Those of a certain age will remember Love Story, the best-selling weeper novel of the late sixties written by Erich Segal, a classics professor at Yale who spent a sabbatical at Harvard, the setting for the novel. The book was later adapted for a hit movie starring Ali McGraw as the Radcliffe College tragic heroine and Ryan O’ Neill as her lover at Harvard.
Segal never had to work again, and McGraw and O’Neill’s acting careers were moribund within a decade. But how could any viewer forget the immortal line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry?” Although completely untrue, it sounded right and fit in that era of unhappy memory.
Here is another love story that begins at Harvard, where two young undergrads meet and fall in love—not only with each other, but also with Christ and his Church. It too proceeds to the death of one of the lovers but, at least from a Christian point of view, it ends in triumph.
The book is The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God (Ignatius Press). That title quote comes from the brilliant and troubled Catholic convert and novelist Graham Greene in The Heart of the Matter. Edited by her widowed husband Michael Pakaluk, the book is, as its subtitle lets on, “the story of Ruth Pakaluk, Convert, Mother, Pro-life Activist.”
In one way, the book is a preparation for a full-scale biography of Pakaluk—one that should not yet be written. As her husband puts it, the book recounts the life “of an extraordinary human being taken away from her friends and family in an untimely manner by metastatic breast cancer, when she was forty-one years old. When Ruth died, her friends believed that the best among them had been taken away. It seem unjust that she should die and that we should continue to live, because the way she lived and her love of life, seemed to make her so much more ‘worthy’ of the gift of life.”
Following the brief biography of Ruth Pakaluk’s life is a selection of her letters, perhaps the clearest window to her life as a student, mother, wife, friend, intellectual, pro-life organizer, debater, and writer. Her husband Michael also includes a moving and at times surprising synopsis of life after Ruth (she is gone, he tells us, but not far).
The collection of Ruth’s letters read as her inadvertent autobiography, beginning with her life at Harvard and ending with the onset of her cancer. The most moving among them are those she wrote to her children as she knew she was slipping away. Finally, the book includes talks that she delivered to those she helped to form in the spirituality of Opus Dei, of which she was a member. Among them are the brilliant talks she delivered in her role as a pro-life advocate (and while already suffering from terminal cancer), having served two terms as president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life.
The well-known philosopher and Christian apologist Peter Kreeft, himself a convert from Calvinism, contributes the introduction, in which he describes Ruth as he knew her: “Utterly honest, human, “homely,” and humble. Simple. Direct. Full of the ordinary, but full of a light that shines on through ordinary life, a light that most of us simply don’t see twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And always cheerful.”
Kreeft also noted that she gave the clearest and strongest pro-life argument he had ever heard—an argument recounted in the book by her husband Michael, which I will leave for the reader to discover for themselves, and use with others.
The book is a tool for evangelization through the witness of Ruth’s life and her death. However, I believe its most important message also lies at the heart of the Second Vatican Council—the universal call to holiness. All of us, after all, are called to holiness, and by the ordinary means the Church has provided since its foundation—prayer, the Scriptures, the sacraments, self-denial, self-gift, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and openness to the general and particular will of God.
But through the centuries, and particularly after the end of the early Christian era, it became a commonplace belief that holiness was largely reserved for those called to religious life and the priesthood, while laypeople could only aspire to a second-rate holiness, hoping to squeak into Purgatory. There have been many outstanding lay saints—St. Thomas More, for example—but even he was raised to the altar centuries after his martyrdom. That great doctor of the Church, St. Francis De Sales, in his Introduction to the Devout Life, opened the door to the aristocracy, but there was something more or less lacking.
In more recent times, the canonization of St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, and the beatification of Blessed John Henry Newman, are ushering in the new springtime for the Church that Blessed John Paul II the Great foresaw. Newman has been called the invisible peritus of Vatican II and St. Josemaria the anonymous peritus. It is no accident that Ruth Pakaluk was deeply devoted to these modern examples of holiness, striving to put their teachings into practice in her daily life.
During his pontificate, Blessed John Paul II put out a strong call for worthy Catholic laymen and laywomen, preferably married, to be placed on the fast track in the Congregation of the Saints, raising them to the altar to emphasize the universal call to holiness. We leave the matter of a St. Ruth to the judgment of the Church.
Rev. C. John McCloskey is Research Fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington DC. His website is www.frmccloskey.com.
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