Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

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

Media Watch: This year’s spring reading bookshelf is deep and rich

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the April 18, 2013 edition of the Inland Register)

Book Reviews

Father Tom Vandenberg, the former pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Federal Way and longtime active member in the Marriage Encounter Apostolate, has a new book out on the sacrament of marriage. His thoughtful and hopeful book is titled Rediscovering A Pearl Of Great Price: The Surprising Sacrament of Matrimony.

Each chapter begins with a humorous story. Some of these may be old chestnuts, but I admit to not having heard them before. Then in nine chapters he enters into the mystery of a deepening vocation of marital love and service. The themes of love, spirituality, unity among others come alive with lots of true-life examples from Father Vandenberg’s 50 years of pastoral experience as a parish priest.

The author lets his viewpoints come through strong and clear. Early on he asks why diocesan budgets have little set aside for encouraging and preparing couples to enter into the vocation of sacramental marriage. He quotes a canon lawyer at a gathering of priests: “Treat canon law as you would a bed pan. Keep it discretely out of sight until you need it.”

Throughout the book, Father Vandenberg has pieces from writers from Shakespeare to Franciscan Father Richard Rohr and Oblate Father (and Inland Register columnist) Ron Rolheiser, together with sections from the New Testament. His book makes for layered spiritual reading and possible prayer.

At times the author does wander off the subject to stories about the life of a pastor. I suspect this is because the book is self-published and an editor may have led the author to stay on subject. But I found the openness to talk of the struggles of a priest helpful and engaging.

My favorite chapter was the eighth – “A Call to Unity.” From his heart and mind Father Vandenberg takes on the divisions in the Church and gives some positive suggestions.

Rediscovering A Pearl Of Great Price would be a helpful and inspiring book for married couples to read and talk about. Father Vandenberg has done the Church a great service in sharing his wisdom on the sacrament of marriage based on his pastoral experience.

A cover page of the book states the book is available at and


A delightful new book that takes on the key religious questions of a Christian has recently been released by Errdmans Publishing of Grand Rapids, Mich. The book, by David Lawther Johnson, is titled Learning From My Father: Lessons on Life and Faith. The 159-page softcover book has a list price of $15.

David Johnson is the son of a Presbyterian Minister, Gerald R. Johnson. While a freshman at Harvard and somewhat at loose ends, David began a series of letters to his father, with questions about life. When his father died a few years ago David discovered that his father had saved the letters.

So the author has taken those letters and his own experience of a life as a husband, parent, lawyer and the head of a nonprofit corporation that focuses on experimental work in biomedicine to write a book for contemporary men and women.

The themes of the nine chapters of the book include God, Christ, Christianity, faith, good and evil, and how the Church responds to people in the 21st century. The give and take of the letters and lessons from life do have a Protestant view influenced by Calvin.

For example, the sermon at the Sunday Service is seen as crucial. From a Catholic point of view you might say it is a sacrament in itself.

An example of the father speaking is on Christian marriage: “In Marriage, we see every day that love is more than just an emotion. It is honoring another person as a person, respecting another person as a human being, and seeing the other person not just as a functionary (wife, husband, father, mother), but as a real flesh and blood individual with individual needs and aspirations and hopes and sins.”

The son speaks on the issue of Evil: “Perhaps we are simply better at seeing and less adept at escaping true evil than before. My father’s views were formed in a world that really couldn’t conceive of the plotting of Osama bin Laden that brought the horrors of 9/11, or the systemic cruelty of Pol Pot, or the paranoid delusions of Timothy McVeigh. The world of my father’s youth didn’t see, until it was almost too late, the evil of an Adolf Hitler – or a Josef Stalin. Though I’m convinced that insanely wicked incidents like the Columbine High School killings or the Fort Hood massacre are not new to human experience, their thorough and immediately accessible documentation is unprecedented. We are crowded, nearly daily with unmistakable and vivid video evidence of the depravity of others and the suffering we can inflict upon each other. Understanding the shape, the depth and extent of evil may be one of the greatest benefits of our ‘instantly linked’ culture – and of course, one of its largest curses.”

All in all, a fascinating book to read and discuss.


Last fall Pope Benedict XVI officially declared Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) a saint and the fourth Woman Doctor of the Church. About the same time Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released a new historical novel of St. Hildegard of Bingen titled Illuminations. The book is written by Mary Sharratt, published in hardcover at a list price of $25.

Evidently there are two traditions of the early life of Hildegard. Sharratt takes the tradition that Hildegard’s mother, to get dowries for two of her other daughters, gave the eight-year-old girl to be a handmaiden to a 14-year-old girl who had been given to the Abbey of Disbodenberg to be an anchoress. The older girl, named Jutta von Sponhein, was to live in two cells of the abbey with young Hildegard.

The vivid scene where the two young women are being permanently bricked into their cells is unforgettable. Hildegard definitely does not want to be there and is very angry that her mother has done this to her.

The novel is written in the first person, from Hildegard’s point of view. Hildegard does not approve of the stark penances that Jutta practices. But she learns much from the books of the abbey brought to her by the monk Volmar, who is infatuated by Jutta. One cell has sunlight and a small garden where Hildegard learns much about medicinal herbs. She also learns to sing and compose religious songs.

At an early age she begins to have mystical visions. As the 30 years of her confinement pass, two young girls arrive who are to be new handmaidens to Jutta. Hildegard becomes their teacher. When Jutta dies and is thought to be a saint, the three young women escape their bricked-in quarters and begin a Religious community that has the freedom to go out into the forest surrounding the abbey.

The written form of Hildegard’s visions becomes the book Scivas. There is controversy, but eventually Hildegard is supported by St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Eugene III. With much effort and conflict with the abbot of Disbodenberg, Hildegard eventually founds and builds her own monastic house at Rupertsberg. Toward the end of her life her good friend Richardis leaves the community to be the superior of another community.

Three or four times, the women Religious refer to being sent to a convent as being sent into “holy orders.” Normally the term “holy orders” refers to becoming a deacon, priest or bishop. Is the author correct that this term was used in the Middle Ages to refer to women entering Religious communities?

Mary Sharatt has given us a lively and moving story of St. Hildegard of Bingen within the context of historical fiction.

Recently Received

In February I had the opportunity to hear from a woman who is the leader of preparing Bible Study leaders for a large eastern diocese. As she was telling me about her work, she remarked that one of the best new books on the New Testament is The Jewish Annotated New Testament. The book, published in hardcover by Oxford Press for a list price of $35, is edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. The translation used is the New Revised Standard.

The Bible has introductions to each of the books and fascinating footnotes that are often a quarter of a page or more. There are articles as varied as “Midrash and Parables in the New Testament” to “The Dead Sea Scrolls” and “Jesus in Rabbinic Tradition.”

In reading the Passion Account of Luke 23:30 at the beginning of Holy Week, which I never have understood, it was refreshing to read in a footnote, “The analogy is not clear.” In all fairness, the authors did give several options of what it could mean.

What this New Testament does that is very helpful to anyone leading Bible studies or preparing homilies is to show “aspects of first-and second-century Judaism that enrich the understanding of the New Testament: customs, literature and interpretations of Biblical texts.” The book also connects New Testament material and the later rabbinic literature. Too, it addresses issues of some New Testament texts that have been used to continue anti-Judaism.

All in all, The Jewish Annotated New Testament is a treasure trove of interestingly written scholarly work that can be referenced time and time again.

(Father Caswell is Inland Register archivist.)

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