Swimming with Scapulars

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Part-way through this collection of lay homilies delivered almost as whispered asides, journalist Matthew Lickona makes a telling disclosure: His patron saint is the martyred St. John, that “voice crying in the wilderness.” This confession clarifies the pleasant but somehow self-righteous tone of most of Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic.

Lickona successfully makes his personal experiences learning about and developing in Catholicism more universal and meaningful. But when he wrote that he is “rotten at discernment,” that should have been a tip to not share so boldly what his discernment has thus far convinced him is the truth. In fact, Lickona shares some of his early appreciation, later estrangement, and eventual rediscovery of the Church similarly realized by Tony Hendra in Father Joe (2004). But Lickona lacks Hendra's humility and curiosity. Rather than that revealing act of self-deprecating wonder and sharing, Lickona offers an almost accusative, haughty lesson learned.

Like others in the Catholic laity and clergy, Lickona somehow sees absolute tradition and rigidity in a faith that has changed dramatically over the centuries. Further, there is no feeling of meekness, as expressed at Mass: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive You. Only say the word, and I shall be healed.” Even when writing about his doubts and weaknesses, Lickona is less candid than controlling, a stubborn individual writing about a community of faith who admits that he prefers isolation, notices other churchgoers, and wonders about latecomers.

Almost as authoritarian as the lockstep Pharisees, and as judgmental as Rick Warren, who wrote the best-selling Purpose-Driven Life (2002), Lickona occasionally can be lighter and fresher. For instance, he recalls a priest's friendly advice to concentrate on himself for three minutes a day (because after that most people cannot stand to think of themselves).

The eloquent book is earnest. However, sincerity is no defense against passive/aggressive elitism; the Inquisitors were probably sincere.