Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

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Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch
Holiness and history mix on summer’s bookshelf

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the July 31, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)

Book Reviews

Jesuit Father William J. O’Malley has taught for over 40 years in Jesuit schools in New York state. He has lots of stories and examples from his years of teaching teens.

Father O’Malley now has a new book, hot off the press, titled Holiness. The volume is part of a new series titled “Catholic Spirituality for Adults” – short books on religious topics, published jointly by Orbis Books and RCL-Benziger (softcover, $10).

Through the years, I have always enjoyed Father O’Malley’s thought-provoking and lively articles that have appeared in the magazine America. He writes with an attitude of experience from teaching at Jesuit high schools. He strongly believes that holiness as a word has a bad reputation and, at the same time, the virtue can be accessible by all. His theme is that Jesus loved imperfect people, so all of us qualify for the path of holiness toward a loving God.

After a section on the God who is the Beyond in our midst, Father O’Malley divides his candid reflections according to seven virtues. His virtues include Trust and Honesty, Gratitude and Perserverance. To them he adds three not-so traditional ones: Impartiality, Awareness, and Empathy.

After each chapter there is a Personal Examen of questions. Some books that have questions seem rather pedantic. Father O’Malley’s questions are from all directions. They are filled with surprises and I think very helpful.

The chapter on Impartiality quotes Matthew 5:45: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Then Father O’Malley has a very good section on four obstacles to impartiality which he states as 1. ingrained prejudice, 2. inadequate study of the alternatives, 3. vested interests, and 4. uncritical acceptance of false propaganda.

The Personal Examen lists around 20 issues, but he invites you to cross out the ones that are meaningless to you, and then which ones infuriate you. How are your choices influenced by any of the obstacles listed above?

I can’t help but think a parish Renew-type small group would find Holiness a great book to read and discuss. The author brings his strong viewpoints and front-line experience to his writing, which should lead to spirited discussion by members of any group. The book also can be read slowly by an individual at home, as a type of retreat-like experience.


An interesting new book on Pope Pius XII and World War II is out in paperback. The book is Dan Kurzman’s A Special Mission: Hitler’s Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII. It is published by Da Capo Press in softcover at $15.

In the fall of 1943, after Mussolini had fallen from power in Italy, Hitler immediately sent German troops to occupy Italy. Through SS General Wolf, Hitler began a plot that was designed to kidnap the pope and plunder the Vatican art treasures.

A Special Mission tells that dramatic story. The author had the opportunity to interview General Wolf before Wolf’s death. Wolf was Heinrich Himmler’s chief aide and as a result was deeply involved in the transportation of millions of Jews to their death as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”

When he gets to Italy, Wolf attempts to stall any attempt to kidnap the Pope and also to capture the Jews of Rome and send them north to death camps.

Threaded throughout the book is the discussion of the pope’s efforts to keep the Vatican State neutral and his failure to speak out against the genocide of the Jewish people. Pius had of course been a diplomat to Germany. He was almost obsessively concerned about protecting the Church as an institution. He was well aware that 40 percent of the German armed forces were Catholic. The German bishops had been divided.

On page 26 the narrative speaks to the pope’s struggle: “And after one priest coming from Poland informed Pius of the deplorable conditions there and pleaded the opposite, imploring him to excommunicate Hitler and his Catholic cronies, the pope fell to his knees and raised his arms as if beseeching God to rescue the victims. But for his own part, he said though he wanted to follow the priest’s suggestion his protest would evoke ‘the fiercest reprisals.’”

Later the author sums up the pope’s failure to act this way: “Thus, Pius’s failure to publicly attack the Nazis for their cruel treatment of the Poles, who were mainly Catholic, suggested that the pope’s silence about the Jewish deportations was rooted not in bias but in a real fear of the Nazi retaliation against the Church.”

On the other hand, when the Americans bombed part of Rome, the pope climbed into a small car and went into the bombed areas in the midst of smoking rubble where 500 Romans had died. He wrote an impassioned plea to President Roosevelt. But critics ask why did he not refer in his plea to the millions being murdered in death camps.

In October of 1943 around 1,000 Roman Jews were sent by train to Polish death camps. Although under great pressure, the pope did not speak out. The Germans ended the capture and deportation of Jews. In the next several months an additional 1,000 Roman Jews were deported based on people being turned in for money by Italian fascists. It is estimated that 4,300 Jews were hidden in Church institutions – including within the Vatican itself.

A Special Mission goes into great detail on the negotiations back and forth among diplomats and military leaders that led to the plot to kidnap the pope fading from view.

I found the organization of the book a little confusing by going back over the same time-lines with the different principals rather than a straight linear approach. I read the book a few chapters at a time over a time span of a month. To keep all the various diplomats and military men clear I would suggest reading the book straight through at a faster pace.

Pius XII and his actions during World War II raise many questions. A Special Mission tries to give the historical facts to help us understand what happened. Why the pope did not speak out more forcefully against unspeakable evil will continue to be one of the main moral questions of the 20th century.

Magazine Notation

The New Yorker for June 9 and 16, 2008 has six very interesting and even at times inspiring first-person by various authors, remembrances of the impact of religious themes on their lives.

The one- or two-page articles are all grouped under the title “Faith and Doubt.” (One wag has already commented that The New Yorker had to include the word “Doubt” in the title to keep their more secular readers happy.)

Two of the pieces particularly struck me as memorable. The young African Jesuit Uwen Akpan has a poignant piece on a day in his life while he is attending the Jesuit School of Theology in Nairobi. In a self-revealing account of his day, he heads to Mass in the rain to Our Lady of Guadalupe parish. Along the way he meets two children asking for money. They follow him into Church and he watches the children chat throughout the Mass. The boys at Communion follow other children in the line and copy their gestures. The Jesuit panics as he realizse the boys are going to receive Holy Communion with no understanding of what they are receiving. Has he set them up for a fall? The hungry boys receive Communion and hurry out as they return the umbrella they have taken from the Jesuit earlier.

Some time ago a longer piece on his life in Africa found its way to The New Yorker. Eventually Father Akpan was asked to let the The New Yorker edit his piece. He refused, and The New Yorker printed it exactly as he wrote it.

His new book about the children of Africa, just published in June by Little Brown, is titled Say You’re One of Them.

The story titled “Crabs” by Edwidge Danticat tells the tale of her hunger as an eight-year-old child in Haiti. Her parents had migrated to New York City. She lived with her uncle, who was a minister, and his family. They were very poor. She describes a Sunday meal with shades pulled down so no one would see the small amount of corn meal the family was eating. Even that food was obtained by her aunt bartering everything she could find in their home.

But her aunt’s cousin brings a big bowl of crabs with eggplants and garlic gloves. She says that she made too much, which was her way of giving the family its dignity. As the family feasted, the young Edwidge believes it was her prayers that Sunday morning that brought about the Communion miracle.

But then she become violently ill, evidently because of an allergy to crab.

She exclaims that she never prayed for food again.

(Father Caswell is Archivist and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Spokane Diocese, and is a frequent contributor to this publication.)

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