Tried and true

Aug. 3-16, 2006
Tried and true
By Claudia Mathis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) submitted
Matthew Lickona publishes book of spiritual memoirs

Matthew Lickona is committed to traditional Catholicism. In his new book Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic, Lickona describes a faith that transcends the times. It is a story that portrays the development of Lickona’s faith and is an undoubtedly candid account of his spiritual shortcomings. Lickona has chronicled both the questions he has had about his faith and the joy and sustenance he derives from it. The book won second place in the First-Time Author category at the 2005 Catholic Press Association Book Awards.

At 31, Lickona is part of the emergence of an informed and sophisticated group of orthodox young Catholics who take spiritual life seriously.
Lickona was born and raised in Cortland, N.Y. He attended Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif. After graduating in 1995, he began writing for the San Diego Reader, an alternative weekly newspaper. Since 1999, he has written, “Crush” the newspaper’s wine column, as well as a weekly column about local church services. Lickona lives in La Mesa, Calif. with his wife Deirdre and their five children.

His five children are a result of his and Deirdre’s belief that contraception violates God’s design for human sexuality. Lickona believes this for several reasons. “It has been the consistent teaching of the church for centuries,” he explained in the book. “It has the weight of tradition behind it, the same tradition which has handed down to me so many things that I accept without protest. Another reason is integrity of the faith. If I say the faith is true except for this one thing, then is not the entire edifice weakened? And finally, I have the saints, who point to humility and obedience as the surest paths for advancing in holiness. It requires humility to accept a teaching I do not fully understand.”

In writing the book, Lickona hoped to show that there are young people who not only take their faith seriously, but who also take the world seriously and who are aware of the difficulties that each present to the other. “I’m acutely aware that a number of my beliefs — that bit about contraception, for example — will seem outdated, quaint, or downright insane to a modern-minded audience,” said Lickona. “I was hoping that that awareness would make me and my beliefs a little more approachable. I also wanted to show there are still young, hopefully thoughtful Catholics who still believed in the old things — the devil, confession, the Eucharist, the saints and chastity.

“In some cases, it was enough that these things had been handed down to me,” he said. “Twenty centuries of tradition is not something you cast off lightly; neither is the faith of your parents, especially when you see that faith makes a serious difference in their lives. Other things I accepted, or accepted more completely, because I had investigated them for myself and found them worthwhile.”

Lickona said his spiritual life was shaped from an early age and by a number of factors. Because of many years of familiarity, he took the traditions and meaning of Catholicism for granted. “I overlooked their significance — it was easy to ignore the urgency and importance of their existence,” he explained. He began to feel a gradual awakening of faith at about the time he was attending religious education class in sixth grade. Lickona was intrigued with his teacher, Phil Evangelista, a vital and memorable man. “His faith meant so much to him,” remarked Lickona.

Lickona also said witnessing the way his father and mother lived their lives shaped and inspired him on his faith journey. His father, Thomas Lickona, is a professor of education at SUNY Cortland and director of its Center for the 4th and 5th Rs. He is a specialist in the moral development of children and has become a leader in the effort to restore character education to the mission of the public schools. “He encouraged my brother and me to think morally for ourselves,” Lickona remarked. Lickona watched his father carve out an hour each day to pray and read. Lickona’s mother, a deeply pious woman, also begins her day with prayer. “Mom sees God at work in many more places than I do — or if she doesn’t see Him, she readily assumes His presence,” said Lickona in his book.

Lickona also said his attendance at Thomas Aquinas College had a tremendous effect on his spiritual foundation. It provided him with his first experience of a Catholic community. “I was surrounded by my own kind,” said Lickona in his book. “A body could exhale, unclench a bit. There, I encountered practices, beliefs and traditions that had withered away in the more arid, post-Vatican II climes of my upbringing. Some never lost the whiff of antiquity — the veneration of saints’ relics, for example — but others, such as Eucharistic Adoration, took firm root in my soul. Small wonder that my thoughts often drift back to those years; they bear something of the character of a conversion. In that place, I had found a new zeal for the faith.”

Eucharistic Adoration became a part of Lickona’s everyday faith, and during his freshman year at college he became familiar with the scapular, a neckpiece consisting of two small squares of brown wool connected by strings and usually bearing an image of Our Lady or a saint. Tradition holds that in 1251, Our Lady appeared to St. Simon Stock, a member of the Carmelite order. She told him that those who wore the Carmelite scapular would enjoy her special protection, and would not suffer eternal fire. The scapular can dispose a soul to receive grace. Lickona received his first scapular from a friend in his freshman year in college. At his friend’s urging, he visited his priest, received a blessing, and was enrolled in the scapular. Lickona wears a scapular to this day.

In his book, Lickona confesses to personal struggles with “constant wanting,” anger and a weakness in communicating his faith.
Lickona also mentions how, as newlyweds, he and his wife “parish-hopped” in an attempt to find a church that espoused Catholic traditions. Lickona thinks contemporary music during the Mass is “silly.” He elaborated in the book, “One bad effect, intended or not, was the shift away from music as a prayerful sound, floating overhead toward the altar, disposing the soul to contemplate the Lord we had gathered to meet. There’s an overused but still accurate word for the effect of the good stuff — uplifting. That’s what I need out of my hymns.”

Lickona also takes issue with the distractions he has felt while attending Mass. He cites hand holding during the Our Father as a practice that he doesn’t care for. “At a time I am supposed to be praying to God, I find myself thinking about the people next to me,” explained Lickona in the book. Lickona also cites the attire of parishioners during Mass as a very serious distraction for him. “Our Lord on the altar deserves the outward sign of respect that formal dress affords, and the virtue of modesty exists, in part, to avoid creating such distractions,” he said in the book.

Another distraction that Lickona finds troubling is when parishioners enter the church after the Mass has begun. “We’re already to the Gospel,” said Lickona in the book. “Don’t these people care about offenses against the priest? The Mass? Our Lord?”
Lickona’s life as a Catholic is one of great joy, particularly his joy in being intimately connected with God through the sacrament of the Eucharist. “I am giving Catholicism a chance; I am getting to know the faith I have been given,” said Lickona. “That’s the story of Swimming with Scapulars.”

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