LUCKILY, THIS FELL INTO MY LAP….
With summer in the air, and hopefully a little more leisure in your lives, I want to make a pitch to anyone who follows the Café to take the plunge into some corner of academic theology where you think you’d feel most at home. As I posted a few days ago, I put together a “poor man’s reading list,” i.e., something I cobbled together myself from my own reading and teaching as a starter for any of you who want to make the jump from church pamphlet racks into the “hallowed halls” of theological discussion. Coincidentally, I was reminded of the importance of Catholic theological life in our churches in a curious way this weekend, listening to the sermon for the Feast of the Ascension.
Our parish deacon, who is also our overall director of faith formation, was preaching on the Ascension, and he quoted an appropriate commentary passage by name and source from a noted English Scripture scholar whose work I recognized and respect. I was delighted that he referenced a major scholar in his sermon! It occurred to me that over the thirty years or so I have attended Mass instead of leading it, it has been extremely rare to hear any extra-biblical source cited in a sermon. Even citations from the Bible are not habitual. Years and years ago our founding pastor used to quote the martyr Edith Stein in his sermons, as he had a significant devotion to her, but that has been it for decades. Generally, the parish sermon has never been a place to get one’s theological thirst quenched by a saint or a scholar, and that is sad on many levels. Years ago, one of my psychology professors at Rollins College referred to the generic church sermon as “the martini hour of the mind;” I was a working pastor and preacher at the time, so I gave him the stare, but truth be told, he wasn’t too far wrong.
Saturday was a valuable teaching moment for our parish for several reasons. First, our deacon modeled a critical aspect of the baptismal priesthood: we are all, ordained and lay, students of the Word, and there is a two-to-three-thousand-year history of organized Judeo-Christian Biblical thought that forms the backbone of what Catholics call “Tradition.” When a preacher cites a scholar, a saint, or a contemporary source, he is sharing valuable information with his hearers that they may in turn take a critical look at the Word in communion with those who have dedicated their lives intensely to the study of God’s Revelation, now and in our past. Collectively, we are all the students and eventually all teachers as well. This includes parents, “the first…and best teachers of their children” as the Infant Baptismal Rite proclaims.
Second, a preacher who brings proof of his homework into his message is modeling the kind of work that any of us who “do ministry,” however one defines that, needs to be doing constantly so that the Word is “ever fresh” in our hearts. In my lifetime I have heard preachers say, with a straight face, that they do not prepare a sermon but wait for the inspiration of the Spirit to gift them in the moment. That is bad on so many levels—I don’t think I need to spell them out—and, this is not our history, either.
Theology is a labor of love, but it is still a labor. Over the past weekend I was reading Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity , a truly fine introductory history of the Church from the Apostles till the eve of the Reformation in 1517. [The book is listed in the Café “Bookshop”]. I was surprised to discover, in the fourth and fifth centuries, how many of the theological Church Fathers [most of whom are saints] worked [and even lived] with the “Desert Fathers” and “Desert Mothers,” the austere hermits and primitive monks who had fled the corrupt lives of the Roman cities for solitude, prayer, study, and penance. The Church Father St. Athanasius, defender of the identity of Jesus as true God and true man, lived with the monks from time to time to study, pray, do penance, and hide from the Roman emperors. St. Jerome composed the Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, in a cave or primitive setting near Bethlehem. St. Augustine hoped to live out his days in the desert of North Africa until he was forced by the populace to assume episcopal leadership. Gonzalez’s point: the Church received its inner truth from the prolonged asceticism and sacrifice of its theologians and teachers.
I cite this piece of our history to emphasize the intimate interlocking of spirituality and theological study. There is no such thing as “cheap grace,” snappy answers, or shortcuts in pursuit of God’s truth. The pursuit of theological wisdom is impossible without a spiritual temperament, but by the same token that temperament is enriched by the theological corpus of the Church.
MAKING YOUR FIRST READING CHOICE, AS SUMMER APPROACHES:
I gave a lot of thought to what advice I would offer about selecting books that would whet your appetites. If you were entering major seminary or a graduate theology program, there is a well-defined progression of introductory texts and course outlines, and I am looking at some new ones right now for the book list. However, human nature being what it is, our whimsy is often our entry into new experiences, and it may be that a subject of your particular interest is what draws you into the bigger tent. So, I searched down some of the “colorful” or “intriguing” texts under the various headings as possible “summer starters for reading next to the pool.”
Scripture: Try Father Francis J. Moloney’s The Resurrection of the Messiah: A Narrative Commentary on the Resurrection Accounts of the Four Gospels  First, most readers are familiar with at least some of the Resurrection texts already, and we have just concluded the Easter Season in Church. Second, Moloney’s book provides a lot of surprises while explaining how scholars use the differences between Gospels to understand the vision of each author. It is a relatively easy introduction into the science of Biblical interpretation. My review is on the Amazon site. On Amazon Prime, $22 new and $18 used in paper, also in Kindle.
History: Believe it or not, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople  by Jonathan Phillips is an intriguing look into medieval life, the papacy, and the religious motivations of the crusading foot soldiers against the backdrop of a crusade that went horribly wrong, so much so that Pope John Paul II apologized for this venture on its eight hundredth anniversary in 2004. My review is on the Amazon site. Amazon Prime has this work for about $15 new and much cheaper used.
Spirituality: The Trappist monk Thomas Merton was tragically killed in 1968 while still a relatively young man. His 1948 autobiographical story of his conversion to Catholicism and then to the monastic way of life, The Seven Storey Mountain, remains a centerpiece of contemporary spirituality. It was credited with encouraging a wave of new applicants to monasteries after World War II. His New Seeds of Contemplation  remains among Amazon’s best sellers. My Trappist reading circle just completed New Seeds a few months ago. These works are easily purchased in many markets and formats for very reasonable prices. If you prefer a biography of Merton, I found Michael Mott’s The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton  very good if a touch dated—Merton’s letters and diary are now available to the public for purchase as well.
Ecclesiology: Easily the best read in the study of the Church is What Happened at Vatican II  by Father John O’Malley, S.J. If you like O’Malley’s style, he has written similar works on the Councils of Trent [1545-1563] and Vatican I [1869-1870]. My review is on the Amazon site. Amazon Prime price is $26 paper, $18 used, and $6 Kindle as of this morning.
Sacraments: I was intrigued this year by Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession 1955–1975  by Maria C. Morrow. I reviewed the book on its Amazon site. This is a fascinating introduction to the discipline of liturgical study, in this case focusing on the near disappearance of the practice of regular confession. Amazon Prime has this work at $34 new, $25 used.
Biographies: Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life  by Adrian House is a fine general introduction to both the man and medieval spirituality. My review is posted at the Amazon site. Amazon Prime has the text at $24 new and starting at about $5 used. Equally good and very current is Light of Assisi: The Story of Saint Clare  by Sister Margaret Carney, OSF. My review is on the book’s Amazon site; current price is $14 new and about $9 used.
Morality: The best book on Catholic Morality at present, A History of Catholic Theological Ethics  by Father James F. Keenan, SJ, would be a very ambitious starter text, and it costs $50 on Amazon Prime [probably because it is becoming a college/graduate moral theology textbook, and rightfully so.] A simpler but intriguing book to introduce you to the controversies and stresses faced by Catholic moralists today is Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, and How Humanae Vitae Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church  by Robert McClory. I did not review it on Amazon because Jay Young’s review is quite good. I purchased my hardcover copy used [with McClory’s autograph, no less] for about $5 last year, and those prices are still current on the site.
I am still filling out other categories as we go on: Eschatology [“the last things”], Canon Law, Mariology [Mary], Social Justice, etc. will follow as soon as I can review some of the new introductory texts. I will post new reviews and acquisitions on the Café social media sites as they become available. Next week I will try to get you the links to the major Catholic publishers, and you can subscribe for free to receive catalogues, reviews, notices of new releases, etc.
So, this summer: Read, Read, Read! [There will be a test in September.]
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything