This is part two of my recap of the 34th Annual American Chesterton Society Conference, held at the Menger Hotel, right here in San Antonio. The entire two days were packed with enlightening talks, many on historical characters of Chesterton’s time that many of us weren’t familiar with. Here I’m only highlighting a handful of my favorites, but there were many more wonderful talks throughout the conference.
The first official talk on Thursday evening was given by Dr. Peter Howard, professor of Theology at the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation. Dr. Howard and his wife recently founded Heroic Families, a ministry dedicated to “awakening Catholic families to their critical call to live their faith with courage, passion and purpose.” He spoke on Chesterton and Fulton Sheen, a great pairing since in his day Sheen was referred to as “the American GK Chesterton.” Dr. Howard’s focus was on the destruction of the family by false values introduced by the French Revolution. The answer to rebuilding our wounded and broken families? Our Lady! We must invite her back into our families in a very real way. We got goose bumps when Dr. Howard reminded us that we are living in the greatest Marian Age in history. No other age has been graced with so many apparitions of the Mother of God. Good Mother that she is, she is always leading us back to her Son. He shared a very beautiful quote from Sheen about Our Lady:
“God who made the sun, also made the moon. The moon does not take away from the brilliance of the sun. All its light is reflected from the sun. The Blessed Mother reflects her Divine Son; without Him, she is nothing. With Him, she is the Mother of men.”
When it is night, Dr. Howard said, and we are in darkness, as in these times of moral and spiritual darkness, we may not be able to see the sun, but we can look to the moon and know by its light that the sun is still shining, even if hidden from our eyes. Among the many books we took home from the conference, we made sure to buy a copy of Dr. Howard’s book on Our Lady: The Woman: The Mystery of Mary as Mediatrix in the Teaching of Fulton J. Sheen.
The next two days were long and filled with excellent talks by wonderful speakers. There are too many for me to recount them all, so I’ll briefly mention a few that we especially enjoyed.
Kevin O’Brien’s rousing talk on Chesterton and Orestes Brownson got the only standing ovation at the conference, and that’s saying something considering all the great speakers. You’re probably wondering how it could be such a great talk if it’s on a person you’ve never heard of? Well, he made it very personal, speaking from his own experience of battling the dragons in his own life, tying this in with the dark periods in both GKC’s and Brownson’s lives. As he pointed out, we are often hesitant to talk about our struggles with discouragement, depression, sadness and sin, but we all have them, and we can all identify. Every person in the room understood from personal experience the pain and struggle he shared in his talk, and it was beautiful to see the reaction from everyone as they heard his powerful words.
Joseph Pearce. Need we say more – it’s Joseph Pearce: Catholic convert, Chestertonian, writer, biographer, and Englishman (Sr. Grace Marie insisted I add that last point, which she says should actually be first on the list of his virtues). He spoke about GKC and Oscar Wilde, “Godfather of the Decadent movement”, (which reminded me that I’ve been meaning to read his biography on Wilde for several years now). You may only know Wilde from what you’ve read in the secular media; they’ve made him a celebrity for gay rights, but often leave out his lifelong flirtation with Catholicism, to which he converted on his deathbed. Actually, Joseph Pearce named off a long list of Decadents who eventually became Catholic, which was encouraging to hear. Add his book, The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, to your reading list. In fact, add all of his books, especially the biographies, to your list. The subject of his most recent biography was…himself. I think many of the attendees hoped he would be speaking about his own conversion story at the conference, but for that you’ll want to read Race With the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love.
Christopher Check, president of Catholic Answers, gave the Key Note talk on Chesterton and Hannibal. Sr. Grace Marie loves history, so she especially enjoyed this talk about the Punic Wars (yes, that really was the topic – it’s amazing how vast and varied the talks at a Chesterton Conference). For those of you who think history a dry list of dates and names, let me tell you this talk was very interesting, and not just because he made it interesting, but because he wanted to show us why it’s relevant today. Our Western Civilization (the one we are watching collapse from the inside out) has its roots in the Roman Empire, and as Roman Catholics, he said, we need to know it and be proud of it, because it’s our story, too. The Church spread because of the Roman Empire and it’s important that we understand how, as he put it, Roman cultural will defeated the might of Hannibal. The America of today has a lot in common with ancient Carthage (note: Carthage = Phoenician = Punic): it began as a colony, it grew into a vast empire based on trade, its agrarian side became more like our agricultural monopolies today, and it devolved into a cheap culture, very commercial, which left behind no art, literature or philosophy. Now does it sound more interesting than just a history lesson?
The last talk I’ll mention was by Dr. John Medaille, from the University of Dallas, who spoke about GKC and distributism. Distributism is one of those things that few of us really know much about, and what you often hear people say, if they’ve even heard of it at all, is that it’s a nice idea but totally untenable. Dr. Medaille, (who, by the way, looked the epitome of a Southern Gentleman with his seersucker suit and straw hat – not that he wore a hat while giving his talk, as that would be very un-gentlemanly), focused on the Church’s social teaching, as outlined in Benedict XVI’s encyclical Charity in Truth (which, like distributism, is also quite neglected and misunderstood). We Americans tend to get ticked off when the Church speaks to us about economics. You have seen that happen with Pope Francis, but it also happened with Benedict. We don’t like to be told what to do. Not only that, but our thoughts about things like social justice and economic justice have been formed more by the political party with which we align ourselves than with the teachings of Christ’s Church. The truth is that there is no political party that squares 100% with the Church’s teaching. What the Popes are trying to remind us is that all economic thought must have at its center the well-being of each human person. We must incorporate the idea of gratuitousness and gift into the way we operate at every level. If you haven’t read Charity in Truth please give it a chance. It will also help you see the continuity of thought with Pope Francis’ latest encyclical Laudato Si. Dr. Medaille was the recipient of this year’s Outline of Sanity Award. Before we left, we made sure to pick up a copy of his book Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More.
There were many more amazing talks, but, like I said, these are just a few of our favorites. All of the talks were recorded, and will be available in audio and video formats from the American Chesterton Society. So, even if you weren’t able to attend the conference, you can still take part in it by ordering the talks.
Those two days back in August were pretty surreal – throughout the whole weekend I still kept saying to myself “Is this really happening? Am I really at the Chesterton Conference?” God is so good, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to spend time with so many wonderful people who came together to celebrate sanity, joy, common sense, virtue and holiness as exemplified by the great Gilbert Keith Chesterton, whose thought is just as inspiring and relevant today as it was a hundred years ago.