Fighting the Devil at Harvard (and Staying Catholic)

I encountered Aurora Griffin one evening at the Opus Dei-run Catholic Information Center howistayedcatholic.inddin Washington, DC, where she was giving a talk and holding a book-signing. The email that I received, informing me of the occasion, advertised the event with the title “God and Woman at Harvard,” playing off of William F. Buckley’s classic book God and Man at Yale.

Buckley’s famous first book, which placed the then-young intellectual into the spotlight, notoriously named names and wrote of professors whose ideological bent, Buckley believed, betrayed Yale’s Christian roots. The inspiration for Griffin’s book, on the other hand, began with fighting an even bigger enemy, Satan himself, battling efforts by Satanists to ridicule Christianity at Harvard.

Aurora Griffin came into the spotlight in 2014 when a group of Satanists were invited to hold a black mass at Harvard. As a devout Catholic and student leader on campus, Aurora decided to stand up and fight against this evil, becoming a leader of a movement that began at the university and eventually gained national attention. It would be the most important thing she did during her years at Harvard, Aurora admitted, honoring God and successfully helping to stop an infamously anti-Catholic ritual from being celebrated on campus.

“Deciding whether to take on the Satanists myself became a defining point in my college career,” she writes. “By God’s grace I found the courage to take a leadership role in resisting the black Mass, even if it meant sacrificing time to prepare for exams.”

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Author, Aurora Griffin

The fact that Griffin led this campaign during her last week at Harvard, meaning in the midst of finals week when students lock themselves in the library and are swamped with papers, studying, and exams, says much about her priorities and the integrity and character of her faith and her person.

Aurora went on to become a Rhodes Scholar, deciding with the opportunity to study for a graduate degree in theology at Oxford. While at Oxford, she began writing her book How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard: 40 Tips for Faithful College Students, published by Ignatius Press.

Griffin’s book is an impressive work. Providing 40 practical guidelines, in short and interesting chapters, about how to live and foster a faithful Catholic life in college, it is a book that is useful not only to students but also to those who guide and minister to the college students in their lives: from parents and campus ministers to priests and spiritual directors.

Topics that the book covers show how eclectic it is. The author includes chapters on guidance for Catholics on dating, the usage of social media and technology, the prayer life, the importance of educating the mind and soul with Catholic literature and spiritual reading, orienting one’s life around the liturgical calendar, and much more. These are magnificent, rich insights that have the potential to lead to a cathartic change in the lives of those who open and read.

Griffin conveys how in living a faithful Catholic life college students are not deprived of the college experience but live out that experience in a more robust and meaningful way. Accounts of the friendships that Griffin developed, the study habits and work-ethic she has cultivated, the Catholic sorority she helped found, the active social and community life she has been a part of, the moral causes she has been able to stand for—all because of a full-embrace of her Catholicism—shows how much more she has received in her college experience not in spite of, but because of, her active Catholic faith and identity.

With Aurora Griffin at the Catholic Information Center, Washington, DC

With Aurora Griffin at the Catholic Information Center, Washington, DC

Aurora explains that the “purpose of our time in college is to love the Lord more deeply and to develop the skills to serve Him more effectively. Living out my faith in college was not something I did in addition to my schoolwork, extracurriculars, and social life but was something that shaped how I experienced all those things.”

“It was my faith that kept me studying late at night when I was tired because I felt obligated to be a good steward of my opportunities. It was my faith that served as the reference point for all my studies, rendering no lecture or assignment irrelevant. It was my faith that led me to meet a great group of friends, whom I’ll cherish the rest of my life. …My college years meant something. I grew in the most important thing of all: knowing God. And after graduation, I stepped into the world with a peace and a sense of purpose that even the most successful secular friends do not have.”

Through autobiographical snippets the book tells the story of a courageous young woman who stood up for her faith when it was being attacked at a secular Ivy League school, and who can teach others, through her writing, how to deepen the life of faith and transform not only the college experience but one’s life journey for the better. Although not an autobiography by traditional standards, Griffin’s book does share many personal anecdotes from her life, making for a read that finds a nice balance between a guide for college students and recollections of the author’s own personal journey.

Some of the stories that Aurora shares of her own journey are real treasures. Consider this account from her time at Oxford:

“On special occasions, Catholics have the opportunity to be more public about our worship, like on the Feast of Corpus Christi. This year, in Oxford, I processed with hundreds of people through the city streets, led by a priest with the monstrance and another with a megaphone announcing the hymns and decades of the Rosary.”

Griffin continues, “Many people came out of pubs and shops to stare at us, but a few knelt down where they were, crossing themselves. It was an incredibly moving experience to be able to witness to my faith in a public way in such a secular place. With Christ in front of me, I felt invincible. I was so grateful, and proud, to be Catholic.”

Despite the book’s subtitle – “40 Tips for Faithful College Students” – I cannot stress enough how eclectic the work is, and how the insights that are contained within can help strengthen the spiritual life of any Catholic. One of the four sections of the book is dedicated to prayer, and Griffin has some of the most useful techniques and advice for cultivating one’s spirituality.

The rich spiritual tradition of St. Josemaria Escriva and Opus Dei has influenced Aurora greatly, who has been spiritually directed at Harvard by Opus Dei priests and has attended Opus Dei retreats. A central aspect of Opus Dei spirituality is sanctifying our work. In this sense, Aurora writes, “St. Josemaria taught that we have a twofold vocation in school—to be diligent students and loving friends. Schoolwork, social life, and faith are fully integrated, so that everything works together for our growth in holiness.”

One of the treasures of Opus Dei spirituality is understanding penance—in other words, helping us how to embrace the Cross, to make sense of our suffering. Griffin explains how much that spirituality has done for her. “Opus Dei showed me that taking deliberate steps to cultivate your faith helps you deal with all kinds of challenges, even physical suffering and loss.”

“Talking to the priest and numeraries at the [Opus Dei] retreat, I was assured that suffering is different for those who have faith. Catholics still experience pain, but it has both meaning and hope of resolution. I could offer up my schoolwork to God as prayer, and offer up my back pain in expiation of sin. I could offer my trials in prayer for the souls of my departed loved ones and hope to see them again.”

These are rich and beautiful insights, and are only a taste of what a bountiful source this book is in helping cultivate such a meaningful spirituality.

Among the many chapters, there is one dedicated to discerning one’s vocation, including the possibility of religious life for those who feel the Lord may be calling them. Like all the chapters, it’s practical. It provides three of the most essential practices that any person discerning a vocation needs to follow in their life to lead to proper discernment.

The campus minister or spiritual director would do well to have such an informative work on their shelf when counseling college students who come to their door. The parent would benefit greatly having such a resource to better guide their sons and daughters. And, foremost, the discerning student would benefit greatly from advice that is practical and works.

“Some books give you brilliant philosophy or scholarship. This one gives you something more precious and uncommon: common sense,” wrote Peter Kreeft in the foreword. Griffin has a keen understanding of human nature. She is a woman of faith and she is a pragmatist, someone who offers practical insights that, for those willing to take up the book’s principles, will affect their lives greatly.

There is also the sign of faith. There are certain authors that when you read them you realize that you are reading a man or woman of prayer. There is a depth that their words possess—not necessarily a natural eloquence (which a secular scribe can also attain) but a more elusive and mysterious quality, a sort of unction in the language which touches the soul when it is read and gives it internal confirmation that inspired truth is in front of us.

Griffin is one of these authors. Reading her you realize that you are reading an author with an intimate relationship with God. A person’s spirituality usually translates to other facets of their life, including their writing. How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard is a rare book, one that inspires a strong faith, able to edify both college students and Catholics from all walks of life, yet does so in a way that is practical and achievable.

With the practicality of a Peter Kreeft and the transforming potentiality of a Matthew Kelly, Aurora Griffin’s first book places her among a list of Catholic authors whose writing has done much to energize and renew the Church and the People of God. Her work can do the same. Eloquent but easy to ready, thoughtful, spiritual and pragmatic, the book is a must-have for any Catholic library.

Champions of the Rosary: A Powerful Read on a Spiritual Weapon

Earlier this year as I was returning to the friary from my summer assignment I found a championsoftherosarypackage in my mailbox from Fr. Donald Calloway, MIC. It was a signed copy of his new book, Champions of the Rosary: The History and Heroes of a Spiritual Weapon. In a couple of days I would be taking a silent retreat at a Trappist monastery and was in need of some spiritual reading, so the unexpected book could not have come at a better time.

To be honest, so many books have been written about the rosary, that when I first saw this one – although grateful for the gift – I was not expecting to encounter anything special. Was I ever wrong!

Fr. Don Calloway’s book on the rosary is probably the best book written on the topic since St. Louis de Montfort’s classic The Secrets of the Rosary, and – I say this without hesitation – surpasses even de Montfort’s work. It will quickly take its place – a special place – as the greatest book written on the rosary to date. Fr. Calloway should be proud of this achievement.

When one reads his book it becomes evident that a labor of love went into it, finding a beautiful balance between a fascinating and thorough history of the rosary and being a work that captures the spiritual dynamism of this devotion with the saints, mystics, and martyrs who, throughout Church history, have been its greatest advocates.

rosaryThe subtitle of the book – “The History and Heroes of a Spiritual Weapon” – points to a profound reality, one that perhaps too often in our cultural thinking (which falls into secular norms of understanding) we tend to neglect – the reality that life is a battle between two kingdoms: between the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of hell, between God and the devil, between light and darkness. And, what is most urgent not to neglect, is the reality that we are all born into this war and thus called to be soldiers on the battlefield.

Fr. Calloway understands well – as many saints and holy men and women throughout history have known – that in the rosary we have been given a powerful spiritual weapon, a sword in the battle against evil. “The first key is to understand the rosary as a spiritual sword made by God, the Divine Craftsman. This key unlocks the mystery of what the rosary is, why it has so much power, and why the devil constantly seeks to destroy it.”

The first half of the book is probably the most thorough history of the rosary ever written in the English language, including a history of popes, miracles, military battles, Marian confraternities, and various developments in Church history that has led to the promotion (and, at times, suppression) of the most popular devotion in Catholicism. It is so well-researched, and yet beautifully written, that Fr. Calloway admits it took him years to work on.

The second half of Fr. Calloway’s book pertains to 26 holy men and women – saints, blesseds, popes, Servants of God – who had an incredible Marian devotion and were great advocates of the rosary. This section constitutes the spiritual dynamite of the book, giving the stories and Marian spirituality of men and women whose holiness and devotion is contagious. Reading about these souls we are strengthened, edified, and encouraged by their radical witness to become holier, to pick up the rosary each day, and go deeper into prayer and intimacy with Jesus and Mary.

We see a nice combination of very well-known names like Maximilian Kolbe, Padre Pio Josemaria Escriva, John Paul II, Fatima visionary Lucia dos Santos, and lesser-known (but equally important) names like Blessed Bartolo Longo and Servant of God Dolindo Ruotolo.

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St. Josemaria Escriva

The work is so well-researched that often we discover new facts about known lives. For example, there is a section dedicated to St. Josemaria Escriva (1902-1975), the founder of Opus Dei, and his dynamic Marian spirituality. I did not know that, as a child, St. Josemaria was on the verge of death but experienced a miraculous healing saving his life. Fr. Calloway explains:

“At the age of two, St. Josemaria suffered from an unknown illness (most likely epilepsy) and was expected to die. His devout mother took him to the Marian shrine of Torreciudad in Aragon, Spain, and earnestly prayed for him before a statue of Our Lady of the Angels that dates from the 11th century. Miraculously, he recovered. His mother attributed his healing to Our Lady. This event helped to form in him a strong, life-long Marian devotion.” St. Josemaria would encourage members of Opus Dei to make frequent Marian pilgrimages

The less-known names are also spiritual giants to discover. In this sense, the Servant of God Dolindo Ruotolo (1882-1970), someone who Fr. Calloway remarks as being “born in Naples and is almost unknown outside of Italy,” has been a real discovery for me.

“A devout priest and an avid scholar, Dolindo has been called the ‘Scribe of the Holy Spirit.’ He penned a 33-volume commentary on Holy Scripture, as well as many other theological works. He wanted people to read good books on theology and devotion, and so he founded the Apostolato Stampa press in order to publish orthodox theological works. He was an extraordinary musician, a Third Order Franciscan, and slept less than three hours a night due to his intense prayer life.”

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Servant of God Dolindo Ruotolo, priest, scholar, mystic

This was a 20th century priest. When pilgrims traveled to San Giovanni Rotondo to visit Padre Pio, he pointed to Fr. Dolindo, asking why were people visiting him (Padre Pio) when there is a saint in Naples. Fr. Dolindo, with a deeply contemplative prayer life, “regretted that Modernis had reduced the prominence of the rosary in the lives of many Catholics, and emphatically preached that the rosary was not a tedious prayer of repetition, but a method for contemplating the saving mysteries of the life of Christ.”

Fr. Calloway further explains: “Dolindo lived through World War I and World War II. He saw the rosary as a weapon in the spiritual life, referring to the rosary as a sword and a machine gun in our spiritual arsenal. In his homilies, he often informed his listeners that every Hail Mary was a shot fired at Satan and the forces of darkness.”

In Fr. Dolindo’s own words: “The rosary is a powerful prayer against Satan and against the assaults of evil. Our Church brought, and continues to bring, great triumphs because of this prayer. The decades of the rosary, from this point of view, are like the belt of a machine gun: every bead is a shot, every affection of the soul is an explosion of faith that frightens off Satan, and Mary once more crushes his head.”

In such spiritual gems, we see a much deeper understanding behind the reality of the rosary as a central weapon of combat for spiritual warfare.

Fr. Calloway’s book accomplishes a tremendous task, one that is threefold. It is probably the most thorough history of the rosary ever written. It captures the spiritual dynamism of Marian devotion and spirituality, especially conveyed through the lives of the men and women who reached heights of holiness through their Marian spirituality. And it also provides beautiful artwork about the Madonna and the rosary—many depictions of St. Dominic receiving the rosary, and of other saints with the Virgin. These artworks span from classics by baroque artists like Caravaggio to contemporary art commissioned by Fr. Calloway for the theme of the book, capturing a Madonna that is a mighty Queen with the rosary in one hand and a sword binding the devil in the other, surrounded by her army of saints.

The Bible begins with the Book of Genesis, where it is explained that the Woman would stump on the head of the serpent, and finishes with the Book of Revelation, where the Woman with a crown of twelve stars with her child would do battle against the dragon and his angels. Meaning, throughout salvation history, from the beginning to the end, Our Lady’s has been given a pivotal role—even being prefigured—in destroying the works of the devil, leading souls to a deeper intimacy with her divine son Jesus: being chosen by God for a singularly unique mission in salvation history. It is the Queen of Heaven who is leading the armies of light against the kingdom of darkness.

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Fr. Donald Calloway, MIC

Fr. Calloway explains: “I have written Champions of the Rosary to recap and pick up where St. Louis de Montfort left off. Three centuries have gone by since St. Louis de Montfort penned his monumental work, and many things have taken place. Many miracles, victories, conversions, developments, discoveries, and champions of the rosary need to be added to the story of the sword for the people of our times. Trust me: I know firsthand how the rosary can help a soul convert.”

Fr. Calloway, being someone who was saved from a life of sin and ruin as an adolescent—including addiction, crime, and promiscuity—through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, knows very well what it means to be saved from the grip of the enemy by the spiritual sword of the rosary. He has written a book in return that is a gift to the Church, speaking to a multifaceted and rich history of miracles, conversions, military victories, Marian apparitions, and holy lives who owe so much to the Virgin Mary’s intercession. The greatest compliment that a book by a Christian author can receive is that it’s a work that will lead readers to experience God and lead to lives of deeper devotion and conversion. Fr. Calloway’s book, an anointed work, possesses this rare capacity: it is a book informed not only by knowledge but also by the life of prayer.

Chiara Petrillo: The Story of a Beautiful Soul

Dear Friends, peace and abundant blessings!! It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. Seminary has kept me busy with five classes, papers, midterms, and my first attempts at studying Latin. Going forward with faith. Please always keep me and my fellow seminarians in prayer.

I recently came across a new book published by Sophia Institute Press, Chiara CorbellaChiara Pertillo: Witness to Joy. I was very excited and moved to see Chiara’s image on the cover and to see that her story has been made into a book. It was a few years ago, before entering religious life, that I took a pilgrimage to Medjugorje in hopes of discerning my future. On that pilgrimage, during the Youth Festival, a film was shown of Chiara’s story. My mother was with me, tearing up, as many were: witnessing the account of this beautiful, 28-year-old woman in love with God, who received cancer while pregnant with her child. Doctors proposed cancer treatment that would risk the life of the baby. Chiara had no interest in that, refusing the treatment as an act of sacrificial love for her child.

She gave birth to a healthy boy, Francesco, his parents naming him after St. Francis of Assisi. Shortly thereafter, Chiara died at the age of 28 from the cancer that pervaded her body, leaving her husband and son. She dealt with the disease, and the conflict that her life was experiencing, with great surrender to God, facing death with a heroic and serene optimism that only a deep relationship with the Almighty can foster. Here is a short but powerful excerpt from the book’s Web site (from Sophia Institute Press):

“Chiara Petrillo was seated in a wheel chair looking lovingly toward Jesus in the tabernacle. Her husband, Enrico, found the courage to ask her a question that he had been holding back. Thinking of Jesus’s phrase, “my yoke is sweet and my burden is light,” he asked: “Is this yoke, this cross, really sweet, as Jesus said?”

A smile came across Chiara’s face. She turned to her husband and said in a weak voice: “Yes, Enrico, it is very sweet.”

At 28 years old, Chiara passed away, her body ravaged by cancer. The emotional, physical, and spiritual trials of this young Italian mother are not uncommon. It was her joyful and loving response to each that led one cardinal to call her ‘a saint for our times’.”