Discouraged? Books Offer Hope for Flourishing in Faith

Following is my August column from this weekend’s print edition of The Catholic Post.  Note my update at the end–I finished this column some time ago, and posting it made me think of how I am so inspired and buoyed in spirit by the Holy Father.

Lately, the news appears bad about how our Catholic faith intersects with … everything, it seems. I confess that I’ve lacked hope and sometimes even the desire, to engage in the culture, whether online or in person.

How is best to share a Catholic vision of the human person? Social media memes and various encounters recently have left me drained and even skeptical that it is possible in modern life to share the faith in a realistic and loving way. Sometimes it seems either to either avoid engagement entirely, rather than to win an argument’s battle, but at the same time lose the war, by alienating a friend or loved one.

I’ve found peace in my renewed resolution to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, especially the Scripture-rich Office of Readings, which I pray using  “Universalis”, a much-used App on my iPhone.

Of course, it is not surprising that I have also found solace, and even a return of hope, in reading and pondering several books. Here are two that have been particularly helpful for me recently:

UnknownHow to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot Button Issues by Austen Ivereigh, is a rare book: a kind and at the same time robust defense of Catholic beliefs on the “tough” issues.

The book came out of a series of training groups set up by Ivereigh, a well-respected British journalist and author, and others, to train Catholics in England to speak to the media at the time of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to England back in 2010.

The structure of each chapter is what makes this book so unique for a reader not only to understand church teaching, but to explain it to others in a loving way.

For each topic, Ivereigh begins with “challenging questions” asked about the faith. So, for instance, in the chapter, “women and the church,” one of four challenging questions is “Why does the Church think women aren’t good enough to be priests?”

Kind of gets you annoyed and ready to fight? But instead of giving an immediate “when they say, you say” response, Ivereigh describes what he calls the “positive intention” behind each question. So rather than being adversarial, he brings us alongside someone who objects to church teaching, and helps us see the good impulse in their question.

Here’s what is so healthy about this: even if a person is not arguing from a point of good will, it is better to assume that a person is. That offers a way to approach the encounter with love and good will. That’s a good idea in any conversation, whether it is about the faith or not.

Each chapter continues with a longer explanation of what the Church teaches on the topic from an historical, theological and cultural perspective; an “existing frame” for how the debate is often couched, and a ”reframe” to see things from a Catholic point of view. Only after all this is covered does Ivereigh share “key messages” to these tough questions.

Put together, the framework of How to Defend the Faith offers a great way to both understand and explain Church teaching. That perspective will help anyone interested in a flourishing Catholic life and witness.

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Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life by the super smart and passionately Catholic Elizabeth Scalia, is a challenging read, but it is a good challenge.  Scalia (no relation to the Supreme Court justice) has long blogged as “The Anchoress;” she is also managing editor of the Catholic channel at the popular website Patheos.com.

I resisted beginning Strange Gods because I feared that it might read as judgmental, implying, “you’re bad for being on Facebook” or “everything fun is bad.”

But it’s not like that at all. Instead, Scalia shows that our Catholic faith offers a healthy alternative to current trends, from the “idols” of, among other things: technology, prosperity, and plans.  “Strange Gods” is meandering and thought-provoking, as one might when having a far-ranging discussion with a very smart and articulate friend over coffee.

The book’s cover is fascinating iconography of its own, capturing the spirit of the book beautifully. It’s an image of church windows filled with phone or app –yes, notice they are called–icons that show all that can keep us from a fully engaged life.

Reading Strange Gods invites one to ponder how so much of modern life holds the potential for great good or great danger, and how living our Catholic faith fully provides the answer.

This is a post-publication update to my column.  I must admit I’m still struggling with a sense of sadness about the state of the world, which is why I’m clinging to Universalis, times of adoration when I can slip away, and also trying to see the positive out there, such as the terrific news from World Youth Day and the crowds there.  Also, I just want to say how much seeing Pope Francis interact with people (and yes, the media) has been restorative for me.

This may be old news to most, but since I’ve been on vacation I only discovered it early this morning.  I’m sharing because I found it so moving and beautiful.  Read the story here to get the background of a nine-year-old boy who, St. Therese-style, jumped a barrier at WYD to cling to Pope Francis and share his desire to be a priest.  Be sure to watch to the end and see the boy, as he walks away towards his family, bury his face in his hands.