In the 1970s, there was a general air of defeat in this country: what was our national identity, if indeed we still had one, and would we have to simply settle for “managed decline”, as the phrase had it? Great Britain had ceased to feel so great. Then along came Margaret Thatcher.
In a sense, the Church has suffered a similar crisis: once triumphal and magnificently self-assured, it seems to have lost its grip on its core mission, to save souls, and become apologetic, mired in scandals and over-zealous in its ecumenical outreach. If you feel a sense of hopelessness, like the two travellers to Emmaus, you should read Heroism and Genius by William Slattery (Ignatius Press, 300pp, £15).
The author, ordained by Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Basilica in 1991, has not lost his passion for the Church and for what it means to be a priest. His thesis, spelt out in his subtitle, “How Catholic Priests Helped Build – and Can Help Rebuild – Western Civilisation”, describes the extraordinary story of how the Church grew from its early unpromising origins into a great civilising force, one that flourished so brilliantly in Western Europe in the 12th century.
Fr Slattery provides the detailed background to what Lord Clark implied in his television series, Civilisation: that Benedictine monks taught new agricultural methods to their local settlements and communities; how theologians and scholars founded the great European universities; how the art and architecture of laymen of genius was inspired by the beauty and truth of faith; how saints and martyrs such as Augustine of Canterbury, Boniface in Saxony, Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs, St Ansgar in Denmark and Sweden, transformed the brutish lives of pagan peoples in their preaching of the Gospels and how parish priests brought the sacramental life to an ignorant peasantry.
But Slattery’s book is not a fond, nostalgic reflection on past glory. It is a trumpet call to Catholics of today, to develop their historical understanding and imagination in order to recognise their vocation to convert the world we now live in.
Change comes about, the author reminds us, when men (and women) of courage and faith determine to alter the status quo and repudiate the defeatism of managed institutional decline. By understanding the past, priests today have to resist the dictatorship of relativism, the increasing secularisation of society, and become, as John Paul II might have put it, “Who you are”.
The author, aware of the Church’s chequered and troubled history, warns us that “Institutions have to be renewed time and time again”, and that the possibility of corruption and complacency is always with us. Nonetheless, his book is beautifully illustrated and packed with information one might not know. For example, that Baden-Powell’s Scout movement was inspired by Kenelm Digby, a Victorian convert and champion of a new ethos of chivalry, who was himself inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s portrait of Ivanhoe, the chivalrous medieval knight. This is a volume to read, share, discuss and act upon.
With contributions from Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Jean Vanier, Sister Briege McKenna, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa and others, Miracles R Us, edited by Fr Frankie Mulgrew (St Pauls Publishing, 296pp, £9), demonstrates how miracles are still a daily occurrence in the Church – not usually physical miracles, awe-inspiring though these are, but those inner spiritual miracles, conversions of the heart, in which Jesus’s words, “Your sins are forgiven you” still have the power to transform the lives of countless people.
Many of the contributors, beginning with John Pridmore, an ex-gangster who nearly killed a man and who now devotes his life to helping young people turn to Christ, describe how “Confession changed my life”. As the author points out, “There is one prayer that God can never say ‘No’ to, and that’s when we ask him for spiritual miracles.” It is not just Confession that is life-changing: the Eucharist, Confirmation and the Anointing of the Sick are also shown here to bring about change, miraculously and often instantaneously.
As with Fr Slattery’s book above, it is good to remind ourselves that the Holy Spirit is ceaselessly at work in the world, that the age of miracles is not over and that all it needs is faith the size of a mustard seed.
People often ask whether addiction is truly a disease. Yet dependency on drugs or alcohol, a kind of cancer of the soul, blights countless lives. The 12-step programme, devised by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), is one of the most effective tools to overcome it. Its secret is the shared support and love of its members, who enjoin humility and honesty on those who join them.
Combine this formula with a lapsed Catholic addict’s return to the sacraments, and you have a book – The Twelve Steps and the Sacraments (by Scott Weeman, Ave Maria, 192pp, £13) – that will make profound sense to those longing for a supernatural meaning to their lives and who see the “Higher Power” invoked by AA as a disguised way of describing the God of the Gospels.