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Book review: 'All In: Why Belonging to the Catholic Church Matters'

“All In: Why Belonging to the Catholic Church Matters.” By Pat Gohn. Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2017. 193 pages. Paperback: $13.06; Kindle: $12.41; Nook: $10.99.
 
In her new book, “All In: Why Belonging to the Catholic Church Matters,” author Pat Gohn presents many good arguments for remaining in or joining the Catholic Church, but one theme runs through and holds her entire narrative together: “Let me offer one truth that has proved stabilizing for me, an anchor amid storms and scandals,” she writes. “The Catholic Church is the bride of Christ. That means that Jesus, who is God, the second person of the Trinity, is the bridegroom.”  Furthermore, she states, “And what God had joined, we must not divide.”
 
For Gohn, the fact that Jesus has wedded Himself irrevocably and permanently to the Church gives meaning to everything else that comes after. At the beginning of the book, she acknowledges that in recent years the Church has experienced tremendous turmoil, serious enough to discourage and dishearten even the Church’s most loyal children; she illustrates the situation by describing the thoughts and feelings of a friend who was seriously thinking of leaving the Church because of it.  While not dismissing these concerns – “As a cradle Catholic in midlife, I’ve had my fair share of dealing with the flaws, shortcomings and outright poor conduct of Catholics and Church authorities I’ve known” – she acknowledges that what keeps her “all in” is not so much the imperfections of the institution, but the perfection of the bridegroom.
 
Jesus’ relationship with the Church, she points out, is mirrored by the vows couples make at their weddings – to be faithful “for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, in good times and bad” – vows which are meant to last a lifetime. What is remarkable, she continues, is that even when the Church – the bride – is unfaithful, Jesus never is and never will be.  He is, as it were, “all in” with us.
 
With Jesus unshakably in the center of the Church (and her relationship to it), Gohn goes on to discuss other realities that make up what it means to be Catholic. She discusses the incarnation and the resurrection, as well as the role of the sacraments and the importance of Mary.  She explains what it means to say that we are part of the Mystical Body of Christ and how we too must be reflections of the mercy of God.
 
Often she draws on her own experience of having – and surviving – cancer to illustrate the concepts of Divine Mercy and love. For instance, during one particularly grueling medical test, she described how her husband accompanied her to help her cope with the claustrophobia she felt during the procedure; however because the machine she was in enclosed most of her body, he could only hold on to her toes to let her know he was there.
 
 
 
It was only later that this simple gesture found an echo in the all-encompassing presence of Jesus. In the chapel she frequents for adoration, Gohn describes a crucifix, the feet of which are very much in her line of sight as she kneels. While praying there one day, she had a kind of epiphany:  “My knees hit the floor and I bend low, praying: My Lord and my God!” she says. Looking up, she saw the crucified feet of Jesus, and then, something else. “Not insignificantly, my Lord and my God has toes. As I gaze upon Jesus in the Eucharist, I find that this God, undeniably magnificent as the creator of the cosmos, is, in his humanity, very much loved by my down-to-earth sensibilities. We have a God with toes. Isn’t that amazing?”
 
For those who are already practicing Catholics, this is an affirming book. For others who may need a boost for their faith or who are not yet part of the Church but are considering becoming Catholic, Gohn’s book provides plenty of reasons to be “all in.”
 
Pat Gohn is no stranger to Catholic publishing. Besides her award-winning book, “Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious,” her work has appeared in Catholic Digest and Catechist magazines, as well as online at Patheos, Amazing Catechists and CatholicMom.com. She hosts a podcast, Among Women, and is currently the editor of Catechist magazine. She earned a master’s degree in theology and has various certificates in theology and spirituality. She currently lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Bob.
 
  • Published in Reviews

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).
 
  • Published in Reviews

“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.
  • Published in Reviews

St. Dominic of Silos

In 11th-Century Spain, if the king demanded something, he generally got it.  Not so in the case of one Benedictine monk, however. 
 
Saint Dominic of Silos stood his ground and, although he lost one monastery, he gained another,  greater one instead.
 
Born in about the year 1000 to a peasant family in Navarre, Spain, Dominic spent his early years as a shepherd, cultivating a love of solitude and prayer. In adulthood, he entered the Benedictine order, was ordained a priest and became abbot of the monastery at San Millan de la Cogolla.  When a dispute over monastery lands arose, the king of Navarre ordered the Benedictines to leave; when Dominic refused, he and two of his monks were forcibly removed and exiled.
 
They sought refuge in Castile; there they became part of the monastery of San Sebastian at Silos, which was in desperate need of reform. Under Dominic’s leadership, the house was reinvigorated both physically and spiritually and became one of the most famous monasteries in Spain.  It was reputed to be a place of healing, due primarily to the holiness associated with Dominic.
 
Dominic died in 1073 of natural causes.  His feast day is Dec. 20.
 
Sources for these articles include:
www.americancatholic.org
www.catholiconline.come
“Saint Dominic of Silos." CatholicSaints.Info. 14 June 2016.
 

St. Nicholas of Myra

One of the most popular secular figures associated with Christmas, Santa Claus, actually began as a very Christian saint – St. Nicholas.  Although we have few facts about this Fourth-Century bishop, the many stories which grew up about him, coupled with the widespread devotion people have expressed toward him in many times and cultures, give us a glimpse into the holiness of the man.  And the picture it paints is very appealing.
 
Nicholas was born into a wealthy family during the latter part of the Third Century on what is now the southern coast of Turkey; his parents, devout Christians, died in an epidemic when Nicholas was still a very young man. As a result, he suddenly found himself in possession of a fairly substantial fortune. However, rather than keep his money, he obeyed Jesus’ command to “sell all you have and give it to the poor” and distributed his earthly wealth among the poorest and neediest around him.
 
Nicholas was ordained a priest and was subsequently made bishop of Myra, a city in Lycia, which was a province of Asia Minor. Sources tell us that he was imprisoned during the Christian persecution, which took place under the Roman Emperor Diocletian but lived to see the legalization of the faith under Constantine. Likely present at the Council of Nicaea in 325, Nicholas died in the city of Myra on Dec. 6, 343.
 
Nicholas was known during his lifetime for his expansive generosity.  One of the most popular stories about him concerned a man who was too poor to provide dowries for his three daughters; at the time, a lack of dowry meant that a woman could not marry, and so it was likely that these girls would end up being sold, either into slavery or prostitution. When Nicholas heard of the situation, he is said to have gone to the house on three separate occasions, each time tossing a bag of gold through the window, thereby providing each daughter with the needed dowry.  According to legend, the gold landed in the stockings of the young women, which they had washed and hung over the fireplace to dry – thus beginning the tradition of hanging stockings at Christmas that persists to this day.
 
Miracles also were attributed to Nicholas after his death. One of the oldest stories tells of a young boy who was kidnapped from Myra by pirates who raided the city during the celebration of the saint’s feast day. A year later, as the child’s grieving mother prayed for his safe return, Nicholas is said to have appeared to the boy where he was being held as a slave, sweeping him up and returning him to his parents.
 
Another story has Nicholas restoring to life three children who were murdered by a wicked innkeeper.  Still another, which reportedly took place during the saint’s lifetime, says that while on a voyage to the Holy Land, the ship on which he was traveling was caught in a terrible storm. The terrified sailors were sure that the ship would be lost and that they would drown, but Nicholas calmly prayed for their safety. Within minutes, the waves were stilled and the storm abated, sparing everyone on board.
 
While many of these tales are unsubstantiated, their persistence over the centuries nevertheless point to a man who was both generous and holy, a model for those who would also live a compassionate life. There are many who claim him as their patron, among them children, sailors, brides and the country of Greece. 
 
His feast day, which falls near the beginning of Advent, is Dec. 6.
 
Sources for this article include:
www.americancatholic.org
www.catholiconline.come
Ott, Michael. "St. Nicholas of Myra." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.
“Saint Nicholas of Myra." CatholicSaints.Info. 11 June 2016.
 www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/who-is-st-nicholas/
 

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: Patron saint of widows and seafarers

If you ever had an opportunity to attend Catholic school in the United States, you have Elizabeth Ann Seton to thank for it. The first American-born saint, Mother Seton, as she became known, would end up traveling an often painful road, which led from a privileged upbringing in New York to her eventual vocation as a Sister of Charity in Baltimore, Md.
 
Born Elizabeth Ann Bayley in New York in 1774, she was raised as a staunch Episcopalian by her father, Dr. Richard Bayley. Although the family moved in the highest social circles, Bayley made sure that his daughter learned early the value of love and service to others.
 
At the age of 19, Elizabeth married a wealthy businessman, William Magee Seton, with whom she was deeply in love. Together they had five children, and she felt, at the time, as if she had everything she could want.
 
Ten years into their marriage, however, life began to take a different turn. Seton’s business failed, and he contracted tuberculosis. In an attempt to recover his health, the family moved to Italy, where he had business friends. The move, however, saved neither him nor his finances; he died in 1803, leaving his wife an impoverished widow with five children to raise on her own.
 
While in Italy, however, she came in close contact with Catholicism for the first time through the Filichi family, who took her and her children in. Through their influence, she became deeply devoted to both the Real Presence and the Blessed Mother.  When she converted to Catholicism in 1805, the news was not warmly received by many of her strict Episcopalian family and friends. 
 
Although she considered entering a convent in Canada, then-Archbishop John Carroll (whose cousin Charles had been a signer of the Declaration of Independence) convinced her instead to come to the Diocese of Baltimore. There, she founded a school in 1808 to help support herself and her children; though it was a secular institution, it was run along the lines of a religious community.  In fact, when news of her Catholicism spread, many of the girls enrolled there were withdrawn by their parents.
 
As other young women began to join Elizabeth, the archbishop asked her to establish a free Catholic girl’s school in Baltimore, and the parochial school system in America was inaugurated. In 1809, Elizabeth founded the Sisters of Charity to run the schools, and from that point on, she was known as Mother Seton. Archbishop Carroll officially approved the order in 1812.
 
Both her order and the parochial school system grew. Although she contracted tuberculosis, Mother Seton continued to work with both until her death in 1821.
 
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s feast day is Jan. 4; she is the patron saint of widows and seafarers (two of her sons went to sea), and against loss of parents.
 
Sources for this article include:
 
www.americancatholic.org
  
www.catholiconline.com
 
“Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton“. CatholicSaints.Info. 30 September 2016.
 
Schreck, Alan.  “Catholic Church History from A to Z”.  Ann Arbor, Michigan:  Servant Publications, 2002.
 
 

'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.
  • Published in Reviews

St. Clement I

St. Clement I
 
Pope St. Clement I occupied the Chair of Peter in the very early years of the Church. Known as one of the Church’s “Apostolic Fathers,” he provided a direct link between the apostles who knew Jesus and the later generations who succeeded them.
 
The most concrete information we have about him comes from a letter he wrote to the Church in Corinth around the year 96. In it he admonishes a group within the community who were actively trying to split away from the established clergy, to instead seek reconciliation. Like other Apostolic Fathers of the time, he stressed unity over division and understanding over conflict.
 
“Charity unites us to God…,” he wrote in his First Epistle to the Corinthians. “There is nothing mean in charity, nothing arrogant. Charity knows no schism, does not rebel, does all things in concord. In charity, all the elect of God have been made perfect.”
 
Clement I died in about the year 100, and his feast day is celebrated Nov. 23.
 
 
Sources for this article include:
 
www.americancatholic.org
 
www.catholiconline.com
 
Chapman, John. "Pope St. Clement I." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.
 
“Pope Saint Clement I“. CatholicSaints.Info. 5 May 2016. 
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