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FSYALit: Catholicism in YA, a guest post by Katie Behrens

Today as part of our Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit Project, guest Katie Behrens is discussing Catholicism in YA literature.

When I was confirmed in the Catholic Church at the age of 16, I really meant it. I knew there was a lot about the faith that I didn’t know and maybe some stuff I didn’t understand, but I knew the Church was important to me. I was your typical, book-loving public school kid, but I also felt a great longing for life to be bigger than it seemed. The Catholic Church, filled with beauty and mystery and 2,000 years of theology, was where I found myself.

Unless you know Catholics who take their faith seriously, you could easily assume that it’s a dying religion of a bygone era. That’s the stereotype I get from the media, at least. Fictional Catholic characters usually “go through the motions” of religious practice out of obligation, rather than personal conviction. My experience is the opposite. In college, I met hundreds of people my age who were full of life and joy because of their Catholic faith. They might be a minority, but believe me, Catholic teens definitely exist.

For a religion that unites an estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide, Catholicism can be very misunderstood. Catholics ARE Christians. We do read the Bible, but we also look to tradition and the great writings of the past for guidance. However, many baptized-and-confirmed Catholics don’t know what the Church really teaches or why. In the U.S. at least, the past several generations have received poor instruction about the Church’s teachings and mission. We all acknowledge it – if you attended CCD between 1970 and 2000, you probably didn’t get the full picture.  Even worse is the painful and horrible reality of the priest abuse scandals brought to light in the past 20 years. It caused great hurt within the Church, and cast doubt on the clergy.

All of these factors contribute to a pretty pitiful representation in YA lit. Priests and religious (monks and nuns) are all too often used as a stand-in for ultimate and crushing authority in the lives of teens. Catholicism is seen only in its “rules” and not as a diverse and complex body of believers. It’s especially obvious in stories set in a Catholic school, like The Chocolate War. The primary Church representative, Brother Leon, manipulates the schoolboys against each other for his own gain. A power-hungry, corrupt priest is a stereotype, no question. Is there corruption in the priesthood? Unfortunately yes – they’re humans just like us. But that seems to be the only role they play in stories (I’m looking at you, Dan Brown), and it’s become a tired trope.

Catholicism for teen protagonists isn’t so much a stereotype as it is a flat, empty character trait. Maybe they say their family is Catholic, and then a sentence or two dismisses its importance to the story. Is that the fault of the author? Not necessarily. The world is filled with devout Catholics and cultural Catholics and “cafeteria” Catholics (so-called because they pick and choose what they believe). A character who says she’s Catholic can fall anywhere on that spectrum. We all want characters that present faith in a positive light, no matter what we believe, but the reality is that lived faith is messy.

I want to focus on three books that positively resonated with my experience as a Catholic. The first is Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel Boxers & Saints. The corresponding stories of Little Bao and Vibiana are centered on the Boxer Revolution in China at the turn of the 20th century. Faith is shown to be real, something for which people choose to die. In Saints, Vibiana sort of falls into Christianity and eventually embraces it in the face of death. St. Joan of Arc appears to her and inspires her, even when it would be easier to renounce it all. We also see characters who bully in the name of Christ, a priest who makes difficult decisions in serving his congregation, and the stark reality of martyrdom. Yang, a Chinese American Catholic, beautifully weaves these stories of faith and identity together with humor and grace.

My second recommendation is The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork. There’s so much wonderful and deeply honest discussion of faith between different characters, but I think there’s a particularly Catholic flavor to it. Daniel Quentin (D.Q.) is dying when he meets Pancho Sanchez, but he’s resolved to suck the marrow out of what remains of his life. The priest in charge of the orphanage, Father Concha, is a non-sentimental man who greatly cares for the children (not a stereotype!). Pancho was raised Catholic, and when pushed on the topic, he says, “Faith’s what makes you pray. It’s why people say the Rosary and light candles to Jesus and Mary and all those saints. It’s what you go to church for. It’s why you’re good when you want to be bad. It’s what you think is gonna happen to you after you die.” He doesn’t have to say much more about what he thinks of religion, because his actions through the rest of the novel make it clear what Pancho believes. There’s a great exchange between D.Q. and Pancho later in the story that goes like this:

Pancho: “You gotta believe.”

D.Q.: “I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Pancho: “What’s that?”

D.Q.: “Nothing. Something I remembered.”

That “something” is from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 9, where a father asks Jesus to heal his epileptic son. It’s an emotional moment where humanity meets divinity. The fact that Stork can sneak scripture into character conversation definitely earns my respect.

My third pick is a recent read for me: The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab. For most of Caro’s life, her older sister Hannah has been gone at a convent, but Hannah returns one day and won’t explain why. Caro has to get used to Hannah in her life again, all the while balancing friends, school, boys, and whatever she does or doesn’t believe about religion. Jarzab does an amazing job showing the complexities of faith, especially what happens when it’s used to shut the world out. The priest with whom Caro forms a friendship speaks eloquently and accurately about Catholicism – and he loves science (that’s right! We do!). Caro herself wrestles with the big questions and comes to a place of peace amidst her confusion. It’s not a perfect novel – sometimes scenes are forced, and I highly doubt that Hannah’s religious order would have allowed her to stay as long as she did when she was obviously unhappy. It’s still one of the best representations of real Catholic faith I’ve seen in realistic YA fiction.

Other great Catholic characters and themes can be found in more classic works. For the teen that likes reading older stuff, you only have to point them to Flannery O’Connor, G.K. Chesterton (especially The Ball and the Cross and The Man Who Was Thursday), C.S. Lewis’ work for grown-ups (The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and his Space Trilogy), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, famously said that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”

Did you notice the racial diversity in the three selections?  It was unplanned on my part, but it speaks to the inherent diversity within the Catholic Church. All across the globe, people are united by the same beliefs and love for God (the word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal’). As we call for greater ethnic diversity in YA lit, we should also expect more stories of authentic faith.

Meet Our Guest Blogger

Katie Behrens is a 2013 graduate from UW-Madison’s School of Library and Information Studies. She’s currently obsessed with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast, and her first reread of The Lord of the Rings. Katie is a project manager for The Library as Incubator Project and occasionally blogs at thirstydaughter.wordpress.com.

About the Books Discussed:

Boxers and Saints by Gene Yuen Lang

One of the greatest comics storytellers alive brings all his formidable talents to bear in this astonishing new work.

In two volumes, Boxers & Saints tells two parallel stories. The first is of Little Bao, a Chinese peasant boy whose village is abused and plundered by Westerners claiming the role of missionaries. Little Bao, inspired by visions of the Chinese gods, joins a violent uprising against the Western interlopers. Against all odds, their grass-roots rebellion is successful.

But in the second volume, Yang lays out the opposite side of the conflict. A girl whose village has no place for her is taken in by Christian missionaries and finds, for the first time, a home with them. As the Boxer Rebellion gains momentum, Vibiana must decide whether to abandon her Christian friends or to commit herself fully to Christianity.

Boxers & Saints is one of the most ambitious graphic novels First Second has ever published. It offers a penetrating insight into not only one of the most controversial episodes of modern Chinese history, but into the very core of our human nature. Gene Luen Yang is rightly called a master of the comics form, and this book will cement that reputation.

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork

Two young men — one dying of cancer, one planning a murder — explore the true meanings of death and life in the tense and passionate new novel from the author of MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD.

When Pancho arrives at St. Anthony’s Home, he knows his time there will be short: If his plans succeed, he’ll soon be arrested for the murder of his sister’s killer. But then he’s assigned to help D.Q., whose brain cancer has slowed neither his spirit nor his mouth. D.Q. tells Pancho all about his “Death Warrior’s Manifesto,” which will help him to live out his last days fully–ideally, he says, with the love of the beautiful Marisol. As Pancho tracks down his sister’s murderer, he finds himself falling under the influence of D.Q. and Marisol, who is everything D.Q. said she would be.

The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab

Caro Mitchell considers herself an only child—and she likes it that way. After all, her much older sister, Hannah, left home eight years ago, and Caro barely remembers her. So when Caro’s parents drop the bombshell news that Hannah is returning to live with them, Caro feels as if an interloper is crashing her family. To her, Hannah’s a total stranger, someone who haunts their home with her meek and withdrawn presence, and who refuses to talk about her life and why she went away. Caro can’t understand why her parents cut her sister so much slack, and why they’re not pushing for answers.

Unable to understand Hannah, Caro resorts to telling lies about her mysterious reappearance. But when those lies alienate Caro’s new boyfriend and put her on the outs with her friends and her parents, she seeks solace from an unexpected source. And when she unearths a clue about Hannah’s past—one that could save Hannah from the dark secret that possesses her. Caro begins to see her sister in a whole new light.

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