Richard Rodriguez on Love, Faith and Suffering

Rodriguez-keynote-close-webopIn the Logos of Love – the conference jointly conceived and presented by the Institute and the University of Dayton this September – got off to an appropriate start thanks to the moving, amusing and illuminating keynote address by author and essayist Richard Rodriguez, who opened the conference to a nearly full house of attendees, Institute staff and UD students and faculty.

Rodriguez is best known for his books Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez; Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father ,which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; Brown: The Last Discovery of America and this year’s Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography – a collection of essays chronicling Rodriguez’s struggle with his self-defined “Irish-Catholic” faith in light of his homosexuality as well as the changing spiritual landscape in post-9/11 America.

A major theme running throughout Rodriguez’s remarks – which were by turns poignant, funny, provocative and wry – revolved around the differences between the Catholic faith and other Christian denominations, such as Baptists or Methodists as Rodriguez observed them. His talk, entitled “Always Good Friday,” addressed what Rodriguez believed to be a distinctive facet of Catholic spiritual practice – the appreciation for suffering as a universal and uniting human experience, as exemplified by the presence of Christ on Catholic crosses.

“Catholics understand it is suffering that brings us together,” he told his audience. “This is something we all share – all of us.”

“Catholics understand it is suffering that brings us together,” he told his audience. “This is something we all share – all of us.”

Rodriguez said that some of the inspiration behind the creation of his latest book, Darling, came in response to atheist Richard Dawkins’ publication of the polemic God is Not Great as well as what Rodriguez described as a “new kind of atheism coming now from England.”

Hitchens, who Rodriguez credited with inspiring the English atheist movement in his own image – “very male, and very English” – once enjoyed a grudging respect from Rodriguez.

“Hitchens had praised me from time to time in the press, even though I’d written negatively about him and his ideas, but I really became disaffected with what he had to say when he wrote that Mother Teresa was ‘ugly,’” Rodriguez recalled. “Now, I know English public school humor and I know they’re capable of a kind of cruelty that Americans won’t dare, but he called Mother Teresa ugly, in Vanity Fair magazine.”

Rodriguez found the characterization particularly offensive, as Mother Teresa served as touchstone in his own evolving faith, he explained to the audience.

“She struggled through the last 40 years of her life with the sense that God had left her. And yet she went out every day in Calcutta to find the dying and give them comfort,” he explained.

In death, she was honored as a “great spiritual leader – this tiny woman who was in turmoil for much of her life at her lack of faith,” he recalled, noting that many of her mourners seemed incongruous to the press who covered her life and her works.

He recalled a story of Mother Teresa’s 1988 visit to three U.S. state prisons in response to a request by former Franciscan monk Donald Ouimet, who spent two decades in prison for assault.

On the day of her visit to one of the prisons, the prisoners “assembled in the chapel – tough guys with tattoos of Our Lady of Guadalupe – they assembled in the chapel like schoolgirls waiting to see this woman,” he said. When questioned by the press and others why she would consent to visit with them, Rodriguez says the Albanian-born nun replied “You must find the face of God on the faces of these prisoners.”

And that, says Rodriguez, “is the Church I belong to.”


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