Category Archives: Seasons

Good Reads from Pope Francis’ Bookshelf {Lent Book Series}

This post is part of the 2015 {Lent Book Series}.
FullSizeRenderLooking for some Lenten spiritual reading inspired by or recommended by Pope Francis?

First, begin with the Holy Father’s Message for Lent 2015. Every year, the pope releases a message for Lent, and it begins and is based on a Scripture verse. This year, the Scripture verse is James 5:8: “Make your hearts firm.” Pope Francis’ theme is overcoming indifference, whether the Church as a whole, parishes or small communities, or individual Christians.

The Lenten messages are always short (this year’s is under 2,000 words—just a few pages) and reader-friendly. It is well worth taking 10-12 minutes to read and reflect on it.

Once you’ve finished that, now you’re ready for some of the Holy Father’s favorite books to jump-start your Lenten journey, here are some of the more familiar titles among his spiritual and literary favorites.

These are taken from the back-of-book page titled, “Bergoglio’s Bookshelf,” at the end of The Great Reformer, Austen Ivereigh’s recent biography of Pope Francis (click the link for my review of that book).  All are easy for readers to obtain at local Catholic bookstores. Some of the “classics” are available as free or almost-free e-books.

The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of the Little Flower, by St. Therese of Lisieux. Many have read this classic by “The Little Flower,” but it’s worth a careful read any year. Something to ponder as you read or re-read this book: What does it mean that it is one of Pope Francis’ favorite books?

The Lord by Romano Guardini. Perhaps the best-known work of Romano Guardini, an Italian priest and 20th century intellectual giant, it influenced countless priests from the 1940s on, including Pope Francis as a young Jesuit. Another Guardini option is to read the accessible Learning the Virtues: That Lead You to God
a recent Sophia Institute Press re-publication.

If novels are more for you, here are two ideas from Pope Francis’ favorites:
The Betrothed: I Promessi Sposi, Alessandro Manzoni’s 1827 novel that’s the first historical fiction written in Italian. It was a favorite novel of Pope Francis’ grandmother, and he knew of it from a young age. It cover the heroism, holiness, and lack those, in priests and the faithful in 19th century Europe.

Lord of the World by English priest-author Robert Hugh Benson. Lord of the World was written in 1907 as a futuristic end-of-the-world novel. It was a dystopian novel before the genre existed, but with more depth than most of the current crop.

Have you read any of these?  I’ve read Story of a Soul several times, and years ago read Lord of the World after it was suggested by a priest friend, but I don’t remember it at all.  I think I tried to read The Betrothed some years back, but never got any traction on it.  Maybe I need to give it another try.

{Lent Book Series} 2015: Books to Reset Lent

At Mass on Sunday, I actually said to a friend, well, Easter is just a few weeks away!

Turns out it’s nearly five weeks away.  That is not my definition of “few,” so clearly, I am ready for Lent to be over.  As I shared,  I am missing chocolate something terrible.

(And, yes, I know I’m not supposed to give up chocolate but instead do great things.  I use “chocolate” as a shorthand for all my Lenten practices.  I do admit, however, to giving up actual chocolate every year because it’s hard). 

Are you feeling the same way?  Feeling like a failure already at your Lenten practices and promises? Need a boost or a mid-Lent re-set?

Me, too.

So, over the next few weeks, I and some other local writers will be sharing books to reset your Lent.


This will end up being the 2015 edition of {Lent Book Series}.  If I can be totally honest, I had really planned for this to be a full-fledged book series, running all Lent long.  However, several things–mostly the busyness of life and my neglect of this space.  First, I got a late start in asking writers to join in.  A bunch responded. And then I  just dropped the ball;  life getting in the way, too.  And then Lent started and I still hadn’t begun.

So, operating on the principle of better late than never, and knowing that I and many others need a Lent “reset” after a few weeks, I reframed the series.  I hope you’ll find some of the ideas helpful in making your Lent fruitful.

Check back here on Friday, when I’ll share some of Pope Francis’ favorite books, and why they might make good reads on your Lenten journey.   Several times a week, I or others will be sharing good reads, and before you know it, we really will be just a few weeks from Easter.

Memento Mori, or We Are All Going to Die {My March column @ The Catholic Post}

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

While listening to a radio story recently reporting the “death rate” for those who exercise was reduced by some very high percentage, I actually laughed out loud—what could the reporter possibly mean? 

Even I, an avid runner, am unconvinced.  Everyone, whether the person perfects couch-potato status or completes Ironman triathlons, is going to die.  We are all called to be good stewards of life, but there is no way to reduce the 100 percent death rate among humans.

It may seem like a downer, but memento mori —basically, “remember you are going to die”— is not something to fear, but something to embrace, especially during this season of Lent. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we are told as we receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. 

Many people today— with good reason—are concerned about, and even fear, the dying process and what can be highly-medicalized end-of-life care. An excellent new book, Atal Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, offers much food for thought to understanding the way we die in our current culture, and what we should change about it.

Gawande is a surgeon who’s written several popular books, including the acclaimed The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right that posited how airline checklists could be successfully applied to health care and other fields, with great success.

In Being Mortal,  Gawande uses stories, statistics, and history, to get at why and how we die in the 21st century.  It is both fascinating and a little frightening.  He shares stories of his own patients and family members, and of how he, as a physician, has gotten it right and wrong with patients and loved ones about their end-of-life journeys, not just from a medical, but a human perspective.

He shares what he has learned from others in medicine, bioethics, hospice, and philosophy, and offers not so much a how-to, but a blueprint for people to begin discussions about how they’d like to live at the end of life.

Gawande is not Catholic, but in many ways Being Mortal  is a deeply Catholic (and catholic) book.  He is a gifted writer, and reflects on the nature of dying and of living well, chiefly through the concept of ars moriendi, or “the art of dying.”  (Ars moriendi was first popularized in a series of books about dying well written by late medieval Catholic monks.)  Gawande applies this beautifully when he stresses, over and over again, the interconnectedness of human life:

“Our lives are inherently dependent upon others and subject to forces and circumstances well beyond our control.  Having more freedom seems better than having less.  But to what end?  The amount of freedom you have in your life is not the measure of the worth of your life.  Just as safety is an empty and even self-defeating goal to live for, so ultimately is autonomy.”

Being Mortal is not a perfect book, nor is it fully Catholic—Gawande implies a qualified support of doctors writing prescriptions to terminally ill patients, but he calls that “not a measure of success… it is a measure of failure.”  His support of this is so uncharacteristic, since the vast majority of the book is respectful and life-affirming on the value of living and dying well, compatible with a Catholic vision of the truth and infinite worth of human lives.

For a more explicitly Catholic perspective on death and dying, consider Susan Windley-Daoust’s Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment and Dying. 

Windley-Daoust, a professor at St. Mary’s University in Wenona, Minnesota, has written a careful and wide-ranging analysis of how St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” relates to birth (she writes of childbirth, “it is charged with the Holy Spirit”), those who encounter or experience disability, and those in a dying process.  She, too, shares how the Catholic vision of ars moriendi can shape a spiritually healthy and integrated life.

Yes, it’s theology, but very accessible to mere mortal readers (like me!).  She shares stories and practical applications about how we live our faith through our bodies.

Clearly, Being Mortal and Theology of the Body, Extended were not written together, but they can be read as companion books.  Both books reflect, from somewhat different, but complementary, approaches, on the immense value of human life and human connection, even and especially in our most vulnerable moments.

Read both books this Lent, and start some great discussions with your loved ones about memento mori.

St. Thomas Aquinas Academy

Happy Feast day of  St. Thomas Aquinas!

It’s also the feast day of our home-school, St. Thomas Aquinas Academy.

Many years ago, when I was a newbie home educator, and my children were all pre-school or younger, I was encouraged, I think at a conference, to name our family’s homeschool.  I chose St. Thomas Aquinas since my husband has a great devotion to him, and I know he’s the patron saint of education, schools, and universities.  It’s stuck over the years, and my kids who are still home educated like telling people the name of their school, even all these years later.

We usually try to celebrate this day with a lunch out and fun things (it’s our own Catholic Schools Week celebration), but this year I have a sick child.  So we will transfer the feast to another day and be sure to celebrate.

Meanwhile, here are an assortment of books from my bookshelves about St. Thomas Aquinas, for those interested in learning and reading more about this great saint .  I may begin to re-read The Quiet Light this afternoon.

I was mildly surprised I didn’t have a picture book about him.  I don’t think one exists.

The Quiet Light: A Novel About Saint Thomas Aquinas
is one of many historical fiction novels written by Louis deWohl about an assortment of saints. His novels are highly readable and often page-turning novels. deWohl knows how to tell a story.

First Glance At Thomas Aquinas (A Handbook for Peeping Thomists)
I’m not sure I’ve ever read this book cover to cover, even though I love Ralph McInerny and consider him one of my heroes.

Saint Thomas Aquinas by Raissa Maritain, is a children’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, written by the wife of Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain.  She was a poet herself.  This was interesting and good to read, but did not work as a read-aloud at our house.  Perhaps it’s the translation?

One-Minute Aquinas: The Doctor’s Quick Answers to Fundamental Questions by Kevin Vost is a good introduction to Aquinas’s theological thought.  Here’s my review.

Finally, not a book specifically about St. Thomas, but about Dominican spirituality.

How To Pray the Dominican Way: Ten Postures, Prayers, and Practices that Lead Us to God by Angelo Stagnaro.  When I looked at my review of this book from several years back, I was struck by this quote from the book:

“”Without prayer, there is no chance for success in this world.”

That quote wasn’t written by St. Thomas Aquinas, but it easily could have been.

Do you have any books or articles to share about St. Thomas Aquinas? 

Meet God Halfway {My January column, The Catholic Post}

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

You probably know this old chestnut–a man prayed faithfully every day for years: “Lord, please let me win the lottery.”  Finally, after 10 years of petition, God answers the man: “Meet me halfway–buy a ticket.”

I’ll avoid commenting on whether “win the lottery” is a good prayer petition, except to say that the right number of lottery tickets to buy is one, every once in a while.  Even God (well, the God of this joke) agrees.  

The reason that joke has longevity is that it’s so true, especially at this time of year when making resolutions.

We want to eat healthier, but don’t put away the leftover Christmas chocolate.  I’m using the royal “we” here, as I’m currently guilty of that one.

We want to start an exercise routine, but don’t plan out when we’d get to the gym or go for a walk.

We say we’ll get more organized, but spend more time on Pinterest pinning gorgeously organized spaces, than actually cleaning out the closet.  

Even in the spiritual life, we might desire to grow in faith, but don’t take the practical steps needed.  We need to recommit to meeting God “half-way” by doing what we can to cooperate with grace.

There’s a common formula for goal-setting that helps people get more specific—have you heard it? Goals should be SMART—specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.  

Because I’m a goals and resolutions type of person, I love this approach.  So following is a newly-released book paired with each of the SMART principles. 

First is specific—so let’s tackle a specific, and often controversial, topic: contraception.

Angela Franks, PhD, has written Contraception and Catholicism: What the Church Teaches and Why a helpful, easy-to-read guide that covers the personal, the practical, and the nitty-gritty about openness to life.  Dr. Franks calls herself a “theologian mom,” so she manages to be intellectual and down-to-earth, and funny, as she shares the Catholic Church’s teaching in this area, and what it means for couples and families.

Next is measurable—and what better than a book about science?

Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?: . . . and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory by Guy Consolmagno, SJ, and Paul Mueller, SJ has a long, potentially intimidating title, but it’s a highly readable and engaging book.

Brother Consolmagno and Father Mueller are both Jesuits who are work at the Vatican Observatory, one of the world’s leading research facilities, and they write about “what its like when science encounters faith on friendly, mutual respectful terms . …for people who want to take (both) science and faith seriously.”

Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? points out, “Science isn’t a big book of facts. It’s a conversation.” 

So the two authors have an actual, back-and-forth conversation throughout the book explaining and learning together about various topics, from Galileo to the star of Bethlehem to the end of the world.  The conversation format allows the authors to cover complex topics without overwhelming readers.

As Father Mueller writes, “We don’t claim to be able to teach you, ‘How to’ do it.  Instead, we simply want to share with you the joy and hope—and fun—that we find in doing science and living faith.”

Well said, and well-written.

Next for goal- setting is attainable.  How about working to achieve a real trust in God?

From Fear to Faith: A Worrier’s Guide to Discovering Peace
by Gary Zimak is a sensible, back-to-basics overview of ways to begin the never-ending work of leaving behind our worries and fears, and focus on Jesus and our faith.

Zimak writes from first-person perspective, since he has struggled with anxiety and depression for most of his life. From Fear to Faith is a book-length explanation of the main talk he gives in his work as a Catholic evangelist.

What I love most about the book is that Zimak doesn’t downplay— at all — the importance of getting professional help for mental health issues, whether that includes counseling, medication, or many other ways.  But he’s not providing those in “From Fear to Faith,” but enriching them. by offering simple and effective spiritual strategies—a way one can follow Jesus at His word and “be not afraid.”

Next is relevant — having a goal that is personally meaningful, like sharing the faith with loved ones.

I can hardly believe it, but I’ve never reviewed a book by the excellent and prolific Scott Hahn.  Knowing I will date myself, let me share that I recall listening to a Scott Hahn cassette tape in the late 1980s, and it has always stayed with me.

Evangelizing Catholics: A Mission Manual for the New Evangelization is Hahn’s exploration, through his usual Scott Hahn style, of how to spread the faith naturally in our lives.

As Hahn writes, “You can’t keep the Faith unless you give it away,” and this book offers personal stories, background of church history of how Catholics have shared the faith, and practical advice about how and why to “do evangelization.” It’s an encouraging read that is informative and inspiring.

Finally, goals should be time-bound.  What better than a daybook, which promotes a small amount of reading each day?

I enjoy and recommend daybooks often, but Peace and Good: Through the Year with Francis of Assisi by Franciscan Fr. Pat McCloskey, stands out.

Each month offers a specific theme, such as peace in January and service to the poor in September.  Each day has a quote from Francis or early writings about him, then “Life as Francis Did” applying it to today, and then “Growing with Francis,” with a very specific, and very do-able, action item.

Christmas is Coming… Books for All Tastes {my December column @ The Catholic Post}

Following is my December column appearing in this week’s print edition of The Catholic Post.

All together now… “Christmas is coming.”  Advent preparations are underway, planning, decorations and parties are a constant, and figuring out gifts is top of mind.

I’d like to promote chocolate as a gift. Surprised you, didn’t I? You thought I would say books. Well, okay, books, too, but I’ll make the case they are more like chocolate that you think.


A thoughtfully chosen book, just like chocolate, is a great, no-clutter gift for Christmas. But choosing carefully is important. I wouldn’t give Trader Joe’s 70% dark chocolate to my children, who would prefer Caramello. And chocolate with other things in it (bacon? no thanks) wouldn’t be a good gift for me, who likes chocolate plain. Just as there’s no one chocolate for everyone, there’s really no one book that fits every reader.

Here’s a list of some recent titles, for both grown-ups and young readers, to get you started thinking of books as a truly fruitful gift-giving category.  Then head to your local Catholic bookstore or online bookseller, and browse around for books that would make the most sense for your loved ones.

Sacred Space: The Prayer Book 2015 by the Irish Jesuits.

In the late 1990s early days of the Internet, my husband introduced me to the Sacred Space website created by the Irish Jesuits, an acknowledged masterpiece of simplicity and prayerfulness.  It’s still one of the truly useful, simple, and easy-to-use, prayer sources on the Internet.  Spending a few minutes there daily allows one to enter into a deep and prayerful moment with the Lord.

A book version of Sacred Space comes out as an annual guide.  It, too, is a treasure.

Each week begins with “Something to think and pray about each day this week,” a Jesuit meditation following a regular pattern, then short reflections for each day based on the daily Gospel.  It sounds simple, but Sacred Space is remarkably effective in inspiring deep reflection in a short time.

Beloved: A Collection of Timeless Catholic Prayers by Margaret M. Dvorak

Books that have all the traditional prayers can be formulaic, but several things about this book make Beloved stand out. First, the book is nicely designed. The cover has a rich feel and lovely decorative cover, evocative of an illuminated manuscript. Second, the prayers are described in an open, fresh, way.  Dvorak covers all the basics, but in an authentic way.  Finally, Beloved is small and “right-sized,” perfect for carrying along to adoration or just keeping on the shelf for reference.

The Grace of Yes: Eight Virtues for Generous Living by Lisa Hendey

The Grace of Yes is more personal than Hendey’s other excellent books, The Handbook for Catholic Moms and A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms.  She shares about her own struggles as a career mom turned stay-at-home mom, and her wrestling with her own perceived deficits through her life.

The Grace of Yes is part memoir and part reflection on the spiritual life.  Hendey is a woman of deep prayer, and her spirituality shines through in this book about ways to live out uncommon virtues, such as creativity or generativity. “The Grace of Yes” contains abundant food for thought—it makes you reflect, consider virtues in a new way, and also ways to implement them in your own life.

Books for Younger Readers:

Holy Goals for Body and Soul: Eight Steps to Connect Sports with God and Faith  by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki.  Bishop Paprocki is something of a local writer, since he’s a bishop of Springfield, adjacent to the Peoria diocese.

Truth be told, I’m not a huge sports fan.  But I genuinely enjoyed Paprocki ’s take on the spiritual life related to athletics, and how we can compare so many features of excelling in sports (setting aside fear, overcoming frustration, having faith, honoring family and friendship, having fun, and more) can relate to grown in the spiritual life.

Holy Goals is highly recommended for any sports-interested young person.

Adventures in Assisi: On the Path with St. Francis  by Amy Welborn, illustrated by Ann Kissane Engelhart.

Welborn and Engelhart have done several books together, and they keep getting better and better.  Adventures in Assisi is story of two children who take a tour of Assisi and surrounding areas with their great-uncle, a Franciscan friar.  It’s sweetly written, beautifully illustrated, and well made.

Angel in the Waters by Regina Doman, illustrated by Ben Hatke.

Angel is the Waters has been out for 10 years, and it still stands as a classic picture book on so many fronts—a great new-baby book, a gentle pro-life message book, and a “just perfect” read-aloud for any age.  Any one of those things is hard to accomplish in one picture book, but all of them? Nearly miraculous.

Every single time I read Angel in the Waters, I end up in tears, the result of the beautiful combination of Doman’s lyrical prose and Hatke’s lovely illustrations about the life of an unborn child.

Sophia Institute Press has a 10th anniversary edition out of this classic.  If you’ve never received or given this book before, now’s your chance to own it.  Or if your own copy is falling apart, order a new one for the shelf and for frequent reading.

Venerable Solanus Casey, pray for us.

Today’s Feast–maybe it’s not a feast yet, since he’s only Venerable.  But anyway, it is that of Venerable Father Solanus Casey, a Detroit Franciscan,  doorkeeper, and holy man of God.

When I visited family in Michigan back in 2008 or 2009 (my husband had to stay at home for work), I took my then very-young kids the see the Solanus Casey Center in Detroit.  I can’t find any photos of our time there at the moment, but it was quite moving.  There is a church there, as well as a small museum about his life as a Capuchin Franciscan.  You can read this small biography of this humble, simple soul.  He died in 1957.

I have several books about him that I purchased at the Center’s gift shop, but none can be located.  What could be found? A coloring book about his life–no kidding!  Somehow there’s something appropriate about that since he was such a simple man.

Fortunately, the coloring book includes a page full of “sayings of Father Solanus Casey.”  Because I’m home today with a sick child, I had the chance to make several “edits” with quotes from the page:


Solanus Casey

This one turned out a little fuzzy.  I think I need to take a class in how to design and produce edits quickly and well. Does anyone know of a place to do that? I just don’t have the time to play around with it too much.  But this works.

Solanus Casey greatness

Here’s another version of that one:

Solanus Casey greatness2Do you have a preference?

I’ve just added to my calendar the private Novena beginning November 30. recommended by the Solanus Casey Center this year. November 30 is also the beginning of the St. Andrew Christmas Novena. The more, the merrier, novena-wise, since it’s Advent.

I also see that EWTN will air a Mass from the Solanus Casey Center on Sunday, November 23–the 144th anniversary of Fr. Casey’s birth.

Are you at all familiar with Father Solanus Casey? If you’re not, I hope you’ll explore some of the links and ask him for something special this year.

Books for the Feast of All Saints

Happy Feast of All Saints!

I promise to provide more information about each book shortly, but I wanted to share links to some of our favorite children’s books about saints, and book series about saints.

Some of our favorites I could not find in print, so I’ll try to do a separate post about those.

There’s an inexpensive app that contains the content of the above two books.  It’s available for both iOs and Android.  We own the books, but we use the app every day.

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!

Father Benedict Groeschel, Rest in Peace

I learned this weekend that Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., died on the eve of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.  May he rest in peace!

He was such a sensible, holy voice in so many ways. Anyone who saw him on EWTN‘s “Sunday Night Live” for many years will recall many great interviews and insights there.

Here are four books that I consider Father Groeschel classics, from a quick perusal of my bookshelves.  I know he wrote many more, and I loved many more, but it’s a start.

Father Groeschel was a psychologist, and worked in the field for many years, so his advice about matters emotional and mental is both time-tested, professional and sensible, but with gentleness.

Here is where I briefly reviewed Arise from Darkness: What to Do When Life Doesn’t Make Sense, along with several newer classic book about mental health issues.  But it’s a gem.

Travelers Along the Way: The Men and Women Who Shaped My Life is a  relatively easy read, but very substantial and edifying at the same time.

I’m going to excerpt from my prior review of this great read:

This book is like a “who’s who” of Catholicism, from mini-biographies of saints and blessed, the famous and the obscure, in fascinating color. Each chapter is a little gem of anecdotes and memories of the particular fellow “traveler,” from Cardinal Cooke to Groeschel’s secretary.

The prolific Fr. Groeschel is easy to read (in the best sense of the word); he’s such an excellent writer that he makes it look easy to write in a conversational, relational style. Travelers Along the Way puts that great style to good use, as you can easily pick up and read one “traveler’s” story.

The Saints in My Life: My Favorite Spiritual Companions is very similar to Travelers Along the Way, but instead of stories of people Fr. Groeschel knew, the stories here are about his spiritual friendship with saints over his life and vocation. Nicely organized and useful for considering how the reader is impacted by saints.

Finally, here is a book I couldn’t locate on my bookshelf–I must have loaned it out to someone.  But even thinking about this book again brings up strong emotions.

In , A Priest Forever: The Life of Eugene Hamilton, Father Groeschel writes so beautifully about the life of a young man who had a longtime vocation to the priesthood. From the description (since I can’t peruse the book, nor can I find where I’ve written about it before–it must be offline):

This is the true story of Eugene Hamilton, a young man who dreamed of becoming a priest; a young man stricken with terminal cancer as his life was just beginning; a man who was ordained, by papal dispensation, just hours before he died.

My memory of reading it:  I  was a new mother with one baby when I first read this book.  I found myself weeping about his death, but also deepening my sense of by the nature of vocation, the gift of the priesthood to the rest of the people of God, and the beauty of life and death.

Do you have a favorite Father Groeschel book?  Any impressions of his life or advice?