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: AM[D]G           

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Last November 11, on the centenary of its relocation to a 93-acre campus in suburban Washington, D.C., Georgetown Preparatory School announced a $60 million capital campaign. In his message for the opening of the campaign, Georgetown Prep’s president, Father James Van Dyke, SJ, said that, in addition to improving the school’s residential facilities, the campaign intended to boost Prep’s endowment to meet increasing demands for financial aid. Like other high-end Catholic secondary schools, Georgetown Prep is rightly concerned about pricing itself out of reach of most families. So Prep’s determination to make itself more affordable through an enhanced endowment capable of funding scholarships and other forms of financial aid for less-than-wealthy students is all to the good.

What I find disturbing about the campaign is its “branding” slogan. I first became aware of it when, driving past the campus a few months ago, I noticed a billboard at the corner of Rockville Pike and Tuckerman Lane. In large, bold letters, it proclaimed, “FOR THE GREATER GLORY.” And I wondered, “…of what?” Then one day, when traffic allowed, I slowed down and espied the much smaller inscription in the bottom right corner: “Georgetown Prep’s Legacy Campaign.”

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam [For the greater glory of God], often reduced to the abbreviation, AMDG, was the Latin motto of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. Georgetown Prep is a Jesuit school. So what happened to the D-word? What happened to God? Why did AMDG become AM[D]G while being translated into fundraising English?

I made inquiries of Jesuit friends and learned that amputating the “D” in AMDG is not unique to Georgetown Prep; it’s a tactic used by other Jesuit institutions engaged in the heavy-lift fundraising of capital campaigns. That was not good news. Nor was I reassured by pondering Father Van Dyke’s campaign-opening message, in which the words “Jesus Christ” did not appear. Neither did Pope Francis’s call for the Church’s institutions to prepare missionary disciples as part of what the Pope has called a “Church permanently in mission.” And neither did the word “God,” save for a closing “Thanks, and God bless.”

Father Van Dyke did mention that “Ignatian values” were one of the “pillars” of Georgetown prep’s “reputation for excellence.” And he did conclude his message with a call for “men who will make a difference in a world that badly needs people who care, people who, in the words Ignatius wrote his best friend Francis Xavier as he sent him on the Society of Jesus’s first mission, will ‘set the world on fire’.” Fine. But ignition to what end?

Ignatius sent Francis Xavier to the Indies and on to East Asia to set the world on fire with love of the Lord Jesus Christ, by evangelizing those then known as “heathens” with the warmth of the Gospel and the enlivening flame of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith. St. Ignatius was a New Evangelization man half a millennium before Pope St. John Paul II used the term. St. Ignatius’s chief “Ignatian value” was gloria Dei, the glory of God.

Forming young men into spiritually incandescent, intellectually formidable and courageous Christian disciples, radically conformed to Jesus Christ and just as deeply committed to converting the world, was the originating purpose of Jesuit schools in post-Reformation Europe. Those schools were not content to prepare generic “men for others;” they were passionately devoted to forming Catholic men for converting others, the “others” being those who had abandoned Catholicism for Protestantism or secular rationalism. That was why the Jesuits were hated and feared by powerful leaders with other agendas, be they Protestant monarchs like Elizabeth I of England or rationalist politicians like Portugal’s 18th-century prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal.

Religious education in U.S. Catholic elementary schools has been improved in recent decades. And we live in something of a golden age of Catholic campus ministry at American colleges and universities. It’s Catholic secondary education in the U.S. that remains to be thoroughly reformed so that Catholic high schools prepare future leaders of the New Evangelization: leaders who will bring others to Christ, heal a deeply wounded culture, and become agents of a sane politics. Jesuit secondary education, beginning with prominent and academically excellent schools like Georgetown Prep, could and should be at the forefront of that reform.

Jesuit secondary education is unlikely to provide that leadership, however, if its self-presentation brackets God and announces itself as committed to “the greater glory” of…whatever.