Fall reading: Big books for shorter days
Parish closures from different angles
The Grace of Everyday Saints: How a Band of Believers Lost Their Church and Found Their Faith by Julian Guthrie. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston, 2011). 288 pp., $25.
No Closure: Catholic Practice and Boston's Parish Shutdowns by John C. Seitz. Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Mass., 2011). 322 pp., $39.95.
Julian Guthrie, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and author of "The Grace of Everyday Saints," first met the "everyday saints" of St. Brigid Parish in 2004. By then, the Committee to Save St. Brigid Church had been meeting for 10 years in an effort to reopen their beloved church, which had been inexplicably suppressed in 1994.
Guthrie is a good writer and she has a palpable affection and admiration for the diverse people of this community, but she offers the fullest profiles of the group's leaders:
--- Irish-born Father Cyril O'Sullivan ("Father O") risked being ostracized to confront now-retired Archbishop John M. Quinn, and despite his transfer to a parish in Marin County, he remains the spiritual center of this community in exile.
--- Robert Bryan, a death penalty lawyer, a Southern Baptist married to a Catholic woman, was in the RCIA program when St. Brigid's was closed. Bryan used his prodigious legal skills to discover evidence of then-unknown clerical sex abuse, the reason why a historic, pastorally and financially vibrant parish was slated for closure.
--- Joe Dignan, to whom the book is dedicated (he died after a heart attack in 2006), successfully led the committee's efforts to obtain landmark status for the exterior of St. Brigid's after it was sold to the private Academy of Art University. Without losing its focus on St. Brigid's, Guthrie narrates Joe's personal journey from closeted gay man in a tumultuous marriage to an acceptance of his homosexuality.
Despite its strengths, Guthrie's book is flawed by her decision to cast this as a black and white morality play, with beleaguered but indomitable parishioners confronting obdurate, deceitful church officials. Given the circumstances it is an understandable narrative, one that appeals to our delight in the resourcefulness of the underdog. Unfortunately her reliance on caricature instead of context fails to convey complexity, and what could have been an edifying book remains shallow and self-congratulatory.
John Seitz's "No Closure" is a sophisticated and nuanced analysis of occupying vigils in the Boston Archdiocese.
In 2004, facing severe financial problems, a shortage of priests and declining attendance, then-Archbishop (now Cardinal) Sean P. O'Malley announced plans to close or consolidate 80 parishes. In response to the closures members at some parishes began 24-hour occupying vigils; five of these continue as of 2011.
The vigils became the focus of the doctoral research of Seitz, then a Harvard student and now an assistant professor of theology at Fordham University. Seitz is a capable and empathic writer who is an insightful observer of the occupations he observed most closely --- suburban St. Jeremiah's in Framingham, Mass., and the urban Italian national parish, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Boston.
Seitz situates the vigils in the context of Boston's religious, social and political history, including its long-standing racial and ethnic tensions. The shift in theology and practice that was introduced by the Second Vatican Council had an impact on people's experience and expectations of Catholic life, but the more immediate issue in Boston was the sexual abuse crisis. Anger toward the hierarchy did not dissipate with the December 2002 resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law.
The book's greatest contribution is Seitz's reflective consideration of how resisters wrestled with, rejected or appropriated teachings around sacrifice, sacred presence, belonging and obedience to religious authority.
These themes surfaced in many situations faced by the vigilers, from how to handle sacred objects that remained in the church building and the proper manner in which to conduct lay-led religious services, to ruptured relationships with former friends who were perceived as traitors because they joined the receiving parish.
Vigilers, Seitz writes, were involved in "the search for an acceptable Catholic maturity" and to this end they had to acknowledge, grieve and re-examine many aspects of their loyalty to the sacred spaces that were suddenly wrested away from them.
Seitz is a theologian, not a therapist, but this solid academic book is, ultimately, a sad one. It is impossible to read "No Closure" without wondering what could have been achieved, and what heartache avoided, if archdiocesan officials had listened to parishioners with the same empathy and desire for understanding that Seitz brought to his work.
Clues to what makes priests happy
Why Priests are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests by Stephen J. Rossetti. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Ind., 2011). 238 pp., $18.95.
Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life by James Martin, S.J. HarperOne (San Francisco, 2011). 247 pp., $25.99.
Two books published in October reflect on Catholic culture from quite different, unique viewpoints.
Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti makes the convincing point that priests are happiest when they follow traditional Catholic teachings. In "Why Priests Are Happy," he mixes basic sociological information about priests and their lives with his own theological and psychological musings to come to this conclusion. The author sometimes links his discussion to theology.
The author shows that a traditional outlook among priests, such as regarding the hierarchy and prayer practice, led to the greatest happiness and satisfaction.
The surveys of about 3,600 priests taken in 2004 and 2009 show that they are overwhelmingly happy with their vocations, and that an acceptance of celibacy as a gift from God greatly enhances this. The vast majority of priests do in fact regard celibacy in this way. Even with priestly ministry becoming more and more stressful, those priests who prayed daily and participated in traditional spiritual practice such as reciting the Book of Hours and saying the rosary tended to thrive.
Obedience to the bishop also enhanced this happiness. The author was surprised at how important a good relationship between the bishop and his priests actually was.
Using sociological insights about the family and its impact on adults later in life, he warns that the biggest challenge is the youngest generation of priests, because they often come from dysfunctional family situations. This is correlated with higher levels of burnout, thoughts of leaving the priesthood and feelings of isolation.
However, the vast majority of priests, including most young ones, did not feel isolated, and had many good friendships and close family ties.
Never shying away from hard topics, the author notes that the public "excoriation" of the church by the media over the sex abuse scandals has grieved priests deeply, but they have been able to deal with it through their well-developed theology of suffering. Serving Christ, the suffering servant, is not supposed to be easy, so these priests, faced with public scorn, have weathered things well, Msgr. Rossetti concludes.
"Between Heaven and Mirth" uses biblical passages, personal anecdotes and saints' stories to show the importance of humor to the spiritual life. The book shows the psychological side to belief, and humor's role in healthy spirituality. It is an easy read that moves quickly along.
Jesuit Father James Martin discusses joy, and its relationship to humor. He highlights Pope John XXIII, who was famous for his lighter side, especially aimed at himself: "'Dear Pope,' wrote Bruno (an 11-year-old boy), 'I am undecided. I don't know if I want to be a policeman or a pope. What do you think?'
"'My dear Bruno,' wrote the pope, 'if you want my opinion, learn to be a policeman, for that cannot be improvised. As regards being pope, anyone can become the pope. The proof is that I have become one. If you are ever in Rome, please stop by and I will be glad to talk this over with you.'"
The author makes the point that such humor can fight the vice of pride. Humor can also provide a welcoming atmosphere, as it often reduces tension and stress, making people feel at home when they are strangers. A well-timed witty remark can relieve the stress of a given situation.
The book's many anecdotes show that religious people, even saints and popes, can be remarkably funny and good-humored. Visitors to Thomas Merton's monastery could never pick him out, because he was always laughing and smiling. They assumed that such a prolific writer on the spiritual life had to be somber.
Father Martin invites us to a more joyful, joke-filled Christian life, because Jesus, too, loved to laugh and tease people, as reflected in his parables.
Msgr. Rossetti's study is rigorous and follows sociological methods, thereby proving his points thoroughly. Father Martin also adequately illustrates his argument through his many anecdotes.
A scholarly biography, with quirks
G.K. Chesterton: A Biography by Ian Ker. Oxford University Press (New York, 2011). 688 pp., $65.
Any adjective denoting great size --- gargantuan, titanic, huge --- seems to apply aptly not only to the literary output of G.K. (Gilbert Keith) Chesterton but to his physical appearance as well. Chesterton, best known today as the author of the Father Brown stories, was 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed close to 300 pounds. He usually wore a cape and walked with a sword in his hand and a cigar in his mouth.
In his writing career, which spanned the years 1895 to 1936, he wrote 80 books, hundreds of poems, 200 short stories and more than 4,000 essays. He wrote literary and art criticism, detective novels, political commentary and Christian apologetics. Chesterton could dictate without hesitation a complete essay to the exact word count required by the newspaper or magazine's requirements.
Ian Ker's new biography of Chesterton is the first in several decades. It is a scholarly biography with perceptive analysis of his major works of apologetics --- "Orthodoxy," "The Everlasting Man," "St. Francis of Assisi" and "St. Thomas Aquinas" --- but it does not ignore the quirky humanity of Chesterton. Chesterton could produce penetrating criticism of Dickens, but he frequently lost his way on trains and would have to telegraph his wife to find out where he was and how to get home.
For a man who became one of England's most famous Catholics, Chesterton had little religious life in his youth. Born May 29, 1874, Chesterton was baptized as an Anglican as an infant, but his mother's increasing agnosticism stopped any regular church attendance. Like many in England's middle class, the Chesterton parents believed in liberalism, the political and social movement that saw human progress moving inevitably toward a just and happy future.
To many, Darwin's theories of evolution and, later, Marxian philosophy made belief in religious doctrine irrelevant. Nonetheless, G.K. developed a childish but ardent love for the Immaculate Conception when he was a boy.
Chesterton enjoyed the happiest of childhoods and he was irritated as an adult that so many chose to blame their parents for their adult miseries. His parents encouraged him to become an artist and were unconcerned about their elder son's lack of success in school. From St. Paul's School, he studied at the Slade School of Art for two years but left without a degree.
Chesterton's interest in drawing waned and he was increasingly passionate about writing. He was lucky enough to get hired by a publishing company in 1895. In 1902, he was given a weekly column at the Daily News and then was hired by the Illustrated London News three years later and he worked for them for 30 years. He also made money by making long speaking tours of Europe and the United States.
With his 1901 marriage to Frances Blogg, a devout Anglican, he was reintroduced to Christianity. He identified closely with the Anglo-Catholic side of the Church of England. While he increasingly saw the most authentic, truthful expression of Christianity in Catholicism, he did not become a Catholic until 1922.
Chesterton was well aware of how controversial a step he was making, knowing the lingering hostility felt by most of the British toward Rome. Chesterton's principal concern was that his wife not be angered by his decision or feel forced to follow him. Indeed, Frances did not join the Catholic Church until several years later.
Chesterton's marriage was a happy one, but not an easy one. Frances endured periods of deep depression and had a horror of sexual contact. But she brought order to her husband's chaotic life, managing both his domestic life and his public life. Unsurprisingly, the Chestertons had no children of their own, but, nonetheless, G.K. had an extraordinary rapport with children, delighting them with his stories and drawings. He had the same respect for children as he did for adults, basing his behavior on Jesus' special regard for children.
There are two major elements of Chesterton's thought that permeate both his religious writing and his literary criticism. First was a rich sense of wonder in the most ordinary things of life and giving thanks for them. Chesterton wrote, "It is the aim of all religion, of imagination, of poetry and the arts, to awaken that sense of something saved from nothing." Second, he emphasized appreciating the limits of our imagination and the limitless nature of God who chose to take on the limits of our mortality. Knowing limits is "a way to appreciate how awful and beautiful this world is," he wrote.
Chesterton saw Catholicism as "the key which unlocked the meaning of the world, it had to be complex and complicated, which is why he vigorously condemns the speciously attractive demand to simplify Christianity". He accused Calvin of "(trying) to create a simplified Christianity, and creating a world of pessimism and devil-worship."
For many years, audiences poured in for debates between Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw, the great playwright. Chesterton would argue the need for and the worthiness of religion, while Shaw took the atheist position.
Despite the differences between them intellectually, they remained good friends. But Shaw, a strict vegetarian and always thin, never missed a chance to tease Chesterton about his weight. Chesterton mentioned that a famine had broken out in a certain region and Shaw said, staring at his friend's stomach, "Yes, and you are probably the cause of it." When one considers the level of political debate today, it makes one long for a chance to hear two such brilliant and funny men.
---Rachelle Linner, a freelance writer and reviewer, lives in Medford, Mass.
---Brian Welter is studying for his doctorate in systematic theology and teaching English in Taiwan.
---Graham Yearley earned a certificate of advanced study in theology at the Ecumenical Institute of St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore. He continues to study theology.