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Wide-ranging: Humorous to Poignant


BIG RUSS & ME: Father and Son—Lessons of Life
CHRIST'S PASSION: The Way of the Cross: A Guide to Understanding Your Path

THE BEST CATHOLIC WRITING 2004, edited by Brian Doyle. Loyola Press. 225 pp. $14.95.

Reviewed by THOMAS N. LORSUNG, retired director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service and a winner of the St. Francis de Sales Award from the Catholic Press Association.

I’VE GOT 10 DOG-EARED pages in my review copy of Brian Doyle’s The Best Catholic Writing 2004; they mark what I think is the best of this Best.

The range here is wide, from the humorous “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam” by a Jesuit who can’t shoot straight Latin-wise, to the powerful “Kaddish” tribute to victims of September 11 in New York City from Leapings: Revelations & Epiphanies, by Doyle himself. (That’s not Himself, namely Jim Doyle, his author-father and a friend of mine.)

Being an old-fashioned linear reader, I finished with the “Kaddish” on the last pages of the book, and I believe it might just stick with me as a poignant, powerful, personalized memorial to those lost innocents. It reminded me of the first time I went to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., and was gradually awed by the buildup of the list of names to monumental height.

As for the Jesuit, he is Father James Martin, writing in America, and quoting his mother: “‘All the Jesuit training,’ she’ll say sadly, ‘and you still don’t know any Latin.’” Of course he does know a few other languages, including Greek, but it’s good for his humilitas to lack Latin proficiency.

America made three of my top 10, including the insightful and funny “God in the Tangled Sheets,” by Valerie Schultz, and “Holy Water,” by Ann Wroe. For any married couple—and my wife and I just celebrated our 44th anniversary, having been wed in our youth—the Schultz article is worth the price of the book. She begins with the story of the canonization of a very devout, committed married couple who stopped having sex after they had their last child. But, Schultz writes, “the message to us married people is mixed. Because we are the ones who are supposed to be having sex!...I’m taking a Catholic stand here when I say that sex is good.” And she cites the Song of Songs to prove her point.

The rest of my top choices are: “Murder in Palermo,” by Lawrence Cunningham, from Commonweal, about the martyrdom of an anti-Mafia priest; “The Pond,” by Ben Birnbaum, in Image, a meditation for dog-walkers and nature-lovers; “The Leper: Robert’s Story,” by Gary Smith, S.J., in Radical Compassion: Finding Christ in the Heart of the Poor, a diary of the last days of an AIDS sufferer; “Harry Potter, Catholic Boy,” by John O’Callaghan, in Portland Magazine, a clever analysis of the popular series in Catholic terms; “Deliver Us From Evil,” by Ferdinand Oertel, in St. Anthony Messenger, telling of Hitler’s Germany from the perspective of a small-town youth; and “Not a Sparrow Falls,” by Paul Scanlon, O.P., in Treasures From the Poor in Spirit, about the death of a young woman in a forlorn part of Chiapas.

Lots of other subjects are covered in this book, particularly having to do with the clergy sex-abuse scandal and its aftereffects, and they’re worth reading too.

But I can’t help mentioning something that’s not in the book: representation from a broader swath of one of the most familiar and widely-circulated aspects of Catholic writing, diocesan newspapers and the work of Catholic News Service. O.K., I’m highly prejudiced about the latter, having spent 32 years at CNS, including 15 as director and editor-in-chief. I would urge the editor of the next volume to give these talented writers a more serious look. Good Catholic writing means more than essays, poetry and speeches. I’ve read it.

You can order THE BEST CATHOLIC WRITING 2004 from St. Francis Bookshop.


FAITH THAT DARES TO SPEAK, by Donald Cozzens. Liturgical Press. 144 pp. $19.95.

Reviewed by MARY JO DANGEL, assistant managing editor of this publication.

ASKING QUESTIONS and challenging the statements made by Church leaders “are signs of fidelity rather than sounds of discontent or disloyalty,” writes Father Donald Cozzens. He stresses that he isn’t trying to convince, complain or protest. Rather, he wants to share his “vision rooted in the gospel and the Second Vatican Council.” And he assumes that the reader shares his vision.

Although other priests may agree, not many have dared to speak as bluntly on the record as this author, who also wrote the award-winning Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church.

This book expands upon points I heard Father Cozzens make when he challenged large audiences of mostly laypeople to act like the educated adult members of the Church that they are. He writes that “we are witnessing in the institutional Church the unraveling of the last feudal system in the West” (emphasis his).

Yet those Church leaders who are in denial continue to expect educated laypeople to behave like obedient serfs, he says. “Wherever the Church continues to be understood as a society of unequals, there will be little concern for accountability and transparency and for the healthy expression of opinion and thought.”

He quotes the National Review Board Report issued February 27, 2004, which supports this statement: “The exercise of authority without accountability is not servant leadership; it is tyranny.”

Regarding Church leaders, Father Cozzens doesn’t mince words: “Their arrogance, coupled with their mistrust of and disregard for the voice of the faithful—revealed so painfully in their handling of the clergy sexual abuse scandals—has profoundly weakened their credibility and moral authority in the eyes of their fellow Christians and society at large.”

He says the clergy sex-abuse and financial scandals plaguing the U.S. Church have caused faithful Catholics to “remain discouraged and frustrated, searching for signs of real leadership and listening for words of integrity from their own lay leaders as well as their appointed pastors and bishops.”

Well-educated laypeople are listening for “invitations from their bishops that will allow them to speak candidly of their concerns,” he says.

Although overworked priests question whether their “bishops are really listening to them” regarding the shortage of priests, a positive side effect of the clergy sex-abuse scandal is that priests are “listening with a new openness to each other and to their parishioners,” he explains.

In his call for reform, Father Cozzens stresses the need to respect “the teaching office of the Church....But a healthy, vital Church insists on authority that is authoritative rather than authoritarian.”

He praises those “few men and women who have dared to speak and write from the wellsprings of their faith in God and their love of the Church.” But he acknowledges that many of them have undergone formal investigations by various Vatican congregations.

Regarding the June 2002 meeting of the U.S. bishops in Dallas, Father Cozzens says, “Never before in the history of the U.S. Church had the laity dared to speak so honestly and so forthrightly to their assembled episcopal pastors.” One speaker he quotes is Scott Appleby, who described the causes of the clergy sex-abuse scandal as “a betrayal of fidelity enabled by the arrogance that comes with unchecked power. I do not exaggerate by saying that the future of the Church in this country depends upon your sharing authority with the laity.”

Cozzens praises Catholic journals that “dared to speak the truth because their own integrity demanded it, their faith insisted upon it,” especially the National Catholic Reporter. This bold newspaper “suffered an avalanche of criticism in the early 1980s for breaking the clergy sexual-abuse crisis.”

He laments the negative attitude many Church leaders have shown Voice of the Faithful’s “educated, articulate lay leaders....An opportunity for solidarity and renewal was allowed to slip by.”

While reading this book, I was reminded of The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy finds the courage to speak up to the not-so-mighty Wizard. Like Dorothy, we need to find our courage. As Father Cozzens points out, we are dealing with a real situation and we can’t go back to the way things were: “The clergy sexual abuse scandal, perhaps more than any other impetus, even Vatican II, has liberated the U.S. Catholic faithful....The U.S. Church will never be the same.”

You can order FAITH THAT DARES TO SPEAK from St. Francis Bookshop.


DEFENDING BALTIMORE AGAINST ENEMY ATTACK: A Boyhood Year During World War II, by Charles Osgood. Hyperion. 139 pp. $19.95.

BIG RUSS & ME: Father and Son—Lessons of Life, by Tim Russert. Miramax Books. 336 pp. $22.95.

Reviewed by BARBARA SONNENBERG, a retired public librarian currently serving on the St. Anthony Messenger Press Advisory Board.

THESE TWO MEMOIRS of Catholic childhood will go far to counteract the depressing depictions we’ve learned to expect. Charles Osgood of CBS’s Sunday Morning and Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press recall happy, fulfilled childhoods with loving parents, moderate financial status and optimism galore where their Catholic faith and upbringing actually proved to be assets!

Osgood’s slight book covers only the year 1942, while Russert’s memoir covers the middle 1950s to the present. Their similarities in growing up include loving, devoted Catholic parents; education in crowded Catholic classrooms entailing discipline and memorization; long walks to school; serving as altar boys; newspaper delivery jobs; love of the local baseball teams (both perennial losers) and serious addictions to radio and television.

Charles Osgood, now of CBS News, grew up in Baltimore with Mary Ann, his younger sister. He says: “I have always been certain that there was a genuine sweetness to the days when I was nine years old and the country was united in winning the last good war, if there could have been such a thing.” He recounts creating a stink bomb to thwart a German attack, being caught up in radio serials and adventure movies, unplugging an organ to sabotage playing a difficult piece by Bach and explaining to Sister Serena that “It must’ve run out of organ stuff.”

When the patriotic siblings struggle to plant and maintain a garden, Mary Ann says: “Charlie, nothing delicious grows in a victory garden—just vegetables which people hate.”

Later, he is assigned the con side in a debate about Victory Gardens and argues: “They can give you poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac....Things can come and live there, bad things like lots of locusts...[and] there could be skunks and snakes and bears.” While he lost the debate, he certainly gained points for imagination!

Tim Russert was born in South Buffalo in 1950 and shared his parents with three sisters. His work is subtitled “Father and Son—Lessons of Life.” Tim’s father, Big Russ, left high school to enlist in the Air Force and, upon his return, joined his fellow veterans in creating a thriving middle-class society. To support his family, he worked for the Sanitation Department during the day and drove a newspaper delivery truck at night. Tim’s mother stayed at home. Social life centered around the American Legion Hall.

In the seventh grade at Buffalo’s St. Bonaventure School, Sister Lucille, R.S.M., named Tim editor of the school paper to “channel [his] excessive energy.” Not only did the plan work, it may well have been the beginning of his interest in politics and a news career.

Sister Lucille also played a key role in Tim’s attending Canisius High School, a Jesuit school with high academic standards and strict discipline. Here is Russert’s description of an encounter with the prefect of discipline: “On the third or fourth day of the school year I was hungry well before lunch, and between classes I stopped at my locker to get a sandwich. Hiding behind the open locker door, I had taken a bite or two of my peanut butter and jelly when Father Sturm materialized out of nowhere, grabbed me from behind, spun me around, and pushed me up against the wall. ‘What are you doing?’ he demanded. ‘Father, I’m hungry.’ ‘You can’t eat now. See me after school.’ ‘Father, I’m really sorry. I’m new here. Please, have mercy.’ A thin smile crossed his face. ‘Russert, mercy is for God. I deliver justice.’”

When in 1984 Tim was told by Steve Friedman, NBC’s Today Show executive producer, to “get the pope,” Big Russ suggested the initial letter contact be in Polish, stating, “When you talk to people, speak their language. It shows respect.” Cardinal John Krol, a personal friend of Pope John Paul II, delivered the letter.

A memorable edition of the Today Show was indeed televised from the Vatican during Easter Week, the crew and their spouses attending a private Mass afterward during which the pope greeted Tim and his wife, Maureen, and blessed their son in utero, saying: “When your baby is born, bring him back for another blessing.” How the Russerts managed to hold the pope to his promise is another great story.

To this day, Tim Russert calls his father every Monday morning to get his reaction to the Sunday show, and Big Russ applies the advice he gave before his son’s first appearance on Meet the Press in September 1990: “Just be yourself. Pretend you’re talking to me. Don’t get too fancy. Don’t talk that Washington talk. You’ve got to talk so people can understand you. Ask questions that my buddies at the post would want to know about.”

Both these memoirs are highly readable, filled with good-natured humor and Catholic values. Television viewers and radio listeners will enjoy learning more about these newscasters; contemporaries will enjoy recalling those idyllic days in America’s past. The vast influence Big Russ has exerted on his son should be both an inspiration and a challenge to any father.

You can order DEFENDING BALTIMORE AGAINST ENEMY ATTACK: A Boyhood Year During World War II and BIG RUSS & ME: Father and Son—Lessons of Life from St. Francis Bookshop.


CHRIST'S PASSION: The Way of the Cross: A Guide to Understanding Your Path, by Mary Beth Young. Artwork by Mark Barone. St. Luke’s Press. 100 pp. $14 (volume discounts).

Reviewed by BARBARA BECKWITH, book review editor of this publication.

THIS LOVELY BOOK, complete with 15 black and white etchings, aims to help us discover the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion in our own lives.

Mary Beth Young suggests one way of praying these Stations is to take on the role of one of the characters depicted. The people with whom we can best identify will vary throughout our lives: “At first you may not see that you can relate to Pilate, thinking that you have never had power to render judgment upon another. Or you may not be able to see yourself as helpful Veronica because you cannot admit your good qualities.”

She promises, “Using this book will help you follow your own Way of the Cross in a contemplative, prayerful manner.”

The book can be used privately or in parish services, during Lent and beyond. I know of one parish in Cincinnati that is using it already.

This is not a traditional Way of the Cross, with descriptions of what’s going on in each Station. Young presumes the reader knows that and wants to reflect deeper and connect the Stations with what he or she is doing, thinking and feeling. The book asks the reader to meditate on the artwork and consider the questions each station raises. Three reflection starters are provided for each station, with plenty of white space to write a reaction.

The Stations are so well drawn they compel a slow, thoughtful look. Mark Barone was named by Dialogue Magazine as one of the top 25 Most Influential Art People in the Midwest. Individuals or churches can purchase these etchings framed or unframed (see

The book aims at nothing less than transformation of the reader’s life.

You can order CHRIST'S PASSION: The Way of the Cross: A Guide to Understanding Your Path from St. Francis Bookshop.


Book Briefs

Watching Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, is one way to meditate on what Jesus suffered for us. These books present other ways to pray about Good Friday.

MEL GIBSON’S PASSION AND PHILOSOPHY: The Cross, the Questions, the Controversy, edited by Jorge J. E. Gracia (Open Court, 271 pp., $17.95), presents nuanced views of 20 different scholars on issues the movie raises. The ecumenical book’s Catholic voices include Ralph McInerny of the University of Notre Dame.

ON THE PASSION OF CHRIST: According to the Four Evangelists, by Thomas à Kempis, translated by Joseph N. Tylenda, S.J. (Ignatius Press, 164 pp., $12.95), presents the short meditations of this 15th-century German monk. In The Imitation of Christ (illustrated, Ignatius Press, $19.95), à Kempis’s most famous work, he had advised all to meditate on the life and passion of Christ to “be instructed in the spiritual life.”

ECHOES FROM CALVARY: Meditations on Franz Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ, edited by Richard Young (Rowman & Littlefield, 246 pp., $24.95, with two CDs). Young is a violinist with the Vermeer String Quartet, which performs Haydn’s 1787 composition. Comments on the music and 60 meditations on the phrases, which have been used in performances, come from such luminaries as Martin Luther King, Jr., Billy Graham, Andrew Greeley and John Shea.

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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