Easter reminds us that the Church begins with witness: lives changed by an encounter with the Risen Lord; men and women who then transform others by the power of their testimony and the authority of their example.
The Gospels are remarkably candid about the difficulty the first Christian witnesses had in grasping just what they had experienced. In John’s gospel, Mary confuses the Risen One with a gardener. In Luke’s resurrection account, two disciples walk a considerable distance on the Emmaus Road without recognizing their risen and glorified companion. In the Johannine epilogue, seven apostles on the Sea of Tiberias take a while to grasp that it’s the Risen Lord who’s cooking breakfast on the seashore.
This candor about initial incomprehension bears its own witness to the historicity of the Resurrection. For what happened on the first Easter Sunday was so completely unprecedented, and yet so completely real, that it exploded the expectations of pious Jews about history, the Messiah, and the fulfillment of God’s promises, even as it transformed hitherto timid followers of the Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth into zealous evangelists who set off from the edges of the Roman Empire to convert, over the next 250 years, perhaps half the Mediterranean world.
The witness of radically converted lives has been the lifeblood of Christianity ever since, for at the bottom of the bottom line of Christian faith is the encounter with a person, the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Christianity is also about creed, doctrine, morals, worship, and all the rest — but it is fundamentally about friendship with Jesus Christ and the transformation that engenders, and when it ceases to be that, it becomes the lifeless husk we see in too much of Western Europe. Where Christianity lives today, against all cultural odds, it’s because of witnesses like those initially confused souls in Judea and Galilee whose conversion began with life-shattering and life-changing encounters with the Risen One.
Which brings me, as Easter dawns, to my favorite Finno-American priest, Father Arne Panula.
A 1967 graduate of Harvard College, young Arne Panula took a doctorate in theology at the University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain, and was ordained a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei. After a distinguished career as an elementary-school, high-school, and college chaplain, and service to his religious community, Father Arne Panula was named the Director of the Catholic Information Center (CIC) in Washington, D.C., in 2007 — an oasis of the spirit located right in the belly of the beast (or, if you prefer, smack-dab in the depths of the swamp): on K Street between 15th and 16th Streets, surrounded by lobbyists, lawyers, and campaign consultants. And over the next ten years, Father Arne, as he is known to one and all, became a singularly winsome and effective witness to Christ and an exceptionally dynamic builder of Christian community.
I tell no secrets when I say that his many friends and admirers, a “great cloud of witnesses” among whom I am honored to be numbered, expected Father Arne to be celebrating this Easter from a different station in the communion of saints. A long, heroic, and uncomplaining battle with cancer seemed to be heading in the wrong direction just a few months ago, and we all imagined that, as we watched the Easter fire being lit and were blessed with Easter water, Father Arne would be keeping an eye on us from the Throne of Grace.
But good medical care and his own resolve to keep bearing witness as long as possible beat the lugubrious oddsmakers of February, such that Father Arne, who officially became director emeritus of the CIC on March 31, is still among us. For how much longer, neither we nor he can know. But he long ago put himself into the hands of the Risen Lord, and those who love him and share his Easter faith are confident that, when his time comes, it will be less a matter of losing a friend than of gaining an intercessor.
There has been a lot of talk about a “Benedict Option” recently, and while no one seems to know precisely what that might mean, the Ben-Op, at least as advertised, does suggest a certain withdrawal from public life for the sake of forming intentional communities of character. Yet as I proposed in my 2017 William E. Simon Lecture, any notion that Saint Benedict opted out of the life and culture of his times is mistaken. Benedictine monasteries were crucial in preserving the cultural memory of the West during the so-called Dark Ages, and over time they became centers of learning and scholarship, prayer, and work that were instrumental in building the civilization of the High Middle Ages. Thus it seems to me that the better historical image for what we need today is a “Gregorian Option”: building or strengthening intentional communities of character as launchpads for witness, mission, and evangelization — just as Pope Saint Gregory the Great sent the man we now know as Saint Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize heathen England, and did so from the Benedictine monastery Gregory had founded in Rome.
Those who celebrate Easter in the nation’s capital this year may wish, however, to dub this alternative the “Panula Option.” For in addition to directing an exceptional Catholic bookstore and chapel where Mass, confession, and spiritual direction are available (and popular), Father Arne Panula launched a “Leonine Forum” program four years ago at CIC. It gives several dozen up-and-coming young Washingtonians an intense introduction to Catholic social doctrine and an experience of Christian fellowship and service before sending them out to be Easter witnesses — in the White House, on the Hill, in top-drawer law firms, and in the rest of often smugly secular Washington. This year’s class includes 38 “Leonine Fellows” selected from more than 140 applicants — a sure sign the word is spreading that this program, named in honor of Pope Leo XIII, founding father of modern Catholic social doctrine, is Something Special.
And it’s all because of Father Arne Panula and the fine staff he built at CIC over the past decade. During that time, Father Arne became, for many, the embodiment of what Saint John Paul II called the “New Evangelization” in the nation’s capital. He could do that because, like the witnesses the Church will read about during Easter Week, he had met the Risen Lord. And that made all the difference.
George Weigel is the Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.