Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews

FAITH MAGAZINE January-February 2014

Heralds of the Second Coming: Our Lady, the Divine Mercy, and the Popes of the Marian Era from Blessed Pius IX to Benedict XVI
By Stephen Walford, Angelico Press, 228pp, £10.95

Heralds of the Second Coming is a remarkable work that will appeal to all Catholics. Drawing together history, theology and spirituality, Stephen Walford offers penetrating insights into the “signs of the times”. Today, it is easy to be quite sceptical any time the “Second Coming” is mentioned, especially after the furore that the Mayan calendar caused in the media, but by focusing on the words of the popes of the Marian era and avoiding any talk of specific times and dates Walford ensures that this book remains credible and authoritative. In fact, the depth of research is astounding and is one of the real strengths of the work. It stands alone as an anthology of papal addresses. I was often surprised by how many significant events had happened in the Church in recent years that I wasoblivious to. The first of these, and the main subject of the book, was the notion of the “Marian era”.

The phrase was first used by Blessed John Paul II in an address in 1999. According to him, it began with Blessed Pius IX’s proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and marks a definitive moment in the life of the Church as a sign of drawing ever closer to Christ through his Holy Mother. Walford’s intention is to confirm the significance of this period by alluding to the historical context, the unprecedented number of Marian apparitions and, most importantly, the many pertinent addresses of the Marian-era popes. He concludes with Pope Pius XII that, although they do not offer a specific date, there is a growing sense among the popes that “there are numerous signs that [Christ’s] return is not far off” (Pius XII, Urbi et Orbi, 1957).

''In a sense, we are always living in the age of the Second Coming, but we must read the signs of the times to understand where we stand.''

The book begins within an examination of the last two hundred years and the incredible number of threats to the Church that have emerged. Not only the regimes of Nazism and Communism but also the ideologies of Modernism and secularism have contributed to attacks on the Church’s faith. We are told that in the end times there will be a great persecution of the faithful and also a great apostasy from the faith. Walford’s work is posing the question, if we are reading the signs of the times then what is the significance of these events? Are they the beginning of the great persecution and apostasy prophesied? In this sense, the book seems to be a risky undertaking, but the answer he offers comes directly from the popes, giving it worthy credence.

The historical examination is for me a particularly important section of Walford’s book because it forms the context for understanding the copious papal quotations that are found on every page. The material, made up of all the significant allusions to the Second Coming, is examined in chronological order, starting with Pius IX. Very often it is just snippets from longer addresses or a significant story in the life of the Pope, such as the writing of the St Michael prayer by Pope Leo XIII. This risks losing the context of the material within the particular address it is given, but also within the historical context.

It is important, therefore, to have this first chapter in mind while reading the book. The sheer volume of papal addresses and homilies mean that the book cannot be read quickly but requires pauses for reflection: even a chapter at a time might be too much.

The bulk of the book focuses on the life of Blessed John Paul II, for whom Mary played a pivotal role. In particular, Walford examines the apparitions of Fatima and the Divine Mercy as essential moments for understanding this papacy and its relation to the Second Coming, but he also draws out from the World Youth Day speeches the significant theme of “Watchmen of the Morning”, which appears to have been ever present in his addresses to young people. In this part, Walford makes a convincing argument that Blessed John Paul II saw his papacy as a significant moment of preparation for the Second Coming. He described the Marian era, characterised by so many apparitions of Our Lady, as a “New Advent” when Mary is preparing the world to receive her Son, as she brought him into the world inNazareth two thousand years ago.

Walford’s book is well written, well researched and well worth reading. It gives a sense of the urgency of the Christian message and provides a jolt to the faith of anyone who reads it. In a sense, we are always living in the age of the Second Coming, but we must read the signs of the times to understand where we stand. The book is significant for understanding the papal perspectives on the world for the last two hundred years and the weight they carry. It is the opinion of this writer that Walford succeeds in persuading the reader that what Pius XII said could be applied to all the popes of the Marian era – that “there are numerous signs that [Christ’s] return is not far off”.

Phil Cunnah

 

Sexuality Explained: A guide for parents and children
By Louise Kirk, Gracewing,
188pp, £12.99

A world without sexually transmitted disease or broken relationships appears quite a distant prospect. It seems only too hard to help young people avoid the promiscuity that leads to such outcomes. Perhaps, then, the next best thing is just to try to mitigate the consequences of a selfish approach to one’s sexuality?

This guide to sexuality by Louise Kirk offers a quite different response. The book provides a carefully thought-through programme of sex education based on a set of stories. It is aimed at parents and their sons and daughters, rather than at teachers and pupils. The stories essentially model a set of discussions about sexuality between a mother and a father and two of their children. This might seem to be something of a naïve way forward.

What we can expect, though, is that a father or mother will want what is best for their own son or daughter. No one wants their own child to develop cancer from a sexually transmitted virus or to lose the capacity to bond with another person in a stable marital relationship. And yet if you want to reduce the rates of sexually transmitted disease or the prevalence of teenage pregnancy across the country as a whole, then you will be interested in trying to cut the odds for a whole cohort of youngsters.

So why not tell a sexually active 15-year-old girl the blunt reality that she has a 40 per cent chance of getting pregnant in the next five years while on the pill? Or that condoms aren’t always that effective, and that they can give you a false sense of security? These are exactly the sorts of (carefully referenced) findings that take their natural place in this guide.

The guide gives a genuinely honest view of how our sexuality affects our health and well-being. It does not seek to hide “inconvenient” truths. It provides a comprehensive view of the way that sexuality forms a part of who we are as human persons. It is easy to imagine the informative stories that Louise tells, replete as they are with insights and humour, providing the starting point for discussion between parents and their adolescent children. Of course, after years of sex education in schools we have not managed to stem the high rates of teenage pregnancy or been able to prevent ever increasing rates of sexually transmitted disease. Sexuality evidently doesn’t work in a simplistic fashion, a notion that this guide conveys very effectively. I would heartily commend the guide to all parents. Schools, also, would do well to encourage parents to use it.

Peter Kahn

 

The Promise of Christian Humanism: Thomas Aquinas on Hope

By Dominic F Doyle, Crossroad Publishing, 243pp, £20.01 ($25.58)

Does belief in a transcendent God help or hinder human flourishing in the world? Christianity, in answering this question, must confront two groups of critics. First, there is the assault of a growing number of atheists, who accuse Christianity of using hope in an after-life to sap societies of their ameliorating strengths. Christianity, they say, has nothing positive to offer humanity in this life and therefore robs cultures of the desire to promote the potential of the species.

Second, there is the interior threat of Christians who, in their desire to respond to such criticisms, seek to eliminate transcendent hopes in Christianity and direct the Gospel toward the betterment of temporal societies. Thus some attempts to promote justice often render Christianity nothing more than a social service organisation that uses the scriptures and the liturgy as tools for galvanising the masses.
Dominic Doyle, in The Promise of Christian Humanism: Thomas Aquinas on Hope, tackles this question through a recovery and rereading of Aquinas’s understanding of the theological virtues. Doyle masterfully demonstrates that the virtue of hope inspires a distinct Christian humanism that offers “concern for the human good and promotion of religious transcendence” (p16).

Doyle begins by surveying some contemporary positions regarding Christian humanism. In particular, he highlights the work of Charles Taylor and Nicholas Boyle, which while critiquing various aspects of postmodernity – the dehumanising nature of the growing secularism and the rise of the consumerist ideology – positively suggests the potential of Christian humanism to contribute to a renewal. In the end, Doyle praises the penetrating analyses of both thinkers but finds their Christian humanism lacking: Boyle’s for his failure to integrate the theological virtues in his thought, Taylor’s for an inadequate account of the connection between the desire for the common good and the drive for religious transcendence.

A consideration of Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray focuses upon the importance of the Incarnation in the formation of Christian humanism. This fundamental Christian doctrine, for both thinkers, demonstrates the divine love for the world and demands an active response from Christians: “It is this divine love, embodied in the Incarnate Word, that sustains humanistic care for the world. Moreover, the very union of divine and human in the Incarnation means that secular loves cannot be detached from God” (p33). God’s philanthropia, manifested in the Incarnation, must become humanity’s philanthropia.

Yet, for Doyle, the Incarnation establishes the essential “theoretical” component of Christian humanism but lacks the dynamic or practical basis for engagement with the world. For this he turns to the virtue of hope as the dynamic link between activity in the world and the human hunger for transcendence.

After briefly summarising contemporary critics of the Thomistic notion of hope – Gordon Kaufman, Jügen Moltmann and Nicholas Wolterstorff – Doyle gets to the heart of his project. This requires, first, an overview of key Thomistic anthropological positions: creation’s participation in the Creator as the origin of its being, including the paradoxical transcendence and immanence of the Creator in a continuing relationship with the cosmos; the natural human desire for the Good which transcends the human powers of acquisition; and the need for grace that perfects nature and moves humanity to its end in God.

Next, Doyle considers the nature of the theological virtues as infused gifts, along with distinctions and relations among faith, hope and charity. While his focus remains on hope, this virtue cannot be separated from its companions.

The key to Doyle’s argument lies in the Thomistic emphasis upon the dynamic nature of hope in relation to faith and charity: “faith hope, and charity constitute, respectively, the potency, motion, and act of Christian humanism” (p101). The gift of faith, ordered to divine truth, moves through hope in divine omnipotence and compassion, and finds its active rest in the participation in the life of the Creator. Hope, therefore, in actualising the potential of faith, confronts all obstacles within temporal life – the temptations and persecutions that constitute the cruciform existence of the Christian – in the dynamic desire for the transcendent Good. As an infused grace, this hope perfects and elevates human aspirations and actions for divine union.

Yet, since hope is ordered toward an end that will only be fulfilled at the end of time, does it not separate man from concerns within the world? Doyle highlights three points that refute this accusation. First, Christian hope prevents secular hopes from becoming false absolutes and, in turn, totalitarian: one need only consider some of the tragic secular utopias of the 20th century to understand this point. Second, it liberates positive secular hopes – the hope for justice, peace, etc – from despair in a fallen world that often impedes such aspirations.


Finally, it places secular hopes within the human desire for God. Secular hopes, in effect, prepare one for the enjoyment of higher goods: love of neighbour opens up one’s capacity for the enjoyment of God. There is a correspondence – established in the two great commandments and often lauded by the saints – “between one’s desire for natural goods and one’s fittingness for the supernatural good” (p135). Hope makes the Christian an active participant in the recreation of the world that may only be fulfilled through union with the divine. (In these reflections, Doyle both draws upon and critiques Benedict XVI’s Spe Salvi.)

Overall Doyle has written an important work that provides a much-needed reflection upon hope’s relation to Christian activity in the world. Two criticisms, however, are in order. First, no consideration is given to the problem of hope and the possibility of hell – a part of the eschatological horizon that has traditionally shaped the Christian understanding of hope. The hope in acquiring the Good has always been accompanied by a healthy awareness of the possible free rejection of that supernatural Good.

In fact, contemporary Christian universalism may be a contributing factor to the loss of the transcendent in Christian activity in the world: why bother hoping in the promises of Christ, if the end is a done deal? Why not invest in secular hopes alone as short-term goals? Doyle requires a further consideration of the possibility of hell in his examination of this virtue.

Second, Doyle concludes the book with a curious promotion of the dynamic nature of hope and the need for the acceptance of change in the Church. Citing the work of Jesuits John O’Malley and Stephen Schloesser on Vatican II, he critiques a kind of Christian fundamentalism that substitutes “security”, ie the refusal to accept dynamic change in the Church, for the virtue of hope. Granted the need to recognise legitimate doctrinal development in the Church, along with the important contributions of Vatican II, the Church does provide the security of a tradition that rests upon unchanging, divinely revealed truths. Doyle’s unnecessary plug for a progressive reading of the Council seems truly out of place given his fine examination of tradition.
Overall, however, this book offers an important reflection upon some pressing issues that contemporary Christians face. I recommend it highly.

John Gavin SJ

 

Why We Venerate the Saints

By Patricia A Sullivan, Herder and Herder, 305pp, $27.07; also available through Amazon

When I first saw the title of this book I assumed it would be a pamphlet along the lines of those very useful booklets published by the Catholic Truth Society, setting out Catholic doctrine in simple terms for the interested reader without the time or inclination to read more weighty theological works. In fact, this volume runs to over 300 pages, accompanied by considerable academic apparatus, and at times plunges the reader into some fairly serious theology.

Nevertheless, it manages to be readable and accessible throughout and can be recommended for a wide readership. I certainly found it helpful as a priest; it would be extremely valuable for a seminarian or student of theology and might well be made use of in preparing RCIA or other adult catechesis. Indeed, at the end of each chapter we are given a list of “Terms for Study” and “Suggested Reading” which will take the reader even deeper into the subject, if they so choose.

The book begins, properly, with Sacred Scripture, “the soul of theology”, and examines biblical ideas of intercession, concluding that “the New Testament encourages human beings to intercede for each other, a possibility precisely because of the mediation or intercession of Christ. It is not that we instead of Christ can intercede for our fellow human beings, but that in Christ…we are joined to him in petition.” This Christocentric understanding of the saints permeates the whole book. Sullivan notes that the New Testament does not speak explicitly of the dead interceding for the living (or the living for the dead) – but history and archaeology prove conclusively that the primitive Church accepted the reality of such intercession from the earliest times.

This becomes clear as our book examines the saints (especially martyrs) in the Church before Constantine. Their accepted role as intercessors and the veneration paid to their relics is incontrovertible. Thus Sullivan can state with confidence that the “early Christians clearly assumed that the distinction between life and death did not constitute a barrier to mutual assistance through prayer”.

The veneration of the saints, born in the catacombs, came to fruition in the Middle Ages. Sullivan examines this period and notes how the process of papal canonisation modified (without entirely replacing) the earlier model of “popular cult”. Sullivan returns to the subject of canonisation later, noting how the process has changed (particularly in recent decades). Usefully she makes clear that, according to the teaching of the Church, “pontifical infallibility is involved” in the canonisation of a saint.

This is something that Catholics do not always seem to be aware of. It is certainly possible to argue that the traditional process leading up to canonisation – essentially a prolonged legal process which could and often did take centuries to complete – was in some ways superior to the more streamlined system now in use. It is also open to Catholics, should they wish, to regret the ever-increasing frequency of canonisations and beatifications and the loss of the solemn ceremonies which once accompanied these.

It is also possible to debate whether such and such a canonisation seems “opportune” in current circumstances. But once a saint has been canonised by the Supreme Pontiff and offered to the universal Church for veneration, we must accept beyond doubt that they are enjoying the Beatific Vision in heaven.

Having reviewed the mediaeval period, Sullivan then looks at the Reformation challenge to the cult of the saints. Usefully, she examines Martin Luther’s theology in some detail, to show how his opposition to the veneration of the saints stemmed from his deeper convictions about the utter corruption of human nature, his denial of free will and his conviction that justification was by faith alone. Having shown how the Catholic Reformation answered these challenges and purified the Church of abuses which were undoubtedly present at times, Sullivan moves on to look at contemporary practice.

Here she places special emphasis on the idea of the saints as “companions”, taking her cue from Lumen Gentium 50: “Exactly as Christian communion among pilgrims brings us closer to Christ, so our communion with the saints joins us to Christ from whom as from a fountain and head flow all grace and life.” She then goes on to examine the saints as models and intercessors – roles they continue to play today as much as ever.

Lastly, Sullivan devotes a special place to the veneration of Our Lady, noting the antiquity and development of devotion to the Blessed Virgin. She examines briefly the four principal Marian dogmas – Immaculate Conception, Divine Motherhood, Perpetual Virginity and Assumption – noting characteristically that “all four … are inherently Christological statements, attesting to that which has occurred in Mary through the merits of her Son”.

The book draws to a close by looking at certain aspects of the cult of the saints which have faded out and are being rediscovered, such as the veneration of relics and the obtaining of indulgences. At a time when Catholics (especially younger ones) are rediscovering the riches of the past, this chapter will be a useful one.

The book contains two appendices – the first a list of key Church documents pertaining to the veneration of the saints, which will be found very useful, and the second an abstract of Karl Rahner’s theologies of symbol and anamnesis, which your reviewer found less so.

To conclude, Sullivan’s volume is a valuable contribution to this subject which has already won plaudits from a number of eminent readers, and deservedly so.

Richard Whinder