Having been invited to write a blog on “Catholic Books of the Year”, I thought it would be an easy task. Then I looked through my records of the books I have written about in 2015 and I saw that making a selection would be harder than I thought. So many eminently worthy and interesting books have passed through my hands; yet I can’t recommend them all. So I have compiled a list of those which have particularly moved me, and the memory of which has stayed in the mind. To critics who think my tastes are too conservative and that I ought to tackle books on contemporary Church issues, like the case for women priests and so on, I can only say that such books don’t pull at the heartstrings or sear the soul. So here goes:
The Making of Men. By Paul Shrimpton. Gracewing. £25. A detailed account of Blessed John Henry Newman’s views on education and his practical attempts to establish a Catholic university in Dublin, it shows Newman at his most human, dealing with errant undergraduates, complaints about poor food and the difficulties of finding residential accommodation. His ideas on the meaning of a university education matter more than ever in today’s society: a voice of wisdom, sanity and charity.
My Battle against Hitler. By Dietrich von Hildebrand. Image Books. £15 I include this book in my list because von Hildebrand’s conversion as a young man was central to his subsequent life and career. It was his immersion in Church teaching that alerted him to the poisonous creed of Nazism, when it had seduced many other German and Austrian Catholics. It is also worth pointing out this great but not widely read Catholic thinker to an English readership.
The Wife of Pilate and other Stories. By Gertrud von Le Fort. Ignatius Press. £10. Again, this is a writer who deserves to be better known over here. Original, imaginative, and deeply imbued with a religious sensibility von Le Fort, a German convert like Dietrich von Hildebrand, brought all her considerable writing gifts to these stories. She was recommended for the Nobel Prize for literature; I wish she had won it, rather than e.g. Hemingway, an overrated writer in my view.
Gay and Catholic. By Eve Tushnet. Ave Maria Press. £10.99 Eve Tushnet converted to the Church from a secular Jewish background when she was a student at Yale. If this wasn’t brave enough, she made it clear she accepted Church teaching on the requirement of chastity outside Christian marriage. She is not uncritical of the way the Church treats those of same-sex orientation and makes an eloquent plea for a theology of spiritual friendship to be given greater prominence by the Church.
House of Hospitality. By Dorothy Day. Gracewing. £15.99 To those who think Dorothy Day was a controversial political figure, almost a Communist as well as a pacifist, I would suggest you read this journal about her life, before and after she and Peter Maurin had established their first House of Hospitality. She is the kind of saint (her Cause has been approved) whom Pope Francis would have loved: her long life after her conversion was lived in a wholly sacrificial way among the (mainly undeserving) poor of New York.
The Secret Diary of Elisabeth Leseur. Sophia Institute Press. £15 This wealthy Parisian woman of the early 20th century should be the patron saint for all those who are unhappily married. A person of conventional Catholic piety who underwent a conversion experience in her 30s, she endured the constant scoffing of her husband and his circle of atheist intellectual friends, as well as long bouts of ill-health, while radiating charm and kindness to all who knew her. Her diary, which records her struggles, inspired her husband to become a Dominican priest after her early death.
Stories about Saint John Paul II. By Wlodzimierz Redzioch. Ignatius/Gracewing. £13. Compiled as a series of long interviews by those who knew the late Pope best, this book brings out the humanity of a great pope and saint. The anecdotes by his long-standing Polish friends are in my view the most revealing of his many-faceted personality and the most moving; these stories should be read by all who would like to know the pastor, friend and colleague behind the writer of many enduring encyclicals.
From the Kippah to the Cross. By Jean-Marie Elie Setbon. Ignatius Press. £10.50 This inspiring story of the conversion of an Ultra-Orthodox French Jew should be read in the light of the Church’s recent statement on Jewish-Catholic relations. The Jews are our “elder brothers” in God’s revelation but, as Setbon conveys so passionately and simply, Christ on the Cross will always exert his own magnetic attraction to those who seek him with a sincere heart; a wonderful memoir by a rabbi who, even as a child, would gaze out over the Paris rooftops towards the dome of the Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre.
Two final books worth considering (it brings the list up to 10): Bishop Sheen: Mentor and Friend. By Mgr Hilary C. Franco. New Hope Publications. £15.99; and The Mississippi flows into the Tiber. By John Beaumont. Fidelity Press. £40. The first is an affectionate memoir of the famous broadcaster, whose TV series “Life is worth Living” was watched by millions of Americans in its hey-day; the second describes the lives of the most notable American converts– many of whom were brought into the Church by Archbishop Sheen’s preaching and personal holiness.
Happy reading and Happy Christmas!