Category Archives: Saints

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: 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.

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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.


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!

God’s Work, No Matter the Circumstances {My July Column @TheCatholicPost}

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

I ran into a friend at Aldi the other day, and so I asked about her husband’s struggle with cancer. She outlined his progress, and also shared that their family has agreed, yet again, to be foster parents, this time to a sibling pair. When I expressed my admiration, her reply was, “We believe it is God’s work.” Did I mention her husband has cancer? I told her, “The way you live your whole life is God’s work.”

Seeing fellow Christians living in such a radically open and generous way is very humbling for an average believer like me. And yet when I want to feel discouraged about my lack of heroic actions, I recall that for all of us, our whole life is God’s work, even in the “small things” we do.

That is why it was ennobling to read a book about ordinary Christians doing extraordinary things in The Priest Barracks: Dachau, 1938-1945 by Guillaume Zeller, translated from the French by Michael J. Miller. It makes reader ponder, as one should every day, “How can I make my life more God’s work?”

The Priest Barracks tells the little-known story of the thousands of Catholic priests, seminarians, and non-Catholic clergy who lived and often died in the brutal conditions of the prototype among concentration camps, Dachau, in southeastern Germany. At first it was only German priests who were detained. Eventually, a variety of clergy, from members of the Resistance to priests who made modest statements in their sermons, from countries throughout Europe, were largely centralized into three large barracks at Dachau.

The gripping account of the lives of priests in the KZ (the German initials for concentration camp), living the Catholic faith, ministering to fellow prisoners, and maintaining humanity, is woven throughout this well-researched and fact-filled book.

Obviously, the conditions were horrific. And yet, the men endured, amid successes and failures—it wasn’t all perfect, but the priests, including at least two bishops, formed a kind of community that transcended nationality, religious order, Christian denomination, and spiritual temperament.

The Priest Barracks is divided into three sections of six to seven chapters each. First is “A Camp for Priests,” which outlines how the Dachau concentration camp was founded, and then later how it came to be a repository for clergy from all over Europe. Second is “O Land of Distress,” which details many of the horrific conditions, including hunger, death, typhus, and medical experiments. Third is “A Spiritual Home,” which outlines how sacramental life was lived, how the Eucharist existed even in the camp, and relates the improbable and nearly miraculous ordination of a dying seminarian in one of the barracks.

Each chapter begins with a Scripture verse related to its theme. So, for instance, in the chapter, “Anti-Christian Hatred,” is Matthew 5:11: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

Most moving was the account in the “Sacramental Life” chapter on the secret ordination of Father Karl Leisner, a seminarian who, dying from tuberculosis, was ordained through the sacrifices and tactics of the clergy and their fellow prisoners, from the clergy who fashioned his vestments and the bishop’s mitre with cast-off fabric, to the Jewish musicians who played violins outside the barrack to distract the German soldiers from the ceremony. Bishop Gabriel Piguet, a resident of the camp, performed the ordination; as he wrote later, “Truly, in a place where the priesthood has been utterly humiliated and where it was supposed to be exterminated, divine revenge has been striking: one more priest had been born to the priesthood of Christ.”

Probably the finest chapter is “The Fruits of Dachau,” as Zeller outlines the lasting legacy of the priests’ time in Dachau: the importance of unity among the clergy, despite their various orders, nationalities, and practices; the presence of a healthy ecumenism among religions in the camp; how the apostolate of service was lived out; and how the clergy promoted the fundamental dignity of the human person, despite the conditions.

I was inspired to read The Priest Barracks after re-reading earlier this summer the classic He Leadeth Me, Fr. Walter Ciszek’s spiritual autobiography, including his harrowing years as a political prisoner in World War II-era and post-war Russia.

His successes and failures of faith, of perseverance, make the word “inspiring” an understatement. He Leadeth Me is for anyone who seeks to live a Christian life, but who feels unprepared for the task. Fr. Ciszek’s story shows us that “keeping on” and never giving up, is the important quality of the Christian life, all through the lens of the persecution he experienced.

In a similar way, The Priest Barracks offers inspiration for the average Christian, not because of the heroic feats of the clergy imprisoned there—and there were many— but in how normal they were, and yet how much good they could do, bit by bit, day by day.

It may be essentially zero chance that any of us will have to endure the conditions these brave clergy did, or have the opportunity to be heroic in the way they did. And yet, we, all of us, need to go “God’s work” with our lives, day by day. Learning how these ordinary Christians lived their faith can enkindle in us a desire to do the good we can every day.

Meet a Reader: Kim Padan {@TheCatholicPost}

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

How we know you:

I currently serve as President of the Peoria Diocesan Council of Catholic Women. You may also know me from the evangelization column “Called to Witness” found periodically in The Catholic Post. My husband Bruce and I are members of St. Paul parish in Danville.

Why I love reading:

I grew up in a home where reading was encouraged and valued. Our family was working class with very few extras. However, every month in grade school my siblings and I could order books off the Scholastic order form. There was nothing like taking home 4 or 5 brand new books…each! We all enjoyed reading then, and still do, but because I was physically unable to participate in many activities with my peers, I would just soak up a good book whenever I had the chance.

As I grew older, I remember hiding out in my room to read a Nancy Drew novel on a single Saturday, always trying to solve the mystery before the last chapter. For most of our lives my parents would give each of us a new hard cover book for Christmas, signed with the year on the inside front page. To this day, I look forward to my mom calling in October or November, asking for a book wish list.

What I’m reading now:

Currently, I am reading multiple books. This wasn’t my style before (except when required for school) but it is what I enjoy doing now. I am reading The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech by Kirsten Powers. She is a liberal journalist who articulates her views respectfully and with much-needed balance. When she called out the mainstream media for ignoring the Kermit Gosnell scandal, I became a fan of hers.

For fun, I am reading Nameless which is the second part of The Memoirs of Jane E, Friendless Orphan by Erin McCole Cupp. It is a futuristic re-telling of the classic Jane Eyre. For my Lay Dominican group, I just started another von Balthasar, Heart of the World. Finally for Lent, I am reading Eucharistic Adoration: Holy Hour Meditations on the Seven Last Words of Christ by Charles M. Murphy. I generally have a mix of fiction and non-fiction beside my comfy chair.

My favorite book: It is impossible to pick one favorite book, so I will mention a few. The first book that I can remember deeply impacting me was Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther. I read it in eighth or ninth grade so the details escape me, but it is the story of a teen’s battle with cancer. I just recall being moved by the courage of this young man. Reflecting on it now, I believe it is worth rereading.

For a quick Saturday read, I enjoyed Don’t You Forget About Me by Erin McCole Cupp. This book is a contemporary mystery-romance with Catholic themes woven in beautifully. I am Facebook friends with the author, a fellow Lay Dominican, and I encouraged her to get going on the sequel! For spiritual reading, I would have to list The Confessions of St. Augustine and Prayer by Hans urs von Balthasar. Both are beautiful in their entirety, but also can be appreciated in small portions for reflection.

“Hurting in the Church” a Must-Read {My March column @TheCatholicPost}

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

“The reality of the Catholic Church today in developed countries, and certainly in the United States, is that we are a church of the hurting.”

Does that quote make you a little —or a lot —uncomfortable? It’s meant to be—-not as a provocation, but as an invitation to dialogue and healing.

The quote is from the must-read new book, Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics, by Father Thomas Berg.


I know I’ve said before that not every book is for every reader. Sometimes a book is intended for a specific audience, like moms, or young readers, or new Catholics.

But: every so often, a book is published that is so noteworthy and whose message is so significant that I believe nearly everyone should read it. These books are written that a wide range of readers—from professional theologians to average Catholics (like me!) — can and should read them to glean many good insights and grow in faith.

Forming Intentional Disciples  by Sherry Weddell is one. Remembering God’s Mercy: Redeem the Past and Free Yourself from Painful Memories by Dawn Eden is another.

Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics  is the latest of these books.

Fr. Berg is a seminary professor and diocesan priest in New York. He was originally a member of the Legionaries of Christ, but discerned out of the order after disclosures of the founder’s decades of sexual abuse and many other misdeeds. Fr. Berg writes that he felt devastated by the revelations about something to which he had devoted much of his young life. As a result, he experienced a years-long crisis of faith and vocation. Writing “Hurting in the Church” was a major part and process in his own healing.

Hurting in the Church does tell Berg’s own story, as well as the stories of others that have experienced harm within in the church, whether through clergy sexual abuse or other issues.

But it’s much more than a narrative of horrifying experiences. Instead, it offers the stories of others as a way to heal, understand, and integrate the reality of evil in the world, and even in the Church, within one’s faith.

As Father Berg writes, many Catholics are “hurting in the church,” either in small ways or giant ways, from parish issues to lack of community to clergy sexual abuse. How to reconcile those hurts with our faith life and experience of Christ is vital to wholeness and peace, and “Hurting in the Church” is devoted to that process.

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1: “The Ways We Hurt” identifies the problems and hurts we can experience as members of the Church. Helpful here is Berg’s assertion that we not minimize our hurts just because others have been “hurt worse.”

Part 2, “Toward Personal Healing” outlines Fr. Berg’s own process of recognizing himself as a “wounded healer,” and also shares the stories of others who have worked to heal thoughts and memories and use those experiences and healing to serve others who have been hurt.

Finally, Part 3, “Towards Healing a Church,” proposes ways to continue to have faith in Christ & the Church, to ensure that children are protected. The final chapter, “A Revolution of Tenderness,” beautifully offers ideas for the Church in being more responsive to hurts, as well as a caution to all of us in “controlling our tongues,” especially in a digital world, and avoid being knee-jerk in our reactions to others.

One vital message from “Hurting in the Church” is that each person—without exception—is affected and changed by the things that happens to that person. But it’s how each of us handle and integrate those experiences in a psychologically & spiritual healthy and truthful way that affects our well-being and ability to live whole lives.

In the chapter “First Steps,” Fr. Berg shares how spending time with friends who were Hurricane Katrina survivors, and who told him he had been through his own “spiritual Katrina.” Those friends helped show how their acceptance, continued hope, and faith that God would help them endure and thrive.

“The wound and how I chose to deal with it would have a lasting influence on who I would become from that point on in my life.”

One of the most helpful messages was Fr. Berg’s recommends a robust and multi-faceted approach to working through trauma. He describes a combination of spiritual and emotional tools, including just plain time, that assisted in his healing. Restoration is not just about “praying it away,” or “offering it up,” though prayer and sacrifice are part of this. It’s about the entire process, and not rushing it.

It’s may seem strange to say that you love a book with such intense content and forceful message for us all. But I did love it, and I believe a book like Hurting in the Church is so needed in the Church right now. Read it if you’ve been hurt, or you’ve known someone who was hurt, or if you love the Church. That covers just about everyone.