Book Review: Catholicism

Book Review:

Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith by Robert Barron

I read this book as a result of two happy accidents. First, I was channel surfing and watched about 15 minutes of the documentary series of the same name narrated by Father Barron on ETWN. To emphasize the good fortune of that find, I should point out I am at best an occasional viewer of ETWN (no offense to regular viewers—it’s a fine ministry). Since I had a prior commitment, I was forced to turn off the TV before finishing the episode. Still, it was fascinating to watch, and I left thinking a series this good may have a companion book that goes with it. So I remembered the title and went on with my day. A few days later, I found myself in a bookstore with time to kill. This usually means I will end up buying something. I started thumbing through some used book selections thinking, I wonder if I can find a book about the TV documentary; and seconds later, I found a paperback version of this book, which on close inspection was exactly what I had hoped to find. Grace or good fortune? Take your pick. Either way I was thrilled.

Like my brief encounter with the documentary, Barron’s book did not disappoint. Following a lead from the back cover, I have since become familiar with Father Barron’s international media ministry called Word on Fire, which includes videos, podcasts, and blogs. His work reflects an extensive scholarly education, a deep appreciation of the Catholic Church’s rich tradition as a source of guidance and faith, and a love of good story-telling that can be enhanced by modern media technology. So what you get in reading Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith is a recasting of essential beliefs that draws on wonderful and fresh stories from scripture, catechism, and tradition in equal parts. In addition, you also get a collection of pictures of church art, architecture, and destinations which contribute to a multi-media, international experience in the mere pages of a book. It is a journey that inspires a sense of awe. For these reasons, I think it would be equally appealing to knowledgeable Catholics who enjoy a renewed appreciation for the faith and to the new and the curious as way to understand what it means to be Catholic, if he or she is a fairly sophisticated reader.

At 279 pages, the book covers a lot of ground. To give a taste of its contents, let me provide in detail an anecdote that I found particularly compelling, in part because it was unfamiliar to me. It is a story about Thomas Aquinas that Barron tells in a study of the two liturgies of the mass, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In his discussion of the latter, he tells a story about Aquinas to illustrate the incredible significance of the doctrine of the real presence and the idea of transubstantiation.

Barron recounts:

One of the most articulate defenders of the real presence was Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas loved the Eucharist. He celebrated Mass every morning, and immediately after his own Mass he would concelebrate at another. It is said that he rarely got through the Liturgy without weeping copious tears, so strongly did he identify with the Eucharistic mystery. It has also been reported that when he was struggling with a particularly thorny intellectual difficulty, he would go to the tabernacle, resting his head on it and begging for inspiration. Toward the end of his relatively short life…, Aquinas composed… a treatise on the Eucharist. When he had finished this remarkably thorough and complex text, he was still unconvinced that he had done justice to this great sacrament. Therefore he laid his treatise at the foot of the crucifix in the Dominican chapel in Naples and he prayed. A voice came from the cross: “Bene scripsisti de me, Thoma” (You have written well of me, Thomas), and then, “What would you have as a reward?” Aquinas said simply, “Nil nisi te” (nothing except you).

Until reading this story, I had viewed Thomas Aquinas as a rather dry, dusty road on my Catholic journey which I tried to travel down a couple of times and quickly turned around in a sense of bewilderment. But this anecdote shows a saint whose absolute faith is moving and inspirational, and whose scholarship is truly a gift from the Lord. The work of Thomas Aquinas is back on my life-long reading list.

Hopefully, this example provides a decent sense of Barron’s skill as a story-teller and guide to the faith. Each chapter teems with an abundance of such gems like the Aquinas story. Therefore, I highly recommend this book and a visit to the Word on Fire website. They are both enlightening and entertaining. Furthermore, the TV documentary series, Catholicism, joins Thomas Aquinas on my Catholic bucket list. Fortunately, the series can be purchased at wordonfire.org and some previews and excerpts are on Youtube also. Good news for the curious and those who are not avid readers.

Book Review: Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism

Book Review: Rediscover Catholicism

With a 2002 publication date, Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism as well as aspects of its message is already familiar to many Catholics. To give an example, I recently read Kentucky Basketball Coach John Calipari’s Players First where I discovered Coach Cal uses the expression “the best version of yourself” in his program with his players as a motivator and guiding principle. This same expression is central to Kelly’s message in the book and is encountered frequently in his speaking[1]. While Calipari does not reference Kelly as the source of this mantra, he reveals he is Catholic and a daily attender of mass. I am willing to make the plausible jump to the conclusion this is not merely a coincidence, but rather a connection between his Catholicism and a familiarity with Kelly’s ideas and thereby a sign of their influence among other Catholics.

In my opinion, this influence is merited. Kelly has a unique ability to take principles of the faith and explain them with contemporary language and analogies to make them relevant to those of us who, affected by a secular worldview, find the vocabulary of the Church at times distant or off-putting.  Kelly’s use of the principle that it is God’s plan for each of us to become “the-best-version-of-yourself” provides a good case in point. It calls to mind the familiar cultural imperative for self-improvement. Yet, his use of this expression is very specific to Catholic doctrine. He makes the case that if we are striving to know God and his mission for us, we will become more virtuous and active in answering His call over time, in other words, to become the-best-version-of-ourselves. By keeping this guiding principle in view, we will commence on a journey to a life focused on serving God and others rather than a self-absorbed and self-serving one. Kelly admits he is simply restating Vatican II’s emphasis on answering the universal call to holiness, that we are all called to be saints. However, it reveals this in a way that keeps in mind our unique gifts for service and the insight we don’t have to be saints now to become holy by the end of our life’s journey.

Kelly explains this central theme in this way:

Once we are aware of our yearning for happiness and the world’s inability to satisfy it, the adventure of salvation begins. Our yearning for happiness is one way God invites us to join this adventure. God has a dream for you and a plan for your life. He wants to deliver you from everything that stands in the way of becoming the-best-version-of-yourself… With this term I am not suggesting a narcissistic, self-seeking approach to life. Rather, I am inviting you to a dynamic collaboration with God. It is in and through this collaboration that we become the-best-version-of-ourselves, in which the loving nature of God is most present. God has a plan of salvation for each of us. Your adventure of salvation is unique and different from mine.

He uses this concept to create a context to discuss the practical usefulness of what he refers to as the “Seven Pillars of Catholic Spirituality:” confession, daily prayer, the mass, bible reading, fasting, spiritual reading, and the rosary. Drawing on the model of the saints, Kelly elucidates how each of these time-honored practices are highly effective methods to help us in our journeys to our personal Christian missions and vocations, ergo the-best-versions-of-ourselves, helping us recognize and live the genius of Catholicism.

For this review, I had re-read Rediscover Catholicism two years after my first reading motivated me to renew my own faith. I found it as insightful, engaging, and compelling as the first time. I think it is an appealing book for anyone interested in Catholicism including the unfamiliar, the fallen-away, and the devout as a source of both inspiration and practical advice.

[1] Although this is a book review, I will insert a plug for Kelly’s CD “Becoming the Best Version of Yourself” and his other CDs and DVDs as well. They are another great way to hear his message. His Australian accent is mesmerizing and, along with his sense of humor, brilliantly enhances his message. Visit dynamiccatholic.com to learn more.