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A Vision of the Future?

PENTECOST IN ASIA: A New Way of Being Church, by Thomas C. Fox. Orbis Books. 238 pp. $25.

Reviewed by MICHAEL J. DALEY, a writer and teacher at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He recently co-edited, with William Madges, Vatican II: Forty Personal Stories (Twenty-Third Publications).

SPEAKING IN MANILA in 1995, Pope John Paul II expressed one of his greatest desires: "Just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted on the soil of Europe, and in the second on that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the third Christian millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent."

In Pentecost in Asia, Thomas Fox, publisher and former editor of National Catholic Reporter, goes a long way in showing what this "great harvest of faith" might look like. It may not be quite the fruit that the pope had in mind.

This "Asian Odyssey" is deeply personal for Fox. As an idealistic 19-year-old college student, he went to Japan in June 1963 and taught English to Chinese refugees. After graduating from Stanford University in 1966, he returned as a civilian to work with war refugees in Vietnam and met his Vietnamese wife, To Kim Hoa. Though they eventually returned to the States, his interest in Asia has never left him.

The 1998 World Synod of Bishops for Asia revealed a new way of being Church, one that has some in the Vatican worried. That vision starts by admitting the great poverty and hunger besetting the Asian continent.

Given that Catholicism in Asia is a minority tradition, it’s also dialogical by necessity. Fox writes that Asian Catholics "seek rich spirituality, carved from a belief that the Holy Spirit graces Asia, acting through good people and religions everywhere."

Countering the Western demand for categories and answers, Asian Catholics are open to "fuzziness."

Perhaps most contentiously, the Asian vision sees evangelization as a means "to discover and embrace" rather than an opportunity "to confront and convert."

Drawing from both the documents and spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the Church in Asia takes seriously the charge of inculturation: "a deep and mutually enriching encounter between the Gospel and a people with its particular culture and tradition." The European ecclesial umbrella that Asian Catholics have lived under for generations is being washed away.

Giving direction and shape to this emerging Asian Church has been the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, established in 1970. Coinciding with Pope Paul VI’s visit to Manila and inspired by his encyclical On the Progress of Peoples, the bishops of Asia met for the first time and began to create a common vision for the Asian Church. Following the lead of Latin American bishops, sustained by the insights of liberation theology, the Asian bishops committed themselves to become "a Church of the poor."

In 1974, meeting in Taiwan, the bishops of Asia gave further indication as to the shape the Church there would take. It became known as the "triple dialogue." Using the local Church at the center, dialogue with local cultures, local religions and local peoples was seen as essential.

With this vision came one central question: How can one be faithfully Christian and authentically Asian? History is full of false starts and missed opportunities.

Recent signals from Rome have been mixed as well. In 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith warned against some Buddhist practices. Vatican officials likewise have questioned the Asian bishops’ mission theology, accusing them of having opened the door to religious relativism. Jesus, the Vatican says, must be proclaimed as the one and unique savior of the world. (It must be noted, however, that in some Asian countries public proclamation of Jesus can result in a death sentence.)

The Asian Synod revealed ongoing tensions in the areas of mission, Christology and ecclesiology. Throughout it, however, the Asian Church has held fast to the words of Cardinal Paul Shan Kuo-hsi, the papally appointed secretary for the Asian Synod: "The Catholic faith will not be intelligible or attractive to the peoples of Asia if it continues to be a carbon copy of the Catholic Church in the West."

Written for a general audience in a clear and engaging style, Pentecost in Asia does more than give the reader an introduction to the Asian Catholic Church. It gives a picture of what the Church, led by the Spirit, is truly becoming. Pentecost indeed!

You can order PENTECOST IN ASIA: A New Way of Being Church from St. Francis Bookshop.

THE RELUCTANT SAINT: The Life of Francis of Assisi, by Donald Spoto. Viking Compass. 257 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by PAT McCLOSKEY, O.F.M., editor of this publication. He holds master’s degrees in theology (University of Dayton) and Franciscan Studies (St. Bonaventure University).

NO SAINT has been the subject of more biographies than Francis of Assisi. In this volume Donald Spoto draws most on scholarship published since 1990 to produce "a new life of Francis for the general reader who is not a specialist."

Spoto, the author of The Hidden Jesus, is also the biographer of Alfred Hitchcock, Laurence Olivier, Tennessee Williams and Ingrid Bergman. His text here is the basis for Faith and Values TV’s production that will air on Palm Sunday (April 13) on the Hallmark Channel at 7 p.m. (Eastern time).

Utilizing his doctorate in theology (Fordham University), Spoto unapologetically presents Francis as "a medieval Italian, a man with a specific understanding of reality that was in important ways different from, and even opposed to, our own."

Any biography of Francis "must accept with absolute gravity the fact that he believed in a personal and loving God." Spoto describes Francis as "one of the most obviously human and necessary among saints." He had "a strong sense of self—and an even stronger sense of God."

Spoto lays out Francis’ world with all its vigor and blind spots. "The particulars of time and place always matter; more to the point, faith in God means that God continues to disclose Himself in the particulars of our time, our life, our circumstances."

Spoto describes the upwardly mobile Francis, a seeker of knightly fame and leader of Assisi’s young men—until God showed him another way. "Conversion," writes Spoto, "is, then, a response to God, Who invites us to a state of complete freedom, away from everything that is hostile to His goodness and mercy."

The Achilles’ heel of this biography is that Spoto presents Francis as never truly reconciled to founding a religious community and dealing with the consequences of that decision.

Although Francis needed few structures for himself, his followers certainly needed more to avoid being a nuisance to the Church. Thus, this reviewer cannot believe Spoto’s contention that Francis’ Rule of 1223 was "obviously written by someone other than Francis...." Several hands were clearly at work there, but the spirit and phrasing of Francis permeate each section.

This volume contains several factual errors: Bernard of Quintavalle was a noble (not a merchant), Honorius III was elected in a conclave (not appointed pope by two Perugian cardinals) and popes inspired other campaigns to regain the Holy Land after the Fifth Crusade.

The 26 pages of endnotes identify many of Spoto’s sources but present several key assertions without evidence.

This biography is not the last word on Francis of Assisi, but it gets most of his life exactly right.

You can order THE RELUCTANT SAINT: The Life of Francis of Assisi from St. Francis Bookshop.

UNLOCKING THE TREASURES OF THE BIBLE: A Practical Guide, by James Philipps. Twenty-Third Publications. 139 pp. $12.95.

Reviewed by HILARION KISTNER, O.F.M., editor of Sunday Homily Helps and theological and scriptural consultant to St. Anthony Messenger Press.

JAMES PHILIPPS writes for people who have some familiarity with the Bible, but want help in interpreting it.

The author offers four keys to unlock the meaning of the Bible. These are described in the first four chapters: 1) The Bible Is a Library; 2) Inspiration; 3) Reading Contextually; 4) Oral Tradition.

The rest of the book uses these keys to interpret both the Old and New Testaments. The author offers some concrete examples and tackles some of the more difficult passages.

For instance, there are inconsistencies in the Bible’s description of the Exodus. In Exodus 14, did God clog the wheels of the Egyptian chariots (v. 25), or drown them in the Red Sea (v. 28)? The author reminds us that oral tradition tends to vary details as it moves from one person to another and from one generation to another. At the heart of the Exodus story, however, is Israel’s faith that God was active and freeing his people from their oppressors.

The key of inspiration reminds us that God inspired humans to hand on these stories and put them in writing, God did not dictate these stories, but human authors were assisted by God in handing down their stories of faith. The human authors remained limited by many factors in expressing themselves, but God saw to it that saving truth was transmitted.

Other books of the Bible provide a larger context for understanding the Exodus account. For instance, Psalm 77, Isaiah 63, Nehemiah 9 and Wisdom 19 provide further descriptions and variations of details, but all agree on the basic faith conviction.

Thus, too, we appreciate that the Bible is a library of books. It contains prose and poetry, history and epic, prophecy and wisdom.

The author has a helpful treatment of Genesis. He examines the stories of the creation and the fall.

After each chapter are "Questions for Thought and Discussion." A Bible study group might find these stimulating.

Though I found this book to provide a helpful approach to understanding the Bible, I have a few negative criticisms as well. At times there are inaccurate statements, misspellings and hard-to-understand sentences. For example, "Once we come to see Adam and Eve as personifying an essential conflict within our human nature, the story’s power intensifies."

An Epilogue makes some helpful suggestions about Bible translations, commentaries, dictionaries, magazines and other resources.

There may be a fifth important key for future development. The Pontifical Biblical Commission in a 1993 document speaks of actualization and inculturation. In the context of our community and culture and with the help of our Tradition, we can discover what God is telling us regarding current issues, such as the preferential option for the poor, liberation theology, the situation of women, the rights of the human person, the protection of human life, the preservation of nature or the longing for world peace.

Overall, I think this book can be very helpful for its intended audience.

You can order UNLOCKING THE TREASURES OF THE BIBLE: A Practical Guide from St. Francis Bookshop.

THE HOW-TO BOOK OF THE MASS: Everything You Need to Know But No One Ever Taught You, by Michael Dubruiel. Our Sunday Visitor. 223 pp. $12.95.

WHAT YOU WILL SEE INSIDE A CATHOLIC CHURCH, by the Reverend Michael Keane. Photographs by Aaron Pepis. Skylight Paths Publishing. 31 pp. $17.95. Full-color photos throughout. (Also in Spanish as LO QUE SE PUEDE VER DENTRO: De Una Iglesia Catholica. $16.95.)

Reviewed by MARIA KEMPER, a theology and literature undergraduate at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. She was an editorial intern with St. Anthony Messenger during the summer of 2002.

FOR RECENT CONVERTS to Catholicism, or those never deeply schooled in their faith, participating in a Mass may be akin to stepping into an intricate waltz, feeling as though you have two left feet. What are these people doing, and why are they doing it that way?

The How-to Book of the Mass is a step-by-step guidebook for those either too familiar, or not familiar enough, with the parts of the Mass. More than a set of guidelines for knowing when to sit, stand and kneel, it also provides suggestions for praying through the distraction of fussy children in the next pew, or getting the most out of an uninspiring homily.

From the first step through the door to the final blessing and dismissal, it explains what is going on, the significance of the words said or the gesture performed, and, when appropriate, the history and tradition behind it.

Yet this is not a heavy, ponderous tome of archaic rituals. Written in a reverent and straightforward manner, it is for anyone interested in growing in knowledge of this most central aspect of Catholic worship.

For younger Catholics ages four through 10, Father Michael Keane has prepared a beautiful book that would be an ideal introduction to the Mass. What You Will See Inside a Catholic Church is full of photographs of common Catholic objects from the tabernacle, to the processional cross, to holy chrism. The text explains each item and its use, as well as its significance in Catholic life.

The photographs are suitable for a child who needs to stop squirming during Mass. When the church is empty sometime, look through the photographs with a four-year-old and then walk around the church. Touching the actual processional cross or the baptismal font can be a great introduction into the sacramental life of the Church.

For parents or godparents conscious of their role of raising children in the faith, this book makes a great gift in the years leading to First Communion.

You can order HE HOW-TO BOOK OF THE MASS: Everything You Need to Know But No One Ever Taught You and WHAT YOU WILL SEE INSIDE A CATHOLIC CHURCH from St. Francis Bookshop.

WINTER: A Spiritual Biography of the Season, by edited by Gary Schmidt and Susan M. Felch. Skylight Paths Publishing. 262 pp. $21.95.

Reviewed by Emily McCormack, author and adult education teacher.

FOR CENTURIES, winter has had bad press. Those other seasons—spring, summer, autumn—have been pampered pets of poets and dreamers.

Winter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season challenges that perception. Editors Gary Schmidt and Susan M. Felch have gathered into one wonderful book the thoughts, tales, ruminations, dreams and poetry of more than 30 writers.

They cut across all languages and barriers: Sanskrit, American, Japanese, African tribes, among others. When it comes to winter and the cold, the editors recognize that there are no natural human boundaries.

A beautifully written text, Winter has something for everyone: historians, clergy, writers, scientists, fishermen, explorers.

Despite its name, this is a book for all seasons—not just for winter. The illustrations by Barry Moser add the perfect touch to the text.

Wintertime means different things to different people, as Winter shows. Some dread the cold weather, hoping to escape. Others welcome the challenge that the season demands. Many look forward to the built-in seclusion that winter sometimes demands, giving time for reading, writing, pondering the meaning of life, seeking God.

 In Winter each writer responds to the season in an individual way. One writer cuts ice for an icehouse; another watches fish and birds and animals trying to survive the cold. Still another revels in the incredible beauty of the snow.

There are sighs and regrets and prayers and heart-stopping scenes. Cars come to a screeching halt on icy roads; skiers break their legs; ice fishers brave the elements. During the winter there always are driveways to shovel, wood to chop for fireplaces, food to preserve, mail to deliver, houses to warm.

In Winter we see old men laughing at their own foibles. We hear wolves howling. One narrator’s neighbor, an old lady, dies and is buried. Freezing fish seek refuge in a shipwrecked fishing schooner. The sound of snowplows is ear-splitting.

A lovely surprise in the middle of the book is finding a section from  Walden, in which Henry David Thoreau asks, "Why is it that a bucket of water soon becomes putrid, but frozen remains sweet forever?"

Content and smiling, I closed Winter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season and remembered poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s lovely rhetorical question:

If winter comes,
Can spring be far behind?

You can order WINTER: A Spiritual Biography of the Season from St. Francis Bookshop.


Book Briefs

During Holy Week we turn our minds and hearts to meditating on Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection.

• HOW TO READ AND PRAY THE PASSION STORY, by Marilyn Gustin (Liguori, 111 pp., $5.95). This book explores the similarities and differences between the passion accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, with reflection starters that turn "head knowledge" into prayer.

• INTO YOUR HANDS: Meditations and Prayers on the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, edited by Norman J. Muckerman, C.Ss.R. (Liguori, 108 pp., $9.95). The longtime editor of Liguorian magazine relies on the writings of the Redemptorists’ founder, St. Alphonsus Liguori, who thought all Christians should recall something about the passion of Jesus every day.

• SPIRITUALITY FOR LENT AND EASTER: A Guide for Bridging the Mysteries, by Gerard F. Baumbach (Paulist Press, 135 pp., $8.95). Each chapter focuses on a Sunday in Lent or the Easter season, or a service during the Easter triduum, aimed at faith formation.

• PIETÀ: Michelangelo, 150 Photographs and Commentary, by Robert Hupka (Editions Arstella, 96 pp., $15.95). Every time I go to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, I stare at Michelanglo’s great sculpture of Mary cradling the body of her crucified Son. But these powerful photos may be better than seeing the real thing.

Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 1618 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6498, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 6.0 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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