference, so it was good to see him. So was Scott Hahn. Also, I met Michael Hernon, the Veep for Advancement at FUS, who looked uncannily like Tom Cruise's brother (something he ruefully admitted lots of other people have told him). There was Ted Sri, my partner in crime for The Da Vinci Deception. Also Bob Rice was there, along with Ralph Martin, whom I had never met before but who knows my good friend Sherry Weddell. Lovely man and very thoughtful, as his talk proved when he gave a barn-burner of a call for active lay discipleship to Jesus.
Eventually we went to the Field House for the opening ceremonies. The talks that weekend were all good and our job on Friday as workshop dudes was to announce and pitch our talks in two minutes so that people would come to our workshop and not go to The Other Guys who were presenting at the same time as us. The problem was, I would much rather have gone to hear Brandon Vogt, Jason Stellman, or Peter Kreeft, who were talking at the same time I was. I compromised by telling people that if they came to hear me I'd take them around to hear the other speakers. That seems to have snookered a lot of people into coming to my talk, so mission accomplished.
The crowd at this conference was big--1500--and pretty much filled the joint. More than that, they were joyful and just had a sweet spirit that made you feel welcome. The whole weekend was suffused with the fragrance of the Holy Spirit. Peter and I agreed that things like this were more like retreats than work. All I had to do was pitch my talk for two minutes, then go back to praying and visiting until somebody grabbed my shoulders, steered me toward a mike, and told me to talk about Mary, which is also pretty easy. Meanwhile, the audience was golden. They were there to praise God and hear his word and the simplicity and beauty of that was lovely to see. More than anything, that was something I needed to experience this weekend and I'm grateful for it.
Us speakerly types were all pointed to go sit up by the stage for ease of access, so we all wound up sitting pretty close together. Scott Hahn had most of the heavy lifting since he was the MC and popped up and down to introduce people, etc. The rest of us had time for the sort of prayerful meditation and profundity that makes people like me a Living Saint:
(You can't really put a price on the words, "I once gave Peter Kreeft bunny ears.")
Peter, by the way, gave a great Screwtapian talk on "How to Lose the the Culture War" You can tell he's evil just by looking at him:
Brandon (who has his own account of the weekend) also snapped this blurry but happy shot:
Anyway, things wound down and as the evening session was breaking up, suddenly there appears my reader/pal John Simmins with a couple of buddies, accoutred in some shirts they had quick printed on Wednesday night just to get a rise out of me:
In case you are wondering where these came from, I acquired an awesome Chesterton Tshirt from the American Chesterton Society last year that was a parody of those stupid "Che" shirts worn by bourgeois fools who mindlessly celebrate a Communist butcher.
The back graphic says "Join the Revolution". It is one of my proudest possessions. Anyway, my son Luke, a graphic artist, thought it was funny too and, since "Che" and "Shea" are pronounced the same way, he had a brainwave and on a lark one day he created the "Viva Shea" graphic using my ugly mug in about 20 seconds with some sort of computer software. Then he sent it to me, whereupon I put it on Facebook and some of my readers, including John, found it as funny as we did. (Others, not so much. De gustibus.)
Likewise, at the conference, the response was divided between people who were outraged (cuz that they thought they were "Che" shirts) and those who got the joke and thought the shirt hilarious. My friends even got offers to buy them, which makes me wonder about the human race. At any rate, it was wonderful to see John again and to meet his merry friends, who seemed to have a great time all weekend.
As Friday wound down, we went off to the JC Williams Center for a Coming Home Network soiree. Marcus Grodi was his cuddly, affable self and talked about the great work the Network has done for the past 20 years, helping converts and clergy find their feet as they struggle to figure out what to do now that they are Catholic. A woman was introduced who had just entered the Church last Wednesday after doing mission work as Protestant for many years. Her name was Nadia and it turned out she was from Athens, Ohio and was a friend of two of my closest friends in the world, Dave and Sherry Curp. Small world!
Eventually we speakerly folk drifted back to the hotel and wound up closing the restaurant with some lovely conversation. I was beat and so dragged myself to bed, only to discover that the key to my room didn't work. Went down and got a new key, still didn't work. Went down again and they realized I was in 218, not 221. Finally got key. Was soon asleep and soon awake (about 5 hours sleep).
Went down for breakfast and found I was still super tired, a condition that would remain throughout the day. That old debbil jet lag was not going to let me be. At lunch, I was met by Aimee Christine Murphy (and her husband Kyle) of Life Matters Journal dedicated to the outrageous proposition that human life is sacred, not only when leftist crazies are chanting "Hail Satan" in their lust for death, even when the proposed candidate for a good killin' stands outside the canons of what conservatives deem a life worthy of life, such as foreign people in war zones, condemned criminals, and babies (such as children conceived in rape and incest) whose existence threatens the election of the Right Sort of candidates. Their motto: "Be Consistent". Catchy. She had just got back from Texas and facing down the bawling horde of lunatic pro-aborts in the legislative controversy and has a story in Life Matters about it.
We had a lovely visit and I very much enjoyed their company. Unfortunately, I had to dash back to join a book signing. I wound up sitting next to Pat Madrid, who was his droll understated self. He made fun of my beard and I made fun of his famous 'stache. He let me take his picture of him:
Hope you get over that case of jaundice soon, dude.
Then it was back to the Field House for the afternoon and my talk ("Mary, Mother of the Son") at 3:45 over in Christ the King Chapel. It seemed to go well (I can never tell very accurately). At any rate, nobody started shouting or stomped out and there were lots of good questions afterward, so my guess is "success".
Then I was met by Bill and Shana Buck, fellow Whovians (Shana is pictured at the front door of her surprisingly roomy house)...
...and we went off to dinner at Applebee's. This proved to be the most embarrassing part of my trip because a) the dinner took forever to come and the restaurant screwed up the order and b) my blood sugar apparently chose that moment to plummet in tandem with the sirensong-blandishments of jet lag and I literally could not keep my eyes open and kept nodding off, no matter how much will power I exerted. Happily, they were good sports and laughed instead of feeling insulted. But it was still embarrassing. Silver lining, the restaurant botched the order so bad we were able to get a good part of the tab snipped off. So there's that.
By the time we got back to FUS, I was toast. I realized there was no sense in trying to go on and, since I was not needed for any duties that evening, I grabbed my coat and bag from my seat and the Bucks very kindly took me to the Best Western where I was staying and I just crashed for a while.
Around 10:30 the phone rang. It turned out Brandon, Jason Stellman, Scott, and some of the folks from the organizing team were downstairs in the restaurant. Did I want to join them? Sure!. When I got there, they were having an animated conversation (mostly Scott and Jason) about various Calvinist and Catholic theologians I knew almost nothing about. It was like theological Mothra vs. Godzilla. I sat there nursing my ice water and occasionally making a smart alec comment to Brandon, who is young and appreciates my 12 year old sense of humor and the way it masks my insecurities about having no idea what these two brainiacs were talking about. Eventually, the conversation drifted toward somebody asking me "What are you writing these days?" and that allowed me to talk about something I was conversant in: me.
Scott and somebody (I'm drawing a blank on who) took up positions at the other end of the table to get in touch with their inner German theologians and I regaled Brandon and Jason with a precis of the crazy novel I've been playing with. I managed to get Brandon hooked enough that he stayed up thinking about it and wanted to talk about it more next day. So if I ever get it written, I have one reader. The trick will be to jack up the cost of the book to a million dollars per copy.
Next day, the big highlight for me was Jason Stellman's conversion story, which is a true profile in courage. Jason contacted me several years ago because he lives in my area (right across the lake over in Woodinville). We met once and (though I don't remember saying it) he said that in that one meeting I told him I had no doubt in my mind he would become a Catholic. I don't recall saying it but I do recall thinking it as we talked. At any rate, it apparently hit him hard without my realizing it.
Then a couple of years passed and Scott contacted me and asked me to get in touch with him, so I did and we struck up a friendship. His dilemma was that he was a Calvinist pastor who, having acted as prosecutor in a heresy trial against Peter Leithart for exhibiting dangerously Romish tendencies, had himself wound up taking too close a look at the Church's claims and--after immense amounts of prayer, study, and anguish, abandoning all earthly security and the only job had had ever known--entered the Catholic Church in an incredibly gutsy leap of faith. Happily, Fr. Kurt Nagel out at Holy Family in Kirkland was able to hire him for a few months and Jason's congregation was very generous to him in terms of a severance package. Now he's working with Logos Software on an awesome program that I think will do great good. I can't tell you how honored I am to know such a man of integrity. His story was one of those that just makes you realize that the age of martyrs and courage is not over. That's him, rocking the Lex Luthor hairdo, telling his story:
Say a prayer for him, he can use all the prayer support he can get.
After Jason, there was Mass and the chance to just decompress and worship God. The bishop of Steubenville (a self-described "baby bishop" whose name escapes me) celebrated, and who should come processing up with the crucifix but Marc Barnes, the Bad Catholic, replete with his hipsteresque Woody Allen/Clark Kent vibe glasses. Brandon and I, both being fans, wanted to meet him, so we dashed off after Mass to track him down and invite him back for lunch. Eventually, we tracked the bounder to his den and issued the invite, as well as snagging a fanboy shot with the young scribal ace Brandon and I enjoy so much:
(Caption: Brandon Vogt sandwiched between Woody Allen and Burl Ives.)
After this, we headed off to lunch and Scott and Kimberly very generously invited us all back to their house (a different house than the Addams Family House I remembered from the last time I was in Steubenville). It's a beautiful place, overlooking the Ohio River and the Hahns have, with seemingly endless reserves of energy, set about turning the steeply sloping rear of the property into a series of terraced gardens with little prayer nooks and Pooh Thotful Spots, as well as constructing a little hermitage. Green and cool and lovely. I want to go to there.
After this, we got invited into the Legendary Library of Hahn, where Brandon's eyes glazed over with unbridled Book Lust and he took many pictures of the gazillions of titles (you can see them at his link above). I told Scott that when he dies one person will rejoice while the world weeps: the Librarian at FUS, who will inherit all this goodness.
Two important things happened while I roamed the immensity of the Hahn stacks (curiously situated over a trap door leading to a defunct swimming pool under the house built when its original occupant--the bishop of Steubenville--lived there and he could no longer take long walks for exercise). The first was that I had the cheap thrill of sitting in Scott's Central Command Chair in the midst of all the creative chaos:
Gazing on it now, I feel strangely consoled as I look around my own workspace.
Second, Scott had a sort of giveaway shelf of books he did not want or need and invited us to help ourselves. What should leap off the shelf into my hands but a copy of Peter's beloved A Canticle for Leibowitz. So God provides.
After this, it was time to bid farewell to the Hahn House and Scott took us to the airport. Brandon and I wandered about Picksboig Airport in search of food and gates (Oh! which reminds me! Peter Kreeft said that as he struggled to move into the computer age a couple of years ago, his computer--aka, his mortal enemy--was giving him fits with the Microsoft software. Finally, in a passion he shook his fist at the PC and declared: "I am Peter! And the Hell of Gates shall not prevail against me!" But I digress.)
As I went to get something to eat, a very lovely woman came over to me. It turned out she was at the conference and was flying home. She was sweet as a berry and so delighted at the gift of the conference and the chance to get to know the Lord better. She sort of summarized for me almost every encounter I had with people this past weekend. So very many people who were just eager to go more deeply into a personal encounter with Christ and learn to be a better disciple. I met Australians and Canadians and American form all over the country, I chatted with people from every walk of life, and I had a splendid time doing it. It was wonderful to be in a room with that sort of energy and vitality from the Spirit and I'm grateful to God and FUS for letting me attend and be a part of it. If you ever get a chance to go to one of FUS' other conferences either at the campus or scattered around North America, you should.