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Did these 10 prayers really change the world?

March 28, 2016


Ten Prayers coverThroughout the centuries believers of every faith tradition have appealed to God or gods for help when human means fail.

But is there such a thing as divine intervention in response to prayer?

Author Jean-Pierre Isbouts isn’t naive enough not to see that prayer has not stopped evil and suffering from happening throughout human history. He asks if, given the deaths of 40 million people during the world wars of the last century and the violent extremists of ISIS and Boko Haran who delight in beheading people for the glory of Allah, it is still possible to believe in a merciful God?

His response to that question is “Ten Prayers that Changed the World: Extraordinary Stories of Faith That Shaped the Course of History.”

Quoting Plato, Isbouts writes that there is “a spark of the divine” in every person,  and it is “a beacon through which God can speak to us and we can speak to him. . . . “All that we need to figure out is the right bandwidth by which to reach him. Some call that spirituality; others call it prayer.

He adds, “I think of it as whispers of God — whispers that have and incredible power to stir our mind, urge us to action, and make us do things we didn’t think we were capable of.”

From Abraham’s prayer to spare his son, Isaac, to Jesus’ prayer that has become the “Our Father,” on to Constantine and the granting of religious freedom to Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, George Washington, and more, the stories are as much history lessons as affirmation that prayer has had an impact on world events.

Catholics in particular will find a worthwhile summary of Luther’s story.

And did you know that the well-loved “Prayer of St. Francis” wasn’t written during the lifetime of the 13th-century saint but in 1912?

Outside of Abraham, only Ganhdi breaks into what is otherwise an all-Christian line-up of the 10 prayers. And frankly, the prayer for fair weather that Gen. George Patton’s chaplains composed so the Allied Army could relieve the troops surrounded by Nazi German forces at Bastogne during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge — as good a story as it is — seems to pale in comparison to the impact the other nine have had on human history.


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‘Confessions of a Priest’: a novel

February 16, 2016


Confessions of a Priest coverA Bloomington, Minnesota, man has written a novel imagining what life might be for today’s priests, but of course it had to be self-published; no book publisher of note would even think of putting its imprint on the story of a priest who hasn’t some evil secret waiting to be discovered.

It isn’t that Father John Krentz, the main character in Jim Koepke’s “Confessions of a Priest,” doesn’t have his flaws. He can be sharp-tongued, impertinent, anti-authoritarian and somewhat narrow-minded. But he’s a good priest, and he grows as a person throughout the story.

All of which makes the novel seem almost pollyannish. That’s okay with Koepke; it’s what he intended.

“It seems as though everyday Catholics are inundated by negative press about Catholic priests,” Koepke told The Catholic Spirit. “I wrote this for people who might like some good news about priests. Our priests are the best of the best, and I hope this offers people some relief.”

Fifty-year-old Father John has a comfortable life serving a parish that’s not as large as it used to be but still doing all right. The story unfolds when his bishop — who takes the brunt of the priest’s vitriolic tongue — disturbs that comfort level, and not just once.

Parish priests will recognize some of the other characters that present challenges and opportunities, including the mean-spirited parish gossip, and the story doesn’t skip issues of the day like clergy sexual abuse, homelessness, addiction and homosexuality.

Koepke calls team-teaching confirmation classes — which he’s done with his wife, Mary, for 26 years — “the most fun thing I do,” and pages of his book could be mistaken for pages of a catechism at times, as Father John draws upon the teachings of the Church to counsel parishioners and deal with what life brings to his rectory door.

This is a fast-paced work with superbly written dialogue. The repartee between the characters is so true to life, you can easily imagine enjoying the give-and-take of the conversations in the rectory.

The main flaw of “Confessions of a Priest” is a cosmetic one, a result of self-publishing I’m afraid. There’s just a lack of professionalism in the book from the front and back covers to the inside pages, with wide leading between the lines and a smattering of typographical errors that unfortunately cheapen a pretty decent story.

Pick it up anyway, either at St. Patrick’s Guild in St. Paul or on ($13.95).

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52 lessons from ‘A Christmas Carol’

December 21, 2015


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


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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Promised yourself you’d pray daily? Help is here

October 11, 2015


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


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


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



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


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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Willing to be ‘blessed by less’?

August 17, 2015


BlessedByLessAre you ready to clear your life of clutter by living lightly?

Those willing to try the suggestions Susan V. Vogt offers in “Blessed by Less” — an easy-to-read, 122-page paperback — will find they are right in sync with the recent encyclical of Pope Francis that encourages better stewardship of the earth’s resources and valuing all creation.

Vogt hits a nerve right from the start: “Your life is an overflowing closet. You know it is.”

Living lightly, she writes, “is not just about the stuff we accumulate, and it’s not just for people in the second half of life. It’s about an attitude of living with fewer burdens and encumbrances, whether you’re 21 or 65.”

There is a spirituality to that attitude, one held by those who remember that their existence is more than accumulating possessions and gaining status, and those spiritual principles drive this Loyola Press book. As Vogt puts it, “It’s a delicate dance to balance my own genuine needs with those of others. The spiritual paradox is that the less tightly I cling to my stuff, my way, and my concerns, the happier and more blessed I feel. Once I have enough, less is more.”

How many of us are aware of what Vogt labels “creature comfort creep”?

It’s feeling perfectly comfortable with a possession like a cell phone until we see people around us who have a newer phone with even greater capabilities. We
“have to” buy it, thus creating a “new normal,” one that will itself one day be outpaced by a yet newer model. The creature comfort creep goes for seeing others with a lifestyle we might covet, too.

As good as are the suggestions for how to go about decluttering and living lightly, there is great advice here too about the intangibles in our lives, such as privacy, social media, feelings, over-scheduling and over-committing, being consumed with being right, winning arguments and getting one’s way.

The chapter on letting go of emotional baggage is as valuable as Vogt’s criteria for making purchases. She does an excellent job of condensing good things to remember into lists and bullet points, and each chapter has suggestions both basic and more complex, plus an appropriate Scripture passage to mediate on and questions to reflect upon or discuss.

And, in a approach I hadn’t seen before, “Blessed by Less” includes ideas to try “For those in the first half of life” who may be more in the accumulating mode and “For those in the second half of life,” more likely to be looking to disburse some of those accumulations, both the material and the emotional. That’s good thinking.

Deep in a chapter on recycling the author drops what may be the one take-away from the book that could be a mantra for everyone in the 21st century:

“The best way to recycle is to reduce the need for it (recycling) by buying and accumulating less in the first place.”



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