Young Catholic author explains search for cultural relevancy

Matt Weber was spotted on a plane making the sign of the cross, folding his hands, closing his eyes and praying during take off, thereby, he said, making him an unapologetic Catholic, no longer incognito. 

Later, he was seen walking around Boston wearing a nun’s veil, and there he goes again, telling jokes to a statue of Mary at the intersection of Market Street and North Beacon. 

And when he so craved the Chuck E. Cheese pizza of his childhood, he entered the arcade eatery knowing that he was no longer the same person, but he still wanted what was there.  

He left with a bouncy ball and parachute man prizes, reflecting on how the incident could be a lesson in faith: the recognition of his own changes and the beckoning of something familiar and good. 

“I couldn’t help but think that maybe my Sunday trip to Chuck E. Cheese’s parallels in some way the return of Catholics to Church,” he wrote in his new book, “Fearing The Stigmata: Humorously Holy Stories of a Young Catholic’s Search For a Culturally Relevant Faith” (Loyola Press, $13.95). 

Weber, 28, created and produces CatholicTV’s weekly segments of “A Word With Weber” that reaches 10 million international viewers. They are light but meaningful vignettes of the ordinary life of a young Catholic who “wants to be holy” yet fears being “holey.” 

“I wanted to make this book something that can reach the greatest number of people,” he said. “I want it to have a really strong solid message without being overintellectualized, without straying from who I am. I think it would appeal to anyone, even an atheist, because the stories are about people trying to live a good life.” 

Weber, a cradle Catholic, is concerned that so many Catholics aged 18 to 35 are disengaged from the Church. His own faith identity was challenged when after 20 years of Catholic education (including Providence College in Providence, R.I., and Boston College), he did graduate studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., where he is now a multimedia producer. 

Book Excerpt
Just imagine that you have a new priest or a new pastor at your parish, doing his first Sunday Mass. He is more than likely pretty excited, yet also nervous. There are loads of us in the pews watching him. We listen to see if he sings well (not a deal breaker, but good singing is easier on the ears). We assess how fast he walks down the aisle. We look at his posture and poise. Of course, we rate his homilies. Do they start with a joke? Does he read them, deliver from behind the pulpit, or he is a roving homilist? Most important, does he high-five the little kids in the pews as he processes out during the closing song? As I am walking down the communion line … I want to scope him out up close, during arguably the most important part of the Mass. I want to see how he says it, where he puts the wafer (is he a placer or plopper or sticker?), and to see if he makes eye contact. There is a lot packed into those four important word: The Body of Christ, AMEN.

Being in a secular university and finally coming out of “the Catholic bubble” challenged him to live his faith publicly. He found joy when he did. 

The book title refers to his childhood fear that if he were holy like St. Francis, he, too, might receive the scary marks of the stigmata. So, Weber became just naughty enough to avoid them. 

And about praying on that plane. While his eyes were closed, the overhead storage compartment opened and a laptop case fell on his head. 

Our Sunday Visitor: You come from a very Catholic background. Your mother Peggy is a Catholic writer, your older sister Kerry is associate editor for America Magazine and your father John, who’s an engineer, volunteers for handyman projects in your home parish, Holy Cross in Springfield, Mass. How has this defined your faith? 

Matt Weber: My Catholicism is as much ingrained in me as my Americanism. Even if I was frustrated with it, I would never give it up. My religion is like a member of my family. I am going to love it, even though sometimes I don’t always like it. 

OSV: What has challenged you? 

Weber: Living in Boston during the height of the sex abuse scandal is the kind of stuff that is going to make a lot of people ask serious questions. You have to separate things. Are they one person, or are they the Catholic Church? Then when I go to church and not many people are there, and it’s a really bad homily and there’s no music — so why am I doing this? I cannot let those negative things get in the way of why I am there. I am doing this because that’s where the Eucharist is, and it’s the Eucharist that sustains me as a religious and spiritual person. All the other stuff pales in comparison to the great things of the Church — the Eucharist. All the negative things [pale] in comparison to the great gifts of the Eucharist. 

OSV: How did you deal with being out of the familiar Catholic environment for the first time? 

Matt Weber
Weber

Weber: In Catholic schools, then at Boston College [Jesuit] and Providence [Dominican], the environments catered to my demographics. When I headed to Harvard, there weren’t as many Catholics and it wasn’t the common thing to be religious. There were not a lot of people at the graduate level openly talking about religion. I had to explain my faith at a level I had never had to before. College is where many people lose their faith or give up on religion. There’s not that support system. At Catholic school, they make you go to church. At home, your parents make you go to church. All of a sudden, no one is making you go to church, so why would you want to? No one is telling you what to do in a society where it’s not the sexiest thing to be religious when you are in your 20s. 

OSV: How do some young people handle that? 

Weber: It’s become cool to say “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” Everyone is saying that. But I’m both. I’m spiritual and I’m religious. It’s great being religious. That has all the wonderful attributes and graces of the Church and the institution, and really all those components that are beyond just being spiritual. I would love to have young people say, “I’m spiritual and I’m religious, too,” and have that be kind of cool. 

OSV: How has your faith grown? 

Weber: I think there’s a sort of realization that my faith has matured, and there’s this continued reflection of what my religion means to me. This book is that outcome of my reflection, my stance in my affirmation in my religion. This is to me like a second confirmation. 

A Word with Weber
You can catch Matt Weber’s segments on CatholicTV Network’s magazine show “ClearVoice.” Television-news veterans John Monahan and Christine Caswell host new shows Thursday nights at 8 p.m. with rebroadcasts Friday at 11 a.m., Saturday at 7 a.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m., Monday at 8:30 a.m. and Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. (all times EST). Weber’s segments air toward the end of the show each week. You can also see clips of Weber’s segments by visiting http://www.catholictv.com/AWWW.aspx.

OSV: Any thoughts on how you might feel about your faith years from now? 

Weber: I’m assuming it will be stronger and more complicated and even richer and more fruitful because the more I reflect and the more I get to know myself through my religion, the better it is to me to be living a good life. I’m open to being transformed by my faith throughout my life. But I’ll bet if you’d ask me to write this same book when I’m 40, it might be with similar stories with humorous outlooks. 

OSV: Humor is important to you? 

Weber: I like making people laugh. It’s part of me and my faith is part of me. So why don’t I just marry the two? 

OSV: What would you say now to that little boy who was you, who was afraid of being given the stigmata? 

Weber: I would jokingly sing to him, “Be not afraid.” I would also tell him to trust in God and all will be well. I would tell him that I didn’t know that this experience with God would provide me with so much joy and so much fun. Don’t you think fun is a wonderful thing? For me, it has been a blast.  

I would tell that boy, “You have a lot of laughter coming your way, my little friend, and it’s because of your faith and because of religion, not from going to Chuck E. Cheese and funny movies.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.