Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews

FAITH Magazine January-February 2010

The Sacraments and the Mystery of Christ

by Fr Francis Selman, Family Publications and the Maryvale Institute,

In his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist Sacramentum Caritatis (2007), Pope Benedict XVI stressed the importance of the relationship between the sacramental economy and the Church: "The Church receives and at the same time expresses what she herself is in the seven sacraments, thanks to which God's grace concretely influences the lives of the faithful, so that their whole existence, redeemed by Christ, can become an act of worship pleasing to God." Pope Benedict's assertion is shared by Fr Francis Selman in his new book on sacramental theology.

Fr Selman is no stranger to this particular topic; his Guide to the Eucharist was published in 2006 by Family Publications. At present, Fr Selman works as a lecturer, course book writer, and tutor at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, and he is also Dean of Philosophy at Allen Hall Seminary and Director of Studies at the School of Evangelisation at St Patrick's, London. His most recent works include two books in the field of Thomistic studies, namely Aspects of Aquinas (Veritas Publishing, 2005), and Aquinas 101: A Basic Introduction to the Thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas (Christian Classics, 2007).

Selman's approach is to view the sacraments "as the way we participate in the mysteries of Christ's life, death and resurrection, which bring us healing and new life." His sources include papal encyclicals post-2000; chief amongst these is Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003). A major influence on Selman is the work of the Irish Dominican Fr Colman O'Neill, in particular his book Meeting Christ in the Sacraments (1964; revised by Romanus Cessario OP in 1991). O'Neill, like Selman, focuses on the "whole mystery of Christ." Selman additionally makes use of Edward Schillebeeckx's book Christ the Sacrament, though he adroitly points out that this fact should not be taken to signify a blanket approval of the Belgian theologian's other works.

Despite Selman's insistence on adopting a "new approach", most of the books cited in the text were published in the 1980s and 1990s; Paul Haffner's The Sacramental Mystery (1999) is the most recent book that is included in the Bibliography.

Selman does not provide us with a historical overview of the development of the sacraments; for that, see Joseph Martos' Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church (2001), or, indeed, chapter 4 of Herbert Vorgrimler's Sacramental Theology (1992). Instead, the reader is presented in the first half of the book with a general thematic overview. Chapter headings include the following: "Christ the Sacrament", "Signs of Grace", "Causes of Grace", "Mystery of Grace and the Mystery of the Church", and "Why We Need the Sacraments". Part Two features individual sections on each of the seven sacraments.

Fr Selman's intention in writing The Sacraments and the Mystery of Christ is to provide a compact yet detailed introduction to the sacraments. This initiative is to be commended, since there is an evident need for a solid, up-to-date textbook in English on this subject. There have been a number of recent publications in this field, though they are invariably nuanced from a post-modern perspective. The target audience of this book comprises "anyone interested in deepening their knowledge and awareness of their Christian faith and of how the life and worship of the Church relate us to Christ." As such, The Sacraments and the Mystery of Christ is eminently suitable for theology students, seminarians, priests, and catechists, who require a good general account of the history andsignificance of the sacraments. The text is well-written, with a clear, sustained exposition of argument. Furthermore, there is a good balance of pertinent examples from Sacred Scripture, the Church Fathers, and magisterial documents. There are one or two flies in the ointment, however, such as an evident lack of synthesis, and a tendency towards repetition of both content and style. The continual references to the theories of O'Neill and Schillebeeckx in each chapter does, at times, become quite formulaic. This latter infelicity is no doubt a consequence of the work being based on lecture course notes - a point that Fr Selman, to his credit, underlines at the very beginning of the book. These criticisms should not detract from the fact that The Sacraments and the Mystery ofChrist is a very welcome addition to the canon of sacramental theology. It serves as an interesting, instructive, and clear introduction to the discipline, and it should be included on the reading lists of theology students everywhere.

Domenico Zanre

Living the Mystery - Monastic Markers on the Christian Way

by Abbot Hugh Gilbert, Gracewing, I93pp, £9.99

Living the Mystery is a companion volume to Abbot Hugh Gilbert's first entitled Unfolding the Mystery. Whereas the latter aimed at guiding us through the liturgical seasons of the year, this second publication encourages greater awareness in our daily lives of the mysteries we already share, making explicit that which is so often obscured by sheer day-to-day existence.

Fr Hugh Gilbert is Abbot of Pluscarden Abbey, and his book is a wonderful compilation of homilies and conferences he has given his monks since 2000. As such, they give a unique insight into the workings of monastic life while still very much retaining their relevance for those of us who live in the world in whatever capacity. Since they were intended for oral delivery, they are refreshingly direct and accessible.

His reflections begin and end with homilies on Our Lady; the prologue is on the Immaculate Conception and the epilogue on the Assumption, thus the start of the great mystery of our salvation and the end, the fulfilment, in which we all hope to share. Comparing God to a gardener, Abbot Hugh likens Mary to rich soil and Christ the Tree of Life that is to be planted. And that which the Holy Spirit did for Mary, He also does for us, through baptism: the rock of Original Sin is removed and the seed of grace is planted within us so that we "become a soil where the Tree of Life can take root". This book is all about enriching the soil, and its three sections are conceived in terms of being Rooted, Growing and Bearing Fruit.

Part I: Rooted begins by inviting the reader to explore what we mean by Christianity and concludes that it is essentially a knowledge of and relationship with the person of Christ.

Drawing on St John the Evangelist and Cardinal Newman, he reflects on what 'knowing' Christ might entail, holding that for the Christian life to truly reach its potential, the 'idea' or 'vision' of Christ must be real. He therefore draws the reader away from common pitfalls in the Christian life, such as reducing it merely to good behaviour, or to asceticism or felt experience. Of themselves these cannot encapsulate what it means to be a Christian which is more fully expressed in the glorious commission to be 'sons in the Son'. How do we achieve this? By returning to the sources: there can be no more direct route than through the Word of God passed on to us by Tradition, Scripture and the Magisterium, the Liturgy, the Sacraments and, most especially, the Eucharist.

Part of the undeniable charm of Living the Mystery is that it is properly grounded in the joys and woes of every day, and nearly always in the context of community or familial living. This comes across very clearly in the homily given at Br Daniel's Solemn Profession, for example, or for Fr Maurus' Requiem. They somehow confirm the idea that the mysteries we are trying to understand more deeply are played out in the lives of real people, in this case real monks, in a vibrant and thriving community. The mysteries are played out, sometimes in peace, sometimes in turmoil. Take the case of the Requiem homily: these beautiful reflections on a gruff, strong, fiercely loyal and deeply spiritual monk take on an added resonance when we consider that Fr Maurus, elderly and quite wandered,literally disappeared from the monastery and to this day, his whereabouts remain a mystery. The point is, amid all the consternation outside the monastic walls, the faith and hope of these monks remained steadfast, and that spiritual attitude shines out very brightly in the abbot's homily. In Part II: Growing, the painfully real experience of those small faults and failings that plague us and wear us down are also explored with originality, compassion, realism and humour-these faults 'are left to humble us. They're left to prevent other people confusing us with Christ and therefore ceasing to live by faith'.

Part III: Bearing Fruit examines how this deepening awareness of the spiritual life bears fruit in prayer and, indeed, how necessary lectio and the liturgy are in order for us to remain rooted as Christians, especially in these days when free expression of faith is becoming less acceptable in the public forum. In short, this compact volume comes highly recommended. Drawing from Hopkins to Waugh, Mackay Brown to Kierkegaard, as well as the Fathers of the Church, faith is strengthened, understanding deepened and a real, living relationship with Christ becomes a truly achievable ambition.

Sr Andrea Fraile
Sister of the Gospel of Life, Glasgow

Faith in Education -The Teacher as Witness

by Thomas FitzPatrick, Mungo Books, I63pp, £12

In an era of crisis, not only in monetary terms, this book asks the pertinent question: Can faith in education fill the philosophical and spiritual vacuum of the third millennium?

Thomas FitzPatrick is a mathematician, natural philosopher, teacher and lecturer. On retiring as Vice-Principal of Notre Dame College of Education in Glasgow, he was awarded a Doctorate of Philosophy for his study of Catholic Secondary Education in South West Scotland. He is therefore well qualified to address such a question and does so in an effective way.

This book provides a series of deliberations which build upon each other to provide the reader with an in-depth and accurate analysis of the role of teachers in this culturally, politically, spiritually and socially turbulent time. It examines the role of the teacher as not only an educator, although precisely what this term implies is discussed, but also as witness, parent, guide, minister and cosmologist! In doing so he encourages the reader to consider the challenging nature of teaching, especially the teaching of Religious Education, in an ever-increasingly secular and broken society. The lack of values so evident today and the ever-increasing strength of secular scientific thought dominate much of the dialogue and FitzPatrick clearly recognises and shows empathy with the teacherwhose job, it would appear, far surpasses the role he/she once, historically, undertook.

Each chapter highlights the vocation that is teaching. Indeed, the teacher must provide the opportunity for pupils to live a harmonious and integrated life whilst ensuring that the truth of faith has been revealed to them. It is no longer acceptable that a teacher be a mere "guide, philosopher and friend": the current role of a teacher is to break down the barriers which prohibit our young from gaining access to the one thing that will set them free - faith in Christ and His Church.

The penultimate chapter of this book continues to challenge the reader to reflect upon the tensions found within the formalised education system which prevent true unity. Drawing upon, as he has done from the outset, a wealth of extremely relevant sources, FitzPatrick tentatively convinces the reader of a need to consider what is required in order to fill the vacuum that lies so apparently empty and asks the question "Who can provide the philosophical underpinning the national education systems requires to restore the balance between the things of God and of Caesar?"

His final chapter is stark and considers what doing without God would really mean. He uses the work of Gilson, a Neo-Thomist philosopher, whose prophecy mirrors, to a certain extent, the world that we currently see before us. However, he quite rightly asserts that "all is not lost" and it is this hope and realisation which will ultimately inspire those who read this book to continue their endeavour to bring a renewed strength of faith back into the realm of education.

Included in the book's five appendices is a coherent exploration of the Christian tradition in Scottish education and clearly shows the author's wide-ranging knowledge. It affords readers with the history required to really understand the present climate and contains the struggles of both the Catholic and the Reformed traditions. Furthermore, appendix four provides the reader with an exhaustive chronology spanning two thousand years.

This book is easily accessible and timely, not only to those 'north of the border' but to the whole of western civilization. It is edifying and a great tribute to a profession in which he clearly believes passionately. Thomas FitzPatrick's own faith in education has enabled him to write such a volume and, as a teacher of Religious Education myself, his writings, which are both thought provoking and illuminating, are most welcome. Its coherency and relevance make it a book that should be read by any teacher but especially by those considering the vocation of teaching. He is to be congratulated and thanked for being brave enough to challenge us to consider what it is that we are doing in the field and with the lives of those entrusted to our care.

Alison Smith

Faith Magazine