Anyone in the Catholic writing trade at some point has to come to grips with the wisdom of Qoheleth: “Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study wearies the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12) Even back in the third century B.C. – long before the invention of the printing press, the cheap paperback, or Kindle – the wisest representatives of our loquacious race could see that we are sometimes in danger of drowning in our own words.
Then as now, it seems further that many of those collections of words were just that: texts that weren’t all that urgent to write and, as a result, not all that urgent to read. The really important things are found in a small number of places like the Bible and a few classic works.
Even “serious” writing is not always so serious as it thinks, especially laments about the evils of the times and the foolishness of people who don’t see it. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus used to recall the New Yorker cartoon of Adam saying to Eve as they are being driven from the Garden of Eden: “My dear, we live in changing times.” It’s easy to see the change, harder to know what to do about it.
Our friend Philip Lawler, one of the steadiest Catholic journalists alive and author of Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture the best book on the priestly abuse crisis (written under Faith & Reason Institute auspices), is aware of writerly temptations to self-indulgence and gloom. And as a counterweight, he has put together a valuable collection of essays on things that are going right in the Church: When Faith Goes Viral: 11 Success Stories on the New Evangelization from Alabama to Vladivostok (with a Foreword by our colleague Fr. C. John MCloskey).
As he says in the Introduction (“Jesus Wrote No Memos”):
The challenge for Christianity is not to devise one grand, overarching scheme to guide everyone’s actions, but to activate every little network, encouraging many thousands of individual initiatives. Some, no doubt, will fail. Some will yield only modest results. But some will go viral. Since we cannot predict which efforts will be successful. . .the most productive approach may be to encourage as many efforts as possible.
Lawler acknowledges that not every one of the examples he has selected will resonate with every reader. But that’s precisely why essays on such varied groups are so valuable. This is not a book to read and forget, but an invitation to action in whatever way you might feel moved to make something happen in the Church – and the world.
Some of the chapters describe familiar organizations. EWTN, for example, the most successful Catholic television network in the world, which has succeeded where bishops, entrepreneurs, media moguls have fallen flat, inspired by a simple nun, born Rita Rizzo, with no experience in modern electronic media – to say nothing of how to finance high-risk television programming. (If you haven’t read Raymond Arroyo’s biography of Mother Angelica, also written under FRI auspices, give yourself that treat.)
John Burger provides a look at FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, which has grown from humble beginnings to a formidable force for authentic Catholic knowledge and – perhaps even more importantly – to being one of the few institutions that encourages students living in corrupt and corrupting campus circumstances to live fully Catholic lives.
For me, some of the most interesting chapters deal with renewal movements outside the United States. Lawler writes of a tiny Catholic community in Vladivostok, which has drawn broad interest in the whole region among the remnant of Catholics who survived Soviet repression underground, as well as among the many Orthodox who are still believers on paper, but know nothing of their faith and do not practice. Thanks to two dynamic American missionary priests, the Most Holy Mother of God Church was restored, an organ donated from Minnesota, a remarkable music ministry developed, and organ concerts offered that draw thousands.
In a similar use of beauty to energize people to pursue the true and the good, St. John Cantius parish in Chicago came back from virtual death to become one of the most beautiful worship spaces in North America, with a large number of regular parishioners and frequent Latin Masses.
In Latin America, the Movimiento de Vida Cristiana (Christian Life Movement) has established a program called Navidad es Jesús (Christmas is Jesus). Its scope is larger than might first appear. It began as an attempt to counter the consumerism and secularism of modern Christmases, even in Spanish and Portuguese-speaking nations, at first under a negative slogan (“There is No Christmas without Jesus”). But soon realized its message was the positive one – and extended far beyond their outreach to hundreds of thousands of families and children at Christmas, first in Peru, and then spreading to Ecuador, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.
As other chapters document, similar outreach and innovative countercultural efforts are going on in the formerly Warsaw Pact countries, where – says Emily Stimpson – a quarter century ago people were prevented by Communism from speaking about their faith: “Today that same message is coming from the media and the culture at large.”
There are even worse situations in the world, of course, and there are also Catholics seeking to respond to them – oftentimes in the face of systematic persecution and even death – in Kenya and India, and under the heavy hand of Islam. The essays devoted to these brothers and sisters in the Faith are some of the most moving of all.
Pick up this little anthology for your pre-Christmas reading. Its inspiring chapters may help you, despite all temptations to Scrooge-like cynicism about our postmodern world, to welcome the commemoration of the birth of the Savior with greater joy and, who knows, maybe even a greater hope.