Three Things I Learned from Russell Peterson

My friend and catechetical colleague, Russell Peterson, passed away last Friday night after a sudden and brief illness.

Russell was a man of great faith, warm hospitality, and incisive humor. He was also one of the first diocesan catechetical leaders I met after joining the curia staff at the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois. Russell worked to the south in the Diocese of Belleville and was a regular fixture at meetings of the diocesan catechetical directors of the Province of Chicago. His insight and friendship were always appreciated by those of us who worked in other Illinois dioceses.

Over the years that I knew him, Russell mentored me in catechetical leadership and helped introduce me to other leaders in catechesis across the country. He also imparted a number of lessons — both explicitly and implicitly — that have helped to shape my own approach to catechesis:

  1. Focus on Jesus and the rest will follow. If there is one quote that I will always remember from Russell, it is this: “I don’t generally trust anyone who talks about the Church more than they talk about Jesus.” Russell’s point was not to downplay the importance of the Body of Christ — rather, it was that our focus should be on Jesus and helping others to deepen their relationship with him. Russell had little patience for ecclesiastical gossip (in that he was a big fan of Pope Francis!), a habit I admit to indulging in from time to time. Russell always challenged me to keep my focus on Jesus Christ in my life and in my ministry.
  2. Catechists make room for all of God’s people. Russell had very definite opinions about faith, spirituality, and the state of the Church. Yet I was always amazed at his ability to reach out to all the members of the Church and make sure they were included in his ministry, whether he agreed with them or not. Because he loved people Russell found it easy to move among various “types” of Catholics, which made him a very effective catechetical leader.
  3. Sometimes ministry requires savvy politics. At the 2008 NCCL conference Russell was part of a slate elected as board officers. After the election I made the observation that, at all the evening functions I attended during the conference, at least one member of that slate was also there greeting and talking with people. Russell, with a twinkle in his eye, replied “Funny how that worked out, isn’t it?” Russell was not above cajoling and compromising, recognizing that “the art of the possible” is also a necessary part of collaborative ministry in a fallen world.

I am deeply saddened that I will no longer be able to look for my friend at regional and national catechetical gatherings, and I pray that one day I will get to sit across the table from him and enjoy his presence at the heavenly banquet.

Eternal rest grant unto Russell, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.
May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

Book Review: Wish You Were Here

Amy Welborn‘s new memoir, Wish You Were Here: Travels Through Loss and Hope, details the aftermath of her husband Michael‘s sudden death in February of 2009 — specifically, the trip she took with her daughter and two young sons to Sicily a few months after. Part travel diary, part spiritual memoir, part reflection on grief, Wish You Were Here  resonated deeply with me and my own experiences following the death of my father shortly before my senior year of college.

Welborn writes with honesty about her grief. She details her anger, her fear, and her sadness. But these details don’t stand as mere self-pity; she makes numerous parallels between her spiritual journey through grief and the physical journey she undertakes with her family — between the life-giving destruction of Mt. Edna and the  illusory  nature of death; watching her son build sandcastles on the Italian beach and her attempt to begin building a new life; between regrets of things unsaid and undone and seeking to “live in the now” an ocean away.

And yet, at it’s core, Wish You Were Here is a hopeful and faith-filled book. If there is a theological center — the theme Welborn comes to several times — it is her husband’s admonition to live for God Alone:

I would do that whiny thing and I would ask him, Do I make you happy?, and he would sigh and say that he would be in bad shape indeed if his happiness depended on my existence. Not because he wasn’t happy now, but because he needed to be “happy” — at peace — whether I was around or not, no matter if he liked his job or not, or whatever was going on or whoever was around him. He’d make his case as he always did that our happiness shouldn’t depend on anything except God. I should be able to be happy, he’d say, even you died tomorrow. He’d take his eyes off the television and look at me.

And so should you.

The book is, in many ways, the chronicle of her attempts to do just that in the immediate aftermath of Michael’s death. Her openness about this struggle is refreshing in the face of a culture that seeks to shield us from death and to deny the reality that we all must one day die.

Wish You Were Here is a delightful, funny, heart-breaking book. I heartily recommend it.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book through LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program.

Original photo by DrPantzo/flickrCC

Jesus, Dumbledore, and Death

Viral Catholic has an interesting post critiquing the Harry Potter series’ take on death:

The character whose attitude to death least resembled Jesus’ attitude is Dumbledore. So here is the problem. Knowing what we know about Dumbledore’s manliness regarding death, and his turning his nose down at Voldemort’s running away from death, we can only conclude that if Dumbledore had been in the garden that night of Jesus’ agony, he would have mocked and belittled Jesus the same way he did Voldemort. He would have shook his head in disgust at the sight of Jesus laying there on the ground weeping at the approach of death. “Dont’ you know”, he might of said, “that to the  well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure”?

Personally this seems like an idiosyncratic reading of the series — and reading a bit too much into a few lines.  I read the series very differently: Voldemort’s fear of death has never struck me a natural, human type of fear, but an unhealthy obsession due to his belief that there is nothing else after death. Voldemort believes that this life is all we have and so resorts to grotesque measures to control death and unnaturally prolong his life. Dumbledore recognizes, however, that death has lost its sting — death is not an end, but a transition. This isn’t necessarily flippant; he is certainly serious about the deaths of Cedric and Sirius.

I think we also need to remember that Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane is facing not just death but hours of torture and humiliation beforehand. I don’t think Jesus is fearing simple death there, but the whole Passion as it will unfold.

While Dumbledore’s lack of fear regarding death may not resemble Jesus’, it certainly resembles some of the saints, such as St. Francis who welcomed Sister Death at the end of his life, and even St. Lawrence who famously told his executioners, while being roasted on a grill: “Turn me over; I’m done on this side.”

Have I misread the series? Any other Potter fans have a different take?