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Published in New Covenant magazine November 1997

It’s Comfy, but It Is Not Christian

          In November, the 100th year birthday of a late, great Catholic will be noted and commemorated by many who consider her a modern apostle and perhaps a saint.  Dorothy Day, born November 8, 1897, embraced pacifism and voluntary poverty and founded the Catholic Worker Movement.  She towers over the landscape of modern Catholicism by her uncompromising obedience to the Gospel in an age so brutalized and dehumanized by materialism, technology and "total war" that to follow Christ seems particularly dangerous.
          There are some--the biographers and students of her life, her old friend Sister Peter Claver Fahy--who say that one cannot understand Dorothy's remarkable Christian witness without understanding her relationship to another great, but relatively unknown, contemporary Catholic, the late Father John J. Hugo, a secular priest of the Pittsburgh Diocese. 
          Father Hugo was Dorothy's spiritual director and a director of what she called "the famous retreat,"  which she first made in 1940 and continued to make throughout her life.  In her words, the seven-day, silent retreat was the occasion of her "second conversion" to Christianity and the "bread of the strong," that sustained her.  She wrote that Father Hugo was a "brilliant teacher" and that to hear him was like hearing the Gospel "for the first time." In the words of Sister Peter Claver, the retreat "made Dorothy holy." 
          Today, twelve years after his death, many believe Father Hugo will continue to help evangelize the modern world.  A selection of his prolific writing was recently edited by David Scott and Mike Aquilina, and released this year by Our Sunday Visitor, entitled Weapons of the Spirit: Living a Holy Life in Unholy Times. 
          What were the lessons of this teacher which sparked such fire in the souls of his listeners?  What inspired Scott and Aquilina to try to promulgate these lessons more widely and prompted theologian Dr. Scott Hahn to declare, "Every Catholic needs this book"?
          The content of his teaching was not new. Father Hugo quoted predominantly from scripture and drew constantly on the great spiritual teachers of the Church.  The content was the Gospel, and many other teachers besides Father Hugo have changed lives with its Truth. 
          But the form of his presentation, both in his books and in the structure of his retreat conferences, focused that powerful content to maximum effect.  In every age the Church needs new teachers of Christ's message--and Father Hugo was one to bring the Gospel alive in this age.
          Dorothy Day wrote that the purpose of the retreat was like "a shock treatment...putting the 'old man' to death, bringing us to new life," and to cause many to examine "their consciences as to the work they did in the world, their material goods, their attachments."
          To understand the power of Father Hugo's teaching, one must understand two terms used by spiritual writers throughout the history of the Church: nature and the supernatural. These were the focus of his teaching on the spiritual life. 
          God, he taught, created two planes of existence, the natural and the supernatural, each part of his plan, but as radically different from each other as water from wine, and leading to different destinations. 
          The natural existence is good and virtuous, and can be lived by pagan and Christian alike.  It consists of the seen world, known through the five senses and human reason.  Pleasure is its goal and reason its guide.  Its destination is happiness in this life.
          The supernatural is divine and holy, and only those who follow Christ receive the grace to live on this plane. It consists of the unseen world, known to us through Divine Revelation.  Love is its goal and faith its guide.  Unlike the natural plane, the supernatural has an ultimate destination beyond this life--heaven.     And where does sin fall?  Sin was never part of God's plan, and acts in the level below both the natural and the supernatural, a constant pull to "sink" us below both our human and divine destinies. 
          Father Hugo's core teaching was that God, because of his great love for us, has given us a supernatural destiny: in baptism we are made his sons and daughters.  The gift cost the life of his beloved Son. 
          This insight into God's love for us became a powerful moment of real conversion for Father Hugo's students.  Many responded with love by joyfully embracing their new destiny.  They understood that Christians are not simply invited to live on the supernatural plane, they are required to do so.  Love demands it.
          In the Christian life, Father Hugo continued, the real battle is not between vice and virtue.  No, the decisive battle rages interiorly between the Christian's love of natural goods (the flesh) and his love of supernatural goods (the spirit).  Simply put, we must turn from the goods of this world, which are so familiar and comfortable to us, in order to receive the goods of the supernatural world, which are initially strange and even distasteful. 
          In fact, Father Hugo made very clear that supernatural goods were often the reversal of natural goods.  For instance, man naturally rejoices in prosperity, power, dignity, erudition, fame, merriness and honor.  But Christ teaches us to rejoice in poverty, meekness, humiliation, simplicity, obscurity, mourning and persecution. 
          Father Hugo turned to the Sermon on the Mount to illustrate "God's reversal of purely human values."  The sermon, says a selection from Weapons of the Spirit,  "is the Manifesto of the Christian life; it outlines the practical program of Christianity.  And we never attempt to imagine what  would happen if we really lived according to these truths--the sudden and sensational change would make us dizzy; our lives would certainly be transformed... Behold. All things would become new."
          Here was the "punch" in Father Hugo's teaching, that which often caused unease and even outrage in his listeners.  The comfortable and worldly Christianity that is so acceptable to modern culture and so entrenched in our Catholic lives, parishes and associations, though not evil, was not enough!  It was a merely natural philosophy, that of a "good pagan," he pointed out. "'Eat, drink and be merry'--as long as you avoid mortal sin," seemed to be the reduced standard of modern Christianity. 
          He taught instead, even before the Second Vatican Council confirmed this foundational doctrine, that all Christians were called to holiness. His students could no longer remain ignorant of the personal implications of this call.  Nor could they ignore the uncomfortable realization that the natural comforts of the natural world were often much more important to them than the supernatural rewards of the supernatural world. 
          From this core teaching on what he called "the two ways" flowed all the powerful teachings that incited in so many a hunger for holiness.
          He taught, for example, what was man's role in this supernatural destiny.  One requirement was to accept suffering as God's means of sanctification. "In this process of transforming clods like ourselves into saints," he wrote, "God uses all kinds of trials.  Not only sickness, but every suffering, every sorrow, every kind of pain, every deprivation, is used in purifying and sanctifying us."
          Another requirement was to "detach" increasingly from natural goods through voluntary mortifications. "Those who wish to live by the rule of love must live by renunciations," he wrote. "Jesus proved His own love for us by His death on the cross...No one who  refuses to prefer Jesus above all things, by complete detachment from the goods of the world, can claim to love Him fully... The price and measure of love is sacrifice.  The Christianity without the cross, so popular in our day, is also a Christianity without love.  It is not really Christianity."     
          He emphasized prayer as an essential requirement of the supernatural life.  The standard by which "we must judge the spiritual condition" of Catholics, he wrote, is "by their devotion to an interior life."
          Throughout his life, in his retreats, his homilies and his many books, Father Hugo awakened one desire, to be a saint, and offered one way to achieve it, to "die to self."
          As for Father Hugo himself, Weapons of the Spirit's brief biography shows to what degree he followed this way of "dying." That is too long a story to summarize here, but it is clear he was granted the great blessing of suffering for the gospel of Christ.
          Engraved on his tombstone is his favorite scripture verse: "Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains alone.  But if it dies, it will bear much fruit."   The fact that Father Hugo lived this truth explains the fruitfulness of his priestly work.  Years after his physical death, it will continue to change lives, to convert the already Christianized.

Copyright © Rosemary Fielding, 2011

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