Book Review: Connected toward Communion

Connected Communion Apprvd.inddConnected Toward Communion: The Church and Social Communication in the Digital Age (Liturgical Press, 2014) is a positive contribution to the ongoing dialogue between Catholic thought and the rapidly changing technological frontier. The book offers an overview of the major ecclesial documents pertaining to social communication and the Internet from Vatican II forward. Zsupan-Jerome’s focus, however, is on how the Church can form lay and ordained pastoral ministers to use these technologies and serve the faithful in the digital age.

She refrains from offering concrete suggestions for the formation of pastoral minsters, which is both a strength and a weakness. While a more detailed plan for formation would have quickly become outdated as technologies come and go, readers may finish the book wondering “what next?”

Zsupan-Jerome augments her analysis with plenty of references to more recent works (both religious and secular) on technology’s effects on the human person and the book includes an ample bibliography.

Recommended for theological and academic libraries.

N.B.: I received a free review copy of this book from the Catholic Library Association. This review was originally published in the September 2015 issue of Catholic Library World.

Book Review: Mending Broken Relationships, Building Strong Ones

boucherJohn and Therese Boucher’s Mending Broken Relationships, Building Strong Ones: Eight Ways to Love as Jesus Loved Us is a slim volume that packs a powerful spiritual punch. The aim of the book is to help readers in “realizing God’s love and connecting others to Jesus” through eight interconnected practices.

The eight spiritual practices advocated by the Bouchers are intercession, respect, forgiveness, gratitude, affirmation, patience and forbearance, honesty, and a healing presence. Each practice is first explained in light of Sacred Scripture; then consideration is given for how readers can accept the gift of this spiritual practice. Finally, the Bouchers walk through concrete steps for putting the practice into action.

The book is written in an easy conversational style — it is not overly theological, but uses the Church’s tradition to illuminate real human experience. The Bouchers sprinkle stories from the saints and their own lives throughout the book to help illustrate the principles they have layed out. Each chapter also includes reflection questions, suggested skills to practice, and prayer resources.

Mending Broken Relationships, Building Strong Ones is a great read for any faithful Christian individually or as part of a small book group.

N.B.: I received a free review copy of this book from the authors.

DVD Review: Demystifying the Book of Revelation

DemystifyingRevelationIn “Demystifying the Book of Revelation,” Fr. William Burton, OFM, accomplishes a difficult task: unpacking the complex symbolism of apocalyptic literature – and the Book of Revelation in particular – in a manner consistent with Catholic tradition while combating distorted interpretations that have come to dominate modern Christianity in recent decades.

Through six video segments Fr. Burton carefully lays out the historical and literary background of the Book of Revelation. Significant time is spent discussing the genre of apocalyptic literature in Jewish tradition and making connections between the symbols employed by John of Patmos and the situation of the early Church under Roman rule.

Fr. Burton also spends an entire segment debunking the popular “rapture” theory popularized by fundamentalist Christians and the Left Behind series.

The lecture by Fr. Burton is punctuated with artwork and video illustrations which, while not rising to the quality of other Catholic video series on the market, nevertheless serve the purpose of the material.

The DVD comes packaged with a short discussion guide containing questions for small groups, making the videos easy to use in a parish formation or educational setting.

Recommended for all libraries.

N.B.: I received a free review copy of this DVD from the Catholic Library Association. This review was originally published in the June 2015 issue of Catholic Library World.

Book Review: Tweeting with God

TWG-PTweeting with God (Ignatius Press, 2015) arose out of sessions held by Fr. Michel Remery, a Dutch priest, and the youth of his parish. Two hundred of the questions these young people asked – and Fr. Remery’s responses – have been compiled into an attractive and wide-ranging overview of the Catholic faith.

The topics are arranged into four sections dealing with God, the Church, prayer and the sacraments, and Christian living. Each question is answered over two pages with supplemental material, sidebars, full-color pictures, maps, and other graphics. Each question also gets a 140-character “summary” answer (hence the title of the book).

The book is clearly aimed at a young audience. Fr. Remery writes with a breezy, relaxed style that never condescends or skirts difficult issues. Questions such as “Why are some Christians hypocritical,” “Why were there violent crusades,” and “Is it bad that I struggle with chastity?” are tackled in a straightforward, honest fashion. The answers are thorough without being overly academic or theological.

Fr. Remery does not claim the book is a complete overview of the Catholic faith; rather, it is designed to deal with the most pressing questions young people have about the faith. The book directs readers to the Bible, Catechism, and YouCat for a more thorough presentation of Catholic doctrine.

Recommended for high school, campus ministry, and parish libraries.

N.B.: I received a free review copy of this book from the Catholic Library Association. This review was originally published in the June 2015 issue of Catholic Library World.

Book Review: You Have Put on Christ

017173_rdax_266x400At the root of all Christian discipleship is the Sacrament of Baptism, for it is in Baptism that we become a new creation and are clothed in Christ (cf. RCIA no. 229). Jerry Galipeau’s new book You Have Put on Christ: Cultivating a Baptismal Spirituality is an extended reflection on this reality, told mainly through stories of Dr. Galipeau’s discovery of the power of his own baptism.

The very first chapter recounts a pilgrimage Dr. Galipeau took to the church where he was baptized in an effort to connect his ministry to the roots of his participation in the life of Christ:

“I reached out and gave the top lid of the font a little push and, sure enough, it began to move. The lid opened and inside I saw three small chambers, probably enameled over some kind of steel (rust had formed around the edges) that once held the baptismal water. I just stood there and stared inside this font, thinking to myself, ‘My little head was once right here.’ I was overwhelmed with emotion. ‘Right here,’ I thought, ‘right here is where my life changed forever.'”

Subsequent chapters unpack the baptismal character of Lent and the ways in which a Catholic parish might help parishioners to rediscover the power and meaning of their baptism.

The book comes with an enhanced CD-ROM containing four instrumental tracks, sheet music for the hymn “God, Who at the Font once Named Us,” and the script for a parish-based baptismal reflection session (as described in the third chapter). The files are all reproducible for parish use.

You Have Put on Christ is a short but moving reflection on the grace of Baptism and a great resource for parish liturgists and catechists.

Book Review: Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples

BPIDSherry Weddell’s 2012 Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus sent shock waves across the Catholic catechetical and evangelizing communities. At the time I wrote that the book

has appeared at precisely the moment it is needed in the life of the Church… and I believe every bishop, pastor, evangelist, and catechetical leader should have a copy and study it carefully. I know I will be.

Since then I have read the book several times, led a discussion of the book in our curia offices, given away hundreds of copies, and incorporated Sherry’s reflections into my work as a diocesan catechetical leader.

So it is without hyperbole that I say that I have greatly anticipated the release of Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples.

In this new book Weddell takes on editorial duties, collecting reflections from representatives of parishes who have set out to become centers of discipleship. It is a slimmer book than its predecessor — almost half as long — but relentlessly focused in its translation of Weddell’s first book for parish life.

There aren’t a lot of new theological insights in Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples. Instead each chapter offers stories and reflections on the real lived experience of “in the trenches” disciples who are committed to sharing the Gospel and helping others encounter Jesus in their lives and churches.

Weddell herself contributes a chapter based on her popular keynote talk recounting the lives of an extraordinary group of saints in the late 16th and early 17th centuries who transformed the lukewarm, corrupt Christian community in France into a vibrant, faith-filled Church. Keith Strohm writes about the importance of prayer in energizing the work of intentional discipleship, while Fr. Michael Fones, OP, offers an excellent reflection on the role and dignity of the laity in the mission of the Church.

Bobby Vidal connects intentional discipleship to the work of the New Evangelization by demonstrating the importance of embracing new methods, ardor, and expression — especially as they are expressed through the charisms present in a parish. Katherine Coolidge and Fr. Chas Canoy both offer reflections on how their parishes built up a community of disciples, and Jim Beckman dispels myths about youth ministry that stand in the way of forming teens as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples is an excellent companion piece to Forming Intentional Disciples and is a must-read for anyone looking for inspiration and real-life examples of disciple-making. As before, I recommend it to all bishops, pastors, evangelists, catechetical leaders, and anyone interested in the formation of disciples in the Church.

5 Books for 2015

I am a firm believer that one of the most important activities a leader can engage in is good reading. Reading exposes us to new and challenging ideas, expands our understanding of the world, and offers respite from our normal business.

Since 2010 I’ve started out the year by recommending books I’ve read the past year to other catechetical leaders. Here’s this year’s list:

  1. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull (2014); Whether you’re a Pixar fan or looking for leadership insight from someone with an impeccable track record, this book is an easy, delightful read. I’ve already taken some of his lessons to heart as a diocesan director.
  2. Confirmation: How a Sacrament of God’s Grace Became All About Us by Timothy R. Gabrielli (2013); Thinking about the Sacrament of Confirmation has absorbed much of my mental energy in recent years, and this small but dense book helped a lot in clarifying some of my thoughts. Gabrielli gives a thorough historical treatment of the Sacrament of Confirmation leading up to Vatican Council II and after, with a particular eye to its interactions with changing secular ideas about adolescence.
  3. Evangelii Gaudium by Pope Francis (2014); This is a bit of a cheat since it’s technically an apostolic exhortation, not a book, but “The Joy of the Gospel” continues to unfold its rich treasury of gifts as I unpack it in light of my own ministry. Don’t rush through this one: it rewards slow, deep reading.
  4. Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom Rainer (2014); This slim tome, by a Southern Baptist pastor, examines the factors that lead to a local church community’s decline and eventual failure. I posted a full review last May; suffice to say that there is much here that applies to Catholic parishes.
  5. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1997); Recommended to me by the founder of LibraryThing, this science fiction novel tells the tale of the first Jesuit mission to another species on a distant planet. Russell does an outstanding job of portraying the rich faith lives of her diverse cast of characters — what could have come across as predictable and preachy is instead grounded, surprising, and tender.

Book Review: When Other Christians Become Catholic

Tomorrow I will head to Chicago for the annual meeting of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions. It’s not my usual annual conference — and I’m not even a liturgist! — but the attendees will be participating in a consultation process with the USCCB’s Committee for Divine Worship on the National Statues for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), so our director for the Office for Worship and the Catechumenate asked if I would like to tag along given the catechetical import of the topic.

One of the pieces of “required reading” we were given to prepare for the consultation process is Fr. Paul Turner’s When Other Christians Become Catholic (Pueblo, 2007). This short tome covers a number of issues related to the reception into the Church of Christians from other ecclesial communities. This includes an overview of the history of how other Christians have been received, starting with the early years of the Church when adherents to heretical sects (such as the Arians) joined the true faith; a look at how other Christians receive members into their communities; and a look at issues that still remain with the process as it was renewed after Vatican Council II.

WOCBC-turnerFr. Turner’s overarching message, however, is to remind us that when other Christians choose to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church, they are not doing so in a vacuum or as if their previous faith commitments were invalid. This is both a theological and a pastoral point: theological in that we must take seriously the validity and reality of the person’s baptism, even if that baptism occurred in a community not connected with the Catholic Church. The question of whether to recognize other baptisms was decided in the affirmative by the ancient Church; this presupposes that God is really and truly acting in their lives even before their movement towards the Catholic Church.

The point is pastoral because, in practice, many Christians come away from the process of reception into the Church with the impression that their baptisms were somehow “lesser” because they did not occur in a Catholic context. Fr. Turner puts the blame for this squarely on the practice of including baptized candidates for full communion in the same preparation program as unbaptized catechumens who are preparing for full initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist), culminating in a combined rite at the Easter Vigil. As Fr. Turner states,

By adopting Easter as the paradigmatic occasion for celebrating the rite of reception, the Catholic Church in the United States has reframed the meaning of the rite and its attendant preparation into something more resembling a conversion, a dying and a rising – rather than an evolution, a coming to full communion… Such a conversion is a symptom that something has gone wrong with the rite of reception. The council envisioned an ecumenically sensitive rite that would promote the concept of one baptism among Christians. But the rite of reception is being celebrated as a near equivalent with the initiation of the unbaptized.

This will, no doubt, be a major topic of conversation at this week’s FDLC meeting as we discuss the National Statutes.

The only downside to Fr. Turner’s book is a linguistic one; because the book was published in 2007, it does not take into account the 2010 translation of the Roman Missal. As a result, his discussion of such texts (including an otherwise excellent examination of the text of the Mass for Christian Unity) do not reflect the current liturgical language, although his overarching points are still relevant.

Nevertheless, the book is highly recommended for it’s overall theme and discussion of the historical and ecumenical nature of welcoming other Christians into full communion. When Other Christians Become Catholic is a valuable resource for pastors, evangelists, and RCIA leaders and team members.

Book Review: Autopsy of a Deceased Church

Thom Rainer’s Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive (based on this post from his blog) is a short but penetrating look at the symptoms indicating a sick church community.

The book is based on interviews Rainer conducted with representatives from 12 closed churches. Through these interviews he identified various patterns and symptoms of dying churches: lack of evangelization, a failure to budget for mission, no communal prayer, etc.

autopsyRainer’s purpose is not just to depress us, though. As he states in the outset, his hope is that this “autopsy” will help others to identify symptoms of an unhealthy church before it becomes a crisis. To that end he includes reflection questions at the end of each chapter to help church leaders discern the “vital signs” of their communities.

The book ends with suggestions for churches in various stages of decline. Rainer does not mince words. He advocates for drastic changes in drastic circumstances, something many communities will resist. But Rainer is not concerned with comfort; he is concerned with churches communicating the Gospel effectively.

A quick note to Catholic readers: while Rainer is Baptist and some of the examples in the book have a decidedly Protestant bent, the symptoms and suggestions identified by him are just as applicable to Catholic parishes. Any diocesan or parish leader interested in healthy parish communities would do well to read and reflect on Rainer’s work.

Book Review: Brother Hugo and the Bear

brother_hugo_and_the_bearKaty Beebe’s Brother Hugo and the Bear is a children’s story based on an incident recounted in a letter by Peter the Venerable, abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Cluny, to the prior of La Grande Chartreuse:

And send to us, if you please, the great volume of letters by the holy father Augustine, which contains his letters to Saint Jerome, and Saint Jerome’s to him. For it happens that the greater part of our volume was eaten by a bear.

With this kernel Beebe spins a delightful tale of the young monk who must gather materials and copy the letters of Saint Augustine, all the while pursued by the bear who has acquired a taste for the scribe’s works. In addition to laughing at the impish humor of the story children will also learn a little about how monks created beautiful works of art in their illuminated manuscripts.

The artwork by S. D. Schindler is a wonderful compliment to the text, with quirky illuminations and plenty of details for children to pour over. The book also contains some short historical notes, a glossary, and notes from the author and illustrator, making this an ideal classroom book.

I heartily recommend Brother Hugo and the Bear for parents, children, teachers, and catechists.

Disclaimer: I received a free pre-publication copy of this book from LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program.