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.

Five Books for 2014


For whatever reason we seem to be a golden age of books on Catholic evangelization and catechesis. Every month sees more books being published on these subjects, many of them highly recommendable. It can be hard to keep up with them all!

With that in mind I am continuing a tradition I began some years back and recommending some of the best books I read in the past year.

  • Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter by Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran (2013) – I’ve been recommending this book as a great follow-up to Forming Intentional Disciples — not so much for the decisions this parish made in changing the way they organize and live their communal life (some of which I don’t agree with) but because of the questions they asked that brought them to those decisions. Anyone trying to revitalize parish life would do well to reflect on the experience of this parish.
  • Beyond the Catechist’s Toolbox: Catechiesis That Not Only Informs but Also Transforms by Joe Paprocki (2013) – I have yet to read a book by Joe and consider it time wasted, and this slim volume — a follow up to his rightly loved The Catechist’s Toolbox — offers a clear vision for making catechesis “more like Mass than class.”
  • Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church by George Weigel (2013) – I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I picked up Weigel’s latest book, but I certainly wasn’t expecting both a cogent and thoughtful history of the New Evangelization and recommendations for reforming Church structures for an increase in the missionary activity of the Church. This one-two punch is a must-read for Church leaders planning for the next 40 years.
  • Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat (2012) – Douthat is one of the best Catholic commentators in America today, and this study of the ways in which religious practice has been subverted and made to serve philosophies alien to traditional Christianity puts in stark terms the culture we are living in today.
  • 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator by Jared Dees (2013) – Another deceptively small book with big ideas. Digestible in a month’s time, any catechist who takes Jared’s words to heart can’t help but become a more engaging and evangelizing religious educator.

What books did you read last year that have made an impact on your life or ministry?

Book Review: The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning

nfp-coverSimcha Fisher’s new The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning is the most refreshing and honest work on NFP I’ve ever read. In easy prose that’s at times laugh-out-loud funny, Fisher has the courage to face the true ups and down of using NFP as a Catholic couple — both the joys that come from marital chastity and the fact that sometimes, when you want to have sex and need to abstain, it kinda sucks.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, “NFP and the Spiritual Life,” Fisher outlines important spiritual considerations of the Church’s teachings on marital love. In the second, “NFP and the Rest of the World,” she deals with the counter-cultural implications of NFP. But the final and longest section, “NFP in the Trenches,” is the real meat of the book, where Fisher takes a brutally honest look at what it means to put the Church’s teachings into practice. Fisher is not afraid to tackle difficult and rarely-discussed aspects of martial sexuality and should be commended for finding safe ground between frankness and explicitness.

As a husband I can also say that the book is “guy-friendly”; while much of the advice is clearly directed towards wives, it never turns flowery or overly emotional in a way that might turn of committed Catholic men, and I recommend that husbands and wives read the book together.

The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning is an outstanding contribution to the Catholic conversation on marital sexuality and I heartily recommend it.

Book Review: Mentors for the New Evangelization

mentorsThis past summer at the St. John Bosco Conference I picked up a copy of Sr. M. Johanna Paruch’s new book, Mentors for the New Evangelization: Catechetical Saints of North America (Catechetical Institute at Franciscan University, 2013). I’m glad I did — the books is a treasure trove of inspiring stories from the saints of North America who evangelized and catechized the continent.

The book focuses both on familiar names (St. Juan Diego, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Ven. Fr. Michael McGiveny) and lesser-known saints (St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, Bl. Marie of the Incarnation).

Each chapter focuses on one or two saints and includes a biographical sketch, a reflection based on the life of the saints, questions for further reflection, and a prayer. The biographies are straight-forward if leaning towards hagiography. The reflections and prayers would be ideal for use in a small group setting or retreat for catechists; I can imagine a catechetical leader presenting information on each saint and then leading a period of reflection based on the material.

Mentors for the New Evangelization is an ideal resource for those who wish to know more about the history and persons behind catechesis in North America. It would make a great addition to any catechetical library.

Book Review: Beyond the Catechist’s Toolbox

A few weeks ago Joe Paprocki asked if I would be interested in reviewing his new book, Beyond the Catechist’s Toolbox: Catechesis That Not Only Informs but Also Transforms. Of course I said yes; I’ve been a fan of Joe’s work ever since I became involved in catechesis.

beyond-coverBeyond the Catechist’s Toolbox builds on and expands Joe’s book The Catechist’s Toolbox. In fact, this new book is a intended to help catechists “take it to the next level” by offering a model for religious education that moves beyond the typical “classroom model.” This model will be familiar to anyone who follows Joe’s blog since he makes regular allusions to his method there. Nevertheless, having this model laid out systematically and in one place is a blessing.

This new model focuses on making religious education more like religious practice; Joe’s refrain throughout the book is “more like Mass than class.” To that end Joe outlines a 70-minute, 5-step process for engaging youth in catechesis not only through the use of books (although Joe points out the importance of good catechetical materials) but through prayer, activities, and reflection.

For instance, after the opening prayer, Joe recommends starting the session with an activity that helps students identify with the topic or subject of the evening. He uses St. Ignatius of Loyola’s practice of “entering through their door but leaving through your own” to make an immediate impact while guiding participants to where you want them to go.

I love this model for the way it connects the content of the faith with the practice of the faith. Too often our catechesis exists in a vacuum where what we learn doesn’t make an impact on how we pray and worship. Joe rightfully recognizes the disservice this does to youth and seeks to reintegrate these aspects of faith formation.

Beyond the Catechist’s Toolbox is an excellent resource and, at just 90 pages, a great gift for catechists and Catholic school teachers. I heartily recommend its use in parishes and schools as another way of taking catechesis beyond the school model and back to its evangelizing roots.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from its publisher, Loyola Press.

Book Review: Not Less Than Everything

Whenever I agree to review a book on my blog I try my best to keep an open mind about it. This seems to be only fair, both to the author and to those who might read the review. Going in with preconceived notions about the author or the topic can keep one from gleaning valuable insights and enjoyment based on interior disposition rather than the merit of the work.

Admittedly this can be difficult, as was the case with Not Less Than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience, from Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero. On page two editor Catherine Wolff had already turned me off with her list of “grave concerns about the state of our Church.” While I can agree that increased financial transparency and accountability would benefit the Church, claiming bishops are “intervening in politics and public policy” ignores the reality that it was changes in public policy that put the Church in a position necessitating a response, while calling 2000 years of teaching on sexuality and marriage “retrograde, even ignorant” is unbecoming anyone who has made it out of their teens.

Not Less Than EverthingUnfortunately some of the essays didn’t make a more favorable impression. While I enjoyed Tom Beaudoin’s writings 10 years ago, I have to question his assertion that St. Ignatius of Loyola would approve of his move away from the Catholic Church. (Beaudoin describes himself as post-Catholic, which makes him a curious choice for a book of essays from Catholic writers.) Sr. Joan Chittister’s essay on Hildegard von Bingen is standard fare for anyone familiar with her writing, while Martha E. Stortz offers a dizzyingly incomprehensible portrait of Martin Luther.

That having been said, I’m glad that I persevered on, for there are some delightful gems to be found in the book. Patrick Jordan’s reflection on Servant of God Dorothy Day (aided by his own recollections of her during his time working at a Catholic Worker house) paints a beautiful portrait of this saint-in-the-making; Cathleen Kaveny’s biography of Mother Mary Mackillop (St. Mary of the Cross, Australia’s first saint) challenges anyone who naively believes in the impeccability of Church officials; and Paul Elie offers a striking picture of fidelity through the artwork of Caravaggio.

These essays belie the emptiness of their lesser neighbors, which tend to leave the impression that acting on behalf of one’s beliefs is a noble pursuit in and of itself. This makes an idol of the will, which is a gift meant to be used in pursuit of greater goods. Mother Mary Mackillop’s excommunication is not a vindication of her principles; it is the grace and holiness with which she accepts that excommunication that demonstrates her virtue and shames those who persecuted her. Archbishop Romero’s martyrdom is inseparable from his commitment to Christ and his Church, from whom he learned to love the persecuted.

I can’t help but think that Not Less Than Everything could have benefited from a greater inclusion of the diversity of Catholic thought. Certainly writers such as Ross Douthat, Amy Welborn, and John C. Wright would have added additional perspective and insight. As it is, the book is a mixed bag; readers would do well to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book for free from TLC Book Tours.

My “Five Books” List for 2013

Every year in January I post a list of some of my favorite reads from the past twelve months. So without further ado:

  • Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus by Sherry Weddell (2012) – I don’t need to belabor this one. Suffice to say that it was the most important book I read last year and anyone involved in catechesis and evangelization needs to read it. If you want more info you can read my full review of the book.
  • Holiness for Everyone: The Practical Spirituality of Josemaria Escriva by Eric Sammons (2012) – This books was a great introduction to the “everyday” spirituality of this modern saint. Focusing on the universal call to holiness, Sammons walks through St. Josemaria’s spirituality in a  simple  and enlightening way.
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (2011) – I learned  so much about myself through this book. By focusing on the physiological  underpinnings  of introversion, Cain has helped me to understand my physical reactions to certain situations — which in turn has helped me to become more comfortable with myself and others. A great book for introverts or anyone with an introvert in their life.
  • I Wasn’t Dead When I Wrote This: Advice Given in the Nick of Time by Lisa-Marie Calderone-Stewart (2012) – I’m not much for self-help or advice books, but this volume touched me in a way I wasn’t quite expecting. Written literally in the last few months of her life, this book is a gift of stories and insight to young people from a dedicated and loving youth minister.
  • Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (1972) – I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t read nearly enough fiction in 2012. Fortunately my sister got me this great story from a sci-fi master for Christmas and I devoured it. Ostensibly about an alien spacecraft making it’s way through our solar system, Clarke focuses on humanity’s capacity for wonder at the suprises that await us throughout creation.

Did you have any books that touched you in the past year? Recommend them in the comments!

Book Review: Holy Days

In Holy Days: Meditations on the Feasts, Fasts, and Other Solemnities of the Church, editor Jean-Michel Coulet has compiled a useful selection of excerpts from the homilies of Pope Benedict XVI related to various holy days throughout the Church’s liturgical year.

The book is divided by liturgical season, beginning with Advent and progressing through the entire Church year. Each selection is related to a holy day that falls in that season. Readers should be aware that depending on the dates of certain feasts the holy days may appear out of order. For instance, the book places the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle (February 22) after the Second Sunday of Lent; in 2013, the feast will precede the Sunday. This is a minor inconvenience, however.

The text of the book comes directly from the homilies and addresses of Benedict XVI and reflects his pastoral and catechetical concerns. While the content of the book may be available online, this collection makes it easy to journey through the Church year with the Holy Father. Holy Days would make a worthy addition to any spiritual library.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book through LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program.

Board Game Review: Mystery of the Abbey

Since my experiences at the GenCon Trade Day I’ve been thinking about how to use board games in Catholic education and faith formation. There aren’t a lot of board games with explicitly religious themes (outside the tired “Bible Trivia”-style games), so I’ve focused on using existing, high-quality games in a catechetical way.

Fortuitously, Days of Wonder has just reissued one of its classic games with a religious atmosphere: Mystery of the Abbey  by Bruno Faidutti and Serge Laget. Loosely based on the novel The Name of the Rose (more in flavor than in plot), Mystery of the Abbey is a deductive game (think Clue) set in a medieval  monastery. The players take on the roles of would-be investigators tracking down clues as to which member of the  monastery  murdered one of their own.

To narrow down the list of suspects players use suspects cards (like Clue, one card is placed under the board; the suspect on that card is the killer) and travel to the different rooms of the monastery, each of which allows the player to take a special action, For instance, going to a Confessional allows the player to take a random suspect card from the last player to visit that Confessional while taking a book from the Scriptorium will give the player a special ability to be used immediately or saved for later.

Every four turns the players must return to the Ecclesia where suspect cards are traded and an “Event” card is drawn. These events add more effects from the mechanical (all the players are immediate sent to their Cells) to the whimsical (everyone must sing “Frère Jacques” in a round).

Players track down the perpetrator by narrowing down the list via character traits. Was the killer fat or thin? Was he a Franciscan, a Templar, or a Benedictine? A priest, a brother, or a novice? Once the list of suspects has been narrowed, a player can choose to declare an individual trait or guess the perpetrator. Points are awarded for correct guesses (guessing the perpetrator nets more points than just a trait); whoever has the most points at the end of the game wins.


Days of Wonder is known for its high production values and Mystery of the Abbey is no exception. The board, which features a map of the monastery, is beautifully rendered with lots of color. The instructions are short and easy to understand.  The six monk pieces and three custom dice are made of wood and the cards are sturdy, standing up to plenty of shuffling and handling. My favorite touch, however, is the little metal “Mass Bell” used to call the players back to the Ecclesia at the end of every round — it’s a small touch that adds another layer of whimsy to the game.

Educational Objectives

Like Clue, Mystery of the Abbey helps students hone their reasoning skills — although with 24 suspects and five different traits to identify the game is a little more involved that its predecessor. Younger students will have opportunities to practice reading comprehension skills and following the directions on the Scriptorium and Bibliotheca cards.

Catechetical Objectives

There are actually a few ways in which Mystery of the Abbey can be used to touch on areas of the faith. The map of the abbey itself can be used to talk about consecrated religious life (it includes a church, confessionals, cells, a scriptorium, and the cloister). The game uses the Liturgy of the Hours (Matins, Lauds, Prime, etc.) as a pacing mechanic. And, of course, there are the three religious orders represented in the game.

Mystery of the Abbey plays with 3-6 players (recommended ages 8+) and lasts 60-90 minutes. The new reprint does include misprints on the Mass cards; an errata has been posted and replacement cards will be available soon.