Monday, November 30, 2015

Year of Mercy Book Package (Our Sunday Visitor)

The Year of Mercy will officially be underway on December 8th. To prepare the faithful for this Holy Year, there are a lot of books and resources coming out. One of the most approachable and easy to read resources that I have found so far is called the Year of Mercy Book Package, available from Our Sunday Visitor. There are eight books in this series at $10 a piece, but if you order directly from Our Sunday Visitor, which I highly recommend, you can get the whole set for $39.95, essentially half off. The titles are as follows:

Celebrating Mercy
The Psalms of Mercy
The Parables of Mercy
Mercy in the Fathers of the Church
The Saints in Mercy
Mercy in the Teachings of the Popes
The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy
Confession: The Sacrament of Mercy

The books have a certain sequence to them, but the topics are distinct enough that they can be read in any order. Today, I will briefly discuss Book 7 The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy and Book 8 Confession: The Sacrament of MercyThe Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy is a 70 page book, which walks the reader through the seven Corporal and seven Spiritual Works of Mercy both from a Scriptural and a practical perspective. The corporal works are further sub-divided to add clarity. "Each of the seven corporal works of mercy remedies a deficiency in our neighbor. Indeed, in his body, a person can experience a consistent lack of resources, whether internal (first: food; second: drink), or external (third: clothing; fourth: shelter); or suffering (fifth: disease; sixth: imprisonment; seventh: burial)." This also applies for the spiritual works as seen in this quote. "Human persons suffer deficiencies in their spiritual dimension, to which the spiritual works of mercy respond, either by imploring the help of God (seventh: prayer), intervening by instructing or advising others (second: treats deficiencies through teaching; first: provides counsel), comforting (fourth: in suffering and sadness), or by reacting to the disorders of their action (third: admonishing; fifth: forgiving; sixth: bearing with them).

The book does a fine job of stressing the eternal importance of the Spiritual Works of Mercy, while keeping in mind that sometimes the material needs have to be met through the Corporal Works of Mercy first. In addition to the ample Scripture passages which are referenced (Psalm 136 and Matthew 25 in particular), there is also great Patristic sources as well, including Origen, Cyprian of Carthage, and St. John Chrysostom to name a few. This is truly an approachable treasure for understanding how a Catholic should act and help his fellow man.

Confession: The Sacrament of Mercy is an 80 page book that begins by listing Gospel passages that reflect Jesus' mercy and forgiveness. We see this in three instances in particular - 1. The four friends lowering their friend from the roof to be healed, 2. The Parable of the Prodigal Son, and 3. The Parable of the Good King and the Unforgiving Servant. Chapter Four talks about Jesus Risen, the Holy Spirit dwelling among us, and priests being given the ability to forgive sins. Chapter Five walks us through the words the priest says in the Sacrament of Confession and what they mean. Chapter Six stresses the importance of Confession in pastoral ministry and how to make it a priority in your Church.

This book does a fine job of showing you the beauty of Jesus' mercy and the love he has for us in giving us the Sacrament of Confession. I highly recommend this book, and this entire eight book series for all priests and pastors. It will not only be a blessing for you, but it will be a blessing for your flock as well. May your Year of Mercy be fruitful for you and others as well!

These books were provided to me for free by Our Sunday Visitor in exchange for honest reviews. If you found these reviews helpful, please click here and/or here and hit yes!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse Color Sundays Gift Box Set (Fantagraphics)

Going to Disney World is an expensive, but exciting endeavor. There are many tips and tricks to saving money, including but not limited to booking during off-peak times; getting a special discount like a resort discount or free meal plan, or buying gift cards at 5% off at Target or Sam's Club. Those simple tips and tricks will get you there cheaper, but what about when you get there? The amount and variety of souvenirs you can get there is staggering. I'd recommend going to a Disney outlet or any retail store that sells Disney merchandise and stocking up on some things and save yourself money that way too. But what do you get the Disney book lover in your house? What I'm recommending, you won't find in any outlet or retail store. Instead, I recommend you check out Fantagraphics for their EXTENSIVE collection of comics featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Uncle Scrooge!

Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse Color Sundays Gift Box Set is the complete full-color run of Sunday Mickey comic strips, as drawn by Floyd Gottfredson. The books begin with introductory material, publicity material, an essay about Gottfredson, and then delves into individual story arcs. Before each story arc, there is an introduction that sets the stage for the strip(s) and storyline. One will notice that there are a great deal of "gag strips" which standalone and don't develop any further. However, there are some great stories in both volumes. Some of those stories include:

Dan the Dogcatcher
Mickey's Nephews
Rumplewatt the Giant
Hoppy the Kangaroo
Mickey's Rival
The Robin Hood Adventure
The Brave Little Tailor

Everyone should know The Brave Little Tailor, as it is based on a Grimm fairy tale and is where Mickey kills seven flies with one blow, but the townsfolk believe he was bragging about killing seven giants with one blow! That is both a beloved comic strip and animated cartoon. My favorite selection, however, was The Robin Hood Adventure. In this ongoing strip, Mickey joins Robin Hood's band of Merry Men. I'm a sucker for Robin Hood, so this was a whimsical and delightful strip. At the end of each book is supplementary material that is primarily composed of gallery features and behind the scenes looks. There are also some closing words by Gottfredson which put a nice bow on this hardcover package. As Mickey Mouse fans, I can say that my wife and I truly loved these comic strips, and they make a unique gift for the Mickey fan who thinks they have everything.

Be sure to check out other comic strip publications from Fantagraphics including their Disney selection and Peanuts selection. If you're like me, you'll find so many books you want/need that you'd be smart to join their 20/20 club, which gets you 20% off all orders for a year and free shipping...all for only $20! You can also hold off until Cyber Monday and get 40% off your entire order! Both great deals for great, quality books!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

RETURN - An interview with Brandon Vogt

The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging young people. Half of young Americans (50% exactly) who were raised Catholic no longer identify as Catholic today. Four out of five Catholics who left the Church left before age 23.

Today, millions of parents grieve their fallen-away children and describe their situation as "helpless" and "hopeless." They feel helpless because their children tune them out or ignore them whenever they bring up religious topics, and they feel hopeless because they think it's impossible their children would ever come back. These parents are desperate to dosomething—they just don’t know what to do.

That's why Catholic evangelist Brandon Vogt spent several months researching the problem, talking with experts and those who have left and returned, all to determine what really works to draw young people back. The result is a collection of resources which pull together the best tips, tools, and strategies.

In a nutshell, what is RETURN?
RETURN is a collection of resources to help parents draw their children back to the Church. It emerged from my own experience working with countless parents and young people over the years, and is packed with proven, practical advice. The resources include:

RETURN Video Course - 16 professionally-filmed video lessons with over 220 minutes of HD content. This reveals a complete game plan for drawing your child back.

RETURN paperback book - Companion guide to the Video Course which builds on its content and features a Foreword by Bishop Robert Barron.

RETURN Master Series - Video interviews with 10 Catholic leaders who are experts at helping people come back to the Church, including Dr. Scott Hahn, Jennifer Fulwiler, Fr. Michael Schmitz, and many more.

RETURN Seed Gifts - The 12 most effective DVDs, books, and CDs to give your fallen-away child, including Bishop Barron’s CATHOLICISM series, booklets from Catholic Answers, and books by Peter Kreeft, Matthew Kelly, and more.

RETURN Private Community - An exclusive, online community where parents can join hundreds of others to find encouragement and support as they draw their children back.

 You’ve written books on the new media, Catholic social teaching, and evangelization. Why this topic?
It emerged from two places. First was my experience, over the last several years, speaking at Catholic events around the country. Each event typically closes with a Q&A session and, inevitably, the most common question I hear is some version of, “My son/daughter has left the faith and I’m devastated. What should I do?” I’ve heard this hundreds of times, and my other Catholic speaker friends confirm the same thing; it’s the most deeply-felt problem among Catholic adults.

Then there was the release of the latest Pew Religious Landscape survey. Every seven years, the Pew Research Center surveys over 30,000 American adults to check the religious pulse of our country. The 2014 survey data was published in May 2015, and although the results were dire for most Christian traditions, they were especially disheartening for Catholics. Three statistics stood out:

- 50% of young people raised in the Church no longer identify as Catholic today
- 79% who leave the Church leave before age 23
- 6.45 people leave the Catholic Church for everyone that joins

Think about what that means. Over the last 20-30 years, half of the babies you’ve seen baptized, half of the children you’ve seen confirmed, and half of the couples you’ve seen married in the Church are gone—they’re no longer Catholic. Worse, for every person who enters the front door of your parish, 6-7 people are leaving through the back.

This is an epidemic. The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging young people. That’s why Bishop Robert Barron says, “The most significant challenge facing the Catholic Church today is the attrition of our own people.”

We haven’t done nearly enough to resolve this problem. We have lots of books and programs on keeping our kids Catholic or raising good Catholic children—and obviously these are needed—but we don’t have much for parents after their children have already drifted away. That’s why I created RETURN.

 What sets RETURN apart from other resources designed to help people come back to the Church?
Three main things. First, it was written specifically for parents and grandparents. There are many resources devoted to helping people, in general, come back to the Church. They contain broad tips which can be applied to friends, co-workers, or even people you interact with online. However, as we all know, the parent/child relationship is so distinct from other relationships. There are things a parent can say or do that will have a much bigger impact on their child than on a friend or coworker, and on the other hand, there are things parents should not say or do to their child, simply because of their relationship. I thought it was time that parents and grandparents had a resource specifically designed for them, one that took into account the delicate, unique bond they have with their child.

A second distinction is that RETURN is multi-faceted. It’s not just a book. It also includes a 16-part video series (professionally filmed in HD), the “Master Series” collection of expert interviews, the “Seed Gift” package of DVDs, books, and CDs, and the RETURN Private Community. It pulls together the best advice from the best minds in the Church, and presents it in many different formats.

Finally, RETURN is deeply practical. Other resources offer helpful background, stories, and theory. But while RETURNcontains some of that, it’s really aimed at the parent who says, “I appreciate that but what I really want is specific, practical advice. Give me the proven tips and strategies I need to win my child back to the Church. I want stuff that works.”

 What are some of the big reasons why young people drift away from the Church?
It’s easy to assume that young people leave because they're self-centered and lazy. But in general, this isn’t the case. A growing number of surveys from dioceses like the Diocese of Springfield and the Diocese of Trenton, along with massive national surveys from the Pew Research Center, have identified some of the actual reasons people leave.

The most common one is that people just drift away unintentionally, over time. Depending on the survey, roughly 7 in 10 former Catholics say they “just gradually drifted away from the religion” or they just “lost interest.” In other words, nothing really pushed them away. The problem was nothing anchored them to the Church. And we know the strongest anchor is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, something they never experienced.

The second most common reason people drift away is because their “spiritual needs were not met.” The majority of these people end up in an Evangelical or non-denominational community. These people are, in general, deeply interested in God and spiritual things. They pray and take the Bible seriously. But for whatever reason, they were never fulfilled in the Catholic Church and see it as spiritually impotent.

Other reasons people give for leaving include no longer agreeing with the Church’s teachings (particular those on marriage, sexual morality, and the male-only priesthood) and “dissatisfaction with the atmosphere,” which many describe as “stuffy,” “boring,” “too ritualistic,” or “too formal.”

The good news is that all of these problems can be overcome. In fact, millions of people who once felt this way about the Catholic Church have switched their views. And if they can, any young person can.

 What are some big myths about fallen-away Catholics?
Probably the biggest one I hear from parents, priests, and Church leaders is, “Oh, they’ll come back to the Church eventually once they get married or have kids. Let's just be patient.” That may have been true in decades past—though even that is controversial—but studies have affirmed, again and again, that it’s no longer true today.

One reason is that young people are delaying marriage and childbearing longer than ever before. In 1960 the median age for first marriage was 23 for men and 20 for women; it’s now 29 and 27, respectively. Those 6-7 extra years away from the Church make it much harder to return.

Second, fewer and fewer young people are getting married in the Church or, when they have kids, are having their children baptized. The sacraments won’t draw people back if they're totally bypassed.

Overall, the “wait-and-see strategy” is just a losing game. Let me pose a thought experiment: what would the CEO of a Fortune 500 company say if he learned that 75% of his customers just stopped buying the company’s products? Would he say, “Oh, no big deal. Let’s just sit and wait for them to come back. They'll probably come back one day, right?”

No! He’d do everything in his power to track down the former customers, reconnect with them, answer their objections, and re-propose his products in new ways.

We parents, priests, and Church leaders should have the same reaction. In light of the millions of young people who have left the Church, we can’t respond by saying, “Let's just wait for them to come back.” We need to say, “Let’s do everything possible to help them return!”

 For many parents, the problem is not that their fallen-away children hate the Church. The problem is that they just don’t care. How should a parent approach this if their child is utterly ambivalent?
That’s a really great question. In general, your main task will be to convince him that the Big Questions of life matter, that it’s worth seeking answers about God, morals, and meaning. He needs to see what the convert C.S. Lewis came to realize, that “Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.” Similarly, when it comes to the person at the center of Christianity, Lewis notes that “Jesus produced mainly three effects: hatred, terror, adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.”

Here's one simple way to spark interest in the Big Questions: send your child a good article or video, either via email or Facebook, along with a comment like, “Curious what you think about this…” or “Have you thought about this before? What do you think?” Grab an article from about the existence of God, faith and science, or the Resurrection of Jesus. Or send him a link to a Bishop Barron YouTube video on the biblical undertones of Bob Dylan’s lyrics or the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Whatever you choose, don’t make it seem like you’re trying to press your faith on him. Instead, you want to come across as genuinely interested in his own reaction (which you are). Formulating his opinion necessitates reflecting on the Big Questions. That's a simple way to get the momentum going.

 Can you share a few practical tips that parents should keep in mind when trying to open discussions about faith?
Sure! After talking with hundreds of parents and young people, I’ve noticed several patterns—some good, some bad—that we can learn from. I share several in the RETURN Video Course, but let me highlight two do’s and two don’ts.

First, the do’s. Two things to always keep in mind: ask questions and stay positive. Questions are largely neutral, or at least seem that way, and don’t sound “preachy.” When you ask a question, you aren’t actually stating your own view. Many times, you’re helping your child see that his beliefs are not as firmly supported as he might think, causing him to reassess why he’s drifted away from the Church. Some of my favorite questions include:

- “What pushed or pulled you away from the Church?”
- “What’s the one thing that would cause you to come back to the Church?”
- “What do you think is the best reason to be Catholic and why doesn't it compel you?”

You also need to stay positive. Don’t focus on all the negative things your child is doing; he’ll just tune you out. A better approach is to affirm the positive. If your child doesn’t attend Mass because he thinks it’s boring and irrelevant, affirm his desire not to be a hypocrite—that’s a good thing. Once you’ve affirmed something positive, he’ll be much more open to hearing what you have to say. In every objection to the Church, even the strongest criticism, you can find some seed of virtue to praise. (For more practical guidance on this strategy, read the excellent book by Austen Ivereigh and Kathryn Jean Lopez titled, How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice.)

Next, the don’ts. The biggest mistake I see parents make is trying to force their fallen-away child to Mass. Their only goal is to get their child’s body into a pew each Sunday morning. In their mind, f they do that, they’ve succeeded; if they don't, they've failed. That's the mark of success. Now, this stems from good intentions. Most parents know Jesus is present at Mass in a special way, so they want to do everything possible to get their children to show up. The problem is that if someone comes to Mass unwilling and unprepared, it will likely have no effect on him—and it sometimes makes things worse! Children often resent being forced or manipulated to attend Mass. So next time you’re tempted to push your child to go, even when you know he’s deeply resistant, pull back a bit. Don’t force him, and don’t reiterate that skipping Mass is a mortal sin—that’s true, but mostly unhelpful at this stage. You must plant other seeds first so that he’ll actually desire to attend Mass. The Mass should be the last piece of the puzzle.

The second thing not to do is criticize his lifestyle—at least at first. Beginning with moral commandments is often a non-starter for young people. If the first thing your child hears is “stop doing that” or “change your life” or “break off that relationship,” he will quickly tune you out. You’ll never have a chance to make a more persuasive case for his return to God and his Church. This doesn’t mean you should just watch silently and passively as your child makes bad decisions. Instead, it means your first approach should be marked by gentleness and patience, not criticism.

 What are “seed gifts” and why are they so powerful?
In RETURN, I talk about the extraordinary power of “seed gifts.” These are DVDs, books, or CDs that you plant in your child’s life, as seeds of truth and faith, in order to spark their return to the Church.

People who return to the Church often point to a DVD, book, or CD that played a pivotal role. One mother says, “My son was given a copy of Matthew Kelly’s book Rediscover Catholicism on the way out of church last Christmas. He stopped going to church regularly about ten years ago. We were away on vacation and I was amazed to see him reading it the next day. I was even more surprised the following week when he suggested we all go to church and then to brunch… You don’t know how happy it makes a mother to see her son return to church.”

The great part about “seed gifts” is that they do almost all of the work for you. If you feel inadequate to answer your child’s questions or objections, handing him a DVD, book, or CD can be a lot less intimidating than having to sit down and explain things yourself.

One of the most exciting parts of the RETURN project is that I was able to work with groups like Word on Fire, Catholic Answers, and Dynamic Catholic to compile the 12 best “Seed Gifts” for parents, in one package, at a massively discounted price. Any parent who purchase the RETURN Complete Game Plan will receive all 12 gifts including Bishop Barron’sCATHOLICISM DVD series, booklets from Catholic Answers, and books by Peter Kreeft, Matthew Kelly, and Fulton Sheen, and some top-notch CDs. Giving just one of these to your child will really help.

 What are some of the big objections young people have to returning to the Church?
In RETURN I share over 20 of the most common objections along with specifically how to respond to each one. I split the objections into three categories: personal, moral, and theological. Here are some examples.

First, a personal one: “Mass is just boring and irrelevant.” How many parents have heard this one? Probably most. A bad response is, “I don’t care if you think Mass is boring; you’re going anyway! Now get in the car!” Forcing your child to Mass when he has no desire to go can do more harm than good. A better solution? The one proposed by G.K. Chesterton: “The Mass is very long and tiresome unless one loves God.” Don’t start with the Mass; start with God. Help your child know and love God as the source of lasting joy, and he’ll gradually be drawn to the Mass. In RETURN, I share several ways to do this.

Next, a common moral objection: “I could never be Catholic since the Church hates gay and lesbian people.” A few years ago, a national survey revealed that the most common perception of present-day Christianity is “anti-homosexual.” This means that, for many young people, the first thing they think of when considering the Church is not what it's for, but what it's against. But is that true? Is the Church anti-homosexual? In reality, the Catholic Church doesn’t hate anyone nor is itanti- anyone, much less those with same-sex attraction. In fact, the Catechism explicitly says such people must be treated with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” It’s true the Church objects to all sexual activity outside of sacramental marriage—including all homosexual activity—but, as Pope Francis has emphasized, “mercy” is the first word spoken to people with same-sex inclinations. The Church isn’t against them; it’s for them, and for their holiness. It defends their life and dignity with vigor.

Finally, here’s a popular theological objection: “Faith and science are at odds, and I choose science.” A recent Pew survey found that one-third of former-Catholics agree that “science proves religion to be superstition.” Similarly, around a quarter of young adults believe that “Christianity is anti-science.” These views have gained traction thanks in no small part to the work of the so-called New Atheists. If a child holds this view, parents should reply with three points. First, science can’t directly settle the God question since God is immaterial and thus beyond the reach of science. Second, being a scientist doesn’t require being an atheist. Historically, many of the greatest scientists have been committed Catholics including Roger Bacon (credited with discovering the “scientific method” and a Franciscan friar), Gregor Mendel (the founder of the modern science of genetics and an Augustinian monk), and Fr. Georges Lemaître (father of the “Big Bang theory” and a Catholic priest). If faith and science are at odds, nobody told these geniuses. Finally, modern science seems to support, rather than undermine, belief in God. As Fr. Robert Spitzer notes, “There is more evidence from physics for a beginning of the universe than ever before.” A beginning to the universe supports the biblical account of creation, rather than the common atheist view that the universe was uncreated and infinite, existing forever in the past. So not only are science and faith not at odds, they are compatible and complementary.

 What would you say to a parent who thinks their child is just too far away, that it's hopeless and there’s no way he’ll return to the Church?
“Hopeless” is not a word in God’s vocabulary. As long as your child still has breath, there is always hope. God loves your child even more than you do. As much as you yearn for your child to come home, God desires his return infinitely more and is continually working to make that happen, even when things appear dire.

Just look at St. Augustine. By all accounts, his situation was beyond hopeless. He was a wild teenager who partied, roamed the streets, and stole food. He took a mistress, moved in with her, and got her pregnant. He didn’t want anything to do with Christianity. He openly mocked and denounced his mother’s faith.

But then what happened? Monica prayed fervently for him for years, and her prayers were answered through the pivotal figure of Ambrose, who stepped in and began meeting with Augustine. Ambrose helped Augustine become open to the possibility of God, and eventually Augustine asked to be baptized. He’s now remembered not only as one of the greatest saints in history, but one of the key figures in Western civilization.

If God could turn this pagan, egotistical playboy into a great saint, why can't he help your child return? As Padre Pio said, “Pray, hope, and don't worry.”

Monday, November 23, 2015

Meditations for Advent (Sophia Institute Press)

It is getting VERY close to the end of November, so now is as good a time as any to get your Advent and Christmas books on hand. This Advent and Christmas I will be turning to Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet's books Meditations for Advent and Meditations on Mary. I have previous experience with Bishop Bossuet's book Meditations for Lent, so it really was a no-brainer on who I would be choosing for these two seasons.

Meditations for Advent is 40 chapters in length. This is an interesting number considering that Advent ranges between 22 and 28 days. Therefore, I can only conclude one of two things. 1. You either start this "devotional" on November 15th so that you finish on December 24th, or 2. You start on the first Sunday of Advent and keep reading it through the Christmas season. The meditations in this book are each about 2-4 pages long and cover topics like Creation, John the Baptist, and Mary. Of the meditations, the first five were my favorite as I love to read interpretations, reflections, and commentary on Creation. In this book, there is talk on the creation of the universe, the angels, and man. It may seem odd to read about those events during Advent, but it is because of these events that God had to become man. Therefore, we have to see Creation and the Fall, and then we get the promise of a Messiah.

As beautiful as the reflections were, my favorite part in this book was actually the sermon for the Feast of Saint Joseph at the end of the book. It is entitled "Guard What Has Been Entrusted to You." In these thirty pages, Bishop Bossuet discusses the three things St. Joseph was entrusted with - 1. the virginity of Mary, 2. the person of his only-begotten Son, and 3. the secret of all his mystery. The "secret of all his mystery" made me scratch my head at first, but it simply means that Joseph knew Jesus was God Incarnate, but since that was not to be revealed until Jesus' hour had come, Joseph had to keep it a secret from the world. Bishop Bossuet does a marvelous job explaining how saintly Joseph was, both as husband and foster father, and whether he meant to or not, he also wrote a sermon that should be an inspiration to all husbands and fathers out there to guard what God has entrusted with us as well, i.e., our wife and children. Excellent sermon and worth the price of the book alone. If you are looking for a beautiful book to carry you through Advent, look no further than Meditations for Advent. After reading Meditations for Advent, I'd recommend turning my attention to Meditations on Mary.

This book was provided to me for free by Sophia Institute Press in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Orthodox Church (Penguin Books)

If someone asked me, "What is the one book you would recommend to someone wanting to understand Eastern Orthodoxy?" I would answer without thinking The Orthodox Church by Kalistos (Timothy)Ware. I remember reading this book nearly a decade ago, shortly after my conversion to Catholicism. I often wonder if I had read this book before my conversion, if I would have went down a different path and ended up Eastern Orthodox. That's a story for a different day, This book was originally published in the 1960s, and it is still the best introduction to the Orthodox Church. When I saw that it was being re-published by Penguin Books, I knew I wanted to re-read it to see what changed and how I felt reading it ten years later.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part deals with the history of the Orthodox Church and addresses topics like the Ecumenical Councils, the Great Schism, dealing with Islam, and the Twentieth Century. The second part touches on Tradition, God and Humankind, Sacraments, and the Church Calendar. I especially enjoyed reading about the Schism, because if we are going to heal this Schism we need to understand it from both sides. Kalistos Ware presents, in my opinion, the most unbiased view of the Great Schism. Bear with me for a long quote:

"Rome and Orthodoxy since the schism have each claimed to be the true Church. Yet each, while believing in the rightness of its own cause, must look back at the past with sorrow and repentance. [ . . .] And each side, while claiming to be the one true Church, must admit that on the human level it has been grievously  impoverished by the separation. The Greek east and the Latin west needed and still need one another. For both parties the great schism has proved a great tragedy."

In Chapter 16: The Orthodox Church and the Reunion of Christians is a chapter that I felt was sorely lacking in updated material. The part which touched on Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism failed to address the great strides in communication and dialogue, which the past three popes (John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis) have made with the Orthodox Patriarchs. The lack of updates in this chapter are a small reflection of the book as a whole. I feel like there should have been a chapter on the 21st Century as well. The lack of updates aside, this book is still edifying even 50 years after its original publication. The book somehow manages to be broad and deep at the same time, and I was pleased to have found the "Further Reading" section more familiar this time through. There are still many books in it that I want to read, but I am making progress! In conclusion, this is an excellent introduction to Orthodoxy and one you should have in your library. However, if you own the edition from the 1990s, you don't really need this version, unless yours has been read and re-read so many times, it's in tatters.

This book was provided to me for free by Penguin Books in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Penguin Classics)

I pulled up a local middle school's summer reading list recently to see what kids today are "required" to read and found myself disturbed that I didn't recognize many of the books on the list. and even more disturbed that the reading levels of most of the books were well under the grade level of the reader. On a list of approximately twenty books for 6th graders, four were at or above a 6th grade level with most  in the 4th grade range. To make matters worse, less than a handful are what I would consider classics or quality literature. Good books have been slowly disappearing from our schools more and more. Parents and teachers are satisfied to let children read rubbish like Captain Underpants, under the illusion that any reading is good reading. I say it's time to fight back and have your children read the classics! Penguin Classics is an excellent publisher of quality and affordable translations. Today, I am reviewing one of their titles in the series Legends from the Ancient North.

Legends from the Ancient North is a series of five books from Norse literature that are said to have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien. The five titles are Beowulf; The Elder Edda; The Saga of the Volsungs; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and The Wanderer. Today, I will be reviewing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I chose this title of the five to review first, because I read this in college and I didn't particularly agree with the slant my professor put on the translation. Therefore, I wanted to read it again and give it a shot again. This edition begins with an introduction by the translator Bernard O'Donoghue. In it he gives background on how the text was accidentally discovered and preserved, other texts that were found with it, and the difficult job of maintaining the beauty of a text when you translate it. He then goes on to explain the character of Sir Gawain, the plot of the poem, and the genre of medieval romance literature.

The translation is very accessible and thus a straightforward read. In fact, I'd say it reads a bit more like prose than poetry. The purist will not appreciate that, because in it you lose some of the beauty and alliteration of the original. However, I appreciated it as it is the perfect introduction to a difficult text. At the end of the text are pages of notes explaining difficult passages and an appendix with some of the original text to whet the reader's appetite. It was clear from reading this work why it inspired Tolkien, and knowing that Tolkien translated this work makes me want to read his translation now. If you are a fan of Tolkien, than I believe you need to read this work and the other four books in the Legends from the Ancient North series, because I am a firm believer that if you want to understand an author, you should read what he or she read.

This book was provided to me for free by Penguin Classics in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Mystery of God (Word on Fire)

"There are many views of God. Some see Him as a mythological figure; others as a distant first cause, a supreme being in the conventional sense. Some consider Him a threat to our freedom. But the True God is not one being among many, and he's not a competitor to our flourishing. God is that that which nothing greater can be thought, the strange and unique source of finite existence itself." These are the opening words of Fr. Robert Barron's latest DVD study entitled, The Mystery of God. Judging by those opening words, I can tell that this study is going to be deep!

There are two DVDs, each with three lessons and a little over an hour in length. This makes each lesson approximately 20 to 25 minutes in length. This proves to be the perfect length for the depth of the material discussed. I personally have watched these lessons solo and in a small group, and in both settings, I found myself stopping the DVDs to pause, rewind, and re-listen to what was just said. The six lessons are as follows:

1. Atheism and What We Mean by "God"
2. The Paths to God
3. The Divine Attributes
4. Providence and the Problem of Evil
5. Exploring the Trinity
6. The God Who is Love

The first lesson really sets the stage for the whole series as it elaborate on who God is/is not. Fr. Barron explains that the Incarnation is the chief distinctive doctrine of Christianity, and in the Incarnation we are supposed to find our true identity in God, and that God is not in competition with His creation. He then goes on to explain some of the different heresies concerning God including Nestorianism and monophysitism. He also talks about Ludwig Feuerbach and his influence on Karl Marx which ultimately influenced the New Atheists. What I really liked in this lesson was Fr. Barron contrasting God with the Greek gods. He tells us that when the Greek gods came down and got involved with human affairs, they wrecked humanity. When God involves Himself with humanity, he can do so without taking anything away from the creation He enters. This can be seen in the burning bush, and it can also be seen when He becomes a man, who is fully God and fully human.

Watching this video series was enlightening but at times overwhelming with knowledge. Fr. Barron pulls from ancient figures in theology, philosophy, and psychology like Aristotle and Augustine to more recent figures like Aquinas and Karl Rahner. He definitely showed off his knowledge and kept it at a mostly surface to shallow level, but in these deep waters, that too can be daunting. It is definitely not as approachable as his Catholicism series, not that that is a bad thing, as we need more challenging material to keep us growing and learning. I will end this review with some closing words on who this series is for. I have seen a lot of people say that this series is good for believers and non-believers, but I would disagree. People seem to be under the impression that if they give a non-believer this program, they will have to believe in God and renounce their atheism. That is not the case. It takes more than knowledge to believe in God. It takes humility to accept there is a God and that you are not the ultimate being in charge of your life. This series will help you stand your ground against the attacks of atheists, but it is not a conversion tool.

This program was provided to me for free by Word on Fire in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Bible and New Testament Basics for Catholics (Ave Maria Press)

Dr. John Bergsma is one of the great Biblical minds of the Catholic Church currently. I have read his writings in the academic journal Letter and Spirit, and in these he shows his brilliance in a way that leaves you reading and rereading, because it is so indepth. In his books from Ave Maria Press, Bible Basics for Catholics and New Testament Basics for Catholics, his brilliance is again on display, but he puts it in a way that is both understandable and fun to read. Let me tell you about these two books.

Bible Basics for Catholics is a 200 page walkthrough salvation history with pictures! Dr. Bergsma begins the introduction by explaining three important terms that are key to this book and salvation history - 1. covenant, 2. mediator, and 3. mountain. At first blush, it seems like a case of "one of these things is not like the other," but it all makes sense. In layman's term, he tells us that "a covenant is a legal way to make someone part of your family." Two examples of this are marriage and adoption, and those apply perfectly to our relationship with God. A mediator is the person who represents the large group of people within the covenant, i.e., Noah, Moses, etc. And we all know what a mountain is, but it is significant because this is where six of the Biblical covenants were made.

The book then walks us through the seven covenants - Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Prophets, and Eucharist. I was familiar with six of these covenants, but the one on the Prophets is not one I understood too well. Dr. Bergsma pulls Scriptural quotes from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel to discuss this New Covenant, and how it will be a restoration of the Davidic Covenant. All the other covenants had been broken by the Israelites until now, but with the restoration of Davidic Covenant, there will be a new Zion and a new King from the line of David. The last chapter of the book discusses the book of Revelation, Heaven, and the Great Wedding Feast, or as Dr. Bergsma refers to it, "covenant consummation." There are also notes and study questions for every chapter at the end of the book. This was a marvelously written book that condensed the Bible to its main message and made it very understandable. What set this book apart from others was the stick-figure illustrations. There are copious amounts of these illustrations in the book, which help the reader to understand better, remember more, and be able to teach/share these lessons with others. Highly recommended book, which I will reference for teaching students as well as my own children!

After tackling Bible Basics for Catholics, I turned my attention to New Testament Basics for Catholics. My first impression of the book was that it was thicker than I expected. Dr. Bergsma did a whirlwind tour of all of salvation history in 200 pages, so when I discovered that this book on the New Testament was almost 300 pages, I was a bit surprised. I then read the Table of Contents and realized that not all 27 books were covered either! So what exactly is in this book and which books will we be studying? Dr. Bergsma focuses on four authors (Matthew, Luke, Paul, and John) and gives us a brief description of them and their writings in the introduction. Don't worry! The stick figures are back and each one comes with his own stick figure. Matthew has a money bag (tax collector) and a quill (scribe). Luke has a head mirror and stethoscope (doctor) and an icon (first iconographer). Paul has a sword (the Word of God and was beheaded) and a letter (wrote a lot of epistles). Lastly, John has one hand giving a priestly blessing (was a priest) and the Eucharistic cup (taught extensively on this in John 6.)

The first chapter of the book gives us a prequel of the Old Testament and is basically a brief summary of Bible Basics for Catholics. Chapter Two is on the Gospel of Matthew. Chapters Three and Four are on the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Chapter Five is on the Letter to the Romans. And Chapters Six and Seven covers the Gospel of John and Revelation. Each chapter is a summary of each Biblical book complete with helpful illustrations for teaching/memorization purposes. I especially liked Chapter Six as I believe that Dr. Bergsma did a masterful job explaining the seven signs in the Gospel of John. I do wish that Chapter Seven had walked us through the seven seals, bowls, and trumpets more, but I did appreciate his summary of the seven churches. Also missing from this book was the study questions at the end. This was a good book, but it didn't feel as great as his first one. I'd still recommend it though as it is good for self-study or teaching.

These books were provided to me for free by Ave Maria Press in exchange for honest reviews. If you found these reviews helpful, please click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

How to Fight a Dragon's Fury (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

I received a review copy of How to Fight a Dragon's Fury a few weeks before the book actually went on sale. In true spoiler sport fashion, I flipped to the back of the book and read the epilogue. I did the same thing when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out, and I'll do it in the future with other series too. I have to know if a series I have invested myself in is going to end well or if I'm going to be disappointed. I am here to tell you that the twelfth and final installment of Cressida Cowell's popular series did not disappoint.

From the time the series started in 2004, the books have been growing in length. How to Train Your Dragon was a mere 224 pages compared to the behemoth 472 pages that is How to Fight a Dragon's Fury. The main plot lines of this final book involve crowning the King of the Wilderwest (Hiccup Horrendous or Alvin the Treacherous) and a showdown between dragonkind (led by the dragon Furious) and humankind. The dragons have rebelled and believe that they must destroy humanity or risk being destroyed themselves. Only one boy, Hiccup, believes that the world is not black and white. He believes that the two races can coexist and there can be peace between the two. The problem is that he has to convince the enormous dragon Furious this. He also has to do this while being undermined and plotted against by Alvin and his mother the witch.

The writing in this book was beautiful at times and made me forget I was reading aimed at a young boy. "Love never dies [ . . . ] Once we love, we cannot forget, though the flesh hardens around the wound that once bled, though it be buried in one hundred years of chains and twisted around with cruel, growing thorns of the choking forest." I think this quote sums up the series. This is more than an adventure series about riding and fighting dragons. This is a coming of age series, and it's also a love story. Don't mistake me. It's not your traditional love story. It's about a boy whose heart was so pure that he saw the world not as it was but as it could be, as it should be. Peace. Harmony. Love.

However, as great a character as Hiccup is, my favorite character in the series grew to be Fishlegs. To reference Harry Potter, Fishlegs is the Neville of this series. He started off a pathetic, little boy whose character and our knowledge of the character grew with each book. In this final installment, he not only comes into his own, but discovers who his father is. I won't spoil it for you, but their interaction will make you proud of Fishlegs. The Epilogue at the end of the book was a nice touch, and it was written by an adult Hiccup. In it, he reflects on his life and whether or not he was a success or failure. He also explains why we cannot see dragons anymore, but assures the readers that they are still present, just hiding. Lastly, he encourages readers to make the world a better place, in case the dragons ever do come out of hiding. I'm sad to see the series end, but I appreciate the author not milking the series and dragging it out indefinitely. I'll definitely pass this series on to my son when he is old enough, and I look forward to reading it with him when the time comes!

This book was provided to me for free by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Stories About Saint John Paul II (Ignatius Press)

October 22nd marked the feast day of St. John Paul II, affectionately referred to as St. John Paul the Great. For many people of my generation, he was the only pope they knew for their entire childhood and part of the early adulthood as well. We grew up with this pope, and we felt like we knew him on a personal level. We watched his jovial nature at World Youth Days, and we saw his entire suffering and death play out in a very public way. He touched the lives of so many people without even knowing it, but there is so much we don't know about him. One way that I have learned more about him is by reading the book Stories About Saint John Paul II.

Stories About Saint John Paul II contains interviews with various friends "co-workers," for lack of a better word, of the late pope. Included in these interviews are well-known figures like Stanislaw Dziwisz, Pope John Paul II's secretary, and some lesser known people, like one of his childhood friends - Stanislaw Grygiel. There was Joaquin Navarro Valls, Pope John Paul II's spokesman, and Renato Buzzonetti, the pope's physician. The most interesting interview to me was the first one though, and that was by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The fact that the author was able to get this interview on the day of Pope John Paul II's canonization is impressive in and of itself, but what I learned about both popes was even more amazing. In this interview, we learn that even though they both contributed heavily to Vatican II, they did not meet until many years later. We learn of Ratzinger's reluctance to take on more responsibility within the Church due to the duty he felt for his diocese. We also get to see how hand-in-hand these two worked together once Ratzinger accepted his role as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. Lastly, and most interestingly to me, we see the three encyclicals of Pope John Paul II's that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI viewed to be the most important. They are Redemptor hominis, Redemptor missio, and Veritatis splendor. But you'll have to read the book to see why.

The most powerful sections in the book come not from the interviews with the people involved in his cause for sainthood, but in the interviews with the people who received miracles through St. John Paul II's intercession. These were very beautiful and moving accounts to read. The book then fittingly closes with two homilies - one by Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of Pope John Paul II's beatification and the other by Pope Francis on the occasion of his canonization. This book is a true gem and one that I know I will read again. The interviews and stories were so authentic that it's like Pope John Paul II was alive again. You could feel his warmth, his humor, and his love for man and God leaping off the pages. May his life continue to be an inspiration to us all, and may we all embrace the heroic path of sainthood which he lived every day.

This book was provided to me for free by Ignatius Press in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!