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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.
 
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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).
 
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“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.
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'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.
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“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.
 
 
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