Spiritual books round-up

Cardinal Robert Sarah (CNS)

Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family
edited by Winfried Aymans, Ignatius/Gracewing, £15

The essays in this book were written before the October family synod. An excellent initiative on the part of Ignatius Press, they reflect the unchanging teaching of the Church from different perspectives around the world.

These cardinals, from Europe, Africa, India and South America, show the Universal Church at its best: pastoral, faithful and alive to local problems, yet sharing a common language and purpose in wanting to transmit the teachings of Christ for this generation.

Italian Cardinal Carlo Caffarra discusses the controversial subject of “mercy and conversion”, pointing out that if “forgiveness does not change the direction of [a person’s] freedom and he does not convert, we cannot truly say a man has been forgiven”. To offer mercy to sinners without conversion is a “false event”; the fruit of the encounter of “mercy with misery” requires repentance, Confession and resolution, otherwise it is merely the “mistaken pity of an incompetent and weak physician”. This is an indirect rebuttal of the position of some of the German cardinals at the synod, who have been campaigning to change the pastoral practice of the Church.

Dutch Cardinal Wim Eijk advocates much more thorough preparation for marriage, making sure that couples know
and accept the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage. If the answer is uncertain or negative, “it is necessary to dissuade them from marrying in the Church and for priests to be more selective in admitting couples to the sacrament”.

Czech Cardinal Dominik Duka OP draws attention in his essay to a phenomenon often forgotten: the abandonment of the priesthood by a large number of priests and Religious in the latter part of the 20th century, describing it as a “scandal that we must confess humbly in the presence of husbands and wives, who amid the thousand difficulties of their life … are fighting to remain faithful to their promise … that they made to each other and to God”.

Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and one of the rising figures in the Church because of his forthright views and resistance to pressure to water down doctrine, includes a long and thoughtful essay on “marriage preparation in a changing world”. He warns readers that the celebration of marriage has run the risk of “becoming a merely human ceremony”, a rite of passage that has “nothing to do with the faith”. He writes insightfully about the psychological wounds that couples often bring to their marriage, explaining that the relationship cannot be expected to sort out deep-seated childhood problems. “The spouse’s love can help us to face childhood traumas, yes. But no, we cannot expect the spouse to heal them,” he writes.

These are only a small sample of the insights and reflections to be found in this wise collection. Writing as true pastors and using language accessible to lay people, the cardinals whose essays are included here show the magisterial Church at its best, rather than the institution divided by differences, as often depicted in the press.

Father at Night
by Michael O’Brien, Justin Press, £10

Michael O’Brien, a Canadian icon painter, novelist and essayist, has spent 25 years bringing his uniquely imaginative and spiritual insights to the attention of his fellow Catholics. In this collection of essays, written over the last three decades, his particular gifts as a writer are shown at their best: a powerful combination of illuminating anecdotes about his own life as he struggles to raise his six children on a meagre income in the Canadian backwoods, and how he slowly and painfully learns to integrate human disasters into a deeper faith and trust in God.

At the same time, O’Brien is acutely aware of how difficult it is to raise children in the faith in the midst of the deeply materialist secular culture that is modern Canada.

What might seem a merely human struggle is always, in the eyes of this artist, a battle between choices: either greater reliance on God or reliance on the self. As he writes, today “people no longer feel ennobled by self-sacrifice … by willingness to let the false self die and the true self be born”.

Writing about the tragic death of a friend “at the very moment I was resenting him”, O’Brien asks: “What would the world be like if we turned every temptation into an opportunity to receive grace and to spread grace?”

Honest about his own failures – his tendency to overwork, his anxieties about the bills – he describes a few almost mystical experiences (one at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City), in which he senses a direct “message” from God.

“Father at Night”, the title essay, describes a time of great stress and its resolution. O’Brien says that praying the rosary daily as a family has been “the major influence” in raising their children to “mature Christian adulthood”. I would heartily recommend this slim volume to anyone raising a family today, especially husbands and fathers, for whom O’Brien offers understanding and encouragement.