Let one of these writers be your guide this Lent
by Anita McSorley
For people like me who are already struggling to keep their New Year’s resolutions, the Catholic Church is coming to the rescue.
In fact, if all it takes is a little old-fashioned Catholic guilt to get you to the gym on time, you’ll be happy to hear there is a big fat load of Lent coming your way — and fast.
But if Ash Wednesday (on Feb. 10 this year) means a little more to you than another attempt to lose those extra pounds, you’re still in luck.
It appears that among my Catholic journalist friends, everybody but me has written a book in recent months. A really good book.
Ironically, some of these folks might be friends of yours, too — at least friends once removed through your relationship with The Leaven.
I know a good book does not necessarily make a good Lent. But I would argue that it makes a good start.
So consider yourself among friends here and, as you read, ponder which might provide you with a good guide to the Catholic you’re called to become.
“Luis Antonio Tagle: Leading by Listening,” by Cindy Wooden
Pope Francis was a big hit with Americans on his visit to the United States last year. But he had some competition at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia from the young Asian cardinal that gave the keynote address: Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, of the Philippines.
Cardinal “Chito,” in fact, is the current favorite of the Irish online betting site, Paddy power.com, to be Francis’ successor. So what does this 5-1 favorite of the next conclave have going for him?
As Cindy’s title indicates, one of the things Cardinal Tagle is known for — in addition to being a fierce advocate for the poor — is his successful Christian ministry in a predominantly non-Christian culture. In fact, that was an important part of his address to the World Meeting of Families.
“He spoke to us about the importance of dialogue,” said Father Jim Shaughnessy, pastor of St. Gregory Parish in Marysville and St. Malachy Parish in Beattie.
“In the West, people are concerned about the shrinking influence of the church. But in the East, [Christians] have always been a minority and they’ve had to learn to live in dialogue, and to have influence through communication and dialogue with others around them who have the same values and goals,” continued Father Shaughnessy.
But the subtitle of Cindy’s book is also important. Cardinal Tagle is adamant that church leaders must truly listen to the voices of the faithful that are raised in question, and not just dole out easy “solutions” that don’t really address their lived reality.
I’ve started off with Cindy’s book because she might be one of the writers with whom you’re most familiar.
Don’t recognize her name? Did you read The Leaven’s special issue full of the stories of Pope Francis’ trip to the United States? Many, if not most, of those stories were written by her.
The Cardinal Tagle title is part of a series of short biographical books (this one is only 104 pages) called People of God. So if you like her style — or that of her subject — maybe hers is the book for you.
“The Vatican Prophecies; Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions, and Miracles in the Modern Age,” by John Thavis
Cindy’s predecessor in Rome as Catholic News Service’s bureau chief is the Vaticanista that really taught me how to understand the workings of the Holy See: John Thavis. And if you’re a longtime reader of The Leaven, he might have taught you a thing or two as well.
John has gone on to even greater renown in retirement. As one of the few experts on all things Vatican, a whole host of news outlets seek him out to provide both color commentary and analysis whenever something unusual is happening in Rome.You see, John only retired a few years ago. Before that — for almost 30 years — scores of his terrifically insightful “Vatican Letters” appeared in these pages. Why were his analyses so instructive? Because John is an insider, and when you’re talking about the Vatican, that says it all.
In his books, John writes at length about many of those things that we’ve only heard the Cliff’s Notes version of. For example, in “The Vatican Prophecies: Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions and Miracles in the Modern Age,” John explains how, in the 21st century, the Vatican proceeds in matters of relics, miracles, apparitions, exorcisms and the like. The answer, not to put too fine a point on it, is very carefully.
Anyone who has ever wondered why the Catholic Church has approved the apparitions at Guadalupe, Fatima and Lourdes — but not Medjugorje — or what process leads to those kinds of decisions, will find this book very enlightening.
But as interesting as the topics he tackles are the personalities he introduces us to. As in his prior hit book, “The Vatican Diaries,” John tells his stories through the work of the churchmen (and occasionally women) who conduct it.
If we learn anything from his careful analysis, it is that even in the Vatican, apparently, James Joyce’s characterization of the Catholic Church holds true: “Here comes everybody.”
Also of interest by John Thavis is his previous book: “The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church.”
“Saint Peter: Flawed, Forgiven, and Faithful,” by Stephen Binz
Parishioners of Sacred Heart Parish in Tonganoxie met the author of our next book in person at the mission he gave for them last fall.
But author Stephen Binz may also be familiar to many of you through his foundational work on the Little Rock Scripture Study series and Threshold Bible study.
Now, in addition to his writing and speaking engagements, Stephen leads pilgrimages and study trips to Rome, Poland and the Holy Land. Through his new book, “Saint Peter: Flawed, Forgiven, and Faithful,” he leads us, too, in the aptly subtitled “Walking with Peter from Galilee to Rome.”
I, for one, am fascinated by Peter, who is revealed more fully in the Gospels than perhaps any other figure than Christ himself. One of the reasons we know him so well, said Stephen, is because Peter “was not at all reluctant to tell the full story of his life with Jesus — faults and all, failures and all.”
Peter, it is believed, was the primary source for the Gospel of Mark. So the cringingly honest accounts of his denials of Christ were not something he chose to keep secret, like you or I might. Instead, Peter realized that his failure was an important part of his story.
“In Rome at the time,” explains Stephen, “Christians were being persecuted, and many people felt like they were failing Jesus.”
Indeed, they were failing him. Threats to their lives, or the lives of their families, led many to deny Christ.
“And so there is a great deal of guilt in the Christianity community,” said Stephen. “They were still believers, yet they had publicly renounced their faith to others. Peter must have realized that was exactly what he did.”
And that’s what makes Peter our perfect guide through Lent.
“We all recognize ourselves in Peter, and that’s part of his appeal,” said Stephen. “Peter is not this great flawless leader of the church. Peter shows that he is very much like us — struggling, and trying to know and understand Jesus and what it means to follow him . . . and failing in that following.”
“Peter is like an older brother to us in our discipleship. I think we can learn so much from Peter about how to be a disciple,” he said. “In all of his humanity, in all of his weakness, all of his sin, he became the leader of the church. And that happened by the grace of God.”
That’s the thing that we mustn’t forget about Peter, said Stephen.
There is the Peter of failure and betrayal.
And then, there is the Peter of Pentecost.
“Grace transformed him,” he said.
And it can transform us.
Also of interest by Stephen Binz is: “Transformed by God’s Word: Discovering the Power of Lectio and Visio Divina,” to be released Feb. 5.
“Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus,” by Father Jim Martin, SJ
No book roundup would be complete without a plug for one of the few leading lights of the Catholic press who is actually well known outside the Catholic press. Father Mark and I both enjoy it when our interns/new hires learn that we actually know Father Jim Martin, of Stephen Colbert — and now Facebook — fame. (You know somebody is really cool if millennials know who he is.)
I’m going to cheat a bit with this recommendation, because there are two books of Father Jim’s that I’d like to mention. His newest book, “Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus,” would be a tremendous aid to those trying to take up Archbishop Naumann’s challenge to really get to know Jesus as a person.
Focusing on the famous last seven phrases the Gospels record Jesus uttering from the cross, Father Jim has examined in this book not only what Jesus meant in those phrases. He also explores what these words reveal about how well Jesus knows us — our disappointments, our fears of abandonment, our suffering, our despair.
It is a very moving book — moving in the sense that it touches something deep inside the reader, but also in that it draws the reader — almost irresistibly — closer to Christ.
Father Jim’s other book, “Jesus: A Pilgrimage,” (Harper One, 560 pages; $11.45), which will be released by HarperOne on Feb. 2 in paperback, also comes with my highest recommendation.
It’s hard to recall a book from which I have learned so much with so little effort. Really. Just read this book and you will understand more about the times in which Jesus lived — and more about what the Gospel stories mean —than you can ever imagine.
But don’t take my word for it. Check out the book’s ratings on Amazon, where 697 customers have enjoyed the book enough to go back and rate it.
The average rating is 5 out of 5 stars.