Category Archives: Author Q&As

Meet a Writer: Marie Taraska {@TheCatholicPost}

DSC_0150 My headshot
This month, the book page of The Catholic Post features a local Catholic writer, her new book, More Than Heaven Allowsand her love of writing and reading.

How you know me: Most people know me as the Spanish teacher who taught at Peoria Notre Dame High. I also set up Spanish programs at St Mark’s School, St. Thomas School, St. Patrick School in Washington and St. Mary School in Metamora. I have also tutored the sisters from Mexico in English at the Spalding Center for many years.
Why I love writing: I have always loved writing. I write in a diary every day. I’ve also published two children’s books:Villie the Germ and The Crust Fairy. I’ve written many other children stories, had them professionally illustrated, and gave them to my grandchildren, who always have a lot to say about them. Since I was a teacher for nearly 30 years, my children’s books always teach a lesson. The Toe Ring and The No-No Boy were about some of my grandchildren.

My current book: More Than Heaven Allows was my first memoir/novel, and it’s the story of my and my husband’s life.

My journey begins with having met my husband in college and continues with our lives in medical school and through his residency with little money. It talks about the birth of our five children. It encompasses our struggles when a horrible explosion endangers the lives of two of our children leaving scars both physically and emotionally. The story continues with my journey of forgiveness, love, and faith in Our Lord and the family’s ultimate triumph over adversity.
What I’m writing now: I am working on another book about my husband’s life having grown up during the Depression and his endeavor to become a pathologist.

What I’m reading now: At present I am reading Treasure in Clay the wonderful autobiography of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheens life. I find it fascinating.

The Triumph of Grace {My January column @TheCatholicPost }

Recently, one of my teens had to give an impromptu speech in class on the subject, “If your life were a song title, what would it be?” She had 60 seconds to think, and then two minutes to give the short speech.

I must have had that in mind as I finished, The Woman Who Was Chesterton Nancy Carpentier Brown’s sweeping biography of Frances Chesterton, the wife of celebrated writer G.K. Chesterton.

That’s because I thought, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards surely didn’t have Frances in mind when they wrote, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” but the refrain fits exceedingly well for her life and times.

Frances Chesterton was a poet, a playwright, and a writer.  But she’s best known as the wife of “GKC,” one of the best-known and best writers of the 20th century, who is the author of “Everlasting Man,” “Orthodoxy,” The Father Brown Mysteries, and many, many other books and articles on cultural and Catholic topics.

Their love story, partnership, and her influence on him is  detailed in The Woman Who Was Chesterton. But what’s best about this book is Brown’s careful assessment of Frances’ character and life, and how she bore her misfortunes and struggles with grace and a fundamental hopefulness.

Nancy Carpentier Brown is a writer who’s been a Chesterton authority for some time.  She’s written two children’s versions of Father Brown stories, among other works and writings on Chesterton and Frances Chesterton.

Brown’s The Woman Who Was Chesterton is part a fascinating look at England during a time of vibrant Catholic intellectual and spiritual renewal.  Notables like Chesterton (and eventually Frances) converted to Catholicism with the help of priests like Fr. Vincent McNabb and Msgr. Ronald Knox. And GKC’s own exceptional writing and lecturing career is recounted well.

But the book is mostly about Frances Chesterton, and the many misfortunes, along with happy times, she lived through. She wasn’t perfect, and often began with less than ideal responses to problems she encountered.

For instance, chief among her crosses was infertility. She had written that she and GKC would have “seven beautiful children.”  At first, she found it almost unbearable to see the babies of friends and relatives.  The couple consulted many doctors and Frances had several operations, but all the efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.

Rather than stay in despair, she not only made peace with it, but became a beloved aunt to her relatives and friend to many, many children over the years.  She also wrote a number of charming religious children’s plays and helped stage them.

And that was true for many of her trials—she struggled in some fashion, but eventually grew into a spiritual and emotional maturity and found a way to rise above things instead of descending into bitterness.

Frances Chesterton’s life exemplifies a triumph of grace, but that was because she cooperated with grace.

Most of us won’t have the trials that Frances faced, or at least not all of them—infertility; the death of two beloved siblings—one to suicide; her own and GKC’s severe health issues; and many more.  But each person has his or her own misfortunes, big and small, that shape us and can affect us. And how we strive to accept and live with these shows our spiritual maturity.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI calls this kind of faith—corresponding with grace even in the midst of reversals or bad things— “a trusting faith, a hoping faith,” instead of just an intellectual faith.  It’s something all mature Christians can do well to learn more about and to emulate.

As Brown writes in the introduction to The Woman Who Was Chesterton, “I hope that this humble effort will give readers the opportunity to get to know and respect her—as herself, and for herself. … My greater hope is that Frances’s life will be an inspiration to all of us, married and unmarried, to live a more faithful, hopeful, and humble life in the midst of good times and bad, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.”

Reading an outstanding biography like The Woman Who Was Chesterton is a great way learn about a fascinating time in Catholic history, and about some of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century.  But more importantly, the book is a lovely telling of how grace works in one person’s life.


You might also be interested:

I have reviewed other books by Nancy Carpentier Brown. Here is one of The Father Brown Reader II: More Stories from Chesterton. Here is a Q&A with Nancy Brown when the book first was released.  I also reference Brown’s books in “Good Books for Kids” here.

One thing I neglected to put in my review of The Woman Who Was Chesterton was one of my favorite parts of Frances’ early life–her family hosted a regular meeting/salon on social, cultural, and political topics in their home called the “IDK Debating Society.”  And yes, IDK means “I Don’t Know,” showing how far ahead of the times Frances and her family were. 🙂

“God will honor humility, and the devil will hate it” {Q&A with Father Mike Driscoll, author of “Demons, Deliverance, and Discernment”}

My May column for The Catholic Post features a local author, Father Mike Driscoll, and his popular new book Demons, Deliverance, and Discernment: Separating Fact from Fiction about the Spirit World.  You can read my review of the book here.  Following is a longer version of my Q&A with Fr. Driscoll in the print edition of The Catholic Post.

Fr. Driscoll is chaplain and director of pastoral care at OSF St. Elizabeth Hospital in Ottawa. He’s been a priest of the Peoria diocese since 1992, and a licensed clinical counselor since 2012 .


Q. How did you come to write a book about demons and exorcism?

I received a MA in Counseling from Bradley University in 2009. About that time, a friend of mine—a priest with a background in psychology—had been asked by his bishop to look into some cases of possible demonic possession.

We had several conversations about how to distinguish between possession and mental disorders. I then went to Regent University and received a PhD in Counselor Education & Supervision. It included more counseling courses, but also involved studying counselors: how and why they do what they do. I thought it would be interesting to look at exorcists in the same way.

Q. Your work in counseling and health care informed your work on this book. Has writing the book at all changed your work in counseling and health care ministry?

Actual cases of demonic possession are extremely rare. On the other hand, it is relatively common for people to struggle with problems that are a combination of both mental/emotional problems and spiritual problems that do not involve possession.

The hospital where I am chaplain (St. Elizabeth’s, Ottawa) has an inpatient mental health unit. so on daily basis I talk to people who are struggling with these problems. Writing the book and serving these people have reinforced for me the need to address both aspects, the mental/emotional and the spiritual. If we neglect either one, we are not helping as much as we could.

Q. What are two or three things the “average Catholic” should know about demons?

One thing people should know is that demonic possession is extremely rare. There is a good reason why the vast majority of us have never seen a person possessed by a demon: it rarely happens. As one exorcist said, it does not happen randomly; you don’t wake up one day and suddenly find yourself possessed. It comes from building a relationship with evil.

That leads to the second thing: we should be much more concerned about temptations, whether from the flesh, the world, or the devil. Going to hell for committing mortal sins and not repenting of them should be more frightening to us than possession.

Third and most important, remember God’s infinite love for us, and keep in mind that the things we need to do to get to heaven are not complicated. We must say our prayers, receive the Sacraments, practice the virtues, and avoid the occasions of sin.

Q. Who is your target audience for the book? Is there a type of person you’d really like to read the book, and what would you most want them to take away from the book?

The primary audience is adult Catholics. The wider audience would include Christians and others interested in the Catholic view of the topic of demon possession.

Certainly some teenagers could understand the book, and there is nothing inappropriate in it. The caution I would give to that age group is that some of them are already too interested in the subject, and I don’t want to inflame that. Of course, the same could be said of many adults!

There has been an inherent dilemma in writing this book and getting it published. On the one hand, I am glad that Catholic Answers thought it worth publishing. On the other hand, I don’t want to encourage people to spend too much time on this topic.

Make sure you next spiritual reading is a book about God’s love, or a saint, or the angels.

Q. You write in the book about the connections (and often, lack of connection) between mental illness and demon possession. How do non-Catholics or even Catholics misconstrue these, and how does your book help to clear up those misunderstandings?

Movies that claim to be based on true stories always have inaccuracies; there is always an element of sensationalism. One of the main goals of this book is to provide the actual Church teaching on devils, possession, and exorcism.

One Catholic told me he heard that most people in psychiatric hospital care are actually suffering from demonic attacks, rather than mental health problems. That’s nonsense.

While the devil tempts all of us, especially in our weak points, the people I visit every day in our mental health unit are struggling with real mental and emotional problems. To say these are just demonic attacks is wrong, just as wrong as saying physical problems are just demonic attacks.

Does the devil try to aggravate all of our problems? Of course. That is why we pray for God’s protection and strength and healing for all disorders, whether physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or any combination of those.

Having said that, I should mention that it is not unusual for people with serious mental disorders (such as schizophrenia) to tell me they hear devils, see devils, or dream about devils. This does not mean they are possessed, but it could really be the devil bothering them.

I have had therapists ask me about this. My guess is that demons torment people with serious mental problems because others won’t believe them. Others might think it is just the mental disorder, but it could be both metal and spiritual. It is important to address both struggles: we provide counseling and medication to help with the mental problems, and we must be sure to pray for them and encourage a good spiritual life in order to help with the spiritual struggles.

Q. You caution sincere Catholics against over-reliance on what you call “deliverance professionals.” Could you explain a little more about that, and what your concerns are in that area?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not define deliverance; there is no Church book or ritual on deliverance; and there is no official title or office of “deliverance minister.”

If a person says they are involved in deliverance, and they further explain that they listen to people’s spiritual struggles and then pray for them, that’s great. But some claim to have special deliverance abilities or gifts, special deliverance methods, and special deliverance prayers. I would stay away from that whole scene.

Some of the saints had great power in driving away demons, but they always tried to avoid attracting attention. I mistrust those who publicize their claims of spiritual gifts.

Q. You write in the helpful appendix of prayers for protection against demons that “these are not imperative formulas that address demons directly. They are prayers asking God, his angels, and his saints to protect us against the attacks of evil spirits.” Why is that distinction important?

The generic definition of exorcism is words directed to devils. It is the opposite side of the coin of prayer, which is directed to God.

For example, in the extraordinary form of blessing water, the priest is directing prayers to God, but then the ritual has him say, “I cast out you, the devil and adversary of mankind, along with all your evil influence and cunning wickedness…” That is called a minor exorcism.

The only Church rituals in which demons are directly addressed are in the Rite of Exorcism, and the extraordinary form of Baptism and some blessings. Outside of a priest following a Church ritual, I don’t see any reason to address demons.

The prayers I have in the appendix are directed to God or the angels or saints, asking for their help and protection. When I hear people directing commands toward devils, saying things like, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to be gone!” it strikes me as overly dramatic, and maybe even prideful.

It’s just my opinion, but it seems more humble to ask God or the angels or saints for help. I think God will honor that humility, and the devil will hate it.

Q. Realizing the book is just being released, how has the early interest been from the publisher and others who have read it or are anticipating it?

I have been amazed at how much Catholic Answers has done to promote interest in it. They have arranged for me to be on a number of Catholic radio shows, which is something I have never done before.

I did the first on May 1, the Drew Mariani show—and it was great. People are definitely interested in this topic, as I am, but again, we all need to make sure that we don’t pay too much attention to demons. Jesus certainly did exorcisms, but the Gospel show him spending much more time teaching and healing.

We need to devote most of our spiritual energy toward prayer, the works of mercy, and spiritual reading that does not involve demons.

Q. You’ve written a fiction book called The Father Capranica Mysteries: Stories of the Strange and Supernatural along the lines of the Father Brown mysteries, but with a modern twist. Can you share about its unique perspective, and what inspired you to write that book?

I love G. K. Chesterton’s “Fr. Brown Mysteries,” based in England in the early 1900s. He was the first to write stories about a priest investigator.

In order to take breaks from writing the “Demons” book, I started writing stories about a priest who investigates mysteries. Unlike Fr. Brown, who usually solved murders and robberies, Fr. Capranica solves mysteries involving the supernatural: angels, demons, creatures from mythology and folklore.

I don’t like it when a movie is almost purely fictional, and has a line at the beginning saying “Based on a true story.” They should just make up the scary story and have fun with it, not try to pass it off as true! The Father Capranica Mysteries are definitely not based on true stories.
If you are wondering, Capranica is my mom’s maiden name; my grandfather was born and raised in the Abruzzi region in Italy.

Q. What is your next writing project?

I don’t know. I have written some thoughts on the topic of forgiveness. We all know how important it is to forgive, but it is also difficult. The more someone has been hurt, the more difficult it is to forgive the offender. But lack of forgiveness is bad for us, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.

I would like to write a book of spiritual practices and counseling suggestions on what to do on a daily basis to forgive others. Like other virtues, forgiveness is never finished.

Just as we have to be loving and faithful and patient every day, we also have to forgive every day.

People get frustrated because they want to forgive others, but the negative thoughts and emotional pain keep coming back. I reassure them that doesn’t mean they have failed to forgive. We just have to stay with it every day.

Q. You are a lifelong and winning long-time long-distance runner.  I’ve read and reviewed numerous Catholic running memoirs, (including Alberto Salazar’s 14 Minutes;  Sister Madonna Buder’s The Grace to Race, and Jeff Grabosky’s Running with God Across Americaand I’m fascinated with the connection between running and spirituality. What is your perspective on that? Can you share how running is part of your faith life?

I think it is physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy for us to get outside and be physically active on a regular basis, if we can. Of course there are many reasons why some people cannot. God gives us different things we enjoy and that are good for us, so I think it shows gratitude to do those things.

In moderation, of course: I’m injured right now, from putting in more miles than I knew I should, training for the Starved Rock Marathon. Now I have to miss it! Maybe I’ll be ready for the Peoria marathon in the fall.
I won the Morton Pumpkin Festival 10K twice, and the Metamora Lincoln-Douglas 8 mile several times. I won the Wildlife Prairie Park 5k once. But I never won Steamboat, darn it!

I don’t know how many marathons I have run. I’ve run one or two, sometimes three, almost every year since the late 1970s. I’ve probably run about 60 or 70 of them, maybe 75.

To put it another way: when I ran my first marathon, Paul VI was the pope!

You might also be interested to know:

*my husband Joseph Piccione took the photo of Father Mike Driscoll above several years ago.  I remembered seeing it among our digital photos, and searched for because I remember it being a really good one.

*I was glad to ask Fr. Driscoll the question about running, but I always feel a little intimidated because he’s such a speedy runner (as in, winning races or his age group a fair amount of the time). But he has always been gracious and encouraging about my “finishing is winning” approach to running.

“Demons, Deliverance, and Discernment” An Informative, Absorbing Read {My May column @ The Catholic Post}

Following is my May column that appears on the book page of this week’s edition of The Catholic Post.

When I first heard Father Mike Driscoll had written a book, I was thrilled for him and excited to read it. Our family has known Father Driscoll for years, and he’s a kind, intelligent, and devout priest.

The subject matter—demons and deliverance—made me a little nervous.

Why? My first experience with this type of book was back in the late 1980s, when a dear friend and Catholic co-worker in the pro-life movement lent me a book about exorcism. He sincerely meant it as a way to edify me and strengthen my early 20s faith, but its chief effect? Freaking me out.

Most of the reaction might have been a result of spiritual immaturity, but the book, with its drama and horrifying details of actual exorcisms, didn’t help. It had the good effect keeping me away from anything related to the occult, but it didn’t do much for my faith.

But Father Driscoll’s new book is not “that” kind of a book at all.

Demons, Deliverance, Discernment : Separating Fact from Fiction about the Spirit World is a sensible, highly readable book about some complex  and sensitive areas.

He writes in the book that he wants to write a “different sort of book” about this topic, and he succeeds impressively.

C.S. Lewis wrote in the preface to The Screwtape Letters, his book imagining letters between demons on how to tempt humans, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

Father Driscoll’s book walks the line between these two extremes. As he writes, “Although we may not face the more dramatic demonic attacks, the devil tempts everyone—he even tempted our Lord.

We would be mistaken if we acted as if demonic possession were commonplace. We would be equally mistaken, however—as well as foolish—to ignore the presence of the devil, and to neglect the means of resisting his activity in the world.”

Some highlights:

*the book provides some fascinating background about various cultures, nearly all of which have a belief in spirit possession, and how that can relate to a Catholic vision of the “unseen world.”

*Father Driscoll also relates Catholic teaching and practice when it comes to exorcism, pointing out the not-uncommon misconception that mental illness is caused primarily by demonic possession. As a licensed counselor, Father Driscoll wants to help readers discern the difference between mental health issues and true exorcism, and provide some general background about the differences.

The book shares how truly rare demonic possession is, and also how the many people who struggle with mental health issues can be helped through modern medicine and counseling, and good general mental and spiritual habits to promote health.

*Father also cautions a healthy skepticism about self-proclaimed “deliverance ministers” either Catholic or general Christians, who perform quasi-exorcisms outside the guidelines of the church.

*the helpful appendices. One appendix is of prayers for protection against demons. This isn’t a do-it-yourself exorcism advice, but rather a general, healthy advice to “pray always” and some of the powerful prayers the Church has to protect people from the enemy of our souls.

Here’s the importance distinction Fr. Driscoll makes about these prayers “these are not imperative formulas that address demons directly. They are prayers asking God, his angels, and his saints to protect us against the attacks of evil spirits.”

Rather than a scary book about demons and exorcisms, Demons, Deliverance, and Discernment provides helpful background, cultural perspective and prudent guidance for all readers.

American and Catholic {My October column, The Catholic Post}

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

St. Catherine of Siena famously said, “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world ablaze!”

Less well-known is a quote by St. Edith Stein. She didn’t say it about American Catholics, but definitely fits: “The nation doesn’t simply need what we have. It needs what we are.”

Neither of those quotes are in The American Catholic Almanac: A Daily Reader of Patriots, Saints, Rogues, and Ordinary People Who Changed the United States.

But they explain the appeal of this treasury that explores how a varied cast of characters and events shaped the nation and its Catholic culture.

The American Catholic Almanac is ably written by two authors—Emily Stimpson, an author with local roots (her family has roots in the Quad Cities, and her cousin is Peoria Notre Dame Chaplain Fr. Adam Stimpson), and Brian Burch.

For each day of the year, one notable American Catholic person or event in American Catholic history, with some connection to that date, is featured. The book spans from the earliest explorers in the late 15th and early 16th century, through to the present day. And, true to its title, the book explores patriots, saints and rogues, though I would argue there are no ordinary people among the 365 notables, obscurity notwithstanding.

I loved this book, and look forward to exploring it even more. Virtually every entry is filled with quirky, awe-inspiring, or just plain interesting, Catholic history.

Admittedly, I’m a history nerd. But you don’t have to geek out on history to love The American Catholic Almanac. Here are several reasons why:

*You’ll be surprised again and again by people you didn’t realize were Catholic, and even more surprised by “how” they were Catholic, whether throughout their lives, or at the end of life. I knew Andy Warhol was Catholic, but Jack Kerouac?

*You’l be astonished by the little-known events that helped shaped and knit Catholics into the fabric of American life. Did you know there was a 19th century Irish Catholic Colonization Association started by Peoria’s Bishop Spalding and others, to help re-settle Irish immigrants from tenements onto farms in the Midwest?

*You’ll find yourself wanting to know more about our rich Catholic heritage—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

This book inspired me to think more about the heroes in our own midst right now, and who might be included in a future volume of The American Catholic Almanac.

I really hope there is a future volume, although hearing from author Stimpson of the tremendous work that went into this one, it may be awhile.

We may not be colorful firebrands like Mary Fields (October 17, “Stagecoach Mary”), a whiskey-drinking former slave who served Ursulines, or tireless priests like local son (Alleman High School was named after him) Father Alleman (May 10, “The Big Priest”), who personally chopped the wood for churches he founded in southeastern Iowa and western Illinois. But The American Catholic Almanac makes clear that anyone, from celebrities and intellectuals to humble folk, religious and lay, sinners and saints, can have a big impact on culture and history.

A Cure for “Historical Amnesia” {The American Catholic Almanac Blog Tour}

With apologies to Jane Austen, you must allow me to tell you how ardently I love and admire Emily Stimpson.

I’ve reviewed her books before here and here , and she was a “Reader” back around the time of the 2012 Behold Conference, where I first met Emily in person (photos to prove it in the link). To use another literary reference, Emily is definitely a “kindred spirit,” and I’m happy to claim her as a local author since she has roots in the Peoria Diocese and many of her family still lives here.

Headshot Living Room

So that’s why I’m delighted for Reading Catholic to be a stop on the blog tour for The American Catholic Almanac by Emily Stimpson and Brian Burch.  My review of the book appears in this weekend’s print edition of The Catholic Post and will post here in a few days. 

Thank you, Emily, for doing this Q&A, and for this great new book.

NP: Tell me a little more about your book, your co-author, and the writing process. How did you decide to write the book?

ES: Credit for the idea behind the book goes to Brian Burch and the Catholic Vote team, particularly Josh Mercer and Kara Mone. In the wake of the HHS Mandate and recent court rulings on same-sex marriage, many Catholics were justifiably concerned about government-imposed limitations of their religious freedom. But many more Catholics didn’t seem concerned at all. There was a lot of shoulder shrugging.

On top of that, more and more Americans have been questioning the Church’s place in the public square, seeing the Church (and faith itself) as a threat to democracy. Brian believed part of that problem stemmed from a sort of historical amnesia.

As American Catholics, we’ve forgotten our story: why our ancestors came here, how they sacrificed to establish the Catholic Church in America, and how much they contributed to the growth of this country.

The hope was that by re-telling our family story—in a fun, interesting, and accessible way—we could help Catholics (and all people of good will) both appreciate what the Church has done and work more vigorously to protect it.

As for the writing process, that’s where I came in. Brian approached me to work with him because I’m a storyteller, and he thought my voice could help set the right tone for the book. As I said, we didn’t want to write dry history; we wanted to tell stories that did justice to the great men and women who nurtured the Faith in America. Anyhow, I felt incredibly blessed to be asked to participate and jumped in with both feet.

After that, the actual writing process began with our fantastic research assistant, Tom Crowe, who organized the calendar and supplied us with materials to read. Then, I wrote the first draft for each month. As each individual month was complete, it went to Brian for review and revision. From there, it went on to Random House, then back to Brian, and finally back to me, so that I could smooth out everyone’s changes and ensure that the book didn’t sound like a committee wrote it.

When I explain the process like that, it sounds so sane. But it wasn’t. Everything was happening at once—filling in dates on the calendar, writing new entries, revising old ones, reviewing proofs, even designing the book cover. It was a massive undertaking, but we’re so proud of the end result.

NP: There’s such a variety of Catholics profiled, from Catholics as varied as singer Perry Como to Alexis de Tocqueville, to Rose Hawthorne, to concepts like the Act of Toleration. How did you come up with so many great entries?

ES: Again, Tom Crowe deserves a lot of the credit. He started by identifying the biggies—America’s saints, blessed, and venerables—as well as other key people and events in American Catholic history. Then Brian and I chimed in with more ideas. After that, as we researched and read, we kept identifying more interesting things to cover.

For example, while researching an early court case in New York about the inviolability of the seal of the Confessional, an off-hand mention of “Mrs. Mattingly’s miracle” piqued our curiosity, so we did some more research and discovered a fascinating tale of a miraculous healing that had been coordinated by an American priest and German prince via trans-Atlantic postal mail in 1823. How could we not write about that?

At another point, in the course of researching Terrence Mattingly, one of the great Catholic labor leaders, we found out that the original Mother Jones was also Catholic. And of course, we had to include her story! That’s how it went every step of the way. One interesting story led to another interesting story and before you knew it, we had more interesting stories than we could possibly include in just one book.

NP: You featured not just canonized saints or universally loved Catholics and events in American history, but also some controversial (either mildly or wildly) Catholics and events. It seems to me you don’t whitewash or downplay the controversy. Why was it important to you to share the good, the bad and the ugly here?

ES: Well, as James Joyce wrote, Catholic means, “Here comes everybody.” We’re not just a Church of saints. We’re a Church of sinners as well, and those sinners had a hand in shaping our history, too, for good and bad. To only tell the good parts would only be telling half the story.

Even more fundamentally, though, very few of us are all saint or all sinner. We’re a messy combination of both. And when we look at the last-minute conversions of men like Buffalo Bill, John Wayne, or Dutch Schultz or the tragic loss of faith experienced by someone like General William Tecumseh Sherman or even the mess of contradictions in the lives of Mother Jones, Andy Warhol, and Al Capone, we understand ourselves better. We understand grace better, and get a glimpse of what God can do through even the weakest of his children.

NP: Do you have a favorite entry?

ES: Oh gosh, that’s like asking if I have a favorite child. I enjoy the writing in this book far more than any decent person should enjoy their own work. I definitely have favorite people I met along the way, people to whom I now turn regularly for their prayers. Bishop Joseph Machebeuf, the first bishop of Denver, is one. He reminds me of an evangelizing Yellow Labrador— ever faithful, endlessly enthusiastic, and completely devoted to everyone he served.

Father Peter Whelan, who saved thousands of men’s lives in Andersonville Prison during the American Civil War, is another. I think the actual entries that I enjoy the most, however, are the ones where there’s either some sneaky, understated humor (like the November 30 entry on America’s first Catholic martyr, Father Juan de Padilla) or the entries where we found ways to shine new light on already well-known figures like Dorothy Day and Walker Percy.

NP: As I read through the book, I found myself thinking of who would be in a future, 50 or 100 years from now, version of The American Catholic Almanac, and what current pioneers might be included. I hope you won’t be embarrassed if I included you in there, with your books on a variety of topics and your passionate commitment to sharing our Catholic faith in honest and realistic ways. Are there people or events you wished you could have included in the Almanac?

ES: If I am among the best someone could come up with for some future Almanac, Nancy, the Church is in more serious trouble than I realized!

I will admit, though, that was one of the reasons I was pleased we included Katherine Burton in the Almanac. She was a Catholic convert and freelance writer, who was absolutely prolific throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. She wasn’t a great writer, and almost nothing of hers remains in print, but she wrote a lot and she wrote well on a wide range of topics, particularly women’s place in the world. She’s a terrific example of a faithful, ordinary Catholic trying her best to help her contemporaries know and love the Faith—a patron “saint” for Catholic hack writers like myself, I suppose.

As for other stories, yes! There were so many we couldn’t tell, simply because of space limitations. Likewise, we wanted everything attached in some way to a date, and on some days 10 interesting things happened. On others, we were lucky to find one thing. That means people like our newest Blessed, Sister Miriam Teresa Demjanovich, and the religious sister who took on Billy the Kid, Blandina Segale, didn’t make it in. But hopefully, the Almanac will just inspire people to go out and do more reading on their own.

NP: What is your next project?

ES: Brian has this crazy plan to maybe do a second volume of The American Catholic Almanac, but we need to see how this one goes first. In the meantime, I’m getting ready to start writing a travel column for The Boston Globe’s new Catholic website, Crux.

That’s particularly exciting for me because it’s going to give me the chance to write a bit more about some of the people and places covered in the Almanac and visit those places as well. I’m afraid this Almanac has turned me into the crazy Catholic trivia lady. I’ll probably be annoying people for the rest of my life with the odd facts and fun stories I’ve learned this past year!

Gift Book Ideas for Children & Families

Following is my November column that appears in this weekend’s print edition of The Catholic Post.  I invite your feedback here as well as any book suggestions you have.  A few more great books have arrived since I wrote this column, so that I may need to do an update.  December’s column will feature books for adults.

Recommending books for gifts at Christmas—or any season—can be tricky. And yet books can be a great source of enjoyment and encouragement, and, at the right time and the right place, evangelization.

In the must-read Forming Intentional Disciples (my review of that book is here), Sherry Weddell writes of the thresholds that people cross on the journey towards Christ. Before any other step, a person must have a “bridge of trust” in either someone in, or some part of, the Catholic faith, before curiosity, openness, or truly seeking a relationship with Jesus can take place.

Well-designed and well-written books can foster or strengthen that “bridge of trust” that can lead to curiosity and beyond, planting seeds for future spiritual growth.

With that in mind, I’ve tried to select books that would appeal to a wide range of readers, especially those at a beginning level of trust or curiosity.

This month, the books column features books for children, and also more general “coffee table” type of books suitable for all ages. Next month’s column will feature books for adults.

women-of-the-bible-2*I was drawn to Women of the Bible by Margaret McAllister because of Alida Massari’s expressive and lovely watercolor illustrations. But after reading several of these enchanting stories, in which McAllister beautifully imagines vignettes based on women described in the Bible, I can confidently say the writing is even better. This is a delightful read-aloud for children of all ages. Highly, highly recommended.


*Bambinelli Sunday: A Christmas Blessing by Amy Welborn, illustrated by Ann Kissane Engelhart. This is the latest of three picture books by Welborn and Engelhart, and their best collaboration so far. (Here’s hoping the two do many more in future years.)

It’s a story of a boy learning from his grandfather that “Love brings all the pieces together,” even when those pieces are broken. The book is also a charming introduction to the real-life newer tradition of Bambinelli Sunday, when Italian children gather on Gaudate Sunday (the third Sunday of Advent) to have the baby Jesus figures from the family creche set blessed by the Holy Father.

822438The “Saints & Me!” series of books from Liguori Press, with clever illustrations and approachable text for younger readers, is authored by Barbare Yoffie, and illustrated by Katherine A. Borgatti.. Added this year were four new saints–Damien of Molokai, Rose Philippine Duchesne, Andre Bessette, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, as well as a Saints of North America Activity Book (pictured above), with coloring pages, word puzzles and other goodies to keep little hands busy.

91d609_b164ad51c1fba59ea03b4ea3b716549f.jpg_srz_471_726_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srzFor more mature young readers, Nancy Carabio Belanger’s newest novel, The Gate, is beautifully written story of a teen boy’s struggle through the death of his father and accidental friendship with a nursing home resident. I’ve loved and highly recommend Belanger’s other award-winning novels—Olivia and the Little Way for middle-grade readers, and Olivia’s Gift for slightly older readers (review here and author interview (with a twist) here).

Because the narrative is told by an adult looking back, there’s a certain melancholy and maturity that would be most appealing for readers further along in their faith journey; I would say a slightly older audience than Olivia’s Gift. But’s its a great read for older children and adults.

Here are some “coffee table” style books suitable for all ages:

HOLY-LAND-BOOK-full*If you’ve ever had a desire to do a Holy Land pilgrimage (raising my hand here), Fr. Mitch Pacwa’s The Holy Land: An Armchair Pilgrimage offers a lush virtual tour in a handsome, well-designed book with tons of photos and many old illustrations and maps of Holy Land sites.

The book is substantial but not oversized, so it’s perfect for couch perusal, meditation, prayer and perhaps a little dreaming about your own Holy Land excursion.

item3834_250_x_250*Three new gorgeous books offer introduction to paintings well-known and obscure, all with religious themes: Sister Wendy on the Art of Mary; Sister Wendy on the Art of Christmas (pictured above), and Sister Wendy on the Art of Saints.

Sister Wendy Beckett, who became justifiably well-known in the 1990s for her BBC art history documentaries, is the author of these slim but powerful volumes. Each section offers a reproduction of artwork, plus Sister Wendy’s prayerful and educated—but never stuffy—commentary about the work and its religious meaning.

“When you look at the pictures in this book, really look, opening your heart to take in what is there before you, you are not only responding to a particular work of art, you are practicing the habit of openness to the beauty of God as he illuminates every moment of your every day…. it changes us.”

Looking at even one picture a day, and reading the short but rich narration, is a beautiful way to introduce yourself or anyone in your family to the delight of reflecting on beauty. Gorgeous artwork made richer by Sister Wendy’s commentary makes these books well worth having and cherishing.

Q&A with Julie Kelly, author of “Clare’s Costly Cookie”

Today, I’m sharing an interview I did recently with Julie Kelly, author of a new Catholic children’s book called Clare’s Costly Cookie.  It is very sweet, and reminds me in some ways of Nancy Carabio Belanger’s Olivia and the Little Way, but for much younger readers.  I was especially interested in Julie’ connection to Father Antoine Thomas, who now lives in New Zealand, but is well-known to Peoria-area Catholics from his many years at the Community of St. John priory in Princeville.


Julie, tell Reading Catholic readers more about yourself, your family and your writing.

Thank you, Nancy, for inviting me to share with your readers. I am a 46-year-old wife and home-educating mother of six children – four sons and two daughters ages 1 to 16 – in Arkansas. I have a BA in English, and before my marriage 17 years ago I used to travel throughout the U.S. directing and emceeing Eucharistic-centered retreats for young people. Since then my faith and my family have been my greatest joy.

As far as my writing is concerned, I never intended to write a children’s book. Approximately four years ago I began writing a handful of engaging stories to help my strong-willed daughter better understand some truths of our faith, with a young girl like herself as the main character. I wanted my daughter to experience this young girl’s transformation from a self-absorbed child to a faithful follower of Jesus. And I wanted this girl to be REAL, with faults, and failings, and I wanted her to meet Jesus – to get to know Him personally – and to offer Him her heart at any cost.

After seeing the extremely positive response of my children to my writing (and not just because I’m their mother!) the idea occurred to me that these stories of struggle, perseverance and surrender could possibly help other young hearts discover the transforming power of Christ’s love and the joy of living the holy Catholic faith. From that point forward I wrote the rest of the story in prayer to the Holy Spirit and Mary for guidance. This is how the plucky character Clare, a nine-year-old thunderbolt in pigtails, developed and how Clare’s Costly Cookie: A Young Heart Discovers the Way of Love came into existence.


I notice that one of the blurbs on the back of the book was from Father Antoine Thomas, a priest beloved and well-known in our diocese. What is your connection to Father Antoine and the Community of St. John?

I first met the Brothers of Saint John before I was married, when I was emceeing and directing Eucharistic retreats for young people across the U.S. The Brothers would preach and lead the young people in prayer at some of the retreats. This is how I came to know them. Although I have never met Father Antoine personally, when I wrote the book I sent him a copy of the manuscript and asked if he would write the Foreword because he has given so much of his priestly ministry to helping young people draw close to Jesus in the Eucharist. After previewing the book he agreed to contribute the Foreword, for which I am extremely grateful.

I found Clare’s Costly Cookie sweet and gentle for younger readers. What is your intended audience and how do you see young readers interacting with it?

My intended audience is children between the ages of 5 to 10 or 12, although older siblings have been caught listening over shoulders to the story, often with a chuckle. Young readers are interacting with the story in a beautiful and spiritual way, with hearts that are open to the gentle invitation to draw closer to Jesus. They have shared with me that they like learning a lot about the faith and prayer, while finding the story fun to read and identifying with the main character, Clare. Some of the topics addressed in the book are obedience from the heart, sibling relationships, selfishness, the Mass and Holy Communion, and surrendering the self-will – challenges that children face every day as they strive to live their faith.

An 11-year-old girl shared, “It helped me talk to Jesus, and I am talking to Him more. I think it is a funny and prayerful book at the same time.” As well as younger readers, I have been joyfully surprised that the book is speaking to the hearts of adults as well, parents and grandparents alike, who are open to the invitation to draw close to the Heart of Jesus like a child. The book is deeply spiritual, joyfully Catholic, and refreshingly contemporary – a combination that seems to be agreeing with parents and children alike.

The book is delightfully illustrated by a young lady named Mary MacArthur, an illustrator in Houston, Texas. Mary used her considerable talent and spiritual sensitivity to give the illustrations depth and feeling, capturing the heart of the scenes for young readers to enjoy. The book, 112 pages softcover for $9.95, is available online through Sacred Heart Books and Gifts, Catholic Heritage Curricula, Seton Home Study School, Holy Heroes, and Nativity Press.

What is next for you? Any more books or writing projects you would like to share?

Because Clare’s Costly Cookie is being so well-received and I have had requests from readers for more Clare books, that is the direction my prayer is taking – a continuation of Clare’s journey towards a closer relationship with Jesus.

Q&A with Robin Davis, author of “Recipe for Joy”

Here is my Q&A with Robin Davis, author of Recipe for Joy.    As you can tell from my review from the last edition of The Catholic Post (click here to read that), I really enjoyed the book, and I enjoyed e-chatting with Robin about her book, faith and food, even after I learned (see final question) she is one of the rare people who doesn’t like the chocolate chip flavors at Graeter’s Ice Cream.  I’m not holding it against her (and if you’re a Graeter’s fan, you know what I mean).  Thanks, Robin!

Robin 2012

Q. Robin, tell readers more about yourself, your family and your work.

I’m the food editor at the Columbus Dispatch (that’s right in the middle of Ohio). I grew up in Dayton, but moved to California as soon as I graduated from college – I was one of those people who couldn’t wait to “escape.”

I went to cooking school, then worked for Bon Appetit magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. It was a great life, but I felt something was missing. After my father died, I moved back to Ohio to be closer to my family, my sister in particular. That’s when I met my husband who was a widower with three young children.

Q. Recipe for Joy is such a great read about your life going from single living in the city to a wife, step-mom and Catholic convert. You talk about one of the challenges of going from living alone to in a family was the bigger messes that a family of five creates. (With a sick child right now, I’m pondering that having sick kids must have been a shock to your system.) What has been the best and worst parts of being a mom from someone who never intended to be one?

A.  Having a sick child is definitely one of the hardest parts. But here’s another thing I didn’t plan on: getting sick myself. Before I was married, I got a cold about once a year. That was it. But living with three young children meant I caught everything they did – sometimes twice.

The hardest part of parenthood for me was doubting myself. I felt like I had to have all the answers, and I just didn’t. It took a long time for me to realize that no one does, and longer still for me to recognize it was OK to tell the kids I didn’t know the answer or that I was wrong about an answer I’d given them.

The best part? Never being lonely. There is an energy to living in a family that I just didn’t get living alone.

Q. One of the things I liked best about Recipe for Joy is when you shared about your sense of not fitting in–of being a step-mom versus what you at first call a “real” mom; of being a working mom among stay-at-home moms, etc. I think all moms–really, all women–can relate to that. What’s the remedy for that, or how have you learned to manage it?

The solution for me was to not look at how I was different, but to look at similarities. I may not have given birth to these three, but all the parents I knew juggled getting their kids to various activities.

Maybe I was one of the few working moms among the kids’ friends parents, but I can’t think of a single mom who didn’t struggle with getting dinner on the table every night or worry about their kids eating a healthful diet.

Q. You’ve written about how supportive your husband was about the book. What do your children think of the book?

The kids have been wonderful. I let them read the proposal before I sent it out to publishers to make sure they understood what I was going to write about. I asked them questions about some of the things in the book to see how their memories compared to mine. And I asked them to read the finished manuscript before I sent it to Loyola Press.

It gave us excellent starting points for conversations that I’m not sure we might have had otherwise.

Q. As I wrote in my review, when I finished the appetizer chapter, I made the prosciutto-wrapped asparagus. I actually went out that day to buy the ingredients for friends who were coming over the next evening. It was easy to make and a huge hit (among the asparagus-eaters). What other recipes “must” I try from the book?

You have to try the Baked Goat Cheese Salad. We make an easier version several times a week with just crumbled goat cheese and whatever fruit we have on hand whether it’s the dried cranberries or fresh apples or even berries. And if you’re lucky enough to come across sour cherries this summer, be sure to try the pie. Even if you don’t want to bother with a lattice crust, a two-crust summer fruit pie (try it with blackberries or raspberries) is hard to beat.

Q. I’ve just started Michael Pollan’s Cooked, and I’m so struck by his writing in the first chapter about the importance of preparing food for yourself and those you loved. I felt like he was channeling GK Chesterton (or Robin Davis 😉 ) about the spiritual import of food and eating, more so than in his earlier books. Do you think the wider culture is more tuned into the spiritual aspects of food these days?

I do. The pendulum of food continues to swing away from fast and convenient to mindful. Before we even cook, we go to great lengths to know where our food comes from and who is producing it. We care about the larger picture of the planet because we’re all part of a community. Even for those who don’t call it spiritual or religious recognize the wholeness of feeding oneself and others.

Q. Because I’m active online, everywhere I look I seem to see so many nutritional “you-must-eat -this-way” plans out there, like paleo, vegan, real food, etc. Your thoughts on this trend, and how as Catholics we might approach this?

I believe each body is individual and responds differently to different foods and food groups. And I respect people who choose not to eat animal products because of moral convictions or push themselves to eat locally-grown produce and meats to support the local economy.

However, I grow concerned when I see people continuing to look for a magic pill of dieting or nutrition. We cut out entire food groups in the hopes of . . . what? Thinness? Health? Youth? As Catholics (as humans, really), we’re stewards of this planet. I think we do best when we choose foods grown in sustainable, humane ways that support the people who grow them.

And I think eating together – whatever you decide to eat – goes a long way in peace and understanding.

Q. You’ve been a Catholic convert now for some years. How do you find your faith changing over the years, and do you have a favorite prayer or way to pray?

My faith is less compartmentalized these days. It’s not just Sunday Mass or even grace before meals but kind of this more constant awareness of God’s presence. My prayers used to be what I called a wish list: things I wanted or needed from God. Now I try to give thanks for all the things for which I’m grateful.

And more recently, I try to silently just listen for God, to stop praying words at all, but I admit that’s really hard.

Q. Finally, I noticed among your other books is Graeter’s Ice Cream: An Irresistible History. Since I have family in Columbus (one of the few places that have Graeter’s ice cream stores) I have to ask: what is your favorite flavor?

Black cherry! Personally, I prefer the kind without chocolate chips, but I appreciate the company’s unique way of using chocolate in its chips flavors. Graeter’s is still one of my favorite places to go for ice cream.

Q&A with Randy Hain, author of “Along the Way”

Here is my interview with Randy Hain, author of the new book Along the Way: Lessons for an Authentic Journey of Faith. Longtime readers will recall that I reviewed Randy’s first book The Catholic Briefcase: Tools for Integrating Life and Work and that I had a Q&A with him back then.  Randy is really prolific as a recent convert; he gives us cradle Catholics inspiration to really live our faith and integrate it into all we do.  Thanks, Randy!



Q.  Tell Reading Catholic readers a little more about you, your work and your writing.

Thank you, Nancy for the opportunity to do this interview!

In my professional career, I am the Managing Partner of Bell Oaks Executive Search in Atlanta and actively serve on a number of non-profit boards in the Atlanta community. I am the Senior Editor for The Integrated Catholic Life eMagazine which I co-founded with Deacon Mike Bickerstaff in 2010.

I am also am a co-founder of the Annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference, the Catholic Business Cafe and lead the St. Peter Chanel Business Association (Faith at Work) Ministry. I am a writer and frequent speaker on a number of topics including faith, family, fatherhood, work/life integration, authenticity, leadership and human capital.

My first book was The Catholic Briefcase: Tools for Integrating Faith and Work, and it was released in late November 2011 by Liguori Publications. The book provides practical advice on how to integrate the Catholic faith with our work and offers inspiration through the examples of real Catholics in the workplace. The Catholic Briefcase was voted the Best Catholic Book of 2011 in the Catholicism Reader’s Choice Awards.

My second book, Along the Way: Lessons for an Authentic Journey of Faith was published by Liguori Publications in November 2012. My third book, “Something More: The Professional’s Pursuit of a Meaningful Life” was released on February 23rd, 2013. My family and I converted to the Catholic Faith in 2006.

My wife Sandra and I have been happily married for 18 years and we have two sons, Alex and Ryan.

Q.  How is Along the Way a different book than The Catholic Briefcase?


My first book was very focused on the integration of our Catholic faith with the workplace. Much of my ministry work in the Church has focused on this topic since I became Catholic in 2006. Along the Way is distinctly different. I have long desired to chronicle my faith journey as a Catholic and this book captures what I have observed, experienced and struggled with since joining the Church.

In Along the Way, I took on the role of a “pilgrim” sharing in a very candid way what it means to aspire to an authentic Catholic life in today’s world. Based on the feedback we are receiving from around the country, this message is really resonating with readers.

Q. I appreciated your openness about your faith journey, your family, and other struggles in Along the Way. Was this new for you?

I am very open about my life and try to be as transparent as possible. I find that one of the best ways we can share our faith and have a positive impact on others is to let them see the light of Christ in us and let them know who we are, where we have been and where we are going with regards to our faith. This openness has accelerated for me since I experienced a profound personal conversion in 2005, which I discuss in the book.

Before that time, I was very compartmentalized and kept walls around the different parts of my life. Surrendering to Christ and joining the Church has broken down these walls and allowed me to lead a truly integrated life with Christ first, family second and work third on my list of priorities. I feel very blessed to be Catholic and enjoy sharing my faith with the people I encounter each day.

Q. Were you a writer or author before you became Catholic?

You might want to list this under “minor miracles”, but I never wrote a word for publication until I became Catholic! I have always read a great deal, but outside of college term papers I never wrote anything of consequence.

After joining the Church at the age of 40 and essentially embarking on a new life, I felt the need to share my experiences and observations. This desire has tapped into a passion I have developed for writing and I am fortunate to have had dozens of articles for both business and faith published over the last few years. I am a disciplined writer and this has allowed me to write a weekly blog for the Integrated Catholic Life eMagazine I co-founded and write three books over the last two years while running a business and being very involved in my active family.

The secret for me is getting up every morning at 4:00 am to pray and write before I start my busy day. It also helps me to stay focused on writing for His glory and not my own.

Q. You have another new book coming out this spring. Share with readers here about that, and any other upcoming projects. What’s next for you?

My third book, Something More: The Professional’s Pursuit of a Meaningful Life, was released in late February. This book captures my experiences interviewing professionals over the last 20+ years (I run a national recruiting firm). These interviews have a consistent thread running through them which I describe as the person’s desire to find more out of life than simply work.

I coupled my observations with interviews I did with twenty business men and women around the country who are pursuing meaningful lives. The result is a road map of sorts which provides a very candid and authentic path to a life filled with meaning and purpose.

Faith is certainly part of the book, but I interviewed people from a variety of faith backgrounds. The result is an ecumenical and honest treatment of the “meaningful life” issue most professionals face at some point in their lives. The early feedback from readers is very encouraging as people seem to have been looking for a book that addresses this topic.

Also, I am working on a book about being a Catholic dad which I hope to complete for a Spring 2014 release. I have also been recently invited to become a contributing writer for the National Catholic Register which is exciting.

Q.  Is there anything else you wish I would have asked, or would like to share?

I feel blessed and am grateful for our Catholic faith. I hope the small efforts I am making will inspire other Catholic lay people to recognize we can all make a positive difference in the lives of those around us. The New Evangelization begins with our own pursuit of holiness and a desire for our Heavenly home.