Books for summer reading

Real readers read books all year round. But the convention of the “summer reading list” has become so thoroughly engrained in our culture that it seems appropriate to suggest four books-for-summer that will deepen any thoughtful Catholic’s faith—and any thoughtful Catholic’s perception of the challenges Catholics face today.


Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations on the New Evangelization, by Robert P. Imbelli (Liturgical Press): For those who’ve watched (as every sentient Catholic should have watched) Father Robert Barron’s Catholicism series, here’s the next step—a theologically rich, entirely accessible walk through the great themes of Evangelical Catholicism, keyed to four masterpieces of Christian art. Father Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, distills a half-century of theological scholarship and teaching into a hundred beautifully crafted pages of reflection on Christ, the desire of our hearts and the motive for Christian mission.

Divided Friends: Portraits of the Roman Catholic Modernist Crisis in the United States, by William L. Portier (Catholic University of America Press): The “Modernist” crisis, which roiled European Catholicism during the pontificate of Pius X, missed the United States—or so it was long argued by the canonical historians of American Catholicism. Not so, writes Dayton’s Bill Portier, in a careful study of four men, now largely forgotten, who loomed large in the affairs of the Church in America in the first half of the early 20th century. Portier’s sympathetic treatment of the struggles of Denis J. O’Connell, John R. Slattery, William L. Sullivan, and Joseph McSorley to find a path for Catholicism in modernity illuminate a lot of history that has been in the shadows—and which, brought to light, teaches important lessons for today.

Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, by Mary Eberstadt (Ignatius Press): The Catholic Church is going to spend a lot of the next 18 months wrestling with the crisis of marriage culture throughout the world, given the two synods on the subject that Pope Francis has called for October 2014 and October 2015. No book better dissects the issues-beneath-the-issues at these synods than this brilliant analysis of the sexual revolution, i.e., “the destigmatization and demystification of nonmarital sex and the reduction of sexual relations in general to a kind of hygienic recreation in which anything goes so long as those involved are consenting adults.” This is absolutely essential reading for any Catholic interested in bringing sense into the debate over the increasingly aggressive nonsense on display in a culture that has become a sexual free-fire zone.

A Catechism for Business: Tough Ethical Questions and Insights from Catholic Teaching, edited by Andrew V. Abela and Joseph E. Capizzi (Catholic University of America Press): Catholic social teaching remains a mystery to many Catholics (and an ideological plaything for others). All the more reason, then, to be grateful to two Catholic University professors for having assembled a florilegium of brief texts from a century of Catholic social doctrine, and then artfully arranging them as answers to the real-world questions asked by business people trying to live their professional lives vocationally. That Abela and Capizzi have made their book an enjoyable read is further icing on a richly nourishing cake.

And then, for sheer fun, a fifth book:

A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred, by George F. Will (Crown Archetype): America’s premier political columnist begins his latest reflection on the National Pastime with some charming, autobiographically-derived advice for Catholicism: after recalling that he became a Chicago Cub fan at age 7, “when I was still not as discerning as one should be when making life-shaping decisions,” the elegant Dr. Will notes that “The Catholic Church thinks 7-year-olds have reached an age of reasoning” and remarks, “The Church might want to rethink that.” More insight and wit follow, not in another exercise in Wrigley Romanticism, but in a rollicking, penetrating look at (among other things) the history of beer and the reasons why a splendid ballpark has contributed to the notorious ineptitude of the home team.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.