New Books: Toward deeper understanding
How Christians can/must help end poverty
Fast Living: How the Church Will End Extreme Poverty, by Scott C. Todd. Compassion International (Colorado Springs, Colo., 2011). 203 pp., $12.99.
"Catholic Social Learning: Educating the Faith That Does Justice, by Roger Bergman. Fordham University Press (New York, 2011). 203 pp., $24.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has reassured many that the fervor for social reform, so prevalent in the baby boom generation, has not died in American young people today. While that movement's goals are confusing to some, there is no mistaking what Scott Todd, the author of "Fast Living," is seeking to change; his goal is nothing less than ending extreme poverty --- defined as having less than $1 a day to meet the basic needs of shelter and food --- worldwide.
Todd contends that governments cannot accomplish this task because political conflicts stand in their way. Only Christian churches can end extreme poverty because it is demanded of them. The love of neighbor and the love of God are one and the same. Armed with money (at least in the Western world) and the will and determination found in the Christ's preferential love of the poor, the church can bring about this change, but not without changing its believers first.
If it is obvious that Christians would want to end extreme poverty, why haven't we? Todd argues it is because we do not believe we can, based on a serious misunderstanding of Jesus' words in John 12:8: "The poor are always with us."
Many biblical scholars maintain that Jesus was addressing Judas and Judas' mistaken priorities when he objects to the pouring out of expensive oils on Jesus' feet. Judas argues that the oils could be sold to benefit the poor. When Jesus admonishes Judas, it is because he is asking Judas to value his presence while he is with his apostles, not making a blanket statement about accepting poverty as inevitable.
Todd recommends taking up the ancient practice of fasting as a starting place to serve the poor by experiencing what they experience. Abstaining from food voluntarily is not the same as being forced to go hungry, but if enough Christians fast it could create, in Todd's opinion, an outpouring of love and service because we will know something of how they feel.
Roger Bergman, a professor at Creighton University and the author of "Catholic Social Learning," has a less ambitious goal than Todd, but seeks the same end: to move Christians to greater service to the poor. Bergman's book focuses on assisting teachers of social justice at Catholic universities to inspire students to engage in a faith that produces justice.
Some of Bergman's students travel to the Dominican Republic and live in the homes of the people they serve. After the initial shock of shifting from First World comfort to Third World discomfort, students often experience feelings of deep shame. While Bergman acknowledges that certain forms of shame are unhealthy, this form of shame is a kind of self-indictment for living in a culture that wastes resources, ignores global poverty and fosters self-centeredness. Students often discover that the programs they have set up are neither helpful nor wanted. Eventually, they come to understand the poor are best equipped to judge what kind of assistance is helpful.
"Catholic Social Learning" is not a book for the general reader; it is a scholarly work. When Bergman makes assertions there is plenty of evidence to support his arguments. Todd is more like a brilliant preacher rousing his congregants to social action. Unfortunately, too many Christians in the First World hear the Gospel preached in fresh and challenging ways in church, only to return home to a large, nap-producing Sunday dinner.
Saints and heroes who teach and motivate
A Dangerous Dozen: 12 Christians Who Threatened the Status Quo but Taught Us to Live Like Jesus, by the Rev. C.K. Robertson. SkyLight Paths Publishing (Woodstock, Vt., 2011). 171 pp., $16.99.
Ten African Heroes: The Sweep of Independence in Black Africa, by Thomas and Margaret Melady. Orbis Books (Maryknoll, N.Y., 2011). 205 pp., $25.
In the face of violence and political instability, certain brave Christians have answered with a rebellion and conviction, changing the world forever. Two books highlight these people who impacted the world throughout history.
In "Ten African Heroes," Thomas and Margaret Melady offer an insider account about the influence of faith and theology on African leaders who were the impetus for peaceful revolution from colonization in the 1960s. The Rev. C.K. Robertson's "A Dangerous Dozen" features men and women from early Christianity to modern history who were threats against political order and the status quo, sexism, anti-Semitism and bigotry.
A noted Anglican theologian, Rev. Robertson’s truly interesting book even offers for the amateur reader some unknown information about important Christians and their rebellious spirit.
For example, St. Francis of Assisi is often viewed as a peaceful man with birds perched on his shoulder and rabbits snuggled at his feet. Though he was a friend to the animals, according to Rev. Robertson, St. Francis' order of men evoked anything but an ambivalent response from church leaders. Living in poverty and preaching among the people, St. Francis' followers bordered on the extreme and weird, and were viewed by some as a threat to the status quo.
Rev. Robertson also writes about other game-changers, including St. Paul, Dorothy Day, Sojourner Truth and Archbishop Oscar Romero. Rooted in historical research and reflection, these stories are inspiring, engaging and educational.
In their book, the Meladys describe in great detail the many meetings and correspondence they shared with key African leaders involved in the peaceful independence movements that swept the continent. Thomas Melady, former U.S. ambassador to Burundi, Uganda and the Vatican, built relationships with these leaders by coordinating visits with universities and other agencies when they traveled to the United States.
Through these and other diplomatic duties, the Meladys built important relationships and deep understandings of the Christian motivations behind the statesmen from around the African continent. They share the stories of Leopold Senghor, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda and others, highlighting the influence of Protestant and Catholic teachings and missionaries in their lives.
A little dry, the book is appropriate for the reader who is familiar with and interested in African politics and movements. It gives an interesting insight into the so-called "Arab Spring" protests and reminds the reader that faith and religion cannot be discounted as a powerful motivator for action, good and bad.
A fresh look at spiritual practices
Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor, by Jana Riess. Paraclete Press (Orleans, Mass., 2011). 179 pp., $16.99.
Shirt of Flame: A Year with Saint Therese of Lisieux, by Heather King. Paraclete Press (2011). 160 pp., $16.99.
Too often, "spiritual exercises" and formal prayer practices end up going by the wayside for one reason: We expect them to have effects they don't have, so we give up on them. Jana Riess found this out from first-hand personal experience, and that's what she wrote about in "Flunking Sainthood," a literary breath of fresh spiritual oxygen.
One month at a time, for a full year, Riess took a running jump at fasting, looking for the sacred in the kitchen, "lectio divina," giving up shopping as a form of entertainment, centering prayer/the Jesus prayer, observing the Sabbath, being thankful, Benedictine spirituality, vegetarianism, practicing generosity --- and she was a flop at every one of them. But, she concludes, there are important lessons to be learned from trying each one, from not giving up or giving in, and that's what this book is all about.
"Flunking Sainthood" is easy to read; the pages almost turn themselves. At the same time, nearly every chapter whistles up the possibility that you, the reader, can be better than you are; whispers to your heart that you're not nearly as much of a spiritual wimp as you think you are.
"I may have spent a year flunking sainthood," Riess declares, "but along the way I've had unexpected epiphanies and wild glimpses of the holy I would never have experienced without these crazy practices."
St. Therese of Lisieux, she of a late 19th-century Carmelite monastery in France, was the "little flower" known for her famous "little way." In recent decades, fortunately, she has been liberated from the sappy spiritual sentimentality to which she was relegated for so long after she became, you know, famous.
Heather King previously authored a great autobiographical book, “Redeemed,” largely about her journey to Catholicism. In "Shirt of Flame" --- an image from T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" --- she completely knocks the patina of false piety off Therese and gives us back the rock-solid spiritual wisdom and theology this unconventional nun lived and wrote about, which is the real reason she was named a doctor of the church.
For each month of the year King gives us a fine, insightful reflection on the young saint --- she died at age 24 --- and her writings. Each one concludes with a prayer written by King that is invariably honest, hopeful, and --- if you read between the lines --- not without gentle humor. Along the way, she quotes others including, from one of Therese's fellow nuns, words to be pondered and pondered: "I would never have suspected her sanctity."
"Shirt of Flame" will wake you up spiritually and put you back on the right path, and you'll be very glad it did. Read it. No excuses.
The 'good old days' of college
Monk's Tale: Way Stations on the Journey, by Father Edward A. Malloy, CSC. University of Notre Dame Press (Notre Dame, Ind., 2011). 300 pp., $25.
Keeping the Faith at Harvard, by Sister Mary Clare Vincent. St. Bede's Publications (Still River, Mass., 2010). 258 pp., $17.95.
Both "Monk's Tale" and "Keeping the Faith at Harvard" look back at what many might think of as "the good old days," a time when vocations were more abundant and parishes were not closing their doors.
"Monk's Tale" by Holy Cross Father Edward "Monk" Malloy is a lovely memoir by the former president of the University of Notre Dame. It is the second of a three-volume series (this one covering 1975-87) that focuses on the years after he did his doctoral studies until he became president (1987-2005) of one of the United States' most prestigious Catholic universities.
This volume reveals "my ministry as a teacher, scholar, liturgical leader and pastor,” he writes. Also included: his "extracurricular involvement in the academy, on government committees and entities and a number of not-for-profit boards, plus his 15 years of participation in the process that led to Pope John Paul II's document on Catholic higher education, “Ex Corde Ecclesia,” and its implementation in the American context.
Amid that are his wonderful memories as he worked with those in formation with the Holy Cross Fathers and his interaction with students as he lived a simple life in a two-room suite in a dorm, Sorin Hall.
A good read because of the voice of Father "Monk" (a nickname which came from childhood and stuck), it also makes one hopeful about the church because it shows how one can adapt and grow and live a joyful life of service as a good priest, good man and good basketball player.
In "Keeping the Faith at Harvard," Cloistered Benedictine Sister Mary Clare Vincent offers a unique perspective on her involvement with a controversial movement at the St. Benedict Center in Cambridge, Mass.
Born into the Episcopalian faith, Sister Mary Clare graduated from Radcliffe College at age 19. While in college, she abandoned all religion.
However, before graduation she became a Catholic and continued her studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It was 1945 and the St. Benedict Center was thriving as a place where Catholic students were invited to come and discuss their faith.
Its founder, Catherine Clarke, requested that then-Archbishop Richard Cushing of Boston assign a full-time chaplain. Jesuit Father Leonard Feeney soon arrived with a bright mind and great deal of charisma. He created a powerhouse at Harvard and was responsible for many conversions and numerous vocations.
However, he also encouraged students to leave school and proclaimed that there was no salvation outside the church. He was chastised by the Vatican and by his order and eventually excommunicated.
Many years later, he was reconciled. However, the damage was done. The splinter group began. This led to many factions that still exist today. All believe themselves to be the authentic one.
Sister Mary Clare, who was part of the group for many years, offers a fair and honest history of what happened. It truly shows how so many good people can be misguided and misled. It also is a good "for-the-record" document about a movement that had so much promise.
Graham Yearley received his certificate of advanced study in theology at the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore.
Regina Lordan is former assistant international editor of Catholic News Service.
Mitch Finley is the author of more than 30 books on Catholic themes.
Peggy Weber is a columnist and reporter with Catholic Communications in the Diocese of Springfield, Mass.