Books for Christmas

George Weigel

It’s been a good year for publishing – at least in the sense of a lot of good books getting published – so here are some for the readers on your Christmas gift list (in addition, of course, to Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II [Basic Books], by your scribe):

The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism, by Thomas Joseph White, OP (Catholic University of America Press): Father White is one of America’s most impressive younger Catholic thinkers (and its most impressive banjo-playing Catholic thinker). His work exemplifies the Catholic renaissance inspired by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and his book makes the searching skeptic think, and then think again, about what the fullness of Catholic faith means.

Charles Borromeo: Selected Orations, Homilies, and Writings, edited by John R. Cihak (Bloomsbury): The saintly 16th-century archbishop of Milan, Charles Borromeo – who was shot at the altar for his reformist efforts, recovered, and then pleaded for his assailant’s life – is obviously a man worth getting to know. Msgr. John Cihak’s fine introduction to Borromeo’s life and work helps us distinguish true from false reform in the Church at a moment when that’s a crucial issue for the 21st-century Catholicism.

An Introduction to Vatican II as an Ongoing Theological Event, by Matthew Levering (Catholic University of America Press): I’ve been amazed to discover in recent years just how little young and engaged Catholic millennials know about the Second Vatican Council and what preceded it – a gap in their historical knowledge that often leads to a distorted view of today’s intra-Catholic contentions. Give Dr. Levering’s fine book to anyone you know who falls into that category, or indeed to anyone who wants to know the Council and today’s arguments over its proper implementation better. It’s reader-friendly and written for non-specialists (although I can think of some theologians on the port side of the Barque of Peter who could benefit from studying it, too).

Accompanying, Discerning, Integrating: A Handbook for the Pastoral Care of the Family According to “Amoris Laetitia,” by José Granados, Stephan Kampowski, and Juan José Pérez-Soba (Emmaus Road Publishing): The buzzword title ought not put anyone off from giving this engaging and trustworthy guide through the thicket of family life issues to every priest, deacon, marriage-preparation minister, and marriage counselor on their gift list.

Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived, edited by Christopher J. Scalia and Edward Whelan (Crown Forum): How could anyone not love a man whose favorite lunch was pepperoni pizza and red wine? Well, a lot of people didn’t love Justice Scalia during his lifetime, but this posthumous collection of his speeches may change even the most hardened of hearts and minds. For it not only introduces the man in full but helps explain why he was one of the most influential jurists in American history, in a class with John Marshall and Joseph Storey. Antonin Scalia was a serious man who took his craft seriously, loved his family and country, and wrote with courage, passion, and wit, especially in dissent. Little wonder that he was given, by his priest-son, Paul, the finest funeral homily since Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s homily at the funeral Mass of John Paul II.

Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times, by Leon R. Kass (Encounter Books): Generations of students at the University of Chicago found in Leon Kass and his late wife Amy the kind of teachers for which every student and every student’s parents should long. In this collection of essays, some jointly written by one of the all-time great husband-and-wife teams, readers meet wisdom and decency honed by a deep reading of everyone from Homer, Aristotle, and Moses to Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and C.S. Lewis – and by a lifelong love for the Chicago Cubs (which, after the 2016 World Series, can no longer be dismissed as a sign of grave psychic distress).

Kenneth Clark: Life, Art, and “Civilisation,” by James Stourton (Knopf): A charming biography of the great art historian, who once said that entering the Catholic Church (which he seems to have done on his deathbed) was like a painting entering the Louvre: “It would find itself in some pretty queer company, but at least it would be sure that it had a soul.”

COMING UP: John Paul II, youth minister

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Pole that he was, Karol Wojtyla had a well-developed sense of historical irony. So from his present position in the Communion of Saints, he might be struck by the ironic fact that the Synod on “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” currently underway in Rome, coincides with the 40th anniversary of his election as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978. What’s the irony? The irony is that the most successful papal youth minister in modern history, and perhaps all history, was largely ignored in Synod-2018’s working document. And the Synod leadership under Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri seems strangely reluctant to invoke either his teaching or his example.

But let’s get beyond irony. What are some lessons the Synod might draw from John Paul II, pied piper of the young, on this ruby anniversary of his election?

1. The big questions remain the same.

Several bishops at Synod-2018 have remarked that today’s young people are living in a completely different world than when the bishops in question grew up. There’s obviously an element of truth here, but there’s also a confusion between ephemera and the permanent things.

When Cardinal Adam Sapieha assigned young Father Wojtyla to St. Florian’s parish in 1948, in order to start a ministry to the university students who lived nearby, things in Cracow were certainly different than they were when Wojtyla was a student at the Jagiellonian University in 1938-39. In 1948, Poland was in the deep freeze of Stalinism and organized Catholic youth work was banned. The freewheeling social and cultural life in which Wojtyla had reveled before the Nazis shut down the Jagiellonian was no more, and atheistic propaganda was on tap in many classrooms. But Wojtyla knew that the Big Questions that engage young adults — What’s my purpose in life? How do I form lasting friendships? What is noble and what is base? How do I navigate the rocks and shoals of life without making fatal compromises? What makes for true happiness? — are always the same. They always have been, and they always will be.

To tell today’s young adults that they’re completely different is pandering, and it’s a form of disrespect. To help maturing adults ask the big questions and wrestle with the permanent things is to pay them the compliment of taking them seriously. Wojtyla knew that, and so should the bishops of Synod-2018.

2. Walking with young adults should lead somewhere.

Some of the Wojtyla kids from that university ministry at St. Florian’s have become friends of mine, and when I ask them what he was like as a companion, spiritual director, and confessor, they always stress two points: masterful listening that led to penetrating conversations, and an insistence on personal responsibility. As one of them once put it to me, “We’d talk for hours and he’d shed light on a question, but I never heard him say ‘You should do this.’ What he’d always say was, ‘You must choose’.” For Karol Wojtyla, youth minister, gently but persistently compelling serious moral decisions was the real meaning of “accompaniment” (a Synod-2018 buzzword).

3. Heroism is never out of fashion.

When, as pope, John Paul II proposed launching what became World Youth Day, most of the Roman Curia thought he had taken leave of his senses: young adults in the late-20th century just weren’t interested in an international festival involving catechesis, the Way of the Cross, confession, and the Eucharist. John Paul, by contrast, understood that the adventure of leading a life of heroic virtue was just as compelling in late modernity as it had been in his day, and he had confidence that future leaders of the third millennium of Christian history would answer that call to adventure.

That didn’t mean they’d be perfect. But as he said to young people on so many occasions, “Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that God’s grace makes possible in your life. You’ll fail; we all do. But don’t lower the bar of expectation. Get up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation. But never, ever settle for anything less than the heroism for which you were born.”

That challenge — that confidence that young adults really yearn to live with an undivided heart — began a renaissance in young adult and campus ministry in the living parts of the world Church. Synod-2018 should ponder this experience and take it very, very seriously.