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Puts a Face on the Poor


CREDIBLE SIGNS OF CHRIST ALIVE: Case Studies From the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, by John P. Hogan. Sheed & Ward. 130 pp. $16.95.

Reviewed by ROB MARCO, a freelance writer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has written for the National Catholic Young Adult Ministry Association and various Catholic Worker publications, and participated in CCHD’s “Brake the Cycle of Poverty” bike ride in summer 2003.

CATHOLIC CAMPAIGN for Human Development (CCHD) began with the idea that poverty should not be submissively accepted by the poor as their lot, but challenged and exposed as a manifestation of what Pope John Paul II calls “structures of sin” in our society. This is also the basis for this book by John P. Hogan, who has worked with the Peace Corps and Catholic Relief Services.

Too often the issue of poverty is dealt with in abstracts and statistics. In this book, the author uses a case study and reflection approach to examine the work of CCHD, the domestic anti-poverty and social-justice program sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Hogan puts a name and a face on the poor fighting for a voice.

What makes the book so effective is his “hands-off” approach. He lets the stories of what CCHD-funded groups are doing speak for themselves. The author’s approach appears in line with CCHD’s attitudes toward the poor—the attitude that the poor have their own voice, their own dignity and an ability to speak on behalf of themselves to achieve the type of systematic change necessary for justice in their lives.

“Don’t do for others what they can and should do for themselves,” CCHD and Hogan believe.

Hogan writes with a journalistic tone that reports the facts, and those facts speak for themselves about how poor and low-income groups are making a difference in their own lives and in the lives of their community.

The author uses a diverse mix of six case studies of CCHD-funded groups. He looks at the alliances between small chicken farmers and poor, immigrant poultry workers in eastern Maryland; the efforts of new immigrants in northern Virginia who are fighting for a living wage; the community organizing efforts of the Camden Churches Organize for People (CCOP) to resurrect their dying city in south Jersey; citizens in southeast Iowa fighting the economic pressure of large factory hog farmers; the work of poor and low-income people in Springfield, Massachusetts, to buy out and rehabilitate housing projects, creating their own micro-economic systems; and parishioners of Dolores Mission in Los Angeles standing up to gang violence in their neighborhood and creating an effective community-policing model.

It would be hard to criticize this book and the work of CCHD as mere liberal ideology. Hogan makes the point that social justice is the responsibility of all Catholic Christians—not just those involved in the peace and social-justice movement of the Church—and that such a calling is founded in the biblical roots of responsibility and justice for the poor and oppressed.

Each chapter concludes with a set of questions that can be used for discussion and reflection in a group setting and a proposed course of action for parishes to take related to the issue being discussed.

The book concludes with two appendices: Poverty USA: The State of Poverty in America and excerpts from Being Neighbor: The Catechism and Social Justice. Both may be used to facilitate additional discussion and reflection.

The stories of empowerment in Credible Signs of Christ Alive are as challenging as they are inspiring. In an attempt to document the work of the groups in each case study, Hogan goes straight to the source—the people themselves.

His willingness to get his hands dirty in claustrophobic chicken houses and gang-ridden neighborhoods in order to discover who “the poor” really are results in a challenging revelation that underscores all six case studies: These are real people making real changes in their communities and in their lives with the help of CCHD.

You can order CREDIBLE SIGNS OF CHRIST ALIVE: Case Studies From the Catholic Campaign for Human Development from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

AMERICAN CATHOLICS & CIVIC ENGAGEMENT: A Distinctive Voice (Volume 1), edited by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels. Sheed & Ward/Rowman & Littlefield. Vol. 1: 293 pp., $29.95.

AMERICAN CATHOLICS, AMERICAN CULTURE: Tradition & Resistance (Volume 2): American Catholics in the Public Square Series, edited by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels. Sheed & Ward/Rowman & Littlefield. Vol. 2: 203 pp., $22.95.

Reviewed by MARK M. WILKINS, a teacher at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio.

EARLIER THIS YEAR, the American bishops reenergized the debate on personal faith and public policy with their statements on whether they would (or would not) give Communion to a politician who took a public stand which contradicted essential Catholic teaching.

Sheed & Ward has launched a series that will consider the contributions of the major religious traditions to civic life in the United States. The series, “American Catholics in the Public Square,” was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, who was editor of Commonweal magazine from 1988 to 2002, is the project’s codirector.

First, the scope of the project and the sheer number of essays from very diverse perspectives make it difficult to write a brief summary that does justice to the project. Second, the different focal points of each volume also make it difficult to summarize concisely.

Both books share an introduction that lays out the historical background and current context for the discussion at hand. It explores the complexities of using the term Catholic to define a grouping of people.

The first part of Volume 1 explores the fundamental concepts that are the basis for the magisterium’s teaching on social issues and their connection to public life in America. Part Two examines the Roman Catholic presence through parishes, hospitals, schools and universities, as well as state Catholic conferences. Part Three includes the personal stories of 10 notable Catholics who describe how their faith shaped and is shaped by their work experience.

The last section of Volume 1 looks at two surveys commissioned by this project to examine, not so much who Catholics vote for, but how they think about voting itself.

The second volume begins with a review of the practical and philosophical differences between Catholicism and the prevailing culture on several ethical dilemmas.

Part Two extends this type of reflection to the interaction of the Catholic Church and the culture as a whole with a specific consideration of “Catholic” writers and members of the information media who create the culture in which we live.

The third part of this volume endeavors to define what anti-Catholicism is, where it is found, what it means for maintaining group identity and how it can be interpreted as an American or religious trend.

Too often we fail to look at the relationship between the individual and the broader community that creates the tension we call the social contract and prompts an individual to consider what values we hold in common.

How can we form policies and procedures if we can’t even agree on what the ultimate goal will be?

There also needs to be an examination of what individuals are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve a society and a culture which can be shared.

I also found the section on anti-Catholicism to be very thought-provoking. The section seems to have been the result of a one-day conference at Fordham in 2002 on whether anti-Catholic sentiment is the last acceptable prejudice in America. The four texts that are included here offer glimpses of the varying presuppositions of the presenters. As one author notes, the appraisal of both perceived and real anti-Catholic impulses is complicated since there is disagreement on what anti-Catholicism is.

Another helpful distinction is that a critique of the institution of the Roman Church is not always a sign of prejudice. Catholic leaders who respond to critiques of hierarchical authoritarianism, lack of accountability and other such concerns with cries of prejudice can cloud the discussion rather than clarify the issues.

These works are probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but they should be read by clergy, educators and administrators who try to instill the values and principles of their Catholic faith into the people they are leading. It also might appeal to those who want to go beyond simplistic appeals to Catholics as they enter the voting booth this election year.

You can order AMERICAN CATHOLICS & CIVIC ENGAGEMENT: A Distinctive Voice (Volume 1) and AMERICAN CATHOLICS, AMERICAN CULTURE: Tradition & Resistance (Volume 2): American Catholics in the Public Square Series from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

THE ANNUNCIATION OF FRANCESCA DUNN: A Novel, by Janis Hallowell. William Morrow. 310 pp. $23.95, U.S.; $36.95, Canada.

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

FRANCESCA DUNN ATTENDS a “special school” due to serious signs of depression that surfaced after the divorce of her parents. During the summer she turns 14, she and Sid, her classmate and best friend, begin working in a restaurant owned by Ronnie, a next-door neighbor and friend of Francesca’s mother. Ronnie provides free breakfasts for the homeless on weekends, and both girls become accustomed to serving these outcasts of society with their myriad idiosyncrasies.

Chester, a regular at Ronnie’s and a psychotic with a wildly overactive sense of smell, describes “seeing” Francesca hovering over a creek, “...swirled in ambrosial light. The water coursed around her feet, but her dress stayed dry. She held the baby close. The smell of roses, the velvety ache of them, lured me in. She smiled at me and said, ‘Yours will be a magnificent role in the coming of my son.’”

Chester feels called not only to protect this girl he calls The Virgin but also to share his vision with his compatriots. When next he sees Francesca at the restaurant, he drops to his knees to beg a blessing and a fellow diner declares that his painful heart condition has been cured by the touch of her braid. The next cure is of an ear infection touched by a medal she has held. The news of the “miracles” spreads and Ronnie’s sister, Rae, newly arrived from a stay at an ashram, quickly grasps the many opportunities offered by access to a miracle worker.

This novel is unusual in that it is narrated by the characters, three of whom speak in the first person: Chester, a schizophrenic but highly educated man; Sid, a troubled teen with a dysfunctional mother; Anne, Francesca’s mother and a highly esteemed paleobotanist. Francesca speaks in the third person. At first, this may prove a little disconcerting to the reader. But presenting their own point of view on the events paints a broader picture than straight description.

Francesca is particularly well drawn as she struggles with adolescence, parental aloofness, loss of her acuity at playing the cello, a false pregnancy and adoring followers, some of whom quickly change to hate-mongers.

The novel is not religious or, thankfully, sacrilegious. Ronnie and her sister recite Jewish prayers remembered from their childhood at a deathbed scene, but Francesca’s family are not followers of any faith and she, apparently, has not been exposed to any.

The concept that fully envelops her is that she is carrying a fetus which will be born with supernatural powers. A Jesuit priest, sent by the bishop to investigate the case, provides help in spiriting the girl away from the chaos. He is given little opportunity to speak of the Virgin Mary or theology in general, as Anne conceives a romantic interest in him!

Set in the Boulder, Colorado, area in which she lives, Janis Hallowell’s novel exhibits an excellent understanding of adolescent psychology, as well as the psychoses of streetpeople. Even the tendency of some scientists to become so wrapped up in their work that their families suffer becomes part of the plot. Particularly striking to this reader was consideration of the side effects of medication and therapy for psychiatric cases and the trade-offs they must make to return to “normal” living.

Hallowell’s debut novel with its unique characters and their adept presentation foreshadows a promising career. Frequent use of humor lightens her terse but readable prose. Anyone intrigued by the fine line between psychosis and religiosity will enjoy this novel.

You can order THE ANNUNCIATION OF FRANCESCA DUNN: A Novel from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

SEA OF GLORY: A Novel, by Ken Wales and David Poling. Broadman and Holman Publishers. 358 pp. $24.99.

Reviewed by JAMES VAN VURST, O.F.M., a Franciscan priest who is on the staff of www.AmericanCatholic.org. He vividly remembers the Dorchester incident.

THIS NOVEL IS based on a true story from the Second World War. In the early hours of February 3, 1943, the American troop ship Dorchester was torpedoed by a German submarine, U223, en route to a top-secret radar installation in Greenland. Onboard that fateful ship were four army chaplains, George Fox, Alex Goode, Clark Poling and John Washington, who could hardly have been more different from one another. Yet in the depths of their hearts these men were very much the same—dedicated and devoted to their call to serve God in whatever circumstances they found themselves.

In the end, as the ship sank, the chaplains gave up their life preservers to four soldiers. With arms joined and then raised in prayer, the four “went down with the ship” and, without a doubt, were received by the Lord. “Greater love than this no one has...” (see John 15:13).

The oldest among them was George Fox, a Methodist minister, very smart and with the distinction of being a World War I veteran. Rabbi Alex Goode was a poet and a scholar. Dutch Reformed minister Clark Poling was an avid baseball fan. Finally, John Washington, “a regular guy,” according to survivors, was a Catholic priest.

These four chaplains became good friends on the ship as they realized how important their role was in supporting, encouraging and giving example to the 902 crew members and passengers aboard the Dorchester. All knew they were in dangerous waters.

The novel, based on research and interviews with survivors of the torpedoed ship, develops the background, characters and circumstances that brought these four chaplains together on this ship as they sailed through the Wolfpack sub-infested North Atlantic. Because it is a novel, most of the detailed conversations are fiction, though it is evident that the research the authors did gives the words and interactions of these brave men a great degree of credibility.

Author Ken Wales has had an outstanding career with films such as The Tamarind Seed and TV series such as John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Christy to his credit. Coauthor David Poling, a cousin of Chaplain Clark Poling, is a columnist whose weekly features appear in over 600 newspapers.

Ken Wales’s film based on this novel will be released soon.

Perhaps the words of one eyewitness survivor catch the significance of the deaths of these chaplains best: “It was the finest thing I have ever seen or hope to see, this side of heaven.”

You can order SEA OF GLORY: A Novel from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

ROBERT BRESSON: A Spiritual Style in Film, by Joseph Cunneen. Continuum. 200 pp. $29.95.

Reviewed by SISTER ROSE PACATTE, F.S.P., the “Eye on Entertainment” columnist for St. Anthony Messenger and a teacher of media studies.

AUTHOR JOSEPH CUNNEEN is the respected film critic for such periodicals as Commonweal, The Nation and National Catholic Reporter. This book is a rewarding revelation that contributes to the history and study of Catholics in cinema.

Robert Bresson was a French film director who was born in 1901 and died in 1999. Though he began his career as an artist, he never exhibited or sold a piece. In his 40-year career as a filmmaker, he produced only 13 films, beginning in 1943 with Angels of Sin (Les Anges do peché) and ending in 1983 with Money (L’Argent). American audiences will perhaps recognize his most successful film, Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d’un curé de campagne), which was released in 1951.

Based on the 1937 classic French novel by Georges Bernanos (and still in print in English), Diary of a Country Priest is the story of the young curé of Ambricourt, who feels ineffective as a pastor and learns he is dying of cancer. The scenes in this black-and-white film are realistic and restrained, and come across as austere, almost bleak. We witness every glance and hear the sparse and essential dialogue between the characters.

This unadorned, intimate focus on detail is what Bresson’s admirers call the spiritual style of his films. Author Joseph Cunneen explains this means “going beyond this surface realism while observing the relation between persons and things as closely as possible.” Deep viewing and listening result in the audience experiencing a film that is filled with the hidden presence of God.

Cunneen’s book is informed and readable, and you can sense his passion for his subject. It’s contagious.

Cunneen outlines his premise for Bresson’s reflective and spiritual style of filmmaking in the first chapter of his book, and analyzes each of Bresson’s films according to style and purpose.

In the film Diary of a Country Priest, the young curé’s mentor tells him he has to choose a particular scene from the Gospels and make that his lifelong inspiration. The young priest realizes that the most meaningful scene for him has always been the agony in the garden. I was reminded of how Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ portrayed this scene with such dark artistry, making me wonder how that moment could be meaningful to this young and sickly curé in the throes of the dark night of the soul 2,000 years later.

The only shortcomings to the book are that it has no index, thus limiting its usefulness to film students and writers, and it is somewhat repetitious.

Although Bresson’s films were relentless agents of tragedy, he also believed that film is an art form that provides outward signs of inward grace.

Bresson made his films because he felt them. There seemed to have been little desire for commercial gain in his art. Thus, his style also made it difficult to find funding for his next project.

Joseph Cunneen has made a vital and valuable contribution to the dialogue between cinema and faith and the history of Catholicism and film. If you have the time to savor this book and Bresson’s films (especially Diary of a Country Priest), you will be richly rewarded. (Diary of a Country Priest is available for purchase on DVD and video at www.amazon.com or www. facets.org; some Blockbuster stores have it for rental.)

You can order ROBERT BRESSON: A Spiritual Style in Film from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

Book Briefs

Viktor Frankl wrote, “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.” These books involving physical, mental and emotional struggles personalize that message.

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE: My Climb Out of Darkness, by Karen Armstrong (Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 309 pp., $24) is a firsthand account of her struggle before she was diagnosed with epilepsy. Her powerful moments of transcendence came through her study of the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which led her from the convent to writing such acclaimed works as A History of God.

FATHER JOE: The Man Who Saved My Soul, by Tony Hendra (Random House, 273 pp., $24.95) is a touching memoir of his relationship with a well-grounded monk from the Isle of Wight who became his spiritual guide for over 40 years. (Hendra has since been accused of sexual abuse by his daughter.)

SURVIVING DEPRESSION: A Catholic Approach, by Kathryn Hermes, F.S.P. (Pauline Books, 145 pp., $11.95), is an account by a nun who has had to deal with a stroke, depression and epilepsy over 17 years. She writes of her own experiences with depression not to diagnose, but to look at this as a path to understanding Jesus’ vulnerability. The darkness may feel like an obstacle to God’s love, but Hermes writes that it can enable one to find God’s true presence through the pain.                                                   —Mark M. Wilkins

 


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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