Winter Reading for December 2014

31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator. Jared Dees (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press: 2013) 164 pages; $9.95. (Reviewed by Brandon Harvey)

The Power of Four: Keys to the Hidden Treasures of the Gospels. Eduardo P. Olaguer, Jr. (Seattle, Washington: Angelico Press, 2013) 126 pages; $12.95. (Reviewed by Romero D’ Souza, SDB)

Walking with Mary: A Biblical Journey from Nazareth to the Cross. Edward Sri. (New York: Image, 2013) xviii + 145 pages; $21.00. (Reviewed by Romero D’ Souza, SDB)

An Ordinary’s Not So Ordinary Life: Autobiography. Most Rev. Bishop René H. Gracida. (Pijart Productions Press, 2014) 207 pages; $13.03. (Reviewed by Rev. Fr. J. Patrick Serna)



31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator

Jared Dees (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press: 2013) 164 pages; $9.95.

Priests, principals, and directors of religious education have long sought to provide continued formation of their devoted educators, charged with the responsibility of forming youth into dynamic disciples of Jesus Christ. It can be a struggle to find a means of helping new and veteran educators grow in their craft with too many resources not taking into account the time and realistic needs of these teachers. Due to his years of experience in Catholic schools and parish formation programs, Jared Dees writes to this need in a way that will grant Catholic leaders a much needed resource.

31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator provides daily formation by beginning with a simple passage of Scripture to introduce a theme that is then expanded. Practical exercises are suggested that demonstrate the theme of the reflection. Each day ends with a spiritual exercise to assist the educator in applying the lesson to their relationship with the Triune God. The book develops these reflections and exercises through a journey of becoming a better disciple, then becoming a better servant, a better leader, and, finally, becoming a better teacher. Throughout the 31 days, the reader will also become acquainted with the writings of the saints, church documents, practices such as lectio divina and the rosary, the research of psychologists, and the wisdom of educators.

During the days centered on discipleship, the educator reflects on the purpose of religious education for discipleship. In order for this to be accomplished, the educator must never cease to be a disciple of our Lord and Savior. This means that an effective educator in a student’s formation does not simply know facts about God, but knows God personally. This initial stage begins by recognizing that teaching the faith is not about volunteering, or just a job, but a calling. This calling flourishes in the context of a relationship with Jesus Christ, with a saint or mentor as an inspiring guide through the process. To know Christ more deeply means to meet him in the Scriptures and in the writings of the saints, and taking steps to improve prayer habits.

After growing in life through Christ the Servant, the educator then embarks on a journey to imitate Christ’s example of service. This means focusing more on the students than on ourselves. It begins by reflecting on the needs of the students, surveying their strengths, and getting to know them. During this period, a struggling student will surely come to the forefront of our thoughts. Writing a letter to struggling students to praise them in what they are doing well will encourage them to believe they can grow. Assuring the parent and praying for each individual student also fosters this relationship of service.

In good Catholic fashion, Jared Dees presents the next section, on leadership, as the culmination of discipleship and service. The purpose of this section is to eliminate things that waste time in class by updating classroom procedures and rules. Here, Dees discusses the difference between procedures and rules, how reactions to students breaking procedures must differ from reactions to students breaking rules. This section also looks at creating a vision, tips to giving effective feedback, and how to get students involved.

Discipleship, service, and leadership are the recipe for the final section: on becoming a better teacher. This section seeks to transform the routine items of a teacher’s work in the spirit of the Gospel, including lesson plans, learning objectives, ways to assess formation, planning classroom lessons, using projects, stories, textbooks, and music, and teaching as a witness.

Dees’s book provides an excellent look at religious education, rooted in Christ. His knowledge is not simply book knowledge, but learned by years of experience, as is clear from his stories and examples. His writing and approach will appeal to new, veteran, paid, or volunteer educators. This wonderful work does not dictate lessons to educators, but rather provides a framework. I only wish I had had this book at my disposal when I served as a director of religious education because of its refreshing focus on Christ and the human person.

Perhaps the only problematic section of the book is day 27, “Incorporating Music into Your Day.” It focuses on the educational role of music for direct and indirect learning. Quoting the National Directory for Catechesis (pg. 151), Dees introduces the catechetical nature of sacred music. What follows in the next few pages does not correspond to what the Directory was speaking about concerning the music used in the liturgy. Dees’s exercises for the classroom are less about sacred music in liturgy, and more about religious and secular music. The distinctions can easily be remedied with a look at Tra le Sollecitudini, by Pius X, and Musicam Sacram.

31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator is Jared Dees’s gift to the Church today. It speaks to the heart of religious education in both schools and parishes. His wisdom, rooted in the spirit of the Gospel, can be assimilated through 31 literal days, or spread out over time to more easily assimilate the greatness that is dispensed upon the page. This book would make an ideal gift or to offer further formation for those in the care of priests, principals and directors of religious education. It will help instructors to focus on the holiness of the students as they guide them on their journey of Christian formation. It will also enable instructors to better their relationship with Christ and imitate him, the Master Teacher.

-Brandon Harvey
Catholic author and speaker
Omaha, Nebraska


The Power of Four: Keys to the Hidden Treasures of the Gospels

Eduardo P. Olaguer, Jr. (Seattle, Washington: Angelico Press, 2013) 126 pages; $12.95.

The Power of Four offers original insights on the shape of the four Gospels, their relationship to the Old Testament, and their message about Jesus. Olaguer presents the belief common to most Jews and Christians found in the study of Scriptures to explain Jesus’ identity and mission through the power of four keys.

The first key relates to the images of Jesus presented by the four Evangelists and the four Cherubim, the latter of which incorporate the forms of four creatures: creation and salvation history (man), the election of Israel (lion), the establishment of the Temple and the oracles of the prophets (ox), psalmody and heavenly worship (eagle). The second key relates to Israel’s Scriptures, the Old Testament as a coherent whole, with Christ as their embodiment. The third key consists of four “maps,” correlating the structure and character of the Gospels with their characteristic oratorical devices. The fourth key relates to the variety of ways in which the number seven serves to structure, unify, and emphasize the message of the Gospels.

The book brings together in a single paradigm insights on these four keys. The four keys allow us to see the entire Bible as the logically systematic work of an Infinite Mind, a view that runs counter to the received wisdom of our age. Knowledge of the four keys gives us greater access to the spiritual treasure of the Gospels by identifying and linking a fourfold Christian Old Testament canon to the four Gospels.

Chapter three, “The New Moses: The Gospel of Matthew” (26-45) begins by exploring the linkage between the division of Jesus’ genealogy into three series of fourteen generations, and the fourteen lions flanking the throne of Solomon. The chapter then seeks to correlate the seven mountains on which Jesus appears (those of the Temptation, Sermon on Mount, Feeding of the Four Thousand, Transfiguration, Olives, Golgotha, and Galilee) with seven Mosaic feasts. These insightful correlations persuade us that Jesus embodies God’s creative purpose for humanity and perfects Israel’s response to God’s revelation as described in the Pentateuch. Chapter four, “The New Joshua: The Gospel of Mark” (46-56) begins with the story of Jesus at the River Jordan, which mirrors the events at the beginning of the book of Joshua. The author develops this parallel so that Joshua’s conquests, marked by his seven stone memorials at Galgal, Achor, Ai, Eba, Makkedah, Jordan, and Shechem, can be seen as delineating the boundaries of spiritual territory conquered by Christ. It concisely unpacks the seven points of the original proclamation of the writings og St. Peter as presented in the Acts, focusing on the Passion of Christ so as to emphasize the victory he gains (lion) through sacrifice (ox). The author’s contention of this chapter is a rewriting of Joshua and the Nevi’im is interesting and worthy of further study. In chapter five, “The New Temple: The Gospel of Luke” (57-76), the author uses the Historical Books of the Old Testament to clarify the mission and identity of Jesus in the Gospels. This chapter weaves Luke’s narrative around seven events that take place there: 1) the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah in the Temple, which echoes the birth of Samuel and his presentation to Eli; 2) the presentation; 3) finding of Jesus in the Temple; 4) Christ’s temptation on its pinnacle; 5) his cleansing; 6) teaching there before the Passion; and 7) the frequenting of the Temple by the disciples after Jesus’ ascension. Chapter six, “The New Beginning: The Gospel of John” (77-107) notes something unique, beginning “anew” and “from above,” as it were, with allusions to Genesis and the Wisdom books. John’s reference to seven signs and seven “I am” sayings to reveal Jesus’ person and mission is widely accepted. Olaguer, who holds an BS in physics and a PhD in meteorology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, includes an excursus which cites respected and established physicists and biologists in order to propose a “concordist”—as opposed to “creationist”—way of reconciling the biblical account of creation with contemporary science.

This book is written in a simple and profound way, an important research tool to biblical scholars as well as a helpful guide for ordinary people of either Jewish or Christian faith.

-Romero D’ Souza, SDB
Salesian Pontifical University, Faculty of Theology, Jerusalem Campus, Israel


Walking with Mary: A Biblical Journey from Nazareth to the Cross

Edward Sri. (New York: Image, 2013) xviii + 145 pages; $21.00.

Dr. Edward Sri is a nationally known Catholic speaker who appears regularly on EWTN and is the author of several Catholic and Spiritual books. He is also a cofounder of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), and he currently serves as the provost and professor of theology and Scripture at the Augustine Institute master’s program in Denver, Colorado.

Walking with Mary concerns a walk with God through an examination of Mary’s life, particularly focusing on her humanness, and her continuous Fiat. The book invites the reader to explore nine pivotal moments (steps in the journey of faith) as described in the narrative accounts in the Gospels of Luke and John.

Step 1—An Open Heart: Mary in dialogue with God (Lk1:28-29) (16-30) notes the parallel between Zephaniah’s oracle, “Daughter of Zion” (Zeph. 3:14), and Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, “Hail Mary, full of grace” (Lk 1:28), which involves an invitation of joy and describes an action that began in the past and continues to have its effect in the present. Step 2—A servant of the Lord: Let it be to me according to your word (Lk 1:30-38) (31-43) appreciates Mary’s great surrender and considers the specific mission God has in store for her. The author uses a familiar passage from the Old Testament (2 Sam 7:9-16) that has many striking parallels between the promise to David and what Gabriel says about Mary’s annunciation. The author continues to reflect on Mary’s Fiat as not just a submission or a mere duty, but one motivated by love. Step 3—Magnify the Lord: The humility of Mary (Lk 1: 39-55) (44-57) explores the spiritual journey of what Luke describes (that Mary arose and went to visit Elizabeth; and that Mary makes this journey in haste). The author elaborates on Mary’s humility, exhibited in notable ways in the Magnificat. In the first part, Sri looks at the blessings God has bestowed on her personally (Lk 1:46-50), and in the second part, at Mary’s praises sung to God for what he is doing for all Israel, humanity, and creation (Lk 1:51-55). Step 4—Keep and ponder: The mother at the manger (Lk 2:1-20) (58-71) symbolizes her pondering in her heart the mysterious events surrounding her son’s birth. Sri does this by presenting at length the two key words: to keep and ponder in light of the Old and New Testament. Step 5—Sharing in the sword: Mary’s participation in her Son’s Sufferings (Lk 2: 22-40) (72-82) expounds on Simeon’s prophecy (John Paull II calls it a second annunciation) of her participation in a sacrifice of untold magnitude: the offering of her son. The author presents Luke’s linking of this passage to Psalm 22, which shows the background of both Simeon’s words to Mary and Luke’s narration of Christ’s passion. Step 6—Walking in darkness: She who did not understand (Lk2:41-52) (83-93) presents the contrast Jesus makes between his earthly and heavenly Father, and his incorporation of the mission entrusted to him by his heavenly Father. This Step also reflects on Mary’s renewed Fiat concerning the significant episode that takes place in the Temple (Lk 2:49)—the pilgrimage from Galilee to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Passover—a preview of the Passion to prepare Mary for her unique cooperation in the mystery of redemption. Step 7—She still says yes: Mary’s choice at cana (Jn 2:1-11) (94-106) reflects on Mary’s compassion and attentiveness to others’ needs; it further explains the statement, no wine, but much faith, and highlights Mary as the New Eve in the light of the creation story (Gen.2:23;3:20). Step 8—Total surrender, total trust: Standing by the cross of Jesus (Jn 19: 25-27) (107-123) brings to mind the crucial moments where Mary appears in the scenes of John’s Gospel (at Cana: the very beginning of his public ministry; and the cross: the climax of his mission as he is dying). In the latter part of this chapter, we see Mary’s supreme moment of faith in her new mission: “Woman, behold your son.” Here, Sri explores Mary as spiritual mother of all Christians. Step 9—Persevering in faith: Mary, crowned with glory (Rev. 12: 1-17) (124-139) reveals Mary as the first, and model, disciple, faithful from beginning to end; and sheds light on Mary and her reward, the crown of righteousness. This invites readers to reflect on the eschatological sign of what God wants to accomplish in all our lives. Sri encourages us to live out what has served as the foundational principle for Mary’s own existence: “Do whatever he tells you.”

Walking with Mary sees Mary’s journey of faith as encouragement for Sri’s own walk with the Lord. It is the fruit of his own personal journey of studying Mary through the Scriptures, from her initial calling in Nazareth to her painful experience at the foot of the cross. This very readable work draws on the wisdom of Catholic tradition as well as the writings of popes and biblical scholars from a variety of perspectives and traditions. It will help ordinary people understand and love Mary, and will serve to inspire the reader to walk in her footsteps as a faithful disciple of the Lord.

-Romero D’ Souza, SDB
Salesian Pontifical University, Faculty of Theology, Jerusalem Campus, Israel


An Ordinary’s Not So Ordinary Life: Autobiography

Most Rev. Bishop René H. Gracida. (Pijart Productions Press, 2014) 207 pages; $13.03.

As first Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee and as fifth bishop of the Diocese of Corpus Christi, his excellency Bishop René H. Gracida will be remembered as much for his strong leadership as for his enigmatic journey which led to the episcopacy. This firsthand account of a modern day ecclesiastical trail blazer consists of a prologue by the author of this review, 26 chapters by his excellency René H. Gracida, and an epilogue by Jeffrey M. Ostrowski.

At last, this is the autobiography which so many have been begging and pleading for. This is the story of a modern day Odysseus whose journey in his dealings with people is as interesting as his interior battles of discernment and abnegation. It is said that “truth is stranger than fiction,” and such is the case in this autobiography, which will be appreciated by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

This is the story of a boy who was born in 1923, in New Orleans, Louisiana, “ten feet below sea level,” who would later soar in the heights over Germany in a World War II B17 bomber, and who would, 30 years later, soar in the clouds again, as a pilot of his own private plane, which helped to expedite his episcopal duties as a bishop in Florida. Being born below sea level, and then, later, “doing business” in the clouds as a soldier, then later as a bishop, is a rich image which gives a symbolically meaningful snapshot of the person whose life is chronicled in the pages of this interesting autobiography.

The pages in An Ordinary’s Not So Ordinary Life present an insightfully honest and perspicacious account, which reveals as much about the writer’s fallen human nature as it does about the fallen human nature in false brothers who would inflict harm and treachery. If this account presents personal weakness and weakness in others, what is redeeming in human nature and the hearts of people is presented as well. Gracida has made the following proverb his own, namely, “God writes straight with crooked lines,” and the pages of his autobiography paint a lucid picture as to how and why.

Ever since the 1960s, after incorrect and agenda-filled interpretations of the Second Vatican Council became the norm in the United States, heterodoxy and the embracing of irreverence in the liturgy have become the norm of parish life. Heterodoxy and irreverence have grown by leaps and bounds because of poor, weak leadership in the episcopacy. If bishops would require their priests to uphold sound doctrine and avoid irreverent liturgies that seem to be more like entertainment (with clowns and balloons), the priests would follow, and then the laity would follow. However, since bishops in the United States, as a whole, do not demand that the pro-life canons of canon law be enforced for reception of communion, vis a vis self-proclaimed pro-abortion politicians who call themselves “Catholics,” and since many bishops are known for their special friendships with these pro-abortion politicians, it is no wonder that the Church is in such terrible shape.

When it is the norm for American bishops not to speak out against abortion and to obey the Dallas Charter which essentially makes Catholic priests the only citizens in America with no rights; when there is a prominent American cardinal who tried to silence orthodox pro-life bishops by protestantizing the Catholic Church in America in 2004 with his proposal, “Mechanism of Review,” there stands Bishop René H. Gracida to contradict them all. It is no wonder that Bishop Gracida has faced so much opposition and scorn from brother bishops since the beginning of his ministry as an Ordinary. It is refreshing to meet and learn about a bishop who defends orthodoxy and reverence, despite the cost.

As the reader delves into the layers of a life which is at once inspiring and profound, he is reminded why it is that the generation of Bishop René H. Gracida is widely referred to as “The Greatest Generation.” Bishop Gracida was a light in the darkness for many, just as he was a stumbling block for others. In this bracingly beautiful and very real autobiography, the intriguing and providential story of Bishop Gracida is told with his own descriptive words and memory, which is a precious gift to posterity.

We know from the scholastic saint philosophers that one of the ways to know God, after prayer and the sacraments, is through his effects in creation. To know God through creation, in the spirit of St. Bonaventure or St. Thomas Aquinas, is the underlying spirit and theme of Bishop Gracida’s autobiography. In this story of a unique man and bishop, we encounter the grace of God—his providential hand—in the life of one whose goal it was to do his will. The life of this rare bishop is nothing less than a glimpse into God’s loving care for those who try to accomplish this; it tells how a son of the Church danced with his God, for 90-plus years. A memorable dance between a son and his heavenly Father has been told in An Ordinary’s Not So Ordinary Life, and fortunate are they who will take the time to be part of this dance, even if only by watching.

-Rev. Fr. J. Patrick Serna
Pastor, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish
Sinton, Texas (Diocese of Corpus Christi)

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