On February 11, surrounded by tidy stacks of crisp books, Fr. Damian Ference sat, pen in hand, prepared to autograph books. Just far enough removed from the buzz of the Boston, the Pauline Books & Media store in Dedham was full of its regular Saturday morning customers and cheerful religious sisters. On break from his doctoral studies in Rome, the Cleveland priest Fr. Ference had come to share his new book with friends and visitors. As the morning sunlight filtered through the storefront, the room was filled with soft, intellectual chatter about Fr. Ference’s first book, The Strangeness of Truth: Vibrant Faith in a Dark World.
Released just a few weeks ago by the Daughters of St. Paul publishing house, the book “is a representation of Orthodox Christianity in an unorthodox way,” according to the author. Selling out almost immediately, the book is filled with comical and heartfelt narrative as well as dogma and doctrines explained in new manners, aiming to reach lapsed, confused, or hurting Catholics. Amidst stacks of paperbacks, Fr. Ference explained, “I'm giving the truths of Catholic Christianity, but presenting it in a way that maybe it hasn't been heard before. I'm writing not so much for the devout Catholic, but for the friend or family member of the devout Catholic who may not be so devout anymore.”
The Strangeness of Truth aims to fit into the narrative of the New Evangelization, a term coined by Pope St. John Paul II to describe the efforts to reach not people who have never heard the Good News, but those who have fallen away. Fr. Ference continued, “There's a lot of people that fit [this] category. Friends, family members, former parishioners, former kids from my youth group who at one time were on fire with the faith and then went to college or lived life––then had a hard time figuring out how faith and how their own life go together. Maybe they didn't have a guide, or maybe they just didn't know what to do with their own suffering. Whatever it was, there was something there that was missed. So I'm trying to bring those people back into conversation with a priest with the Church.”
Each chapter addresses and discusses a piece of the faith, such as the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the human person, “sandwiching” teaching between his anecdotes. The narrative, sometimes comedic and sometimes touching, captures the attention of a young and curious audience.
Fr. Ference remarked, “In the first chapter, I talk about my brother stepping in dog poop while doing chores…because I left it there for him as we were always in competition with each other. On the very next page, I try to show that God, within His inner life of the Trinity, is not in competition with Themselves, and therefore is not in competition with us. I think it is some strange way of presenting the faith, but I think it'll work–– definitely for millennials and iGen.”
By sharing authentic and real stories of how his mother battled cancer for 15 years and died the year before his ordination or how his dad was legally blind, Fr. Ference aims to build trust with the reader and “show, not tell” the beauty of Catholicism. Fr. Ference explained on CatholicTV’s live show, This is the Day, that some of his seminarian friends encouraged him, along with the support of the Daughters of St. Paul, to include his homily for his father’s funeral in the appendix as a witness to authentic modern discipleship, in living and dying.
A consistent passion throughout Fr. Ference’s life has been music, from when he wrote his “first book” in fifth grade about Bruce Springsteen to today, as he writes for Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire site about finding beauty in secular music. The way to evangelize effectively in our modern society, he believes, is to connect faith and culture. Bishop Barron stands as a role model for Catholics in this regard, and Fr. Ference recalls that the first article he read of Bishop Barron’s fascinated him as a seminarian. He recalled “The priest's job was to bring God's mystery to the people, but also cause love. In that article, he cited Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Flannery O'Connor, and Bob Dylan.”
Thus, when Fr. Ference started writing for Word On Fire, he not only wrote about vocations and priesthood, but also on film and music, trying to “tease out philosophical and theological meaning within what people like about the culture.” He maintains that by working to find the interaction between faith and culture, Catholics can reach people who would otherwise be overlooked or untouched by evangelization. However, as Fr. Ference pointed out, “Sometimes as Catholics, you have to call out things in the culture that aren’t good. But it seems to me that if you're going to do that, the initial way in is always with a ‘yes,’ not ‘no.’ But the first step is always a ‘yes,’ because God's first step to us was a ‘yes.’ It was sending His only Son in.”
The book’s title comes from the Flannery O’Connor quote, “It is the business of the artist to uncover the strangeness of truth,” and the subtitle was encouraged by the Daughters of St. Paul as a statement on vibrant faith amidst the darkness the Church currently faces. The cover was designed by Ryan McQuade, a graphic designer at Lifeteen, to convey the concept of a dark world, with the faces of Mary and Jesus offering light, and the reader in the middle, searching. Designed to mimic the cover of an older science fiction novel, the design is made to look distressed–– which has caused some comical conversation for Fr. Ference, such as when a reader commented on how beat up his copy was, or when a customer requested a new, not used, book. This book, it is meant to pique interest on a subway or in a coffee shop, drawing in an audience that is thirsting for the truth presented within the pages. Fr. Ference comments that the book looks worn, just like our worn Church that has bravely prevailed through 2,000 years. Despite struggle, suffering, and human imperfection, the Holy Spirit has sustained it through Truth and Beauty, a strange truth that continues to offer hope in a dark world and a light to the future.