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CAPTURES THE HEART OF ST. FRANCIS

Q U I C K S C A N

THE SONG OF FRANCIS AND THE ANIMALS
EVERY PILGRIM'S GUIDE TO ASSISI and Other Franciscan Places
THREE HEROES OF ASSISI IN WORLD WAR II: Bishop Giuseppe Nicolini, Colonel Valentin Müller, Don Aldo Brunacci
A THREAD OF GRACE
WITHOUT ROOTS: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam
FRANCISCAN MISSIONARIES


THE SONG OF FRANCIS AND THE ANIMALS, by Pat Mora. Illustrations by David Frampton. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. 32 pp. $16.

Reviewed by JACK WINTZ, O.F.M., senior editor of this publication and author of the children’s book St. Francis in San Francisco (Paulist Press).

ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI saw all creatures as brothers and sisters—as forming one family of creation. Award-winning children’s writer Pat Mora and woodcut illustrator David Frampton wondrously convey this Franciscan insight in their delightful book.

The Francis portrayed here is playful, childlike and humble, exhibiting a great respect for each precious creature. Kneeling upon the earth, Francis picks up a “weary worm creeping up a hot, rocky path.” He places it on shady grass and, like a child, lies on the earth to watch it slither “into the cool greenness.”

Nearly all the creatures featured in this story—birds, lambs, a worm, a cicada, animals around the manger scene in Greccio, the wolf of Gubbio, the falcon that served as an alarm clock awakening the saint for prayer—can be traced back to familiar stories of Francis found in the earliest biographies of him. Each of these freshly presented vignettes comes across with simple, authentic charm.

As the book’s title suggests, a musical bond prevails between the animals and Francis in this story: All creatures form one symphony of praise before God. The whole story echoes the spirit of St. Francis’ own “Canticle of the Creatures,” which becomes the focus of the book’s final pages.

You can order THE SONG OF FRANCIS AND THE ANIMALS from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

EVERY PILGRIM'S GUIDE TO ASSISI and Other Franciscan Places, by Judith Dean, with illustrations by Molly Dowell and Colin Dunn. Paraclete Press. 123 pp. $14.95.

THREE HEROES OF ASSISI IN WORLD WAR II: Bishop Giuseppe Nicolini, Colonel Valentin Müller, Don Aldo Brunacci, edited and written by Josef Raischl, S.F.O., and André Cirino, O.F.M. 148 pp. Editrice Minerva-Assisi. 14 Euros. (Available in the United States from Father André Cirino, O.F.M., 25 Laurel Avenue, Mt. Vernon, NY 10552-1018, for a check made out to Friars Minor of St. Francis, for $19.50, including postage.)

Reviewed by BARBARA BECKWITH, book review editor of this publication. She has been to Assisi three times, including a Franciscan Pilgrimage conducted by Father André Cirino.

THE HOMETOWN of Sts. Francis and Clare, Assisi holds a special place in the world’s heart. Its saints continue to inspire every generation. The late Pope John Paul II called leaders of the world’s religions together here twice (1986 and 2002) to pray for peace. Photographs of the damage to Assisi sustained during the 1997 earthquake, especially the Basilica of St. Francis with its precious frescoes, galvanized the world to help the victims and put right the physical damage.

Every Pilgrim’s Guide to Assisi is a simple guidebook, with lovely black-and-white drawings and helpful maps, geared to the pilgrim exploring the area’s spiritual legacy. Judith Dean, who lives in London, has led pilgrimages to Umbria and Assisi. Her frame of reference is English. The book was first published in 2002 by Canterbury Press Norwich of London.

The book combines practical information (like the location of toilets and the hours restaurants are usually open) with detailed advice on what to see in each church and at each site. She has a wonderful explanation of the message in every fresco and includes Francis’ prayers at appropriate points.

Besides Assisi, the book includes other places important in the lives of Francis and Clare, like La Verna and San Damiano, and suggests side excursions to Rome, Florence and Siena.

This is an excellent, lightweight guidebook, a supplement to colorful guides like Eyewitness Travel Guides (DK Publishing Inc., www.dk.com) and comprehensive tomes like the Blue Guide series (A.&C. Black/London and W.W. Norton/New York).

The other book, Three Heroes of Assisi in World War II, grew from interviews with Don Aldo Brunacci, who was Bishop Nicolini’s secretary during the war years. It focuses on telling two stories: First, the bishop enlisted the help of a German officer, Colonel Valentin Müller, to help preserve the city. The devout Catholic colonel was a medical doctor and got the city declared a hospital city, thereby saving it from the fate of the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino, which was destroyed by Allied bombs in minutes in 1944.

Second, Bishop Nicolini played a pivotal role in the effort to shelter more than 200 Jews during the Nazi occupation of Italy. This was an effort kept secret from Colonel Müller, but requested by the Vatican. This book corrects some of the misinformation in Alexander Ramati’s book The Assisi Underground, later made into a movie.

Brunacci’s documentation proves “only a Bishop—not the Padre Rufino of the romanticized book-turned-film...could hoodwink the Nazis and pull off such a complicated, covert operation. In the film, the Franciscan friars are given far more credit for the safety of the Jews in Assisi than they were in a position to provide. It’s a laughable fiction, really, since even St. Francis put himself under the local Bishop. Nothing of such magnitude could have occurred in Assisi without the Bishop spearheading it.”

Don Aldo was arrested in May 1944 for hiding a Jewish couple and taken to a concentration camp.

The book also includes a number of interviews Don Aldo has given through the years, such as his 2004 National Public Radio conversation with Bob Edwards, and different sidelights on the story, like details about Colonel Müller’s life after the war offered by his son. It even offers St. Anthony Messenger’s 1999 story about Don Aldo.

Such stories need to be gathered now because Don Aldo is the only survivor of the Three Heroes, and he’s 93.

These two books explore Assisi the pilgrim magnet and Assisi the living history.

You can order EVERY PILGRIM’S GUIDE TO ASSISI and Other Franciscan Places and THREE HEROES OF ASSISI IN WORLD WAR II: Bishop Giuseppe Nicolini, Colonel Valentin Müller, Don Aldo Brunacci from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

A THREAD OF GRACE: A Novel, by Mary Doria Russell. 430 pp. Random House, $25.95, hardcover; Ballantine Books, $14.95, paperback.

Reviewed by BARBARA SONNENBERG, a native Cincinnatian and a retired public librarian.

AFTER TWO highly acclaimed science fiction novels, Mary Russell has turned to historical fiction for her latest work. A book entitled Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism brought to her attention a very specific time and place where Jews fleeing the Nazis were given haven.

Being of Italian heritage, raised as a Roman Catholic and then converting to Judaism, she was intrigued with the fact that the highest Jewish survival rate in Nazi-occupied Europe was in Italy, despite a 20-month occupation after Italy signed a separate peace agreement with the Allies.

Utilizing five years of meticulous research—including even the type of airplane a leading character would have flown during the Abyssinian Campaign of 1935—the author has produced a spellbinding work that places the reader in the midst of the small joys and overwhelming horrors of living in a fictional village named Sant’Andrea, in Liguria, on the northwestern coast of Italy, during the years 1943 and 1944.

Leading characters include Albert and Claudette Blum, Belgian Jews, father and daughter, fleeing across the Alps from southern France; Renzo and Lidia Leoni, Italian Resistance members, aviator-hero son and mother; Iacopo Soncini, chief rabbi of Sant’Andrea; Don Osvaldo Tomitz, Italian parish priest; Suora Corniglia, Italian Catholic nun and school administrator; and Werner Schramm, former Nazi surgeon, current deserter.

Numerous other village residents—village leaders; two Nazi commandants, one with his wife, the other with his sister; and defeated Italian soldiers struggling to return to their homes—help flesh out a complete picture of the hellish conditions and strange relationships war creates.

Russell does not disguise the horror but leavens it with the earthy humor and resilience of the characters and their adeptness at securing necessities by ingenuity and resourcefulness.

While barely able to supply their own needs, and at the risk of their lives, Italian civilians provided food and shelter that saved 43,000 Jews from extermination by the Nazi war machine during the final phase of the war.

The novel gets its title from a Hebrew saying Rabbi Iacopo quotes to Suora Corniglia: “No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there’s always a thread of grace.”

Russell conducted interviews with rescuers, survivors and veterans both in the United States and in Italy to validate her plot and characters. When queried about the religious foundations of their faith and the effect of war, she stated: “Yes, each character is endowed with an ethical framework that’s challenged at every moment and, in my books, no good intention ever goes unpunished. Sometimes the character fails to live up to his faith’s ethics. Sometimes the character does everything right, only to be confronted with impossible choices. They all judge themselves, and hold themselves accountable.

“In Italy, you don’t hear the Nuremberg refrain, ‘I am not responsible.’ There’s an Italian saying that counters that: ‘If you can help, you must help.’ Italians did, and they paid the price.”

Well-researched, with vibrant characters, adept dialogue, irresistible humor and deep pathos, this book is highly recommended for mature readers. Those who enjoyed the realism and action in such titles as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The English Patient will be similarly drawn to this work, but there is much more soul-searching and moral struggle portrayed here: How does one reconcile the atrocity of war with a loving, caring God?

You can order A THREAD OF GRACE: A NOVEL from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

WITHOUT ROOTS: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, by Joseph Ratzinger and Marcello Pera. Foreword by George Weigel. Translated by Michael F. Moore. Basic Books. 159 pp. $22.

Reviewed by PAT McCLOSKEY, O.F.M., editor of this publication. In the late 1980s, he served as director of communications at the international headquarters of the Order of Friars Minor in Rome.

ON MAY 14, 2004, Marcello Pera, professor of philosophy of science at the University of Pisa and president of the Italian senate, gave a lecture at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University. By coincidence, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger addressed the Italian senate the following day. This volume includes those revised lectures, plus an undated letter from each author to the other.

In his Foreword, Weigel asks, “[I]s it possible to imagine anything properly called ‘civilization’ that lacks a sense of the sacred?” He declares that these lectures, delivered for European audiences, raise questions “of urgent importance on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.”

Pera feels that Christianity’s great contributions to Western civilization are not being taken seriously today. Challenging what he describes as political correctness or “newspeak,” Pera responds: “I deny that there are no valid reasons for comparing and judging institutions, principles and values. I deny that such a comparison cannot conclude that Western institutions are better than their Islamic counterparts.”

In his lecture, Cardinal Ratzinger presents Europe not as a continent defined solely in geographic terms but rather as a cultural and historical concept. He regards monasticism as being a bearer not only of cultural continuity “but above all of fundamental religious and moral values, the ultimate guidance of humankind.” The French Revolution caused the state “to be understood in purely secular terms, as grounded in rationalism and the will of the citizens.”

According to Ratzinger, the greatest tragedy encountered by Communist systems “was not economic. It was the starvation of souls and the destruction of the moral conscience.” Later he affirms, “To the other cultures of the world, there is something deeply alien about the absolute secularism that is developing in the West. They are convinced that a world without God has no future.”

Pera writes to Ratzinger: “Without a civil religion, a society cannot live.” The civil religion that Pera goes on to describe sounds to me like the deism that has, in fact, played a large part in creating the kind of cultural relativism that he rejects.

Ratzinger’s letter to Pera notes that relativism today tends toward dogmatism. His letter credits the United States for its important contribution to the freedom of Church and state.

On the day before he was elected pope and took the name Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger preached to the cardinals preparing for the conclave and rejected today’s “dictatorship of relativism.”

This volume includes 20 pages of Endnotes—mostly Pera’s—and an Index of names.

In general, I found Ratzinger’s historical arguments easier to follow and more convincing. Pera’s more philosophical approach does not build as strong a case as he intended, for me at least. In any case, this volume reminds readers that ideas matter and that every civilization is based on the ideas and fundamental values of some group of people.

You can order WITHOUT ROOTS: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

FRANCISCAN MISSIONARIES

Since St. Francis’ feast day is October 4 and World Mission Sunday is October 22, let’s focus on Franciscan missionaries.

‘PEACE AND GOOD’ IN AMERICA: A History of Holy Name Province Order of Friars Minor 1850s to the Present, by Joseph M. White (Franciscan Institute Publications, franinst.sbu.edu, 524 pp., $45). In 1901 Italian, German and English-speaking (mostly Irish) friars who cared for Catholic immigrants merged into this province. Nowadays, it is best known for St. Bonaventure University, the soup kitchen on 31st Street in Manhattan and Father Mychal Judge, the friar-chaplain who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. This comprehensive account includes 19 pages of historical photos.

COLONIAL ROSARY: Spanish and Indian Missions of California, by Alison Lake (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 247 pp., $39.95, cloth/$19.95, paper). This very readable book with black-and-white photos describes the California missions that Franciscans built along the coast from San Diego to Sonoma. Lake finds genuine concern for Native Americans as the main motivation.

CACIQUE: A Novel of Florida’s Heroic Mission History, by Bishop Robert J. Baker with Tony Sands (www.saintcatherineofsienapress.com, 281 pp., $14.99). This novel is based on the true story of the Potano chieftains and their relationship with the early Franciscan missionaries. Baker is now bishop of Charleston.


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. Ohio residents should also add 6.5 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.


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