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Guest Editorial

ONE RESULT OF WRITING A QUARTERLY COLUMN about new books of poetry is the regular supply of galleys arriving on my doorstep. No matter the season, the bounty continues; although I enjoy the early look at forthcoming volumes, my house overflows with review copies and finished books. My office is a fortress of stacked bookshelves; our basement has become a literary purgatory.

I tend to do my best, deepest reading late at night, and recently, around midnight, I was enjoying a new arrival: a book of poems from a bestselling author of prose. The poems were sensitive and deft, conversational but crafted. I had a sneaking suspicion that the poet was Catholic.

My suspicion began with the very first piece, a prose poem titled “All at Once.” “The redwoods are on fire in California,” the poem begins. “A flood submerges a neighborhood that sat quiet on the coast for three centuries. A child takes their first steps and tumbles into a father’s arms.” The poem continues with a litany of similar juxtapositions. Grief enjambed with joy. Fear shaken by hope. “There is a funeral procession in the morning and a wedding in the afternoon. The river that gives us water to drink is the same one that might wash us away.”

Catholicism is a faith of many hues, and I was raised on its Jesuit strand—the Ignatian sense that God is in all things. It is a profoundly optimistic vision of the world, and yet one that is equally realistic. Catholics of the Jesuit tradition are as prone to sentiment as we are to contemplation and melancholy. The world is beautiful, and it is also confounding; perhaps that paradox is exactly why it is beautiful.

Above Ground by Clint Smith is replete with these juxtapositions—beautiful moments of fatherhood run parallel with sadness and loss. Rather than contradictory, these discordant moments feel inevitable. They felt Catholic.

After some digging, I learned that my guess was correct.

This is a common refrain in my reading life.

I often intuit a writer’s latent Catholicism through rhythm, syntax, and sense. It matters little if the writer is lapsed or practicing. They might have been raised or formed as Catholic and long ago left it behind, but the spirit remains in their work, or perhaps haunts it.

In this new book of poems, there was no Catholicism on the page—other than the subtext. Yet in an incarnational sense, that subtext is the text.


Growing up, my soccer team would often play at Independence Park in Newark, New Jersey. We were equal parts polished and pugilistic. Our Portuguese coach reared us to play the game with skill, but we reveled in its physicality. My role as fullback was simple: mark the other team’s best scorer and tire him out. Elbows, slide tackles: whatever was necessary.

Our scrappy play matched the pockmarked field. Scores of kids played here, our cleats widening the patches of dirt that spread across the ground. All of our games in the Ironbound were wars of attrition, battles that lasted until the final whistle.

In brief moments of rest, I would glance across the street at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the church where my Italian parents had gotten married. Newark is a publicly Catholic city, replete with pageants, parades, and crucifixes in windows. Likewise, our team was full of Catholics: Mexican, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, and Brazilian kids.

It wasn’t until I attended a Lutheran college in another state that I was not among Catholics. We have to leave home in order to see ourselves clearly, and in that different space, my cultural Catholicism came into focus. My friends were confused by the Virgin Mary figurine on my window and my Sunday pilgrimages to Mass (no matter how late the Saturday nights).

I began going to the Sunday dinners my priest held at his rectory—a dozen of us around the table, sharing meals and talking. We weren’t quite strangers in a strange land, but we were united by a faith that was somehow both strong and casual. One of the paradoxes of Catholicism is that our belief that God is in all things means we typically speak about belief in opaque, indirect ways.

I was studying writing, and Father Joe, bless him, would read my long-winded story drafts. One included nearly a dozen pages of step-by-step descriptions of Mass. He sighed and gave pointed advice: “We can cut that.” I was also discerning the priesthood—until I met my future wife at one of the dinners. Father Joe was equally pointed about that: “Your decision is easy.”

As we continued our conversations, Father Joe would remind me that my Catholicism was not contingent upon becoming a priest; my path was different. The moment of my life when I decided I wanted to be a writer was also the moment I decided against the priesthood. It was a time of formation; I was ripe for influence. It would take years for me to discern that my Mass-steeped fiction was too superficial, that the faith in which I believed was equally present on that Newark soccer field as in the church across the street. I especially remember when Father Joe told me that Catholics don’t turn away from sin, or death. A Jesuit once told the writer Andre Dubus something similar: “If there were no sins, there wouldn’t be art.”


In 1935, Myles Connolly was in the early days of a budding film career that would soon include an Academy Award nomination for an original screenplay. He’d already written a dynamic novel, Mr. Blue, and was a regular critic for America magazine. In one essay, Connolly lamented that while Catholic writers abounded, few were “readable.” With a brutal honesty that isn’t surprising to other Catholics from the Northeast, Connolly quipped that “truth, however stupidly stated, eventually triumphs.” Catholic writers were earnest, but they lacked skill.

I’d dispute his claim—and would point to his own work as evidence—but I’m more interested in one of his other observations. Connolly observed that Catholic writers were cantankerous, their rhetoric arising from an “extraordinary sense of inferiority which prompts bragging that someone like Babe Ruth is a Catholic and, at practically the same moment, resenting any criticism as unjust and malevolent.”

Connolly is correct: we Catholics love to find someone else on The Team, especially in the literary world. His identification of inferiority as the reason for this is worth contemplating; for many Catholics of his and subsequent generations, the middle class was an aspiration but not often a reality.

Yet I suspect there is something deeper at work here. By nature of its rituals, theology, ambiance, Marian devotion, Latin shadows, and immigrant ethos, Catholicism will always feel a bit foreign in America. In Catholic enclaves like Newark, the culture is the faith—so inseparable that they are downright transubstantial. Dana Gioia has noted that the Sicilian and Mexican sides of his families blended together in Los Angeles; the same is true on the other side of the country, and in pockets in between. There is a figure or shape to Catholicism, a form and a flesh—and perhaps this is what I detect in Smith and other writers of shared formation.

Writers are forged in many furnaces, but Catholic writers often arise from the synthesis of immigrant folk piety and the valorization of language. Catholic Mass is a spectacle of sound, smell, and story; whether delivered in Latin or the vernacular, Mass is a performance. Don DeLillo has described it as theatrical, a sensibility shared by Toni Morrison. For many writers, it is the elegance and elevation of language during Mass that is their entry point toward the stylized writing of literature.

Catholicism’s inherent strangeness—and I mean that in the best possible sense of the word—renders it Other. This is not to claim that Catholics, unilaterally, are marginalized. When Father James Martin says that “anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice,” he is being neither glib nor provincial. Martin’s observation is one of context and potency. “Anti-Catholicism is nowhere near as prevalent as racism, homophobia, or anti-Semitism,” he notes. Yet in the artistic world—where the secular is often the norm—earnest religious belief is often looked upon with skepticism, even derision. Among those permutations of belief, Catholicism, for reasons perhaps endemic to it, is especially steeped in story.

Catholicism was my original language of story, my original language of identity. In college, at the moment when I was starting to make that language stylized in the form of fiction and poetry, I was also encouraged, or perhaps forced, to articulate that language to those who were not Catholic. It was a subtle tension—I was portraying my form of Christianity to fellow Christians—and yet the subtleties were sharp, not dull. Our differences of practice and culture were loud. Yet I was pleased that our shared beliefs were wide enough to sustain the resonance.


During that time in college, I sent an errant email to the novelist Ron Hansen. It was not the type of missive to which one expects an answer. Yet he did answer, and with grace. I’d articulated my worries about writing as a Catholic. Hansen, in a more homiletic manner than Connolly, explained that writers of faith had to be especially skilled. We cannot rely on assumptions of truth. We must realize that technique is a means toward truth. We must work hard to avoid sentimentality. We must earn the trust of our readers.

He also told me that, after many of his readings at colleges and bookstores, an audience member would linger and, like Nicodemus, speak about faith. In some ways, writers of faith are the ones who must wait until dark, who must pray for gentle and generous ears. In seeking each other out through books, we perform an act of hope, and community.



Nick Ripatrazone is Image’s culture editor. He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, and The Atlantic. His latest book is The Habit of Poetry: The Literary Lives of Nuns in Mid-century America (Fortress).




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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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