Author Archives | Bob Zyskowski

About Bob Zyskowski

Bob is the Client Products Manager for the Communications Office of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A 42-year veteran of the Catholic Press, he is the former Associate Publisher of The Catholic Spirit. You can follow him on twitter or email him at zyskowskir@archspm.org.

52 lessons from ‘A Christmas Carol’

December 21, 2015

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In the 1938 movie version of "A Christmas Carol," Leo G.Carroll-plays Marley’s Ghost and Reginald Owen is Scrooge. File photo

In the 1938 movie version of “A Christmas Carol,” Leo G. Carroll (left) plays Marley’s Ghost and Reginald Owen is Scrooge. File photo

After you’ve once again this year watched Jacob Marley’s ghost scare the bejeezus out of poor ol’ Ebenezer Scrooge, and Bob Cratchit hoist Tiny Tim upon his shoulder to wish God’s blessings on one and all, consider picking up a self-improvement book that could end up carrying you through all of 2016.

In “52 Little Lessons from A Christmas Carol,” Bob Welch has extracted enough good reflections from the classic Charles Dickens work to spread out one per week for the next year.

Sure, you could read the 224 pages in a single setting, but frankly, the depth of each of the lessons deserves a lengthier examination of conscience.

Take some of these lesson titles in the Nelson Books work:

“Growing wiser means getting uncomfortable”

“You make the chains that shackle you”

“Showing trumps telling”

“Learning begins with listening”

“You can’t wish away the uncomfortable.”

And that’s just five of the 52. Each is brief, just a few pages, but with much to chew on.

Welch, a journalist, teacher and prolific author from Oregon, writes, “Beyond entertaining us, Dickens wanted to make us uncomfortable, because it’s only after we get a touch uneasy with ourselves that we open ourselves to change.”

In his author’s notes, Welch expresses his hope that after reading his “52 Lessons” readers will not only know Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” better, but will know themselves better. He admitted, “I certainly gained perspective on myself from researching and writing it, not that I’m particularly proud of all I discovered. . . . And can’t we all benefit from reexamining who we’ve become in our own life stories?”

In the lesson headlined “It’s about more than Christmas,” Welch decodes the words of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, who points out how Christmas seems to bring out the best in people and open up their hearts.

“For Dickens, Christmas becomes a metaphor for life itself,” Welch notes, “the unwritten suggestion that in keeping Christmas we are, in essence, keeping Christ — the one on whom the celebration rests.”

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Did you know Marco Polo was Catholic?

December 7, 2015

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40 Catholics cover

A remarkable amount of world history — including some surprises — is packed into the 266 pages of “Forty Catholics Who Shaped the World.”

Had you ever heard that Marco Polo was Catholic, or that his well-known journey was part of a request of Kublai Khan to know more about Christianity? Were you aware that Ferdinand Magellan evangelized native peoples as he attempted to circumnavigate the globe?

The best part of the stories that author Claire Smith shares in this new book published by St. Pauls may be the historic context in which she places the figures, making every chapter a history lesson as well as an inspiring personality profile.

Read the courageous account of Pedro and Violeta Chamorro’s struggle to bring democracy to 20th century Nicaragua and you’ll get a tightly summarized recap of the era of Somoza, the Sandinistas and the ordeal that led to the Iran-Contra Affair.

If all you remember about the revolt in the Philippines during the 1980s are Imelda Marcos’ thousand pairs of shoes, you’ll want to reconnect with the name of Corazon Aquino, the rosary-praying widow who led the People Power Revolution and forced the dictatorial Marcos family from the country.

Smith divides her list of 40 into seven separate categories: Scientists, scholars, innovators; modern-day apostles; leaders and pioneers; explorers; artists, musicians; early Christian heroes, and famous Doctors of the Church.

Some — Father Jacques Marquette, Michelangelo, St. Paul — may be better known than someone like Herrad of Landsberg, for example, a 12th century nun who compiled the first encyclopedia.

The inclusion of Christopher Columbus, St. Valentine, Mother Angelica of the Annunciation of EWTN fame might raise some eyebrows. To point to just one of those, though, the Mother Angelica story will amaze even those whose spirituality leans in a different ideological direction.

Personally, I found the entries of the artists weak, especially those of El Greco and Raphael. But I wish I had known before about Caroline Chisholm, the woman who did so much for emigrants to Australia. And all will appreciate that Smith doesn’t ignore the character blemishes of her subjects, noting that Maryland’s Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a slave owner.

If you’re one who tends to skim, the author has done you a great favor: The initial paragraph of each entry is a concise explanation of who the person is and what they have done to deserve to be included in a list of those who have shaped our world.

 

 

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Playing a nun on stage ‘is a blast’

November 23, 2015

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Actor Therese Walth gets down as Sister Mary Patrick in the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' musical "Sister Act." Walth, choral and vocal music director at Hill-Murray School, described the play's spiritual message in an interview with The Catholic Spirit.Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp, 2015

Actor Therese Walth gets down as Sister Mary Patrick in the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ musical “Sister Act.” Walth, choral and vocal music director at Hill-Murray School, described the play’s spiritual message in an interview with The Catholic Spirit. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp, 2015

Q & A with Therese Walth

Editor’s Note: Therese Walth, who is the choral and vocal music director at Hill-Murray School in Maplewood, has credits with several local acting companies and often appears on stage at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. She currently has a role as one of the nuns in the convent in “Sister Act” there. Walth, who admitted to being “between the ages of 25-35 (wink),” grew up in Onalaska, Wisconsin, and earned degrees in both music education and musical theater at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Fellow actor Ben Ballentine, Hill-Murray’s theater director (actor name Ben Bakken), invited Walth to apply when the teaching position opened. “He’s been a huge support, and I am so happy to be at Hill-Murray working with him and the fantastic students and staff,” Walth noted. Walth answered questions from The Catholic Spirit via email about her career and her faith.

Q: Acting is job, but you look like you’re having fun on the stage in “Sister Act.” Is the play more fun than work?

A: There are many stressful parts to acting, and some shows are more challenging than others. “Sister Act,” however, is a really fun show to do, and the role of Sister Mary Patrick is a blast. She is so full of God’s grace and life that it’s hard not to have fun when playing her on stage. She gets to laugh a lot, sing and dance and hang out with some pretty awesome women on stage. I would say it is the best kind of work!

Q: Have you had any real-life experience with nuns?

A: I have a great aunt who spent 12 years in a convent as a postulant before deciding not to take orders, and my mother’s side of the family were all raised Catholic. (I’m actually named for St. Therese of Lisieux.) My mother went to Bishop Ryan Catholic School in Minot, North Dakota, so I have heard many stories about nuns as teachers, leaders and awesome human beings. Now through Hill-Murray I work with the wonderful Sister Linda Soler, and have gotten to learn from the Benedictine Sisters of the St. Paul Monastery.

Q: You sing at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. Is there a story behind your doing that? Can you talk a bit about your spirituality and prayer life?

A: Although my mother was raised Catholic, she converted to Lutheran when she married my father. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a Lutheran pastor in North Dakota, so I was raised with a very strong Lutheran faith. I first found my love for singing and performing in at my church and was blessed to have very supportive parents. When I moved to the Cities about eight years ago, I was searching for a community that I could worship in. My dad was very good friends with the choir director at Prince of Peace Lutheran, and there I found a loving and supportive community.
I don’t believe that I could be an actor without my belief in God. The talents I have are his. I remember as a 6th grader going to a summer camp and thanking God for my gift of singing and performing and vowing that anytime I sang or performed it was for and because of him.  Acting (and teaching for that matter) has lots of ups and downs. Many times you are rejected simply by how you look in theater, and you never find out why you didn’t get the job. I found that through prayer and a belief in God’s plan for me, I am able to get through the hard times knowing that God is walking with me.

Q: “Sister Act” at the Chan is campy and fun, but do you think it also passes along a spiritual uplift — maybe even a spiritual message — to the audience?

A: The spiritual message that I receive every night from the show is that a truly happy life is not about one person. Many times we feel we need to battle things alone, or we find ourselves fighting for selfish wants like fame or fortune, but when we open ourselves up to the Lord we find we have a deeper purpose, a deeper meaning in life. And that is not through selfish wishes but through community, through love, and through faith.

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Pope Francis’ ‘Prayer for Our Earth’

October 15, 2015

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prayingNeed a prayer?

If you’re ever called upon for a prayer or struggle finding words to express yourself in prayer, Pope Francis has you covered.

The following is a prayer the pope included in his recent encyclical, “Laudato Si’.”

A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.

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Promised yourself you’d pray daily? Help is here

October 11, 2015

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Sacred ReadingHow many times have you told yourself you’re going to do it this time, you’re going to take time to pray every day, no matter what?

“Sacred Reading: The 2016 Guide to Daily Prayer” will help you keep your promise. It’s a page-a-day, affordable paperback ($15.95) that eases users into reflecting on how they are following Jesus Christ in everyday life, challenges with thoughtful questions and prompts prayer to flow naturally.

Published by the Apostleship of Prayer through Ave Maria Press at Notre Dame, “Sacred Reading” offers a simplified wrinkle on “lectio divina,” and, if you’ve been put off by the Latin name of that approach to prayer, fear not, this is for you.

This version offers six steps — steps repeated each day so you’re not paging back to the introduction — that are extremely easy to follow:

  1. Know that God is present with you and ready to converse. This puts you in the frame of mind to pray well.
  2. Read the Gospel. The day’s Gospel is printed for each day. No need to find your Bible or buy another resource.
  3. Notice what you think and feel as you read the Gospel. This is the “lectio divina” piece that is so key to prompting one to reflect on gospel-based values. Here is one example: “The disciples were blessed to see Jesus, to hear and touch him. They recognized him instantly. Do we? Or are we often too self-absorbed and skeptical to see the Lord at work in our lives? As you read this Gospel, what impression does it leave with you?”
  4. Pray as you are led for yourself and others. It’s conversing with God, sometimes thanking, sometimes praising, sometimes questioning, asking, sharing what’s troubling you, and doing the same for others.
  5. Listen to Jesus. What is he saying to you through this Gospel?
  6. Ask God to show you how to live today. This is the call to action. How will you react?

Here’s an example of how one is guided into prayer:

“Lord, I repent of my sins so that you can come to me. Show me the ways I resist your love, help me to forsake all habits of sin, and give me grace to . . . (Continue in your own words.)”

And here’s a sample of an action step:

“Lord, lead me to do something today that is pleasing to you, perhaps something I have never done or even thought of doing. Glory to you, Lord. Amen.”

Now here is an important point. “Sacred Readings” starts with the beginning of the church year, the first Sunday of Advent, Nov. 29. Don’t wait for the new calendar year to start keeping that promise to pray every day.

 

 

 

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Kids will like zoo founder’s story as much as the zoo

October 5, 2015

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Fur, Fins, and FeathersNext time you take a child to the zoo, thank Abraham Dee Bartlett.

He’s the one who came up with the idea of putting labels on the exhibits with information about the animals such as what part of the world they can be found in, what kind of habitat they thrive in and what they eat.

The story of this boy who loved animals is told in a 34-page children’s book that bursts with color and all kinds of critters, just the thing to corral the interest of its intended audience of youngsters age five to nine.

“Fur, Fins, and Feathers: Abraham Dee Bartlett and the Invention of the Modern Zoo” is a joyful telling of the life of someone few know of yet whose work many enjoy.

Cassandre Maxwell both wrote and illustrated the Eerdmans book, and, if the story of the boy who grew up to be the superintendent of the London Zoo is a bit too historical for the youngest ones, her charming, detail-filled artwork will keep them searching for species from aardvarks to zebras.

Both informative and entertaining, “Fur, Fins, and Feathers” should be in the hands of moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas all over with little ones on their laps. And the vocabulary isn’t so difficult that young readers won’t be able to handle it themselves.

 

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8 steps toward Catholic-Protestant understanding

October 5, 2015

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Forming a Catholic-Protestant discussion group to read Pope Francis' book, "The Church of Mercy," is one step to take toward Christian unity say the authors of "Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar."

Forming a Catholic-Protestant discussion group to read Pope Francis’ book, “The Church of Mercy,” is one step to take toward Christian unity say the authors of “Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar.”

If there is ever to be unity among Christians, people will have to take practical steps that bring them wisdom and understanding about Christian traditions other than their own.

book coverPresbyterians Pastor Paul Rock and Bill Tammeus offer ideas for those steps at the conclusion of their Westminster John Knox Press paperback, “Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar.”

The ones below apply to Catholics, but the original list offered similar steps for Protestants:

  1. Visit a Protestant worship service; “Go with someone who can explain what’s happening while it’s happening and what it means.”
  2. Ask a well-versed Protestant to speak to an adult education class at your church about “why he or she has chosen that tradition and what it looks and feels like from the inside.”
  3. Form a Catholic-Protestant discussion group to read Pope Francis’ book “The Church of Mercy,” together.
  4. Explore the official websites of major Protestant denominations, Presbyterian, United Methodist, and Southern Baptist.
  5. Visit websites of local Protestant congregations to learn about their activities and widely different statements of belief.
  6. Find out if your community has an interfaith organization that sponsors gatherings and learning opportunities.
  7. Read a book on world religions and discuss it with a group from your church “to expand your knowledge beyond the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
  8. Form a group to read and study Stephen Prothero’s book, “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t.”
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Can Pope Francis bring Protestants and Catholics together?

October 5, 2015

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Pope Francis arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

book coverBy what he says, more so by what he does, and to a yet greater extent by who he is, Pope Francis is winning the admiration of both Catholics and Protestants, write Presbyterians Pastor Paul Rock and Bill Tammeus.

“Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar,” the attention-grabbing title of their little, 96-page paperback, includes the accurately written subtitle that captures the book’s essence: “Lessons for the Christian Church.”

“This is a pope,” they write, “who is reminding people that the primary work of the church is to be an instrument of Christ’s reconciling grace and love.”

Pastor Rock sees Francis as a leader who is bringing Christians back to basic principles, noting, “I believe that through this humble pope, Christ is nudging Catholic and Protestants to stop focusing on all that we’re against and instead celebrate and advance all that we are for.”

The Westminster John Knox Press book captures a seven-part series of sermons delivered by Pastor Rock and his colleagues at the Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Missouri. It includes questions for discussion at the end of each chapter to help readers explore Catholic-Protestant common ground, and, the publishers intend, the book invites ecumenical dialogue and improved interfaith and interpersonal relations.

Rather than the arrogant type of leadership style of those who capture a disproportionate percentage of the media spotlight through sensationalism, Francis is appreciated for his style, the choices he makes and the type of leader he has chosen to be. Both as citizens and leaders, Pastor Rock writes, “We are thirsty for an example of authority that speaks and lives out and models ideals we know are right even if they are hard to hear.”

Referring to the Gospel stories, the authors see similarities in the styles of Jesus and Pope Francis, being present to people, listening and then sharing helpful advice.

“The more we think about Francis and the things he stands for and the reasons people are talking about him,” Pastor Rock writes, “the more I begin to realize that the part of me that is drawn to Pope Francis is the part of me that is drawn to Jesus.

“Catholics and Protestants together, who are shaped by the gospel values of the kingdom, are reminded in Francis that they have much more in common than whatever differences might have been important years ago.”

The authors invite both Protestants and Catholic to widen the circle of those they invite to their communities with a list of “next steps,” practical ideas to inform ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. As the authors note, “Sincerity counts, but it’s not enough. It must be coupled with wisdom and an appreciation for how ideas might be received.”

For Catholic readers, there is one caveat: Pastor Rock acknowledges that he disagrees with “boundaries” found in Catholic teaching, first, that the Church Pope Francis leads is the one true Church; second, that the priesthood is reserved to men; and third, that homosexual tendencies are objectively disordered.

 

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‘Bitter or Better’: Read this — and count your blessings

October 4, 2015

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bitter or betterYou think fate has dealt you a lousy hand? Do you just never catch a break? Is life just not fair? Spend some time with Caryn Sullivan’s superbly written book and you’ll put your personal pity party on hold — maybe permanently.

In “Bittter or Better: Grappling with Life on the Op-Ed Page,” Sullivan tells the hardship story of her life, one tested by fire with a mother who married and divorced twice, smoke marijuana, moved the family from Baltimore to Puerto Rico back to Maryland and then to Utah, contracted colon cancer in her forties and died when the author was 23.

Sound rough?

You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

Sullivan’s luck doesn’t turn around once she marries her “trophy husband,” as she called him. The first child they have together — Ted Sullivan had two children from a previous marriage — seems to be unable to hear. The boy turned out to be autistic. Learning to accept Jack for his gifts — and that autism is a condition, not a disease — is a lesson that doesn’t come easily.

Then there was breast cancer to deal with, and a double mastectomy. And a 10-year-old daughter who developed a rare, genetically acquired disease that required a bone marrow transplant — from her older brother.

“I’d been consumed by autism and illnesses for so long I scarcely recalled anything else,” Sullivan wrote. “The relentless crises were besting me. I often felt like a boxer being pummeled in the ring. Jab. Cross. Hook. Uppercut.”

Then her husband had a heart attack at 54 and died.

These Dickensian events alone make for can’t-put-it-down reading, but it’s actually what follows that makes “Bitter or Better” exceptional. How Sullivan coped through all this, how she listened to the advice of Father Joseph Johnson, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who said she had the choice that became the title of the book, and how she followed that advice, will make you begin thinking about who you know who you should buy this book for.

It’s a book that’s part memoir, to be sure, but it’s just as much an advice or how-to book. The life lessons that Sullivan learned are spread throughout, but many come in the latter pages, where Sullivan shares commentary columns that she originally wrote for the daily newspaper in St. Paul, the Pioneer Press.

The journalism here shines. Sullivan tells inspiring stories, injecting the wisdom that came from being “pummeled like a boxer in the ring,” absorbing the punches and moving forward to better.

What pours out is her own humility, the ability to deal with crisis after crisis, and maybe the key to having that capacity.

She writes about the hours and days spent at the University of Minnesota’s Children’s Hospital and the other parents there with youngsters whose lives are hanging by a thread, and her response?

“As difficult as our experience was, it was not as bad as what many others endured. Everything in life is relative. And we were blessed.”

Who do you plan to send a copy of “Bitter or Better”?

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10 rules of thumb for living with less

August 24, 2015

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It’s not all about you — or your stuff

The search for meaning in our lives, for activity that truly satisfies, is a spiritual journey even for people not connected to any organized religion.

BlessedByLessThat’s the belief of author Susan V. Vogt, and in “Blessed by Less,” her book about living lightly, she named the spiritual principles that guided her and “rules of thumb” as practical advice. Her principles “are about letting go of what is less important to make way for a contemplative heart in action.”

One’s worth and importance, Vogt wrote, are not dependent on what we own, how we look and feel, how much we know and what we can accomplish.

“Spirituality is about seeking the Divine Presence. It’s not all about me,” she noted. “God’s presence surrounds me if I but look and listen. The spiritual response is to turn this contemplative awareness into action for the good of humanity.

“Uncluttering our lives, both materially and inwardly,” Vogt wrote, “can bring us a fuller, more meaningful life and free us to attend to the needs of others. . . . We want to make a positive difference in our world. Learning to live more generously, humbly and lightly is a way to do this.”

Deciding how much is enough — and how much is too much — is something every person needs to answer for him or herself, Vogt added, but she included the following 10 “Rules of Thumb for Living Lightly”:

  1. Living in destitution in not a virtue; helping people out of destitution is.
  2. Be prudent, responsible and wise.
  3. Be generous, unencumbered and fair.
  4. The less I have, the less I have to guard, clean and repair.
  5. If I don’t need it now (or soon), can I give it to someone who does?
  6. Spend in order to save.
  7. Decide which technologies save time, energy and money — and which ones waste time, energy and money.
  8. Let go of anger, grudges and compulsions to lighten the heart.
  9. Smile and laugh more.
  10. Forgive others. Forgive myself. It lifts the spirit.

 

Excerpts are from “Blessed by Less: Clearing Your Life of Clutter by Living Lightly,” by Susan V. Vogt. Loyola Press (Chicago, 2013). Paperback, 122 pp., $13.95.

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