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Works on catechesis have wide appeal for professionals, casual readers Print E-mail
Friday, 23 September 2016 14:24

"Prisms of Faith: Perspectives on Religious Education and the Cultivation of Catholic Identity," edited by Robert E. Alvis and Ryan LaMothe. Pickwick Publications (Eugene, Oregon, 2016). 150 pp., $21.

"Unexpected Occasions of Grace" by Mike Carotta. Our Sunday Visitor (Huntington, Indiana, 2016). 126 pp., $8.95.

Over the past 30 years, Tom Walters and his wife, Rita, have conducted numerous significant research studies on the state of catechesis in the United States, and on the men and (mostly) women who are responsible for it in U.S. dioceses and parishes. Walters taught catechesis for many years at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, where he also served as academic dean on several occasions.

Upon his retirement, a "Festschrift," or collection of writings, has been published in his honor under the title "Prisms of Faith." Like the work of Walters, this publication provides a serious study on the topics presented.

While most books published today on the topic of catechesis provide practical advice for being a better catechist, this small volume addresses the content and practice of catechesis and provides significant insights into the topics addressed. Since the 2006 demise of The Living Light catechetical journal, which had been published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, finding substantial articles on catechesis has been difficult, which makes the articles in this collection a welcome gift.

Clayton N. Jefford's article on "Use of Apostolic Fathers in the Catechism of the Catholic Church" examines how the writers of the catechism used the writing of the apostolic fathers (Barnabas, Didache, Clement I, Ignatius, Polycarp, etc.) in creating that text. This helps the reader better understand the catechism through the lens of the fathers, and may change the way we read it.

Kimberly F. Baker's "The Mystery Meaning You" is especially of interest during this Jubilee Year of Mercy. Baker makes clear St. Augustine's teaching that what sets apart the Christian from the pagan is our willingness to live on the foundational stones of love and mercy for others. As Baker notes, most people are willing to accept that God is loving and merciful of them but balk at the thought that they are to be loving and merciful themselves. This article has the potential to change our approach to catechesis and provides the theological underpinning for Pope Francis' challenge for ministers to smell like their sheep.

Other articles in "Prisms" address such topics as religious education in modern Poland and what the 1983 Code of Canon Law has to say about Christian education. These articles, while well written and informative, will be of limited interest to the general reader. The articles on liturgical catechesis, Catholic identity and adult moral formation, and religious education that promotes Catholic identity will be of particular interest to people engaged in these topics. Each of these articles is well-written and reflects the serious theological reflection given to the topic by the writers.

This book is a welcome addition to the field of catechesis and deserves to be given serious consideration by everyone in the church's educational and formational ministries.

Mike Carotta's little book "Unexpected Occasions of Grace" is a change of pace from the professional articles found in "Prisms." Here Carotta shares stories of his encounters with grace-filled people.

During his frequent travels to speak at diocesan and national events, Carotta has come in contact with an eclectic group of people with interesting stories to tell. Carotta listens well and is an engaging story-teller. What sets this book apart is his willingness to invite strangers to tell their stories, a vital skill for all catechists, especially as Pope Francis encourages us to encounter God within others. Carotta's book provides examples of how to do this well. This book will be of interest to all readers.

Mulhall is a catechist living in Louisville, Kentucky.

Even those who disagree will find Father Curran's book worthwhile Print E-mail
Written by Mitch Finley, Catholic News Service   
Wednesday, 07 September 2016 14:35

"Tradition and Church Reform: Perspectives On Catholic Moral Teaching" by Charles E. Curran. Orbis Books (Maryknoll, New York, 2016), 294 pp., $32.

Father Charles Curran is one of today's most prominent Catholic moral theologians. While it is necessary to locate him left of center on the theological spectrum, he demands a respectful hearing even from those of a more conservative bent. When it comes to lay readers, only those whose minds are shut and locked will not benefit from reading this most recently published of Father Curran's many books.

The essays in "Tradition and Church Reform" -- all previously published in various journals -- are organized into three main categories: social perspectives, bioethical and sexual perspectives and reform at Vatican II and afterward. Each category begins with an introduction of its own and the reader may browse the titles of the 15 essays and choose those he or she finds most appealing. Titles in the first group of essays include "Overview of the Development of the Catholic Social and Political Tradition," "Human Rights in the Christian Tradition" and "White Privilege."

Part II includes "An Appraisal of Pope John Paul II's Teaching on Sexuality and Marriage" and "The Long Shadow of 'Humanae Vitae' on the Tradition." In Part III the reader will find "How Vatican II Brought Spirituality and Moral Theology Together," "The Need for Reform of the Sacrament of Reconciliation" and "Theology and Spirituality for Church Reformers." Finally, in a conclusion, Father Curran discusses "Pope Francis on Reform and the Catholic Moral Tradition."

Many lay readers may find Father Curran's essay on the theology of the body of St. Pope John Paul II of particular interest. The late pope's thought on this topic elicits from Father Curran the observation that John Paul II's theology of the body is far from a completed systematic discussion. Also, Father Curran points out, "there is no recognition of historical development with regard to the meaning of marriage, nor is the subjectivity of persons different in different historical and cultural circumstances."

It should be noted that in the 1980s, the Vatican ruled that Father Curran no longer had permission to teach as a Catholic theologian because of his dissenting positions on church teaching about sexual morality.

Anyone interested in the renewal of the sacrament of confession will likely be captivated by Father Curran's essay on this topic. He emphasizes "the inadequacy of the present rite of auricular confession in light of Pope Francis' emphasis on the mercy of God and of contemporary understandings of sin, conversion, growth in the Christian life and sacramentology."

"Tradition and Church Reform" is an informative, enlightening and captivating book. While academic in structure and tone, any educated layperson will find it well worth the time given to reading it.

Finley is the author of more than 30 books on Catholic themes, including "What Faith is Not" (Sheed & Ward) and a bestseller, "The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers, and Those In Between" (Word Among Us Press).

Author sees much of himself in Trappist's views on creation spirituality Print E-mail
Written by Mitch Finley Catholic News Service   
Friday, 15 July 2016 13:56

"A Way to God: Thomas Merton's Creation Spirituality Journey" by Matthew Fox. New World Library (Novato, California, 2016). 320 pp., $18.95.

Matthew Fox is an ex-Catholic and ex-Dominican priest who is now an Episcopalian. In 1993, he was silenced for his theological views -- including his advocacy for women's ordination, same-sex unions and some of his writings on creation spirituality. He was expelled from the Dominicans by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now-retired Pope Benedict XVI), the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Over the years, Fox claimed to find the roots of "creation spirituality" in numerous sources including St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Dante Alighieri, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, Hildegard of Bingen, and not only the Bible but Jesus himself.

Fox also finds support for his views in various ecological and environmental movements as well as Buddhism, Sufism and American Indian spirituality. He tags this broadmindedness "deep ecumenism."

In this latest book, "A Way to God," Fox adds Trappist Father Thomas Merton to his list of those in whose thought he finds agreement with the tenets of creation spirituality. Father Merton wrote one letter to Fox in 1967, following that some months later with a package of bound notes on various topics along with a single-sentence note. Other than this, the book relies on Merton's own published writings.

Fox finds in Father Merton's thought what he identifies as a progression from a rather simple ascetic piety to a position virtually identical with his own. That is, Fox finds in Father Merton yet another great religious thinker who, if alive today, would be an advocate of creation spirituality. For Fox there is little doubt that Merton would agree with him on just about everything, as would Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Eckhart, etc.

The trouble is that, aside from what he wrote as he turned things over in his mind, we don't know how Father Merton would have finally acted in any given situation. Certainly it's clear from Father Merton's own journals, for example, that while he recognized the weak thinking and empty authoritarianism behind much of what he was asked to do in the name of his vow of obedience, in the end he obeyed, and for spiritually and intellectually healthy reasons.

Blind obedience wasn't in Father Merton's nature, but neither was rebellious disobedience implying an unconscious belief in his own infallibility. Father Merton would have laughed at anyone who suggested that he leave the Trappists and become a prophet for his own opinions. He knew the real meaning of humility and it had nothing to do with insisting that "they're wrong and I'm right" followed by becoming a martyr in his own eyes.

Fox believes Merton was assassinated by the government of the United States, although he doesn't believe this can be proven. Still, he is convinced it's so based on "circumstantial evidence," about which one hears so much on television crime shows.

"A Way to God" is a book worth reading for anyone interested in the theology of spirituality and in the life and thought of Father Merton.

Finley is the author of more than 30 books on Catholic themes, including "What Faith is Not" (Sheed & Ward) and "The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers, and Those In Between" (The Word Among Us Press).

Author's scholarly take on Peter brings Holy Land to life for readers Print E-mail
Written by David Gibson Catholic News Service   
Wednesday, 18 May 2016 14:23


"Saint Peter: Flawed, Forgiven and Faithful" by Stephen J. Binz. Loyola Press (Chicago, 2015). 193 pp., $14.95.

Travelers planning to visit the Holy Land may want to read Stephen Binz's "Saint Peter: Flawed, Forgiven and Faithful." In addition to his Scripture scholarship, Binz conducts study trips and pilgrimages to the places most closely linked with Jesus and his first disciples.

The author obviously loves bringing the Holy Land's geography to life for readers. They travel with Peter in these pages from Galilee to Rome.

It is enjoyable to hear Binz talk about the home where Peter hosted Jesus or the small church at the place on the Sea of Galilee's shores where Jesus cooked fish for his disciples after his resurrection.

The author seems particularly insightful in his advice about the right starting point for a Holy Land tour. Pilgrims "often begin their Holy Land tour with the cities of the Mediterranean coast," he points out. But he prefers "to visit these coastal sites at the end of the trip because they are the places from which the Gospel was launched westward throughout the Roman Empire."

He explains that "believers who left from this harbor to bring good news to the nations ... knew that (Jesus) called them to cross boundaries and overcome barriers."

This book is at its best in its attention to Peter's crucial role in the ancient church's decision to baptize gentiles - to welcome even those who were not Jews and did not follow Jewish dietary practices into the community of faith and, as a consequence, to begin to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

While "the apostolic mission to all parts of the world will soon be led by Paul," Peter's admission of the Roman centurion Cornelius to baptism in the Acts of the Apostles "makes it clear that Peter was the inaugurator of this mission," Binz says.

"Saint Peter" exhibits a religious educational intent at numerous points. By this I mean that the book is not meant only to highlight Holy Land events that occurred some 2,000 years ago but to clarify what these long-ago incidents imply now for the concrete lives of Christians.

Binz says the Gospel challenges Christians to become "open to what seems impossible" - like "walking on water, feeding thousands with a few loaves, rising from the dead, forgiving an enemy, giving precious time to prayer, giving away hard-earned money, standing alone for what is just."

He comments, too, that "the call of the risen Christ for us to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth convinces us that now every place can be a holy land."

"Saint Peter" is not a scholarly tome overloaded with footnotes or discussions of technical points. On the other hand, some other biblical scholars might quibble with a point or two here.

Binz does not appear to question the traditional view that the author of the Gospel of Mark is the John Mark who made an appearance in the Acts of the Apostles and went on to become a close associate of Peter. Thus, Gospel readers might well expect John Mark to introduce them in a highly significant way to Peter's teaching.

"Although Mark had many sources for the material of his Gospel, Peter seems to be his most important and consistent source of information," Binz writes. The New American Bible cautions, however, that "Petrine influence" in this Gospel should not "be exaggerated."

What I think readers will enjoy most is the book's description of Peter not as someone so perfect that they never could identify with him, but someone like them in important ways.

Binz explains that in the Gospels "we are shown the flaws in Peter's character -- the chips in the Rock." However, "we are also shown, through praise and criticism of Peter throughout the Gospels, how God is working through the life of this great disciple."

Jesus' passion becomes a "point of crisis for Peter," Binz comments. Peter insists to Jesus that "I will not deny you," but Peter then denies Jesus three times.

"Peter's bluster holds a lesson for all future disciples," says Binz. "If we do not recognize our vulnerability, then we have set ourselves up for failure." He suggests it is wise "to place our confidence in a power beyond our own."

Peter will become known later for preaching the good news and for his healing ministry. Binz underscores the resemblances between the healing acts of Jesus and those of Peter.

In light of this, Binz writes, "Peter's ministry demonstrates that Jesus is still powerfully at work in his church."

Gibson was the founding editor of Origins, Catholic News Service's documentary service. He retired in 2007 after holding that post for 36 years.



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