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.

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