Books for Christmas

Looking for Christmas gifts to nourish the mind and soul? Here’s a potpourri of (mostly) recent books, guaranteed to do both.

“Hopkins: Theologian’s Poet,” by Aidan Nichols, O.P. (Sapientia Press): A masterful, brief introduction to the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., followed by spiritually rich expositions of Hopkins’ major poems. I had been trying, and failing, to understand and appreciate Hopkins since high school. This summer, Father Nichols helped me, not only to understand one of Anglophone Catholicism’s important modern literary figures, but to esteem him and his literary accomplishment.

“The New Concise History of the Crusades,” by Thomas F. Madden (Rowman & Littlefield): In both politics and inter-religious dialogue, the Crusades are regularly invoked these days—more often than not, in a way that displays abysmal ignorance of their historical context, their contemporary impact, or their long-term effects. Madden’s small, accessible book is comprehensive, judicious, and fair. It should be required reading for anyone presuming to discuss crusading, crusaders, and the Crusades.

“Come Be My Light,” by Mother Teresa and Brian Kolodiejchuk (Doubleday): A priest-friend who reads widely described this record of Mother Teresa’s struggles and triumph as “the best spiritual reading I’ve done in 20 years.” Many would agree. That the tiny Albanian nun with the heart as big as the world had enormous physical stamina was already well-known, this remarkably revealing volume is powerful testimony to Mother’s poignant and awe-inspiring spiritual stamina. Like John Paul the Great, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta reminds us that “no cross, no crown” is no pious cliché, but the central truth of Christian life.

“The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL,” by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Books): Long before Terrell Owens and similarly self-absorbed adolescents dominated the professional gridiron, there were titans abroad in the land. More than a few of them—including John Unitas, Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti, Lenny Moore, Sam Huff, Frank Gifford, Kyle Rote, Pat Summerall, and Charlie Connerly—clashed on the frozen tundra of Yankee Stadium a half-century ago, on Dec. 28, 1958. The first and only overtime championship game in professional football history ensued; it put the NFL on the American sporting map to stay.  Mark (“Black Hawk Down”) Bowden captures the moment, and the manliness, in the best sports book of 2008.

“Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy,” by Yuval Levin (Encounter Books); “In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology,” by Eric Cohen (Encounter Books): I’m a suspect witness, as they’re both friends and colleagues, but I’ll risk the charge of special pleading by saying that Yuval Levin and Eric Cohen are two national treasures—finely-honed analysts of those myriad issues at the intersection of science and ethics, the resolution of which will determine whether knowledge leads to healing and flourishing or to the brave new world of manufactured and stunted humanity. These first books will be followed by many others, I’m confident.

“The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944,” by Rick Atkinson (Holt): “Nothing was right except the courage,” was one British commander’s summary of one of many botched tactical moments in an often-ignored World War II theater; the epitaph could easily serve to memorialize the entire bloody mess that was the American Army’s introduction to war against the Wehrmacht in continental Europe. This is the second volume of Atkinson’s “Liberation Trilogy,” which began with the story of the North African campaign and will conclude in due course with D-Day, Normandy, and the drive on Germany. As in his previous volume, Atkinson combines massive research with narrative drive and an eye for the telling personal detail.

Finally, a not-so-new book that still yields insight and pleasure on the 50thanniversary of its publication: “The Leopard,” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (Pantheon). It’s the great modern Italian novel, an elegy for the aristocratic past, and a penetrating dissection of secular modernity. Lampedusa never lived to see his masterwork in print. The Swedish Nobel Committee could begin to redeem itself from decades of folly by honoring Lampedusa posthumously with its now-tattered Literature Prize.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash