Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews


Faith Matters – Cardinal Newman: A Man for our Time
Edited by Fr Dominic Robinson SJ and Rosa Postance. St Paul’s, 94pp, £6.95

The Beatification of John Henry Newman by Pope Benedict XVI understandably generated a new wave of interest in Newman and his writings and a succession of publications exploring them. This present volume is a short collection of papers delivered by four rather different authors, who naturally differ somewhat in their approach to Newman and in the style of their reflections.

The first essay is by Dr Judith Champ, who sets the theme by offering an outline of the Cardinal’s life and thought. It is very accessible and would be useful to anyone exploring Newman and his writings as a beginner. The next two papers will probably be enjoyed more by those who already have some experience of Newman and perhaps some knowledge of his theology.

The Rev Dr James Pereiro, a priest of Opus Dei, looks at a topic particularly dear to Pope Benedict: reason and faith. Indeed Fr Pereiro draws out several connections between the thought of the two men. While limited by its brevity, this essay does indicate the value of Newman’s original contributions in this area, and Fr Pereiro’s conclusion that “a correct understanding of reason is the foundation upon which to base a proper concept of faith” is, one suspects, a sentiment likely to appeal to readers of Faith magazine.

This is followed by a paper given by the Rev Dr John McDade SJ, whose rather vast topic is “Newman on Christ and the Church”. Here we touch on themes in the Cardinal’s writings which both in Newman’s own day and since have proved controversial – the relationship between theologians and the Magisterium, for example. Again, Fr McDade is limited by the length of his paper from entering deeply into these questions, but he does offer some thought-provoking reflections.

The last paper, by Fr Daniel Seward of the Oxford Oratory, is entitled “Newman and Friendship”. Fr Seward demonstrates how Newman’s understanding of friendship unfolded alongside his own personal development, as he evolved from the young Calvinist suspicious of all “natural affection” to the Catholic priest steeped in the spirit of St Philip Neri, “who in 16th-century Rome drew the young towards the love of God by the winning force of his own personality”.

There’s an Oratorian maxim that runs “Vita communis mortificatio maxima” – the common life is the greatest mortification – and there can be no doubt that Newman was not always the easiest man to live with. Yet as Fr Seward shows, he remained devoted to the small Oratorian community he had founded, and he accepted his red hat only on condition of remaining and dying among them in Birmingham.

In short, this small volume contains a wide range of material and is very readable. It would find a suitable place in the libraries both of experienced Newman devotees and of those still discovering the great man’s work.

Fr Richard Whinder

The Five Wounds: Sanctuary for the Sick, Balm for the Wounded Spirit
By Ann Farmer. Gracewing, 114pp, £6.99

This inspirational book comes out of Ann Farmer’s experience of chronic health problems. Her reflections, written from the perspective of the sufferer, demonstrate that the sick and disabled are the “most eloquent defenders of the right to life of the vulnerable”. In response to a world that thinks sufferers require simply a positive attitude to help them in their dire situation, Farmer seeks to offer fresh insights into the mystery of suffering. She aims to help sufferers and their carers by focusing on the spiritual dimension of suffering and the “healing balm” offered by Jesus and the Church.

Farmer begins each chapter with a contemporary take on suffering and the feelings that often accompany illness, such as those of betrayal, loss of identity, humiliation and abandonment. Then she contemplates the healing ministry of Christ, who also experienced and dealt with such feelings in his encounters with others. Moving on from the gospel she explores what she describes as the “healing balm from the Church”, where the sacraments, prayer and the witness of the saints have a special place.

By moving in this way from normal human experience to the ministry of Jesus and then to his Church, Farmer implicitly endorses an ecclesiology that rightly sees the Church as continuing the healing mission of Christ in a context that is not divorced from real lived experience. This is beautifully conveyed by the front cover picture from Hans Memling’s The Man of Sorrows in the Arms of the Virgin.

In response to those who despair or who think that suffering is useless and so see suicide and euthanasia as quick ways out, Farmer recognises that the temptations to lose faith, to look inwards in anger and resentment, are all too real. At times the book treads a fine line between presenting suffering as “a positive thing” to offering up sufferings as “embraced for the sake of the kingdom”. This is perhaps mitigated as she links the experience of illness to scenes from Christ’s ministry in order to draw out the strength that can come from a prayerful and humble attitude where even today the sick can receive Christ’s healing touch and regain a true sense of self. She reminds her readers of the significance of the sacraments as an extension of that healing mission.

In her introduction Farmer points out that contemplating the Five Wounds of Christ has long held a place in traditional Catholic piety despite attempts by the Reformers to suppress the practice. She explains that the Wounds of Christ are not only contemplative access points to Christ for our peace and rest, but signs to share with the world to encourage others. In this endeavour the Communion of Saints becomes “an abundant harvest of helpers for the helpless”.

Pia Matthews

Out of the Depths
By Keith Jacobsen. Vanguard, 356pp, £9.99

After Chesterton’s Fr Brown (who has recently once more been on our screens), Vincent Cronin gave us Fr Chisholm, and Bruce Marshall Fr Malachy – all painted with gentle humour and a certain hyperbole (which possibly explains why Scottish seminarists of the Sixties tended to cringe at All Glorious Within). Graham Greene created trademark characters full of human weakness, but their dignity nevertheless shines through their failings. Keith Jacobsen, however, makes his hero a failure in a Church full of hypocrites.

Unless we have lived on another planet, we have all been brought face to face with a seemingly unending succession of priestly scandals, which are grist to the media and a cause of great suffering to those who serve the Church. But surely there must be some relief from the gloom? What about the triumph of holiness that is proud to say: “Look not upon our sins, but on the faith of your Church”?

It would now seem that those who were “by origin once a Catholic” have a need to turn on the Church in voice and in print, as somehow justifying why they are no longer part of her company. But surely we belong to that communion where one disciple betrayed Jesus, one denied him openly and nine abandoned him when he was arrested.

We admit that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy every time we come to Mass. St Philip Neri used to say: “Lord Jesus, I openly declare that I am unable to do anything but evil without your help.” We all need God’s constant grace to resist temptation and to rise again after we have fallen. There have been priests who have abused children, committed adultery, indulged in financial chicanery but who, despite it all, have not revealed the secrets of the confessional. Yet this is at the heart of Keith Jacobsen’s novel. I am not revealing the plot…
Apart from anything else, the main characters are caricatures: either closeted saints or alcoholic blarney-talking Irishmen, plus the inevitable Machiavellian diocesan chancellor and the heart-of-gold housekeeper. Apart from the nice conceit of calling the cat Fido, there is precious little humour present. There would seem to be a connection between the grimness of the story and the rather bleak British landscape in which it is set – where the Catholic population and vocations have declined so dramatically. In large parts of America, by contrast, the Church is still vibrant in the sunlit uplands, despite the scandals.

The author overplays his hand in his effort to portray the Church as somewhat of an empty husk, worthy of contempt. It isn’t. Thank God.

Fr James Tolhurst

Why Catholics are Right
By Michael Coren, Gracewing Books, 226 pages, £12.99

A provocative title, and deliberately so, as the author explains with some vigour. I think he could usefully have chosen something a little less so, but the book is excellent – full of useful material, well documented, and well expressed.

It’s all here: what Catholics really believe about Mary, about the role of the Pope, about salvation, about the Eucharist. The whole question of sex abuse is tackled, along with topics ranging from the wealth of the Church to the treatment of the incurably sick and the question of euthanasia. In each case Coren explains where the Church stands and examines current facts (and myths).

He is useful tackling issues of history. He writes about the Crusades, about the Spanish Inquisition and about Galileo, with honesty and with attention to the historical facts, including the unsavoury ones. On the Crusades – “not the proudest moment in Christian history but nor were they the childish caricature of modern Western guilt and certainly not that of contemporary Muslim paranoia” – he goes into some detail to describe not only the background and the geopolitical state of things, but also the realities of human behaviour, both good and bad.

He does not shirk the horrid facts of a massacre shortly before the First Crusade: “…bands of peasants, mostly illiterate and drunk on the idea of a holy war, planned to march to the east to fight Muslims and long before they had left even their own state began to attack the Jews.” People behave abominably, but good people also exist: at Speyer, Mainz, Trier and elsewhere bishops were heroic in protecting Jews and confronting vicious mobs. Is the mob or the saintly bishop the voice of the Church? Coren gives the facts and equips us for a sane discussion.

There is also material for a much-needed presentation on the truth about the Church and science. Nicholas Copernicus, a Catholic cleric, first proposed the theory that the earth revolves around the sun; Monsignor Georges Henri Lemaître (University of Louvain) first proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory; Fr Roger Boscovich was the founder of modern atomic theory; Louis Pasteur and Alexander Fleming were both devout practising Catholics. Science is in debt to the Catholic Church.

Coren devotes a whole chapter to the Church’s message on human life, explaining that the Church’s defence of life, including that of babies in the womb and frail sick people in hospital, is central: “All rights are important but the most inalienable and the most fundamental is the right to life.” The Church’s vigorous stance on this subject is based on morality, logic, science and human rights. Her response “is also about love, the love that increasingly dare not speak its name, the love for the unborn”.

There is lots more – on contraception, on same-sex unions, on women, on the Second World War, and, going right back to basics, on the historical fact of Christ’s existence. There’s also some useful material on Dan Brown’s daft Da Vinci Code fantasies and on “Pope Joan”.

It’s a useful book for students who need accurate information for the argument/debate/shouting match at the student bar, for families tackling big issues in passionate kitchen debates, and for quiet perusal before replying to the sneers of office colleagues – or even to the well-intentioned “But surely you can’t believe…?” of muddled friends.

I have deliberately highlighted some of the topics in which Coren has bluntly recognised uncomfortable realities. This is not a book to make you feel smug, but one that seeks to tell the truth and to affirm, with the confidence born of certitude, that the Church is right – and that Catholics are right in affirming her message, in living up to her teachings and in encouraging others to do the same. This is a book for our times. It’s well written and well researched, and it presents a good case extremely well. Read it, share it, use it.

Joanna Bogle

The New Evangelisation: Responding to the Challenge of Indifference
By Rino Fisichella. Gracewing, 152 pp, £9.99

It only needed a few hours after Pope Benedict announced his resignation for commentators to raise the customary questions about his legacy: what enduring contribution will he be seen to have made to the Church and the world? There is nothing amiss with such questions, of course. What is foolish is the expectation that they could be answered in any depth so soon.

One of the most significant speeches Benedict made – as Cardinal Ratzinger, in the Jubilee Year 2000 – was one he gave to catechists about the meaning of the phrase “the New Evangelisation”, and its central image applies very much to his own papacy.

When people begin to get the idea of the New Evangelisation, he says, a temptation awaits them: “the temptation of impatience, the temptation of immediately finding the great success, in finding large numbers. But this is not God’s way. For the Kingdom of God as well as for evangelisation, the instrument and vehicle of the Kingdom of God, the parable of the grain of mustard seed [Mk 4:31-32] is always valid.”

Archbishop Rino Fisichella is the president for the Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation, which Benedict XVI established in 2011, and was thus a key participant in the Synod on the same subject in October 2012. It is likely that we will only know after several years, if then, how significant were these two initiatives of the Holy Father. Will they prove to be mustard seeds that produce a rich harvest, or attempts to institutionalise something that is always going to be at its most fruitful when it is spontaneous, charismatic and somewhat marginal?

Archbishop Fisichella is himself aware of this conundrum. In this book he writes about the danger of the New Evangelisation being an abstract or empty formula, which by attempting to be all-inclusive, ends up lacking real vigour. It is a danger we have certainly seen fulfilled in our own country at episcopal level. His position allows him to see this and many other aspects of evangelisation, including some that are often overlooked, and enables him to speak authoritatively about them. It also puts a burden on him because he is expected to cover all the bases, theologically and politically.

One surprising omission is a survey of what Fr Raniero Cantalamessa has called the various waves of evangelisation in history, of which the new ecclesial movements are the most recent. There is little mention in the book of these movements and of the person-to-person evangelisation which they are so good at.
Yet this is a book that can be confidently recommended both to experienced practitioners and to those who just want to know what the New Evangelisation is all about. It’s not necessarily a book to be read straight through, as its style may be somewhat discursive for English readers, but it provides a rich source of material for deepening our understanding of this all-important topic.

Particularly thought-provoking is his chapter on “the Way of Beauty” – a vital aspect of evangelisation that has all too often been neglected.

Mgr Keith Barltrop

Faith Magazine