Arts & Books Magazine

Book review: Francis Phillips’s Spiritual Books column

Blessed Antonio Rosmini was once denounced as a heretic

Antonio Rosmini: Persecuted Prophet
by John Michael Hill,
Gracewing, £20

The author, a member of the Institute of Charity, the order found by Antonio Rosmini, has written a short, clear biography of this once controversial figure that does much to explain why Rosmini was both a prophetic figure as well as a persecuted one. Indeed, the two adjectives often go together. Other Church members are made uneasy by saintly men and women who spell out the truth. This was Rosmini’s problem and why the author uses the word “tragic” to describe his life.

Born in 1797 in Rovereto, an Austrian province before Italian unification, Rosmini’s lifetime was overshadowed by the political turmoil in Italy, which divided progressives, who wanted unification, from conservatives who didn’t. An intellectually gifted priest as well as a deeply devout one, Rosmini read the signs of the times, noting how the Church was bedevilled both by her geography (the Papal States) and by history (her uneasy association with Austria).

Rosmini wrote many theological books, but the publication of The Five Wounds of the Church in 1848 caused most controversy. The “wounds” were the separation of congregation from the clergy in the Latin liturgy; inadequate clerical education; the bishops’ disunity; nomination of bishops by the secular authority; and the appropriation of Church property by the state. All these were genuine problems, but inevitably they made him many enemies in the hierarchy, who influenced Pius IX against him. At one time his most famous writings were placed on the Index and he was denounced as a heretic. Although formally acquitted in 1854, he died the following year, his health probably undermined by his sufferings.

His words when he was dying to his close friend, Alessandro Manzoni, are engraved on his tomb: “Adorare, tacere, godere!” (“Adore, be silent, rejoice”). He was beatified in 2007, a long-overdue recognition of the sanctity of this much-maligned man.

The Smile of a Ragpicker: The Life of Satoko Kitahara
by Paul Glynn SM,
Gracewing, £12.99

To the West, Japan will always remain inscrutable: a mixture of traditional codes of conduct, exquisite cherry blossom paintings – and the cruelty displayed during World War II. For these reasons the life of this young Japanese woman is fascinating. Its author, a long-serving missionary in the Far East who knows the language and culture of Japan, has written a sympathetic account of Kitahara’s life for a Western readership.

Aged 20 in 1947 and from an ancient, noble Japanese family, Satoko Kitahara had witnessed the fire-bombing of Tokyo during the war. Influenced by the code of the samurai and the example of the kamikaze pilots, she was determined to dedicate her life to her country. The post-war disgrace of the warmongering Japanese generals caused her huge disillusionment: “Three million Japanese and countless non-Japanese had died for a lie.”

In 1948 she happened to visit a church of the Sacred Heart in Yokohama and was impressed by a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes and St Bernadette. It reminded her of the young women she saw serving a Shinto shrine as a child. Here, her Shinto ancestry helped her recognise a different kind of service. Soon afterwards, she became friends with the nuns at her younger sister’s convent school, learned about the Christian faith and was baptised.

Meeting a Polish Franciscan (who had known St Maximilian Kolbe) opened Kitahara’s eyes to the plight of the inhabitants of “Ants’ Town”, rag pickers who had been bombed out of their homes by the war, now living a precarious existence in the Tokyo slums. She saw “there was only one way to help those rag picker children: become a rag picker like them.” Becoming a Christian meant identifying with the poor, not patronising them. Yet in a typical Japanese fashion Kitahara could harmonise the squalor of her surroundings with cherry trees growing nearby, reflecting: “I was moved by the beauty of the setting.”

She died from TB, aged 28, in 1955 in her small room in Ants’ Town, supported by rag picker friends, with the Gospels, her missal and her rosary by her side.

Festival and Ferial
by Anna Rist,
Kaufmann Publishing, £12.99

Anna Rist, a Cambridge graduate, married with grandchildren and now living in Canada, has spent a lifetime marvelling at the mystery of faith, both in the liturgical year (“Festival”) and in ordinary life (“Ferial”). The fruit is this collection of poems, at once complex yet also reflecting a fine ear for the music of words. Satisfying to read or recite, they describe a human passion for transcendence that is never divorced from the sorrows of real life. Allusive, erudite, original, with mastery of technical rhyme-schemes, the poems startle, provoke and delight in equal measure.

Rist concludes this anthology with a one-act play, focusing on the (highly dramatic) moment in Shakespeare’s early life when he precipitately leaves Stratford for London. It reflects her knowledge of the pervasive Catholic influence of family and friends that underscored the poet’s life, as well as an intuitive feel for his many-faceted personality.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (02/9/15).

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