All posts by Nancy Piccione

Starting the Year Right with Faith {My January column @TheCatholicPost}

Following is my column that appears in this weekend’s print edition of The Catholic Post.

A few months ago, our family attended Mass for All Saints Day on November 1 at St. Philomena here in Peoria.  At the end of Mass Father Richardson explained the tradition of a “saint draw” offered after Mass.

Each person leaving church was encouraged to pick a strip of paper out of a basket, and that became is the “saint who picked you,” he explained.  The strip of paper would also have a quote from or about the saint, and an intention for which to pray. My “saint” was St. Luke the Evangelist, and I was encouraged to “pray for those questioning their faith in the Church.”

First of all, I love this new-to-me tradition, though I know there are similar ideas, such as the online new year tradition of using Jen Fulwiler’s “Saint Name Generator.” (And did you see Fulwiler has a new “Word of the Year Generator,” too?)

But what I’ve been especially pondering is the prayer intention assigned on my strip of paper—to “pray for those questioning their faith in the Church.”

I promise you it’s grace alone, and nothing I did, that I don’t fall into this category of “questioning my faith in the Church.”  I might have times when I experience spiritual dryness, or feel frustration at “the way things are” when they are not ideal. But especially the older I get, I am amazed and awed by the beauty and richness of our Catholic faith; the wide range of ways to practice and live out the Faith; the diversity of people in the Church; and the amazing things the saints and ordinary people have accomplished because of, not despite, their Catholic faith.

And yet we all know people who have fallen away from the faith, either through a bad experience; a drifting in those sensitive early adulthood years; or those who can’t reconcile faith with their experience in the world.

How to bring them back? Most people would agree that prayer and our best example of a life of faith are powerful elements.  And for anyone who is open to exploring Christianity and Catholicism, or for those who love them, two new books, and one reprint of a classic, provide solid arguments that a life of faith is good, true, and beautiful.

I had never read Frank Sheed before Theology for Beginners, his 1957 classic book compiling his diocesan columns on matters of faith.  Ignatius Press has a handsome new reprint.

When I first looked at the table of contents, this non-theologian became a little discouraged.  With section headings like “The Human Mind and the Doctrine of the Trinity” I thought it might be a dry, theological tome.  But right from the start, Sheed radiates the joy he has in explaining and exploring the truths of our faith. It’s not an “easy” read, but it’s not a boring or too-technical read.

In many ways, Sheed’s writings remind me of C.S. Lewis, especially Mere Christianity—a defense of faith in unbelieving times, and simple, well-written explanations. That makes sense, since Sheed, an Australian Catholic, lived and wrote in England at the same time as Lewis.  Sheed & his wife Maisie Ward were prominent 20th century Catholic apologists and publishers in England and the U.S.  And like Lewis, it’s worth the effort.

Theology for Beginners is divided into 20 sections, with a few chapters for each, ranging, but not limited to, the Trinity, creation, the fall, redemption, the Church, the sacraments, and the end of the world.

I read the book start to finish, but admittedly, in small doses—a chapter or two at a time. After all, I’m not the theologian in the family(!).  But like the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), one could read Theology for Beginners at whatever section or chapter is of interest, and still find it useful.

An even simpler and more “modern” explanation of the doctrines of our faith is Why We’re Catholic: Our Reasons for Faith, Hope, & Love by Trent Horn.

Horn summarizes good apologetics in the introduction, when he writes “I don’t look at people who’ve left the Catholic Church or who aren’t Catholic as potential “customers.” They’re just people. …. They may differ from me in lots of ways, but they almost certainly have one thing in common with me: they don’t want to be ignorant and they do want to be happy.”

Many people think of apologetics as arguing people into the faith, but it’s really about a conversation, and helping people (who are open) understand what we love and “get” from our faith.  That’s what Horn handles so beautifully in Why We’re Catholic.

One thing I love in Horn’s book is that each of the 25 chapters begins with “Why We… “ — “Why We Believe in Jesus,” “Why We Believe in the Bible,” “Why We Baptize Babies,” “Why We Hope for Heaven.”  And each chapters includes interesting short sidebars with history or personalities related to it, and ends with a short summary of the message of that chapter. The book finishes with three appendices-like chapters, “How to Become Catholic,” “How to Go to Confession,” and “Common Catholic Prayers.” It’s a good, solid overview, that, like “Theology for Beginners,” can be read cover-to-cover or just jumping around.

Finally, a more personal, but well-reasoned, defense of faith is Brandon Vogt’s Why I Am Catholic (And You Should Be Too).

Vogt, the content director for Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, is well-known and well-regarded online for a number of projects. Why I Am Catholic is divided into three sections making the case: “Catholicism is True,” a traditional apologetics section; Catholicism is Good,” the good works and civilization-building accomplished by the Church and her members; and “Catholicism is Beautiful,” the art and universality of and inspired by the Church.

My only criticism of the book is that is that the second two sections, “Good” and “Beautiful,” are thin compared to the “True” section. For instance, there is barely a mention of the Church’s vital influence in both education, charity (such as Catholic Charities or the St. Vincent de Paul Society), and health care ministries, works continued on for centuries by religious orders.

But the strength of the apologetics section alone makes Why I Am Catholic persuasive and interesting, especially when added to the strengths of the other books.

Any or all three of these books might be a great way to start off the year learning more about our faith, or sharing them with someone doubting or seeking faith.

Meet a Reader: Terry Mester {@TheCatholicPost}

Following is the “Meet a Reader” that appears in this month’s print edition of The Catholic Post.

How you know me:

I am married to Karl. We have three grown children plus two grandchildren aged two and four. We are Eucharistic Ministers at St Mary’s Church in Bloomington. Karl and I have been very active with Bloomington Normal Cursillo since 1984.

Why I love reading:

I grew up in a small burg of around 100 people with one church, one school and one small general store. I attended a two-room schoolhouse through sixth grade. My sixth grade class totaled one boy and three girls. After I discovered reading and books, my life changed by expanding greatly!

I often got in trouble at home because I was upstairs “hiding” with a book instead of doing my chores. Reading was not only a way to learn, but also an escape of my surroundings into many different worlds. Books were so important in my life that I worked 34 years as a school librarian so I could share the joy of reading with others.

What I’m reading now:

Karl and I recently took a class on Centering Prayer so just started reading Thomas Keating’s Open Mind, Open Heart. Our St. Mary’s Bible study group is currently doing Walking with Mary: A Biblical Journey from Nazareth to the Cross by Edward Sri. Over the last eight years, we have completed most of the studies by Jeff Cavins and other authors at Ascension Press.

I was a high school media specialist so I still have a love for young adult literature. Our daughter, who is a HS Media Specialist in North Carolina, highly recommended The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This book gave me a better lens to view our county’s current racial injustice.

My favorite book:


What!?!? This is akin to asking me who of my three children I love the most. Since I am constantly reading, this answer changes every few months. Being a convert to Catholicism, I learned so much about Mary from reading 33 Days to Morning Glory by Father Michael E. Gaitley. I love the spiritual author Anne Lamont’s work, especially Traveling Mercies. For over two years I’ve been promoting All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. His beautiful writing caused me to stop and reread several passages over and over.

Diversions with Catholic Themes Offer Recreation & Knowledge {My December column @TheCatholicPost }

Following is my column that appears in this weekend’s print edition of The Catholic Post.

When the “end of the world” was predicted for earlier this year by some Christian fundamentalists and others because of the solar eclipse and other “convergences,” our family had some interesting discussions about what makes that impulse very human and yet not praiseworthy.

We spoke of how Christians could try to avoid getting caught up in these apocalyptic pitfalls and maintain our sense of perspective. We can recall that we belong to Jesus, and so need not worry about “the end.” It’s also a healthy reminder to remember to stay close to Jesus and the Church always.

I love the story told of St. Charles Borromeo, the great who was playing cards with two priest friends. Someone near them asked what they would do if they knew the end of the world were to happen within an hour.

One priest said, “I would run to Church to be with our Lord.” The other priest said, “I would call upon the name of the Lord.” St. Charles Borromeo said, “I would finish this game of cards.”

I don’t consider this an indictment of either of the other priests or their answers. Perhaps they did need to spend more time with our Lord, or call on His name more. But St. Charles’ answer demonstrated his sense that, “anywhere you go, there you are.” That we can serve the Lord and be holy in the daily activities of our lives.

If one’s life is well-ordered, whatever we are doing at the moment can be for the glory of God, whether serving the poor, being at Mass, or, yes, playing cards.

In fact, leisure and “fun” pursuits can be a way to refresh our spirits and help us get a break from work, school, and endless “things to do.”

Several recent Catholic books offer that kind of refreshment, and would be great for fun Christmas gifts or activities during Christmas break.

For those with a kitchen inclination, there’s a great new book by Peoria native, Benedictine monk, writer, and baker Father Dominic Garramone. Father Dominic is a monk of St. Bede Abbey in Peru, Illinois. He is nationally known through his PBS baking programs and cookbooks.

But Fr. Garramone’s new Baking Secrets from the Bread Monk: Tips, Techniques, and Bread Lore is not a cookbook, though it does include recipes.

Rather, Baking Secrets from the Bread Monk offers short, cleverly titled—“He Scores” and “The Unkindest Cut” for example—chapters of information about the history, practice, and ideas for those who love baking, or eating, breads and other baked goods.

I’m an experienced baker (thought not fond of bread baking—sorry Fr. Dom!), but I found many good new techniques and ideas, to incorporate into my kitchen. Fr. Dominic’s enjoyable writing style makes it fun to read the history of many types of bread and practices.

Baking Secrets from the Bread Monk is sprinkled with charming illustrations and a healthy dose of fun, well-designed recipes, from sour cream donuts to soft pretzels.

My favorite part was Fr. Dominic’s “Secrets of My Bookshelf,” a sharing of his favorite cookbooks, books about food, and spiritual classics that have informed his baking and praying life. I’ve read or skimmed some of them, but added a few to my list to explore and learn from.

Matt Swaim’s newest venture, a two-volume set of Catholic Word Games, Puzzles, and Brain Teasers, is an engaging concept.

Several of us in our family really enjoy puzzles and word games. We tried out some of the puzzles in Volume 1, and we found them just the right amount of challenge and fun. It wasn’t so easy that we could finish the book quickly, nor were any of them so challenging as to be impossible.

The book includes many types of puzzles, from code scrambles, fallen phrases, missing letters, and quote tiles. There’s a helpful answer key at the back of each book.


Finally, A History of the Church in 100 Objects by Mike & Grace Aquilina is a clever book of history and culture of the Church, told through the “stuff” —material things—in our world that signify the Church or explain in some way. It’s inspired by the History of the World in 100 Objects project (a radio program series, museum exhibit, and book) in 2014 which took 100 items from the British Museum to tell the story of civilization.

Each of the “objects” in A History of the Church in 100 Objects is categorized in one of seven chronological groups; The Church of the Apostles and Martyrs; The Church and the Empire; The Dark Ages; The Middle Ages; Renaissance and Reformations; The Age of Revolutions; and The Global Village.

Objects range from architecture gems such as the Dome of St. Peter’s in Rome; to saint belongings (St. Francis’ tunic; Cardinal Newman’s desk; St. Therese’s curls); to non- religious items such as fetal models that helped explain the development of unborn children; and banknotes in Poland that commemorate Pope John Paul II.

At the end of each object’s description are one or two further resources—usually books— to learn more about the item, and the “stuff” of our faith.

Meet a Reader: Angela Barth {@TheCatholicPost}

Following is the “Meet a Reader” that appears in this month’s print edition of The Catholic Post.

How you know me:

I am wife to Jason, mother to Hannah, Madison, Nolan, and Micah, and am a member of St. Mark Parish in Peoria. I also teach special education at Limestone-Walters and occasionally help out doing wine tastings at the family business Pottstown Meat and Deli.

Why I love reading:

I love reading because it lets me live 100 different lives when I only have one! I can travel the world, experience different careers, and live in a different time period, while I am at home living my ordinary life.

What I’m reading now:

I usually read multiple books at a time, but the one that is most interesting to me right now is The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis by Ben Sasse. While not all about Catholicism, it is written by a religious U.S. Senator who decries our young adults lack of responsibility and maturity in society. It’s most interesting in stating the problem started long ago, when public education took over every aspect of learning, including morality. Gradually parents have lost control over transmitting faith in public arenas, and government has injected the curriculum with the vogue relativism prevalent today. This reduction of moral absolutes has led young adults to a life without purpose or absolutes that is filled with technology and consumerism.

My favorite book:

I can only short-list: I can’t pick one! The top two and for similar reasons are Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Both Scarlett O’Hara and Madame Bovary waste their lives chasing their ideas of what brings happiness. In pursuit of their obsessions, they resent and lose the people who truly do love them. And my close third choice is Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. It is a moving metaphor for the love God has for us in His Mercy and what happens to our souls when we reject it.

Big Ideas are Best in Small Doses {My November column @TheCatholicPost}

Following is my column that appears in this weekend’s print edition of The Catholic Post.

Let’s just be honest here.

I’m better at GK Chesterton in (very) small doses.

First, I love the great quotes characteristic of this prolific Catholic convert and early 20th century English writer:

“The reason angels can fly is because they take themselves lightly.”

“Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

“A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”

I also enjoy some of Chesterton’s fiction, setting aside his “metaphysical thriller” The Man Who Was Thursday. That was tough to get through, but I have read it twice. I just couldn’t love it.

As an aside, the recent BBC series (available on Netflix) based on the Father Brown stories is an extremely enjoyable show and in many ways captures the spirit, if not the letter, of Father Brown. The series is set in post-World War II, which makes it truly a loose adaptation, since Chesterton died in 1936.

But when I’ve tried to read one of Chesterton’s book-length non-fiction works, I get seriously bogged down in the sheer volume of thought. His writing meanders, and my mind wanders. I confess freely that I’ve never made it all the way through, with close attention, Orthodoxy, or indeed any book-length Chesterton work of non-fiction.

Surely I’m not the only one?

That’s why I love ABCs of the Christian Life: The Ultimate Anthology of the Prince of Paradox. It’s just as it sounds—short excerpts from G.K. Chesterton’s writings, each corresponding to a letter of the alphabet.

This well-planned book begins with a forward by the noted apologist and Boston College professor Peter Kreeft, who explains why Chesterton’s writing has stood the test of time, and what he has to say to us today.

Then, for each letter of the alphabet, there is a different topic, such as St. Francis for F; Insanity for I; Religions Compared for R; and Yes for Y. Each is a several-page, unabridged excerpt from one of Chesterton’s essays or books. It’s more meaty than a quote, yet not as overwhelming as a full-length book. Interested readers can see in the afterward where the excerpt first appeared, whether in his classic The Everlasting Man or one of his other books or writings.

Actually, this is actually the way Chesterton is meant to be read. He was chiefly an essayist and critic who published essays, reviews, and criticism in magazines throughout his career. That’s how he was known most during his lifetime, and it is in these shorter essays that he shines.

Reading ABCs of the Christian Life is a refreshing introduction or re-introduction to this perceptive writer and his enduring insights about human nature and living as a Christian in modern times.

You might also be interested in:

For someone who doesn’t “love” Chesterton in large doses, I have reviewed a lot books related to him:

*Here’s my review of Nancy Carpentier Brown’s The Woman Who was Chesterton, her sweeping biography of Chesterton’s wife.

*Here’s my review of The Chestertons and the Golden Key, a mystery imagined based on real-life friends of the Chestertons.

What are your favorite Chesterton or Chesterton-inspired works?

Remembering Our Lady for Life Today {My October column @TheCatholicPost}

One of the finest documentaries of recent years is “Glen Campbell … I’ll be Me.” The 2014 film profiles the country legend after he is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and how he embarks, with the help of his family, friends, & fellow musicians, on a “Goodbye Tour” in classic smaller venues across the country.

After Glen Campbell died earlier this summer, I re-watched it on Netflix and was impressed anew with the loving and yet unflinching look at memory loss and what that means for the person affected as well as his loved ones.

The moments of his forgetfulness, along with the tender, humorous care from his wife, family members, and friends, make this a lovely film for anyone who’s encountered loved ones with memory loss. That’s almost everyone these days.

One of the most amazing things about this is how Campbell, while gradually losing cognitive function, still maintained top-notch musical skills, from his guitar playing and pure singing ability, on his classics such as “Wichita Lineman,” “Gentle on my Mind,” “Rhinestone Cowboy.”

A neurologist interviewed in the film shared that Alzheimer’s attacks all parts of human function without exception. However, Campbell’s long “memory” of playing and loving music helped him stave off the disease longer, as well as not lose his musical prowess.

Essentially, what you are best at, and what you spend the most time on, is “the last to go” when enduring memory issues.

I noticed that reality at work in my mother, who struggled with a different form of memory loss in her last years. Of course it was heartbreaking to see the disease’s progression, but I was also struck by the things she remembered without trouble. For instance, as long as she could speak, she could say the prayers of the Rosary.

It was comforting to consider that Our Lady was still with my mother because she had stayed close to Mary, especially in later years, and her decades of praying the Rosary. It was also a challenge to me—to focus on the good I’d like to remember —love, gratitude, and prayers—instead of the admittedly many bad things in our culture and world.

That was the primary message from The Marian Option: God’s Solution to a Civilization in Crisis by Carrie Gress, Ph.D. Focus on Mary, despite the troubles and concerns of our modern life.

As I wrote in a column earlier this year, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option offered an intriguing and yet flawed perspective of living “apart” as Christians in a culture that’s increasingly indifferent and even hostile to Christians. And Archbishop Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land offered a refreshing and more open perspective on living a robust Catholic faith fully in the world.

The Marian Option, which I discovered after reviewing both of those books, provides yet another and even more helpful perspective. Its focus on the history and influence of Mary in the world, and how individuals and families can use that to thrive.

The Marian Option is divided into four parts, each to focus on a different aspect of Mary’s influence in the world. Part I, “Mary and Creative Minorities” shows how Mary is present in virtually all aspects of the development of Western culture, and was a distinct element of especially in the rise of a civilized Europe. Part II, “Mary’s Geopolitical Influence,” explores how three appearances of Mary—at Guadalupe, Lourdes, and Fatima, show Mary’s unusual and connected presence to the entire world, and how many of them are strangely connected.

Part III, “Who is This Woman?” answers some of the objections to those who would say that focus on Mary takes away from focus on Jesus. This part especially outlines what a healthy devotion to our Lady looks like. Part IV, “Living the Marian Option,” argues that proper and well-ordered devotion to Mary is a great approach to living in our current world.

In some ways, the heart of the book is a late chapter called “Case Study on Pope St. John Paul II,” in which Gress shows the saint’s savvy and prayerful use of his own “Marian option” to overcome the religious persecution and obstacles he encountered throughout his life.

Gress shares eight tools or strategies that St. John Paul II practiced to do this: be not afraid; learn the enemies’ tactics and adapt; be mindful of who you are and who God is; keep a sense of humor; be vigilant and hopeful; pray; remember that God can work through the enemies’ vices; and build real culture. A thorough study and These tools would be a good focus for anyone seeking to live our Catholic faith in challenging times.

The appendix offers helpful specific ideas, large and small, for individuals and families to “live the Marian option,” such as praying the Rosary as a family; planting a Mary garden; filling your home with beautiful religious/Marian art; and being mindful of Mary’s constant presence.

During this month of the Holy Rosary, and during the 100th Anniversary Year of Fatima, readers will be well-served to consider the many fruitful ideas of “The Marian Option,” to live a healthy spiritual life amid so much confusion in our world.

You might also be interested in:

Recent years have seen a plethora of other different resources for increasing our devotion to Mary & the Rosary. Here are just a few:

*Praying the Rosary Like Never Before: Encounter the Wonder of Heaven and Earth, by Edward Sri, is a lovely and well-written companion to The Marian Option, with information about this powerful prayer. Excellent is a Scriptural Rosary appendix.

*For children, The Joyful Mysteries: The Illuminated Rosary is an excellent prayer aid, with sixty works of art alternated with the prayers of the Rosary to help focus the mind. It is made especially for children, but anyone who struggles with attention during the Rosary will find it useful.

*For those looking for a more physically active way to experience the Rosary, “SoulCore”  is a Catholic workout based on the prayers of the Rosary. I attended a leader discernment retreat in March for this fantastic outreach, and I was impressed by its novel and yet prayerful approach. SoulCore offers a unique and beautiful way to truly experience the Rosary. I tend (understatement) to get distracted while praying the Rosary, but this workout focuses my mind by keeping my body busy.

*Fatima for Today: The Urgent Marian Message of Hope  by Father Andrew Apostoli is a classic . Here is my prior review of this recent classic. Fr. Apostoli’s focus on the hopeful message of Fatima is both refreshing and helpful for those weary of bad news. It’s well worth a re-read this Fatima centennial year.

*When my kids were small, we thoroughly enjoyed the CCC videos of saint stories, several of which have a Marian theme. My all-time favorite of these is the “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” and a close second is “Our Lady of Lourdes.”

Meet a Reader: Father Geoff Horton {@TheCatholicPost}

How you know me:

I’m currently parochial vicar at Holy Trinity, Bloomington; Historic St. Patrick, Bloomington; and St. Patrick, Wapella, along with being part of the chaplain team at Bloomington Central Catholic High School. You may have seen me in Lincoln, or Peoria, or Mendota and Peterstown, or Hoopeston and Schlarman Academy, or any number of other places where I’ve made a guest appearance. Or you might even know me from the almost 15 years I spent in Bloomington before entering seminary (I was ordained a priest in 2008).

Why I love reading:

I was sick a lot as a child, so my parents, who also love reading, gave me stacks of books to read. I’ve stopped being sick regularly, but I never stopped reading.

What I’m reading now:

Thomas Aquinas: Scholar, Poet, Mystic, Saint, by A.G. Sertillanges, O.P. St. Thomas is my confirmation patron, adopted when I came into the Church in 2001. I think I was first intrigued by him when I saw a sample of his handwriting, which is worse than mine. I’ve read many works by and about St. Thomas, and each one I read gives me a deeper insight into the life and thought of my patron.

My Favorite Book:

Searching for and Maintaining Peace, by Fr. Jacques Philippe. This is my go-to book whenever stress starts to get the better of me. It’s short, readable, and enormously helpful. I have given away probably dozens of copies of the years.

On the lighter side, I reread Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog every few years. It’s a time-travel screwball comedy of Victorian manners, and that description barely scratches the surface.

Every Soul a Story {My September column @TheCatholicPost}

In younger days, I felt guilty that I didn’t love all the saints equally. Far from it; I found myself attracted to some saints, holy people, and Catholic thinkers, and almost repelled by others. Not to mention the ones I’m indifferent to!

In theory, I knew that God doesn’t make us all the same, and this diversity is good. St. Thomas Aquinas is not St. Therese is not St. Gianna Molla is not St. Charles Lwanga. But in reality, I was regretful, mostly that I had strong reactions against some, almost as if I were against holiness.

For instance, I don’t like Flannery O’Connor’s writing. At all. I’ve joked with friends that I should turn in my “Thoughtful Catholic” card for even admitting such a thing. But there you have it.

Dorothy Day is another holy person—she’s currently designated as “Servant of God,” a step towards canonization—on my “tried to love” list. Day is the 20th century political activist, then Catholic convert, who, with Peter Maurin, founded the Catholic Worker community, to serve the poor and the marginalized. So when I heard there was a new biography of her by one of her granddaughters, I wanted to give her life and spirituality another try.

Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother by Kate Hennessy is beautifully and mournfully written—part memoir, part history, and part spiritual biography. Hennessy is the youngest of the nine children of Tamar, Dorothy Day’s only child. One of the things that makes her book so fascinating is her perspective of growing up and living throughout her life, in and out of the Catholic Worker community.

Forgive the 19th century idiom, but reading The World Will Be Saved by Beauty left me low in spirits. That’s not just because of my “dis-affinity” for Day. Actually, I have much more admiration for and love of Dorothy Day’s holiness now. Nevertheless, in many ways it’s a very sad book.

I was inspired by Dorothy Day’s strong personal prayer life that gave her strength and meaning for her work, as well as her extraordinary devotion to living out voluntary poverty. I also have enormous sympathy for her, her extended family, and friends and how they tried to live out the Gospel.

There is a candor in their interactions with one another, especially in the difficulties of community life. Hennessy writes about Stanley, a close friend and fellow worker of Dorothy, at the time she was often being profiled by news outlets as a “living saint.” He would say, half-jokingly, “There are the saints and there are the martyrs. The martyrs are the ones who live with the saints.”

But I was heartbroken to learn (spoiler alert) that virtually all of her close relatives practice no faith at all, much less the radical, prayerful, open hands Catholicism Dorothy Day embodied. I truly struggled with so much sadness for her and for those souls, since her Catholic faith was so central to her. And I also take hope in the knowledge that one’s spiritual journey is not static, and perhaps some or all of her still-living relatives will embrace the faith that meant so much to her.

That’s why reading another book at the same time gave me so much hope about the possibility of conversion for anyone, full stop: Surprised by Life: 10 Converts Explain How Catholic Teachings on Life Led Them to the Church, edited by apologist and longtime writer Patrick Madrid.

The title may seem self-explanatory, and it is, but the narratives themselves make that title an understatement: they are awe-inspiring and grace-filled.

Patrick Madrid has put together several projects like this, including the popular “Surprised by …” book series, three volumes with convert and revert stories. There’s something about these small, first-person slices of life that are edifying, but not in a cloying or superficial way. Each person shares his or her own personal story, offering a dramatic view of how grace influenced their journey to, or back to, God and His Church.

What’s different about Surprised by Life is that each of the 10 stories in some way relates to the Church’s teaching on life issues. So, for instance, in “ Aunt Amy Saves My Baby,” writer and blogger Heather Scheider writes about how the unconditional love and support of her aunt helped her choose life rather than abortion for her unborn baby, and how that love and support helped her mature and heal from her upbringing and bad choices. And in “Little Miracles Leading from Death to Life,” Doreen Campbell shares her family’s grief journey after losing their teenage daughter in a tragic accident and the sacredness of life at its end.

The titles of some of the chapters can seem almost sensational, such as “Call Girl to Catholic,” the story of a woman who works as a sex worker until the unconditional love of friends and the Church’s clear teaching on family leads to her conversion; or “From One Holocaust to Another,” the story of a lawyer, the son of a Holocaust survivor, who participates in multiple abortions of girlfriends before his conversion to Catholicism. But in reality, these narratives, and how the Holy Spirit worked and continues to work in the lives of these people, are astonishing and amazing. Readers who might despair over loved ones who have left the faith can be comforted to read the stories and know that God reaches people in strange and wonderful ways.

Not all readers will find each story compelling or “attractive,” but that’s the value of having a range of narratives. Like Dorothy Day’s unexpected conversion to Catholicism after atheism, each of the people profiled in Surprised by Life offer unique ways to see one’s faith journey.

You might also be interested in: 

*Even though I’m still not an enthusiast of the spirituality of Dorothy Day, I am glad I read The World Will Be Saved by Beauty. The phrase comes from Dostoevsky, but it’s been often quoted by recent popes, from St. John Paul II in his “Letter to Artists,” to Pope Francis in his first encyclical, “Lumen Fidei.” After reading it, and the context of the quotes from the popes, I realize that the “beauty” is the varied ways in which love is expressed.

*Are you active on Instagram? I am, and I’ve become slightly obsessed with the “Stories” or “InstaStories” These are Snapchat-like short videos combined that expire after 24 hours.  I’ve enjoyed following some accounts related to cooking, homemaking, health, travel, and of course, our Catholic faith. There is something fun and relaxing about seeing small and often beautiful slices of life from others.

One of my recent favorites is Heather Scheider, whose Instagram account, *honeychildforest is honest, crafty, and encouraging. Her Stories, in particular, are often just laugh-out-loud hilarious.

That is where I first found out about the book Surprised by Life. Scheider had posted a photo of a group of the books when she received her author copies, and so I immediately ordered it so I could read it.


A “Bucket List” for Catholic Travelers {My August column @TheCatholicPost }

Following is my August column that appears in this issue of the print edition of  The Catholic Post.

Back when blogs were just becoming a thing, I had a great idea for a blog: Catholic Family Traveler. The blog would help families incorporate Catholic locations (churches, shrines, and other sites) into a family’s travel, so they could easily stop by on their travel either to popular non-religious destinations.

That’s because I’m a huge fan of travel of any kind, especially with our entire family—I’m our family “travel agent.” That means I relish the opportunity to figure out places to go, to stay, and to eat while we’re on the road. When we are traveling, my husband and I try to add in some Catholic places, whether it’s a church visit on a Sunday or for daily Mass, a Catholic college or historical site, or some Shrine or other location. And we’ve always been surprised at the huge variety of locales, large and small, that have a religious context and are worth a visit. I know we are not the only family to do this, since we get good suggestions from friends & family.

Obviously, that blog never came to be, though we still visit Catholic places when traveling. So it’s no surprise that I love a new book that combines travel & unique Catholic sites: 101 Places to Pray Before You Die: A Roamin’ Catholic Guide by Thomas J. Craughwell.

Craughwell, a prolific author and editor, offers in 101 Places a well-researched and clearly organized companion for anyone who travels in the United States, or wants to know more about the Catholic culture, quirky sites, and unusual places that make up the great United States.

Our family, for instance, was in New Mexico for a family trip earlier this summer. Friends who live in Colorado encouraged us to visit the Cathedral in Santa Fe, which we of course did, but also recommended the not-very-well-known “El Santuario de Chimayo” an unusual shrine built in the mid-1800s and visited by thousands of pilgrims each year in rural northern New Mexico. We were very impressed with the setting and learning more about how the shrine came to be and collecting some of the “blessed earth” that pilgrims connect at the site of the chapel. We’d have gotten even more out of it if we had read Craughwell’s several-page story of the newer chapel before our visit, but we were all glad to hear the story. And now that we’ve read the entry for Chimayo, we have retroactively gotten even more out of our visit.

The book is organized alphabetically by states, and each state includes at least one and up to five sites for each state that are worth a clever, engaging description, history, and other details. Websites are often provided so readers can do more up-to-date research on Mass times or other details of a particular site, and readers are encouraged to search for the most up-to-date visitor info online.

101 Places to Pray Before You Die is not comprehensive look at Catholic sites in the U.S.—that would be a book more like 5001 Places to Pray Before You Die. Still, that is fine for several reasons.

One, the opportunity for sequels, based on the authors own research and suggestions by local travelers (I’d like to make a case for two of many in the diocese of Peoria: El Paso, the hometown of Venerable Fulton Sheen, and Corpus Christi Church in Galesburg, which houses the body of early martyr St. Crescent.). Second, the book offers a “taste” to inspire readers, to search out Catholic sites in their own communities, or wherever they travel. Finally, the book may encourage dioceses to make known their unusual or visit-worthy sites so that people can take advantage of the opportunity to experience Catholic culture without going to Europe.

Readers could consider 101 Places to Pray Before You Die a kind of “wish list” of sites to visit. Or, if a family is traveling in a certain direction, a detour to one of the interesting locations might be in order. Finally, I’ve been inspired to try to visit the sites listed for Illinois, our state. Even though I’m a “Catholic traveler,” I’ve only visited one of the four sites listed for Illinois, but my interest is piqued in the others, and we hope to visit them in the future.

I’m sure anyone reading 101 Places to Pray Before You Die will have their own additions to the book, and it’s likely Craughwell may plan some sequels to this book (tip: consider Canada—so many Catholic pilgrimage site!), but what a wonderful way to travel virtually through the pages of this book, and perhaps take a trip or two to in reality see some of these sites.

You might also be interested in:

There is no “Catholic Family Traveler” blog (my interests have focused more on the travel than on the writing), but here are some other resources for those intrigued in Catholic travel and culture:

*There  may not be a Catholic Family Traveler site, but there is a Catholic Traveler website, the popular tour guide Mountain Butorac, a Rome-based American who leads tours in Rome, in Europe, and in the Holy Land. His Instagram feed is especially interesting.

*Rick Steves  has a lock on all things European travel, from places to stay and eat, to what to see. He doesn’t approach things from a faith perspective, but in my experience with his television shows & some web research, he’s very respectful and curious of the myriad Catholic sites around Europe.

*Diana von Glahn’s The Faithful Traveler, is a great site for video series on US & European travel from a Catholic perspective. She’s an appealing host who educates and entertains viewers with lots of Catholic trivia and interesting notes. Some of her series have been broadcast on EWTN.

*Bishop Robert Barron’s video series, Catholicism: The Pivotal Players is not a travelogue per se, but all of his videos have a quality of seeing the world in the way a traveler does. In profiling various saints in the Church, Bishop Barron travels through Europe, and therefore viewers get to see some great sites that have been instrumental in Catholic culture. I’d love to see Bishop Barron do a series on North American Catholicism.

What are some of your favorite Catholic travel resources or sites?


Meet a Reader:  Susanna Prushinski {@TheCatholicPost}

Following is the “Meet a Reader” feature that appears on the book page of the current print issue of The Catholic Post.

How You Know Me:

I am married to Leo and we have four daughters, Genevieve, Suzann, Rebecca and Julia. We belong to St. Louis Parish in Princeton.  I teach first and second year Confirmation classes, I am part of the teaching team for Marriage Preparation Classes, and I am a notary/auditor for marriage cases for Office of the Tribunal. 

Why I Love Reading: 

I love to read in order to deepen my understanding, to ponder, to discover insights, and to be inspired in living more fully in Christ.  In my younger days, I loved to read biographies and mysteries, and I still do, it is just that now they are biographies and stories of saints and the mysteries of Christ and His Church.

What I am Reading Now: 

I just finished a “trilogy’ on St. Mother Teresa. 

First is “Come, Be My Light” by Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., which offers great insights into her spiritual life and depth of her fidelity and trust in God.  Second is “Mother Teresa of Calcutta” by Leo Maasburg, beautiful stories of what her life looked like from the external – what people encountered when they came into her presence. Third is Mother Teresa’s Secret Fire by Joseph Langford, shows how she was transformed by God.

I am also finishing Who Am I to Judge? Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love by Edward Sri and beginning The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise by Cardinal Robert Sarah.

My Favorite Book: 

I have many favorites, but I will keep it to three. I’ve drawn such great insights and inspiration from them that they gave me a new perspective.  The first is Uniformity with God’s Will, which is actually more like a treatise and is taken from a larger work of St. Alphonsus de Liguori. The second and third are authored by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), God is Near Us; The Eucharist, The Heart of Life and The Spirit of the Liturgy Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is my favorite author!