An interview with Michael D. O’Brien, published in the April 3, 2005, issue of Glas Koncila, the national weekly Catholic newspaper of Croatia.
Question: This is your second visit to Croatia. What has brought you to our land?
O’Brien: I came to Croatia for the first time in 2003, at the invitation of my Croatian publisher, Verbum in Split, and the association of Catholic lay apostolates, MI, who co-sponsored the trip. I fell totally in love with your country and its people, and for that reason when Verbum suggested I make a return journey I was very eager to do so.
Q: What is it about our country that impresses you most?
O’Brien: As an artist and a writer, of course I was moved by the great beauty of your land, the mountains, the sea, the variety of landscapes and communities, the high level of culture. But what impresses me most profoundly is the character of your people.
Q: Are not people the same everywhere?
O’Brien: Yes, in the sense of our basic humanity. Yet each race and nation incarnates a particular genius in its character. The faith, intelligence, and extraordinary vitality of Croatians have always struck me as unique, both here and in my homeland. You have survived the extremely devastating events of the 20th century, an assault upon your identity as Croatians and as Roman Catholics. Moreover, you have survived those incredible sufferings with a healthy Church, a creative culture, and an openness to life which few countries that suffered under totalitarianism have yet to recover.
Q: What do you as a Canadian author hope to say to Croatia during your speaking engagements here?
O’Brien: Though I usually have a lot to say about faith and culture, truly I feel that I have very little to say that you do not already know. Indeed, I come to you as a man who desires to learn from you. There is much that can be learned when two distinct experiential visions meet and compare notes. I like to use the metaphor of the eyes. A person with one eye and a person with two eyes can describe the same reality word for word. But a one-eyed man does not have the invisible dimension of depth perception. The two-eyed man sees deeper. Together we form a complete set of eyes.
Q: Canada and Croatia, you mean?
O’Brien: I am speaking in broad terms. I mean more precisely that when individuals of widely differing cultural backgrounds come together, yet are grounded in the same universal vision of the value of human life, something extraordinary happens. I am convinced that it is extremely important that such meetings occur in our times, because the new global culture which is sweeping the world into its net is a limited wordview.
Q: Limited philosophically?
O’Brien: Tragically stunted in its philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and its cosmology. It is perhaps the most powerful and wealthy force we have ever seen in history, and it must be examined according to its fruits. What are its fruits? An increase in material prosperity at the cost of homogenized world-culture that works relentlessly to sweep aside the moral conscience of nations in the name of a theoretical “peace.” These are ominous signs. Whatever reduces the meaning of the human person to a cell in a collective, regardless of the form it takes, a Marxist, a fascist, a globalist, or even a capitalist form, it is in essence Materialism. And materialism in the long run does great damage to individuals and to peoples. The new Europe, for example, while it has reduced some tensions geopolitically and economically, has narrowed the spectrum of the diverse expressions and cultural richness that is a sign of a healthy community. It is also violating moral conscience in many previously Catholic nations.
Q: Even so, the new European Union seems to value culture, and speaks a great deal about it. So does the United Nations Organization, does it not?
O’Brien: Rhetoric about freedom always increases as the real thing declines. It is the same with rhetoric about culture (at least it is so on my continent of North America). A certain amount of State-funded culture can be a help to the arts of a nation, but if culture only arises from economic-political sources, gradually genuine artists are more and more pushed to the sidelines, and only those artists with political connections or who share the dominant social philosophy will be given assistance. That is the case in my part of the world. Christian culture, for example, has been almost entirely banished from the public sphere of my nation. What I have observed as a writer and painter over thirty years is that, as in the case of freedom, rhetoric about culture increases as the real thing declines. I am not referring to the numbers of cultural events but rather to the quality of cultural expressions, which arise from the deep waters of a people’s life, through its artists and thinkers. The new globalist culture may increase the quantity yet it is narrowing the spectrum of human thought and expression. It is like a river that is a mile wide and an inch deep.
Q: Your books have been published in the Croatian language and have become bestsellers here. What do you think is the reason they are so popular?
O’Brien: I’m not entirely sure. Strangely, though my novels have become best sellers in the English-speaking world, the one country where they are basically ignored is my native land. More copies of Fr. Elijah for example, have sold in Croatia than in Canada. The same is true for the Czech translation. When I first met my Croatian friends, I was surprised by the sense that I had always known them—known them in the heart of the soul. I found that the spiritual communion with them was far more than theoretical; it was tangible. Perhaps they instinctively find in the stories I write an embodiment of their own story as a people. Beneath the surface details it is the essential human story—man’s dilemma, man’s search for God, the human person’s absolute value in a world that at every turn tends to reduce that value. The question of radical suffering, the question of good and evil, human greatness, human folly. Love, birth, death, humour, sacrifice.
Q: So they are explicitly Catholic stories?
O’Brien: The two novels that have been translated into Croatian are explicitly Catholic. However, among the fictional characters are believers and unbelievers, a full spectrum of personalities. I do not write simplistic morality plays. In striving to write truth, I try to present the operations of grace working in human nature, even very fallen human nature at times. I suppose you could say that ultimately all my books are about the mysterious operations of divine providence.
Q: How many novels have you written?
O’Brien: Seven have been written, six published in English. My most recent, Sophia House, will be in print in the English-speaking world by the end of March. The next is The Father’s Tale, which is a modern retelling of the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Shepherd combined. God-willing, it will be published next year.
Q: And after that?
O’Brien: I am glad you asked, because after that comes a work that has been closest to my heart for the past few years. It is a novel which I call The Poet and it is set in Croatia. The story begins in the 1930’s with the birth of a boy (the central character) and follows his life to the present day. In essence it is about the call of the gifted creative person to be a kind of witness to his own people, and for them also. Considering the trials through which your country has gone during the past century, in fact its entire history, such a person is a crucially important sign of hope about all that is best in human nature. He must be, therefore, a “sign of contradiction” against sociopolitical forces that would negate the whole truth about man.
[Editor's note: This novel has since been retitled as The Island of the World, the English language edition to be published by Ignatius Press in autumn, 2007, and the Croatian language edition to be published by Treci Dan publications, Zagreb, in late 2007 or early 2008.]
Q: How long will you be in Croatia, and where will you be traveling?
O’Brien: I will be here for twelve days, mostly in Split, Dubrovnik, Zadar, and finally a brief speaking engagement in Istria before returning home. I do not say it superficially when I say that I will bring Croatia home in my heart. What, essentially, is “home”? It is the place where one is loved and can love and grow to the fullness of his humanity. Where one is known for who he is. I do not mean by this a public persona or reputation, but instead the uniqueness of each person as a kind of miracle of being who should be treated with reverence. I find myself now to be a man who is no longer at home in his homeland.
Q: What do you mean?
O'Brien: Within a single generation my land has become a moral desolation. We are in the midst of an imposed social revolution, where widespread abortion, euthanasia, “same-sex marriage”, and a growing list of other moral disasters have been imposed by the state. Significant among these is a new “hate crime” law which makes it punishable to speak against homosexuality, and this law makes no distinction between a homosexual person and homosexual acts. Catholics of course must always respect the dignity of the homosexual person while retaining the freedom to speak about the destructive nature of the acts. That distinction has been erased in Canadian law, and our Church is now in great danger of losing its religious freedoms. Many legal suits have been harassing Christians with huge fines and coercing of conscience. The new law makes the situation even worse, for now it has become criminal law, which means prison sentences.
Q: Yet Canada is a democracy.
O’Brien: Like many formerly Christian nations, it is a democracy in a stage of swift degeneration. This has come about as a direct result of the loss of faith, the widespread rejection of the moral order of the universe. The democratic process has been used by a ruling secularist oligarchy to impose a social revolution by violating basic parliamentary procedures, backed up by an immoral commercial media, and the propaganda of state-funded media organs. We call such public media the Ministry of Disinformation. As Aristotle once pointed out in his classic work Politics, democracies degenerate into oligarchies, and oligarchies into tyrannies. Croatia is presently at a dynamic point of change and growth, rebuilding democracy after generations of hard lessons—lessons that we in many Western nations have yet to learn. I pray that you will preserve what you have learned, and that you will not be deceived (as we are being deceived) by the totalitarian beast that has merely substituted a new and pleasing mask for its old ugly mask.
Q: Do you have a final word for us?
O’Brien: I beg you, do not become like us. Observe carefully what happens to the interior life of a people that trades away its spiritual heritage for prosperity and security. Croatia has been the bulwark of Europe in the past. Remain the spiritual bulwark of Europe in these times. Be who you are. Who you are is unique and of inestimable value, not only for the strengthening of Western Christianity, but for the preservation of civilization itself. You are a “sign of contradiction” and thus you are a sign of great hope.
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translated by Ljiljana Jurinovic, Split