Letters to a Young Catholic


By George Weigel

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“An engaging, lucid, and informative introduction to the teachings and traditions of Catholicism” (Wall Street Journal), from one of America’s most prominent Catholic intellectuals.

In this remarkable exploration of the Catholic world, prominent Catholic author and papal biographer George Weigel offers a luminous collection of letters to young Catholics, not-so-young Catholics, and any curious souls who wonder what it means to be Catholic today.

Weigel takes readers on an epistolary tour of Catholic landmarks—from Chartres Cathedral to St. Mary’s Church in Greenville, South Carolina; from the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to G.K. Chesterton’s favorite pub in Oxford; and from the grave of a modern martyr in Warsaw to the Sistine Chapel. This revised and expanded edition includes five new chapters that examine topics at the heart of the modern faith—ranging from the mystery of evil to the puzzle of secularization—and feature sacred sites from Lithuania to Mexico.

Weaving together insights from history, literature, theology, and music, Weigel illuminates the beliefs that give Catholicism its distinctive texture and explores the theological importance of grace, prayer, vocation, sin and forgiveness, suffering, and—most importantly—love. To a world that sometimes seems closed and claustrophobic, he suggests, Christian humanism offers a world with windows and doors—and a skylight.


Praise for Letters to a Young Catholic

"If I weren't a cradle Catholic, George Weigel's Letters to a Young Catholic might make me want to convert."—Washington Post

"'Great Expectations,' in fact, could be Weigel's subtitle, for that is what he hopes to inspire in youthful souls with his graceful meditations on truth, beauty, and love."—Claremont Institute Review

"But even on the toughest of topics—life and death, and ­suffering—he manages to quickly hit important notes, quoting scripture and giving the reader something to work with, plus tying these deep issues into the hottest and most crucial public-policy and morality debates of our day. . . . I expect Letters will be a long-time Catholic-culture classic."—National Review

"This is a luminous work that would appeal to anyone interested in faith, hope, and life itself."—Booklist

"Writing in a conversational, epistolary form aimed at young Catholics, Weigel offers a book that simultaneously is, and is not, your grandmother's catechism: he affirms the core doctrines of the Church, but he does so in a way that is refreshingly contemporary and—because of his emphasis on Church sites around the world—catholic as well as Catholic. . . . This book is simply first-rate."—Publishers Weekly

Copyright © 2015 by George Weigel

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Designed by Cynthia Young

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Weigel, George, 1951–

Letters to a young Catholic / George Weigel. — Revised and Expanded [edition].

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-465-09750-0 (e-book)

1. Weigel, George,


2. Catholic youth—Religious life.

I. Title.

BX2355.W45 2015



10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


my faculty colleagues and our students

in the

Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society

in Liechtenstein and Kraków,



A Preliminary Postcard

LETTER ONE: Baltimore and Milledgeville

Acquiring the "Habit of Being"

LETTER TWO: The Papal Basilica of St. Peter's, Rome

The Scavi and the Grittiness of Catholicism

LETTER THREE: St. Catherine's Monastery, Mt. Sinai / The Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

The Face of Christ

LETTER FOUR: The Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

Mary and Discipleship

LETTER FIVE: The Oratory, Birmingham, England

Newman and "Liberal" Religion

LETTER SIX: The Olde Cheshire Cheese, London

Chesterton's Pub and a Sacramental World

LETTER SEVEN: Castle Howard, Yorkshire, England

Brideshead Revisited and the Ladder of Love

LETTER EIGHT: The Sistine Chapel, Rome

Body Language, God-Talk, and the Visible Invisible

LETTER NINE: St. Mary's Church, Greenville, South Carolina

Why and How We Pray

LETTER TEN: St. Stanisław Kostka Churchyard, Warsaw / The Metropolitan Curia, Kraków

How Vocations Change History

LETTER ELEVEN: The North American College Mausoleum, Campo Verano, Rome

The Hardest Questions

LETTER TWELVE: The Hill of Crosses, Šiauliai, Lithuania / The Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island, Rome

The New Martyrs and Us

LETTER THIRTEEN: Cell 18, Block 11, KL-Auschwitz

The Mystery of Evil

LETTER FOURTEEN: Chartres Cathedral, France

What Beauty Teaches Us

LETTER FIFTEEN: King's College Chapel, Cambridge / Ely Cathedral

The Secularization Puzzle

LETTER SIXTEEN: The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City

Inculturation and the New Evangelization

LETTER SEVENTEEN: The Old Cathedral, Baltimore

Freedom for Excellence

LETTER EIGHTEEN: St. Patrick's Church, Soho, London

Why Orthodoxy, Liturgy, Service, and Work for Justice Go Together

LETTER NINETEEN: The Basilica of the Holy Trinity, Kraków

On Not Being Alone



A Preliminary Postcard

These letters are written to, and for, young Catholics—and not-so-young Catholics, and indeed curious souls of any religious persuasion or none—who wonder what it means to be a Catholic in the twenty-first century and the third millennium. There are lots of ways to explore that question. We could take a walk through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, reviewing the key points of Christian doctrine and thinking through the myriad challenges of living a Catholic life today. We could ponder the lives of the saints, ancient and modern, and see what their experiences have to offer by way of example and inspiration. We could think together about the Church's sacraments: What does it mean to be baptized, to celebrate the Mass and receive Christ's body and blood in Holy Communion, to experience the forgiveness of Christ in the sacrament of Penance? We could discuss prayer, and its many forms, styles, and methods.

The more I think about it, though, the more it seems to me that the best way to explore the meaning of Catholicism is to take an epistolary tour of the Catholic world, or at least those parts of the Catholic world that have shaped my own understanding of the Church, its people, its teaching, and its way of life. Catholicism is a very tangible business—it's about seeing and hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling as much as it's about texts and arguments and ideas. Visiting some of the more intriguing parts of the Catholic world will, I hope, be an experience of the mystery of the Church, which is crucial to understanding it. And by the "mystery" of the Church, I don't mean documents filed away in the Vatican Secret Archives. I mean those dimensions of the Catholic experience that are matters of intuition and empathy and insight—experiences which can never be fully captured discursively.

Where to begin our tour? Perhaps a little autobiographical indulgence isn't out of place in a book like this. So let's begin by visiting the Catholic world of my youth. At the very least, it's an interesting slice of Americana. I think it's more than that, though. For when I was a very young Catholic, I absorbed things by a kind of osmosis, things that just may shed light on the fuller and deeper truths of Catholic faith today—even though we're living in a very different time and place and circumstance.



Acquiring the "Habit of Being"

grew up in what now seems to have been the last moment of intact Catholic culture in the United States: the late Fifties and early Sixties, in Baltimore, one of the most Catholic cities in the country. There were lots of places like this—Boston, surely; large parts of New York and Philadelphia; Chicago and Milwaukee and St. Louis. Still, there was something distinctive about Catholic Baltimore in those days. American Catholics past and present are notoriously ignorant of the history of the Church in the United States. In Baltimore, we were very much aware that we were living in the first of American dioceses, with the first bishop and the first cathedral—and, of course, the "Baltimore Catechism," which was used in those days from sea to shining sea.

Catholic Baltimore was different from other parts of America's urban Catholic culture in degree, not in kind. We didn't divide the world into "Baltimore Catholicism" and "Milwaukee Catholicism" (or Philadelphia Catholicism, or New York Catholicism, or Boston Catholicism or whatever). We quite naturally and unselfconsciously divided the world into "Catholics"—people we recognized by a kind of instinct—and "non-Catholics." That instinct wasn't a matter of prejudice. It was the product of a unique experience, and you instinctively recognized people who'd been formed by the same experience.

How were we different? To begin with, we had a singular way of describing ourselves. When someone asked us where we were from, we didn't say "South Baltimore" or "Highlandtown" or "Towson" or "Catonsville." We'd say "I'm from Star of the Sea" (or "St. Elizabeth's" or "Immaculate Conception" or "St. Agnes," or, in my case, "the New Cathedral"). Baltimore was, and is, a city of neighborhoods, but in hindsight it seems instructive that we identified ourselves first by parish, rather than by geographic area. Some might call this "tribal," and there were certainly elements of the tribal (especially ethnic-tribal) in this distinctive way of telling a stranger who you were. It was a different kind of tribalism, though, a Catholic tribalism that fostered both fierce rivalries and even fiercer loyalties: rivalries among parishes and schools and teams and youth groups, but beyond and through all those rivalries, an intense sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves, something beyond ourselves that somehow lived inside us, too. All of which was, as I look back on it, a first inkling of "catholicity" (which is another word for "universality") and its relationship to particularity.

We used a different vocabulary, in the Catholic world in which I grew up. With the possible exception of those grinds who were aiming to score 800 on the SAT verbals, the only American kids between the ages of ten and eighteen who regularly used words like vocation, monstrance, missal, crucifer, biretta, chasuble, surplice, ciborium, and paten were Catholics. (That much of this arcane vocabulary was Latin-derived was a source of aggravation to generations of high school and college English composition teachers, eager to get us using short, sharp words of Anglo-Saxon origin rather than those luxurious Latinate nouns and verbs.) We also pronounced words differently: non-Catholics said "Saint AW-gus-teen," but we knew it was "Saint Uh-GUS-tin." Then there was our sense of identification with some local heroes. Other kids could recite the relevant batting and pitching, passing and receiving statistics of their sporting idols, but hadn't a clue (and couldn't have cared less) about their religious affiliation. We were stat-crazy, too, but we also knew exactly who was a Catholic (John Unitas, Art Donovan, Brooks Robinson) and what parish they belonged to. And we sensed a connection to these athletic gods that was . . . different, somehow.

With our Catholic school uniforms, we looked different—and if those uniforms saved our parents a lot of clothes money (which they did), they also reinforced a sense of belonging to something distinctive. So did the fact that we were taught by religious sisters (whom we mistakenly called "nuns," ignorant of the terminological technicality that "nuns" are, by definition, cloistered). Some were magnificent: my first-grade teacher, Sister Mary Moira, SSND, understood "phonics" a generation ahead of time and could teach a stone to read. Others were, to put it gently, less than adequate: my seventy-something fifth-grade teacher, Sister Maurelia, still insisted that the sun orbited the earth. Yet even the bad teachers commanded respect, and through the combined effects of their personal discipline, their austerity, and their devotional lives, even the bad teachers were teaching us something important about life and its purposes, however clumsily or inarticulately. (And yes, there were occasional Ingrid Bergman/Bells of St. Mary's moments: the aforementioned Sister Maurelia's devotion to the Ptolemaic universe coexisted with an impressive capacity to clobber a misbehaving boy with a well-aimed chalkboard eraser at twenty paces. Anyone who described such behavior as "abusive" would have been considered insane.)

Our calendar, and the habits it bred into us, also marked us out as distinctive. "Holy Days of Obligation" (like the December 8 feast of Mary's Immaculate Conception) were days off from school then—a source of envy among the "publics," as we sometimes called the kids in the government schools. In that innocent era, before Christian terminology in the government schools had been deemed a danger to the Republic, everybody had "Christmas vacation"; but we had "Easter vacation" while everybody else had "Spring break." Meatless Fridays set us apart from our non-Catholic friends and neighbors: no one else we knew took peanut butter and jelly (or tuna fish, or Swiss cheese on rye) sandwiches to school in their lunch bags (or lunch boxes, among the smaller fry). Our parents couldn't eat meat at breakfast and lunch on the weekdays of Lent, and everyone fasted for three hours before going to church on Sunday morning. First Communion (in the second grade) and Confirmation (in the fourth grade) were major landmarks in our uniquely Catholic lifecycle.

Our Protestant friends knew their Bible a lot better than we did, but we knew our catechism; and, looking back, it strikes me that the memorization of its answers was not only the basic structure of our early religious instruction—it was a first hint that Catholicism is deeply, even passionately, invested in ideas, even ideas boiled down into single-sentence formulas. (Little did we know the titanic struggles that had gone into creating those precise formulations over the centuries.) We had a ritual life that also set us apart. Most of us went to Mass every Sunday (plus those blessed, school-free holy days), and the idea of a churchless Sunday struck us as somehow odd. The Mass was, of course, celebrated in Latin (with the Gospel read in English before the sermon). Catholic boys memorized "the responses" in Latin in order to serve at the altar (the frequent response Et cum spiritu tuo giving rise, phonetically, to the old saw about the classic Catholic telephone number: "Et cum speery, two-two-oh"). From constant repetition during Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and from the weekly Lenten devotion known as the "Stations of the Cross," boys and girls alike learned a few Latin hymns ("Tantum ergo," "O salutaris hostia," "Stabat mater"). And for some reason, perhaps best understood by religious anthropologists, it didn't strike us as the least bit peculiar that we prayed and sang in an ancient language that few of us knew—until, that is, Latin was drummed into us, declension by declension and conjugation by conjugation, when we hit high school.

Some of the things we did raised the eyebrows of our more assertively Protestant neighbors. Our piety had a distinctly Marian flavor, unintelligible and perhaps vaguely blasphemous to non-Catholics. Catholic families were encouraged to say the rosary together, and the annual "May procession" was a great event on the school and parish calendar; its high point came when an especially favored girl from the parish school "crowned" a statue of Mary with a garland of flowers. What truly marked us off as different, though (and, in the eyes of some, not merely different but perversely different), was what everyone in those days called "going to confession." Making one's first confession was an absolute and unchallenged prerequisite to First Communion. So, at age seven or eight we learned an etiquette of self-examination and self-accusation that our Protestant friends (when they got up the nerve to ask) found incomprehensible. Mythologies notwithstanding, "going to confession" wasn't a terrifying or morbid experience: at least once a month we were taken to church from the parochial school and lined up outside the confessional to do our penitential duty, about which, insofar as I can recall, no one complained. All of this (examining conscience, making a "firm purpose of amendment," describing our peccadillos, receiving and saying a brief penance) was simply what we did because of who we were. If other people didn't do such things, they were the odd ducks, not us. They were the ones missing something.

Then there were our international connections, which seemed more richly textured than our neighbors'. American Christians have always been mission-conscious. Still, I don't recall hearing my Protestant friends talk about "ransoming pagan babies," which was something we did during Lent throughout my early years in elementary school. In those days, when a quarter was a lot of money, the idea was to put your pennies and nickels in a small cardboard collection box you kept at home and to accumulate over the forty days of Lent a total of $5.00—which required another self-discipline, to wit, not raiding the collection box too often. This $5.00 would be given to a mission, usually in Africa, and in return, the donor was allowed to give the "pagan baby" its Christian name at its baptism (if memory serves, we got a certificate noting that "James" or "Mary" or whoever had been baptized because of our generosity). I never quite figured out how this worked at the other end, unless all our "pagan babies" were orphans without parents to name them. The point, however, was not the logistics, but the sense that was quickly ingrained in us of being part of a worldwide body. Mission talks were a regular feature of Catholic schools, and the Catholic periodical literature of the day (even for children) was chock-full of stories from the missions, some of them of a blood-curdling sort. The Jesuits and the Religious of the Sacred Heart may have been the up-market religious orders when I was growing up, but the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America—"Maryknoll"—was where the adventure was.

We were also at least vaguely aware of belonging to a worldwide Church that was being persecuted in various places. The idea of a "Christian-Marxist dialogue" was buried in the womb of the future. What we knew about communism was that communists had killed Yugoslavia's Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, tortured Hungary's Cardinal József Mindszenty, and locked up the gentle Bishop James Edward Walsh of Maryknoll (a fellow Marylander and veteran missionary to China). Some of this storytelling had an effect on me that I couldn't possibly have imagined at the time.

A lot of my writing over the past three and a half decades has had to do with Poland, and I can't help but think that the seeds of my Polish passion were planted early—in the third grade, to be precise. In early 1959, the principal of the old Cathedral School in downtown Baltimore, Sister Euphemia, announced that each class in the school would be assigned a communist dictator for whose conversion we were to pray during Lent that year. Everybody wanted Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, of course, because he was the only communist dictator most of us had ever heard of. So there was great disappointment in the third grade when, by the luck of the draw, we got the boss Polish communist, Władysław Gomułka. More than thirty years later I would write a book that, among other things, chronicled Gomułka's complex role in Polish Church-state relations; you can't tell me there isn't a connection, somehow, to that third-grade experience.

The other great international linkage that made us different was, of course, the link to what an earlier generation of anti-Catholic bigots (actually, in our grandparents' time) had been pleased to call a "foreign potentate"—the pope. The sense of connection to "Rome" and to the pope himself was strong. Pius XII, the pope of my boyhood, was an ethereal figure; yet every Catholic I knew seemed to feel a personal attachment to him, and I well remember the tears shed when he died in October 1958. I was then in the second grade, and, along with all eight grades of the old Cathedral School, I was marched across Mulberry Street into the Cathedral of the Assumption, where one of the young priests on the cathedral staff led us in five decades of the rosary. Our elders, for the next few days, said that "there would never be another pope like Pius XII" (a good call, if not for the reasons they imagined at the time). Then, when a portly, seventy-seven-year-old Italian named Roncalli was elected and took what sounded like a bizarre name, "John XXIII," those same elders sagely noted that things just weren't the same (they got that right, too, if again for an entirely different set of reasons). This emotional and spiritual connection to the Bishop of Rome never seemed to us odd, much less un-American, and the anti-Catholic agitations of the 1960 presidential campaign struck us as weird rather than threatening: we knew we were Catholics and Americans, and if someone else had a problem with that, well, that was their problem, as we used to say. It certainly wasn't ours.

So we were . . . different, and we knew ourselves to be different, yet without experiencing ourselves as strangers in a strange land. Garry Wills and I have never agreed on much, but Wills had it exactly right when, in an elegiac essay written in the early 1970s, he said that our generation of Catholics in America had grown up in a ghetto—just as he was right when he also wrote that it wasn't a bad ghetto in which to grow up. Indeed, the most ghettoized people of all, I've come to learn, are the people who don't know they grew up in a particular time and place and culture, and who think they can get to universal truths outside of particular realities and commitments. There are ghettos and then there are ghettos. The real question is not whether you grow up in a ghetto, but whether the ideas and customs and rhythms of your particular ghetto prepare you to engage other ideas and customs and life experiences without losing touch with your roots. Long before Alex Haley successfully marketed the idea, we had gotten the idea that "roots" were important, because without roots there's no growth, only dryness and decay.

Still, whether we knew it or not (and most of us didn't know it until later in life), this "Catholic difference" wasn't only a matter of how we described ourselves, how we talked, what we wore and ate, where we went to school, and who taught us. The real "Catholic difference"—which was mediated to us by all these other differences—was, at bottom, a way of seeing the world. And, by a roundabout route, this brings us to the first proposition I'd like you to consider: while Catholicism is a body of beliefs and a way of life, Catholicism is also an optic, a way of seeing things, a distinctive perception of reality.

What is it? You can describe it in many ways. You can call it the "Catholic both/and": nature and grace, faith and works, Jerusalem


  • "An engaging, lucid, and informative introduction to the teachings and traditions of Catholicism."—Wall Street Journal

  • "If I weren't a cradle Catholic, George Weigel's Letters to a Young Catholic might make me want to convert."—Washington Post

  • "'Great Expectations,' in fact, could be Weigel's subtitle, for that is what he hopes to inspire in youthful souls with his graceful meditations on truth, beauty, and love."—Claremont Institute Review

  • "I expect Letters will be a long-time Catholic-culture classic."—National Review

  • "This is a luminous work that would appeal to anyone interested in faith, hope, and life itself."—Booklist

On Sale
Aug 11, 2015
Page Count
368 pages
Basic Books

George Weigel

About the Author

George Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. The first volume of his biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, was a New York Times bestseller, and his writing appears in a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal. He lives in North Bethesda, Maryland.

Learn more about this author