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Connecting St. Francis with Pope Francis

September 25, 2014

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When Saint Francis saved the ChurchTake a refresher course in what it means to be Catholic.

Read John M. Sweeney’s new book, “When Saint Francis Saved the Church.”

Sweeney packs reminders about what faith, saintliness and the life of a Christian are all about into just 156 pages of this small Ave Maria Press book (not counting acknowledgements and notes). There are highlighter-worthy phrases, sentences and paragraphs galore, great food for thought and a bounty for discussion.

Sweeney’s hook, of course, is the connection between St. Francis of Assisi and the newest Francis on the Catholic scene, Pope Francis.

Throughout he links the revolution that St. Francis started to the hope that many in the Church today, what — entertain? predict? — with the pope who chose to be the first to adapt Francis is his papal name.

Sweeney writes about Francis of Assisi, “His spiritual vision from eight centuries ago is already familiar to anyone paying attention to Pope Francis and the changing atmosphere in the Catholic Church today.” And he adds:

“Many of us are watching carefully, and participating willingly, as that edifice softens into something less predictable, more godly. If something monumental happened 800 years ago to revive the Church, then it can happen again today; and the spirit that animated the earlier conversion may be quite similar to the spirit at work in the Church today. Much depends on what we ourselves will do.”

In sharing the historical background and development of Franciscan spirituality, the book points out dozens of interesting details of Francis’ thinking, including:

  • Faith is not something done only inside the walls of the church. Instead, “Faith today is readily seen as concerned with many things other than what you believe — it includes hope, passion, family, love, story, virtue, commitment, and identity, all of which may seem more important than matters of creed.”
  • St. Francis was relatively uninterested in theological debates and creedal statements. “When he states his beliefs in his writings it is most often regarding how one is supposed to behave toward others and the created world, not a matter of pure doctrine.”
  • The Gospel is not something to believe as much as it is a vocation to a changed life.
  • For Francis  there were no “others.” He responded to each person he met as if he were already a friend, developing a simple kindness, openness, neighborliness and looking out for their needs, an approach that is part and parcel of gospel living.
  • Francis befriended without judging, noticed and responded to people’s needs and expressed love for them simply because that person had been created by a God who says that every created thing is good.
  • Contrary to the prevailing thought of his time, he didn’t see the world as evil but instead embraced it.

Not a dissenter, a nonconformist

Sweeney writes that Francis of Assisi “rebranded” the idea of sanctity. He was never a disobedient son of the Church, although he was as nonconformist who had his own priorities.

He advocated for humble dress, fasting as part of one’s regular diet, grace before meals, nonviolence, hospitality and prayer. Sweeney notes:

“He placed such a priority on personal prayer, contemplation, charity and loving-kindness because the habits of the heart are important to God, as well as to the faithful who want to know God better.”

And all these things we not just for the friars of his community but for ordinary believers. That was revolutionary during Francis’ era, when the Church felt threatened by individual expressions of faith and priests were taught that they were the primary mediators between God and their parishioners. Along with forming the Order of Friars Minor that we know as Franciscans, Francis wrote a Rule for laity — Third Order Franciscans — that included many of the principles of his Rule for the friars, plus gathering together as community, aiding the sick and caring for those who die. These practices all became to be known as spiritual acts.

Francis lived during the height of the Gothic era, when it was believed that religious people should turn away from the coarseness of the world and lift eyes and minds upward, toward the rising height of steeples and images of angels and saints, the world to come. Francis found beauty in the ordinary things of the world.

Sweeney connects St. Francis with Pope Francis in the way that both seems to be advocates of a Church that is at times unpredictable, threatening to some, a Church listening to the Spirit. Francis the pope “meets people face-to-face as equals. He touches people who might seem untouchable. He loves to laugh. He is not afraid of change.” Pope Francis, Sweeney posits, “has begun to return the Church to a Franciscan understanding of friendship, relating to the other, poverty, spirituality, care and death,” and is “leading the Church toward greater humility; revaluing poverty, especial by his own example; and preaching as a last resort to explain the values that he wants to uphold as most important for Catholics and for all people.”

Pope Francis, in Sweeney’s mind, “is calling us to recreate God’s Church to better foster the art of true gospel living.” And he writes:

“Who knows what the next few years will bring. As a Catholic who is interested in the positive role the Catholic Church can play in sanctifying the world, I’m anxious to be part of the vision that Francis realized long ago and conscious that we live in a world ready for our making today.”

 

 

 

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A gift book for budding readers and writers

September 22, 2014

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Roget coverLovers of good writing, those who chew on words, savor their sounds, relish the way they strike pictures in the mind or prompt emotions, those are the kind of people who will want to pick up “The Right Word” and buy it for all the young readers and writers they know.

Author Jen Bryant’s bright-and-tight prose fits well with this young person’s version of a biography of Peter Mark Roget, whose famous thesaurus, first printed in 1852, continues to be updated and published more than a century and a half later. It’s a life story worth knowing.

And Melissa Sweet’s creative, playful illustrations make for just as good reading as she pulls in definition after definition from Roget’s lists of the synonyms for words. When young Peter tells his mother he is “fine,” for example, Sweet’s silhouetted caricature of the boy considers if “fine” is the right word for how he feels, and bubble thoughts including possible options like “glad,” “cheerful,” “well,” “dandy,” “never better,” “splendid,” “middling,” “nice” and “happy as the day is long.”

This Eerdmans Book for Young readers is a splendid way to introduce anyone age seven and up to one of the writing world’s riches.

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Guilt: Too heavy a burden? A must-read novel

August 26, 2014

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How much guilt can you live with?

Knowing you’ve done something illegal and even hurtful, can the fact that the wrongful act also has brought joy be enough to overwhelm that guilt? And for how long?

M. L. Stedman brings those question out from hiding in the superbly written drama “The Light Between Oceans,” a New York Times bestseller that will soon come to movie screens.

Stedman’s setting of a lighthouse off the southwest coast of Australia and the small town that is its closest port takes readers to virgin literary territory. That’s always attractive, of course, to discover new lands through the written word.

But it’s the story that Stedman weaves that will grab readers’ attention and hold it for 322 pages, and the question she leads us to ask: What would we do?

The light coverOn that lonely island with the lighthouse between the Indian Ocean and the Great Southern Ocean below Australia, 100 miles from the nearest land, a married couple suffers through three miscarriages, the last very recent.

Then a dinghy washes up. In it is the body of a man. Although he’s dead, in the boat a baby cries, wrapped in a woman’s shawl. So the test begins.

Should the lighthouse keeper report this unusual event, or can the child become the baby he and his wife seem to be unable to create? Will he risk his career or, by dutifully telling the authorities about the child and the dead man, risk earning the scorn of his wife, who already has seen the baby’s arrival as a miracle from God?

Despite his misgivings, they keep the baby, pretending the wife has given birth. But how long with the charade last? How long can a person stand knowing that another woman is heartbroken and nearly insane from the loss of her infant child?

“The Light Between Oceans” is a wonderful read, a piece with both droplets of foreshadowing and unexpected turns of events, a testament to hope and prayer, an in-depth delving into joys and sorrows, into human nature and families, into life itself.

 

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A period piece you’ll relish reading

August 20, 2014

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The Time In BetweenDo you savor good writing?

The slow-moving action of “The Time In Between” perfectly fits this lengthy, detail-filled novel. It lets you soak up the lovely writing and the exquisite translation from the original Spanish into beautiful English.

It lets you absorb the tenor of the times and the emotions of characters into whose lives you’ve been dropped for 600-plus pages.

Hemingway and others have written about the Spanish civil war, of course, but Maria Duenas decorates with ornamentation, flavor and the style of the period in contrast to the straightforward, unadorned sentences of Hemingway.

Fashionistas will appreciate the detail Duenas shares as she portrays the life of the seamstress turned spy in the chaotic 1930s as Spaniards moved from their own tragic war into observers of World War II all around them.

There’s drama, mystery, romance and unexpected turns of events — all the pieces that drive readers to keep turning pages. People even pray and go to church, something rare for modern literature.

Hats off to Daniel Hahn for bringing this 2009 novel to readers of the English language. Only once did I feel as though he’d missed the mark.

Just as I was admiring the beauty of the translation, he has an old Moroccan woman threatening the suitor of the main seamstress character sounding like a thug straight from the streets of south Philadelphia. Just had to laugh.

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Make the choice: Read ‘Little Bee’

August 20, 2014

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little bee coverAn old poster, printed graffiti style, claimed “Not to decide is to decide.”

The corollary is that all decisions have consequences. What we choose to do matters.

For the characters of Chris Cleave’s “Little Bee,” deciding as well as not deciding both have life and death implications.

“Little Bee” is a masterfully written novel told from the alternating first-person points of view of a young Nigerian girl — the Little Bee of the title — and the female British magazine executive intent of saving her.

While Cleave obviously is making a statement about England’s policies with regard to those who have come to its shores sans documentation and about the horrors of greed-based, development-driven brutality in Africa, he has so much more to say to make us think about the choices each of us makes.

Do we stay or flee? Do we opt for the present dangers or choose the possibility of dangers unknown?

Do we give in to intolerable demands or face possibly even worse consequences — for us and for others as well?

Do we offer a hand knowing that our doing so may incriminate us?

And what about the other side of the coin?

What will happen if we don’t act?

Will there be dire, even fatal consequences?

And, if we don’t risk putting ourselves in harms way, will we be able to live with ourselves?

No wonder “Little Bee” was a New York Times bestseller. It’s out now as a Simon & Schuster paperback.

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So much to be thankful for

August 19, 2014

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thank you god coverQuick, list all the things for which you’d like to thank God.

I’ll bet you haven’t come up with as many as are in the new children’s book, “Thank You, God.”

Author J. Bradley Wigger lists in 26 pages more things for which we ought to be grateful for than most parents are likely to come up with as they pray with their young ones.

And, with typical family scenes colorfully illustrating the prayer-like text with all kinds of details, “Thank You, God” will keep the interest of young people as well, thanks to the artistry of Jago.

Just published in August, this is an imprint of Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

 

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Catholic grandparents: Pass on the baton of faith

August 12, 2014

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“Preserving Your Family: Parents and grandparents working together,” by Dick Bergeson. Self-published. 89 pp. $9.95.

bookimageFormer Minnesotan Dick Bergeson has published a little paperback of advice that he hopes will motivate parents and grandparents to get to work passing on the faith.

Bergeson, long-active in the Catholic charismatic movement and now a grandfather and great-grandfather, shares Scripture-based ideas intended to help reverse what he terms “the exodus from our faith” by younger generations.

He echoes the urging of St. Pope John Paul II for Christian communities to become “schools of prayer,” noting that extended families need to provide both teaching about the faith and the supportive culture that has virtually disappeared from today’s world.

While much of the advice is aimed both at parents and grandparents, Bergeson writes, “It is important for grandparents to be conscious of the extraordinry position they hold in their families.”

The older generations hold a critical role in the faith formation of the whole family not the least of which is because “they have gone through may crises in life and know how invaluable a deep faith in Jesus is,” he notes. “They have seen God act in their lives and in the problems they have faced.”

Praying for family members is primary, along with practicing and teaching a variety of prayer forms, continuing to learn about the faith one’s self, providing a sense of propriety amid shifting cultural trends and living a life of integrity.

Bergeson sees grandparental involvement as handing off the baton of faith to the next generation.

“Grandparents have always provided the spiritual backbone of the family,” he notes. “Grandparents have live through life and have experienced losses, failures, struggles, deaths and have been able to see how God has acted and been there through each one of these crises of life.

He adds, “If they don’t step in, another generation will be lost.”

Bergeson urges mothers, father and grandparents to be a blessing to children and grandchildren.

“This means we need to give them words of encouragement and loving direction,” he says. “We need to remind them of who they are as persons. . . . The most important thing we can do for our children is to make sure they know they are loved and appreciated in our families.”

The overriding goal for all should be to “lay the groundwork for our offspring to get to heaven,” he says. “This is the only thing that matters in life and should affect all of our actions.”

The book is available at http://www.preservingyourfamily.com.

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Father, son and values tested in superb WWI novel

June 8, 2014

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cartographerThe moral life takes center stage in P.S. Duffy’s “The Cartographer of No Man’s Land,” a World War I novel that centers around a family and village in Nova Scotia and the impact of the first “war to end all wars.”

To go to war or not, to fight or to give up, to love or go through the motions, to admire or be repulsed by, to change or carry on — the story lines come at the reader like the torrent of artillery shells pounding at the trenches one chapter and like the waves of the North Atlantic sweeping fishermen overboard the next.

Caught in the middle are a father and son, and the novel jumps back and forth between their thoughts and dreams, their expectations and the experiences life throws their way.

Along the way Duffy sneaks in the dirty bit of history of bigotry that put ethnic-German Canadian citizens in detainment camps along with prisoners of war and “suspicious” aliens.

Those familiar with the writing of ancient Greece will appreciate references to the classics scattered throughout. Phrases from Scripture pop up, too, as wartime puts long-accepted values to the test both in France and back on the home front.

World War I garners a small percentage of battle literature in comparison to WWII, it seems to me, and the stories of Canadian soldiers even a smaller spot on the shelves compared to books about U.S. and British forces.

“The Cartographer of No Man’s Land” puts a dent into those imbalances with a handful of captivating parallel plots, meaty characters, splashes of intense action and superb writing.

This Liveright Publishing Corporation release last fall is a marvelous example of the writer’s craft, and it offers great possibilities for a sequel. Introduced to these intriguing people, readers will surely want to know what happens next in their lives, and Duffy has set the stage well with plenty of ambiguity.

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Story of Jesus perfect for 4-to-8 year olds

May 12, 2014

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Jesus coverLittle children run to Jesus on the cover of this Eerdmans Book for Young Readers, a wonderful image to draw the target age group — 4-to-8 years — into the story of Jesus’ life.
Benedictine Anselm Grün’s retelling of Gospel events is true to Catholic teaching, from the visitation through the nativity and more than a half-dozen highlights of New Testament stories up through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The translation by Laura Watkinson keeps the language simple and age-appropriate, and Giuliano Ferri’s colorful artwork adds to the storytelling, bringing to life the calling of the disciples, for example, the stories of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the Prodigal Son, and the Last Supper.
Parents and teachers will find “Jesus” an excellent choice reading to children in a home schooling setting or early faith formation.

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‘Brother Hugo and the Bear': cute and informative

May 8, 2014

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brother hugo and the bearAuthor Katy Beebe has crafted a cute story from a sliver of what may or may not be a true anecdote from the 12th century. Did a bear really devour much of one monastery’s copy of St. Augustine’s letters to St. Jerome?

Beebe’s fictional Brother Hugo gets the task of replacing it, and a good chunk of the tale illustrates how manuscripts were created by the monks in those monasteries in the Middle Ages.

Illustrates is the perfect word, too, because artist S.D. Schindler’s superb use of the style of those medieval illuminators adds a whimsical period touch that puts the story into the proper historical timeframe.

This is not just a good tale for young readers but an educational one as well.

There’s church and human history embedded in the Eerdmans book, with salutes to those ancient monasteries, the Benedictine’s Cluny and the Cistercian’s La Grande Chartreuse, and even a glossary that includes both church and manuscript making vocabularies.

What a nice idea, and nicely done.

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