Editor’s note: Robert Herguth, a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, is author of the new book “Genuflections: Famous Folks Talk About Growing Up Catholic” (Eckhartz Press, $15.95.) The book includes the faith experiences of dozens of actors, athletes, musicians, politicians and others — from Chicago and around the country. The book is available at www.EckhartzPress.com, Amazon and soon will be available at select bookstores. Included below are Herguth’s interviews with U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and human-rights activist Bianca Jagger.
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan was raised in Wisconsin in “a very typical Catholic family,” with Mass on Sunday, eight years of parochial school and parish priests who were often at the dinner table.
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, attended St. Mary’s School in Janesville, Wisconsin, from first grade to eighth grade, and said of the experience, “I enjoyed it very much.”
The Catholicism of his youth — in the 1970s and 1980s — was somewhat “rote,” marked by rules. But he said he nonetheless liked being part of the faith, in school and beyond.
“You bond [with fellow students] because the classes aren’t very big,” Ryan said, describing his Catholic school upbringing as “warm and inclusive” and “comfortable” and “family” oriented.
He was an altar boy, which allowed him to “learn so much more about the Mass because you have to pay attention.”
Did he ever contemplate the priesthood?
“I didn’t, my brother did more than I did,” Ryan said. “They always put the hard sell to go to seminary [for high school] back then,” but it was all-boys and a fair distance away in Madison, Wisconsin.
Besides, Ryan wanted to focus more on athletics, so he went to the local public high school. He played basketball on a Catholic Youth Organization, or CYO, team.
There were four kids in the Ryan family, and they “had a lot of priests who were family friends” who’d come over for dinner and the like.
The priests of his youth were “affable.”
Ryan confessed that he was not always “real popular” with the nuns because he could be a “goof ball and a talker.”
Once, a nun gave him a crack “with the business end” of a pointer during class. The pointer — a stick used by teachers to point to lessons on the blackboard and the like – “opened up my hand,” Ryan recalled.
The normalcy Ryan said he felt as a kid was uprooted when his father died unexpectedly, of a heart attack, when Ryan was a teen in high school.
The experience shook Ryan deeply, leading him to question his belief system.
“I’d say when my dad died I questioned everything,” he said, including why God would allow such a thing to happen. “That was what was basically running through my mind.”
While he “drifted away in college,” he came “full circle after that through friends, reading and a lot of introspection,” Ryan said.
Reading C.S. Lewis — the late Christian writer and thinker — “had a profound impact on me,” Ryan said. So did the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century cleric considered one of the Church’s greatest theologians and philosophers.
Ryan said over time he became “a more cerebral Catholic, a more committed Catholic . . . a reborn Catholic” as he “put my mind to it, my heart.”
He describes himself as “a lifelong Catholic, I just had more of a resurgence in adulthood.”
Today, Ryan describes the faith tradition as “enriching,” pointing to the Church’s social teachings about, among other things, caring for the poor, as well as its emphasis on family.
“I love the Church, it’s a big part of my life,” Ryan said.
One thing he still marvels at: “You go to Mass all around the world and it’s roughly the same system . . . and that’s comforting.”
The Mass, the service during which Catholics believe bread and wine are turned into the body and blood of Christ, “is something that’s very special . . . it just brings you a feeling of comfort.”
Ryan said he attends Mass weekly and sends his kids to Catholic school.
“I think Catholic education is very important, that’s why we have our kids in Catholic schools . . . teaching morals, values and natural law. Giving that foundation at an early age is invaluable, immeasurable.
“I am convinced . . . that a Catholic education is central to a good upbringing, to raise kids in a moral way. To teach them right and wrong, that there are moral absolutes.”
Catholic school provided “a big foundation for my current worldview and philosophy,” he said.
Bianca Jagger grew up in Nicaragua when the Latin Mass was universal — something she wishes was still the case.
Pope Francis once described the Church’s decades-old decision to end Latin as the universal language at Mass as “really a courageous move . . . to get closer to the people of God.”
But Bianca Jagger — who’s been a human rights campaigner, an actress and a “style icon” — sees Latin Mass from a different vantage.
“When Pope Paul the VI and the Second Vatican Council introduced the service in the vernacular in 1964, the Latin Mass was almost eliminated — so we lost a Mass in a common and universal language and a solemn high tradition of the Catholic Church,” Jagger said.
“I disagree with those who think that Latin Mass is elitist. We used to be able to go anywhere in the world, even where we didn’t speak the language, and the Mass would be familiar. So I continue to support the idea that we should revive the Latin Mass all over the world.”
Jagger touched on this subject in a 1983 magazine article in which she and Andy Warhol, the late artist, veered off topic while interviewing the musician Sting about a new film The Police front man was starring in:
“I prefer Mass in Latin to English,” Jagger said.
“I do, too,” Warhol offered.
Sting chimed in, “Me, too, the mystery in it.”
Jagger said she was “born into a traditional Catholic family and had a Catholic upbringing,” attending convent school for her primary and secondary years in her native Nicaragua, “until I finished my baccalaureate and left . . . to study political science in Paris.
“My mother and father were the first to teach me about my Catholic faith,” Jagger said. “Later the nuns at the convent school, La Imaculada, played a critical role.”
Asked about the Church of Latin America compared to the Church in America and Europe, Jagger said, “Catholicism in Nicaragua while I was growing up was more conservative.
“The nuns considered dancing a sin, and girls were expected to dress modestly. There was a stigma about divorce. It was a stricter version of Catholicism than in Europe or North America.”
Jagger ended up marrying and divorcing rock ’n’ roller Mick Jagger, and a newspaper recently observed that the “public image of Bianca Jagger is of the beautiful woman who hung out at Studio 54 with Andy Warhol and Truman Capote and flew around the world” with The Rolling Stones.
But Bianca Jagger has long been active in social justice causes — and today she runs a foundation that bears her name and, according to its website, “is dedicated to defending human rights, ending violence against women and girls, addressing the threat of climate change, supporting the rights of indigenous peoples and defending the rights of future generations.”
Asked whether the faith of her youth helped seed her activism, she said, “Jesus Christ’s teachings have been an inspiration to me all my life, as well as the mystics St. Augustine and St. Teresa of Avila.”
St. Augustine, a theologian and philosopher, lived in the 4th and 5th centuries, and his writings helped shape the modern Church — and Western thought.
Biographer Peter Brown describes Augustine’s book “Confessions” as “a manifesto of the inner world.”
Augustine wrote, “Men go to gape at mountain peaks, at the boundless tides of the sea, the broad sweep of rivers, the encircling ocean and the motions of the stars: and yet they leave themselves unnoticed; they do not marvel at themselves.”
St. Teresa, a Spanish nun who lived more than a thousand years after Augustine, was a simple but powerful voice on prayer and piety during the Reformation era. She reportedly experienced visions, once writing, “One night there came upon me a spiritual impulse of such vehemence that I had no strength to resist it. I thought I was being carried up to heaven. There, the first persons I saw were my father and mother. And such amazing things happened in so short a time — no longer than it would take to say a Hail Mary — that I was swept utterly out of myself and felt this favour was indeed too great to be endured.”
Asked how her faith changed or evolved since childhood, Bianca Jagger said, “I’m a great believer that ‘once a Catholic always a Catholic,’ as the saying goes. It certainly applies to me. Catholic religious teachings have always remained with me; my faith has withstood many tests throughout my life.”