Books

A forthright priest takes a jab at ‘trendy thinking’

That Nothing May Be Lost
by Fr Paul Scalia, Ignatius, £13.99

You may think this author’s name rings a bell. If so, you are right. Fr Paul Scalia is the son of Justice Antonin Scalia, who was appointed to the US Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan.

Fr Scalia pays tribute in the introduction to his father, who died last year. He was a man who “loved the clarity and intellectual depth of the Church’s teachings, the beauty of her liturgy, and the power of her sacraments”. During what Fr Scalia calls “the confused and confusing years after the Second Vatican Council”, his father and mother “made a point of finding a parish (often at some distance) that provided authentic teaching and reverent liturgy”.

This tribute to his father points the way towards what Fr Scalia himself provides in his new collection of short essays: 70 capsules of orthodox Catholic teaching of roughly equal strength (which is to say, pretty strong), taken from monthly Gospel commentaries, parish bulletins or blog posts.

In constructing these essays, Fr Scalia rarely strays far from the mainstays of Catholic authority and example: Scripture above all, along with the Magisterium, the Church Fathers, theology, lives of the saints and the writings of fellow priests. Mark Twain and Judge Robert Bork (a contemporary of the author’s father) creep in from the wider cultural hinterland, but that is about it. The book, Fr Scalia insists, “breaks no new ground. It contains nothing not already in the Tradition of the Church – no fresh ideas or insights.”

Perhaps. But more than once I felt grateful to Fr Scalia for winkling out significant matter for reflection from his sources: from the “trouble” felt in Jerusalem following the arrival of the Magi, for instance, or from the words spoken by God the Father at the Transfiguration. His insights here were new to me, at least. Equally, there are thought-provoking pieces about God taking on the virtue of piety, in its ancient sense, at the Incarnation (Christ was “devoted to His Mother and father; to His family, town and country; to the religion, traditions and customs of His people”); about the assistance the body renders to the soul; and about how the episode of the loaves and the fishes follows the structure of the Mass. There are reminders of Augustine’s notion of “holy desire”, of our duty of “unilateral forgiveness”, and of how our sense of shame should ultimately remind us of our dignity as children of God.

On the other hand, Fr Scalia is not completely immune to over-extrapolating from the Gospel narratives in their frequent sparseness, adding stage directions, and seeing and hearing things that are not there. For example, when John the Baptist replies “I am not” on being asked whether he is Elias, Fr Scalia writes, matter of factly, that John is speaking “laconically” and builds an argument from there. This feels like something of a stretch.

If there is a leitmotif in these essays, it is the “fundamental truth” that “He is God and we are not”. This is “something we often forget”, so Fr Scalia reminds us of it, in the same bald terms, on three separate occasions. He is not po-faced. He writes, after all, about the romance and adventure of the faith. But the fact remains: God “owes us nothing”. Fr Scalia is not particularly abrasive, but he does take sideswipes here and there at “trendy thinking”, the “modern mindset”, and “entitlement mentality”. Eternal contemplation of Christ in glory should be our life’s goal. The rest is distraction.

Each of the themed chapters is preceded with an introduction by a guest writer. My favourites came from Helen Alvaré, a professor of law, and Raymond Arroyo of the Catholic television network EWTN.

Professor Alvaré writes about her own prayer life of praise, petition and thanksgiving, which she describes as “eclectic”, but with her prayers always arising from “a prior effort to think of reality in God’s larger and longer terms”. She prays at night for God to let her mind rest, and to remember (in an echo of Fr Scalia’s enduring theme) that “He is the Lord of all – and I am not.”

Raymond Arroyo, meanwhile, provides a tantalising account of the Catholic culture of his hometown, New Orleans, which marks time by its feasts, offering inviting displays of faith. He describes St Joseph’s Day, celebrated in the Sicilian tradition by building altars all over town, in homes and schools, restaurants and churches, to be covered in breads, fish and biscuits. And, most memorably, he recalls a Corpus Christi procession through the French Quarter, “past bars and jazz joints. Scantily clad, bruised-up women in doorways kneel as He passes. A woozy guy sitting on the curb drops his cigarette in a go-cup and crosses himself.”