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Catholic world was full of magic too


So … er … when does the movie come out?

I was trying to sound diffident. Forty’s an age at which one reads brittle novels about European decadence, and not J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories. I’d read all four of the Harry Potters though, immersing myself so thoroughly that I sometimes dreamed I was whizzing around on a broom making Quidditch goals.

“You’ve got months yet,” my friend assured me, seeing right through my nonchalance. “Then you’ll have to get past the demonstrators.”

For a minute I thought he was talking about the Dementors, evil creatures in book three who conjure up your darkest fear. Surely he didn’t believe -- “The who?”

“The demonstrators,” he repeated, irritated by my naiveté. “Every born-again Christian’s gonna be picketing that movie as godless satanic witchcraft. Don’t you read the newspaper?”

I’d been reading Harry Potter instead. We said goodbye, and later I did remember hearing a bit of flap about protests. That had been long before I discovered the books for myself and assumed, like anyone who falls in love, that they must be brand-new to everyone. “Falls in love” is a bit strong, but I was certainly charmed by those books. Enchanted. Pulled headlong into Harry’s world and glad of it.

What I’d never tell the picketers is that part of the pull was the uncanny resemblance between Hogwarts, the academy for young witches and wizards, and my own Catholic high school.

We wore dark blue jumpers with dropped-waist pleats; they wear regulation-issue dark robes. We faced the crisp Irish tongue of Sr. Reparata; they face the crisp Scottish tongue of Prof. McGonagall (to be played by Maggie Smith). We lingered near the convent cloister, fascinated by the mysteries of our dedicated teachers’ private devotions and ablutions; Harry wanders near his headmaster’s office in much the same mood. We watched bitterness grow in the heart of a nun who’d chosen the wrong vocation; he marks the festering envy of discontented Snapes, their potions teacher. We gathered round the rebellious young physical education teacher who took the rules too casually; they befriend earnest bumbling Hagrid the uncredentialed gamekeeper.

And just as Harry and his friends must mutter secret passwords to move freely through their castlelike academy, we learned the phrases that would grant us absolution -- “Praise be to the Incarnate Word. Good morning, Sr. Reparata”; or, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” Laced with prayer and ritual, our world felt every bit as magical as Hogwarts. Virtue was our wand, Catholicism the secret knowledge that let us proceed unimpeded through a frightening world. There were ways to seek what you wanted, signs to watch for, acts to perform in a certain order at a certain time with certain symbolic objects. There was a liturgical calendar full of mysterious feasts and celebrations, and our days unfolded to its rhythm, took on its colors and significances.

How I pitied the mundane secular world of the public school kids; it seemed so flat, devoid of mystery or specialness. Harry calls people who live in the mundane world “muggles,” and the clumsiness of the word reminds me how superior I, too, felt our world to be. We knew there was a higher purpose, a glorious story behind the world, a deep meaning to each of our lives. Our faith gave us magical powers indeed: to redeem sin; to triumph over suffering; to free ourselves and move beyond the immediate physical reality that constrains our bodies. We could communicate with souls and spirits, and God Himself. We could survive death itself.

Such analogies would no doubt infuriate the protesters, who fear their children will be tempted toward Satan by ungodly charms and potions. But compared to what we learned from our nuns, Harry’s powers of transformation seem tame indeed.

Maybe the world is just hungry for magic again.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is Jeannette.batz@rfstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2001