Books for Christmas

Take a stand against the electrification of reading and consider the following, in properly bound form, as gifts for those on your Christmas – not “Holiday” – list:

Exodus, by Thomas Joseph White, OP, is a recent addition to the multi-volume Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Father White’s brilliant reading of one of the foundational texts of Western civilization is well-introduced by series editor R.R. Reno, in a preface that should be required reading for anyone doing serious study of the Bible.

Russia promises to loom large on the foreign policy agenda in the year ahead. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs 1613-1918 (Knopf) sketches the historical background in fascinating, if often chilling, detail, while Peter Pomerantsev takes us to what he calls (accurately) “the surreal heart of the New Russia” in Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (Public Affairs).

The election cycle happily fading into the rear-view mirror brought the sorry condition of many white working-class communities to national attention; no one tells the story of one part of that world, its strengths and its pathologies, better than J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Harper) – a tough and occasionally hilarious book that also suggests, inadvertently, an enormous evangelical failure on the part of both Protestants and Catholics.

Then there is Roger Simon’s I Know Best: How Moral Narcissism Is Destroying Our Republic, If It Hasn’t Already (Encounter). It’s an apt gift for friends at any point along the political spectrum, because the disjunction between intentions and results that is crippling our political culture by destroying accountability knows no partisan label.

The nation of Chicken-à-la-King and Swanson’s TV dinners has now become a nation of foodies. In Ten Restaurants That Changed America (Liveright), Paul Freedman aims high with portraits of Le Pavillon, Chez Panisse, and Antoine’s, but doesn’t neglect things a bit more down-market with the often-surprising stories of Howard Johnson’s (where many of us learned to love fried clams), Schrafft’s, and Mama Leone’s. The book also includes classic recipes from each of the ten eateries portrayed.

In The Black Widow (Harper), Daniel Silva takes his readers inside ISIS, its ideology, and the horrifying plans it has for the future in a gripping novel as contemporary as tomorrow’s headlines. Part of Silva’s genius is his recognition of the moral ambiguities of even good guy counter-terrorism, even as he never loses sight of the fact that there are, in fact, good guys and bad guys in this world.

Want to repel the black myths constantly flung at Catholics by secularists? Then arm yourself and your friends with Rodney Stark’s Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (Templeton). Professor Stark, it should be noted, is not a Catholic, and as he makes clear in his introduction, “I did not write this book in defense of the Church. I wrote it in defense of history.”

Aurora Griffin’s How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard: 40 Tips for Faithful College Students (Ignatius) is slightly mis-named, in that Miss Griffin not only stayed Catholic at Harvard, she became more Catholic at Harvard while winning a Rhodes Scholarship. Her advice is well-suited to any high school senior on your list, no matter the college or university they’re contemplating.

In recent years, William E. Simon, Jr. shifted his professional focus from investment management to the Church, and a first result of that vocational redeployment is Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive (Ave Maria) – a portrait of the rich diversity of Catholic life in the United States, especially in those local churches that have taken the New Evangelization seriously.

Garrett Mattingly’s The Armada (Houghton Mifflin) was first published when I was in the third grade (1959, if you must ask) and sits comfortably within the conventional Whig narrative of England’s “Good Queen Bess” of England vs. authoritarian King Philip II of Spain. It’s also the finest classic historical writing I’ve read in a long time, a penetrating study of character, and a meditation on the unexpected and its role in era-defining events.

Finally, and for teenagers looking for heroes and a proper understanding of the heroic: A Distant Trumpet (Nonpareil Books), by Paul Horgan, the nonpareil U.S. Catholic man of letters of the 1950s, now sadly neglected today.


COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”