A number of Harvest readers commented appreciatively on the book recommendations I offered in last year’s November edition. I decided to make it an annual tradition. You may be hunting for a last-minute gift for an avid reader. Or you may be on the lookout for titles to enrich your own spiritual life or theological understanding. Here are two books that I found engaging, insightful, often challenging.
Father Robert Barron’s Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (NY: Image Books, 2011), a partner in print to his film documentary series with the same title, is a wide-ranging adventure into what British theologian Rosemary Haughton called “The Catholic Thing.”
Father Barron begins with the miracle of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh who came among us in Bethlehem and dwells among us now in the life of the Church. The Church is the continuation of the Incarnation in history, and from that truth, Father Barron launches out on an amazing 2000-year journey that celebrates and ponders key elements of Catholic faith and experience: sacraments, worship and prayer, Mary, the apostles and other saints, grace, salvation history, heaven and hell. Father Barron, a theology professor at Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary and founder of the international media ministry “Word on Fire,” approaches his subject in a manner solidly doctrinal. Fascinated as he is by the “Catholic imagination,” though, he draws widely from his knowledge and appreciation of art, literature, architecture, and personal accounts, as well as Scripture, philosophy and history, as he brings to life the mysteries of the Catholic faith for a new generation.
Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith writes both profoundly and lyrically about God’s self revelation to humankind, the Beatitudes, the mystery of God, the Eucharist, the Communion of Saints. The book ends with a coda: “It’s all about God.” Father Barron writes “My fondest hope is that this modest book has, in a small way, spoken of God, or perhaps better, that it has shown how God uses Catholicism to utter his words” (278).
For me, Father Barron’s hope has been fulfilled. The book is a substantial and elegant work that makes a significant contribution to what Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have called the “New Evangelization.” The book evokes a sense of deep gratitude for the gift of faith in Christ, which is by its nature also faith in the Church, Christ’s Body. Father Barron is a new evangelizer par excellence.
John L. Allen, Jr., is a Vatican analyst for CNN and NPR, as well as Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter . Many consider him the best source of breaking news and analysis of things Catholic in the English-speaking world. Despite his connection with the National Catholic Reporter , I find him a singularly unbiased, balanced commentator.
Allen’s T he Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church (NY: Doubleday, 2009) treats the reader to a whirlwind tour of global developments of all kinds which the Church will have to respond to in the course of the current century.
Enjoy a few appetizers:
- Two-thirds of the Church’s membership now lives not in the Global North (Europe and North America) but in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The implications of this shift are enormous. One wonders if we are that far away from the election of a pope from Argentina, Ghana, Honduras or India?
- In reaction to rampant secularism and relativism, an “evangelical Catholicism” is growing, marked by a youth-led reaffirmation of classic, orthodox elements of distinctive Catholic identity in thought and practice, as well as a readiness to witness to Gospel truth before culture, society and politics.
- Since Vatican Council II called the worldwide Church’s attention to its relations with non-Christian religions, the primacy of interfaith relations has been with Judaism. This dialog is bearing much fruit. Now, an expanding and assertive Islam calls for the Church to come to terms with the third great monotheistic tradition.
- The Church has long been committed to debate on moral issues – war, abortion, and euthanasia are a few examples. Now, the Church must grapple with the fast-emerging world of cloning, genetic research, and other scientific developments. The moral principles, rooted in natural law and God’s revelation, are unchanging and in place. The challenge is for the moral assessment to keep up with the science.
- The Church is being “Pentecostalized” as the Christian “other” of which Catholics are accustomed to think in regard to ecumenical relations is less the orthodox or “mainline” (Episcopalians, Methodist or United Church of Christ) Protestants but Protestant Pentecostals, whose members have risen in a quarter century from 5% to 20% of global Christianity.
Allen’s approach in each chapter is first to examine the identified trend in the “What’s Happening?” section. Then the author speculates on what that trend may mean as time passes. Allen is careful to note that he is not giving predictions bur rather “possible lines of development.” He categorizes these as either near-certain, probable, possible, or long shots.
In an intriguing final chapter, Allen offers four “sociological notes” that suggest what Catholicism might look like later in this century: global, uncompromising, Pentecostal, and extroverted. There is insufficient space here to elaborate on these “notes.”
Allen writes toward the end of the book, “Readers who just can’t wait to arrive at the bottom line may want to reach the conclusion first, then work backward.” Don’t give into the temptation. This well-researched, engaging and provocative – yet balanced – book is worth a full read, beginning to end.
And as you read “The Future Church,” remember Jesus’ consoling promise: “I am with you always, yes, to the end of time (MT. 28:20).
Most Rev. Richard J. Malone
11th Bishop of Portland