Tuesday, April 27, 2010
My interview with author Brian O'Neel
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Brian O'Neel, author of the soon to be released book 39 New SAINTS You Should Know.
First a bit about Brian...
Brian O'Neel is a husband and father of six living in central Wisconsin. A Catholic writer and editor, he has edited books by Francis Cardinal Arinze, Archbishop Jose Gomez, and Archbishop Fulton Sheen (Archbishop Fulton Sheen's St. Thérèse), as well as the Amazon best seller, Go to Joseph by the late Fr. Richard Gilsdorf. As a journalist, he has written over 150 articles for mostly Catholic periodicals. For 15 years, Brian also worked in politics on several US and state Senate races, on Capitol Hill, and in the California State Legislature, where he focused on pro-family and budget issues. It was in his capacity as a political aide and writer that Brian helped write the third to last speech ever given by late President Ronald Reagan. In addition, he has served as guest host on radio programmes such as The Eric Hogue Show in Sacramento. As a side endeavor, he leads groups on affordable pilgrimages to Rome (see www.sacredhearttours.com for more information).
Now our interview:
DONNA-MARIE: Knowing that you worked hard and researched well so as not to write about the typical hagiography of saints, how long did it take to write your book?
BRIAN: It took about six months. I would get up at 5am and research and take notes. Then after I got home from the office and the kids were in bed, I would work some more. It would have taken a lot longer, however, Donna, were it not for the Internet. It gave me the opportunity to use non-English language sources and to easily find the fastest way of getting in touch with the postulators of the various causes of these incredible men and women. Of course, as you well know, there's the writing, and then there's the editing and tightening you do to make the text better, which takes even more time.
DONNA-MARIE: Yes, the Internet can be used for much good! It’s great that you were able to communicate with postulators to know more about the causes of these saints. Have you always been interested in the saints?
BRIAN: No. Actually, growing up, I couldn't have told you anything about any saint, even St. Francis. One parish I attended was St. Isidore in Danville, California, another was St. Juliana in Fullerton, California, and as a young adult, I attended St. Charles Borromeo in Arlington, VA. I had absolutely no interest, no curiosity whatsoever in who these people were. But then my Catholicism was cultural. I went to Mass because I felt better afterward or because it was what my dad made me as one of the conditions of his paying my college tuition. It wasn't until after I had a conversion experience in 1992 and, really, after my marriage four years later, that I finally started reading about the saints, and I was about 30 then. Since then, I can’t get enough of them. They've become sort of a way for me to reconnect with God. When I feel myself getting off course, slacking off in this or that aspect, I read saints stories.
Usually, I come away feeling like a complete and utter schmuck. I'm just kidding, but I do realize how much better I can do. And they make me want to be better. Plus, I think if this person who went through XYZ situation can persevere and overcome and become a saint, hey, there's hope for me. And I think that's the point of saints' stories. They’re meant to provide us an example and give us hope. That's why I wrote the book.
DONNA-MARIE: The saints are wonderful like that, aren’t they? They give us tremendous hope. Do you remember the first saint you learned about?
BRIAN: Ever? No, and given how much I love them now, I wish I did. It was probably Our Lady, because in the early 1990s I was very much enthralled with the seemingly dozens of alleged Marian apparitions that were swirling around at the time. If we're talking about for the book, however, then probably Padre Pio.
BRIAN: Which saint did you find to be the most like yourself?
In terms of the book? Why, Padre Pio, of course! Don't I wish. Probably a cross between Bl. Jakob Gapp and Bl. Bartolo Longo. Gapp because he was arrogant and proud, and he thought he knew better than God. He was an atheist (which I never was), but he came to see his dependence on Our Lord's salvific act. Longo was a satanic priest. That’s something else I never was, but I did functionally live as a pagan for many years, and like Bl. Bartolo, it was the Rosary that enabled me to see how unhappy I was living that way and which brought me to the happiness that only Jesus Christ can bring. If I’m honest with myself, I probably also have a strong dose of Bl. Anna Schaefer, who, putting it mildly, didn’t like not getting her way.
DONNA-MARIE: Thanks for your humility and honesty, Brian. Which of the saints in your book may have struggled most?
BRIAN: All saints struggle terribly because they see the perfection they ought to achieve (cf. Matt 5:48), but which, humanly speaking, is absolutely impossible. But none of those about whom I write struggled more in a temporal sense than Bl. Anna Schäffer. She basically became a paralytic and fought against that for 8-9 years, hoping and praying for a miracle, refusing to accept that this was God's will for her life, and she suffered much unhappiness as a result. The flip side of her coin is Bl. Karl of Austria, who one day was an emperor and the next day an exile and a pauper. In fact, it was his poverty that literally killed him because his living conditions were so poor. But the words that were always on his lips as he lay dying were, "Fiat voluntas tua (Thy will be done)." It's what's written on his tombstone.
DONNA-MARIE: That’s very beautiful. We can learn so much from the saints if we’d just take the time and read about them and study them as well as ask for their intercession. Why do you think it's important to write about the saints?
BRIAN: Saints stories are important for the simple reason that a person's capacity for self-deception is limitless, isn't it? We think we're doing just fine. We're right with God, "Jesus and me are buddies," and all that needs to happen immediately after our death is for us to smile down upon our canonization ceremony, which, naturally, will take place at our funeral. When you read the saints' stories, however, you understand you are not a saint. At the very least you come to understand how to tweak your spiritual performance. Saints stories act as God's way of telling us, "Uhm, I love you, but really? Look at this other son or daughter of mine. You’re not there yet. We have some work to do together, if you’ll let Me help you." They provide us examples of holiness and how to act on those examples
DONNA-MARIE: That’s a very nice way of explaining our imperfections, our need to improve, and Our Lord’s loving willingness to help us. Do you have a favorite saint?
BRIAN: As a husband and a father, I really love Franz Jägerstätter. He was a man who’d gone from being a man without God to a man who deeply loved God and yearned to serve Him. After he married and had four daughters, the Nazis came to power, and through some interesting twists and turns, he refused to serve in German infantry, which was just as good as saying, “Hello, here I am, execute me.” It was an automatic death sentence. But for him it was clear that he could not in good conscience serve evil in such a direct way. And even though he had so many people telling him that his first obligation was to his family, he said, “I cannot believe that just because one has a wife and children, he is free to offend God. Did not Christ himself say ‘He who loves father, mother, or children more than me is not deserving of my kingdom’?” Because he would not relent, the Nazis guillotined him on the same day that St. Edith Stein lost her life.
As a parent and spouse myself, I am just so utterly impressed with his stance because it must have been beyond incredibly hard. In a last ditch attempt to sway him, the Nazis arranged for his wife to travel from Austria to Berlin, a 460 mile journey by train, and she presented him with a photo of their cute little daughters in their Sunday best holding a sign that read, “Daddy, come home soon!” That must have been worse than any torture the Nazis could have inflicted on him. Still, he stuck to his guns. To his death, he stuck to his guns. That’s why I title the chapter about him in the book, “A modern-day St. Thomas More.”
DONNA-MARIE: Wow, incredible story of courage beyond courage! I guess we all need to remember that Our Lord will always give us sufficient graces to accomplish His holy will, no matter what it is! I can tell that readers will come away with an awful lot from your weaving of words about the saints in your book. But, can you give me an idea of what you think readers may gain from your book?
BRIAN: My hope and prayer is that every person will gain an appreciation that while being a saint is not easy – because if it was, being a saint wouldn’t be so special – it is possible for all of us. In the book, you read about the depressed, the gifted, the dim-witted, men, women, children, adults, clerics, religious, and married people, and I have tried to show that all of them experienced the very same things you and I do. Maybe in different degrees, maybe in much different ways. Padre Pio, after all, was singularly blessed. After St. Joseph and St. Francis, he is arguably the greatest male saint the Church has ever produced. But he still had his struggles.
For instance, and I only learned this after the book was put to bed, his father had come to live with him toward the end of his life. As his papa lay dying, he begged a miracle from his son – this holy priest who was so uniquely touched by grace that God had allowed to work so many miracles for others. “Gain for me a miracle,” he asked. And St. Pio responded, “God never answers my prayers.” In other words, God granted his petitions on behalf of others, but He never gave him what he personally asked for. Have you ever felt like that? I know I have. I felt that way quite recently. And yet Padre Pio was a saint. He struggled. Of course he did. He was human. Humans struggle. But many have this sense that being a saint is living some almost-in-heaven-while-on-earth experience where they just sit around communing with God. In reality, they experienced some amazing difficulties. And if we follow their example by persevering through our own struggles in a holy way, we’ll become saints. That is what I hope people gain, that perspective.
DONNA-MARIE: Yes, I wholeheartedly agree, Brian. I love what St. Therese said about a call to holiness. I used it in my Introduction of my book Mother Teresa and Me: Ten Years of Friendship. She pointed out that she was certainly not “swimming in consolations.” However, she said, “My God, I choose everything. I will not be a saint by halves. I am not afraid of suffering for Thee.” Blessed Teresa of Calcutta said that together with the blessings that come to a soul who opts for holiness comes also “renunciation, temptations, struggles, persecutions, and all kinds of sacrifices.” Saints were human beings who would strive to rise above the struggles with God’s grace and ultimately viewed the challenges and struggles as opportunities for grace and a means to their sanctification and for others too. What do you think readers may find most surprising about your book?
BRIAN: Probably several things. Most people don’t know John Paul II created more saints and blesseds than pretty much all the other popes combined (although it’s a little more nuanced than that). Very few know a former satanic priest is on his way to canonization. Many still don’t know Bl. Mother Teresa had a very long period where she felt nothing but God’s absence, which would have caused many to give up their work for him. I think another thing that will surprise is that most of the people in the book are those no one has ever heard of, in a relative sense. They’ll be surprised, probably to see that these individuals were just like them, and hopefully that will lead to the biggest – and most pleasant – surprise of all, that sanctity is possible for all of us.
DONNA-MARIE: Yes, so true, we are all called to become a saint! Is there a short excerpt you would like to offer us to give us a sense of your book?
But it isn’t as though [Bl. Alberto Marvelli] was some “add water and stir” saint. According to his friend and vice postulator of his cause Don Fausto Lanfranchi, he struggled daily with his faults. Father says Alberto wrote, “How many times at the foot of altar have I promised to become purer and more sincere, but just as many times, I have failed. Lord, help me to vanquish my quick-trigger impatience, to contain my often unhealthy curiosity and my inordinately unbridled imagination, my readiness to speak badly of others, and pull down the walls of my pride and haughtiness.”
Still, he understood what it took to become a saint: “For us to proceed in the spiritual life, our efforts must be constant and determined. We need to continuously progress step-by-step, day-by-day, minute-by-minute, always aspiring to that which is our highest summit: God.”
DONNA-MARIE: Very nice excerpt. Thank you. Why do you think you were drawn to write about the saints?
BRIAN: I’m what I call a Catholic geek. I love everything having to do with the Church that is good, and I’m voracious. I can’t get enough of it. But I wasn’t always that way. I used to have a revulsion to anything remotely pious. And a big part of the change in me came about as part of the saints. As such, I love saints stories. I love looking at their pictures. I love praying at their tombs. It’s one reason I lead pilgrimages. I’ve even begun building a database of saints and where they are buried. At this point, I have 62 pages on the saints of Italy alone, and I’ve really only just begun. My hope is that if people are ever in Italy or France or Chile or even Wisconsin, and they’re near some town, they’ll look on my website www.sacredhearttours.com or e-mail me through the site to say, “Hmmm, are there any saints’ tombs nearby where we can pray for our intentions?”
When you fell in love with your husband, didn’t you want to tell the world about him? When you’re children were born, didn’t you love showing them to others? When we love something, we want to share it with others. I love Our Lord, I love His Blessed Mother, but I’ll never be a corner evangelist. It’s just not me. But I can share the saints’ stories with others, and maybe that way, God will allow me to accomplish the Great Commission and spread our holy religion.
DONNA-MARIE: I think that’s great, Brian. I love the saints so much too. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
BRIAN: Fall in love with the saints, because they will help you more fervently fall in love with Jesus, and thus help you more firmly attain the salvation He won for us.
DONNA-MARIE: Do you have plans to write another book?
BRIAN: I have plans for several, actually. One is a sequel to this book because when I finished writing my first draft, I had too many stories. Another is one I've written on the churches of Rome that I will probably end up making available as a download or an iPhone ap at my website, www.sacredhearttours.com. And then I’d like to do a study of parents whose children who have left the Church who are broken up about it. As someone who regularly begs God that none of his descendents ever loses their Catholic faith, and who has spoken with dozens of parents who are heartbroken about their children becoming lapsed, I want to speak with the parents of those who have fallen away to see what sort of commonalities there are between them. That way maybe I and others can take steps to avoid the heartache these good men and women must be suffering.
Finally, I would like to write a secular book about the “Life on Mars” sensation one experiences when one moves from a place like California to a place like Wisconsin. First, this one has to sell, though, so everything else is putting the cart before the horse. God willing, however, I’ll continue to write books for a very long time to come. That’s the hope, anyway.
DONNA-MARIE: I hope you will. You have much to offer us. Finally, where can we get your book?
BRIAN: At your local Catholic bookstore! Go to CatholicStoreFinder.com, type in your zip code and choose the radius from your zip code that you're willing to drive, and then call that store and ask them to carry that book. Really, I know times are tight, and when certain online outlets offer near wholesale prices, they're hard to pass up. But those outlets aren't dedicated to bringing the light of Jesus into the world. They're not there when someone who is not Catholic has questions and walks into the store with no place else to turn. If we don't patronize those businesses, then how are they going to keep their doors open? They provide a valuable service to the Church, and we owe it to ourselves to support them. And a lot of times, they're willing to ship to you.
DONNA-MARIE: Yes, absolutely. Let’s support the local Catholic bookstores whenever it’s possible. Thank you very much, Brian for your time and insights. It has been a great pleasure to interview you. I pray that your book will deeply inspire others to want to become a saint! God bless you!