Books for Christmas

George Weigel

Take a stand against the electronification of everything — give (real) books this Christmas. Some recommendations:

Paul: A Biography, by N.T. Wright (HarperOne): Dr. Wright’s remarkable ability to explicate the New Testament gives familiar passages new depths of meaning. His reconstruction of what Saul of Tarsus experienced on the Damascus road is deeply moving, even thrilling. And in this season of Catholic anger and grief, Wright’s analysis of Paul’s pastoral struggles is a helpful reminder that the Church has always been something of a mess.

Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church, by John W. O’Malley, SJ (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press): Father O’Malley completes his conciliar trilogy (which includes works on Trent and Vatican II) with a nicely rendered account of Vatican I that’s fair to all those involved in some serious ecclesiastical elbow-throwing. Now that ultramontanism — an excessively Petrocentric concept of the Church — has migrated from the starboard to the port side of the Barque of Peter, Vatican I is also useful in explaining why that 19th-century council’s work had to be completed by Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine, by Thomas G. Guarino (Eerdmans): As the Church continues to debate the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, Father Guarino’s carefully crafted argument that Vatican II was a council of development, not rupture, is a much-needed antidote to some current oversimplifications.  It’s the perfect gift for both the Tradinista millennial who has no idea why Vatican II was necessary and for those who believe the Catholic Church does “paradigm shifts.”

The Last Homily: Conversations with Fr. Arne Panula, edited by Mary Eberstadt (Emmaus Road): Want a window into why the New Evangelization has engaged hundreds of young professionals in the nation’s capital over the past decade or so? Mrs. Eberstadt’s conversations with the leader of that effort, recorded in the months before his death, introduce those who never met Father Arne to a model priest and spiritual director — and remind those who knew and loved him how privileged we were to enjoy his company and to glimpse sanctity and intelligence working in tandem.

How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art, by Elizabeth Lev (Sophia Institute Press): You’ve never really seen a painting or a sculpture until you’ve “seen” it through the discerning eye of Elizabeth Lev, a master teacher and guide. In our confused culture, beauty just might create new pathways to truth and goodness; Professor Lev’s story of how something like that happened 500 years ago is thus evangelically challenging and pastorally suggestive for missionary disciples today.

In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking): At a moment in which American public officials too often act like petulant toddlers, it’s good to remember that character counts in politics and that insight, courage, and selflessness can rally the confused, the cowardly, and the self-centered to act for the common good. That was Washington’s great accomplishment in the months leading up to the decisive American victory at Yorktown in October 1781: By force of character, he held together a tottering revolution even as he displayed a shrewd understanding of how seapower shapes history.

Vatican Flags: Keys & Crowns Since 1800 – The Flags of the Papal States and Today’s Vatican, by William M. Becker (North American Vexillogical Association): I’ve been a flag buff since childhood. But until a few months ago, I hadn’t known there was a discipline called “Vexillology” (the study of flags), or that it had an association. I’m glad I found out, as Father Becker’s beautifully illustrated book is full of wonderful flags (like the naval ensign flying on a papal warship), even as it offers a brief course in modern Vatican history. Get it from the association by going to the “Shop” tab at the Web site: nava.org.

Corduroy Mansions, The Dog Who Came in from the Cold, and A Conspiracy of Friends, by Alexander McCall Smith: This series of charming novels features a winsome Pimlico terrier named Freddie de la Haye and a cast of human characters whose foibles McCall Smith treats with humor and deep sympathy. It’s the literary equivalent of comfort food. And as this year has taught us, we all need that from time to time.

COMING UP: Art: A needed sacrament of faith

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A sacrament is an outward, material sign of an inward, spiritual reality. The seven sacraments are signs instituted by Jesus to communicate his grace to us. In addition, we have sacramentals, signs and practices that draw us more deeply into our faith. We do not have an abstract faith; it is sacramental and incarnational, centered on the coming into the flesh of the Son of God and his continued presence in the Church through the Eucharist.
Art, following this sacramental identity, expresses our faith, draws us into prayer, and mediates divine realities. In a time of relativism, which shuns proposals of truth and goodness, we need to rely more upon the witness of beauty. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this opportunity and need: “I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.”

Does this approach actually work for evangelization? Elizabeth Lev details one example, the crucial role of art at a time of crisis in the Church, in her book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art (Sophia, 2018). As core Catholic doctrines faced opposition from Protestants, the Council of Trent called for the creation of art to assist in renewal. The Council said that art should instruct, help to remember and meditate divine realities, admonish, provide examples, and to inspire the faithful to order their lives in imitation of the saints (4). Lev adds her own synthesis of how art assists the Church, asserting that “art is useful in evangelization…. can bring clarity…. [and] is uplifting” (6). The Catholic Reformation and Baroque periods, particularly in central Italy, were ages “of unprecedented art patronage from the top down, effectively a very expensive PR campaign meant to awaken the hearts and minds of millions of pilgrims who were making their way to the Eternal City” (5).

And it worked. It was not art for art’s sake that led Catholics to stay true to the faith, but art’s ability to express the deep spiritual vision of the Church as articulated by the great Catholic reformers. Lev lists the main protagonists of this cooperative work:  “The spiritual insight of Charles Borromeo, Robert Bellarmine, Federico Borromeo, St. Philip Neri, and Paleotti fused with the creative talents of Caravaggio, Barocci, the Carracci School, Lavinia Fontana, and Guido Reni, making for a heady cocktail designed to entice the faithful into experiencing mystery” (16). Lev provides a masterful overview of the key theological issues at stake and how artists were commissioned to visualize the faith in these areas, including the sacraments, mediation of the saints, purgatory, and practices such as pilgrimage.

Developments in technique enabled art to come alive, actively mediating faith, by using theatrical characteristics that invited the viewer into the drama of the scene. Altar pieces beckoned down to the action of the altar, pointing to the reality occurring there, such as Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ (37), and others drew the viewer into the scene, as with Frederico Barocci’s extended hand of St. Francis bearing the stigmata, inviting an imitation of Christ (145). Other paintings inspired religious sentiments such as contrition, as found in Reni’s St. Peter Penitent, who models how to weep for one’s sins and to beat one’s chest in repentance (45), and Titian’s good thief who reaches out to Christ as one would do in confession (52). The book beautifully presents the artwork, and Lev seamlessly combines art criticism and religious commentary.

The time period of Lev’s book bears some striking similarities to contemporary struggles. Many Catholics continue to question the faith, and we have experienced a return to iconoclasm in the last fifty years, bent on the destruction of the Church’s sacramental vision. We, too, need the inspiration of art, which calls us to renew our faith: “Art no longer allow[s] the viewer to stand at a safe distance, as a passive recipient of grace, but exhort[s] everyone to act” (180). For the success of the New Evangelization, we need a return to beauty. This will require us to invest in a renaissance of the arts, knowing that this investment will support the Church’s efforts to communicate the truth of our faith, for the salvation of souls.