Following is my December column that appears on this month’s book page of the print edition of The Catholic Post.
Like most of you, I’ve known about the Year of Mercy, which began on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, for some months. But, and surely like some of you, I still haven’t worked out a “plan” for how I will live it or how our family will mark it.
At first, I was annoyed with myself—why can’t I be totally organized and spiritually ready for this beautiful year? Then I read a back-of-missalette reflection about how the year of mercy is not just about experiencing the mercy of Jesus through the Church and showing that mercy to others. It’s also a year, importantly, for each one of us to extend mercy to ourselves. So, for me, the Year of Mercy begins with allowing myself time and grace to figure it all out.
I had planned to review, and still recommend, several books that allow one to experience the Year of Mercy in a deeper way.
To just name two, there’s A Year of Mercy with Pope Francis: Daily Reflections edited by Kevin Cotter, and A Year of Mercy: Inspiring Words from Pope Francis edited by Diane Houdek. Both books provide short daily reflections from various talks and writings of Pope Francis. Having on of those books on hand would allow one to keep the theme of mercy in mind each day throughout the year.
But as I read through several newer books, it occurred to me that mercy is an overarching theme in quite a few, even if “mercy” is not in the title, or they weren’t written specifically for the Year of Mercy. These books don’t center the concept of mercy but instead, the books demonstrate very imperfect people who are transformed by God’s mercy and love.
One book about not-perfect parents who nonetheless raised at least one saint, and were themselves canonized earlier this year , is The Extraordinary Parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin by Helene Mongin, translated by Marsha Daigle-Williamson, PhD.
St. Therese wrote of her parents, “The good Lord has given me a father and a mother who are more worthy of heaven than of earth!” But this book is no laundry list of what makes a flawless parent or family. Instead, it’s an honest and sincere look at two imperfect people, and their imperfect family, who keep trying to create a beautiful family life for their children and the wider community.
One thing that struck me was that The Extraordinary Parents of St. Therese does not gloss over the shortcomings of the Martins. For instance, Zelie’s propensity to work to excess, or Louis’ protective instinct for his girls, is covered in a natural way, without justifications or excuses.
The Martins remind me of so many families today — we want to provide for our children, help them get a good education, and guide them well in their practical, personal, and spiritual life decisions. And, like the Martins, parents today aren’t perfect. But one quality we can take from the Martins is that parents should desire most of all that their children will be saints. The Martins show the way through their pursuit of holiness, in fostering a family and individual spiritual life, and in praying for their children. And any parent can do that.
The book is translated from the French, so there can be some artificial-sounding moments. But overall this is a lovely book about what the parents of one of the greatest saints of recent centuries.
Another book that shows—in the modern world— how God’s boundless mercy extends even into a person’s darkest moments and struggles is The Kiss of Jesus: How Mother Teresa and the Saints Helped Me to Discover the Beauty of the Cross by Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle.
Cooper O’Boyle is a prolific author in a variety of Catholic categories, chiefly for women and mothers. One standout from several years back, her book, Mother Teresa and Me: Ten Years of Friendship, shared the beginning of a window into her own struggles and faith life, as she corresponded with St.Teresa about how to proceed in different situations.
But nothing could prepare readers for the dramatic revelations and tough knocks that O’Boyle has experienced throughout her life that are shared in The Kiss of Jesus. She’s been a single mother. She’s been divorced—more than once. She’s experienced toxic relationships and horrifying situations at various times in her life. Over time, she has persisted in living out her faith.
I was surprised at how fascinating I found The Kiss of Jesus. It’s not written the same way as a lot of memoirs—there is not a lot of artifice or fancy wordplay. But Cooper O’Boyle’s simple, straightforward style lends itself well to her unique and difficult story and life path. Perhaps the reason she can write these simple books that are full of good wisdom is the fruit of the struggles in her life, how she has brought them to prayer, and found it all useful and fruitful for growth.
You might also find of interest:
Though I was unprepared for the Year of Mercy, writing this column prompted me to “get with it” and set some modest, merciful goals for the Year of Mercy. I plan to post some of those ideas, and I welcome hearing yours, too.