It is a good idea to keep your eye on the calendar when making selections for your professional reading so that you can be prepared for the immediate turning of the pages of the liturgical calendar. For example, if you have never read a commentary on St. Luke’s Gospel, now is a good time to do some shopping so that you can study on the beach this summer in anticipation for Cycle C, which starts next Advent.
For this reason I wanted to bring to your attention two works on the Resurrection, with Easter only two months away. I attend the NCEA conventions every year, which are always in Easter week, so I have the opportunity to participate in the daily Easter week liturgies, where almost all of the Resurrection narratives are proclaimed except for the few on Easter Sunday and the Sunday next. Unless you are a daily Mass attendant, you yourself may not be familiar with this little library that proclaims any hopes we have about life after the grave.
It comes as more than a little bit of a shock when you realize that nowhere in the New Testament is the Resurrection described. Not at all. Scholars in modern times have come to categorize all Gospel accounts of Easter under two headings: the “empty tomb” tradition and “the appearances” tradition. Moreover, the four Easter narratives of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John are significantly different from one another, and each Gospel must be studied separately to grasp its revelation content.
Probably the greatest American Biblical Scholar of the twentieth century is Father Raymond Brown, S.S., who died suddenly in 1998. He was a vigorous scholar who produced classic commentaries on the Gospel of St. John, The Infancy Narratives, the Passion, to cite a few, and he served on multiple Vatican Scriptural commissions. For our purposes, though, he had this wonderful knack of condensing a thousand-page study into brief and eminently readable summaries for the general faithful. I recommend his Risen Christ at Easter, a rich 95-page overview of each of the four Gospels. While embodying the highlights of the best scholarship of the time (1992) there is a subtle but real meditational aspect to this work as well. It would make an excellent study for Lent, for example, as it challenges the reader to react to the powerful challenges posed by each evangelist. Commenting on the deeply troubling original ending of Mark’s Gospel (Mark 16:8) Brown writes: “Mark, who has been somber in describing discipleship throughout the passion, remains somber about the requirements of discipleship after the resurrection.” (p. 17).
Father Francis Moloney’s The Resurrection of the Messiah is more recent (2013) and somewhat longer and more detailed at 182 pages, but it is also quite readable and accessible. I reviewed this work on Amazon (April 22, 2014) and it is the inspiration for my presentation at the April 2015 NCEA Convention here in Orlando. Moloney’s gift here is his ability to explain how the unique Resurrection narratives bring each evangelist’s themes to full completion. In discussing John, whose theological priority (among others) is establishing the full divinity of Christ, Moloney looks at John 20: 5-7, observing that the burial clothes and bindings were neatly folded in the empty tomb. He contrasts this to the raising of Lazarus, who came from his tomb bound and tied. Jesus’ burial site is a literary statement of providence, power, and control of events that implies a oneness of Jesus and his Father (p. 108) as opposed to a third party resuscitation experienced by Lazarus.
Moloney adds a chapter on the challenge of proclaiming a faith event in the context of a post-modern society, an essay that may be very helpful to catechists, teachers and preachers. This work is also rich in descriptive footnotes and contains a good bibliography for further reading. Moloney’s work was published by Paulist Press; Brown’s by Liturgical Press.
Looking ahead: Tomorrow (Sunday) I will address the controversy over Father Joseph Illo and his altar girls in San Francisco, which you may have already heard about in the national media. What lessons can be learned here?
Yesterday (Friday) my wife Margaret and I had a “date night.” We attended the 4 PM showing of “Selma” at our local mall at what I presumed to be seniors prices, shopped for a new infant relative, checked out a pizzeria we have passed hundreds of times before (I liked the owner’s meat lovers special) and returned home before 9 to curl up with our latest books. The irony was not lost on me that the younger generations don’t start social evenings before 9 PM.
As you might expect, “Selma” was by far the most captivating part of the evening, and our date night conversation kept returning to the events, the people, the cause, the sins, and the redemption of sorts. I don’t want to summarize here everything that has been written or spoken, good or bad, about the movie, from Oscar snubs to the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson.
Rather, I cannot help but feel that as religious educators and faith formation ministers we are sometimes the lucky recipients of that gift of gifts, “a teachable moment.” The release of “Selma”, coming as it did shortly after the painful events of Ferguson, Missouri, and the national demonstrations shortly thereafter, almost screams out a need for those of us of the Christian faith to respond in some way.
How does the catechist manage a moral analysis of civil rights and human dignity in any forum of church ministry? For starters, I would say that one does not undertake such a venture alone but as a member of the parish team. Thus, the question becomes, how does the parish staff—pastor, associates, deacons, religious educators, Catholic school personnel—capitalize on the national consciousness of the matter of race and the dignity. Official Church teaching on the dignity of the human being has long been on the books. It is not something we need to (re)learn, but rather, to make concrete. The right of 1960’s Negroes to vote was already federal law before Selma, but in a shocking scene from the movie we see in stomach turning detail the incredible web of dehumanizing strategy executed by a Selma office of elections bureaucrat to prevent an older woman from voting (exquisitely portrayed by Oprah Winfrey.)
So what does a local Catholic Church say to this? How does a pastor address this? How does a catechist foster educational reflection? It is a happy coincidence that “Selma” was released in the Liturgical Cycle B, the year of St. Mark. In this weekend’s Gospel Jesus calls the Twelve; later, he would have to tell them what discipleship is all about, carrying a cross and dying. The Markan portrayal of Christ prefigures the ministry of Dr. King in many respects. When the civil rights preacher proclaimed relentlessly that he had a dream in which the status quo would be turned upside down, making enemies right and left, he was echoing Jesus’ constant proclamation that the Kingdom of God was almost within sight. Jesus’ miracles, signs of the Kingdom in Mark, so angered his own coreligionists that Mark records the plotting of Jesus’ death as early as chapter three!
The pastoral judgments of each local church must determine how we “seize the moment,” and I pray that every church does. “Selma” reminds us that there is an almost insurmountable gap between the talking and the doing. There is a disturbing lesson plan in itself.
I am always beating the drum for the importance of self-study, as anyone who knows me will tell you. One of the reasons I established the Café was to put catechists and other church ministers in a position where they would have access to the best theological, religious education, and devotional texts in use today. In my own diocese I gave a workshop from time to time called “Uncle Tom’s Book Nook.”
The ‘gift of spirits” in book discernment is indispensible in your work, because you are selecting resources for a multitude of audiences and needs. Catechists, of course, are constantly reviewing the texts and resources used in official ministerial programs of the parish and diocese. Normally the diocesan office of faith formation, religious education, and or/Catholic schools will have directives available for selection of programs, workbooks, etc. As the diocesan bishop has the final word on catechetical resources, you need to stay on the reservation here, although I would hope that there are periodic opportunities for review of texts in use by those who actually use them. I attend the Exhibition Hall at the NCEA conventions every year and between us, I can go the three days eating the free foods from individual catechetical publishers’ sites, so there are plenty of choices available to dioceses.
The second challenge is adult education. I have served as an instructor of catechists in my diocese since the Carter administration, and while we have always used an approved in-house curriculum depending upon who was in charge (a kind of cuius regio eius religio situation that does go on in every diocese over time) the instructors have generally been left to our own devices in terms of the follow-up books we recommend. I remember a meeting a few years ago where we instructors had to admit we still had books from the 1960’s and 1970’s in our yellowing bibliographies. Even Biblical translations age. Reviewing new texts for religious adult formation and development is quite time consuming, however. I have a personal rule that I will recommend nothing I have not personally reviewed. (In my psychotherapy practice, any book recommendation automatically becomes part of the treatment plan and must be logged.)
The third challenge is your general public, the guy who stops you in the church parking lot and says, “Gimme the name of a good book on the Bible.” You may innocently suggest a standard orthodox work off the top of your head, only to have the man in your pastor’s office a few days later, outraged to read that Adam and Eve did not live precisely 6015 years ago. But more positively, your own professional standards and the good of the Church are best served when you “prescribe” good medicine with sound advice.
The fourth challenge—and my biggest concern here—are the books you prescribe for yourself. When I shop for a religious text, a great number of considerations come into play. I look at texts that have been highly recommended by experts in the field, that come from a reputable publisher, that address my academic interests and deficiencies at the moment, that have some bearing on the Church calendar (such as reading a commentary on St. Mark’s Gospel in Year B of the Liturgical Cycle), that meet a spiritual hunger, that empower me to do my work more competently. Needless to say, not every consideration goes into every acquisition. If I think I will use the book repeatedly in the future as a reference, I will get it in hardcopy rather than Kindle. Expense is a factor, too, but I buy a large number of books from Amazon’s network of independent sellers and have gotten great bargains.
In the work we do, of course, we carry the concern that what we read and recommend professionally reflects respect and continuity with the Apostolic Tradition that we are handing on when we minister. Thus, when I teach, I recommend that ministers get themselves on the mailing lists of at least several publishers and dealers who enjoy good standing in the Church. Paulist Press is the outreach of the Paulist Fathers and provides publications for the needs of the novice “theologian” on up to the grizzled veteran. Equally helpful is Liturgical Press, which provides a very useful regular email update that I enjoy. I would recommend you sign up for both publishers’ emails. Both Paulist and Liturgical Press allow you to request their emails through your Facebook account. Otherwise, you can contact them via email and request connection electronically.
There are a good number of other sources who provide me with great leads on theological texts. I will pass these along from time to time or you can email me now if you’d like my full list.
Where my own prayer life is concerned, I am still pretty much of a hardcover book fellow. The old leather covered breviary adds a sensual dimension to the venerable age of the Psalms and writings. In recent years my wife and I have been using the iPad application "Universalis” for the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours. I have been vaguely aware of a free Catholic website called "Laudate” primarily by the enthusiasm of those who have downloaded it and use it regularly. I decided to give it a look this week, and after some considerable investigation I find that it may possibly be the most popular Catholic app in use at this time, if numbers of reviews are any indication.
Upon first impression the expanse of Laudate strikes the reader like something of a Catholic Amazon, a wide platform of spiritual resources reaching in many directions. No one can argue that the creators have not gone the extra mile to make every possible spiritual resource available to the user. I will just give a few examples: the Liturgy of the Hours, podcasts of the daily liturgical readings, the order of Mass, the rosary in sixteen variations including interactive, several options for the Stations of the Cross, about three hundred traditional prayers, and examination of consciences for daily and sacramental use. There is a function that permits an individual user to create a favorites page of particular prayers and devotions, which strikes me as extremely useful.
Laudate is more than a source of individual and communal prayer. It is also a considerable library of Catholic texts. These range from the Code of Canon Law to the Catechism of the Catholic Church to many dozens of magisterial statements, including the major documents of Vatican II and a significant library of papal encyclicals dating back as far as Leo XIII of the late 1800s.
The reviews from many hundreds of users that I researched both on the Apple apps site and Amazon were overwhelmingly faithful. Most criticisms, in fact, appear to be more technical than devotional. I encountered no such technical problems. Given that this is a rather remarkable site, I was curious as to who created it and sponsors it. I could see no appeals anywhere for funding from users, such as one sees with Universalis more often than not. After exhaustive research, I still could find no information about the inventors and creators of the site.
When teaching, one of the first rules I use in the use of Internet research, particularly in church matters, is research on the originator of any site. While I saw nothing in Laudate that seemed liturgically or doctrinally inappropriate, I cannot say the same for other sites claiming to be "Catholic." I would make the suggestion that some information be made available to users about the editors. Certainly, they deserve a round of thanks. But further, I think with the expanding use of the Internet and specific applications among Catholics, "brand identification" does matter. I am of a generation that still recalls the importance of the “Imprimatur” or bishop's sanction of any book claiming to be Catholic.
One issue I did notice in perusing the various liturgical sites within Laudate is the question of translations. This website is honest enough to note when it does not have access to particular translations such as the Holy Grail translation of the Psalms. When this site opened in 2012, it apparently did not have a working agreement about texts owned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and a history of updates that I discovered indicates that a fair amount of negotiating has taken place between Laudate and other links regarding the issue of translations.
This of course also raises the question again of Laudate's relationship with the USCCB, and given the wide use of this application, this question should probably be clarified publicly. The same is true of the actual texts of sacramental celebrations. The sacramental ritual is not available on Laudate for the Sacrament of Penance, for example, although as noted above, examinations of conscience are available in multiple forms.
Many reviewers used phrases that essentially say, "This is the one Catholic site for all your needs." I am not quite sure I would go that far. There are no links to recommendations of Catholic academic or biblical study resources, or to the writings of church fathers, nor to other resources for catechetical education. At the end of the day, from reading the resources and reviewing the site myself, the primary value of the site is in the direction of prayer and worship.
Having said all of this, I still think I am sticking with Universalis for the praying of the Hours. Several reviewers picked up on a concern of mine, that the presentation of the Psalms is ideal for an individual, but laid out poorly for group for congregational use. But I certainly recommend a perusal of Laudate. If nothing else, it certainly reinforces the wide variety of Catholic piety and devotion in today's Church.