On Christmas eve, I arrived at our parish a little over an hour before mass. My oldest son was serving (he likes to set things up well ahead of time; he gets his OCD from me), and I wanted to save the back pew for my family.
As I waited, I delved into a book I’d not read for roughly six years, Russell Kirk’s 1955 book, Academic Freedom. Firmly engrossed in the book, I felt someone reading over my shoulder at one point just before mass started and just as my family was arriving to take their places in the by-now very coveted spots as folks rushed into mass at the last minute.
I looked behind me only to find our parish priest, Father Jeff Njus—equal parts brilliant, personable, orthodox, and mischievous—scanning the book. “Academic Freedom, Brad?” he said with his very Scandinavian grin. “Is that good Christian reading to prepare you for mass?” He laughed, wished me a “Merry Christmas,” and walked off to robe.
I didn’t have time (or presence of mind!) to answer him. But, yes, it is! In a way that would make St. Josemaria proud, it deals with the Christian calling of being a teacher. Kirk argued that teachers, professors, and scholars are “Bearers of the Word–dedicated men, whose first obligation is to Truth, and that a Truth derived from apprehension of an order more than natural or material.”
So, to honor Kirk, I’ve decided to name this interview series, “Bearers of the Word.”
Over the next several weeks, and maybe longer, I’ll be interviewing a number of persons I think are worthy of the title, “Bearers of the Word,” professors, teachers, or not!
One of the things I so appreciate about folks such as Josh Mercer, Carl Olson (of Ignatius Insight), Winston Elliott (of The Imaginative Conservative), and Dan McCarthy (of American Conservative) is their ability to form communities around a mission.
I’m very proud of my association with CatholicVote, and I hope this series will introduce a number of you to fine Catholics (and some non-Catholics) out there, and to introduce them to us. In other words, I’m hoping to keep building our communities and to continue the work that Josh does for us daily.
It is, therefore, with great pleasure that I present our first “Bearer of the Word,” lawyer and man of letters, Gerald Russello. Sadly, I’ve never had the chance to meet Gerald personally, but I have long been an admirer of his work and I’ve been blessed to correspond with him. A lawyer in the day, Russello writes extensively on topics that really matter–such as his critically important books on the Christian Humanists, Christopher Dawson and Russell Kirk–by night. He also edits the journal founded by Russell Kirk in 1960, the University Bookman.
BB: Gerald, please tell us a bit about yourself.
GR: I am a native of Brooklyn (about which I wrote a regionalist piece), where my family has lived for four generations and where my wife and I make our home, with our three children. I practice law in Manhattan, but I also serve as editor of The University Bookman, a book-review publication founded in 1960 by one of my intellectual heroes, Russell Kirk, about whom I also wrote a book. In my off-hours I write about the Catholic intellectual tradition and religious liberty issues.
BB: How did you come to Catholicism?
GR: I am a cradle Catholic, born into a large Sicilian Catholic family. Catholicism was part of my everyday experience in a way that is hard to replicate in New York today. It was not, or not primarily, an intellectual engagement with the faith, but woven into the very stuff of my daily life. As I recently explained to a friend, on days like Good Friday my neighborhood was silent, and everything from Little League to the Cub Scouts, even a club for teenagers to hang out in, involved our parish in some way. The example of my immediate family, especially my father, a daily Mass-goer whose faith was a very part of his being, and for whom prayer was a big part of dealing with a long illness, was also significant.
It was only later, when I was fortunate to attend a Jesuit high school and college, when I wrestled with the longer intellectual and historical tradition of the Church. It was there that I was introduced to writers like G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, Kirk, and John Henry Newman. I remain very grateful to my teachers who gave me the tools to become more knowledgeable about the tradition.
BB: What should Catholics be doing to engage the culture?
GR: Although I am a book person at heart, I do think there are great opportunities for Catholics to engage the culture in all media. EWTN, for example, has done some great work on television, and people like Gregory Wolfe and his Image journal, and the inimitable John Zmirak have reminded us that Catholic life can fill and inform our daily routines, and that the sacred calendar, with its holidays, feasts, and so on, should not be relegated to a place secondary to the secular one. Those initiatives need to continue because I think most people do not engage with culture primarily as an intellectual matter, but as a matter of routine and ritual, and also with an appreciation for beauty. The Catholic tradition has all of that, and it needs to be expressed in new ways.
BB: How do you bring your faith into your work?
GR: Working in a very secular environment, one needs to tread carefully and respectfully. However, in looking at my own history, I found that those who lived their faith quietly but obviously have had the strongest impression on me. And so I try not to forego opportunities for a minor sort of “witness;” that is, I do not conceal or hide the fact that I am a Catholic and take it seriously, or at least as seriously as any sinner can. And I have found that not only Catholics – especially younger lawyers, who are themselves contending with how to integrate their religious and professional lives – but believers of other faiths appreciate a public acknowledgement that faith is important, and should matter.
BB: What do you see as the future of the Catholic faith in the United States?
GR: That is an important, and crucial question. Of course, we cannot know what the Holy Spirit has planned for the Church here or anywhere, so all we can do is strive to defend the Faith where we are. But unfortunately, from a legal perspective, the future may not be bright. As writers such as law professor Rob Vischer have explained in his important book, Conscience and the Common Good, too often the state has put its thumb on the scales in favor of some secular value, and has forced religious institutions to capitulate. What we used to think of as religious liberty—the ability to practice one’s faith freely, and to not have government favor any religion over another—has been changed. Now, the state is inserting itself to further seemingly-neutral values that have the effect of infringing that right. This is happening at both the federal level and the state level, often with explicit anti-Catholic overtones. Catholic charity organizations have had to close up shop in the face of such laws, and others – such as Belmont Abbey, with the help of the invaluable Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, have been forced to fight back. There will only be more of such cases in the future, and the pressure that will be put upon the Church and, indeed, all people of faith, is something of which Catholics should be aware.
BB: Thanks so much for your valuable time, Gerald. Much appreciated! And, Happy New Year.