Apostle to the ‘Idiots’

Mary DeTurris Poust, a longtime Catholic journalist who has written The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Catholic Catechism, says she learns by teaching others.

Mary DeTurris Poust, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Catholic Catechism, is an award-winning columnist, journalist and author whose work has appeared in both Catholic and secular magazines and newspapers. 

She is also the author of Parenting a Grieving Child: Helping Children Find Faith, Hope and Healing After the Loss of a Loved One (Loyola Press, 2002). Her column, “Life Lines,” which focuses on parenting and spirituality, appears monthly in Catholic New York and The Evangelist of the Albany, N.Y., Diocese. 

Poust and her husband, Dennis, who is director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference, have three children and live in upstate New York.

She spoke with Register correspondent Father Matthew Gamber, S.J.

Who had the idea to write a Complete Idiot’s Guide version of the Catechism?

The folks at Alpha Books, which is a division of Penguin Group USA, felt there was a strong market among the Catholic population for a book that could explain the teachings of the Church in a very accessible way.

It was their idea, and they were spot-on, because since the book has been published, I’ve heard the same thing from so many people. Folks want to give it to their children for confirmation gifts. One Brooklyn pastor is buying it for all of the people in his RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults] program. So I think Alpha Books really hit on something.

How did they choose you to be the writer?

Well, they wanted someone with experience writing about Catholic issues, and I have been in the Catholic press for 25 years, so there was that.

But they also wanted someone who could take complicated theological language and faithfully translate it into something that anyone could pick up — Catholics looking to expand their knowledge of the faith, fallen-away Catholics inching closer to coming home, non-Catholics hoping to better understand a faith that is often misrepresented by the secular media.

I think it was a combination of my many years of Catholic writing experience, my lifelong love of the faith, and my commitment to producing something that would be completely accurate and in accordance with Church teaching.

Were you working with Catholic editors at a secular publishing house or with a religious imprint?

I was working with non-Catholics at a secular publishing house. That really worked to my benefit. We Catholics are often so comfortable with our teachings that when it comes to explaining them, we sometimes assume everyone gets what we’re saying.

Having non-Catholics on my book committee and as my editors really ensured that when I explained complex teachings — like Trinity, Eucharist, Immaculate Conception — I was speaking in such a way that even someone with absolutely no knowledge of the Catholic faith could understand the teaching.

I think it made for a much stronger book.

Have they been pleased with the interest and sales of the book?

Yes. The book went into its second printing within four months of publication, so they are happy with the response.

How long did it take you to write it?

I was given only three months to write the entire book. It was an intense but professionally and personally rewarding experience. Of course, I write from home and have three children between the ages of 3 and 12, so that made it all the more challenging. Still, I’m blessed to be able to do my two favorite things — be a mom and a writer — at the same time.

Was it challenging to boil the teaching on the Apostle’s Creed, for instance, down into everyday language?

I wouldn’t necessarily say challenging — more like enlightening. I found myself going much deeper into the basics of our faith than I ever had before.

I’ve been a Catholic my entire life, and I’ve worked for the Church for more than half my life, but unpacking our teachings line by line, belief by belief, opened my eyes to the faith in an entirely new way.

I would be at Mass and feel as though I was saying the creed or the Our Father for the first time. What started out as a strictly professional experience quickly became a spiritual journey.

Your book has an imprimatur, probably the first Idiot’s Guide to get that. How and why did that happen?

Yes, my book is the first in the Idiot’s Guide series to have an imprimatur. I specifically asked my editors to let me seek an imprimatur because I wanted Catholic readers to know without a doubt that my book is faithful to Church teaching. Especially with a book like this, one that really is a teaching book, it’s imperative that Catholics know they can trust it.

If parishes want to use the book for RCIA or high school faith formation or as a study guide to a catechism class, the imprimatur is critical. I also had a theologian, Msgr. David Fulton, who teaches at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, working as my advisor every step of the way.

You mention in the introduction that you discovered the “beauty” of the Catechism. How did that occur?

As a Catholic journalist, I had always used the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a reference tool, referring to it when I wrote stories. The book experience allowed me to explore the intricate tapestry of Church teaching more fully. Everything is so beautifully interconnected and consistent, woven together with the threads of Scripture and Tradition.

Have any of your readers had similar experiences?

I have heard from so many people who have told me that they did not really understand Catholic teaching until they read my book. Unfortunately, they just didn’t get the teaching growing up. One woman told me that for the first time she doesn’t feel an animosity toward the Church because now she understands where the teachings come from and how they all fit together. To me, that is worth more than any review. If only that one woman read my book and was changed by it, that makes this whole endeavor worth the effort.

You have started to take your material on the road, giving talks about “The Lost Generation.” Who is that, and what are you saying about them?

Well, “The Lost Generation” includes those very people I just mentioned: those who were raised Catholic but somehow missed out on the message. Most of them are between the ages of 30 and 50 and were educated in the years after Vatican II, when both the content and method of religious education was changing.

Too often, back in the late ’60s, ’70s and into the early ’80s, faith formation was more focused on helping people develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ rather than on teaching the basics of the faith. As a result, there is an entire generation of Catholics, maybe close to two generations, who are adrift. They don’t know their faith, and they can’t pass it on to their children.

The overall positive and creative reception of the Catholic Catechism in the U.S. has been noted by members of the Vatican hierarchy in the past. Have you heard from any bishops or cardinals about your book?

In addition to lots of informal praise and encouragement from priests and some bishops, the book has received a formal endorsement from Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. He said that the book is “a wonderfully clear, readable, absorbing and very enjoyable resource for exploring and understanding what Catholics believe” and that it offers “a real service to the Catholic community.” That endorsement was such a gift because it reaffirmed what I was trying to do with this book.

How has writing the book changed the way you write or the topics you are taking on in your columns, blog, etc.?

Writing the Idiot’s Guide was life changing for me. Catholic journalism has been at the center of my entire adult life. It is not just a career, but a vocation, one that is expanding and changing as I move forward on my own spiritual path. I have worked for the Dioceses of Metuchen, N.J., and Austin, Texas, and the Archdiocese of New York. My history at Catholic New York newspaper stretches back to the beginning of my career; I was an intern, a reporter, managing editor and now columnist for Catholic New York, which will always be my “home” paper. And I have written for all of the national Catholic weeklies.

The Catechism experience, however, transformed all of that and pushed me in a new direction.

I no longer feel satisfied writing about only the business of the Church; I want to write about the truths of the faith. I feel called — and I believe the Catechism is directly responsible for this — to help other average Catholics, people like me, walk their own spiritual paths and confront all of the inevitable struggles. My columns, which used to focus on parenting issues, now focus on the spiritual journey.

My blog, Not Strictly Spiritual, regularly takes on spiritual issues — like fitting prayer into daily life, making retreats, trying to live out the Gospel in everyday routines. The blog has been an extraordinary experience, allowing me to connect with other Catholics in an anonymous and yet incredibly personal way. I am blessed to have a faithful little band of blog readers who have been willing to share their own journeys and struggles with me.

What is your next book project?

I have a couple of things in the pipeline, although right now I’d rather just wait and see how things play out. One thing I’ve learned, especially in the last year or so: Nothing ever goes as planned. I’m waiting to see what God has in store.

Jesuit Father Matthew Gamber

writes from Chicago.