Book Announcement: Sunday Prayers for Catechists

spc15I am very happy to announce that Liturgy Training Publications has asked me to write their 2014-2015 version of the annual Sunday Prayer for Catechists book!

From LTP:

Sunday Prayer for Catechists invites catechists to develop a habit of personal prayer and reflection on the Word of God. This annual resource provides Gospel texts from the Sunday Lectionary and reflections that connect the message of Scripture to work with young people in order to help catechists to grow spiritually through their ministry. It covers every Sunday and Holyday of Obligation from September 7, 2014, through August 30, 2015.

This resource is a wonderful gift to present to catechists at the beginning of the year, at retreats, or on Catechetical Sunday. There is a dedication page in the front of the book that can be signed by the director of religious education or pastor to add a personal touch. Catechists can use this prayer resource throughout the year individually or in small groups to grow in faith as a result of their experiences leading young people. The low cost and bulk pricing make this gift a practical choice for parishes looking to do something to thank their catechists for their ministry.

Sunday Prayers for Catechists is available now from LTP. I hope that it will be a blessing to teachers and catechists as they pray through the liturgical year.

Win an Exclusive Copy of Pope Francis’ First Book

My friends at Loyola Press are preparing for the release of Pope Francis first book, The Church of Mercy, with an opportunity to win a free copy before the book is officially released on April 20th .

Simply answer the following questions that will be posted each day this week on Loyola Press’s Facebook page, Ignatian Spirituality’s Facebook page, and Twitter. Be sure to include the tag #ChurchofMercy in your response.

Loyola Press will select three winners at random from all qualified entries each day—extra points awarded to contestants who submit visual answers!

The questions to answer each day are:

  • Monday: What do you love about Pope Francis?
  • Tuesday: When have you experienced a moment of mercy in your life?
  • Wednesday: Why do you want to read this book?
  • Thursday: How have you been inspired by Pope Francis?
  • Friday: Inspired by Pope Francis’s example, how will you be merciful to those in your life?

The contest begins at 8 a.m. CST on Monday, April 7th, and ends at 5 p.m. CST on April 11th. Entries are limited to those in North America.

Good luck!

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.

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: 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.

Book Review: The Good Pope

With the 50th anniversary of Vatican Council II just around the corner, now seems an appropriate time to re-examine the council and the figures who led it. (Indeed, with the Year of Faith, the Holy Father has invited us to do just that.) So it was with great interest that I read  The Good Pope: The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church — The Story of John XXIII and Vatican II by Greg Tobin.

Unfortunately, anyone looking for a  thorough  treatment of either Bl. John XXIII or Vatican Council II will be  disappointed in  The Good Pope. Mr. Tobin has an almost myopic interest in the political, eschewing the theological or spiritual significance of either John XXIII or the council, and his book is the poorer for it.

Anyone unfamiliar with the “Good Pope” will find some interesting information and anecdotes. Tobin does a good job of portraying Angelo’s humble beginnings and steady rise through the Church’s ranks, focusing on his diplomatic appointments in Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and France. Yet of all these instances in the pope’s life it was the account of John XXIII’s passing that I found especially moving. Surrounded by family and staff, the pope endured great pain in his final days, the result of the stomach cancer which took his life. Speaking to those present before receiving the Last Rites he was heard to say

The secret of my ministry is that crucifix you see opposite my bed. It’s there so that I can see it in my first waking moments and before going to sleep. It’s there, also, so that I can talk to it during the long evening hours. Look at it, see it as I see it. Those open arms have been the program of my pontificate: they say that Christ died for all, for all. No one is excluded from his love, from his forgiveness…

Unfortunately this probing of John’s spirituality comes only at the end of his life. While providing a good overview of some of the pope’s encyclicals, Mr. Tobin picks and chooses only those with a focus on political or social issues. I would have enjoyed seeing a treatment of Paenitentiam Agere (John XXIII’s encyclical on penance) or Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia (on St. Jean Vianny and the priesthood). Looking at these lesser-known encyclicals would have helped fill in some of the gaps of John’s faith.

This focus on the political extends to the chapters on Vatican Council II; Mr. Tobin seems less interested with the results of the council than with the maneuverings of the various personalities and factions at the council. (I don’t recall any direct quotes from the council documents, but plenty from diaries and interviews of those in attendance.) This leaves the impression that the council was less about the end results than about the feelings and intrigues of its participants. This does little to help readers understand the council’s impact on the life of the Church and subsequent reforms.

Another major shortcoming is the lack of direct reference to Mr. Tobin’s sources. While a list of sources is provided at the end of the book, no inline citations or footnotes are provided. An especially egregious example is on page 236, in which an unidentified source claims that progressive forces at the council “correctly deduced that John wanted a wholesale reform.” This unattributed assertion is not backed with any evidence and serves only to bolster Mr. Tobin’s own conclusions.

The Good Pope is, ultimately, less than the sum of its parts, failing as both biography and history. While it contains some interesting tidbits, in the end I can’t say that I understand either John XXIII or Vatican Council II any better. Given the wide selection of books about the council and the Good Pope, I cannot recommend this title to anyone wanting more than a political view of either.

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

Original image by Pivari / WikiCommons

Episode 016 – Getting Past the 5%


Two weeks ago I read an incredible new book. In Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, Sherry Weddell tackles the challenges and opportunities facing evangelization and catechesis in the Church today. Weddell’s book is a synthesis of every deep conversation about catechesis and evangelization I’ve had with my local and national colleagues for the past four years. She was kind enough to take some time to talk with me about the book.

Sherry is the co-founder of the Catherine of Siena Institute in Colorado Springs. You can purchase discounted copies of Forming Intentional Disciples at their web site.

Photo by duncan/flickrCC

Book Review: The Catholics Next Door: Adventures in Imperfect Living

There’s a certain genre of Catholic writing that’s never particularly appealed to me. I’m not sure what to call it, but it encompasses parenting books and marriage advice, Catholic living and holiness “how-to”s.

The defining characteristic of these books tends to be a hoity-toity know-it-all attitude that exalts one way of parenting or spirituality as “the way” above all others, without regard to the rich diversity of the Church’s history and practice.

The Catholics Next Door is not that type of book.

In fact Greg and Jennifer Willits go out of their way to assure readers that they don’t have all the answers, that they are just like the rest of us poor schlubs trying to honor God while making a living, raising a family, and attending to the rest of life’s demands. But, as they point out, there is holiness in that imperfection. Call it a “spirituality of the screwups”:

In a way it helps to know we’re not the only screwups in this world. I suspect that many of the seemingly perfect parents sitting in the pew ahead of us at church, the ones with the angelic children, are screwups as well. I don’t know why that helps me, but it does.

It’s good to remind ourselves, especially when we’re ready to throttle a kid who just spray-painted a brand new set of golf clubs, that you were a screwup before your kid was. And you still are. But you’re getting better, with the help of God.

The Willits cover a wide range of topics in the book, from living with our neighbors to natural family planning, using technology for evangelization to the Eucharist. The connecting thread is a relentless focus on Christian living in the messiness and uncertainties of modern life. Jennifer and Greg take turns offering their own perspectives in short 2-3 page sections. This “he said, she said” style could have felt forced or trite, but the sections transition smoothly into each other and never feel jarring or forced. This is a testament both to their writing and to each author’s unique and engaging voice.

I especially appreciated their encouragement and advice on family prayer. They recount their own travails in praying with their five children (leading to the chapter’s title: “Family-Rosary Wrestling”) and, as with the rest of the book, assure parents that being a “work in progress” is nothing to be ashamed of: “There will be victories and head-smacking embarrassments. But as long as we maintain our focus on Christ, stay close to him in the  sacraments, and remain loyal to the teachings of our faith to the best of our abilities, we will be equipped to handle any  challenge  Gods wants to put before us.”

The Catholics Next Door  is a funny, inspiring, and down-to-earth book on Christian living. I recommend it to imperfect Christians everywhere.