The summer reading list

George Weigel

I recently met the good people of St. Benedict Elementary School in South Natick, Massachusetts, which offers classical Catholic education to some very fortunate youngsters. The extensive summer reading lists the school suggests to those kids’ parents put me in mind of my high school English teacher, the late Fr. W. Vincent Bechtel – who did not, however, do suggestions and made sure that his charges kept their noses to the grindstone from June through August by assigning us at least a half-dozen novels every summer. Some of them – like Paul Horgan’s Things As They Are – I still re-read with pleasure, a half-century later.

So herewith, in honor of the Bechtel tradition as continued at St. Benedict Elementary and other classic Catholic schools, some summer reading possibilities:

Peter Cozzens’ The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West (Knopf) is the finest piece of narrative history I’ve read in some time. It’s rigorously honest, appalling, and instructive, without a whiff of political correctness.

My friend Joseph Epstein is a great read 365 days a year; his crisp prose and ready wit make him an especially appropriate summertime companion. Try Joe’s Wind Sprints (Axios), a collection of shorter pieces on everything from the pleasures of life in Chicago to the perfidies of contemporary waiters; or Masters of the Games (Rowman and Littlefield), in which Joe explores the addiction to sports he and I share; or Essays in Biography (Axios), forty-one pointillist sketches of personages great and obscure; or The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff (Mariner Books), a bundle of short stories of which the title piece is especially fine. Or all of the above.

William F. Buckley, Jr. was, arguably, the most politically influential Catholic in 20th-century America. Alvin S. Felzenberg tells the story of Buckley’s political journey, and its impact on history, in A Man and His Presidents (Yale). Bill was a friend and I’ve heard a lot of Buckley stories over the years, but Al Felzenberg’s diligent mining of both the vast Buckley correspondence and the secondary literature on WFB brought to light some facets of the story of which I was insufficiently aware: not least the raw and blatant anti-Catholicism that marked elite WASP response to Bill’s first bombshell book, God and Man at Yale.

Diplomatic history doesn’t often lend itself to able story-telling, but Michael Doran happily provides an exception to that rule in Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East (Free Press). It’s a tale with numerous lessons for today, a portrait of a president whose greatness involved a willingness to change his mind if reality proved previous assumptions mistaken, and a reminder of just how fractious the post-colonial Arab world has always been – and how poorly the Arabs have been served by their leaders.

Of the making of Wavian biographies there seems to be no end, but I thoroughly enjoyed Philip Eade’s Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited (Henry Holt). Unlike some of Waugh’s biographers, Eade does not start from the premise that the twentieth century’s great master of English prose was a fiend in human form: a wise decision that allows him to see, and portray, a complex personality in full. For those who want to explore Waugh’s still-immensely-readable oeuvre, Douglas Lane Patey’s The Life of Evelyn Waugh (Blackwell) remains the gold standard; those more interested in the man than in his literary accomplishment will be well served by Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited.

Robert Harris uncharacteristically whiffed (and badly) with his recent Conclave, but his Cicero Trilogy – Imperium, Conspirata, and Dictator (Vintage) – offers a fine portrait of late republican Rome and brings to life an exceptionally able man, not without flaws, who helped cement into the foundations of the West the notions that the rule of law is superior to the rule of brute force – and that civil law should be accountable to the moral law we can know by reason. Harris’s trilogy inevitably raises the question, where are the Ciceros among us today?

And finally, Frank Hanna’s A Graduate’s Guide to Life: Three Things They Don’t Teach You in College That Could Make All the Difference (Beacon) offers those just getting started in life nuggets of wisdom, drawn from the experience of a successful Catholic entrepreneur and generous philanthropist.

COMING UP: It’s Howdy Doody Time!

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Three or four times each month, Father X (as I’ll call him here) celebrates the noontime daily Mass I regularly attend. I’m grateful for his homilies, which are almost always thoughtful. Thus in a recent commentary on Jesus’s debate with the Sadducees over the resurrection of the dead, Father X gave a lucid and moving explanation of the “communion of saints” and how it functions in our Christian lives.

The problem is not Father X’s preaching. The problem is – if you’ll permit me an AmChurch neologism – Father X’s “presidential style.” And then, boys and girls, it’s Howdy Doody Time all over again.

In his liturgical formation, Father X evidently didn’t get the short memo that reads, “Do the red and say the black”: that is, follow the rubrics in the Missal and don’t mess around with the liturgical texts. Or perhaps Father X imagines himself a better stylist than those who translated the third edition of the Roman Missal into English. But whatever the causality, Father X can’t seem to help himself – the temptation to jolly things up is an itch that has to be scratched.

Thus the Gospel is always announced by “A reading from the Good News as proclaimed by St. —-.” At the consecration, the institution narrative is changed so that the Lord passes the bread and wine rather than gives it. “The Lord be with you” is frequently prefaced by a “My sisters and brothers….”, with an emphasis on the “with” that rings up – you guessed it – the Howdy Doody Show and its opening jingle.

But Father X doesn’t limit his rhetorical and stylistic assaults on the liturgy to Fifties’ TV re-runs. His invitation to “Lift up your HEARTS!” (the last word zoomed so that it’s almost shouted) calls to mind an ecstatic radio announcer informing his Bay Area listeners that Steph Curry has won the game again by draining a buzzer-beater from six feet behind the three-point line.

The Mass is the Mass, and we may thank God for the settled theological principle of ex opere operato, which assures us that God’s grace acts through earthen vessels, even priests who defy the rubrics and the proprieties. But Father X’s insistence on turning parts of the Mass into the children’s hour bespeaks several problems.

In the first instance, it suggests that the priest-celebrant is the master of the divine liturgy rather than its servant. In this case, that mastery too often turns Father X into a kind of ringmaster whose verbal antics, presumably intended to make the Mass more user-friendly, are a distraction from that toward which the Church’s worship aims, according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council: “The liturgy daily builds up those who are in the Church, making of them a holy temple of the Lord, a dwelling-place for God in the Spirit, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 2). Howdy Doody and Christian maturity do not go together.

Secondly, the jollying-up-by-dumbing-down of the liturgy bespeaks a clericalism that doesn’t trust the lay faithful to “get it” without bells and whistles. I’m sorry, but that lack of trust is offensive. The “full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations…to which the Christian people, ‘ a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people’ [1 Peter 2.9, 4-5] have a right and obligation by reason of their baptism” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 14) is not advanced when those Christian people are treated as if they were dimwits, or five-year olds with short attention spans.

There has been considerable progress made in the reform of the liturgical reform, not least by the restoration of sacral language to the Missal. As Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, reminds us, recovering a sense of the liturgy’s kingdom-dimension, its anticipation of the Lord’s return in glory, is the next important step. Taking that step requires celebrating the liturgy as if it really were a foretaste of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb described in Revelation 19, not a knock-off of the Howdy Doody Show.