In an age of loneliness and distraction, it can be easy to forget God’s presence in our daily lives—until we are confronted with everyday miracles like birth, death, or marriage. In his new book, The Strangeness of Truth, Fr. Damian Ferrence meditates on the way that eternal mysteries such as the Incarnation, Resurrection, and the Eucharist make themselves felt in the everyday, using scenes from his own life to illustrate and animate doctrine.
Plenty of elaborate theological treatises have been written on the subjects that he addresses, but his tone is conversational and direct. His insights are designed to awaken and remind his readers of the radical truths that surround them- that God holds our world in existence, that He became a man, and that He sacrificed Himself for us. Fr. Ferrence’s writing is filled with wonder, reverence, and a keen observational sense, using concrete examples and crystal-clear observations to illuminate realities often spoken of as murky or abstract. The Strangeness of Truth will spark a renewed love and appreciation for the doctrines God has revealed, and help you see them with fresh eyes; not as they could be, but how they really are—beautiful, strange, and timeless.
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In Praise ofThe Strangeness of Truth
“Fr. Ference’s The Strangeness of Truth is a gift. With pathos and humor, he explores the wisdom and beauty of Catholicism—its faith in the noncompetitive God, its embodied character, its transformation of suffering and death through Christ’s cross and resurrection—in light of his own experience as brother, son, student, rock fan, and priest. I warmly recommend it, especially for young people searching for life’s deepest truths.”
—Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word on FireCatholic Ministries, Auxiliary Bishop of theArchdiocese of Los Angeles
“Fr. Damian Ference is one of my favorite people. Like, ever. He’s humble, articulate, and winsome. All of that comes through in this excellent little book that gives the reader an overview of the Catholic faith in a fresh and compelling way. I wish I had it back in my agnostic days.”
—Matt Fradd, Pints With Aquinas
“Read this book and fall in love, or grow more in love, with Jesus and His Church!”
—Fr. Larry Richards, pastor of St. Joseph Churchand founder of The Reason for Our HopeFoundation, Erie, Pennsylvania
“The Strangeness of Truth is a stirring call to make our faith not just a place we visit, but rather the very air we breathe, the food we eat, and the home in which we live. I have long been convinced that Fr. Damian Ference will be remembered as one of the greatest spiritual thinkers of this generation, and this work more than bears that out.”
—Hallie Lord, SiriusXM radio host and author ofOn the Other Side of Fear: How I Found Peace
“Fr. Damian has long been one of my favorite writers, and this book only affirms that. Weaving together saints, stories, philosophy, and faith, he paints a picture of Catholicism that is both fresh and accessible. Anyone reading this book will see how Catholicism makes sense of life and makes it tangibly better. Give this book to anyone who doubts that.”
—Brandon Vogt, founder of ClaritasU andauthor of Why I Am Catholic
The Strangeness of Truth
The Strangeness of Truth
Vibrant Faith in a Dark World
Fr. Damian Ference
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Ference, Damian, author.
Title: The strangeness of truth : vibrant faith in a dark world / Damian Ference.
Description: Boston, MA : Pauline Books & Media, 2019.
Identifiers: LCCN 2018038239| ISBN 9780819891266 (pbk.) | ISBN 0819891266 (pbk.) | ISBN 9780819891273 (ePub.)
Subjects: LCSH: Catholic Church--Doctrines. | Theology, Doctrinal--Popular works.
Classification: LCC BX1754 .F47 2019 | DDC 230/.2--dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018038239
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Excerpts from the English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church for use in the United States of America, copyright © 1994, United States Catholic Conference, Inc. — Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Used with permission.
Excerpts from the English translation of The Roman Missal © 2010, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation. All rights reserved.
Texts contained in this work derived whole or in part from liturgical texts copyrighted by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) have been published here with the confirmation of the Committee on Divine Worship, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. No other texts in this work have been formally reviewed or approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Excerpts from Pope Francis’, Pope Paul VI’s, and Pope Benedict XVI’s magesterium texts © Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Cittá del Vaticano. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Excerpts from “The Late, Great Stephen Colbert” by Joel Lovell, GQ August 17, 2015 edition © Conde Nast. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Excerpts from The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor edited by Sally Fitzgerald. Copyright © 1979 by Regina O’Connor. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Excerpts from The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor © 1979 by Regina O’Connor; excerpts from Everything that Rises Must Converge © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1961, 1962, Flannery O’Connor. Copyright renewed 1993 by Regina Cline O’Connor. Reprinted by permission of the Mary Flannery O’Connor Charitable Trust via Harold Matson Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Excerpts from A Prayer Journal © 2013 by the Mary Flannery O’Connor Charitable Trust via Harold Matson Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Cover design by Ryan McQuade
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Copyright © 2019, Fr. Damian Ference
Published by Pauline Books & Media, 50 Saint Pauls Avenue, Boston, MA 02130-3491.
Pauline Books & Media is the publishing house of the Daughters of St. Paul, an international congregation of women religious serving the Church with the communications media.
For Helen, the one and the many.
“It is the business of the artist to uncover the strangeness of truth.”
— Flannery O’Connor
Why This Book?
1God Is for Us, God Is with Us
2The Empty Tomb
4Everybody Counts and Everyone Matters
The Human Person
5Show and Tell
6Take Up and Read
The Beautiful and Intelligent Life
7A Vivid World
The Both/And Principle
8Loving the Bomb
An Answer to Suffering
The Funeral Homily for Edward M. Ference
Questions for Discussion and Personal Reflection
IT IS WITH GREAT JOY that I write this foreword to this absolutely wonderful book, The Strangeness of Truth: Vibrant Faith in a Dark World, by Father Damian Ference, a dynamic priest of the Diocese of Cleveland, who is also a seminary professor, a philosopher, a loving son, brother, friend, and a spiritual guide for many. More than simply a book, it is a moving letter to those who search and yearn for meaning. It speaks to those who are restless, who are filled with questions and looking for answers to the many challenges and contradictions that we all find in the course of our journey. The Strangeness of Truth is a profound reflection on the treasures of the Catholic faith, seen and presented through the eyes and heart of the personal journey of the author. As a young man, Damian Ference encountered the Risen Christ in a powerful way. This encounter would eventually lead him to leave behind his youthful dream to be a “rock star” and to give his life to Jesus Christ and all of humanity as a priest in the Catholic Church. He is now a star of a different kind, much like the Star of Bethlehem. Today, Father Damian shows the way to others, the way to a life of faith in the person and vision of Jesus Christ who, after all, is the Way!
In this book, written as a moving letter to all of us who search, we can see the unfolding of our own lives. We follow Father Damian through life, with all its ups and downs, twists and turns, as he shares the stories of his own life and faith journey. Through it all, he discovers meaning and purpose in the treasure of the Catholic faith. In so many ways, this is a book about two of Pope Francis’ favorite words: encounter and accompaniment. In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis invites all of us to a renewed personal encounter with Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter us. He reminds us that no one is excluded from this invitation and that the Lord does not disappoint.
The Strangeness of Truth. How can Truth be strange? Father Damian tells us how. Sandwiched in the narratives of his story, this book shares with us the surprising story of the intimate encounter of God with us, his people. It is the story of how he demonstrates the power of his love. God’s love is a love that accompanies us in creation, in the mystery of dying and rising, and even through the signs and symbols of our faith, which are always reminding us that “everyone counts and everyone matters.” Father Damian presents the beauty of the Catholic faith to us artfully and skillfully, in a language and through images that are understandable and relatable. He shows how faith enlightens and gives meaning to our lives and the many events that arise in them. Through it all, we are given the opportunity to discover the footprints of Christ, who is and has always been there, right by our side.
My prayer is that all who take the time to read this book from a young, faith-filled priest, will discover what he has discovered and be transformed by the love of Christ, who seeks to encounter us at every turn. Thank you, Father Damian, for taking the time to share your story, for presenting us the treasures of the Catholic faith, and for giving us this book as a gift to the world!
Most Reverend Nelson J. Perez, D. D.Bishop of Cleveland
“Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”
— Roman Missal
“I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style, and methods of evangelization in their respective communities.”
— Pope Francis
“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock, to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large startling figures.”
— Flannery O’Connor
DEAR READER, THIS LITTLE book is my humble attempt to present the Catholic faith to you for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, or perhaps in a way that you haven’t heard it presented before. I am writing to you not only as a Catholic priest but also as a man who has come to find himself most fully alive in communion with the One who is Life itself, and in the Church that he founded almost two thousand years ago.
I was ordained one year after the clergy sex-abuse scandals rocked the Catholic Church in 2002, so I am not blind to the human weakness, hypocrisy, cowardice, greed, and arrogance that is at times on display in Catholic living. But I’ve also been an eyewitness to the kindness, courage, honesty, generosity, and humility of countless women and men who profess Jesus Christ as Lord and refer to the Catholic Church as their Mother and Teacher. I believe what the Catholic Church holds and teaches to be true, and this book is my attempt to present the beauty, the mystery, the challenge, the consolation, and the joy of Catholicism to you in an honest, human, intelligent, humorous, and incarnational manner.
Perhaps you were raised Catholic but haven’t been practicing your faith for a while. This book is for you. Perhaps you went to Catholic grade school and high school or even Catholic college but stopped practicing your faith a while back because it didn’t seem relevant to your life anymore. This book is for you. Perhaps you once had very strong faith and then life came at you with terrible suffering through the death of a loved one, sickness, a break in a most important relationship, or some existential crisis. This book is for you. Perhaps you are new parents who have decided that your son or daughter needs to be raised in a faith that has greater wisdom and values than the world has to offer. This book is for you. Perhaps you are a student and your teacher or professor wants you to read something that presents Catholicism in way that ties personal narrative and theology together. This book is for you. Maybe you are a seeker, a searcher, a man or woman who is on a journey looking for answers to questions about the meaning of life in general and Catholicism in particular. This book is for you. Perhaps someone who loves you very much gave this book to you as a gift and you are wondering if it’s for you. It is.
The structure of this book is simple; it’s like a sandwich. I begin each chapter with a narrative from my own life. That’s the bottom bun. Then I offer a systematic treatment of a particular topic: the incarnation, the resurrection, sacramentality, the human person, exemplarity, beauty and reason, the both/and principle, and suffering. That’s the protein, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and condiments. Finally, I close each chapter with another narrative, which relates to the narrative with which I began the chapter. That’s the top bun. If you don’t like carbs, skip the narratives, and if you’re a carb loader, you can simply read the buns. But the best diet is a balanced diet, and the buns are whole grain, so the best way to read this book is by reading the entire chapter. You could skip around if you want, but each chapter really does build on the next, so read this book the traditional way, from beginning to end, and then pass it on to a friend so that you’ll have someone with whom you can discuss the book over a cup of coffee or a pint of beer. (By its nature, Catholicism is communal, so it’s good to discuss these matters with others. You might even want to read this book aloud to another and work on the discussion questions in Appendix 2 together!)
Fr. Damian Ference
“And the Word became flesh.”
— John 1:14
“God became not only a man, but Man.”
— Flannery O’Connor
IN THE EARLY EIGHTIES, a Saturday morning at the Ference house translated into a morning of chores. After breakfast, my mom and dad would present to my brother and me a list of things to be done around the house. Then we’d all get to work.
Being the youngest, I always thought the way my parents distributed chores between my brother and me was anything but fair. Because Adam was four years older, he got to do all the fun stuff, like cutting the grass and washing the cars. I was stuck weeding the gardens and trimming the grass around the flowerbeds with hand clippers, not with the gas-powered trimmer that I use today. I also had the terrible charge of picking up after our beloved dog, Peanuts.
Peanuts was a Labrador-mutt mix that we adopted from the Animal Protective League when I was four. My mom used to tell me that we saved his life—I guess the pound would have killed him if no one took him. Naturally, I was attached to my dog. When I was really young, I used to sit on his back and make him carry me around our living room like a horse. (Years later, my cousins would blame me for his arthritis.) I liked everything about Peanuts—well, almost everything. The only thing that I didn’t like about my dog was cleaning up after him on Saturday mornings. He’d drop bombs all over the backyard during the week, and it was my job to find each one and pick it up in order to clear the way for Adam and his lawn mower.
What made this chore even worse was that Adam would take great delight in watching me work. Having already cut the front lawn, he’d watch me survey the backyard with shovel in hand, searching for poop. My dad had told me that using the corner of the shovel made the job easier, and he was right. Yet as I cleared the yard, Adam would offer color commentary and gloat, reminding me to “get everything!” The smell and sight were bad enough, but having your older brother ride you about it was the worst.
But he’d get his. What Adam didn’t realize was that while he was busy giving me the business about finding every last piece of poop in the yard, I would strategically leave one fresh pile for him, his mower, and his shoes. So when he ripped the cord and restarted the lawn mower, it was my turn to gloat.
A few minutes into cutting the back grass, he’d stop, mid-yard. With the mower still running, he’d bend his leg back and turn his head over his shoulder to check the bottom of his shoe. His face would sour. Ha! He felt it. He smelled it. It ruined his morning. And it made mine.
My brother and I were always going at it. Everything was a competition, and both of us hated losing. Nobody likes losing. Nobody.
We human beings tend to think that God is somehow competing with us. It may be hard to admit, but it’s true. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to confess that something deep down inside of us makes us believe that, somehow, God is waiting to pounce on us, kind of like the way my brother and I used to pounce on each other as kids. Sometimes we may think that God doesn’t want our best, that he’s simply waiting for us to mess up, make a mistake, or break some commandments in order to throw lightning bolts our way.
Have you ever had the feeling that God is out to get you? Although the notion of God as a competitor is a popular one, and we may even feel it at times, it’s not true. It’s actually the furthest thing from the truth.
Here’s the truth: God has no need to compete with us because God is God. What the heck does that mean? It means that God is not a part of the world. And by “the world” I don’t just mean the earth, I mean the entire universe and every created thing. I mean the context of everything that is. Before anything ever existed, God existed. God has no beginning or end. God just is. God is not a thing—God is God. Thomas Aquinas called God the sheer act of existence. God is existence itself.
God is also love. Aquinas defines love as willing the good of the other, for the sake of the other. Love is not directed toward the self but to the other, as other. Love involves making a sincere gift of oneself for the sake of another person. Love wants what’s best for someone else. The Greek word kenosis means self-donation or self-emptying. Love is donating or emptying one’s self for the sake of another person. Love is kenosis. Love is always directed toward the other. But how can God be love if there is only one God? Doesn’t God need somebody to love? Doesn’t God need an other? And if God needs something, wouldn’t that make God less than God?
It is true that love is only possible with more than one person. After all, love has to be given and received. As they say, it takes two. That’s what makes love love.
Take a husband and wife, for example. A husband loves his wife—he is her lover, she is his beloved. As the lover, he gives himself completely to her—he empties himself. As the beloved, she freely receives him and she loves him back, emptying herself to him completely. He, in turn, receives her love, the gift that is her very self. Such is a mutual exchange of love. Both the husband and the wife freely give themselves to each other and freely receive each other as gift. But there’s more. In addition to the husband and the wife, there is also the love itself that is being exchanged between them, which can manifest itself in another person! So the reality is that love doesn’t take two, it actually takes three—the lover, the beloved, and the love in between. Love is a communion of persons. Love draws us into relationship with others.
Does any of this sound familiar? It should. If God is existence itself, there can be only one God, because existence by its nature is one. In other words, there cannot be two Gods who are each infinite existence, because one would limit the other, and then neither would be infinite. And if God is love, and if love is only possible between persons, then there must be three persons in this one God. Human reason by itself could not have come up with this idea. It came to us from God by means of divine revelation. This is what we mean by the mystery of the Trinity. The Father loves the Son, as the Father is the lover. (He did not create the Son. The Son was always there; he is eternal like the Father. That’s what we mean when we say “begotten not made” in the Creed.) The Son receives the Father’s love, as the Son is the beloved. The Son also gives his love to the Father, and the Father receives the Son’s love. And who is proceeding from the Father and the Son? What do we call the love in between the lover and the beloved? You’ve got it: the Holy Spirit. The Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are one in being, or one in substance. Or, to use the language in our Nicene Creed, they are consubstantial (literally, “with one substance”). Therefore, God is one, not in the unity of a single person but in a Trinity of persons, each of whom fully possesses the one divine substance or nature. God’s nature is love. And God is love because God is a communion of persons: Father, Son, and Spirit.
Moreover, if God is one as a Trinity of one substance, and if God is a communion of persons, a communion of love, that means God is self-sufficient. In other words, God doesn’t need anybody to love because God is love itself. Because the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, and the Holy Spirit is the love proceeding from the Father and the Son, God has no needs. Why is this important? Because it means that God created the world not out of need but out of love. God didn’t have to create the world—he wanted to create it, and he created it out of love. And if that’s true, then why would God want to compete with his own creation? That wouldn’t make any sense. He’d always win.
Okay, that was a lot all at once and you may need to read this section over a few times more before it sinks in. Don’t feel bad if that happens. Remember that the Trinity is a profound and eternal mystery. It’s not a post on social media. You can’t explain it in 280 characters. It’s not like a math problem either. Math problems can be solved. You can’t solve the Trinity. If you could, it wouldn’t be a mystery. You contemplate mystery. You sit with it. You rest in it. Understanding takes time—so take your time. But also know that this stuff is really important. If we don’t get the Trinity right, then we’re going to get everything else wrong, including ourselves.1
In addition to God being a Trinity of persons, God is also Creator. God created all things visible and invisible, and he created all things ex nihilo, out of nothing. This is a wild reality because it means that before there was time, space, atoms, molecules, motion, and light, there was God. Lots of people get this wrong. They tend to think that God is part of the world rather than the Creator of the world. This distinction has enormous consequences.
When God created the world—and again, when I say “world” I mean everything that exists—he created it not because he had to but because he wanted to. God created the world out of love. God chose to create—he willed the world to be. And although everything that God created reflects his goodness, the pinnacle of his creation was man and woman—of course, that means you and me.
God created us in his image and likeness. And that means that we are like God in a way that no other creatures are like God. We have a body (visible) and soul (invisible). We also have intellect and free will. We can know and we can choose. We can know the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, true and false. And we have the freedom to act on that knowledge. We can also know God, and we can choose to love or turn away from God. Animals are different from us in this way.
Animals don’t have reason or free will, which means that animals can’t do things like murder or rape. Humans can. When an animal kills, it kills for food and survival. When a human being kills, it may be for a variety of reasons. We make distinctions about how and why humans kill in a way that is unique to human beings. We make a distinction between self-defense, manslaughter, and murder. We make a distinction between marital love, hooking up, and rape. Animals don’t. They can’t.
Animals are also unable to love. You love your dog, but your dog can’t love you back. I know that sounds harsh. Although dogs seem to show some sort of affection, and people can be very attached to their dogs, it’s different from true love, which is only between persons. Let’s go back to our definition of love: willing the good of the other, for the sake of the other
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