Learning to Love With the Saints
A Spiritual Memoir
By Jean M. Heimann
Mercy Press, 2016
$13.99, 114 pages
To order: amazon.com
Jean Heimann grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, an era many of us look back upon as a turning point of Catholicism in the U.S. After a circuitous, decades-long detour marred by loss of faith, careerism, poor health and broken relationships, she finally had that saving encounter with Jesus Christ, returned to the faith of her childhood and embarked on a fruitful and rewarding walk with the Lord that continues to this day.
What this book demonstrates so poignantly is how ineffective the spiritual formation turned out to be for many kids growing up Catholic in the ’50s and ’60s. Parents who depended upon parish catechetics, the Catholic school system and a family life of traditional devotional practices discovered to their dismay that it often wasn’t enough. The sexual revolution hit the post-Vatican II Catholic Church with a broadside for which it was totally unprepared, and the resulting confusion is still negatively impacting the Church today.
“As a college student,” Heimann writes, “I yearned for the freedom and independence that all young adults crave. I wanted to express myself, experience new adventures, and discover a new world, one that I had missed out on during my sheltered childhood.”
After college, her first marriage ended in divorce when her husband’s erratic behavior revealed him to be an emotionally and physically abusive drug and alcohol addict. Then the tragic inadequacy of her Catholic formation resulted in her leaving the Church: “The year was 1972. … No one had ever explained to me that divorced Catholics could continue to remain in the Church and receive the sacraments as long as they did not remarry. I was brought up to believe that once you were divorced, you were no longer able to practice your faith. This was a common misconception in those days. … So when I got divorced, I simply stopped going to Church.”
Heimann is charitable toward her parents, and she extols them for their good example and heroic sacrifices in raising their children. Still, she acknowledges that her “life had been so serene that I took it all for granted.” The result is sad: Of Heimann’s five siblings, four of them (including her) left the Church as young adults. Many young people of that era have similar histories.
Evidently Heimann’s plan was to use elements from her life story to highlight the importance of the saints — their prayers, teachings and examples — but this unifying theme frequently fell apart. Some chapters include a reflection on the life of a relevant saint, but many do not. Here is one about St. John:
“I like to think about my journey being like that of St. John, a fisherman, the son of Zebedee and the brother of St. James the Great, who was called to be an apostle in the first year of [Jesus’] public ministry. … He was the only apostle present at the Crucifixion, standing at the foot of the cross. It was there that Jesus entrusted his mother to the care of his beloved friend. … St. John is the saint I am called to emulate in the love of the Lord and my neighbor. I am called to love others in my daily life with the same meekness, mildness, gentleness and humility that filled his heart. Just as he accepted Jesus and Mary deeply into his heart, so, too, am I called to keep them in the innermost depths of my heart and nurture my love for them through prayer, sacrifice and frequent reception of the sacraments. This is the way I have been called to an intimate spiritual union with my Savior and to a deeper love for him.”
Although the author’s phraseology sometimes sounds a bit awkward, Heimann’s memoir is nevertheless instructive for Catholic parents today.
Failure to effectively explain the Church’s teachings and explicitly contrast them with the practices of the world, over-emphasis on mere catechesis without leading children to true conversion of heart, and assuming that an unshakable Catholic faith can be absorbed by mere osmosis — these are the things Catholic parents today must avoid if they hope their children’s faith will be strong enough to survive immersion in the messy world outside the cloister of our homes and parishes. Recommended as a cautionary tale that, by God’s grace, has a happy ending.
Clare Walker writes from Westmont, Illinois.