Tag Archives: pope

So you think you know Pope Benedict

October 16, 2010

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I tend to shy away from books that look like “Benedict XVI: Essays and Reflections on His Papacy,” a new release edited by Mary Ann Walsh, because it looks like one of two things I don’t usually value: a coffee table book or a hagiography, the kind of puff writing that glorifies the subject.

Can’t judge a book by its cover.

If you want to know what the pope thinks about the critical issues of the day, if you want to give yourself a quick course in church teaching on those issues, read the essays Sister Mary Ann has gathered.

And, if you want to know a lot more about Joseph Ratzinger, the man, read the personal reflections that make the Holy Father not just human but someone you’d like to meet and know better.

Know, though, that you won’t find anything negative in the book about B16 (thanks, Adam Robinson, for the shortcut nickname!). I can live with that because this Sheed & Ward imprint does well what it aims to do.

Photos aren’t superb

If there’s a weakness it’s that, in a book with a lot of photos on its 224 pages, there aren’t a lot outstanding images. There are a couple that are gorgeous, some that capture history, but many are pretty pedestrian. There are just a few too many boring shots of B16 greeting dignitaries. However: A wise editor once said, all photos look better the larger they are printed, and the design of “Benedict XVI” gives even those average pictures the kind of play that is attractive if not stunning.

The excellent photos, for my taste, are a couple shots I’d never seen before: a shot from the air of what B16 sees out his window when leaving Vatican City, and a beautiful image of the pontiff resting on a garden bench, looking like your grandfather resting after a tiring day, alone with his thoughts and at peace.

The essay I appreciated the most was Stephen Colecchi’s insight into B16’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth) — summarized in almost bullet points. And I loved one by Don Clemmer headlined “Shepherding Cats.” Who knew the pope was a cat person?

 Getting to know the pope

Just about every one of the personal reflections told me something I didn’t know about our German pope. Several American cardinals and archbishops — including Minneapolis-St. Paul’s own Archbishop John Nienstedt and native son Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis — shared anecdotes about times they’ve come in contact with the Holy Father, and like all good anecdotes they give us an insider’s perspective and tell us something about the pope we might never otherwise know.

He plays the piano? He skis?

Sister Mary Ann, who is director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, adds one of the best anecdotes — telling about the time the pope made a mistake and how he acknowledge it with self-depricating humor. And Nancy Wiechec, a great photographer and the visual media manager for Catholic News Service, gives readers an insight about the Holy Father that only comes from numerous opportunities to view the pope through her camera lens.

Even the 16-page resource section is fact filled. Did you know Joseph Ratzinger entered the seminary at age 12? That was in 1939 — the same year the Nazis invaded Poland to start World War II.

It’s a book worth its $29.95 price tag. –bz

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Come look inside John Paul II’s Vatican

November 24, 2008

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“Pope John Paul II: An Intimate Life,”

by Caroline Pigozzi

One thing you have to say for Caroline Pigozzi: She’s got guts.

The French journalist talked her way into getting behind the scenes at the Vatican to observe the late Pope John Paul II in his day-to-day rituals inside St. Peter’s, inside the offices of the Holy See, and inside the papal apartment.

Once she gets her toe in the Vatican door, she meets and befriends the right people who open yet more doors, and her persistence at documenting what she see and what she hears makes — surprisingly for me — interesting reading.

As I was, you may be poped-out on John Paul by now, but this very different, detailed look at the life of a pope isn’t so much about what the pope said or did as it is about how the pope lived: what he enjoyed, whose company he relished, how he operated as the leader of a world-wide church. With the “ski” at the end of my name, it was interesting for me to read about the special treatment Polish clergy and seminarians received and about the “parallel curia” of Poles that some accused the former Karol Wojtyla of building at the Vatican. Fair warning: Pigozzi as an author is pretty much a hero-worshiper, so you’re not going to read about the dark side of John Paul (if there is one) in this book published under the Faith Words imprint (http://www.faithwords.com/).

You don’t have to read this book to feel that you know what John Paul II stood for, but if you want to know more about the man and how he lived, Pigozzi has detail after detail — some as innocuous as who polished the pope’s shoes — that give insight into the whole man. -bz
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Sex and a 17th century pope? More innuendo than facts, but lots of interesting facts, too

September 15, 2008

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“MISTRESS OF THE VATICAN,”
by Eleanor Herman

When I’m at the bookstore or library I tend to pick up anything that has “Vatican” in the title, so I couldn’t pass up something as titillating as “Mistress of the Vatican” when publisher William Morrow offered a review copy.

The jacket cover suggested hanky-panky with the bare-shouldered portrait of a beautiful woman with a painting of St. Peter’s Basilica and Square covering her, uh, feminine charms, and a subtitle, “The True Story of Olimpia Maidalchini: The Secret Female Pope.”

The adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover still applies.

Author Eleanor Herman offers no real evidence that 17th century Pope Innocent X had a sexual relationship with Olimpia, his sister-in-law, as the term “mistress” would suggest.

She offers no facts that Olimpia was pope, although she apparently was extremely influential in papal decisions.

Even the cover artwork is misleading: You’d think that the beautiful woman depicted is Olimpia, but no; the jacket painting is of “Venus at the Mirror,” by Tiziano.

Despite that, this book was hard to put down.

She’s done the research

Herman has culled the diaries and papers of Vatican officials of the period and the works of commentators during the mid 1600s, and what she’s come up with are some things about our church at the time that today we’d consider unthinkable. The nepotism, the bribery, the selling of church offices, the misuse of church funds — they saturate these 419 pages, and that’s without the bibliography and index.

Even those of us who love our church ought to know that at times in the past some pretty ridiculous things have been done in the name of our faith. Herman points out the silliness of some of the practices surrounding relics, for one thing. An Italian church claimed to have preserved the umbilical cord of Jesus, another drops of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk.

What gets tiresome, though, is the author’s tendency to slip into extended “filler” — background information that seemingly has little or nothing to do with the story of Donna Olimpia and her brother-in-law the pope.

Early on she extrapolates the cultural mores of the era and presumes much. While there is no factual evidence that Olimpia did this or that, women of the times did things this way, so Olimpia must have as well, she posits. It’s a bit too much innudendo for my taste.

Evidence shows Olimpia’s influence

There seems to be little doubt, though, that the widow of Pope Innocent X’s brother was extremely influential in day-to-day decisions concerning the Papal States. The evidence author Herman brings to light shows that Olimpia’s fingerprints are on the appointments of cardinals, on the finances of the church, on the church’s relationship with the governments and royalty of nations such as France and Spain, among others, and much, much more.

Be ready to read a boatload of language pointing out how anti-woman the Catholic Church is and has been through the ages. And the author uses some misleading descriptions that makes you wonder if she made this stuff up or is actually quoting some 17th century theologian or document.

Take Holy Orders: She writes that priestly ordination was “a sacrament that was thought to tattoo the human soul with an invisible but ineradicable seal that prevented marriage.”

Tattoo the soul?

I hadn’t heard that one before. But then, I really hadn’t been up on some of the less-flattering history of our church, like the regular elevation of papal nephews to rank of cardinal although they might still be in their teens, the regular practice of popes to appoint their relatives to jobs in the Vatican, the fawning of European royalty to curry the pope’s favor with expensive gifts, etc.

The saving grace is that at some point Innocent did have a crisis of conscience and put the dignity and integrity of the church first, and that many of the laughable practices of those times are long gone.

So read this. It’s not sexy. It promises one thing and delivers another, but it’s still a good read. — bz

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Will the Pope survive terrorists shooting up St. Peter’s?

August 26, 2008

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“The Messenger,”
by Daniel Silva

Will Israeli super-spy Gabriel Allon be able to save the life of the Holy Father and get revenge on the Islamist extremist who planned attacking the Vatican? And what and who might be other targets for the terrorists?

The pope is a draw in this page-turner of a novel, but concerns about the pontiff and St. Peter’s really is the cookie part of the Oreo. The creamy filling is how the Israeli and American spy guys infiltrate a Saudi billionaire to get to the terrorist they’ve targeted.

Silva has a good thing going as he takes advantage of post-9/11 fears and anti-Arab sentiments rampant in the West.

He’s also milking his creation of the character Allon, who restores paintings to their original glory when he’s not putting away bad guys. He’s a hero we can’t help but support, and Silva is taking advantage of his protagonist’s popularity now with a fistful of novels.

All are good international thrillers, and “The Messenger” joins the rest as worth your time because it’s a good premise and a good plot.

But know there’s a definite slant to his work, and a message Silva is not shy about: There is evil out there, and the world needs to be more attuned to the threat posed by those who hate capitalism, Christianity and democracy. – bz

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Thanks for the “Pope” pulp, but you shouldn’t have

February 29, 2008

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“High Hat,”
by Greg Mandel

I hadn’t read four complete paragraphs of “High Hat” when I began asking myself if I’d had enough and it was okay to stop.

The same question came to mind many times, but I kept forcing myself on, just to see if Greg Mandel could pull off this wacky idea of a Mickey Spillane-type pulp fiction novel in which the private detective has a day job — as the pope, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

After plodding through all the obtuse private-eye vernacular for 130 pages, the answer was, “No.”

Sorry, Greg. All the kitsch in the world can’t save a hokey plot. And how many 130-page paperbacks can you describe as having to plod through?

It’s like the author put all the energy into trying to come up with cute similes and metaphors ala Mike Hammer and forgot that realistic drama was an essential element to hold readers’ attention.

The storyline has someone trying to get possession of the bones of St. Peter because they allegedly have mysterious powers. The pope, as alter ego A. Pope — get it? — Vatican City’s only private detective, stumbles on the bad guys and goes through the usual ups and downs the pulp fiction genre requires, getting into as much hot water as, well, as Mandel might have put it, enough hot water to bathe the whole College of Cardinals.

And the creative P-I lingo? Papal garments are call “the holy muumuu;” lips are “ruby smoochers;” the pope never walks anywhere, he “ankles” over; the Mennonite splinter group bad guys are “pretzel benders.” All that’s campy for a while, and silly almost to the point of funny, but not quite.

Save yourself the two hours. If you need a fix of stuff like this, find a “Batman” rerun on cable TV. That’s about the quality of the story and the action — and you’ll only be wasting 30 minutes of your life. — bz

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