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THE MIGHTY AND THE ALMIGHTY: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs
Christmas for Kids

THE MIGHTY AND THE ALMIGHTY: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs, by Madeleine Albright. HarperCollins. 339 pp. $25.95.

Reviewed by RACHELLE LINNER, a librarian and writer who lives in Boston.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT is a clear writer, a thoughtful policy analyst and an experienced diplomat. In The Mighty and the Almighty, she brings this constellation of skills to the task of delineating the complex topic of religion and foreign policy: “ many practitioners of foreign policy—including me—have sought to separate religion from world politics, to liberate logic from beliefs that transcend logic....But religious motivations do not disappear simply because they are not mentioned; more often they lie dormant only to rise up again at the least convenient moment.”

Dr. Albright cites numerous lessons from her experience as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and her tenure as the first female secretary of state (1997 to 2001). “When I was in government, I thought of myself neither as strictly a realist nor as strictly an idealist, but as a hybrid of the two. I saw government as a practical enterprise that had to operate in a messy and dangerous world, although the realist approach struck me as cold-blooded. I did not understand how we could possibly steer a steady course without moral principles to guide us.”

This ideology informs her discussion of some of the most critical issues facing the United States, including terrorism and the war in Iraq, perceptions of Islam, human rights and genocide, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Her assessment of the Bush administration is blunt: “I think the U.S. government has thoroughly botched its response to international terror, damaged America’s reputation, and substituted slogans for strategy in promoting freedom.”

Religion, Dr. Albright suggests, “is becoming entwined with U.S. foreign policy in a new way.” Until fairly recently, the “ideological right and left” had been on “opposite poles on almost every international issue,” but recent years have seen a historic bipartisanship on issues of religious liberty, ways to respond to genocide, and efforts to reduce global poverty.

In a short but intriguing section, Dr. Albright discusses, but quickly dismisses, pacifism and nonviolence. She quotes from a letter she received from Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas after a 2004 address at Yale Divinity School. “To Hauerwas, pacifism is a fundamental part of being Christian. He suggests that Americans who fight or support military action have no rightful claim to be Christians at all. I understand his logic, but do not accept it. No story is more uplifting than Christ’s example in dying while forgiving at the same time. But the whole point of the doctrine of ‘just war’ is that military actions are sometimes necessary for moral reasons.”

It is evident that Dr. Albright has thought deeply about the just-war theory, particularly in light of the Rwandan genocide and the Kosovo war. Some of the finest writing in this book concerns the dilemma of a war waged to “defend the vulnerable other.” She quotes former president of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel, with something akin to gratitude, who characterized Kosovo as a war that “places human rights above the rights of states” fought “out of concern for the fate of others. It is fighting because no decent person can stand by and watch the systematic government-directed murder of other people.”

Dr. Albright is particularly alert to the danger of fundamentalism, which she sees not only in radical Islam, but also in President Bush’s rhetoric, which “has come close to justifying the U.S. policy in explicitly religious terms....”

Religious fundamentalism is a stance Dr. Albright can identify and analyze, but it is foreign to her own experience and beliefs. She alludes to her family’s religious history—she was raised as a Catholic only to learn, during her tenure as secretary of state, that her family was Jewish and that three of her four grandparents died in the Holocaust. Now she refers to herself as a “a hopeful Christian but also an inadequate one, with doubts.”

This imbalance—strategic intelligence that overshadows a pedestrian understanding of religion—weakens a book of good intentions. It is particularly unfortunate that, aside from the just war, she gives scant attention to the contributions of Catholic thought. In a world that is mired in fundamentalism, Catholicism offers an ecclesiology, as defined by St. Augustine in his debate with Pelagius, that places charity above purity. It is a model of Church that can help to moderate the human arrogance and fear that motivate fundamentalism.

You can order THE MIGHTY AND THE ALMIGHTY: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs from St. Francis Bookshop.


THE TREASURE OF GUADALUPE, edited by Virgilio Elizondo, Allan Figueroa Deck and Timothy Matovina. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 134 pp. $14.95.

Reviewed by MICHAEL J. DALEY, a teacher and writer at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He recently edited (with Bill Madges) The Many Marks of the Church (Twenty-Third Publications).

FOR A NUMBER of reasons, the figure of Mary has not played a prominent role in my spiritual journey. Whether praying the Rosary, hearing someone speak about her or reading of her in some book, I always regarded Mary as above and beyond the concerns of this world. Recently, however, I have encountered a Mary who speaks to lived concerns in an increasingly diverse church and world—Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In The Treasure of Guadalupe, 16 contributors (including Pope John Paul II and Virgilio Elizondo) explore the gift that is Our Lady of Guadalupe. At first glance, though, the word “gift” is somewhat paradoxical.

As the book explains, the Spanish conquest of Mexico was complete by 1521. The native Aztec culture lay in ruin. A subjugated people were now introduced to a new religion—Christianity. This was done through a foreign people, in a strange language and, sometimes, under the cruelest of conditions. In 1531, however, Our Lady of Guadalupe, dressed as an Aztec princess and speaking the native tongue, appeared to Juan Diego and asked this simple peasant to build her a church.

As many of the contributors note, Our Lady of Guadalupe did ask that a temple be built on the site of their encounter—Tepeyac, a former Aztec religious shrine. In addition to a physical building, many interpret this as a charge to build a community, a place of dignity, where all God’s creation is respected. This, of course, remains to be built.

This brings up the inescapable link between Our Lady of Guadalupe and justice. As much as we’ve tried to domesticate Mary, her message is received and communicated by “the threatened, the despised, the seemingly insignificant ones.” Juan Diego is no exception. Though he thought himself “a nobody, I am a small rope, a tiny ladder, the tail end, a leaf...,” Our Lady of Guadalupe called Juan Diego in and through his vulnerability to bring about the spiritual and material transformation of the Americas.

Another theme of the book is that of inculturation. In Our Lady of Guadalupe we discover that God “visits” us in our own language, dress, culture and, indeed, in our very own person. As we experience in the person of Jesus—God made flesh—“the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of care and concern for the marginalized and forgotten of this world.” This is why her story and image continue to connect with people.

For a world that appears to be embedded in a self-destructive cycle, Our Lady of Guadalupe can be the bridge that leads to “mutual hospitality” rather than competition and conflict. As she brought two worlds gripped in death and destruction together centuries ago, so too can she serve as a mediator and healer today.

The Treasure of Guadalupe serves as a nice introduction to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Like all treasures, the contributors help us unlock the meaning in her and her evangelizer Juan Diego.

Aided by black-and-white artwork of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the book is a deeply spiritual read which shows that Mary is not a relic of the past, but a resource for the present and future. In a world, then as now, which continues to be plagued by greed and genocide, Our Lady of Guadalupe challenges us to recognize our God-given dignity and free ourselves from the fears and prejudices that lurk in the shadows of our hearts.

You can order THE TREASURE OF GUADALUPE from St. Francis Bookshop.


CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET CATHOLIC: A Novel, by Sarah Darer Littman. Dutton Children’s Books (Penguin Young Readers Group). 193 pp. $15.99, hardcover; $5.99, paperback.

Reviewed by MARJORIE FLATHERS, who has over 25 years experience writing for children and adults. Her works have appeared in numerous publications, including St. Anthony Messenger.

SARAH DARER LITTMAN’S first novel, Confessions of a Closet Catholic, is the story of a young New York-area Jewish girl (“almost 12”) who believes that being a Catholic will make her life easier—and better. This, however, is not a serious story of a troubled preteen. Littman keeps a light touch throughout and humor plays a part in almost all the scenes.

The main character, Justine, is confused because of differing religious practices among the members of her family. Her beloved grandmother, Bubbe, is a strictly kosher Jew who survived a concentration camp. Her other grandparents are also Jews, but tend to think dietary rules and other directives are “superstitious nonsense.” Her parents’ practice of Judaism falls somewhere in between.

Trying to make some sense out of all this, she wants to find a religion that will answer her many questions.

After considering the requirements of Buddhism, Hinduism and a number of Protestant denominations, Justine decides that the beliefs of her best friend, Mary Alice, and her close-knit Catholic family are what she is looking for.

Her journey toward Catholicism includes confessing her sins to her teddy bear, “Father Ted,” and conducting communion ceremonies with grape juice and matzo, all in her bedroom closet, hence the title.

Catholic readers will, no doubt, notice a few errors about current Catholic practices, mainly when Justine attends Mass. The author has the congregation sitting after the Sign of Peace and, later, kneeling in a row to receive Communion. But these and other (even more minor) inaccuracies are only a small part of the story.

Justine’s plan begins to crumble when Bubbe has a stroke and, ultimately, dies, and this is where the book comes into its own. She is sure God is angry with her for pretending to be a Catholic and has punished Bubbe instead. Young girls will relate to her overwhelming guilt and her confusion in trying to figure out how and if God fits into her life.

As Justine works her way toward understanding her own spirituality, there are a number of lighthearted yet touching scenes. Especially poignant is her effort to try to confess to a real priest. This segment rings true as the young priest tries to help her, while doing his best not to show amusement at what he knows is a very serious moment for her.

Just as convincing is the scene when Justine goes to a synagogue and talks to an understanding rabbi who helps her make some sense out of her struggle. He suggests she offer a short prayer before doing something as simple as eating a piece of chocolate and adds that God gave us these mitzvahs, or observances, “to bridge the two facets of our soul, the material and the spiritual.” He then advises her to keep learning to “figure out what’s the right way for you.”

Young readers will find it hard to put the book down. The action and dialogue keep the plot moving, and they will want to discover how Justine handles all her dilemmas. The last chapter brings the book to a satisfying close.

This is a sensitive and believable portrait of someone struggling with conflict, and Littman’s subtext is that people of different faiths need to focus on what they have in common instead of what separates them.

Confessions of a Closet Catholic has the distinction of winning the 2006 Sydney Taylor Book Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries and being named by Catholic Online as one of the “Ten Best Books Suitable for Christmas Gift-giving.” It is, indeed, an ideal gift for a young person, and parents may enjoy this lively and meaningful read, too.

You can order CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET CATHOLIC: A Novel from St. Francis Bookshop.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF VATICAN II, by Giuseppe Alberigo. Foreword by John W. O’Malley, S.J. Orbis Books. 141 pp. $20.

Reviewed by PAT McCLOSKEY, O.F.M., editor of this publication. His high school years coincided with Vatican II.

“NO ONE IS better qualified to comment on Vatican II than Giuseppe Alberigo,” writes Father John W. O’Malley, S.J., a Church historian, in this book’s Foreword. Alberigo directs the Institute for the Study of Religion in Bologna, Italy, and coordinated the recent five-volume History of Vatican II (Orbis Books, 1995-2006), the most complete account of the Council.

A few months after Vatican II was announced, Alberigo published a book on the Italian bishops at the Council of Trent. He soon worked closely with Giuseppe Dossetti, a theologian assisting Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro of Bologna, who was eventually one of the Council’s four moderators.

Alberigo had studied under Hubert Jedin, an eminent Church historian, and in the 1960s attended several sessions of Europe’s Catholic Conference for Ecumenical Questions.

In separate chapters, Alberigo describes the Council’s preparation, each of its four sessions and its overall achievement. He describes this volume’s audience as “people who were not yet born when Vatican II was taking place, but who look upon a Catholicism and, indeed, a Christian movement as a whole, that has been deeply changed by the Second Vatican Council.”

According to Alberigo, Pope John XXIII “wanted a council that would mark the end of an era; a council, that is, that would usher the Church out of the post-Tridentine era, and to a certain extent out of the centuries-old Constantinian phase, and into a new phase of witness and proclamation.”

The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, approved on December 7, 1965, was the only document composed entirely during the Council. Alberigo writes that every post-Vatican II controversy in the Church has been related to issues that this document did or did not address.

The present volume includes four pages of notes, three pages of key dates and an Index of people connected to Vatican II.

Where you stand inevitably influences what you see. Although Alberigo praises the more global sense of Church and increased sense of episcopal collegiality that emerged from Vatican II, in places this text sounds as though bishops from the Americas, Africa and Asia mostly sat on the sidelines and listened as European bishops debated the major issues of the day. Of the 115 names in this volume’s Index, by my count only 11 people were born outside Europe. Readers seeking an engaging overview of Vatican II will find it here.

You can order A BRIEF HISTORY OF VATICAN II from St. Francis Bookshop.


Christmas for Kids

What better time to give children good books about their faith?

THE GOLDEN CHILDREN’S BIBLE (Random House/Golden Books, 510 pp., $17.99/U.S.; $23.99, Canada). This lavishly illustrated book is a reissue of the 1965 classic. A simple, almost poetic text is easy to read for children eight to 13. The book contains both the Old and New Testaments, and was reviewed by an editorial board which includes a Catholic professor of Scripture.

PRAIRIE CHRISTMAS, written by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk and illustrated by Ronald Himler (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 32 pp., $17). A beautiful picture book for children five and up, it starts with 11-year-old Emma‘s disappointment that her midwife-mother has to deliver a baby on Christmas Day, and ends with a joyous celebration of life.

OH HOLY NIGHT, written by Tracy Harrast and illustrated by Estelle Corke (Concordia Publishing House, 12 pp., $9.99, U.S./$12.99, Canada), is a brilliantly colored board book for children 18 months and older, which helps them begin to grasp biblical truths. Another Concordia offering, OH, COME, LITTLE CHILDREN, written by Anita Reith Stohs and illustrated by Benrei Huang (28 pp., $14.99, U.S./$19.50, Canada), uses the familiar carol to frame the Christmas story for older children.

Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 8621 Winton Road, Cincinnati, OH 45231, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 6.5 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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