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THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN THE 21st CENTURY: Finding Hope for Its Future in the Wisdom of Its Past
VOICES FROM THE COUNCIL
MARTIN LUTHER: A Penguin Life
HUMAN ACCOMPLISHMENT: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950
PLUMBING IN HARLEM: A Novel
BOOK BRIEFS


THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN THE 21st CENTURY: Finding Hope for Its Future in the Wisdom of Its Past, edited by the Rev. Michael J. Himes. Liguori Publications. 139 pp. $12.95.

Reviewed by JOHN J. BRODERICK, Ph.D., professor emeritus of sociology, Stonehill College, Easton, Massachusetts.

LARGE INSTITUTIONS such as the Catholic Church are like ocean liners; changing course for both is slow and requires careful preparation. This short volume uses wisdom of the past to suggest course changes for the Church.

On May 31, 2003, more than 500 people gathered at Jesuit Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Missouri, to hear a panel of theologians discuss how the history of the Church might provide lessons for today.

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Following an introductory chapter by Richard W. Miller are six chapters by various theologians who spoke, as well as a transcript of the panel discussions and questions from the audience.

All six chapters begin with the phrase, “What Can We Learn From....” They explore the following topics: the Church in the New Testament (the Rev. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.), the Church in the First Millennium (the Rev. Michael J. Buckley, S.J.), the Medieval Church (Dr. Catherine M. Mooney), the Tridentine and Baroque Church (the Rev. Thomas F. O’Meara, O.P.), the Church in the 19th Century (the Rev. Michael J. Himes, also the editor) and Vatican II (Dr. Richard R. Gaillardetz).

Panelists agree the Church is always in need of reform. As Father Himes observes, “If you try to stand still, the world moves around you, and you aren’t where you thought you were.”

Sin and crisis are not new phenomena in the Church, Harrington notes. In fact, the first century was not the golden age of untroubled growth that we imagine. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians contains reference to problems similar to those facing the Church today.

During the first millennium of Church history, the laity had a voice in the selection of their own bishop, Buckley points out. He also suggests that the Church restore the enduring commitment of the bishop to his diocese; a bishop should not usually expect to be moved to a larger see.

Buckley recommends that national conferences and regional gatherings of local bishops be restored or strengthened. Nowadays he’s found that Vatican congregations are setting aside virtually unanimous judgments of national hierarchies and that this has contributed to the growing restiveness in the Church.

Everyone, including the hierarchy, needs to listen more carefully to what the Spirit is saying to the Church through the laity, says Dr. Mooney. This will require a structured place for the voice of the laity within the government of the Church. Advisory bodies spawned by Vatican II have been shown to be ineffectual, she thinks.

Father O’Meara covers the entire period from the Council of Trent until Vatican II. He uses the term “the Baroque” to stand for the past several centuries when the Church was more about “submission and obedience” than quest for community. He likens the Baroque Church to a kind of electric company distributing grace to Church members. Now it’s time to develop a model of Church in which parishes are “concentric circles of ministry” surrounding active leadership.

Father Himes relies upon John Henry Newman, who wrote about the sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful), but adds that we need to find out just what that is in the contemporary Church. Things can be learned from the experience of sister Churches. For example, the Episcopal Church supports a house of laity as well as a house of clergy and a house of bishops.

The principle of subsidiarity (retaining decision-making at the level of the local communities) needs to be practiced more consistently, Dr. Gaillardetz says. It underlies many of the suggestions in this short volume.

Gaillardetz also quotes from Pope John XXIII’s opening address at the Vatican Council: “...Sometimes we have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion and measure.”

In this volume we find both zeal and discretion. The contributors use the wisdom of the past to suggest hopeful changes for the future.

For readers who wish to explore these issues more fully, the publisher has made this symposium available in sets of videos and audiotapes which are accompanied by a study guide. They would make an excellent starting point for small-group discussions of changes in the Church.

You can order THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN THE 21st CENTURY: Finding Hope for Its Future in the Wisdom of Its Past from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

VOICES FROM THE COUNCIL, edited by Michael R. Prendergast and M.D. Ridge. Pastoral Press. 328 pp. $29.95.

Reviewed by PAT McCLOSKEY, O.F.M., editor of this publication. As a high school freshman, he missed five minutes of Latin class because of bells ringing to mark the start of Vatican II.

THE LIMITED SPACE HERE prevents me from doing full justice to this excellent volume of interviews with 32 men and one woman who were present in Rome during all or part of Vatican II.

Originally, this book was meant to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (December 4, 2003). Eventually, people involved in other aspects of the Council were included.

The interviewees include 13 men who were bishops at the Council, nine experts or staff persons, three theologians and eight observers or media persons.

The volume begins with Pope John XXIII’s brilliant opening address to the Council, a key for understanding this event. A six-page Glossary of Terms precedes a list of the 16 Council documents (promulgation dates given—11 of them in the Council’s last session). The volume concludes with a five-page explanation of major Vatican II figures, most of whom are now deceased.

The 27 interviewers posed questions such as: What was the most significant moment at the Council for you? Which document was most significant for you? Who do you feel was the most significant figure at the Council? What has happened that you never imagined would happen? And what hasn’t happened?

Cardinals Francis Arinze and Franz Koenig, Archbishops Denis Hurley, O.M.I., and Raymond Hunthausen, and Bishop Charles Buswell are the most well-known of the bishops interviewed in this volume.

Liturgical “giants” among the experts include Pierre-Marie Gy, O.P., Pierre Jounel and Frederick McManus. Journalists Robert Blair Kaiser and Irving R. Levine offer their perspectives, as well as observers Martin Marty, Brother Roger of Taizé and Sister Mary Luke Tobin, S.L.

The late Archbishop Hurley commented that the world synod of bishops has not lived up to its potential, partly because theologians have not been involved enough. The interview with Archbishop Piero Marini, the pope’s master of ceremonies, is particularly interesting. Sister Mary Luke Tobin says: “I believe that, unless we incorporate the virtue of hope in our lives, we are not going to get through the modern period....It’s hope that gives us the courage to go forward.”

Perhaps the last word should go to Bishop Frank Marcus Fernando of Chilaw, Sri Lanka: “The Church will go on. There will be Roncalli popes in the future, too.”

You can order VOICES FROM THE COUNCIL from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

MARTIN LUTHER: A Penguin Life, by Martin Marty. Viking. 224 pp. $19.95.

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

AN AUGUSTINIAN PROFESSOR who taught me in graduate school always referred to Martin Luther as “Friar Martin.” Far from being a heretic who deserved to be burned at the stake, Luther was and remained a fellow Augustinian, a brother in faith, who, unfortunately, was about 450 years ahead of his time.

In Martin Luther, Martin Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago and one of the most catholic non-Catholics I know, presents the story of one of the most contentious and influential religious reformers in history.

Luther, as portrayed by Marty, is not an exercise in hagiography. He is presented as a man of his time—both saintly and flawed. In speaking of Luther’s positive and lingering contributions, Marty impressively lists several: the development of human liberty, the free expression of conscience, the support of music, the development of literary style, and Luther’s role in reshaping religious life.

Ultimately, though, Marty writes that Luther “makes most sense as a wrestler with God, indeed as a God-obsessed seeker of certainty and assurance in a time of social trauma and of personal anxiety, beginning with his own.”

Though his father advocated a career in law, in 1505 Luther, following a vow made to St. Anne during a violent thunderstorm, became a monk. Certainty of belief would not come from a life of asceticism and Church authority, however, but from the authority of Scripture. Where and how this was discovered would be in Wittenberg as a teacher of Scripture.

To make a long theological story short, in 1517 Luther had seen enough and protested, nailing 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. He objected to the lucrative Church practice of selling indulgences which he felt took advantage of the faithful by granting salvation on the cheap and, furthermore, promoted complacency in the faith.

As a result of his protest, Luther would spend the next few years being chased by Rome and further refining his theology, all the while winning converts, both religious and political, to his cause. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, this now-excommunicated “wild boar,” when asked to recant his positions, declared before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, “I cannot do otherwise; here I stand.”

With neither side seemingly willing to compromise, the break appeared permanent. In subsequent years, as Luther sought to live his faith, the monk married and had children. Luther continued to rail against the papacy, but also turned his sights toward Muslims and Jews. For a man who had brought about such change, he often felt not like a victor but like a witness to the coming end of the world. His end came February 17, 1546.

As a Catholic, I must affirm that it does not seem appropriate to sum up by saying: “It is good to know thy enemy,” because Luther comes across more a fellow pilgrim in faith.

Martin Marty has provided for people of all faiths—or no faith at all—a readable, engaging and informative introduction to the figure of Martin Luther.

You can order MARTIN LUTHER: A Penguin Life from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

HUMAN ACCOMPLISHMENT: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, by Charles Murray. HarperCollins. 688 pp. $29.95.

Reviewed by the REV. MICHAEL P. ORSI, Ed.D., a research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

CHARLES MURRAY’S Human Accomplishment is bound to upset some people. Using a statistical method known as historiometry, Murray calculates the space given to major figures in the arts and sciences to gauge their long-term impact on humanity. The numbers indicate that the preponderance of human achievement has issued from white European males, notably from England, Germany, France and Italy between 1400 and 1950.

His astute analysis of the hard data shows that Christianity was a major factor for human achievement during that era. Because of the decline in the overarching worldview provided by Aristotelian philosophy and Christian belief, however, Murray contends that humanity’s golden age of accomplishment has come to an end.

Murray shows how Christianity is built upon the philosophical foundation of the Greeks. They saw the human person as unique and free with rational power for observation. He believes their self-conscious awareness and power of perception gave human life value. These specifically human qualities, combined with metaphysics, provided for them a vision of the true, the good and the beautiful.

Murray says these attributes, combined with Christian respect for the individual and the obligation to use one’s intellect and will for the greater honor and glory of God, were the ingredients that led to an explosion of human achievement.

The process took over 1,000 years to develop, Murray suggests, since early Christianity was in the beginning more communal than individualistic. The seeds, however, were certainly present when, in the second century, St. Irenaeus proclaimed, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

Protestantism, though less enthusiastic about the world and the nature-grace nexus than Catholicism, also contributed to the boom in science and the arts by its devotion to rugged individualism, the hard work ethic exemplified in the scientific method—which Murray deems to be the granddaddy of mega-inventions—and its embrace of capitalist economics.

Murray contends that neither Eastern Orthodoxy nor Islam ever experienced a comparable burst of creativity. He attributes this to their hierarchical structure, which is fixed on obedience and tradition. Autonomy in these societies was frowned upon, leaving little room for speculative inquiry and experimentation.

He says that Islam’s golden age during the ninth and 10th centuries was actually an aberration, since the religious leaders did not have a tight grip on the newly conquered cultures.

Murray condemns the present zeitgeist that disdains any overarching idea that provides a cohesive vision for society. He says the elimination of a belief in a transcendent good has destroyed a basic organizing structure of society. A belief in transcendence allowed for coherence of thought and shared growth among artists and scientists.

He castigates the present relativism in the arts as at best trite, personal and, in many cases, disgusting. Robert Mapplethorpe’s obscene photographs and the dung-covered Madonna displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art not too long ago stand out among the current genre as cases in point.

While the book contains an abundance of statistical data, the author’s commentary makes it quite comprehensible for the mathematically challenged. For those who want to learn inferential statistics, Appendix I is a veritable “statistics for dummies” course.

Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who describes himself as an agnostic, has provided us with an insightful look at the power of religion in shaping humankind.

You can order HUMAN ACCOMPLISHMENT: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

PLUMBING IN HARLEM: A Novel, by Joe Benevento. PublishAmerica. 186 pp. $19.95.

Reviewed by CHRISTOPHER HEFFRON, an assistant editor of this publication. In 1997, he graduated with dual majors in English and communication arts from the College of Mount St. Joseph.

IT ISN’T OFTEN you come across a novel whose main character is a ham-fisted plumber’s helper with a Ph.D. and an existential crisis. Gus Perazzo, the protagonist in Joe Benevento’s Plumbing in Harlem, is a man whose life is not unlike the ramshackle buildings in which he works: damaged, dejected but full of possibility.

It’s summertime, 1980. Gus Perazzo, a 30-year-old with a job offer to teach college in Iowa, returns home to Queens to spend time with his colorful Italian-American family. Among them are Ana, the mother who’s been diagnosed with liver cancer, and Joe, the father who can’t admit to his wife—or himself—that her cancer is likely terminal.

Over the course of eight weeks, Gus gladly suffers an onslaught of eccentric, memorable characters, from inside his own home to the tenants of the apartment buildings he’s helping to renovate.

But life for Gus isn’t a resolvable, 30-minute sitcom. Crisis and grief are also part of his personal landscape. An especially moving—and wearisome—subplot is his strained relationship with his wife, Angela, an academic who resents her husband’s marital hiatus for quality time with his family. The prospect of moving to Iowa is a further crack in their shaky marriage.

Gus shelves his marital anguish for a summer of much-needed soul- and self-assessment. His sojourn in Queens proves invaluable. When anybody returns to his or her childhood home, reminiscence often collides with new experiences, and Gus lays himself open to all of it.

Plumbing in Harlem is crammed with moments of beauty and memory. Case in point: As Gus climbs the steps to take a shower after his first day of exhausting—and fruitless—plumbing, he remembers as a child counting the same stairs as he walked them, fretting that the top step ended at the cursed 13. Revisiting one’s past, even the most benign moments, is a theme the author captures with an almost lyrical flair.

Joe Benevento, author, poet and writing professor at Truman State University in Missouri, has undoubtedly conveyed to his students the famous adage: “Write what you know.” He draws upon his own life experiences as a plumber’s apprentice—and son of a sick mother—in the early ’80s.

That authenticity saturates the pages: Each complex character, quirky episode or line of dialogue is infused with life, pathos and genuine humor. (Rarely has this reviewer laughed aloud from the pages of a book. Benevento’s story can be blamed for several such outbursts.)

Catholic imagery can be found throughout this slim novel, from Ana’s tireless loyalty to the saints—particularly Padre Pio—to Gus’s own struggle with his faith amid a life ravaged by heartache and doubt.

But this is more than just a story sprinkled with Catholic ingredients. Plumbing in Harlem is, above all, a human story—a tangible, engrossing piece of work that weaves together the threads of everyday life: the fear of loss, the pain of journeying down old roads and the exhilaration of new, uncharted paths. Benevento’s book is a photo album put into words.

Some readers may find the bits of crass language distracting, but it’s a small price to pay for this subtle, poignant piece of quasi-fiction. Plumbing in Harlem, like a grand, tall tale, is the author’s way of saying to the reader, “Sit back. You’re gonna love this one.”

You can order PLUMBING IN HARLEM: A Novel from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

Book Briefs

Valentine’s Day is associated with romantic, sexual love, which the ancient Greeks called eros. But it should also remind us of agape, unselfish, spiritual love. These books look at both loves and remind us of the God who is love.

LOVE: A Guide for Prayer (revised and updated), by Jacqueline Syrup Bergan and Marie Schwan, C.S.J. (The Word Among Us, 141 pp., $12). The first in the “Take and Receive” series, this book offers 36 meditations to lead us to a deeper experience of God’s love and presence in our lives. It’s intended for private prayer and faith-sharing groups.


THE MEETING OF ANNI ADAMS: The Butterfly of Luxembourg, by Lonnie D. Story (ACW Press, 356 pp., $20.95), is the biography of a gentle woman who lived through the Nazi occupation of her homeland and became a war bride, coming to New York in 1946. It’s a sweet story of an ordinary woman who has never lost her faith in God or in the possibilities of love.

LOVE ALONE IS CREDIBLE, by Hans Urs Von Balthasar, translated by D.C. Schindler (Communio/Ignatius Press, 153 pp., $14.95), is the late, eminent, Swiss theologian’s perspective on the meaning of divine love and how to imitate the saints as “lovers of God.” In the preface Von Balthasar says, “Lovers are the ones who know most about God; the theologian must listen to them.”


Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 1618 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6493, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 7.0 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.


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