I spent a wonderful afternoon on the front porch with an old friend, a Catholic priest who came to town to say hello. We hadn’t seen each other in 10 years. Both of us have gone through a lot in that time, and it was good to get caught up.

It was so encouraging to hear him talk about how the Catholic Church has started to heal itself from the terrible sickness within it. He said that that bad generation of bishops and priests is passing into history, and the men who are replacing them are a lot more sane and solid — and the young men coming into seminary now are of much stronger stock. It’s going to take a while, he said, and the Church will never be perfect, but things really are looking better. Given that the last time we were in touch with each other, we were both pretty angry and despairing over the state of the Church, this was fantastic to hear. This priest is very far from a happy-clappy padre, so I believe him.

We talked about the things we’d both learned over the last decade about ourselves and the Christian life. We’re both orthodox guys (and I’m big-O Orthodox), but I think it fair to say that we’ve both mellowed somewhat, and come to accept the frailty of others because we’ve had to confront frailty within ourselves. I told him how the experience of my sister’s suffering and death, and now with the publication of her story (and mine), I have come to a different understanding of what draws people to faith, and what sustains them.

“Cardinal Ratzinger once said that the two best arguments the Christian faith has going for it are the art and the saints it has produced,” I said (here’s that essay, which I found later). “The older I get, the more true I find that to be. Arguments are important, but people don’t need arguments as much as they need examples like my sister, and like my Uncle Jimmy.”

I told my priest friend that no argument actually moved me to action as much as the contemplation of the Chartres cathedral did, or as much as the contemplation of Ruthie Leming’s life, and, in the past few days, James Fletcher’s life, has done.

My priest friend said that he observes the joy within people — or the absence of joy — is a pretty good indication of the power of the ideas by which they live. He’s theologically conservative, but said that his experience with some of the militantly joyless people on the more rightward precincts of Catholicism has made him think hard about their approach to the faith, and how it will not endure, because no one wants to be around such grimness. True.

Here, by the way, is the essay from which that Cardinal Ratzinger observation came. Well worth your time. Here’s the key quote:

To admire the icons and the great masterpieces of Christian art in general, leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it. In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth. I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.