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Why Did the Amish Forgive So Quickly?


AMISH GRACE: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy
MY COUSIN THE SAINT: A Search for Faith, Family, and Miracles
SAINTS OF ASIA: 1500 to the Present
Death, Time and Eternity

AMISH GRACE: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher. Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons. 256 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by RACHELLE LINNER, a freelance writer who lives in Boston.

ON OCTOBER 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV “carried his guns and his rage” into the Amish schoolhouse near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, killing five girls and seriously wounding five others.

This act was inexplicable to those who knew Roberts as a loving father and husband, unaware that he harbored deep anger toward God because of the death of his firstborn daughter nine years earlier.

“I need to punish some Christian girls to get even with Him,” Roberts explained before he gunned down the students.

The media flocked to Lancaster County to report on the violence that had “struck a people and a place that many imagined was immune from such terror.” The widespread news coverage of the event led to an enormous outpouring of material and emotional support.

Very quickly, though, the focus of the stories from Nickel Mines shifted away from the killings and on to the swiftness with which the Amish “forgave the killer and offered grace to his family.”

Amish mourners at Charles Roberts’s burial, one family member reported, “embraced Amy [his widow] and the children. There were no grudges, no hard feelings, only forgiveness. It’s just hard to believe that they were able to do that.”

It is the task of this important and admirable book to explain the theological, historical and social reasons why they could forgive such a brutal crime.

The authors, respected academics who have written extensively on the Amish, bring scholarly precision and lucid writing to the task of explaining contemporary Amish life in the context of Anabaptist history.

“Although the Amish are far from static, their culture draws on values and practices set in motion hundreds of years ago, amid events in Europe’s tumultuous 16th century,” the authors explain. Anabaptists rejected infant baptism and a state-supported church; instead, they developed “an uncomplicated and often literal reading of the Bible” to sustain “a voluntary gathering of those committed to obeying Jesus’ teachings.”

Condemned by both religious and civic leaders, they suffered imprisonment and even martyrdom, stories that are still the basis of Amish preaching. The classic is the 1569 execution of Dirk Willems. Willems escaped from prison, and while being pursued by a guard and the town’s mayor, he safely ran across a frozen pond. The guard, right behind him, fell through the ice and, crying out, began to sink. “Willems stopped, turned around, and went back to save his pursuer’s life. Willems literally extended his hand to his enemy and carefully pulled him to safety.”

The theological roots of Amish forgiveness lie in their understanding of discipleship—the desire to emulate, not simply worship, Jesus. Quaker theologian Sandra Cronk uses the German word Gelassenheit—commonly translated as “yieldedness” or “submission”— to describe Amish spirituality. In Jesus, they see the “paradoxical pattern” of “God working in the world with the power of powerlessness.”

Submission to God’s will “expands into an ethic of yielding to one another, renouncing self-defense and giving up the desire for justification or efforts at revenge.” It leads to “the willingness to give up one’s self to the authority of the community and its God-ordained leaders.”

Though many New Testament passages address forgiveness, the Amish pay particular attention to the Sermon on the Mount and, most significantly, the Lord’s Prayer. “The Amish believe, if they don’t forgive, they won’t be forgiven. This forms the core of...their understanding of salvation: forgiveness from God hinges on a willingness to forgive others.” This is the “key to Amish spirituality” because of the communal nature of their life.

The authors continue, “The core value of Amish culture is community. On bended knees at baptism, Amish individuals agree to follow Christ, to place themselves under the authority of the church and to obey the...unwritten regulations of the church. Here the key words are self-denial, obedience, acceptance and humility—all of which require yielding to the collective wisdom of the community.”

One of the most interesting aspects of Amish Grace is its analysis of the news reports and editorial opinions about forgiveness after the murders at Nickel Mines. The authors are clear that this act of forgiveness was distinctly Amish, inseparable from their countercultural witness which, refined over the centuries, has formed a religion that inspires “goodness, forgiveness, and grace.” In a world where religion more often fosters retaliation and revenge, this is amazing grace indeed.

You can order AMISH GRACE: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy from St. Francis Bookshop.


MY COUSIN THE SAINT: A Search for Faith, Family, and Miracles, by Justin Catanoso. HarperCollins Publishers. 332 pp. $25.95.

Reviewed by BROTHER DOMINIC LOCOCO, O.F.M., a sales representative for St. Anthony Messenger and spiritual assistant to the Secular Franciscans’ Holy Trinity Region.

HAVING RECENTLY RETURNED from a jubilee trip to Italy with a group from Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Cincinnati, followed by a visit with my many cousins in Sicily, I was happy to be asked to review this book.

Justin Catanoso is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes about St. Gaetano Catanoso with a passion—and with good reason. Canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on October 23, 2005, Gaetano was a cousin of Justin’s grandfather Carmelo, who left Italy in 1903. Gaetano’s family stayed in Calabria.

St. Gaetano was born in the small hamlet of Chorio in 1887. Early on, he realized that farming was not his calling. Although only one in 10 families owned land in Southern Italy in the 1800s, the Catanoso family was a little better off than most.

Between 1880 and 1930, 4.5 million Italians entered the United States, 80 percent of them coming from Southern Italy and Sicily.

Gaetano’s father, Antonio, relished the thought of a priest under his own roof, especially his most gentle child. Gaetano began to grasp that God had a plan for him. So he and his father loaded the family donkey and walked miles to the seminary at Reggio Calabria, across from the Strait of Messina, Sicily.

In the summer months, the seminarian was allowed to preach to the people from the pulpit. The Lord, he believed, was stirring in him. As he would recall later, “It was a beautiful episode, a joyous anticipation of my priestly mission.” After ordination at the age of 23, he asked his family and friends, “Please pray to the heart of Jesus to make me a saint.”

His first assignment was in a tiny hamlet called Pentidattilo, whose villagers were beyond poor. They were illiterate, downtrodden and bankrupt of hope. At Mass only a few old ladies would attend. Padre Gaetano would walk the piazza and talk to the children, inviting them into church for instructions in the Faith. That was the start of a priestly career that would span six decades and lift the hopes and spirits of countless souls throughout rural Calabria.

The Mafia at that time was a strong force for evil in Sicily, Calabria and Southern Italy. Father Gaetano often clashed with them, mainly in his Sunday sermons. One incident shows his fearlessness: A young woman from a poor family had gotten pregnant by the son of a powerful Mafia chief and her parents wanted an immediate wedding.

After discerning the couple’s love for each other, Padre Gaetano officiated at their wedding, although he had been threatened at knifepoint by the father of the groom. Later, the father begged the priest’s forgiveness. Padre Gaetano responded, “Come, in a few months we will celebrate the birth of your grandchild.”

Padre Gaetano saw the need for teachers and social workers to help him in caring for the poor and neglected. But he got into trouble gathering women in the area, whom he called “The Sisters of St. Veronica,” or “The Veronican Sisters of the Holy Face.” He continued to support the sisters by putting donation boxes into parishes.

During World War II, the archbishop and a few of his priests were returning from a meeting when Allied planes flying overhead mistook them for Mussolini’s men and opened fire. The archbishop and several priests were killed. Padre Gaetano was called to notify the archbishop’s mother. He told her, “In Domino.” Clutching her hands to her heart, she understood at once, “God is passing through my life.”

As he aged, he suffered various illnesses such as blindness, arthritis, a painful hernia and diabetes. Before his death in 1963, however, he laughed more heartily and smiled more radiantly, reclaiming his youthful simplicity.

Justin Catanoso, who teaches writing at Wake Forest University, admits his knowledge of the Catholic faith was rudimentary, and he questioned most of its tenets. When he realized there was a saint in the family, his journalistic interest was aroused.

One chapter recounts the sickness of his brother Alan and how the family stormed heaven for his cure. The expected miracle did not occur, but Alan was at peace with his cross. He converted the family into seeing the real miracle of peace and resignation to the will of God.

What can we learn from Gaetano’s life? His complete trust in God’s providence, wholehearted dedication to his priestly calling and his humble example of loving service can draw all of us to emulate this gentle saint.

You can order MY COUSIN THE SAINT: A Search for Faith, Family, and Miracles from St. Francis Bookshop.


SAINTS OF ASIA: 1500 to the Present, by Vincent J. O’Malley, C.M. Our Sunday Visitor. 221 pp. $14.95.

Reviewed by PAT McCLOSKEY, O.F.M., editor of this publication. He has written three books on saints and edited the last three editions of Saint of the Day (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

CATHOLICISM IS STILL considered by many people as predominantly a European or North American religion, even though since approximately 1970 the majority of the world’s Catholics have lived south of the equator.

Armenia was the first entire country to embrace Christianity (third century). Christian merchants from Syria brought the Good News of Jesus to China two centuries later. Approximately three percent of Asia’s population is Catholic, but roughly one in 10 Catholics worldwide lives there.

The Asian countries with the largest Catholic populations in the millions are the Philippines (63), India (16), Vietnam (5) and South Korea (4).

Father O’Malley, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Emmitsburg, Maryland, describes writing about saints as his avocation. He has already written books about the saints of Africa and North America (Our Sunday Visitor). The present volume includes “modern-era saints and candidates for sainthood, who either were born in Asia or ministered extensively in Asia. Only people whom the Vatican has either canonized as saints or officially introduced into the process as Servants of God are included.” By my count, they number 443 persons. O’Malley also tells the story of two Marian shrines (La Vang in Vietnam and Vailankanni in India).

Most of the canonized saints in this book are martyrs. China’s 120 recognized martyrs range from age seven to 79, with 87 people born there and 33 foreigners. The 103 Korean martyrs (1838-67) number 94 Koreans (including 48 women) and nine French clergy. Last month Pope Benedict XVI canonized Sister Alphonsa Muttathupandathu (1910-1946), the first saint born in India. The 117 Vietnamese martyrs were Vietnamese (96), Spanish (11) and French (10).

Four people with a U.S. connection appear in these pages: Msgr. Aloysius Schwartz (d. 1992 in the Philippines), Marianne Cope, O.S.F. (d. 1918 at Molokai), Vincent Robert Capodanno, M.M. (d. 1967 in Vietnam) and Walter Ciszek, S.J. (d. 1984 in Pennsylvania). Father Ciszek wrote With God in Russia about his imprisonment there.

The people listed in this book are arranged according to the month when their feast is observed or the month when they died. The most recent entry is Sister Rani Maria Kunju Vattalil, F.C.C., who was martyred in Uttar Pradesh, India, in 1995.

This volume includes 38 photos or drawings of the people featured, 16 pages of endnotes, eight pages of bibliography, an index of people featured and a geographic list of these people.

One minor complaint—the year that each person died is not always given.

This volume was clearly a labor of love. It will enrich all who spend time with it.

You can order SAINTS OF ASIA: 1500 to the Present from St. Francis Bookshop.


THANK YOU FOR THANKSGIVING, by Dandi Daley Mackall, illustrated by John Walker. Concordia Publishing House. 32 pp. $12.99.

Reviewed by SUSAN HINES-BRIGGER, an assistant editor of this magazine, with some help from her nine-year-old daughter, Maddie, and six-year-old son, Alex.

IT’S NOT OFTEN that you find a Thanksgiving book that doesn’t in some way focus on or reference pilgrims and Native Americans. That’s why I was so excited to present my kids with Dandi Daley Mackall’s book Thank You for Thanksgiving.

The book focuses on the things that most American families associate with the holiday—food, family and giving thanks. Maddie read—and Alex reread—the book, each one bouncing over the words, thanks to the rhyming pattern that Mackall uses.

The story takes the reader through the events of Thanksgiving Day, from the arrival of family members—“Cousin Roger’s at the door, looking taller than before”—through dinner. Before they eat, though, they all take time to mention what they’re thankful for. The youngest family member listens as everyone takes a turn, but wonders “What’s my prayer supposed to be? What am I thankful for?” Finally, he decides, “Lord, can I give thanks for You? And thank You for Thanksgiving?”

John Walker’s illustrations for this book are out of this world. Some are so lifelike that all of us questioned whether they were drawings or if they included actual pictures. For instance, in the illustration where the family is gathered around the table, the pictures on the buffet behind the table look like actual family snapshots.

This is a wonderful book to have around for the holidays.

You can order THANK YOU FOR THANKSGIVING from St. Francis Bookshop.



Death, Time and Eternity

Scripture readings for the last Sundays of the Church year always remind us of “last things,” death and the end of the world.

TREASURING LIFE: Befriending Death, by Dorothy J. Monks, O.P. (St. Paul’s/Alba House, 123 pp., $7.95), contains the reflections of a pastoral counselor to people who are chronically or terminally ill and their caregivers. This Dominican sister encourages people to live each day to the fullest and to see suffering as redemptive. Death is a natural event along life’s journey, not something to be feared.

LIVING BEYOND THE “END OF THE WORLD”: A Spirituality of Hope, by Margaret Swedish (Orbis Books, 222 pp., $18), is a “lamentation,” albeit a bracing one. First, Swedish outlines the interrelated forces that are threatening the fabric of life as we know it: climate change, dwindling oil, collapsing economy and escalating global violence. But then she considers the spiritual resources that will nurture the human community and ensure a future for coming generations.

HEAVEN IN YOU & YOU IN HEAVEN: Unveiling Eternity on Earth, by Elizabeth M. Kelly (Word Among Us Press, 172 pp., $12.95), is an inspirational book that challenges us “to acquire heavenly vision”—here and now. Kelly culls from the Catholic tradition what we believe about heaven: a community of protection, intercession and unconditional love marked by joy, mercy and justice. When we practice these, heaven reaches down to meet us.

Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 8621 Winton Road, Cincinnati, OH 45231, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling, $2 more for each additional book. Ohio residents should also add 6.5 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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