Book Review: Be a Man

Are you a person who:

  1. reads the Bible?  Are you spending time reading Scripture every day?  Are you living with the mindset, “No Bible, no breakfast; no Bible, no bed?”
  2. surrenders to the Holy Spirit?  Do you make a commitment to say a daily prayer of submission to the Holy Spirit?
  3. takes responsibility for your life and your past and not blame others?

Those are three of thirty tasks that Father Larry Richards asks of his readers in his book, Be a Man: Becoming the Man God Created you to be.  In this book, he explores how one grows strong in faith by imitating the manly example of Jesus Christ.  Through stories of his ministry and personal experiences, Fr. Larry breaks down the popular misconception that being deeply spiritual and close to God is something weak or passive.  His book reflects an attitude of a drill instructor or fitness coach telling people to “man up” and actively embrace their faith.

Despite its title, Be a Man is a great guide book for all Catholics, not just men.  Except for a few stories and maybe a few male-specific words of advice, this book will just as easily appeal to women as well as men.  To me, the title seems more like a marketing gimmick to separate itself from all the other “how to live a Catholic lifestyle” books that are available.

Father Larry Richards’ advice is not an easy one.  He is very up front that living a truly Catholic life is difficult.  But he stresses the importance of “manning up” and tackling those challenges because it will ultimately benefit you and the ones you love.  At its core, he lays down arguments on the importance of dedicating your life to God.  Contrary to popular belief, lay people are called to lead a fully spiritual life of prayer, fasting, chastity, charity, and dedication to following God’s will just like any ordained priest.  God does not let us off easy just because we happen to be on the other side of the alter during Mass.

Personally, my largest takeaway from the book is the need to go to church more than once a week on Sunday.  As Fr. Larry says, the Our Father says “give us our daily bread.”  It does not say “weekly bread.”  Even if you cannot attend daily Mass, it is important to try to go into a church, say a few prayers, and tell God that you are starting your day as his disciple.  While I have not been able to go to church every day, I do try to find times to squeeze it in when I can.  I hope, much like rosary prayer, it provides a sense of peace knowing that God is in control and is guiding me regardless of the chaos of our world.

This book has been out for seven years and has a 5-star rating on Amazon.  It is that good and is something you will want to give away to your friends and family after you read it.  Buy a copy and be the one who starts a new chain of lending of this powerful book.

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Pope Pius XII: Hitler’s Pope Debunked

Pope Pius XII is often regarded as “Hitler’s pope” because of his silence on the autocracies committed by the Nazis in WWII, particularly the Holocaust. However, the book Church of Spies presents a different side of the story where the Vatican’s silence was not born out of indifference or antisemitism, but one of strategy. In fact, letters and other documents cited in the book reveal that the Catholic Church was working covertly to protect not only Jewish people but anyone who found themselves in the cross-hairs of the Nazis.

To understand Pope Pius’ situation, you have to think like someone living in Hitler’s occupied Europe, not someone looking at the events 60 years after the fact. Imagine living in a world where international law was virtually non-existent and one of the world’s most powerful armies was controlled by a mad man.  Hitler needed very little motivation to destroy any institution that even hinted at challenging him. Would you, as the head of the Catholic Church, deliberately put all Catholics living in Germany and occupied Europe under the scrutiny of the Gestapo by delivering grand speeches denouncing the Nazis? Pius understood that the Church could best help people everywhere through covert action, not blustery speeches.

And so Church of Spies talks about the Church’s role mostly from the point of view of individuals within Germany — priests and lay people alike. It follows the Church’s role in coordinating some of the famous attempts to assassinate Hitler such as Operation Valkyrie. Yes, you heard correctly. The Vatican was aware and helped orchestrate some of the attempts to assassinate Hitler and broker a peaceful transition of power in Germany. The fact that Pope Pius’ involvement in subverting the Nazi regime was not well known and he is known more as a Nazi appeaser goes to show just how well the Vatican spy network was able to keep its cover in a time of intense scrutiny where anyone could be hauled away, tortured, and killed for the slightest hint of plotting against the Nazis.

As much as we love the idea of heroes publicly denouncing and actively fighting the bad guys, Church of Spies shows a Church that needed to be much more nuanced in an atmosphere of utter chaos. Remember, because the Catholic Church had dioceses throughout the world including within Nazi-controlled areas, it was best positioned to act as a spy network during WWII. They could provide intelligence on the Nazis within occupied countries that no other organization could.  The Church and the allies did not want to jeopardize this advantage by needlessly antagonizing Hitler.  This meant utilizing deception and secrecy, not brashness.

I highly suggest Church of Spies, especially if you are interested in WWII history. It will present to you a view of the war from a different, not very well known perspective. The book is well researched using letters, jounal entries, Vatican documents, and other historical documents. It’s not a dry retelling of facts but has a narrative worthy of any Hollywood screenplay. It’s engaging, suspenseful, and informative.  But don’t just take my word for it, check out the numerous awards and 5 star reviews this book has received on Amazon.

 

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Rome Sweet Home

There is a saying that to truly understand a city you have to have lived in it for twenty years or two weeks. The two weeks part of that saying means that someone with a fresh set of eyes sees aspects of a city that locals have overlooked or just grown used to. I think the same idea applies to Catholicism. To truly understand the Catholic faith you have to have faithfully studied and practiced it for decades or be a recent convert. Recent converts usually see the beauty and understand the theological framework of the Church that cradle Catholics may overlook or take for granted.  For this article, I am going to write about a book I just finished which focuses on Catholicism through the eyes of recent converts.

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I just finished reading Rome Sweet Home which is the story of Scott and Kimberly Hahn.  Many of you may recognize those names because Scott often speaks on EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) about he and his wife’s conversion to Catholicism.  The book is a good read that takes you through their lives at devout and well educated Presbyterians to Scott’s conversion (to Kimberly’s anguish), and then Kimberly’s conversion.  It’s a fascinating read where each chapter first tells Scott’s story and ends with Kimberly’s take on the same events.  It almost reads like a mystery where Scott’s story often ends with some sort of cliffhanger which is later filled in by Kimberly’s story.

There are two aspects of the book that I’m going to touch on briefly.  First, I was amazed by the intellectual honesty Scott and Kimberly showed in their conversion process.  When confronted with information about the Catholic Church’s teaching on various subjects, Scott couldn’t escape how well reasoned they were and how much he agreed with them.  It would have been very easy for Scott to turn a blind eye to the Church’s teachings and return to the comfort of his protestant lifestyle.  But instead he kept digging; wanting to find the truth regardless of where it led him.  The more he read and discussed Catholicism to find that large logic gap to disprove it, the more he fell in love with it.

You have to admire that dedication to the finding truth.  Scott and Kimberly’s story should serve as an inspiration to us all in this season of Lent as we fast, pray, and meditate on finding truth in our lives.  Are you dedicated to finding and then living the truth?  Or will you turn a blind eye to the Church’s teaching when it throws up challenges or conflicts with societal norms?  When you pray the rosary, meditate on the Sorrowful Mysteries and think about the giant price Jesus paid by not bending to the expectations of others.  Ask yourself whether you have truly dedicated yourself to the truth and the way Jesus is asking you to live.  That’s okay if you do not meet that high bar.  It is why we pray in the first place — to ask God for the strength to seek out and live according to His Will, not ours.

The second aspect of the book which touched me was how deeply the Hahn’s longed for Eucharist after their conversation.  They appreciate the power of this great gift from God.  They were dismayed about how casually many Catholics receive Communion.  They reasoned that many people truly do not understand who they are receiving in the Eucharist.  Otherwise they would approach it with far more reverence and also a profound joy.  I guess it takes a lifetime as a protestant with the host being just a wafer to truly stand in awe of receiving Jesus in the Eucharist.

Girl receiving first Holy Communion, Sicily
Girl receiving first Holy Communion, Sicily (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we continue our Lenten prayers and fasting, meditate on the Fifth Luminous Mystery, The Institution of the Eucharist.  Ask God for the faith to see the Eucharist like someone receiving Him for the first time.  Imagine being a recent convert where you have gone your entire life denying your soul of that spiritual banquet of the Eucharist and now you are finally able to celebrate.  So deep should our joy of the Eucharist be whether we have received it a few times or thousands of times.  We pray for those going through RCIA as we lead up to their full membership in the Catholic Church this Easter.  And finally, pray for those who receive communion without truly understanding what it is, especially if they receive it with mortal sins on their souls.

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Book Review: Part One of the Catechism of the Catholic Church

This year my New Year’s resolution was to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  I’m happy to report that I finished part one which explains Church doctrine by walking through the Creed.  It looks like reading the Catechism is going to be a two year project given that it’s already June and I’ve only finished the first part.  I thought I would write about the Catechism as I finish each part instead of waiting until I was completely done reading it.  Here are my thoughts about part one of the CCC.

I always thought that Catechism was the 10 (thousand) Commandments of the Catholic Church.  I was expecting a “do and don’t” list of sorts.  But providing a list of rules without any context doesn’t make much sense so naturally our church fathers laid down a spiritual foundation to start the CCC.  Part one is a well crafted narrative that walks through each phrase in the Creed and uses it to explain some aspect of the Catholic faith.  And boy does it go into detail at some points where a simple phrase in the Creed referencing the Holy Spirit or the Communion of Saints expands to multiple chapters of theology.  It does get a bit dry and heavy at times but it does provide a solid foundation for the “rules” that come later on.

You have to excuse the nerd speak for a second, but part one of the CCC is like unzipping a compressed digital file.  The Catholic faith compresses nicely in the Creed but like a compressed file on a computer, it’s hard to get anything useful out of it when you only see it in its compressed state.  It’s doubly difficult when the only time you think about the Creed is for those three minutes you utter them in a half comatose state after the homily during Mass.  The CCC is the spiritual “unzip” that takes all that compressed data and makes it something more useful.  Note that it doesn’t introduce anything new that isn’t implied in the Creed but it does clarify the pillars of the Catholic faith.

Another way to think of part one of the CCC is like walking through an art gallery.  If you don’t know anything about art then you would look at a Monet painting and wonder what’s so special about some blurry landscapes.  But if you’ve studied art history and understand the ideas behind Impressionism then the paintings take on a different character.  You can understand the richness and the story behind each work.  Likewise, the Creed may just seem like a bunch of simple statements but part one of the CCC helps you discover the richness and history behind those phrases.  And while someone may not understand every details of the Catechism, that level of understanding isn’t necessary to appreciate it and gain some insight into the Catholic faith.

I recommend part one of the CCC to anyone truly interested on learning more about the foundations of the Catholic faith.  As I’ve said before, part of being a faithful Catholic is also being an informed Catholic.  We need to make learning about our faith as much of a priority as we make learning basic life skills.  Because I can’t think of a more useful tool for Satan to spread his lies than an uninformed Catholic (just look at Nancy Pelosi).  Don’t unknowingly be one of Satan’s minions.  Become informed and put part one of the CCC on your reading list.

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Book Review: The Secret of the Rosary

I recently finished reading The Secret of the Rosary by Saint Louis de Montfort.  In short, I think this is a terrific book that anyone who regularly prays the rosary should read and share with others.  First, who was Saint Louis de Montfort?  The wikipedia summary is:

Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (31 January 1673 – 28 April 1716) was a FrenchRoman Catholic priest and Confessor. He was known in his time as a preacher and was made a missionary apostolic by Pope Clement XI.[1]

As well as preaching, Montfort found time to write a number of books which went on to become classic Catholic titles and influenced several popes. Montfort is known for his particular devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the practice of consistently praying the Rosary.

Keep in mind that the average Catholic in the 17th century didn’t have EWTN media, the internet, and RosaryMeds to help them learn about the beauty and power of rosary prayer.  Saint Louis de Montfort basically wrote one of the first howto guides to praying the rosary and spelled out its benefits by telling stories of miraculous events people experienced when they devoted themselves to rosary prayer.

Not to be overly self-promoting, but I was amazed by the similarities between my book, The Rosary for the Rest of Us, and The Secret of the Rosary.  Both books touch on recommended ways of praying the rosary, the benefits Mary promised those who pray it, and even some of the challenges you might face trying to form a rosary praying routine.  Of course, Saint Louis de Montfort had years of theological study in a seminary and was a librarian so he had a lot more spiritual and historical knowledge to draw from for The Secret of the Rosary than I have for RosaryMeds.  Still, I am proud that The Rosary for the Rest of Us overlaps in subject matter with a book written by a saint!  Also, you won’t find commentary on each rosary mystery (not to mention that the Luminous Mysteries didn’t even exist in de Montfort’s time) in The Secret of the Rosary like you find in The Rosary for the Rest of Us.

Buy “The Secret of the Rosary from Amazon.com
Buy “The Rosary for the Rest of Us” from Amazon

The Secret of the Rosary provides a nice little kick of motivation to those who may feel a bit weary after praying the rosary day after day, week after week, and year after year.  Saint Louis de Montfort acknowledges many of the challenges associated with praying the rosary such as finding the time, finding it tedious, mindlessly going through the prayers, wanting to give it up, etc.  Evidently, a 17th century Catholic faced nearly all the same challenges a 21st century Catholic faces about achieving fruitful prayer.  But he offers a sense of hope and infuses a sense of pride for keeping up with rosary prayer even when it is hard.  In the book, he writes:

Even if you have to fight distractions all through your whole Rosary be sure to fight well, arms in hand: that is to say, do not stop saying your Rosary even if it is hard to say and you have absolutely no sensible devotion. It is a terrible battle, I know, but one that is profitable to the faithful soul. If you put down your arms, that is, if you give up the Rosary, you will be admitting defeat and then, having won, the devil will leave you alone.

He often talks about the struggle of good vs. evil, God’s final judgement, and other personal encounters people had with Mary about rosary prayer.  Unlike today’s white-washed view of evil, 17th century Catholics weren’t afraid to acknowledge the terrible reality of Satan and Hell.  When de Montfort writes about the dire consequences of falling into sin and the rewards for remaining in God’s grace, you can’t help but see the rosary in a new light.  No one who reads The Secret of the Rosary can possibly think of the rosary as a silly little necklace or just mindless repetition of prayers when you know all the good it has produced and how many souls it has saved.

I think everyone will take away at least one action item from this book.  For example, I realized that I need to slow down and take my time praying the rosary.  Often, I try to “beat the clock” and get through all five mysteries and additional prayers before arriving at work on my morning commute.  When I know I’m getting close to my office complex, I tend to speed up the prayers in a mad dash.  After reading The Secret of the Rosary, I now realize that there isn’t really no point in racing through Hail Marys so I can check off praying the rosary on my daily todo list.  Essentially, Mary cares more about the quality of your prayers, not the quantity.

Oh, one last point about The Secret of the Rosary.  It’s a fast read.  Each chapter (or Rose as de Monfort calls them) is only a few paragraphs.  So you really don’t have to dedicate a lot of time to the book.  You can read a few chapters a day almost like a daily prayer book.

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Book Review: Truth and Life Dramatized Audio Bible

Have you ever said to yourself that one day you would read the entire Bible?  And yet, the Bible never seems to make it to the top of your reading list.  After all, you have so many other books, magazines, blogs, websites, and newspapers to get through like RosaryMeds (hint, hint).  So who has time to read the Bible?  Well, now you have no excuses to avoid going through at least part of it.  You can listen to the Truth and Life Dramatized Audio Bible which covers the entire RSV-CE New Testament.

I listened to this audio Bible driving home from work over the course of three months.  Unlike hearing small, isolated passages during Mass on Sundays, I really got the “full picture” hearing the New Testament for a longer period of time and in order.  I definitely noticed the differences in tone and meaning between the various Gospel writers as well as the various letters.  And unlike the slow, monotone pace the readings are often read during Mass, the passages in the Truth and Life Audio Bible are acted out and accompanied with music and sound effects which really makes the New Testament come alive.

The only shortcoming of an audio Bible compared to a written one is that there are no footnotes or commentary to go along with it.  It’s not very convenient to stop the audio and look up the meaning of phrases, places, and people.  Perhaps listening to the audio Bible while following along with a study Bible would be the best way to approach this if you are really interested in gaining a deeper understanding.  But even if you do not understand every detail, listening to the Bible in full is a good way of absorbing the overall themes of the New Testament.

The Truth and Life Dramatized Audio Bible is about 22 hours long.  You will finish it in less than a month if you listen an hour a day.  Is that a little too optimistic?  How about listening for 30 minutes each day?  Even if you took some days off between readings you would still complete it in about two or three months.  You could make it part of family time where you all sit around the iPod and listen to the Bible (like a modern-day radio program).  Listen to it while going on walk or jog.  Listen to it during your normal prayer time to shake up your routine a little bit.  Listen to it on your commute to work like I did (prayed the rosary while going, listened to the Bible coming back home).  Regardless of how you listen to it, you will be able to check the New Testament off your reading list in now time.

Buy the Truth and Life Audio Bible now on Amazon.

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Book Review: The Screwtape Letters

Cover of
Cover of The Screwtape Letters

I just completed reading C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.  The book is divided into several letters from a senior devil, Screwtape, to a junior devil, Wormwood, who is working on bringing a man’s soul under the influence of Satan.  Each letter investigates a tactic that Satan’s minions use in order to move us away from God, who is referred to as the Enemy throughout the book.  Screwtape instructs his apprentice on how to manipulate human attitudes towards prayer, love, lust, war, politics, the Church, ambitions, etc. in very subtle ways so that someone’s soul will be on the path towards Hell without even realizing it.

The Screwtape Letters does a great job of taking some complex moral and ethical questions and discussing them in simple terms.  Because of the “us vs. them” format of the book you almost feel like you are reading Satan’s playbook on how to tempt you into sin.  While most of the time we learn about how we should live, it is equally useful to learn how NOT to live.  In other words, understanding Satan’s tricks and lies are sometimes just as important as knowing God’s love.  And C.S. Lewis makes it so easy to understand the nature of evil due to the casual nature of the book being in the form of personal letters.  Screwtape’s candor does not hold back the evil intent behind his various tactics.

This book is not heavy in terms of exploring deep theological arguments in Catholic doctrine.  After all, C.S. Lewis was more of “buffet style” Christian where he picked and chose elements from different denominations scattered with some of his own personal beliefs.  So he leaves the deep discussion of doctrine and theological arguments to St. Thomas Aquinas and other doctors of the Church.  Instead, Lewis provides a good introduction and a more light-hearted discussion on the nature of evil for those of us who do not hold a Ph.D in theology.

Personally, I felt that the book got a little stale towards the end once the novelty of learning about morality from the other side wore off.  It sort of felt like Screwtape starts to repeat himself in later letters as he brings up the same themes but uses different examples.  Even in the postscript, C.S. Lewis admits that this was one of the least enjoyable books he wrote because the ideas just came so easily to him.  He admitted that he feared he would smother the readers if he wrote a longer book.  Regardless, it is an interesting read and would suggest that everyone gives it a try.  I can also see it making a great gift for those who need a little theological refresher but do not want to dive into more serious texts.

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