Spring Reading for March 2015

Sunlight and Shadow, Winslow Homer (c. 1872).

Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer. Leah Libresco (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2015) 192 pages; $12.12. (Reviewed by Fr. David C. Paternostro, SJ)


Master Thomas Aquinas and the Fullness of Life. John F. Boyle with a Foreword by Philipp W. Rosemann (South Bend, Indiana: St Augustine’s Press, 2014) 85 pages; $14.00.  ISBN: 978-1-58731-493-3. (Reviewed by Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ)


On Human Life (Humanae Vitae). Pope Paul VI with a Foreword by Mary Eberstadt, Afterword by James Hitchcock, and Postscript by Jennifer Fulwiler (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2014) 111 pages; ISBN 978-1-62164-001-1. (Reviewed by Allison LeDoux)


The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. Dwight Longenecker (Nashville, Tennessee: W Publishing Group, 2014) 222 pages; paperback, $12.99. (Reviewed by Roseanne T. Sullivan)


Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer. Leah Libresco (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2015) 192 pages; $12.12.

Much has been said over the last 15 years or so about the growing trend of secularization, and how to address unbelief, especially among younger people. However, after the questions of God and organized religion have been settled, there is still another issue to settle: what next? If apologetics, good example, and general patience can cultivate within a person a basic openness to God, what happens when God actually enters into that openness? How does the person now respond to God? As is regularly observed, Christianity is not about an idea, but a person. What is needed, then, is not mere intellectual assent, but a relationship. In her book Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer, Leah Libresco—a blogger on Patheos’s Catholic Channel and atheist-to-Catholic convert—draws upon her own experiences making that first step into a relationship with God, and maps out one possible model for others discovering faith for the first time to do the same.

Cardinal Newman took as his motto Cor ad cor loquitur—heart speaks to heart. He recognized that genuine conversion is ultimately a meeting of hearts. In the introduction to her book, Libresco speaks of her own conversion, which, in some ways, was an enactment of Newman’s demonstration from morality of God’s existence (likely made more popular by its inclusion at the outset of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity). Having a strong sense of moral obligation even from a young age—to the point of wanting to grow up to be like Les Miserables’s Inspector Javert—Libresco regularly considered the question of how to ground her moral convictions while still holding fast to atheism. Eventually, she was debating the point with a Lutheran friend in college and, pressed for an answer, rebutted “I don’t know, I guess morality just loves me or something” (p. xxviii). By her own account, she was as surprised as anyone by her remark. With this, she began to view morality not simply as a formula or concept, but a thing with agency—using that agency to love her, no less. With this, the sparks of the relationship began.

The devotions that Libresco covers in her book arise from her own story of learning how to cultivate that relationship, and turn those initial sparks into a hearty flame. We see how she “(relies) on traditional prayer practices to teach me the new rules of the world I found myself in and, little by little, open my heart to grace” (xxxi). This gradual opening of her heart is an overarching theme of the book, one which, more than anything, gives a unity to her work. With each chapter, we see Libresco’s heart opened more as she is drawn more and more outside herself in a variety of ways. In the conclusion of the book, she describes the principle of fortissimo—“when in doubt, shout”—and how she has applied this idea to her spiritual life, in imitation of Peter. She describes how Peter treats his actions, mistakes included, with a levity that would impress Chesterton, and that “they are not fortissimo because Peter has irrevocably committed himself to them, but because he has committed himself entirely to Christ” (p. 143). With this creed of fortissimo, one never has to worry about giving one’s whole heart to Christ. What’s more, as Libresco notes, by making everything fortissimo, even the errors, one can be sure the errors will be noticed and corrected.

Libresco’s take on Peter was one that I had not considered before. At the same time, now that I have read it, it is one that I cannot shake. This was hardly an isolated experience. Throughout the book, Libresco makes observations about the prayers covered in her book and draws connections between them and other things (ranging from mathematical concepts and computer programming to theater and literature, and absolutely everything in between) that give them a fresh perspective.

Over the course of the book, Libresco covers seven prayers (dedicating one chapter to each): Petition; Confession; the Examen (the prayer developed by St. Ignatius where one looks at graces bestowed by God in the day, one’s response, and how to respond more generously in the future); the Rosary; Divine Office (the Liturgy of the Hours); Lectio Divina; and Mass. All of the prayers covered are ones that can make up the day to day life of any Catholic. Her descriptions of these prayers focus on how they emerged in her life in a natural way as part of her relationship with God. As a result, readers might easily gain a clear sense of how these prayers can fit into their own relationships with God, and gain a felt knowledge for how important they are, on top of the theoretical knowledge of their importance they might gain in a catechism class.

Libresco has written her book with the intention of aiding both the green horn and the old hand, and in this she succeeds. Those who have familiarity with these prayers can be helped in two ways. First, by helping them see these prayers in a new way and keeping them from taking these prayers for granted, a temptation which even the best of us can succumb to. Second, as a reminder of what these prayers look like to someone who doesn’t have a lifetime of experience with them. Those who are unfamiliar with these prayers can draw from Libresco’s own experiences and find inspiration as they respond to God’s love and deepen their newfound relationship with him. In addition, at the back of the book are three to four study questions for each chapter (including the introduction and conclusion). The questions are well-written and cover the major themes of the chapters, and could be of great aid either in personal reflection or for a parish study group.

Overall, Libresco has written a fine book on her discovery of Catholic spirituality and how it helped her cultivate a relationship with God. Hopefully, this book will serve as an aid to all who are curious about cultivating this relationship in their own lives.

-Fr. David C. Paternostro, SJ
Jesuit School of Theology, Santa Clara University
Berkeley, California


Master Thomas Aquinas and the Fullness of Life. John F. Boyle with a Foreword by Philipp W. Rosemann (South Bend, Indiana: St Augustine’s Press, 2014) 85 pages; $14.00.  ISBN: 978-1-58731-493-3.

St. Augustine’s Press out of South Bend, Indiana, has thankfully begun to publish the University of Dallas’s annual Aquinas Lecture. Since its beginning in 1982, the Dallas Aquinas Lecture has showcased some of the best Catholic intellectuals, usually Thomistic in tendency, but always faithful and wise. This past year’s lecture was delivered by Dr. John Boyle from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.  By all accounts, Dr. Boyle is a very busy man: he is a professor of Catholic Studies and Theology, the Master of Arts in Catholic Studies manager, their university’s Rome Program associate editor, and the editor of the brilliant quarterly LOGOS (online here), a  kaleidoscopic journal of Catholic theology, literature, and beauty.

The argument Boyle makes is that St. Thomas Aquinas’s vision of the good life involves, not just mere existence (for stones enjoy that), not only the taking in and passing out of nutrients (for plants can do as much), nor does it end with the use of our senses, regardless of how pleasant seeing and hearing and tasting and touching might be (for brute animals do the same), but it consists in the highest purpose of the human person, the beatific vision. This may sound far-reaching, and it certainly can come across as far off, but Boyle shows that knowing this final end of man is the first intelligent decision we must all make. For here, all our other choices become correct (or not). Of course, knowing this is not enough. The fallen creature needs grace to realize it, and here is where Thomas’s vision of the moral life and the deified life coalesce: this is “the very life of God which he gives to man so that man might participate in it, and in so doing, come to friendship with him” (p. 49).

As such, Boyle continues on to show that friendship with God, being the highest and most definitive goal of rational creatures, begins with one’s innate desire for beatitude, but must be completed by grace. This, we learn, is the entire purpose of Aquinas’s writings: not to come across as “a brain on a stick” (the caricature Boyle is out to destroy, and does), but a friar whose care for souls drove him to spend just as much time in the library as in the chapel. This little manual accordingly ends with a section on Thomas as The Master of the Sacred Page, wherein we are brought to Thomas’s biblical commentaries, a woefully underappreciated part of his massive literary output. In these sacred pages, Thomas found Christ everywhere, the new Light that has come into the world to illumine all. “Christ is the new life of man, a life of participation in the grace of Christ, who is God himself. This life is grace as specified in the light that is knowledge and truth, which give order and end to human life. They are here tied to the incarnate Word, through whom both the imperfect life of faith and the perfect life of glory are brought about” (p. 69). It is in this way, Boyle makes Thomas’s thought come alive. The Angelic Doctor’s words never fail to bear fruit in the minds of his students, primarily because his own students have proven to be such excellent teachers, and for this, we thank Dr. Boyle and St. Augustine’s Press for these rewarding pages.

-Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ
Saint Louis University


On Human Life (Humanae Vitae). Pope Paul VI with a Foreword by Mary Eberstadt, Afterword by James Hitchcock, and Postscript by Jennifer Fulwiler (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2014) 111 pages; ISBN 978-1-62164-001-1.

On the occasion of his beatification, Ignatius Press has reissued Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical, Humanae Vitae (On Human Life). The encyclical itself, both remarkably insightful and largely prophetic, is one of the Church’s greatest treasures. It has also been one of the most controversial. Truly, it is one worth reading, and rereading. What makes this particular volume stand out (besides, of course, the encyclical’s content in and of itself), are the three sections of commentary, which lend themselves to a greater historical context and a depth of understanding reflective of both hindsight and foresight.

The foreword, “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae,” is an adaptation of a chapter “Adam and Eve after the Pill” by consummate researcher and author Mary Eberstadt. Here she summarizes what numerous distinguished Catholic thinkers have said about how each of Pope Paul VI’s predictions has been borne out by sociological facts. While Humane Vitae was the subject of much dissent and ridicule, and one can only imagine the suffering the Holy Father experienced during such a time of trial, the “evidence” is unmistakably in: Pope Paul VI was right. Eberstadt makes the case abundantly clear, and does so in such a way that both seasoned and first-time readers of Humanae Vitae are motivated to read further and take a deeper look at how this pope was so prescient.

Following the text of the encyclical, which is prefaced by a helpful note from the translator, we read distinguished professor James Hitchcock’s “A Historical Afterword.” He provides an incredibly helpful overview of all that was going on—both in the Church and in society—during the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and the many factors that played into the negative reception Humanae Vitae received in 1968 and beyond. The drama of the “debate” over an encyclical that was yet to be, and when issued, was condemned by many, before it was even read, makes for an intriguing story to be sure. Hitchcock does not end his historical account in 1968 however. He continues to explain the history of the “aftermath.” It is interesting to note how all of Pope Paul’s successors have been supporters and advocates for the truth about love that Humanae Vitae articulates so well. Particularly, and not surprisingly, Hitchcock highlights the great contributions that St. Pope John Paul II has made to the Church’s Magisterium on the subject. As archbishop of Krakow in the 1960s, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla’s influence on Humanae Vitae is well known. Subsequently, he continued to teach and develop the topic throughout his papacy, including in his 128 weekly general audience addresses that formed the Theology of the Body, the 1980 Synod on the Family, and it’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, and the great 1993 encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor, to name a few.  Hitchcock concludes his afterword with helpful commentary on how today’s increasing societal ills are continuing manifestations of Pope Paul’s predictions of what would happen if contraception use became widespread. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the facts presented are indeed true.

Lastly, this Ignatius Press edition concludes with a postscript by convert and author Jennifer Fulwiler, aptly titled, “We’re Finally Ready for Humanae Vitae.” Mrs. Fulwiler recounts a personal story of hearing a homily on contraception one Sunday from her parish’s young associate pastor. As most Catholics realize, this is a highly unusual experience. It caught people’s attention.  While the inspired priest explained, challenged, and shared the truth in love, one couldn’t help but wonder what people were thinking. How would they receive the message? Fulwiler concludes by noting that when Father returned to his chair, “the pews erupted in spontaneous, thunderous applause.” The time has come.

Admittedly, I was already a fan of Humanae Vitae before I read this volume. But it had been a while since I’d read the document, and as is the case with so many papal encyclicals, you learn something new with each read. Truly, this edition of Humanae Vitae with its accompanying commentary was so riveting, I couldn’t put it down. It would have been all too easy to highlight nearly every sentence. We are at a critical time in history, and humanity greatly needs this beautiful life-giving message. It is a bright light that brings true freedom and happiness in a world that has been deeply wounded and enslaved by false promises. As we look forward to Blessed Paul VI’s continuing journey to sainthood, may many people experience the blessings of reading this great work.

-Mrs. Allison LeDoux
Director, Respect Life Office and Office of Marriage and Family, Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts; certification in Catholic Health Care Ethics, National Catholic Bioethics Center; contributing editor, Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum


The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. Dwight Longenecker (Nashville, Tennessee: W Publishing Group, 2014) 222 pages; paperback, $12.99.

From the start of The Romance of Religion, Fr. Dwight Longenecker picks up and runs with this idea: that a Christian should live like a hero on a romantic quest, instead of like a stodgy churchgoer clinging to a set of rules. Pell-mell through chapter after chapter in the first half of the book, Fr. Longenecker charges ahead like a flag bearer into battle, pulling into the updraft of his flurry of words, scraps of memoir, poetic imagery, Scripture, Star Wars, Greek mythology, Don Quixote, Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Chronicles of Narnia, and more.

Fr. Longenecker’s high-flying style is not to my taste, mainly because of contradictions and attempted flights of fancy that don’t get off the ground. For one example: he writes about how, in many myths, a hero had to go down into the underworld on a quest. And according to him, Bilbo in The Hobbit had to begin his own quest, like Alice, by going down into a hole. The fact is, that Bilbo started out in his hole, and had to leave his hole, a mighty comfortable one, at that, to start on his quest, and I just am not able to leap blithely over clunkers like that.

Don’t let my reaction to his writing style put you off. His style might be just right for you.

He’s a popular writer and blogger at the Standing on My Head blog on Patheos, and he appeals to many readers. For one example, Ignatius Press author and Inklings scholar, Thomas Howard, wrote this blurb on the back cover of Longenecker’s book, “Here is orthodoxy heavy as the universe made to dance like the universe. Reading this is like coming upon old Augustine dressed up as St. Francis.” If you understand this blurb and are inspired by it, you’ll probably like this book a lot. Me, I’m just left wondering what Howard is trying to say just as I’m often left wondering what Fr. Longenecker is trying to say.

But then, about halfway through the book, Longenecker shifts his tone in such a way that he wins me over.

Fr. Longenecker devotes many pages to the common themes that the late “mythologist” Joseph Campbell claimed to see in the myths of various cultures, but he wisely goes beyond Campbell.

Joseph Campbell claimed to see what he calls the hero’s journey in the stories of the world’s religious figures, Buddha, Moses, and Christ—all of whom he equated. According to Campbell, in the hero’s journey, they are all heroes: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Campbell claimed the existence of an overarching monomyth. The implication is that since all religions share similarities, all religions have borrowed from each other, and all are equally untrue. Critics in his field have accused Campbell of gross oversimplification, but the laudatory Bill Moyers TV series about Campbell’s syncretic theories has infected the religious thinking of a generation of PBS watchers, and his books have contributed to the confusion of many more.

For Joseph Campbell, “God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought. It’s as simple as that.” Or as wrong as that.

In contrast, for Longenecker, and for the believing Christian, if any actual similarities exist, and if they prove anything, they prove that all religions have partial glimpses of the truth. Longenecker explains that the only true myth is the Judeo-Christian story, because it is the only one that claims to be historical.

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis wrote pretty much along the same lines. From The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: “After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth.’ … The notion of Christianity being a ‘true myth’ helped C.S. Lewis along in his intellectual conversion, as he wrote to a friend after a conversation with friends Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, ‘Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’”

In the Introduction to The Romance of Religion, Fr. Longenecker writes that he realized early in his life that he would not settle for being a time clock puncher, “a drudge, a drone, or a dromedary.” He rejected the image of Jesus “with the yellow hair … the smiling, suffering milquetoast, doormat Jesus.” Leaving aside how wrong and sophomoric it seems to me for him to indiscriminately disdain the humble men and women who work in boring or backbreaking jobs to do their duty and support their families, or how doctrinally incorrect it is to reject the suffering Jesus, let’s forge ahead with the young Dwight Longenecker, who decided to follow Jesus on what he refers to as a “mad, wave-walking adventure.”

He was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home in Pennsylvania and earned a degree in speech and English from Bob Jones University in Greenville, the school that is famous, among other things, for its extreme hatred of the Catholic Church. While at Bob Jones, Longenecker was almost accidentally (and, perhaps, providentially) exposed to the Anglican form of worship. He became enamored of the Inklings, the famous group of writers at Oxford that included J. R. R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and he then became an idealistic Anglophile, and eventually, an Anglican priest. His search for the ancient Church of England did not stop until, eventually, he and his family were led to convert to Catholicism.

When he got to England and became an Anglican priest, Fr. Longenecker saw that all around him were “the authority figures of respectable religion,” who reminded him of fake wax dummies. He resolved to never submit to becoming a representative of that kind of religion, and he wrote this book to inspire others to join him on his quest, as a “call for others to entertain the foolishness of God that is wiser than the wisdom of men; to reject the respectability of religion and embrace the romance of religion.”

Fr. Longenecker ends The Romance of Religion more soberly than he began. Along the way, he humorously debunks, in turn, some of the most popular theories of debunkers who would deny the Resurrection and other historic events of the Gospel. He provides helpful reflections about what it really means to live as a Christian. And he changes his tone about rules.

It is foolish to claim to be “spiritual without being religious,” for the rules of religion are like the map that leads you to your destination. Rules don’t hem you in, they free you and guide you reliably to the end of your quest, to the fulfillment of your heart’s deepest desire.

Fr. Longenecker also does a bit of a turnaround about stodgy churchgoers. He hints that readers should look again at those wax-work religious figures he rebelled against in his Introduction. They are quite probably secret subversives.

-Roseanne T. Sullivan, M.A.
Freelance writer and photographer, San Jose, California

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