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A priest's powerful impact on the New York Times' David Brooks

Denver, Colo., Dec 29, 2015 / 05:41 am (CNA) - New York Times columnist, best-selling author and all-around pundit David Brooks made headlines earlier this year for his bold new book making the case for a societal return to morality.  

Perhaps lesser known, however, is some of the inspiration behind the work – a humble priest described by Brooks as an “insanely joyful” man who sparked a nagging, internal question. Why was this cleric so happy and fulfilled?

What followed was a meticulously researched and engaging book which poses a provocative thesis: we as a modern society are cultivating outwardly impressive but ultimately superficial “resume virtues” – not character. And it's costing us dearly, the author says, both personally and communally.

In a conversation with CNA editors, Brooks recounted his experience with the priest along with his thoughts on why his book – “The Road to Character” (Random House/2015) – is so important, and how it speaks to everything from politics, to religion to education.

He also gave a hat tip to Pope Francis, whom he called “the embodiment of being a Christian.”

Below is the full Q&A, edited for clarity.

You're very brave – all of your recent headlines explicitly touting the need for “morality.” Your book's glaring reference to “sin.” Has there been any fallout from this? What's the reaction been from your peers?

A friend of mine who is an editor at another publishing house – a really good editor – called me and said, you know, I love the way you talk about your book, but I wouldn't use the word “sin” – it's just such a downer, so you should use the word “insensitive.” I of course think that “insensitive” is very paltry substitute for the word “sin,” so there has been some pushback on that. And, there’s some hostility towards religion in general. The book is not super religious, but it does have religious characters, and certainly religious words and religious context. But I'd say the main reaction has just been welcoming. People are hungry for a conversation. And so, whether people are Christian, Jewish, atheist – I've been sort of surprised by the general desire to be in this general field of conversation.

When did you realize in your own life that you'd been building “resume virtues” instead of forming your character?

There wasn't one big thing – but there were certain moments in my life when I saw people who had spiritual and moral gifts that I lacked. One of them was a guy named Monsignor Ray East, who is a priest in the Anacostia neighborhood in D.C. – a very poor neighborhood. He was part of a lunch I do every year for Catholic Relief Services, which I do with my friend, Mark Shields. And every year, Monsignor East would give the benediction. He was just insanely joyful – such an insanely joyful man, and I was just so struck by him. Just being in his presence would lift me up for a few weeks. I had the realization that whatever I had achieved in career terms, I haven't achieved the inner joy that he possesses. And I was just curious: how do you get that?

In your book, you talk about a cultural shift over the last 50 plus years away from humility – and a natural sense of self-effacement people had – into the notion of the “big me.” What caused this?

There are many aspects, of course. One of them derives from the consumer society, that teaches that you have these desires and you should satisfy them, and so you should just go around satisfying your desires. And so I think you come to believe that your desires are good and to have tremendous trust in them – and that is a shift away from what people thought in previous centuries. Second, after WWII, people had been through deprivation and had seen a lot of darkness, from the Holocaust and just the death that WWII created. (A series of books from the time promoted the idea) that when we look inside ourselves, we see that our nature is beautiful and full of good and that we need to love ourselves more. That too is a sharp break from the biblical tradition which says that we are broken – so there was both a commercial and philosophical shift that happened.

A recent Pew survey documents the rise of “nones” – religiously unaffiliated people – in the U.S. With the general decline of those who identify as religious, would you say this correlates to a general lack of emphasis on character?

They go along together – character is the ability to commit to things outside of yourself, whether it is a political movement, or faith, or friendship, or a love affair, or a cause. I think people have a harder time committing. They are more autonomous, more individual, they have FOMO (fear of missing out) so they don't want to ruin any option, and that leads to a general era of de-commitment. People are walking away from political parties, from organized faith – they are just living more individually. And I think that's due to our inability to commit to things.

What about education? How does the school system help or hinder your concept of the need for more virtuous people?

I think obviously Catholic schools can teach us specific code, specific theology, but public schools really can't. I do think that they can familiarize students with the religions and the faiths and the philosophies that are out there. So what I do when I teach a course is say: here are a bunch of moral ontologies, different systems that people have come up with. There is a Greek system favoring honor and courage, the Jewish faith favoring obedience and law, the Christian system favoring grace and humility – I'm not going to tell you which one to pick, but here are a bunch of systems, do what seems true to you. But we don't even give students the words or an education there. I think we have to at least make them literate in spirituality and moral matters.

Let's move to politics. Many of the U.S. founding fathers either implied or explicitly said that democracy will only work if we are a nation comprised of people with character. What are the implications of your thesis for the American experiment?

I think that our founders were very clear on that. A healthy country requires a decent citizenry. And they also believed that statecraft is soulcraft – that in forming a government we’re helping to shape the character of the people within it. I think as we’ve lost the whole vocabulary and the whole focus, we now focus a lot on economics and economics as really the gateway between all social thinking and government policy.

And that’s not true – that doesn’t evaluate what people seek...And so we've kind of neutered the public square. I'm not the kind of person who thinks we're in a state of national decline or anything like that. I think people find ways to behave decently towards one another as best as they can. But I just think we’re inarticulate and that we could be living satisfying and more fulfilling lives if we actually had words and more – greater – self-consciousness and better road maps for how to lead a life of depth and kindness.

Is social media to blame for some of our narcissistic, “big me” tendencies as a society?

I'm not hugely fearful about it. I don't think Facebook is making us lonelier. I don't think video games are making us more violent. The two things I do think are: first, social media and the desire for likes and attention on Instagram and such is amplifying the self where we are broadcasting ourselves and just sort of being big about ourselves and win fame. And I do think social media damages our attention span. I've certainly noticed that in myself where I have trouble reading for long periods of time without checking my phone. So I do think that's probably the most harmful thing that’s happened to us. Moral reflection takes stillness. You've got to hear that soft voice inside...So I think those are the two things I worry about.

What, in a concrete, practical sense can your readers take away from your book? What effect do you want to have on people?

First, I just want them to live in this space and think about this world. Second, I think we become better people by copying others. So I hope they’re excited by some of the characters and they just want to live a life like Dorothy Day or live a life like Philip Randolph. I think that’s how we are motivated – by exemplars.

As for the practical things, some of them are mundane. I have a friend who when he goes home at night he asks how he did in his struggle against his core weakness that day and he resolves ways to do better. I think you can surround yourself by friends and also by heroes – people you can put on your walls in your room who remind what a decent, good life looks like. I think you can have discussion groups raising the subjects of: how do you turn suffering into a moral occasion? How do you build your relationships?

So there's a spiritual component. I think you learn from Samuel Johnson the virtue of reading and how just having a settled philosophy of life is important in having and living a life of character. You can learn from Francis Perkins about a vocation. You can ask, what is the mortal world around me calling me to do right now?

I think there are a few different things that can be done. There's no seven step process to doing it but there's a lifelong journey that I'm hoping people find different avenues towards.

As a Catholic news entity, we'd be remiss if we didn't ask your opinion on Pope Francis...

I have a quote in the book from Dave Jolly, a veterinarian, who says ‘the message is the person’ - the way we communicate, what we value is not necessarily from the theology that we found, but by the way we act, the way we are. And I think Pope Francis is the perfect exemplification of that. I'm not a huge expert in Catholic theology but I like the way he handles himself and I admire the way he behaves in matters large and small. So to me, he simply is the embodiment of being a Christian. He radiates love, radiates joy, shows mercy, shows empathy. That's the way Jesus asks Christians to live and Pope Francis lives that way. And so the message is the person.

This article was originally published on CNA May 21, 2015.

Past Issues

Dec. 9, 2018

Nov. 25, 2018

Nov. 11, 2018

Oct. 28, 2018

Oct. 14, 2018

Sept. 16, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: 2018 Golf Classic; student athletes; physically challenged; Leonard Stegman; Lesson in forgiveness; Sending us on a mission

Sept. 2, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Priest crisis; Scandal; Opioid addictions; Seeds of Suicide; Leightons; St. Anne; Vincke; seminarians; Dominican Sisters; Stewardship Conference; Dead Sea Scrolls; PSR programs; Roe V. Wade

 

August 12, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Prayer and Action; Totus Tuus; Janee Bernal; Diana Ramirez; Heidy Ramirez; Bishop Gilmore honored for 20 years ministry; suicide; contraception and abortion; Dead Sea Scrolls; Humanae Vitae; certification in youth ministry; Chuck Weber; Cathedral rectory chapel; Sister Viola Heichelbech; Adam Urban

July 15, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Immigration Protest/Rally; Faith and Light Fiesta; Seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls; Corpus Christi procession; Prayers for priests; Sisters turn 100; Michael Brungardt; Gerald Vincke; Massacre in San Salvador; Action for Alex 

 

June 3, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Parish Pray for Priestly Vocations; Appeal reaches $10 million; Gangs; Seminarians; Pam Willis; Why I like being a priest; Happy Father's Day; Patricia Lujan; Tyler and Rachel Bennett; Adoption Protection Act.

May 20, 2018
KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Track meet; Beloved Sinners; Benjamin Martin retires; Smiles; Future of Fortune Telling; Hoisington mission; DofI; Getting Equipped; Spring Social; First Communion; Confirmation
KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Track meet; Beloved Sinners; Benjamin Martin retires; Smiles; Future of Fortune Telling; Hoisington mission; DofI; Getting Equipped; Spring Social; First Communion; Confirmation

May 6, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Archbishop Romero; Seeing, Touching, Tasting; Exhortation; Father Patrick Conroy; Happy Mother's Day; A child on your doorstep; Vibrant Ministries Grant; From the heart of a young father; Love Gives Life; Roman Holiday; Smartphone; retirement
Fossil Hunting

 

April 15, 2018

 KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Easter Vigil; Angelica Village; Colorado woman; The art of anger; Cimarron Couple; Staats; Adoption; 

Father Ultan Murphy anniversary; Coughlan; Spiritual Advisor to Hoodlums; Woman of Courage; Oration contest; Darcy Feist  

 

April 1, 2018

 

 KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Defending Adoption; Led by the Spirit; Knights; ABC Pregnancy Center;
Memorial of Mary; Homeless; Relics; Down syndrome abortion; Chrism Mass

 

March 18, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: SKYAC; Aleksandr Men; Fasting for Priestly Vocations; Uganda; School for deaf; Rannah Evetts; Oberle; Rachel and Doug Trombley; Oscar Romero; Paul VI; DACA

 

 

March 4, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Fasting for priestly vocations; Father Juan; Fasting and prayer;
Quest Weekend 2018; DACA; With God, anything is possible; Homelessness in our communities; Rhubarb, Kansas;
What's the point of fasting; Rite of Election; same-sex couples

 

Feb. 18, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Catholic Schools Week; Rachel Doll; Ellinwood; Great Bend; Garden City; Ness City; Dodge City; Sister Rita Schwarzenberger; Nigeria; Bishop Hermes; Fasting for Priestly Vocations; World Day for Consecrated Life; 50th Anniversary St. Dominic School; What will life be like in 50 years?

 

 

Feb. 4, 2018

 

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: March for Life; Tracy and Ross Smith; Adoption; Vibrant Ministries; Faith and Light;
Pro-Life; Mortal sin to discard elderly; DACA; Abortion; Dreamers; Human Trafficking

 

Jan. 21, 2018

 KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Louise Korbe; Anne Frank; Miep Gies; Home Heat; Father Solanus

 

Jan. 7, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Good news and kingdom living; dreamers; Sister Teresa Orozco; Infant Adoption; Elderly; a moral conundrum; seminarian; feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

 

Dec. 17, 2017

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Celebrate Christmas 'unplugged'; Msgr. Matthew Smith; Klan; Catholic Charities Annual Appeal; Fr. Larry Rosebaugh; A Guadalupe Encounter; Laci and Joe Salazar; A Christmas Wish; Adoption; Confession; Advent; EWTN; Christmas Blues; Tilma; Pittsburgh; PSR

 

Dec. 3, 2017

 KEYWORDS, PHRASES: 2017 NCYC; Wheel of Balance; Marita Rother; Stanley Rother; slavery; trafficking; Windthorst water damage; martyred priests; confession; reconciliation; How to go to confession; recipe for codfish cakes; Catholic schools; appeal

 

Nov. 19, 2017

 KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Saints; Father Kola; Black Elk; Giving Tuesday; velvet Elvis; a Slice of Time; Dani Sandoval; Mexican Village; Father Tim Hickey; New faces at chancery; priests share thoughts on confession; Wheel of Balance

 

Nov. 5, 2017

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Matrimony Anniversary Mass, 2017; Riebel; Faith and Light; Scripture Day; Sex in the Bible; Quilt, Mexican Village Story; Finance; Fatima pilgrimage; Fowler church window renovation; Medicare; Crazy Glue


Oct. 15, 2017

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Father Francis Jordan; Sister Renee Kirmer; Father Rother beatified; religious liberty; RCIA Kansas; V Encuentro; Bishop Weisenburger; Daughters of Isabella; Bishop Gerber Science Center


Oct. 1, 2017

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: De Colores; Rebein; Dreamer; Pies; Kellner; Code Quilts; Sister Crucita; Feezor; Formed.org; Sin and pain

 

 Sept. 17, 2017

 

 KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Sister Lucy Fidelis; Underground Railroad; Sister Irene Hartman; DACA; new priests; teachers; Volunteer of the Year; Golf Classic; St. Francis Xavier; St. Nicholas Parish Center, Kinsley; seminarians; Knights Lite; Stewardship Day 2017

Sept. 3, 2017

Aug. 13, 2017

 KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Coronado Cross; Masada; Moody Gardens; Elders; Rother; undocumented children; cages; year of mercy; Kumi; Hollywood makeup artist; New Mexico; refugee women.

July 16, 2017

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Summer camp; tithing and almsgiving; Bill Baalmann; Nathan Schaller; Jubilarian Sisters; Sister Hortencia Rodriguez; Sister Petrona Stockemer; Sister Denise Sevart; Convocation of Catholic Leaders; Mother talks about her son entering seminary; Arcoiris; Youth group travels to Colorado Springs; Major Phillip Roth

June 11, 2017 (Updated)

Ordination; Mark Brantley; Jacob Schneider; Father's Day; Thanks, Dad!; Appeal; Sister Mary Martin Weaver; Bishop Maralit; Budget; Trafficked women; Deacon Michael Brungardt; Dead Sea Scrolls; softball; Father Urban retirement; Sister Kravec retirement; Father Mazouch retirement; Authentic Joy; Pris Climate Accord; Jack Schramm; Pieta.

May 28, 2017 (Updated)

 

Grateful Hearts; MSFS Provincial; Reddy; Reif; Opossum; Dead Sea Scrolls; Our Lady of Fatima; Jorge Herrera, Jr.; Cursillo; Kough; First Communion; Confirmation

May 14, 2017

Esteban Hernandez; citizen; Lilly Ann Rein, Amberly Jimenez, Mother's Day; peacock; Quattrocchi; President Kennedy; Teen Moms; Junior High Youth Rally; Encounter With God's Call; granny/nanny; seniors' contributions; tornado anniversary; harvest; healthcare; Mr. Brown; Store-bought teeth; Louis and Zelie Martin; Father John Sullivan; Irish priest whose prayers could heal; Mexican beauty queen; Esmaralda Gonzalez; religious life

April 30, 2017

   KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Easter Vigil; bully; TEC; Father Marvin Reif; Bet'sie; What makes a hero?; St. Mary of the Plains; tornado

Easter, 2017

 KEYWORDS, PHRASES: SKYAC; Honorable courtship; footsteps of migrants; CHRISM Mass 2017; honoring priests; Encuentro Cross blessed; Daughters of Isabella State Convention; Fatima pilgrim statue; Mary Sharon Moore interview; Senate advances pro-life measures; love must be at the core of family life; Father John Forkuoh's car story; Confirmations; Sisters of Concordia; CNN hero Father Khalil Jaar

March 26, 2017

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: From the heart; kidney; Rother; Friar Carmelo; Schnauzer; Lauren Seachris; Lauren's Treat; fire; Guatemala; immigration; Lenten Regulations 1888; Hot Cross Buns; budget; Trump; Forkuoh; Seiwert; South Sudan; hot ashes

March 12, 2017

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Refugees; immigrants; Gilbert Herrman; When you give alms'; Lent; Call to Continuing Conversion, Rite of Election; Charell and Jeremy Owings; adoption; Our Growing Church; Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia; water; creation; Sudan; Darlow Lampe

Feb 26, 2017

 KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Night to shine; Immigration; immigrants; Knights of Columbus; Pete Gomez; this foreign mission; Creole; Robin Doll; Eagle Scout; Quest

Feb 12, 2017

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Catholic Schools Week; March for Life; Pro-life; Executive Order; Secular Franciscan Order; teachers; Down Syndrome; Eagle Scout; Bronze Pelican

Jan. 29, 2017

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Thank you, religious; SEEK 2017; homeless man to priest; Fourth Sunday; Secret Service to Sacred Heart; Dr. Gerard Brungardt; Martin Luther King; 110 year old nun; Toddler miracle; Letter from undocumented immigrant; health care; immigration

Jan. 15, 2017

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Mary helps us share; Tighe donates home to Birthright; Pro-life billboard; Theobald Hattrup; Helen and Steve Eck; Pearl Harbor; Reigning Grace

Dec. 18, 2017

KEYWORDS: Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, 2016; Pope Francis Christmas schedule; 2016 high school youth rally; Aerospace engineer; Father Stanley Rother; Radio station; Dying girl's letter; Scout nominations; 12 days of Christmas

Dec. 4, 2016

KEYWORDS: Vocations Day; Pope Advent advice; Ex-prostitute; Spearville mission; Pilgrims v. Zombies; Face of God; Mission bazaar; Ness City fall festival; Rural health care; Archbishop Gomez; Bishops congratulate Trump

Nov. 20, 2016

Nov. 6, 2016

Oct. 23, 2016

Oct. 9, 2016


Sept. 25, 2016


Sept. 11, 2016

 
Aug. 7, 2016

July 10, 2016

June 12, 2016

May 29, 2016

May 8, 2016


 April 24, 2016

 April 10, 2016

 March 27, 2016

March 13, 2016

Feb. 28, 2016

 

Feb. 14, 2016


Jan. 31 , 2016

Jan. 17, 2016

Dec. 20, 2015

Dec. 6, 2015

Nov. 15, 2015

Nov. 1, 2015

Oct. 18, 2015

Oct. 4, 2015

Sept. 20, 2015

Sept. 6, 2015

August 9, 2015

July 12, 2015

Jun 14, 2015

May 17, 2015

May 3, 2015

April 19, 2015

Easter, 2015

 

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