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Movie review: ‘Rock Dog’

"You ain't nothin' but a hound dog," Elvis Presley famously crooned six decades ago. That pretty well describes "Rock Dog" (Summit Premiere), a feeble animated comedy about a canine with unlikely musical aspirations.
 
On Snow Mountain, high in the Himalayas, a Tibetan Mastiff named Bodi (voice of Luke Wilson) is stuck in the shadow of his stern father, Khampa (voice of J.K. Simmons). Their two-dog mission is to guard the village from marauding wolves eager to eat the resident sheep population.
 
Bodi prefers playing his guitar to sentry duty. When a passing airplane drops a radio from the sky, it's like manna from heaven. Turning the dial to a rock 'n' roll station (reception is remarkably clear), Bodi is entranced by the music of legendary rock-and-roller Angus Scattergood (voice of Eddie Izzard).
 
The village elder, fittingly named Fleetwood Yak (voice of Sam Elliott), convinces Khampa to let his son leave the village and seek his destiny in the big city.
 
"It's your life. Make it a happy one," Fleetwood tells Bodi.
 
And so Bodi hops the bus (mass transit is also surprisingly good), lands in the nearby metropolis -- filled with anthropomorphic species -- and seeks out Angus' heavily guarded compound.
 
The aging rocker, a hipster cat with a British accent and a sassy robot butler named Ozzie, invites the awestruck fan into his lair, but his motives are not sincere. Angus needs a new hit, and Bodi's fresh talent might be just the ticket.
 
Meanwhile, the big bad wolf pack, led by Linnux (voice of Lewis Black), is inspired by Bodi's departure to mount a final assault on Snow Mountain. Sporting gangster attire and driving stretch limos, these cool dudes have one goal in mind: feasting on grilled lamb chops.
 
Director and co-writer (with Kurt Voelker) Ash Bannon keeps the story moving while borrowing heavily from other animated films, including "Zootopia" and "WALL-E."
 
Despite the dangers characters occasionally face and Angus' mildly intemperate language (he says things like "stupid bloody idiot!"), "Rock Dog" is mindless fare acceptable for all -- except possibly the most easily frightened.
 
The film contains a few scenes of peril.
 
The Catholic News Service classification is A-I -- general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
 
 

Book review: 'The Best is Yet to Come'

“The Best is Yet to Come: Living Fully in Each Moment.” By Sister Anne Bryan Smollin. Indiana: Sorin Books, 2016. 192 pages. Paperback: $15.95; Kindle: $10.99; Nook: $10.99.
 
Let’s talk about a number, and that number is 86,400.
 
This is how Sister of St. Joseph Anne Smollin begins her final book, “The Best is Yet to Come: Living Fully in Each Moment,” and it becomes clear very quickly that she has not chosen this number arbitrarily. In the first of many parables – this book is full of them -- Sister Smollin proposes this hypothetical situation: Suppose you win a contest and the prize is a bank account in your name. Each day, the bank deposits $86,400 into that account, and you are free to spend the money any way you want.  Sounds great, doesn’t it?
 
But there are a few rules you must abide by. The first is that you and only you can spend the money. Second, you can’t transfer any of the money to someone else’s account. And third, anything you don’t spend is taken away at the end of the day. At the beginning of the next day, the bank deposits a fresh $86,400 into your account for you to spend on that day and that day only. The final rule is that the bank can close your account at any time without warning, and you will not be issued a new one.
 
We all have such an account, Sister Smollin says; it’s called time, and 86,400 is the number of seconds, or moments, we are gifted with each day.  How we spend this gift is totally up to us; we can use it to live in love and joy or we can squander it on complaining and negativity. What Sister Smollin’s book does is show us, through humor, personal experience and stories just how to do the former.
 
As a counselor and educator, Sister Smollin spent her life helping people learn to use God’s gift of time to the fullest. Many of the anecdotes in this book are drawn from those people and experiences; quite a few of them take place in airports and on planes. (She was an international speaker and spent her share of time traveling.)  All of them are positive and affirming, and several are just plain funny – Sister Smollin obviously took great pleasure in conveying an important lesson by way of a good joke. And she is just as apt to let the joke be on her; she has that rare quality of taking her message seriously and herself lightly.
 
There are 27 chapters in this book, and each one is easily manageable in a sitting.  This does not mean, however, that what is written is trite. On the contrary, these seemingly simple stories tend to creep up on the reader until he or she is suddenly aware that what made them laugh (or cry) has also made them think.
 
Sister Smollin died unexpectedly though peacefully on Sept. 25, 2014, having just celebrated 50 years of religious life.  This book was published posthumously, and the foreword, written by her best friend Sister of St. Joseph Patricia A. St. John, stands as a testament to the authenticity of Sister Smollin’s life and her words. “We never know what another person is carrying in their heart: what sorrow, pain, discouragement, devastation,” Sister Smollin once told her friend. “Let’s always err on the side of kindness.”
 
This is ultimately both a kind and a wise book, one which shows us the way to live in God’s joy, every minute of every day.
 
Sister of St. Joseph Anne Bryan Smollin (1943– 2014) was an international lecturer on wellness and spirituality. An educator and therapist, she earned a doctorate in counseling psychology from Walden University in Florida and was executive director of the Counseling for Laity center in Albany, N.Y. She is also the author of “Tickle Your Soul” (Sorin Books, 1999), “God Knows You’re Stressed” (Sorin Books, 2001), and “Live, Laugh, and Be Blessed” (Sorin Books, 2006).
 

Movie review: 'The Lego Batman Movie'

In 2014's "The Lego Movie," Will Arnett voiced an amusingly self-absorbed version of Gotham City's Dark Knight. With the entertaining spinoff "The Lego Batman Movie" (Warner Bros.), Arnett's character, together with his inflated ego, takes center stage.
 
Despite occupying the spotlight, however, this time out, the Caped Crusader will have to learn some important lessons in humility, teamwork and emotional openness if he's going to meet his latest challenge. That's because his longtime adversary, the Joker (voice of Zach Galifianakis), is leading an army of bad guys in a bid to prove that he is Batman's most important enemy.
 
Just as the isolated, relationship-shunning hero insists on working alone to fight crime, so he slaps the Joker down when the Clown Prince of Crime puts himself forward as the Cowled One's indispensable foil.
 
"You're nothing to me," Batman growls in a scene that cleverly inverts a familiar trope, substituting the Joker's longing to be told he's hated for the more usual goal of exacting a declaration of love. Soon the spurned villain is scheming to destroy Gotham and thus bring his rivalry with Batman to a decisive close.
 
To vanquish him, Batman will have to accept the help of the trio of supporters who have rallied to his side: would-be adoptive son Dick Grayson, aka Robin (voice of Michael Cera), love interest Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl (voiced by Rosario Dawson), and father figure (as well as butler) Alfred Pennyworth (voice of Ralph Fiennes).
 
Still burdened by the loss of his parents -- their murder is only hinted at by a childhood photo taken at a moment aficionados of chiropteran lore will recognize as laden with doom -- Bruce Wayne, and therefore his alter ego, finds it difficult to make himself vulnerable again. It will take all of Robin's irrepressible good spirits and Alfred's patriarchal concern, as well as Barbara's head-turning effect on Batman, to break through his barriers.
 
Fast-paced fun is the order of the day in director Chris McKay's animated treat for viewers of almost every age. Still, scenes of danger and a bit of potty humor as well as a few joking turns of phrase designed for grownups suggest that small fry would best be left at home. The wide remaining audience will find the screen chockablock with good guys, black hats and monsters -- and the dialogue enlivened by sly wit.
 
The film contains perilous situations, including explosions, and a couple of instances each of vaguely crass language, scatological humor and mature wordplay. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
 
 

The Letters of Bishop Robert F. Joyce from the Second Vatican Council 1962-1965

“The Letters of Bishop Robert F. Joyce from the Second Vatican Council 1962 – 1965”.  By Father Lance W. Harlow, MA, MDiv.  Barre, VT:  L. Brown and Sons Printing, Inc.  2016.
 
For readers who are old enough to remember the time of the Second Vatican Council, this book will feel like a combination of both objective history and personal nostalgia; for those who did not live through that period, Father Harlow’s book will be an interesting and even astonishing look at a Church in transition, as they are made privy to discussions and debates concerning practices that 21st-Century Catholics now take for granted.
 
The vehicle for telling this compelling history is a particularly apt one for people living in the Diocese of Burlington. Bishop Robert F. Joyce – who was born in Proctor in 1896, educated at the University of Vermont, ordained at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Burlington in 1923, served as bishop of Burlington from 1957 until his retirement in 1971, and died peacefully at St. Joseph’s Home in Burlington in 1990 – was both a native son and an enthusiastic supporter of the Second Vatican Council.  For four years Bishop Joyce arranged his schedule so that he could be present at every session of the Council, and he was diligent about reporting back to his people, both in print, in person and on television, exactly what was happening at this historic event. His letters, which Father Harlow has reproduced here, were informative, pastoral and, at times, even humorous.  As primary documents, they give us an invaluable snapshot of this most historic period in Church history.
 
Father Harlow’s approach in this book demonstrates that his research was exceptionally thorough. In addition to Bishop Joyce’s letters, he also includes extensive information about what was going on in Rome at the time – issues under debate, who was participating, what was being said and how decisions were reached.  He also includes pertinent excerpts from the particular documents being discussed which are, of necessity, brief.  “It is my hope,” he notes in his introductory comments, “that the reader will continue to read the entire decrees and constitutions.”
 
Although all that transpired in Rome was of interest to Bishop Joyce, there were some issues that appear to have been especially near and dear to his heart, and these he communicated with particular enthusiasm.  The first, which was apparently on the minds of Catholic Vermonters as well, was the change in liturgical language from Latin to the vernacular.  “There was quite a response to my call for suggestions,” he stated at one point, referring to a diocesan consultation conducted prior to the opening of the Council in 1962.  “The greatest number of them…asked for a greater use of the vernacular, especially in the forepart of the Mass… [and] in the administration of the Sacraments.”
 
Also important to the bishop was the move toward ecumenism.  In an article he wrote for The Vermont Catholic Tribune in November 1963, he noted, “As the Council developed…ecumenism became more and more important as a chief aim, and insistent and universal has been the response to the subject throughout the world.”  He himself had close relationships with many Vermonters who were not of the Catholic faith and, in 1965, he was asked to fill in for an ailing Cardinal Cushing at the Grand Master’s Masonic Convention in Connecticut because “he had been hailed as one of the most imaginative and forward-looking leaders in the ecumenical movement.”
 
Father Harlow’s book is primarily an historical work and thus will probably be of greatest interest to historians and students of the Second Vatican Council.  However, that should not prevent the average reader from looking back at an event, the ramifications of which will be felt for centuries to come.  As Bishop Joyce himself said in a letter home in 1964, “Not only will the world be different as a result of the Council, but all of us who are part of it will be profoundly affected by it for the rest of our lives.”
 
The book sells for $20. Order it from Father Harlow at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call the cathedral office at 802-658-4333. 

Author bio

Father Lance W. Harlow is the rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph Co-Cathedral Parishes in Burlington. His other books include “True Devotion to Mary by Louis de Montfort” and “Vermont's First Catholic Bishop: The Life of Bishop Louis De Goesbriand, 1816-1899.” He has also written three children’s books: “Holy Goldfish!”, “Sofia's Tea Party” and “Sofia's Ballet Lesson.”
 

“Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick Us"

Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick Us.”  By Elizabeth Scalia. Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 2016. 160 pages. Paperback: $14.95.  Kindle: $8.65. Nook:  $10.49
 
Elizabeth Scalia’s new book, “Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick Us,” continues a theme she began in her previous work, “Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life.” As she did there, Scalia demonstrates a wonderful knack of helping us look at the everydayness of our lives in order to see, perhaps for the first time, what is really there.
 
One of the things that makes her voice so authentic in all her books -- and this one is certainly no exception -- is that her approach is intensely personal. She never preaches to her readers; rather she confesses to them, admitting her own shortcomings and then using these as lessons that we can all learn from. Most of us, for instance, can examine our consciences in light of the Ten Commandments and come out relatively unscathed. But gossip? Procrastination? Griping? Now, perhaps, we are on shakier ground, but it is precisely this sort of shake-up that can wake us out of our torpor, resulting in real change and, not coincidentally, more happiness in our lives.
 
So, what are these little sins?  Scalia outlines 13 of them – “twelve would have been more biblical,” she quips, “but I couldn’t stop myself” – that we recognize right off the bat: procrastination, excessive self-interest, self-neglect, indulging ourselves too much, gossip, judgment and suspicion, gloominess and griping, spite or passive aggression, out-grown attachments, laziness, cheating, sins of omission and excessive self-blame. Not surprisingly, all of these boil down to essentially one word – self – which is often the biggest obstacle between us and a truly whole and holy relationship with God.  (I am reminded of the prayer for good humor from the English martyr, St. Thomas More: “Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments, nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called ‘I.’” Pope Francis reportedly prays this every day.)
 
In addition to her own thoughts, experiences and observations, Scalia includes at the end of each chapter a section of short excerpts entitled “What does Catholicism say…?” in which she draws from the Catechism, Scripture and the writings of the saints and other holy people, nuggets of wisdom which summarize and further illustrate her point.  This is followed by suggestions on how to break away from the “little sin” and concludes with a prayer and an invitation to speak to God in our own words about what we have just read and reflected on.
 
Throughout the book, Scalia is urging us to move beyond being merely “a good person” because “if we are going to try to become truly good persons,” she says, “we need to identify and then detach from the faults and sins that we so readily give in to…” in order to become holy people. This demands of us a rigorous honesty that is not for the faint of heart. But no matter how painful it may seem at the outset –- Scalia herself admits to procrastinating on this book because she knew it would reveal her own bad habits and sins –- it is in the end, the only thing worth doing.  “God never sells us short,” she concludes. “He never takes the cheap and easy route, either, because cheap and easy usually means a crummy gift, and we are promised an extravagance of riches, if only we are faithful and paying attention.”
 
Author bio
 
A Benedictine Oblate, Elizabeth Scalia (no relation, by the way, to the late Supreme Court justice) was formerly the managing editor of the Catholic Channel at Patheos.com, where she blogs under the title “the Anchoress.” A regular columnist at First Things and a featured columnist at The Catholic Answer magazine, she was also a featured speaker in Rome in 2011, when the Vatican hosted a meeting with some 150 Catholic bloggers from around the world.
 
In 2015, she was named editor-in-chief of the US/English publication of Aleteia, an international online publication dedicated to the New Evangelization.
 
She has also been a contributor to The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian (UK), National Review Online, Notre Dame’s Church Life: A Journal for the New Evangelization and Cultures and Faith, the Journal of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
 
In addition to “Little Sins Mean a Lot,” Scalia is the award-winning author of “Strange Gods” and “Caring for the Dying with the Help of your Catholic Faith.”
 
She and her husband live in Montauk, N.Y., and have three children.

'Act Justly, Love Tenderly: Lifelong Lessons in Conscience and Calling'

“Act Justly, Love Tenderly:  Lifelong Lessons in Conscience and Calling." By John Neafsey. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2016. 160 pages. Paperback: $22; Kindle: $9.99; Nook: $10.49.

Like the prophets themselves, John Neafsey’s latest book, “Act Justly, Love Tenderly," is both uncomfortable and comforting. The uncomfortable part asks us to reflect seriously on who we are and what that means for our vocation as Christians; the comforting part is the assurance that we are never expected to pursue that vocation alone. As Neafsey says in the last line of the book, “We can concentrate…on putting one foot in front of the other, and remember that God is walking with us every step of the way.”

The author has chosen for reflection a passage from the Old Testament prophet, Micah. Though the epigraph at the beginning of the book quotes Micah 6: 6-8, verse 8 is the actual focus of what follows: “This is what Yahweh asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God.” As simple as this passage sounds, the author goes on to state that appearances can be deceiving.  “According to Rabbi David Wolpe,” he notes, “Micah’s ‘only this’ may be the most understated ‘only’ on record.”

The book, in fact, begins with an examination of precisely what “only this” may mean for serious Christians. To do this, he refers to the experiences of two people (among others) who took up Micah’s challenge in very concrete ways. The first is Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th Century, who lost most of his family during the Holocaust; the second is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who, not surprisingly, was a good friend of Heschel’s. Each of these men, in extraordinary and heroic ways lived out the “only this” of Micah’s exhortation.

The author is quick to point out, however, that not everyone is called to large deeds; most of us, in fact, will be asked to be just, loving and humble in relatively small ways. What those ways may be vary from individual to individual because, as Neafsey points out, “Callings come to people as they are, wherever they are, in whatever circumstances they find themselves.” Indeed, he says that the first step to living out Micah’s words is to actively seek personal authenticity, the “who” we are and have been, in the words of the prophet, from our “mother’s womb."

"The link with vocation,” he says, “is that we are called, first of all, to be ourselves.”

The balance of the book explores in more detail the “triple summons” to justice, love and humility.  Part two delves into precisely what the prophets meant when they talked about justice. “We love justice not by devoting ourselves to an abstract principle or idea of justice,” the author says, “but by acting justly – by doing justice.”   

In part three, Neafsey talks about the true nature of love:  “…love is not only a feeling. It is also a choice we make or action we take, regardless of the feeling of the moment.” By way of illustration, he speaks of two life circumstances that are very familiar to us – parenthood and the care of our elders. Here, Neafsey turns to his own personal and powerful experiences, told in a way that will resonate strongly with most readers.

He closes the book with a superb explanation of humility and, given the values often espoused by our culture, it may be the most important part of the whole piece. He provides a sound explanation of just what it means to be genuinely humble, pointing out that this virtue is the linchpin that both love and justice hang on. “All of us…are called to become ever more humble, decent and loving persons,” he concludes, “while we have the chance.”

Author bio

John Neafsey is both an author and a licensed clinical psychologist. He has served as a senior lecturer in the department of theology at Loyola University in Chicago and is a member of the staff at the Heartland Alliance Kovler Center, a treatment program for survivors of torture, also in Chicago.

Prior to becoming a staff psychologist at Kovler, he worked for many years as a volunteer therapist there and was also involved with its graduate training program. Currently, he conducts intake evaluations with new clients and supervises clinical psychology trainees who work with torture survivors. He also maintains a private practice in Chicago.

Neafsey earned his master’s degree in pastoral studies from Loyola and his doctorate in clinical psychology form Rutger’s University. A member of the Collegeville Institute Seminary on Vocation across the Lifespan, he is the author of two other books, “A Sacred Voice is Calling: Personal Vocation and Social Conscience” and “Crucified People: The Suffering of the Tortured in Today’s World.” Both books were recipients of Catholic Press Association Book Awards.  
 
Neafsey lives in Chicago with his wife and two children and is a member of St. Gertrude Parish there.

“Live Like Francis: Reflections on Franciscan Life in the World.”

“Live Like Francis: Reflections on Franciscan Life in the World.” By Leonard Foley, OFM and Jovian Weigel, OFM. Edited by Diane Houdek, SFO. Ohio: Franciscan Media, 2016. 188 pages. Kindle: $9.99; Nook: $8.49; Paperback: $15.06.
 
Since the election of Pope Francis in 2013, many people, both Catholic and otherwise, have taken a closer look at the little Saint of Assisi who was the inspiration for the pontiff’s choice of name. Although St. Francis himself has always enjoyed a certain popularity – note the many statues of him for sale at garden centers, for instance – it is this pope’s lifestyle which has drawn more thoughtful attention to who his namesake really was.
 
That is why this book, “Live Like Francis,” will probably speak to great numbers of people. This present version (there were earlier ones, but this “iteration…opens this vision to people both in and beyond the Secular Franciscan community”) is more than a mere introduction to the life and spirituality of the saint; it is an invitation to journey with him, reflecting on his ideals and learning how to incorporate his vision into a world much in need of what he has to teach. As such, it is not a book meant to be consumed in one or two sittings; rather, it is a year-long pilgrimage that the reader is invited to make into the heart of God by way of the heart of Francis.
 
Indeed, the book is structured to allow the reader to do precisely that.  Divided into 52 reflections, one for each week of the year, we are invited to contemplate the Franciscan way of life through Scripture, writings by and about Francis, how these can apply to daily life and finally, a prayer to better understand and put into practice what we have just read. Sometimes the reflections seem deceptively simple but, as the authors, Father Leonard Foley, OFM and Father Jovian Weigel, OFM, assure us even before we begin, “You will find that you progress a great deal, even though the growth may seem almost imperceptible at the time.”
 
“The foundation of the Franciscan way of life is Jesus Christ and no other.”  This is what Francis discovered in the church of San Damiano centuries ago, and it is what the reader is invited to rediscover here and now. As the authors note, “To be Franciscan, then, is to attempt to be Christian, a disciple.”  This, of course, is not an easy path to follow, which is why Fathers Foley and Weigel bring us along one step, one reflection at a time. 
 
Almost without noticing, by mid-year, readers discover that they have entered deep waters, indeed, but by then, they are hooked. Like Francis, they discover that there really is no going back, just a greater and greater going forward. And that means taking what has been learned so far and bringing it into the world. “If we choose to follow Jesus and to lead others to His truth, we become modern-day apostles,” the authors note. “As part of our commitment to live like Francis, we are called to go out of ourselves to bring Jesus’s gifts of faith, hope and love to life in tangible, practical ways.”
 
Ultimately, of course, this is the point. As the subtitle of the book reminds us, these are reflections on “Franciscan Life in the World,” which is why the reflections in Parts Four and Five move us out of ourselves and into the mainstream of life. By the end, we have been brought on a pilgrimage that starts within but that must, to be genuine, have an impact on what is outside of ourselves. “Reach out beyond yourself as Francis did,” the authors conclude. “Reach out as Jesus did….Make your daily decisions on the basis of what Jesus said and did. Believe that the Spirit continually calls us together to form the Body of Jesus today.”
 
Author bio
 
Sadly, the two authors of this book have passed away, but not before they each added significantly to both Catholic and Franciscan spirituality.
 
Father Leonard Foley, OFM, was a long-time editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine and a founding editor of Homily Helps and Weekday Homily helps. A Franciscan friar for 62 years and a priest for 54, he was well known in his later years as a popular retreat master and a speaker for adult education programs. Although he wrote upwards of 15 books for St. Anthony Messenger Press, his best-selling work was “Believing in Jesus: A Popular Overview of the Catholic Faith.” Father Foley died on Easter Sunday morning in 1994.
 
Father Jovian Wiegel, OFM, was active with the secular Franciscans at the local, regional and national levels for more than 30 years. He professed his solemn vows as a Franciscan in 1943 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1948; he began his Third Order/ Secular Franciscan Order ministry in 1950 as a spiritual assistant.  He died peacefully in 2008.
 
Diane Houdek, SFO, who edited “Live Like Francis: Reflections on Franciscan Life in the World,” is the digital media editor for Franciscan Media and has written extensively for them.
 
 

One Ordinary Sunday: A Meditation on the Mystery of the Mass

“One Ordinary Sunday:  A Meditation on the Mystery of the Mass.”  By Paula Huston.  Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2016.  256 pages.  Paperback:  $11.84.  Kindle:  $9.99.  Nook: $10.99.
 
In Paula Huston’s latest book, "One Ordinary Sunday," it is obvious from the first page that what she is presenting to the reader is anything but ordinary.  Subtitled “A Meditation on the Mystery of the Mass,” this book is both catechesis and prayer, with a good dose of spiritual journey woven throughout. It is like a deep conversation over coffee with a good friend, talking about the things that matter most.
 
Huston is a convert to Catholicism and so came to the Mass somewhat late in life, which is one of the features I found most appealing about this book. Because she is looking at every part of the Mass with “fresh eyes,” even lifelong Catholics can discover new insights into a very familiar form of worship.  By spending significant time reflecting on each prayer and reading and gesture, she emphasizes that everything that takes place is there for an important reason; nothing is accidental.
 
The framework for the book is indeed, one Sunday – specifically the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (from the readings – which she includes in the text – it is Cycle A in the Lectionary.)  As a lector in my own parish, I particularly appreciated the lengthy explanation she gave regarding both the meaning of Scripture and its history.  She weaves in, for instance, a trip to Italy and how Michelangelo’s statue of David allowed her to explain this ancient king’s significance to a young exchange student who had grown up in what amounted to a spiritual vacuum – a vacuum, she points out, which is beginning to pervade all of Western society. In fact, she fills in quite a bit of both the theology and spiritual culture contained in what we know as the Liturgy of the Word.  For Catholics who feel that they are somewhat lacking when it comes to grounding in Scripture, her chapters on the four readings at Mass will be most welcome and informative.
 
Her teaching background remains evident in the rest of the book as well. Nothing is mentioned which is not explained fully. For instance, when talking about preparing the altar for the Consecration, she includes a short vocabulary “lesson” about everything the priest will use.  When talking about the offering of bread and wine, she explains how these elements “represent a cooperative effort between God and man” and why the Eucharistic prayer is formed the way it is. 
 
From beginning to end, her grasp of history is thorough and her grounding in theology is sound. In spite of that, however, she is not afraid to share with readers her own struggle to understand and live out the faith she so strongly professes.   There is always the sense that she could be the lady sitting next to you in the pew.
 
Which brings me to the final strength of this book; everything she says takes place in the context of a real Mass celebrated by real people. By the end, we feel as if we know her fellow parishioners almost as well as she does. Not only does she share their names with us, but their individual ministries, a bit of their personal history and why she feels so close to them. Consequently, when she reaches the epilogue, written a year after the rest of the book comes to an end, we can both feel at home with those who are still at St. Patrick’s and mourn those who have passed on.
 
“'One Ordinary Sunday' began as an attempt to explain the mysterious power of the Mass in my own life,” Huston says in the preface to this book. In doing this so splendidly, she has helped us reflect on its meaning and power in our own as well.
 
About the author
 
Like many converts to Catholicism, Paula Huston’s journey to the faith was long and not always straight.  “The first time I attended Mass I was nearly 40,” she admits in the preface to "One Ordinary Sunday." “And, like a lot of Sixties’ kids, for 20 years before that, I’d been away from church entirely.” But the “Hound of Heaven” she added, quoting from Francis Thompson’s famous poem of the same name, “was clearly after me.”
 
Huston eventually became, not only a Catholic, but a vowed oblate of the Camaldolese Benedictines.  The fiction writing she pursued as a National Endowment for the Arts fellow grew into spiritual non-fiction, and her first project was "Signatures of Grace," for which she was both contributor and co-editor.  She has also written "Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit," "A Season of Mystery: 10 Spiritual Practices for Embracing a Happier Second Half of Life," and "Forgiveness: Following Jesus into Radical Loving."
 
She and her husband, Mike, own a small, four-acre farm on the central coast of California.  She divides her time between that, her four young grandchildren, mentoring MFA students in creative non-fiction at Seattle Pacific University and the Camaldolese.
 
 
 
 

Spiritually Able: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching the Faith to Children with Special Needs

One of the first impressions I took away from “Spiritually Able” is that it is a very hands-on, cut-to-the-chase book.  Authors David and Mercedes Rizzo, whose daughter, Danielle, is non-verbal and autistic, know that Catholic families like theirs are already very aware of what life with a special needs child is like.  That part doesn’t require an explanation.  What is needed, however, are practical, detailed suggestions for teaching the faith to these special children. This is precisely what the Rizzos set out to do in “Spiritually Able,” and they do it well.

That is not to say that they offer no narrative; both Rizzos speak very movingly about what their lives were like both before and after Danielle was born. (They have two older sons and one younger daughter.)  They are also very honest about their own struggle to come to terms with her disability: “Danielle’s autism has been our greatest challenge in life, but it has also been one of our greatest blessings,” they write.  “It has tested our faith and strengthened it, and it has taught us to trust God even when things turn our far different from what we expected.”  Indeed, readers who do not have a disabled child will still be inspired by the family’s commitment to Danielle, their faith and her religious education.

So following a brief introduction, the book moves quickly into nuts-and-bolts information, becoming a detailed, “how-to” resource for parents concerning the faith education of their special needs child.  While a great deal of that advice revolves around teaching and reinforcing concepts at home, the Rizzos are very clear that their suggestions are meant to complement, not replace, any parish religious education program.  They were lucky enough to have a special needs catechist in their own church who was able to work with Danielle, but for a while they also took advantage of a special program offered at a neighboring Catholic parish.  The rule of thumb, they advise, is for parents to seek out and use whatever resources are available to them in the parishes and places where they live.

“Spiritually Able” covers a wide range of religious topics and experiences, from familiarizing your child with the church building itself, to attendance at Mass, reception of the sacraments, inclusion in parish life, and Christian service.  Each chapter in the book focuses on one theme and follows a similar format: The Rizzos first share their story “to set the stage” and then move into two or three lessons which reinforce the concept or sacrament being taught.  Activities are adaptable and several suggestions are offered for how each can be utilized with children of varying abilities.  Finally, every chapter concludes with suggestions on how to move from the lesson to real life, plus a link to Scripture and a meditation geared toward parents.  To complement the book, the Rizzos have also helped develop special “Adaptive Kits,” which aid catechists and parents with both sacramental preparation and general faith formation.  These, like “Spiritually Able,” are available through Loyola Press.

One more important point should also be mentioned — even those without special needs children in their lives can benefit from reading this book because it helps promote an awareness of what these families encounter every day.  “Few people outside the community of children with special needs and their families understand how much of a challenge it can be,” the Rizzos conclude.  “We applaud the efforts of all parents of children with special needs as they struggle to live an authentic life that honors God and those in their care.”


About the Author:
For David and Mercedes Rizzo, the book, “Spiritually Able” and the “Adaptive Kits” that can be used in conjunction with it, are simultaneously a labor of and lesson in love.  Widely recognized in the world of Catholic bloggers as experts on the topic of working with special needs children and adults, their writing and advice have appeared on sites associated with their publisher, Loyola Press, as well as the popular parenting site www.catholicmom.com.

Although their daughter, Danielle, was certainly the inspiration for this book, they each come from a background which helped prepare them for working with individuals like her.  Mercedes, a certified teacher who has taught in both public and parochial schools, has provided support to children who have individualized education plans; David is a physical therapist who has worked extensively with both adults and children challenged by disabilities.  In addition, he has been a presenter at various religious education congresses as well as The National Catholic Partnership for Disabilities and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership Annual Conference.  

The Rizzos have been married for more than 20 years and have three children in addition to Danielle:  Brendan, Colin and Shannon.  They reside in Marlton, N.J., and are members of St. Isaac Jogues Parish there.

Book Review "River of Grace: Creative Passages Through Difficult Times" By Susan Bailey.

One of the first things that attracted me to this book was the fact that it involved both hard times and a kayak.  I have a friend who has known both; more than 20 years ago, her youngest son was permanently paralyzed as the result of a hockey accident.  In the intervening years, as he and every member of his family has had to come to grips with the enormity of what  happened and how radically it changed their lives, my friend discovered that some of her spiritual healing came in the form of a kayak.  Even now, she tells me, there is such peace that comes from sitting quietly on the river, letting God’s spirit wash over her.

Indeed, the subtitle of the first chapter of “River of Grace” could have been written by my friend.  It simply states, “What God Taught Me through My Kayak” and for author Susan Bailey, it was also this simple boat that signaled the beginning of a profound and unexpected journey into the heart of God. 

This book has many pluses to recommend it.  To begin with, it is a highly personal memoir, written in a tone which allows the reader to walk with the author as she essentially goes on a spiritual pilgrimage.  Like any such journey, this one will take her from a place of darkness, confusion and near despair, into the presence of light, peace and the authentic self God was calling her to be.  It also opens her to God’s presence in ways and places she never expected.  “I grew up thinking that grace came from a church building, granted by a priest during a formal gathering such as the Mass,” she says.  “It never occurred to me that it could come from elsewhere, especially something as mundane as a boat.”

Bailey deals with life events that most readers can relate to:  the death of both her parents, a near financial disaster for her and her husband, the loss – happily temporary – of an ability that she thought she would have forever and as such, took for granted, and a significant change in her husband’s spiritual life that reverberated through the whole family.  The fact that she presents her reactions to these things truthfully, without any pious sugar-coating, makes this a genuine and honest work.  Because of that, the insights and advice she shares about how to be open to God’s grace are genuine and honest as well.

In addition to the elements of memoir, the book can also serve as a kind of retreat.  Each chapter contains both questions for the reader to reflect on – through journaling, if he or she is comfortable with that – as well as what the author calls “Flow Lessons” – practices toward grace which are more tactile in nature.  The author also references her web site, www.beasone.org, for further resources, videos, and “flow lessons.”  Not every reader will necessarily be comfortable with or want to do every activity she suggests, but the book works whether all or some of the practices are followed – or if the reader chooses to read and reflect on Bailey’s words alone.

 The only criticism I have with this book – and it is a minor one compared to the positives of the whole – is that it sometimes seems repetitious.  I occasionally caught myself thinking that I had read nearly the same thought in a previous chapter; but perhaps that is to be expected, as these same lessons of grace go deeper and deeper as one progresses to the close of the book.  And in the end, that is what this journey has been about.  “That invitation to go deeper is the call of grace,” Bailey concludes.  “When we obey that call, we agree to let God be our guide.”

"River of Grace: Creative Passages Through Difficult Times"  By Susan Bailey,  Indiana:  Ave Maria Press, 2015.  193 pages.  Paperback: $14.12, Kindle and Nook: $10.49
 

About the Author

Susan Bailey wears many hats.  She is a marketing/advertising assistant for a local real estate firm in her area, but she is also very active in the Church as a writer, speaker and musician. 

In addition to having written several books,  Bailey hosts her own blogs, which can be found at louisamayalcottismypassion.com and beasone.org. She is also a frequent contributor to CatholicMom.com and the Association of Catholic Women Bloggers.   Her monthly column, “Be As One,” appears in the Catholic Free Press, the diocesan paper of the Diocese of Worcester, Mass.  Currently, she is an associate member of the Commission for Women of the Diocese of Worcester, for which she has previously served as both chairperson and secretary. 

A professional musician and graphic artist, Bailey released three CD’s and has performed on EWTN, CatholicTV and at World Youth Day in 2002.  She has served as a cantor at St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Westborough, Mass., for more than 15 years.

Bailey is a graduate of Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, with concentrations in U.S. history and music.  She and her husband, Rich, have two grown children and currently reside in North Grafton, Mass.
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