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Religious Education Starts in Experience

WHAT MAKES US CATHOLIC: Eight Gifts for Life, by Thomas H. Groome. Harper San Francisco. 336 pp. $13.95.

CATHOLIC SPIRITUALITY, ITS HISTORY AND CHALLENGE, by the Rev. James J. Bacik. Paulist Press. 175 pp. $14.95.

Reviewed by MARK WILKINS, who is in his 28th year of teaching at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio.

THE ASSUMPTION made in many religious education programs is that there is a connection between Church doctrine and the lived experience of the faithful. What is often overlooked, however, is that many people find doctrine more intelligible when the starting point is personal experience rather than study of the formal declaration of the doctrine.

These two books seem to make similar assumptions—that people have encountered God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit in their lives and want to understand how these personal experiences relate to the traditional doctrinal formulations of the Roman Catholic Church.

Tom Groome is a professor of religious education at Boston College. He is a significant (and controversial) influence in the transformation of religious education from indoctrination and memorization to reflection and application.

This book is a bit of a departure for Groome from the previous scholarly works he has written for professionals in the classroom. In What Makes Us Catholic, Groome writes for everyone connected to the Roman Catholic Church by birth or background, for those who are doubters or doggedly determined and who struggle with all that being Catholic entails.

Groome promotes eight essential ingredients of Catholicism that can become spirituality for life, not just reasons for attending Mass. People should begin by reflecting on their lives from the perspective of faith, he says; then they should reverse that and reflect on faith from the perspective of their lives. This brings life to faith and faith to life.

Catholicism is distinguished by its spirituality, which is one that permeates the everyday in every way. Groome explores Catholic spirituality in the eight chapters of the book. Groome asks whether a life of faith is worth the risk.

These are not just dusty academic abstractions, however. Each chapter begins with a story to get the reader thinking and ends by suggesting practices that might help realize the proposed outlook. Practice is, after all, integral to a Catholic understanding of faith.

Father Jim Bacik, author and pastor of Corpus Christi University Parish in Toledo, Ohio, has written a book that considers how to integrate spirituality and theology in a balanced way that is effective in everyday life.

The first part of the book surveys the relationship between theology and spirituality. In 10 brief chapters Bacik notes how the two came to be separated over the centuries, and then explains the efforts after Vatican II to integrate them.

Bacik hearkens back to the work of Father Karl Rahner, S.J., who insisted that the theological task is to present the Christian faith as a comprehensive and integrated way of life. Catholicism is not simply a collection of abstract doctrines, strange rituals and demanding laws. It is not a philosophy of life but a commitment to a living person.

The core of the faith must be presented in such a way that it touches the heart as well as engages the mind. At its best, theology is nourished by prayer and leads to prayer, not just more intellectual abstraction.

Part Two of Bacik’s work contains short theological reflections on events and situations that exemplify the theories proposed in the opening chapters. There are seven chapters on prayer, five on Jesus Christ and five on the Church, with the other chapters on marriage, spirituality, forgiveness, ecumenism, public morality and the afterlife.

Each chapter stands on its own, yet they are wonderful examples of what the author is trying to do in Part One. They seem to have been created as essays, editorials or homilies that have been edited and updated for this book.

The books are a wonderful complement to each other. Bacik’s essays are concise and thoughtful examples of what Groome says that Catholicism is. They are good theology if you let them engage your heart as well as your head, as I did.

You can order WHAT MAKES US CATHOLIC: Eight Gifts for Life and CATHOLIC SPIRITUALITY, ITS HISTORY AND CHALLENGE from St. Francis Bookshop.


AND MORNING CAME: Scriptures of the Resurrection, by Megan McKenna. Sheed & Ward. 229 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by BARBARA BECKWITH, book review editor and managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger.

USING HER STRENGTH in Scripture analysis and application to modern life, Megan McKenna suggests ways for Christians to live Resurrection, to live as if they really believed this central tenet (and mystery) of their faith.

“This is a book about living, about dying, about rising, about beginnings and endings and how to live the resurrection now, practicing all the way home,” writes McKenna.

Amid lots of wonderful stories, she tells one about the great violinist Itzhak Perlman, whose braces attest to his childhood battle against polio. Once on a New York stage, in the middle of a performance, one of his four violin strings snapped. The orchestra stopped, the audience gasped, the conductor dropped his baton. But Perlman signaled him to go on, and he finished the entire piece, brilliantly transposing the music to accommodate the remaining three strings. Afterwards, he told the audience that this “has been my vocation, my lifelong mission—to make music out of what remains.”

“Making music out of what remains” is what we are all to do: “what remains of our lives, our loves and dreams, our hopes and fears, our sufferings and deaths, our struggles and our faithfulness, our communities and relationships. This music began with the Resurrection of Jesus and will continue now until the end of time.”

Resurrection, McKenna notes, means literally “to raise from the dead.” Related to rising or standing up, resurrection has three basic implications: to stand up for (as a character witness does in a courtroom); to stand behind, like a wall or protector; and to stand with, in solidarity or communion with others. God raises Jesus from the dead in all these senses of the term—and is ready to do the same for us.

McKenna does thorough exegesis of the Resurrection accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and considers how the Resurrection is treated in Acts. Then she relates the Resurrection to Baptism, analyzing our liturgical rites for Easter.

In the last chapter she suggests some actions that might show that the Resurrection has really taken root in our lives.

McKenna, the author of more than 15 books, was named an Ambassador of Peace by Pax Christi USA in 2001. The activities she recommends are wonderfully radical and lifestyle-changing.

Reading the inspirational And Morning Came would be a good way to celebrate the 50 days of Easter and beyond.

You can order AND MORNING CAME: Scriptures of the Resurrection from St. Francis Bookshop.


THE HABIT: A History of the Clothing of Catholic Nuns, by Elizabeth Kuhns. Doubleday. 212 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by CAROL ANN MORROW, assistant managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger and friend to many who have worn religious habits, past and present.

NO TRIVIAL FASHION review, this book gingerly traverses a minefield in Church history. The author describes herself as a convert. This confirms my suspicion that people who neither wore habits nor hung around with those who did are often more fascinated by, interested in and opinionated about sisterly dress than are many nuns themselves.

History is so much more than fact collection. This book—a mini-history of women religious through the medium of dress—packs in a lot of good context, perspective, comparison, anecdotes, interviews and illustration. All that benefits the reader, but it makes for an uneven read with many changes in tone as history, commentary and interpretation are interspersed.

For instance, the Introduction details the paradoxes presented by habits with a vocabulary of admirable balance. But, just a few paragraphs later, authorElizabeth Kuhns uses the charged verb abandon to describe the change in habit by many women religious in the 1960s and ’70s. In an early chapter called “Holiness,” she also asserts that religious dress has “divine origins.” Documentation seemed sketchy to this reader.

Chapter Four, “Conformity,” mentions men’s habits in passing, but not in detail. Since men often wore (and wear) their habits over—rather than instead of—store-bought clothing, even broaching the subject seems to cry out for comparison of origins, rules, patterns and practices of habit-wearing between men and women religious. That could be an interesting sequel!

The Protestant Reformation and, later, the French Revolution created an atmosphere in which women religious in habits were as likely to suffer humiliation as to receive respect. Chapters which detail this changing worldview moved me. Many foundresses, then and in the 19th century, tried to adopt less restrictive customs in dress, but Church lawmakers—and laypeople who judged cloister a higher good than charity—blocked the implementation of their vision.

I had not known that a distinctive habit was required for each of the many new foundations of sisters begun in the 19th century. The author provides fascinating explanations of the tweaks and pleats and infinite creative variety among the habits nuns wore into the ’60s and ’70s—a sampling of which are reproduced in 30 black-and-white (what else?) photos in an Appendix.

Uniform captions detailing information about the habits themselves—fabric, care, costs—would have added to the value of these photos, though they already rank as the best Appendix I’ve had the pleasure of perusing.

Cross-references from the text to the Appendix would be an improvement. The author may have made a reader-friendly choice to forgo footnotes, but the citations from the author’s interviews and research would have helped us to appreciate—and value—the level of documentation.

The Glossary of Church Terms, on the other hand, could be reduced considerably, since many of the listed terms (i.e., deacon, homily, tabernacle) are neither used in the text nor have any clear connection to the book’s subject.

The book’s conclusion seems quite abrupt: a comparison between priestly vestments and religious habits. That underscores the tension which makes this book both informative and incomplete. Habits are linked on many levels to the roles and contributions of men and women to Church life. Changing habits is one highly visible expression of a much larger change in the Church. That change is what made this book alternately interesting, aggravating, intense and intriguing.

You can order THE HABIT: A History of the Clothing of Catholic Nuns from St. Francis Bookshop.


GATHERING POWER: The Future of Progressive Politics in America, by Paul Osterman. Beacon Press. 220 pp. $28.50.

GOING PUBLIC, by Michael Gecan. Beacon Press. 191 pp. $25.

Reviewed by WILLIAM DROEL, author of Full-Time Christians: the Real Challenge From Vatican II (Twenty-Third Publications) and editor of INITIATIVES, a newsletter on faith and work.

ABOUT 3,500 parishes and congregations in this country pay dues to one or another of about 135 faith-based community organizations. Each organization—with a few exceptions—is affiliated with one of four national networks. The largest and oldest of these networks is the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), founded in 1940 by Chicagoan Saul Alinsky (1909-1972) to assist churches and other mediating institutions to deal with the forces of urban-industrial life and changing racial or ethnic patterns.

“The IAF has evolved in a variety of ways,” explains Paul Osterman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Yet the durability of Alinsky’s basic ideas about leadership training makes the IAF a nearly incomparable institution in North American politics and Church life, he says.

Osterman, drawing upon his participation with the IAF in Texas, details the process of starting and renewing a community organization. Along the way Osterman assesses the relationship between IAF and various types of churches. The IAF is evenly disposed to all denominations and religions.

Yet, for theological, organizational and demographic reasons, Osterman finds a particularly beneficial fit with Catholic parishes. Among several examples, Osterman tells how some Catholic parishes use the IAF base-community method to capitalize on the charismatic impulses among Mexican-Americans. His observations on parish life and Catholic theology are all the more fascinating considering that Osterman began his research “with virtually no appreciation of religion and found myself marveling at its impact.”

Michael Gecan has been an IAF organizer for about 30 years, mostly in New York with stints in Baltimore and Chicago. Through 12 short chapters he details how the IAF teaches leaders, for example, to run a meeting and raise money. In addition to such skills training, the IAF also gives citizens a broad public philosophy that supplies sustaining fiber for involvement in their churches, unions and civic groups.

In headings, stories and comments Gecan describes many of the IAF disciplines: the habit of reflection, the habit of meeting (without going to lots of meetings), the habit of withstanding tension, the habit of depolarizing tension at critical moments, and more.

In contrast to rambunctious or ephemeral protest groups, Gecan explains why and how the IAF builds strategic, long-term relationships with public officials and business leaders. The IAF treats officials very respectfully, never fawning over them but giving them credit when credit is due. In one of Gecan’s stories, former New York Mayor Ed Koch, despite his stubborn opposition to an IAF initiative, is given a high place of honor at a groundbreaking for an IAF affordable housing project because—in the end—Koch cooperated just enough.

There’s plenty in these two books for those who believe their faith can make a difference in a pluralistic world. The essential ingredient to the community organization-type of faith formation, these books make clear, is the experienced organizer who can stay above the fray.

The “relative scarcity” of such people, Osterman notes, is “the major constraint on the growth” of this model. Although the organizers are paid better than in years past, their salaries are quite meager. The whole Church would be well served by attracting more young adults to the vocation of community organizer and then doing what is necessary to retain those who show an aptitude for this difficult and often delicate work.

You can order Gathering Power: The Future of Progressive Politics in America and Going Public from St. Francis Bookshop.


Book Briefs

This year Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Na’Shoah), the anniversary of the 1943 Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, falls on April 18. It is an opportunity to mourn the 6,000,000 Jews and others who died at the hands of the Nazis, and to speak out on behalf of all victims of bigotry, hatred and indifference.

AUSCHWITZ: Contemporary Jewish and Christian Encounters, by Dina Wardi (A Stimulus Book/Paulist Press, 159 pp., $14.95), comes from an Israeli Jewish psychologist who has worked with Holocaust survivors and their children. This moving book describes her experiences leading a multinational group of Catholic nuns and priests during a conference on anti-Semitism, persecutions and the Holocaust.

SEARCHNG FOR GOD IN GODFORSAKEN TIMES AND PLACES: Reflections on the Holocaust, Racism and Death, by Hubert G. Locke (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 109 pp., $18), has been praised as “public theology at its best.” Here, an African-American scholar from the University of Washington applies the lens of Scripture and the discipline of theology to the big questions of our times.

WITH BOUND HANDS: A Jesuit in Nazi Germany: The Life and Selected Prison Letters of Alfred Delp, by Mary Frances Coady (Loyola Press, 250 pp., $13.95), is the story of a German Jesuit priest who resisted the Nazis and was executed in 1945. The legacy he left in letters written from prison reveals his struggle to keep his faith.

Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 1618 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6493, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 7.0 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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