Saturday, June 27, 2015

Chaste to Europe and back!
Sights, sounds, & stories of my five-country speaking tour

So much has happened since I last updated you on my life and apostolate! I returned June 12 from my three-week European speaking tour, and my heart is full of gratitude as I look back upon the wonderful people I encountered and the beautiful experiences I had speaking in five countries. Most of what I will share here are the public highlights; omitted are many of the friendships I made or renewed on this trip. Every person I spent time with in Europe, whether mentioned here or not mentioned, remains in my thoughts and prayers.

If you are interested in audio or video of my talks, you'll find many links in the text of this post. But if you don't have time to read the post through, you can find videos of my Aberdeen talks on YouTube, while podcasts of various talks are on iTunes and SoundCloud.

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There is no better way to begin a tour than in Rome, and that is where mine began. I arrived May 21 and enjoyed a couple of days visiting with friends in the Eternal City before the Catholic Voices International Leaders Meeting began.

A special blessing was meeting Asia Argento, the gifted director, actress, singer/songwriter, and all-around artist with whom I had become friends after connecting via Twitter.

Asia is a deep thinker, and is on a spiritual journey that has taken her out of darkness and into the light of Christ. You can get an idea of what I mean from this recent interview, in which she speaks of feeling called to protect children's innocence. We shared with one another about where we have been and where we are going, and she gave me guidance about internalizing God's mercy, citing one of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen's books on healing.

I am not saying that everything Asia does has a Catholic sensibility. There are things she puts into the public sphere that I wouldn't recommend. (And I'm sure she wouldn't recommend everything I put into the public sphere either.) But I am saying that I am a better person for knowing her, and am thankful to be united with her in prayer.

The Catholic Voices International Leaders Meeting brought together Catholics from around the world who give their talents to help the Church make its voice heard more clearly and accurately in the media. I was invited by Austen Ivereigh (pictured above with MarilĂș Esponda of Catholic Voices Mexico and me), the coordinator and co-founder of the group, who is also the author of what is to my mind the best biography of Pope Francis, The Great Reformer.

My address to the meeting was on healing from childhood sexual abuse. It was a revised version of the talk I gave at Mundelein Seminary last fall. I had an enriching time getting to know the members of the apostolate during the conference, and especially appreciated how they grounded their actions in the life of faith.

In Rome, I also had the honor of addressing seminarians of the Franciscans of the Immaculate at the invitation of my friend Fr. Angelo Geiger, F.I.. It was a joy to meet the friars and offer them encouragement in their vocation, as their institute has undergone some tense times of late. Since one of their patrons is St. Maximilian Kolbe, I spoke to them about Kolbe's role in my conversion and read them the section of my new book The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition) in which I discuss my journey to visit the site of his martyrdom.

On May 27, I left Rome for London, where the following morning found me in the Premier Christian Radio studio, speaking about chastity to Maria Rodrigues, host of the network's "Woman to Woman" show (click here to see a video clip if it is not displaying above). That same evening, I had the awesome experience of addressing one hundred people packed into a room at the University of Notre Dame's London campus on "Living to Love: Why Chastity Is Key." The talk, based on my The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition), was hosted by the Catholic Voices Academy, which has posted the audio online.

You can see me below after the talk with a group of women who attended (I'm in the long skirt). Lots of men were there too, and the attendees kept me there signing books for an hour and a half. Many of them told me they had come to previous talks of mine in London (this was my third straight year speaking there), and one had even attended my very first talk there, in 2007.

It is hard to put into words what it means for me to speak in the British capital. You'll understand somewhat if you listen to the recording of the talk and hear me speak about reparation. God in his goodness has granted me the opportunity to put something good into the world so that I might make up for the times when my actions harmed myself and others. I am truly blessed to be able to do this. My gratitude goes out to Catholic Voices, the Catholic Herald, Edmund Adamus, and all my London friends who have helped me find an audience in that city. I am also very thankful to Elaine Reid of my publisher's UK distributor, Alban Books, whose behind-the-scenes help before and during my UK/Ireland tour was vital to making the tour a success.

On May 29, the day after my London talk, I was at St. Mary's College, Oscott. The rector, Fr. David Oakley (who has the same patroness as the rector of the seminary where I am doing my doctorate), had graciously invited me to speak on "Celibacy and Communion in St. John Paul II's Catechesis on Human Love," which had been my topic when I spoke at the Josephinum in 2012. It was deeply meaningful for me to address the men studying at the beautiful and historic Birmingham diocesan seminary, especially as I hope to teach at a seminary myself after I complete my sacred-theology doctorate. And it was quite the treat to get to stay in the same room where Pope Benedict XVI had stayed!

One thing I didn't take into account when revising my talk for Oscott was that I would be addressing pre-theology seminarians (that is, those fulfilling their philosophy requirements) as well as those who had advanced to theology. Had I considered that, I would have reworked some of the language to clarify concepts that might be unfamiliar to those who have not yet had all their philosophy.

As it was, although I couldn't have asked for a more gracious and attentive audience, the responses afterward varied widely. As the seminarians paused to greet me at the table where I was signing books, some said that they liked my talk to the extent that they were able to understand it. Several said, "I wish I had heard you last week, before I had my ______ final" (fill in the blank with "moral theology" or "anthropology"; I heard both). And there was one—just days from ordination—who, bless his heart, went around saying to anyone who would listen that it was the best lecture he had heard in six years of seminary.

My next stop, on May 30, was in the south of England: St. Bede's of Basingstoke, in the Diocese of Portsmouth. The crowd was small, but the welcome was very warm, and the bishop's personal assistant afterward wrote an enthusiastic review on her blog. I was delighted to find Fr. Armand de Malleray, F.S.S.P., in attendance, as I had heard his reputation as a spiritual director and had read his powerful article on "Sustainable Sexuality" in Dowry magazine (click here to read online; the article begins on page 4).

May 31 was a Sunday, so the kind couple hosting me in the Basingstoke area took me to Mass, and then I was off on a three-train journey to my next stop, some 413 miles north in Paisley, Scotland. A special treat awaited me along the way, as my dear friends Sarah de Nordwall and Kevin Turley met me when I stopped in London to switch trains. Kevin, by the way, is the author of a pamphlet on the saintly Irish World War I army chaplain Fr. Willie Doyle, S.J., a great introduction to a man who lived in deep spiritual union with the crucified and risen Christ.

My host in Paisley was Bishop John Keenan, a Francis appointee whom I have been blessed to know since 2007, when, as Catholic chaplain at the University of Glasgow, he attended a talk I gave in Dublin. EWTN producer Paul MacAree had arranged beforehand with Bishop John for me to record a 13-part series on The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition) for EWTN UK Radio while staying at the bishop's home. (Following Francis's lead, Bishop John has chosen to live not in the episcopal mansion, but in a parish rectory.)

My interviewer for the radio series was the buoyant, multitalented Fr. Frankie Mulgrew, a former stand-up comic whose father is the beloved comedian Jimmy Cricket. I was tremendously impressed with the depth of Fr. Frankie's questions — he knew my book better than I did — and the two days of recording whizzed by. I am deeply indebted to Bishop John and to the parish priest, Fr. Oliver, for giving hospitality to Paul and Fr. Frankie as well as to me, and for letting us take over their dining room for the duration of the recording.

On my third and final night in Paisley, June 2, I shared the message of The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition) with about seventy people, most of them young adults, packed into the back room of a Paisley pub. Many who came had learned of the event through social media, a reflection upon the efforts of Synod Youth and other local faithful who are responding to Bishop John's recent call to amp up the diocese's social-media presence. The crowd was wonderfully attentive and engaged, and there were some great questions during the Q&A.

A beautiful 150-mile train ride on June 3 took me up to Aberdeen. There, it was my great pleasure to stay once again as the guest of Bishop Hugh Gilbert, O.S.B., who had brought me to his diocese last year to speak on My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints.  (If you want kind hospitality, being treated as close family, you can't go wrong staying with a Benedictine.) For this visit, my topics were chastity and conversion as I gave three talks in three nights at different locations in Aberdeen. Two of the talks were recorded on video and are now available online at the following links: "My Tangled Road to Rome," delivered June 4 at the Bishop's House (from which comes the photo at right) and "Living to Love: Why Chastity Is Key," delivered June 5 at St. Mary's Cathedral.

On June 7, Corpus Christi, at St. Mary's Cathedral, the cathedral rector, Fr. Keith Herrera, gave the best homily I have ever heard in my life. His main audience was the children who were present for their First Communion, and their families. Thankfully, the homily was captured on video, so you can see and hear what I was privileged to take in that day.

After Mass, I had a quick lunch and headed to catch a flight to my next stop: Dublin! I arrived in the early evening and met for the first time the organizers of the Irish leg of my tour: Fr. Gavan Jennings, a priest of Opus Dei, and Caitriona Heffernan of Pure in Heart Ireland. (More on Pure in Heart in a moment.)

A few months earlier, I had known Fr. Gavan only as one of my Twitter followers; seeing he was based in Dublin, I tweeted him asking if he might like to bring me to speak in Ireland after my talk in London. He responded with alacrity, gaining the sponsorship of Aid to the Church in Need and, with Caitriona's help, setting up a packed schedule. During the four days I was on the Emerald Isle, I gave four talks in three cities, as well as four radio interviews (including ones for the national networks of Ireland and Northern Ireland) and one video interview. In addition, before I arrived, Fr. Gavan and Caitriona had enabled me to gain advance press for the tour by connecting me with the Irish Catholic, whose reporter Mags Gargan gave me the opportunity to explain how chastity promotes human dignity.

The morning of June 8 saw my first two radio interviews, one after the other: RTE's "The John Murray Show" (listen online) and Spirit Radio's "Morning Show" with Jacki Ascough (listen online). My interview for John Murray was something of a coup, as I got to speak about God and chastity on national radio, which surprised a lot of people. Several who came to my talks in Dublin and Waterford said they heard about my talks through that show. But I have Jacki Ascough to thank for her show's bringing me to the attention of listener Geraldine Comiskey, who would report on my Waterford talk for the Sunday World; more on that in a moment.

In the afternoon, I gave my first talk of the day, speaking at the Carmelite-run Avila Spiritual Centre on "How Jesus' Sacred Heart Healed My Memories." The talk (which I have given before — click to download an earlier version) encapsulated the message of my book My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints.

Speaking about healing in Ireland, where various kinds of abuse, violence, and trauma have taken their toll upon so many, was the fulfillment of a dream for me. I find that all too often in the Church, it is assumed that addressing abuse only entails getting victims psychological help. The truth is that no psychological help will bring healing if the spiritual wounds are not addressed as well. So I felt especially blessed to have the opportunity to help people who have suffered greatly to discover the healing grace and truth that is available to all of us through the Catholic faith.

In the evening, I spoke again, this time at the Davenport Hotel in Merrion Square on "The Thrill of the Chaste: Loving Fully with Body and Soul" (listen online). This was the best-attended talk of my tour; some 120 people filled the room, most of them young adults. The vibe was terrific; as you can hear in the recording, people were energized to hear the message. Despite what the local headlines were saying in the wake of the country's referendum legalizing same-sex marriage, no one could say that evening that Catholicism in Ireland was dead.

During the Q&A after my talk, someone asked me about teaching chastity to youth, which is beyond my area of expertise; all my writings and personal efforts to promote chastity are directed toward adults. So, perhaps with a nudge from my Guardian Angel, I asked Caitriona to answer, giving her a chance to speak about the vitally important work of Pure in Heart. For several years, the apostolate has been training Catholics age 18-34 to speak about chastity in schools so that youth might learn the virtue from people close to their own age, whom they can look to as models. I can't say enough good things about this apostolate. It has not only brought Catholic moral teaching into schools that are desperately in need of it (state-funded religious schools that are all too often Catholic in name only), but also produced among its members numerous vocations to holy marriages and to the priesthood and religious life.

The following morning, June 9, I caught a train and went up through the beautiful Irish countryside to Belfast, where Jo Kelly, a vivacious high-school teacher and faith formator was my host for twenty-four hours. I recorded an interview on chastity for the BBC Radio Ulster program "Sunday Sequence" (which would become the subject of online discussion after the host made an awful gaffe) and spoke that evening at a local hotel, giving another variation of my The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition). The size of the crowd was modest, which was not surprising given that it was Northern Ireland, but there was a good variety of people there, young and old, including my old friend Dr. Eamonn Gaines, lecturer in ethics at Queen's University, who acted as M.C., and a priest who I learned was that very day celebrating his silver anniversary of ordination.

June 10 saw me travel back to Dublin and then to Waterford for a talk at the lovely and historic Granville Hotel sponsored by the diocese's dynamic new ordinary, Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan, known to his flock as Bishop Phonsie. I was a bit nervous beforehand, not only because was it the last talk of the tour, but also because I was aware there would be a reporter there who had contacted me to say she wanted to profile me for the popular Irish tabloid Sunday World.

Thankfully, with God's grace, aided by the prayers of those who were accompanying me spiritually during my tour, I managed to overcome my nerves. All went smoothly, though I'm afraid I ran on a bit too long; seeing the M.C. standing at the side of the platform, I wrapped up quickly for fear of getting the hook. Still, it seemed to go over well; there were good questions from the audience, and afterwards I was kept for more than half an hour signing books.

Meeting the Sunday World reporter, Geraldine Comiskey, proved to be a pleasure. She was delightfully good-humored and at the same time serious about her craft. When her story ran on June 22 (click here or the image above to read) I was thankful to find that, beneath the tabloid's requisite sensationalism (which would have me be a "chastity guru" with "millions of followers"), key aspects of my message made it through.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that I received in Waterford some terrifically thoughtful gifts from Bishop Phonsie: my first-ever items of Waterford crystal. One was a picture frame, and the second was a rose, which I gave to my mother the following week for her birthday.

The morning of June 11, my last full day in Ireland, Caitriona took me to the Dublin-area headquarters of the newly launched Radio Maria Ireland, where Fr. Michael Ross, S.D.B., did an hourlong interview with me that passed very quickly. (The photo at left was taken there.) Fr. Michael's gentle, fatherly presence had a sacramental effect on me. There was a calm and sweetness about him that I especially needed at that moment, as I was feeling a mixture of emotions as the long tour headed to a close, plus my head was spinning from the intense schedule of the past few days.

The last public act of my tour was a video interview for (click here to watch). It was a pleasure to see the interviewer Fr. Bill Kemmy again, as he had interviewed me about My Peace I Give You when I visited Ireland in 2013. I am honored to have a part in the work he does spreading the faith via; the videos that he and his staff produce are notable for their substance and depth.

As I flew home on the morning of June 12, reflecting upon my tour, the only real regret that I had was that I would arrive too late for Mass. It was the feast of the Sacred Heart, which is my patronal feast; I have consecrated my celibacy to Jesus' Sacred Heart through Mary's Immaculate Heart. But there was a beautiful surprise awaiting me: when I returned to campus, I found that the Liturgical Institute's daily Mass had in my absence been switched to the late afternoon. So I was able to renew my consecration with thanksgiving for all that the Lord had done in the past few weeks to help me enter more deeply into my vocation as a speaker, writer, teacher, and missionary.

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If you prayed for me as I traveled, or are among those who donate to support my apostolate, you are a part of any and all good I accomplished by God's grace during my tour. The Church in Europe is not like that of America; it is much smaller and poorer. Unless one is at the very top level of renown, which I am not, it is not a place where a Catholic speaker from overseas can expect to make a profit or even break even. My tour would not have been possible without your support. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. All who support my apostolate and studies in any way, spiritually or materially, are in my prayers every day.