Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

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:
Contemporary Catholicism, Blessed Pope John XXIII grace this week’s bookshelf

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the March 19, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)

Book Reviews

Kerry Kennedy, a daughter of Robert Kennedy and former wife of Andrew Cuomo, the Attorney General of New York State, has organized a new book of short pieces by American Catholics with their viewpoints on Catholicism. The book is titled Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning, published in hardcover by Crown Publishers of New York for a list price of $24.95.

There is a wide divergence in the quality of the short pieces. But you do learn some very interesting and sometimes sad things about a wide cross section of Catholics.

The liberal Anna Quindlen writes rather positively of forcing her children to Mass every Sunday until they went to college.

Bill O’Reilly thought about becoming a priest for 10 minutes. He says the Church today “is not applying theology to America’s relevant social issues. How many times do I need to hear about the mustard seed?” He also argues the Church doesn’t have leadership in the clergy. “The cardinal of New York never comes out of his mansion. What’s he doing? Go up to Harlem, tell people who you are....”

Cokie Roberts has an interesting section on prayer. “I pray all the time. I actually say my prayers as I walk out to get the newspaper. It’s a way of dealing with things.... What I mainly pray about is saying thank you for so many blessings.”

Bill Maher gives us some of his own history raised in a Catholic-Jewish home as he rants against Catholicism and all religious belief. If he were pope he would end the Church.

Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister speaks of the trauma of her long-ago experience of hearing that Protestants didn’t go to heaven ,when she had a Protestant step-father she dearly loved. How her mother helped her through it is a wonderfully told story.

The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tells of her first confession, when she told the priest that she had terrible thoughts against the opposing teams of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The priest responded,” I promise you someday they will win fairly and squarely. You do not need to wish harm on other players.”

Donna Brazile speaks of growing up in a segregated Church in New Orleans. As a child she wanted to become a priest. She has a picture of Pope Benedict XVI in her office.

Gabriel Byrne and Dan McNevin write with anger and sadness of being sexually abused by priests.

Allouisa May Thomas, a 19-year-old at the College of St. Catherine in Minneapolis, writes with fervor of her desire to be a traditional Catholic.

Thomas S. Monaghan, the founder of Domino ‘s Pizza and of Ave Maria University in Florida, tells of growing up in an orphanage, where he was raised Catholic. He writes of praying six rosaries a day, which he credits to meeting Mother Teresa.

The well-known American historian Douglas Brinkley seems to ramble and repeat himself in his section. He says, “I’m a lapsed Catholic, but still I look forward to Christmas Eve.” Later he says, “I don’t go to confession regularly. I go about 15 or 20 times a year. I go to Mass, but I miss a lot. I go to the shortest Mass possible.” It strikes me that if he goes to confession 15 or 20 times a year he is in no way a lapsed Catholic.

Martin Sheen tells of his journey away and back to the active practice of his faith. He writes, “The central mystery of Catholicism is so powerful. It’s simple. God becomes human. Go figure.”

And there are many more who tell their story of what it means to be Catholic.


During a recent opportunity to be at Sacred Heart Parish in Pullman, several parishioners asked if I had read Geraldine Brooks’ new novel, People of the Book. I was not familiar with the book, but eventually sought it out. It is published by Penguin Books with a list price of $15 in large-size paperback form.

I found the book fascinating as it tells the story of Hanna Heath, a rare book expert from Australia in Sarajevo in the spring of 1996. Hanna is in the bomb-scarred city to repair and investigate the history of a famed Jewish Haggadah. The book, used at Seder meals for over 500 years, is unique in that it is illuminated with beautiful and sometimes mysterious images. Traditional Jewish books of the period did not have human images portrayed. People of the Book is the story of how the book survived, as Hanna finds a piece of a butterfly wing, or a wine spill, that lead to a series of stories that go backwards from Bosnia in 1940 amid the Nazi period all the way to Seville in 1480. The book journeys to Vienna, Northern Spain and also Venice.

Brooks is excellent at pulling you into what amount to short stories that explain how this holy book was made and how it even survived the book burnings of the Inquisition in 1609 Venice. The sections on the Inquisition in Spain and Italy are difficult to read, as there is horrific torture, especially in the section called “Saltwater” that takes place in Tarragona, Spain, right before all Jews are ordered out of the Spanish Kingdom by Ferdinand and Isabella.

Brooks marvelously interplays wounded characters of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions who play a part in the beautiful Haggadah safely coming down to our own time to be preserved in the main Museum in Sarajevo.

I thought the final section, with Hanna at the opening of an exhibit in Sarajevo in the spring of 1996, took the book into a Hitchcockian thriller-world that didn’t seem to fit the almost poetic stories of how the famed book was saved.

The renowned Hebrew codex called the Sarajevo Haggadah does exist, but the stories of how it was produced and saved time and time again are fictional.

Geraldine Brooks has given us an intriguing book that is part CSI and epic mystery across the sweep of history. And as you read it you learn a great deal about a number of dark moments in history that are instructive and sad. Much of People of the Book is filled with vivid scenes that remain in your memory. This is a great book for book club discussions.

Recently Received

Patricia Treece of Portland, Ore., has a new biography of Blessed Pope John XXIII, under 200 pages in length. The book is titled Meet John XXIII: Joyful Pope and Father to All, and is published by Servant Books of Cincinnati, Ohio in large size paperback for $13.99. For those who have fond memories John XXIII, here is a chance to remember the key events of his life in a relatively short form. For younger readers, the book offers an opportunity to know and to love a great pope who is one of the key figures of the 20th century.

DVD Update

Among my top 10 films of 2008 in the Feb. 26 Inland Register was the French film Tell No One. I thought at the time it must be out on DVD. I have since learned that it is coming out on DVD on March 31.

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

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