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Conference to focus on Catholic authors

Matt Bramanti | Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Catholicism, literature and the American South. Most people wouldn’t immediately connect the three. However, this week, Southern Catholic writers Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy are the subjects of a weeklong series of lectures, sponsored by the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

The series, entitled “A Reason to Write: Two Catholic Novelists,” is modeled after a similar program last year, when the Center celebrated the life and work of Catholic author G.K. Chesterton.

Jennie Bradley, the undergraduate assistant at the center who planned the week, said that she hopes the lectures will bring Catholic literature to the forefront at Notre Dame.

“The idea is to introduce the Notre Dame community – especially the student body – to these writers who are so important in Catholic culture,” she said. “Percy and O’Connor fit together so well because they’re both Southern, Catholic and well respected.”

Ralph Wood, an English professor at Baylor University, kicked off the week Monday evening in DeBartolo Hall by delivering a lecture on the Catholicism of Flannery O’Connor’s work.

“I’m going to tell you why you as Catholics should hang on to your distinct culture,” he said.

Though the subjects of her short stories are generally fundamentalist Protestants, O’Connor believed strongly in the Catholic Church. “I’m not a Catholic the way someone else would be a Baptist or Methodist,” she said. “I’m a Catholic the way someone else would be an atheist.”

She was strongly against the sentimentalism she found in some religious faiths, preferring instead fervent prayer and the study of Scripture and theology.

“The cross is the one tree whose roots are big enough to encircle all the dead and whose branches are big enough to embrace all the living,” she wrote.

In the fall of 1950, while she was finishing her novel “Wise Blood,” O’Connor became ill with lupus, a disorder in which the immune system’s protective cells turn against the body. Lupus would ultimately kill her before the age of 40. Wood noted O’Connor’s letters show that she did not allow the affliction to dominate her character. “What’s remarkable about these letters is the complete lack of self-pity,” he said. “She saw her disease as a nuisance, a harassment that was killing her.”

Wood offered an anecdote that exemplified O’Connor’s direct style of writing. When she was applying to a writer’s workshop, the director of the program couldn’t understand her thick Georgia drawl. O’Connor scribbled these words on a piece of paper: “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am a writer.”

Both writers have connections to Notre Dame. O’Connor spoke at the University in 1962 to what she described as a group of “clergymen and baby-faced seminarians.” Percy won Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal in 1989, the highest award given to American Catholics, for his contributions to Catholic literature.

The week will continue Tuesday through Thursday evenings at 7:30 with further lectures on O’Connor and Percy. A table of both authors’ works is on display in the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore.

Bradley said she would like to see events like these become a literary staple at Notre Dame. “We should try to do a Catholic culture week every year,” she said.