The New York priest and author tells Francis Phillips about his biggest influences, cultural retreat, and Lenten exercises

Fr George Rutler’s new book, which I blogged about last week, is the product of an original mind. So I wanted to ask him: what were his formative influences? “My parents,” he tells me. “That usually is the case or should be in a healthy culture, but mine had a strong experience of two world wars, the Great Depression and various challenges that made them special proofs of the power of virtue.”

Fr Rutler adds that “several clergymen, Anglican and Catholic” had shaped his idea of the priesthood, and that “enjoying academic life in the early 1960s, before the social revolution sent universities into virtual chaos, let me appreciate the ideals of classical culture before they faded.”

Knowing that he had been a priest in Manhattan for many years, I was curious to know what changes he has seen in his pastoral work. He points out, only half joking: “New York City ‘never sleeps’, and the same may be said of the parish. A parish priest could write a good novel about each day in his life; this is true of any parish community anywhere, but especially in the Manhattan metropolis.”

He thinks there are two conspicuous factors to change: “First, the ever-increasing international character of parish life, which was always cosmopolitan but is now more so; secondly, the secularisation of culture has minimalised the practice of faith as a social routine, but at the same time the transition to Catholicism as counter-cultural has created a more lively spiritual earnestness, especially among younger people and converts, despite or in part because of a shrinking demographic.”

What does Fr Rutler think of the “Benedict Option”, proposed by Orthodox writer Rod Dreher and named after St Benedict of Nursia, who retreated from Rome for the solitude of the hills where he founded his first monastic community? Fr Rutler reminds me that it was first proposed by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, and reflects, “There are merits to living as Catholics more conscious of what sets them apart from a materialist and narcissistic culture. But the ‘Benedict Option’ seems inchoate and runs the risk, even though this may not be its intent, of a ghetto mentality. Such would be cultural retreat.”

He adds: “Surely prudence must discern what battles to engage, how and when,” adding that “Christ sends his disciples into the world. Benedict knew that and did not envision his Rule as a universal template for Christian life, but as a compass point to guide Christians on their journey.”

“That”, Fr Rutler suggests, “is why there are friars as well as monks. You might speak of the Dominican Option or the Franciscan Option as well as the Benedict Option, but none of them is adequate alone.” If we are looking for a model of “Christian life in a pagan world”, he says, we should look to the 2nd-century Letter to Diognetus, which says: “As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world.”

In that case, what advice would he give to Catholic parents raising their children in today’s hostile environment? Fr Rutler is clear: “Be the first and best teachers, above all by example. In a culture of indifference, uncertainty and sadness, they can show love, faith and hope; nothing self-conscious but with lots of sacrifice and cheerfulness.”

As his book shows evidence of wide reading, I want to know if there are particular authors he has enjoyed. Father tells me he could “not exhaust such a list”, adding that “there are the ante-Nicene Fathers, Aquinas, Newman, the spiritual writer Scupoli as well as Ratzinger and Ronald Knox.”

Given the ferment both before and after the US Presidential election I ask him which candidate he voted for and why. Father relates that he voted for Donald Trump “while all the time praying for another kind of Lepanto miracle.” He reflects, “I think things will work out much better than many expected. Had Trump lost, we would be entering a nightmare worse than the past eight years.”

Not surprisingly, he adds that he does not now take seriously “any advice from those whose predictions about the election were so wrong. Something similar might be said of the Brexit vote.”

In conclusion and now that we are in the period of Lent, I ask Fr Rutler for some words of pastoral advice. He suggests that “along with an examination of conscience and Confession, spend each day with a different saint, reading a brief biography of each in the Catholic Encyclopaedia or in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints.”