Books

Fulton Sheen’s brilliant guide to Jesus’s last hours

Jean Vanier (CNS)

Stephen F Auth’s The Missionary of Wall Street (Sophia Institute Press, 184pp, £14.40/$15) is subtitled From Managing Money to Saving Souls on the Streets of New York. It reads as if one were watching a particularly gripping film with a traditional storyline: the cops fighting robbers with all the attendant dangers of a game of life and death.

Indeed, this is what it is. In ordinary life it is easy to forget what Auth’s book reminds readers again and again: that our lives are a spiritual battle in which victory is not a foregone conclusion and that Satan’s whole strategy is to keep us from heaven.

The author, a successful investor, regularly participates with other missionaries from the lay apostolate Regnum Christi in asking New York pedestrians if they are Catholic, and following this up with an invitation to go to Confession in a church nearby with priests already waiting in the confessionals. Apart from lapsed, too-busy, frightened and defensive Catholics, the group talks to atheists, those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” and those from other religions. Their main thrust, however, is to rekindle the fire of faith in lukewarm members of the Church.

Missions take place particularly during Holy Week and Advent, in order to focus their interviewees’ minds on the forthcoming feasts and how well prepared they are to celebrate them. Auth includes some eerie stories which remind one that miracles – not simply coincidences – do occur. Sometimes they meet someone walking a dog and trying to avoid them: the dogs have been known to lie down on the pavement and refuse to budge until their owners have agreed to walk into the church (where helpers are ready to hold dog leads during Confession).

Could such a mission be effective on the streets of London? St Patrick’s, Soho Square, does engage in a form of pavement missionary activity with its regular Nightfever apostolate.

Perhaps readers of the book will discover this dramatic, American-style, friendly form of hard-sell is worth trying out – even in our more buttoned-up secular society.

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Beth Porter has been a member of the l’Arche Daybreak Community in Canada for 40 years. As Jean Vanier, the inspirational founder of L’Arche in France in 1964, has recently died, aged 90, it is timely that a member of his lay apostolate, which is designed to transform the lives of people with learning disabilities and those who care for them, should now publish Accidental Friends (Darton, Longman & Todd, 400pp, £12.99/$22.95), subtitled Stories from My Life in Community.

Porter’s book, as much a chronicle of the evolving community at Daybreak as a personal memoir, reminds readers how revolutionary the approach of L’Arche was, back in the 1960s when it began.

The mentally handicapped, as they were then known, were largely confined to huge institutions where they were looked after with varying degrees of kindness and
efficiency – but never invited into a meaningful relationship or fellowship with those who looked after them.

Porter was 35, an academic and teacher, when she read Vanier’s seminal work Community and Growth. It led her to try a probationary period at Daybreak, living as an assistant alongside the “core members” (so-called because they are at the heart of the community). It was to change her life.

As she observes in her heart-warming story, “almost all assistants who stayed beyond a few months could name one or more relationships as a source of nourishment for their life in the community. Often it was a [core] member who … had touched them deeply.”

Porter does not shy away from describing the ordinary tensions and mishaps of community life. Nonetheless, the seemingly fragile L’Arche model of community has triumphed, due to its fidelity to all its key elements: an emphasis on welcome, on celebration and shared mealtimes, on doing activities together, building relationships, neighbourliness, meaningful work, respect for each other and prayer.

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Those who revere the memory of the late, great communicator Archbishop Fulton Sheen, will be pleased that his remains have now been moved from New York to the Diocese of Peoria where he grew up and was ordained, paving the way for his beatification. The Cries of Jesus from the Cross (Sophia Institute Press, £15.50/$18.95) is compiled from seven books written by Archbishop Sheen between 1933 and 1945, and reminds us of why he was so influential in his day.

The book is arranged in seven chapters and addresses each of the seven last words of Jesus from the Cross. It is clear from reading them that Sheen passionately pondered Jesus’s last hours as a lover, not just as a scholar. His meditation on the words of the Good Thief is particularly affecting: “In a single moment, a soul with a genuine fear of God can come to a greater understanding of the purpose of life than in a lifetime spent in the study of the ephemeral philosophies of men.”

This anthology is an essential acquisition for any Catholic reader’s book collection.