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Two novels look at sibling relationships from a Catholic perspective Print E-mail
Written by Graham G. Yearley Catholic News Service   
Friday, 28 August 2015 14:18

"Contrition" by Maura Weiler. Infinite Words (New York, 2015). 331 pp., $15.

"The Fifth Gospel" by Ian Caldwell. Simon and Schuster (New York, 2015). 431 pp., $25.99.

"Contrition" and "The Fifth Gospel" are two recent novels that center on sibling relationships in their closeness and in their conflict. "Contrition" by Maura Weiler tells the story of Dorie McKenna, who was adopted at an early age, only to discover in adulthood that her biological father was a famous painter and that she has a twin sister, who is a nun in a cloistered order.

Eager to know more about her sister, Dorie goes to the convent, which happens to sit on the edge of the spectacular Big Sur section of the Californian coastline. Dorie discovers her sister has inherited her father's talent and has become an even better painter, focusing, of course, on religious subjects.

However, Dorie's twin, Sister Catherine, has no desire to show her work beyond the convent or to form a relationship with her twin. Moreover, Sister Catherine has taken a voluntary vow of silence, creating an even greater obstacle to knowing Dorie. But, in time, they do form a relationship and that results in some dramatic changes in both sisters' lives.

While the plot of "Contrition" may seem a bit contrived and some of the characters flat and undeveloped, it remains a hugely readable novel, one that kept this reader captive for three days.

Ian Caldwell, author of "The Fifth Gospel" -- like Donna Tartt, author of "The Secret History" -- writes engrossing fiction, but not speedily. Caldwell's last novel, "The Rule of Four," which he co-wrote with Dustin Thomason, was published in 2004 to great success. Caldwell says the research for "The Fifth Gospel" was extensive and there were several substantial rewrites that, in the end, occupied 11 years.

The research is evident; 95 percent of the action of "The Fifth Gospel" takes place within the walls of Vatican City, a small town that in addition to St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums includes its own medical dispensary, a grocery store, a garage and apartment complexes the public never sees, but that serves as a hometown to many.

Two of its lifelong citizens are brothers, one a Latin-rite Catholic priest and the other an Eastern-rite Catholic priest, Father Simon Andreou and Father Alex Andreou. Father Alex, the narrator of the story, is from the Eastern Catholic Church, which allows the ordination of married men to the priesthood. He has a son, Peter, on whom he dotes, but he is estranged from his wife, Mona, who abandoned both husband and son.

The story begins with the murder of Ugo Nogara, the chief curator of a major exhibition at the Vatican Museums that is about to open. Father Simon has worked with Nogara on the exhibition and quickly becomes the chief suspect in his murder. Father Alex initiates a personal investigation into the murder with the hope of exonerating his brother.

Naturally, there are plenty of obstacles to learning the truth. The exhibition focuses on the legendary Shroud of Turin, the cloth that was believed to be Christ's own burial cloth with the imprint of his body and wounds. Carbon dating of the shroud done before the time of the story proved the cloth came from a much later century.

Central to Nogara's findings on the shroud is the text of the Diatessaron, the so-called "fifth Gospel" that blends the narratives of all four Gospels in an attempt to make a coherent narrative out of the stories of Jesus' life and eliminate the contradictions between Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. History has proved this to be impossible and, ultimately, unnecessary.

The blending of real relics and real ancient books with both real and fictional characters makes for exciting, historical fiction. St. John Paul II is a character in the novel. But the novel's true power springs not from the solving of the whodunit, but from a secondary plot that imagines a reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. A scene in the Sistine Chapel that brings together St. John Paul II and the patriarchs of the Orthodox Church is the most deeply moving moment in "The Fifth Gospel" and it is truly the novel's climax.

The solving of the murder mystery seems just a sideshow afterward and a confusing sideshow at that. But a chance to explore a hidden world within one of the world's most public places is not to be missed and Ian Caldwell is an excellent guide.

Yearley earned a master's in theology and a certificate of advanced study from the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore.

Very different books on St. Katharine Drexel complement each other Print E-mail
Written by Rachelle Linner, Catholic News Service   
Friday, 31 July 2015 14:02

"Katharine Drexel: The Riches-to-Rags Story of an American Catholic Saint" by Cheryl C.D. Hughes. Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2014). 283 pp., $20.

"Saint Katharine: The Life of Katharine Drexel" by Cordelia Frances Biddle. Westholme Publishing (Yardley, Pennsylvania, 2014). 280 pp., $26.

Together, these two very different books about St. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) provide a full and exacting portrait of the remarkable woman who, indeed, went from riches to rags.Born a Philadelphia heiress, she divested herself of wealth and privilege to found the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, which has a particular mission of serving African-Americans and Native Americans.

The two books complement each other and it is a happy coincidence that both would be published around the same time.Each author brings particular strengths to her task.

Biddle, who teaches creative writing at Drexel University, is a direct descendent of Francis Martin Drexel, St. Katharine's grandfather.

A vivid and direct prose style brings her extensive historical research to life.Hughes, a professor of humanities and religious studies at Tulsa Community College in Oklahoma, has an excellent command of theological issues. She writes clearly and persuasively about St. Katharine Drexel's religious upbringing, spirituality and the charism of her order.

"Riches-to-Rags" is a model of contemporary hagiography. While not disguising her admiration and respect for St. Katharine, there is not a hint of sentimentality or romanticism in this presentation of Drexel's piety, mission and canonization.Hughes gives the reader a full appreciation for the ecclesial context of this remarkable woman's life.

We can better appreciate the arduous work and accomplishments of the Blessed Sacrament Sisters because Hughes carefully charts St. Katharine's long discernment process. She quotes extensively from the correspondence Drexel had with her spiritual adviser, Bishop James O'Connor, who for years opposed her desire to enter religious life, and then insisted she found an order of nuns.In one of the book's finest chapters, Hughes elucidates St. Katharine's kenotic and eucharistic spiritualities "through which she was able to conform herself to Christ, to endure and even to flourish in her vocation as a missionary founder."Throughout her life, St. Katharine embraced severe ascetic practices, including fasting, mortification of the flesh - wearing a hair shirt, wrapping iron chains around her waist and arms, using a metal-tipped discipline - and praying in uncomfortable positions. "This type of kenosis, or self-emptying through pain, is for the sake of the church, that one may be able to bring others to Christ through the church." She emptied herself "so she could be filled with Christ in the Eucharist."

Her "deep eucharistic spirituality ... was her defining characteristic." It is a spirituality that she shared with St. John Paul II, who canonized Mother Katharine Drexel in 2000. Hughes concludes her book with a lucid discussion of St. John Paul's pontificate, the theology of canonization and the meaning of the communion of saints.Biddle's St. Katharine is less concerned with theological issues but her account is wonderfully descriptive and evocative of the saint's life and times. It is one thing to say that heiress went from riches to rags. It is another to read the sumptuous details of her privileged upbringing and watch the development of the "duality in her nature ... the searching, meditative self who prayed fervently to God for guidance; and the fun-loving teenage girl whom everyone believed was immune to doubt and sorrow."

Biddle conveys the horrific conditions under which African-Americans and Native Americans lived and the enormous physical challenges that St. Katharine and her young community faced as they sought to educate and serve them. She reminds us of the crimes perpetrated against Native Americans and our long history of endemic racism.

"Racial inequality was ubiquitous, and most of the Southern bishops either incapable of easing the tension, or turning a blind eye, or, worse, abetting it."This is not a story of idealistic religious women setting forth to do good in safety. They faced disease, local opposition, arduous traveling conditions, towns controlled by the Ku Klux Klan and deeply rooted injustice.St. Katharine Drexel spent her last 20 years as an invalid, a difficult challenge for a woman who had led such a vital, meaningful life.But, as Biddle shows, she used the time as a retreat.

"To die to self-love that I may live to God alone is the great business of the spiritual life." It is clear that she succeeded in her business as abundantly as her banking ancestors reached the pinnacle of theirs.

Linner, a freelance writer and reviewer, has a master's degree in theology from Weston Jesuit School of Theology



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