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A unique book for a unique subject: Ruth Pakaluk

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 11, 2011 | In Reviews

The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God: that unique title should prepare the reader for a unique experience. The book begins with a short biography of Ruth Pakaluk; continues with dozens of her letters to family, friends, and acquaintance; and concludes with the texts of several of her public talks. It’s an odd combination, but it works, leaving the indelible impression of a powerful personality.

In his opening biographical sketch, my friend Michael Pakaluk mentions in passing that Ruth stood only 5’3” tall. That fact surprised me. Although during our time together I had never taken any special notice of Ruth’s height, my lingering impression was of a taller woman. But my mistake is understandable, I think, because Ruth Pakaluk was a very imposing woman.

The cover of The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God carries some superlative testimonies. Peter Kreeft reports that Ruth Pakaluk was the most effective pro-life speaker he ever heard. Michael Novak describes her as “a marvelous saint for our times.”

It was not her physical stature, obviously, that made Ruth so imposing. It was her intellect, her strength of character, her astonishing dedication and energy. She was the embodiment of the mulier fortis: a young woman full of life, vigor, and purpose.

So it was a shock to all those who knew her when we learned that this woman, who seemed so very much alive, was living under a death sentence, the victim of inoperable cancer. Still, during the months and even years that followed that diagnosis, Ruth did not slacken her pace of activity; if anything, she increased it. Until the last few weeks of her life she continued to deliver pro-life talks, plan rallies, run political campaigns, sing in the parish choir, teach teenagers, organize hikes--all while running a large household on a small budget. Long before she died, all of us who were privileged to know her realized that we were in the presence of someone very special.

In Massachusetts, where advocate of legal abortion dominate public opinion, Ruth Pakaluk infused new energy into the pro-life movement. As a young mother in a movement dominated by old warriors, a convert among cradle Catholics, she brought a fresh perspective and an incisive intellect to the discussion. For a few years she embarrassed her “pro-choice” opponents in debates. Eventually the abortion lobby recognized that it was unwise to challenge her in a public forum, so she switched her own strategy, resolving to make presentations to every available high-school audience. Through it all, even as the political climate grew steadily more hostile, she was cheerful and optimistic. Ruth told me that she was happy to live in Worcester, Massachusetts, where the birth-control pill was devised, because she was convinced that the pendulum would swing back, and Worcester would prove to be the ideal place from which to launch a nationwide movement to restore a healthy approach to human sexuality and virtue.

Still, there are many effective pro-life activists. To appreciate the power of Ruth’s influence, you had to know the woman. That’s the purpose of this book: to offer readers an introduction to an amazing life. The decision to do so by collecting her letters was a wise one.

The first letters are light and chatty. She mentions, but does not dwell upon, her entry into the Catholic Church and her growing determination to fight for the dignity of human life. More often, the young Ruth tells correspondents about the weather, her domestic projects, the meals she has cooked and hikes she has taken: the quotidian life of a grad-student’s wife. Yes, the correspondence is fluffy. But gradually the reader gains a sense of the personality behind these letters.

Then, as the months and the pages pass by, the letters take on a more serious tone. For this reader, the turning point in the book came with one letter in which Ruth lowered the boom on a young priest who had criticized her. She was not shy about confronting the clergy, and her own bishop felt the sting of her rebukes. (To his credit, Bishop Daniel Reilly hired Ruth as his diocesan pro-life coordinator despite their differences, and he joins in the chorus of praise with a back-cover blurb for this book.)

The relentless progress of cancer also give a more serious tone to the later pages of the book. Ruth talks candidly about her disease, her flagging strength, her worries for her husband and children. What’s missing from the book is any sign that she worried about her own future; she expresses the calm confidence of a daughter of God, looking forward to coming home.

The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God concludes with a series of Ruth’s public talks. These are careful, logical presentations, delivered in a tone quite different from her breezy correspondence with friends. The arguments are solid, the rhetoric is persuasive. Yet by this point, at the end of the book, the reader should realize that it was not just the arguments that won over so many audiences. It was the witness.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - May. 13, 2011 12:01 AM ET USA

    Why is it that the "cradle" Catholics don't seem to stand up for their Faith with vigor and passion as so many of our blessed converts do? Perhaps that's a bit of an over-reaction and emotionally driven judgement unfair of me toward my Catholic brothers and sisters. I have no statistical evidence to support the comment. Still there is something odd. Praise God for Ruth and her tireless efforts and joy! Thank God for His Mercy! Please, all, continue to pray and work to change our culture.

  • Posted by: wacondaseeds4507 - May. 12, 2011 2:39 PM ET USA

    FYI, in case the book does not note this, the title is taken from a quotation of Graham Green: "You can't conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God."