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.