SLIPPERY ROCK, PA — When it came to championing the faith, G.K. Chesterton fought with “verve and passion, and panache” in his works, said Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles.
He reflected a deep attitude of love and joy, the bishop said. “Every page of Chesterton is like a bottle of champagne.”
Barron, an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, lauded the contributions of the English writer and journalist during the 35th Annual Conference of the American Chesterton Society in early August at Slippery Rock University.
He addressed the audience of more than 300 via Skype in introducing his new series, “Catholicism: The Pivotal Players.” Chesterton is profiled in the series, and the gathering had the opportunity to view the episode featuring him.
Barron told the “Chestertonians” that he couldn’t imagine a better audience to premiere the episode, and he said their keeping the memory of Chesterton alive is a “tremendous” gift to the church.
The Aug. 4-6 conference drew participants from throughout the United States and several other countries. They heard a variety of speakers who detailed Chesterton’s relationships with other literary figures, and they had the opportunity to engage in fellowship and spiritual activities.
“There’s a real lack of clear voices in today’s society speaking about the issues Chesterton wrote about,” said Victoria Darkey, director of the Western Pennsylvania Chesterton Society. “People are hungry for that.”
It is a common experience, she noted, for people to read Chesterton and find his works to be profoundly relevant to today’s world.
Dale Ahlquist is president of the American Chesterton Society. He has written several books on the writer and is widely regarded as America’s foremost authority on Chesterton, who died in 1936 at age 62.
Ahlquist said Chesterton, an Anglican who became a Catholic in 1922, has a wide appeal because everything he wrote “pointed” to God. He was eloquent and well versed in a number of disciplines, including literature, art, economics and social justice, Ahlquist said.
Chesterton’s works have not gone out of style, he noted, because they speak the truth, and truth doesn’t change.
“He’s an amazingly timely writer because he’s a timeless writer,” Ahlquist told the Pittsburgh Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. “People find him prophetic and sometimes even more relevant now than he was in his own time in many ways.”
In the early 20th century Chesterton wrote about various issues as relevant then as they are today: social injustice, the culture of death, statism, assaults on religion, and attacks on the family and on the dignity of the human person. He also was the author of the “Father Brown”‘ mystery stories.
It is often forgotten, Ahlquist added, that Chesterton was best known as a journalist in his day, and people clamored to see his byline. With his death, his name disappeared from their focus, and just in the last 20 years or so interest in his work has begun to rise again.
Ahlquist has alluded to Chesterton’s notion that we don’t need a Church that moves with the world, but we need one that moves the world. It is a thought, he noted, that was often quoted by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who was greatly influenced by Chesterton.
It has been said that Chesterton’s teachings explain why modern man cannot think clearly. Ahlquist pointed out that we have lost touch with our past and we don’t know our own story.
The great story of how our civilization was built, he said, involves the church as the foundation. The church gave us art, literature and a form of government.
“We’ve cut ourselves off from this, and now we don’t know how to justify what we do anymore,” Ahlquist said.
People are recognizing that Chesterton’s works can reconnect them, he added. Ahlquist noted the rising attendance at the conference in the past 20 years as an example. Chesterton is coming back into the classroom, he noted, and his books are being rushed into print. Schools bearing his name have been opened and have embraced his thinking in addressing some of the problems facing society.
Father Joseph Freedy attended the conference and celebrated its closing Mass. Chesterton, he said, has educated him in a new relationship with reality and given him the ability to view it properly.
While he is still relatively new to Chesterton’s work, Freedy noted, he has been profoundly affected by it, and it has “helped me to get God right.”
Freedy described Chesterton’s work as “a breath of fresh air,” and that when people encounter him they experience real joy and real truth. And truth, he noted, is always very attractive.
In his Skype session, Barron noted that he was introduced to Chesterton as a college sophomore and became a “passionate Chestertonian” in the 1970s and ’80s when the church was in the midst of an intellectual upheaval.
“It gave me a light and a point of reference during a confusing time,” he said. The bishop spoke of how he saw Chesterton as a “happy warrior” in defending the faith, in an age when he saw many “angry warriors.”
Barron said that he chose Chesterton as one of the profiles for his series because he loves Chesterton’s work and appreciates his intuition for fundamental things.
“I found him as a great evangelist and a model for our time,” he said.
He said Chesterton taught him that the “most compelling offer on the table” is classical Christianity. Intellectual fashions come and go, he said, but classical Christianity remains. It gives a robust sense of the divinity of Jesus and the reality of sin, salvation, grace and God’s existence.
What he learned at 19, Barron noted, is what has sustained him through the years.
Franko is a staff writer at the Pittsburgh Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.