Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Rite of Exorcism

"As a layperson, the first thing that surprised me about exorcism was that not many priests knew anything about it, especially not American priests."

-- Matt Baglio, Journalist

In the fall of 2005, Matt Baglio, the author of The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist(New York: Doubleday, 2009), was a journalist associated with the Rome bureau of the Associated Press living in Italy when he heard that a Vatican-affiliated university was offering a course entitled "Exorcism and the Prayer of Liberation." He thought it might be a PR stunt. "Did the Church still believe in exorcism?" he asked himself. Not knowing what to expect, he decided to go to the class, viewing it as a rare opportunity: "I thought there was at least an article in it." Little did he know that the envisioned article would turn into a book.

The first day of the course, changed all of his preconceptions about exorcism, largely formed by sensationalist Hollywood depictions. "Not only was the ultramodern classroom an odd setting to see priests, Franciscan friars, and nuns of various orders listening to lectures on the powers of Satan, but, to my surprise, I found the students themselves to be anything but the 'superstitious' or puritanical priests portrayed in popular culture." (p. 235)

One of the most unexpected things about exorcisms as described here is that they aren't typically a one-time deal. More often than not, they resemble a periodic scheduled visit to one's therapist, with the exorcist scheduling their next visit in his appointment book at the conclusion of a session. The vast majority of exorcisms might strike an observer as monotonous affairs. This isn't to say that there aren't occasionally the unexpectedly violent and convulsive confrontations one might expect, but that these are not typically conclusive. A well-known case in Rome reportedly took over 40 years.

Another surprising thing is the disparity in the number of exorcists and workload profiles between various countries. As of the writing of this book, Germany reportedly has no exorcists, the United States 14, and Italy somewhere upwards of 400. "According to the Association of Italian Catholic Psychiatrists and Psychologists, in Italy alone, more than 500,000 people see an exorcist annually." (p. 6)

The author writes:
As a layperson, the first thing that surprised me about exorcism was that not many priests knew anything about it, especially not American priests....

My first behind-the-scenes look at exorcism occurred when I began to interview the various exorcists on their "home turf." Here and there I would catch a glimpse of what existed on the other side -- a group of people hounding Father Tommaso outside the sacristy of the Scala Santa; Father Bamonte wiping a puddle of holy water off a chair so that I could sit down for an interview; sitting in Father Carmine's waiting room while a woman screamed and banged around in his office. Perhaps most surprising was that far from being carried out in some hilltop monastery, many of the exorcisms were performed in churches located right in the heart of Rome. In fact, it was common to be talking to an exorcist while groups of tourists paraded around taking photos of religious iconography. One bizarre aspect of researching this book was this juxtaposition of two worlds -- talking to a victim of demonic possession or hearing an exorcism and then emerging into the bright sunshine and chaotic streets of Rome.

Each exorcist I interviewed was compelling in his own right.... I also found their candor to be refreshing. Many of the books I'd read had ordered everything into neat little boxes, yet here were exorcists with years of experience telling me that there were still things that couldn't be known.

Then there were the victims. Like Father Gary, not only did I find their apparent normalcy surprising, but I also found them credible, even likable people These were not people who struck me a trying to pull a fast one; they were sincere, heartfelt individuals who were struggling with something even they seemed at a loss to understand. Later, when I participated in exorcisms, this impression was only reinforced.

Many people assume that an exorcist is out to prove that people are possessed; however, with each of the Italian exorcists I talked to, I found the opposite to be true. It is also wrong, I think, to assume that the Church is on one side promoting the belief in spirits while the secular world is on the other, trying to debunk such notions. Stroll down to the local New Age bookshop to see the tremendous popularity of angels, "channeling," and "astral travel," not to mention thenumber of "ghost whisperers" and therapists who practice "spirit releasement." (pp. 236-238)
The Italian exorcists interviewed in Baglio's book are at pains to rule out psychological disorders before proceeding with exorcisms. Following suit, Fr. Gary Thomas, the American priest from San Francisco whose training in Rome is the principal subject of Baglio's book, promotes the importance of erring on the side of caution by assembling teams of medical doctors and psychologists or psychiatrists who could fully vet potential "patients" before proceeding to exorcism, and recommends making this a matter of standard national policy once the USCCB can be made to take the issue seriously enough to address it. (pp. 211ff.)

[Hat tip to N.B.]


A critic of the "Reform of the Reform" from the left

Our Canadian friend Paul Borealis just called our attention to John F. Baldovin's Reforming the Liturgy: A Response to the Critics(Liturgical Books, 2009), via J. Peter Nixon's review, "Engaging the Opposition" (America, September 14, 2009).

Looking up the book on Amazon, I found an ample review by Alcuin Reid(scroll down), which gives it three stars and begins with this quotation from Mahatma Gandhi: "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win." While Reid concedes that it is far too early to declare victory, particularly in debate over the production of modern rites, his incisive discussion, highlighting numerous flawed assumptions and arguments in Baldovin's 197-page book, leaves the reader doubting whether there is much if anything to be learned from this book that has not been already stated numerous times before by partisans of the liturgical status quo.

Nixon's review of Baldovin's book in America strikes a balanced tone, but bears the luggage of all the-usual-suspect assumptions found among those drifting among the flotsam and jetsam of the AmChurch mainstream. It refers to the Novus Ordo as if it were an established "rite" (It is not: it is the Roman Rite's "ordinary form," whose unsettled form continues to be debated) and the intended product of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council (It is not: they did not envision free-standing altars, the removal of Communion rails, Communion in the hand, the ordinary use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, women serving in the sanctuary, etc.), rather than a series of progressively institutionalized innovations stretching over the last four decades; and we're still waiting for the latest changes in the once-again-reformed vernacular translations of the Lectionary.

Nonetheless, if there is anything positive here, it may be the simple fact that the once trendy-lefty radicals who are complacent with the status quo have finally noticed that there is, in fact, an opposition with substantive arguments and attempted engagement.

[Hat tip to Paul Borealis and Alcuin Reid]

Fr. Charles Arminjon on the blessing of trials

Fr. Charles Arminjon's End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Future Life (Sophia Institute, 2008), was a life-changer for St. Therese of Lisieux. The book consists of a series of conferences given by Fr. Arminjon at the Cathedral of Chambery (Savoy). I quote from one of the notes:
St. Ambrose held that a life free of trials was a certain sign of divine malediction, and said, "I should not wish to live for a single night under the roof of a man who has never suffered." Another saint said, "Why attach any importance to afflictions? Temporal life is but a transition. A whole lifetime of pain in this world is of no more consequence than an uncomfortable night in a bad hostelry."
[Hat tip to Sir A.S.]

Liturgical books

Tridentine Community News (September 27, 2009):
We occasionally come across some books that merit mention in this column. They might interest our readers on a liturgical level, as prayer books, or simply because of their uniqueness.


As has previously been announced, Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron will be visiting St. Josaphat Church on November 29 to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation according to the Extraordinary Form. Have you ever considered where the texts of Extraordinary Form Sacraments may be found?

To our knowledge, there is no book currently in print that contains the Sacrament of Confirmation as administered by a bishop. Reprinted ritual books, such as the 1950s Weller edition of the Rituále Románum, only contain Confirmation as administered by a priest in case of necessity (yes, that was permitted pre-Vatican II).

Leave it to Fr. Borkowski to come up with a solution: He unearthed a 1934 edition of the Pontificále Románum. This book contains not only the Sacrament of Confirmation, but a variety of other Episcopal ceremonies.

Cantus Históriæ Passiónis

During Holy Week, the Passion of Our Lord is chanted by three voices in the sanctuary, traditionally a priest, a deacon, and a third voice who can sustain the lengthy Narrator part. The music for the Passions is lilting and memorable. It is not found in the conventional altar missal. The music is rather contained in a three-book set, known as the Cantus Históriæ Passiónis Dómini Nostri Jesu Christi. The three volumes are named for each of the chanters: Christus (Christ), normally sung by the celebrant; Synagóga (Crowds); and Chronísta (Narrator). Each volume contains notes only for the individual concerned.

Finding the correct edition for the Extraordinary Form is a challenge. The Vatican Press currently sells a 1989 Novus Ordo Latin single volume version of this book, Pássio Dómini Nostri Iesu Christi Liber Cantus, too different to be useful. The web site www.musicasacra.com offers a downloadable Tridentine edition, however it suffers from two problems: 1) It is a single volume edition, which can be confusing to the singers, and 2) It is an edition from before 1955, and thus the excerpts of the Gospel terminate in the wrong places. Hand editing must thus be done to end the Passion at the right point to match the 1962 edition of the missal.

After years of asking booksellers to notify us, borrowing others’ books, and searching on-line, we finally located and purchased an actually-in-force edition: a 1956 version of the three-book set. Publishers out there: There is a market, albeit small, for a reprinting of these books.

Blessed Be God

Are you looking for a comprehensive prayer book, with traditionally-phrased prayers? Back in print is Blessed Be God, a 750 page compendium of numerous devotions, novenas, and the Sacraments. The book is available for $30 from www.pcpbooks.com, or (866) 241-2762.

Daily Roman Missal

It is easy to get spoiled by the various Latin/English hand missals for the Extraordinary Form. They are beautiful aids to prayer.

It is worth reminding our readers that at least one reasonably impressive hand missal exists for the Ordinary Form: the Daily Roman Missal, published by Midwest Theological Forum ($49-99 for various editions, from www.theologicalforum.org, (630) 739-9750). MTF also publishes a lovely Novus Ordo Latin Altar Missal we have previously mentioned.

The Daily Roman Missal includes Latin for the Proper Antiphons (Introit, Responsorial Psalm, Alleluia, Communion) and Ordinary of the Mass. Caveat: The Entrance and Communion Antiphons provided are those for spoken (Low) Masses. At sung Masses, different antiphons are used, taken from the 1974 Graduále Románum. This is a peculiar inconsistency for those of us accustomed to be able to trust the antiphons in our 1962 missals.

A collection of devotional prayers are provided at the back of the current edition. Overall, the book generally resembles the Magníficat subscription paperback missal.

While it is not as comprehensive as most Extraordinary Form hand missals, the Daily Roman Missal is the best such product for the Novus Ordo that we have yet seen, and the only one to include Latin. Note that there have been several revisions of this book, with each successive version improving upon the earlier ones.

With the impending changes to the English translations of the Mass, now may not be the best time to invest in an English hand missal. We do expect MTF to issue an updated edition of this missal when the new translations are released, and at that time, this book will likely be worthy of your investigation.
[Comments? Please e-mail tridnews@stjosaphatchurch.org. Previous columns are available at www.stjosaphatchurch.org. This edition of Tridentine Community News, with minor editions, is from the St. Josaphat bulletin insert for September 27, 2009. Hat tip to A.B.]

Nolite timere: Tolle lege, Verbum Domini sit

This is a project that has long begged to be undertaken, and has been waiting for just the gifts and background brought to it by its author. More than a few of us have long felt the need for the philosophical presuppositions of historical critical approaches to Biblical interpretation to be critically examined -- with a view to the practical end of improving catechesis and preaching, as well as confidence of the laity in Bible reading. This need is particularly acute in the Catholic circles where there is an urgent need for the public and private uses of Scripture over the last half-century to be disabused of the post-Kantian skepticism that is the legacy of Protestant Liberalism, and for those uses of the Bible to be liberated by a well-founded hermeneutic of confident faith. The concerns exhibited by Pope Benedict XVI's writings offer an ideal foil for precisely such a task, and I am delighted to see Professor Scott Hahn undertake it. On the one hand, this will mean that the readership will not be confined to a handfull of postmodern posers from departments of aesthete atheology discussing each other's arcane footnotes about whether Jesus really said what the apostolic writers said He said. On the other hand, nobody should be deceived by the comparative accessibility of Hahn's style or the relative brevity of the book: this is a piece of mature theological reflection seasoned by a career of Biblical teaching and research. I expect a wide readership for this volume; and from the following endorsements, I see I am not alone:

"A compelling manuduction right into the very core of Pope Benedict XVI's theological vision. In this clearly written and cogently argued essay, Hahn makes a convincing and highly pertinent case for what Pope Benedict holds to be the crucial challenge for the Church and theology today--the reunification, and thereby the renewal, of exegesis theologically conceived and theology exegetically grounded. Theologically insightful and surefooted, this book is one of the best and certainly the most timely and urgent among the recent introductions to the theology of Pope Benedict XVI."--Reinhard Huetter, Duke Divinity School

"Hahn here renders an important service in so clearly setting forth the hermeneutical principles, biblical framework, and doctrinal positions of Pope Benedict XVI, arguably the world's most important contemporary theologian. The parallels between the biblical theology of the pope and of evangelicals, together with their respective attempts to interpret Scripture theologically in an age marked by modern biblical criticism, are particularly fascinating."--Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Wheaton College and Graduate School

"As a Protestant biblical scholar, I found Hahn's exposition of Pope Benedict's biblical theology both informative and inspiring. In spite of differences, Protestants need to read this book to understand how deeply we can agree on the primacy of Christ and the Word. Through Hahn, I have a new appreciation for the mind and heart of Pope Benedict."--Tremper Longman III, Westmont College

"The increasingly painful bankruptcy of the historical-critical method in our time has created a vacuum precisely at the point where the living Church requires substantial nurture. Pope Benedict XVI has spoken into this crisis like no one else, and his best expositor, Scott Hahn, has done us a tremendous service by synthesizing Benedict's erudite and prayerful biblical theology into a lively, readable, and intellectually reliable conspectus. This excellent volume will be indispensable for all Christians who seek to be more maturely grounded in Scripture."--David Lyle Jeffrey, Baylor University

Table of Contents:
  1. Ignorance of Scripture Is Ignorance of Christ: The Theological Project of Joseph Ratzinger
  2. The Critique of Criticism: Beginning the Search for a New Theological Synthesis
  3. The Hermeneutic of Faith: Critical and Historical Foundations for a Biblical Theology
  4. The Spiritual Science of Theology: Its Mission and Method in the Life of the Church
  5. Reading God's Testament to Humankind: Biblical Realism, Typology and the Inner Unity of Revelation
  6. The Theology of the Divine Economy: Covenant, Kingdom, and the History of Salvation
  7. The Embrace of Salvation: Mystagogy, and the Transformation of Sacrifice
  8. The Cosmic Liturgy: The Eucharistic Kingdom and the World as Temple
  9. The Authority of Mystery: The Beauty and Necessity of the Theologian's Task
[Hat tip to J.M.]

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Loss of faith, loss of filial piety

"Filial piety" is a rough translation of the Chinese Confucian term xiào (孝) meaning love and respect for one's parents. Though pervasive in the Far East and expressed in a variety of unique cultural conventions, the sentiment is far from alien to the West. "Honor thy father and thy mother" is the single Commandment of the Decalogue that carries a promise with it: "... that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee" (Ex. 20:12).

A son who writes "honest" but unflattering paeans to his parents may expect to gain some momentary notoriety in the world today, but he loses all personal integrity and honor in the bargain.

This is what we learn about Christopher Buckley from his book, Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir (2009), as Joan Frawley Desmond shows us in "Fathers and Sons" (InsideCatholic.com, May 14, 2009):
When the relatives and friends of William F. Buckley and Patricia Taylor Buckley first learned that Christopher Buckley, the satirical novelist, was completing a memoir of the year during which he lost both his parents, there was considerable and well-founded alarm. All three Buckleys had enjoyed famously contentious relations, and, in recent years, Christopher had not only confirmed his agnosticism on matters religious, but went so far as to announce his plan to vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

Has Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir confirmed the worst fears of Buckley loyalists? The appearance of a portion of the book in the New York Times Magazine suggests that the scion has provided a juicy deconstruction of a conservative icon. Readers are invited to feast on a series of delicious vignettes that strip away the parents' public charisma and reveal their profound limitations in domestic relations. Mom is a serial liar and self-justifying socialite who never apologizes for routine bad behavior. Dad is a frenetic "great man" and control freak who impatiently abandons his only son on the day of his college graduation.

What more is there to be said? A great deal, actually. Not only does the younger Buckley acknowledge many rich and distinctive moments of parental love and devotion, the narrative reveals something more than the author may have intended: the connection between this ambivalent portrait of his parents and his own waning faith in God. To this reviewer, his critique of the Buckley paterfamilias reads like an attempt to demystify and exorcise the inconvenient Catholic values that shaped the author's upbringing and still plague his conscience.
Read the rest of Desmond's review here.

[Hat tip to J.M.]

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Blessed Columba Marmion, Christ in His Mysteries

In a personal correspondence, Zaccheus Press Editor John O'Leary says: "There are some who think this is Marmion's finest work, including Aidan Nichols (who wrote the Introduction), and Fr. Mark Tierney, the Vice-Postulator (Ret.) for Marmion's Cause for Canonization."

Blessed Columba Marmion, Christ in His Mysteries, translated by Alan Bancroft (Bethesda, MD: Zaccheus Press, 2008) is a sizable book of466 pages. It is not the first book of Marmion's published by Zaccheus Press. Christ, the Life of the Soul was published in December of 2005 (see our post on the book here). In December of the following year, Zaccheus Press published Union with God: Letters of Spiritual Direction by Blessed Columba Marmion (see our post on the book here).

According to Mr. O'Leary, in this book "Marmion is particularly concerned with leading the Catholic faithful toward a deeper understanding and appreciation of the liturgy -- in particular, the many special graces available, if we would but avail ourselves of them, during the course of the liturgical year." In fact, he points out, Marmion's passion for the subject is suggested in a letter he wrote in 1917:
"The good I have been enabled to do to souls -- men, women, children, rich and poor -- by revealing to them the treasures of spiritual life, of light and facility in their relations with God, which are contained in the Liturgy, show me how greatly important it is for every priest, vicar, curate, everyone, to work at making known this well-spring, so sure and so ecclesiastical, of the spiritual life.
Fr. Benedict Groeschel writes in the Foreword:
My advice to the members of this generation is to run to the library for Marmion before you succumb to malnutrition. Read Christ in His Mysteries as soon as possible and you will get some idea of what you have been missing and where to find it.
Again, Aidan Nichols, writing in the Introduction, says:
In Christ in His Mysteries, Marmion’s insight, as simple as it was brilliant, is that practicing Catholics will draw maximum profit from their meditation on the life of Christ if they contemplate its chief happenings through the lens provided by the Church’s liturgical year. In that year those happenings are celebrated in feasts and seasons. The Liturgy is the way the Church as Bride gazes lovingly — and therefore penetratingly — at her Bridegroom, laying out her understanding of His heart: His purposes, the grand design of the Father which He carried out for our sake... Readers of Christ in His Mysteries have opened to them the theological and spiritual treasures of Latin Catholicism at its best.
About the Author
Born in Ireland, Blessed Columba Marmion served for several years as a priest in Dublin before finding a vocation to the monastery. He eventually became the Abbot of Maredsous Abbey, Belgium. One of the foremost spiritual masters of the 20th century, his books were translated into eleven languages and sold some 1.5 million copies.

Firmly rooted in the Bible, the Liturgy, and the writings of the Saints and Doctors of the Church, Marmion explores every aspect of Catholic doctrine, with penetrating insight. His writings are marked both by the remarkable clarity of their exposition, and by their keen psychological insight and sensitivity.

But his greatest contribution to modern spirituality was to restore Jesus Christ to His rightful place at the center of the Christian life — Christ as “the life of the soul” of every Christian: through faith, through the sacraments, and through the liturgy of the Church. Historians note that only a handful of books were universally read by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council: the Bible, the Catechism of Trent, the 1917 Code, and the writings of Columba Marmion. His doctrine is recognizable in several Vatican II documents.

Many of his admirers believe Marmion will one day not only be canonized, but also declared a Doctor of the Church.
[Hat tip to John O'Leary]

C.S. Lewis and Ronald Knox at Oxford

"This book had led me deeper into [C.S.] Lewis' own writings than any I've read," writes Walter Hooper, longtime trustee and literary advisor to the estate of C.S. Lewis, in his preface to Fr. Milton T. Walsh's new book, Second Friends: C.S. Lewis and Ronald Knox in Conversation (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008). Hooper writes:
This—to quote C.S. Lewis—"is the most noble and joyous book I've read these past ten years." It is also one of the most surprising. After immersing myself in the writings of Lewis for half a century I could not, when I first heard Milton Walsh talk about the book, see how C.S. Lewis and Ronald Knox could benefit from being placed together. I am now totally converted.
Carl Olson of Ignatius Insight interviewed Fr. Walsh about his earlier book, Ronald Knox As Apologist: Wit, Laughter and the Popish Creed (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007) last May, and he said this about his second book:
There are many similarities between Knox and C. S. Lewis, and I am currently writing a book comparing their thought. They both came from Evangelical backgrounds; they both combined a love of logic with a romantic view of life. They were both very much at home in the world of Oxford, and wrote in a variety of genres. Knox was about ten years older than Lewis, so they did not know one another in student days. I have found references to each man's writings in the other man's books and letters; they were familiar with one another's work.

When I went to Oxford a couple of years ago I made an interesting discovery. Every afternoon Lewis used to take a walk in the meadow behind Magdalen College, and Knox would take a walk in Christ Church Meadow. I found out they were practically across the street from each other! They had friends in common, and one of them reports that he invited them to lunch one day in 1936. They hit it off very well, and it is enjoyable to speculate what might have happened had Knox not left Oxford a couple of years later. They may have gotten better acquainted, although Lewis' discomfort with "Papists" (excluding such exceptions as Tolkien), and Knox's reticence to go "convert hunting" may have been enough to keep them apart. I like to think they're together now!
Read an excerpt from Ronald Knox As Apologist and the entire interview.

[Acknowledgement: Carl Olson's review posted at Ignatius Insight on June 12, 2008.]

St. Francis, converter of Muslims

As an update to our earlier post (St. Francis: a Mensch of a Saint, Musings, January 14, 2008) reviewing Frank M. Rega's book, St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims (TAN, 2007), here is a link to an interview with the author by Michael Baggot, entitled "St. Francis of Assisi: Not a Birkenstock-Clad Hippie But a Converter of Muslims" (LifeSiteNews.com, April 3, 2008).

[Hat tip to blog reader]

Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus of Nazareth, by Pope Benedict XVI, a featured book review by Michael P. Foley

[Christ Pantocrator -- St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai]

During an interview, Peter Seewald once asked Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger a pointed question: How many ways are there to God? Seewalt, a lapsed Catholic, was perhaps hoping to catch the author of the "infamous" document Dominus Iesus--which reaffirms Jesus Christ as the only source of salvation--in a "gotcha" moment of intolerance and rigidity.

But the Cardinal surprised him. "As many as there are people," he replied. "For even within the same faith each man's way is an entirely personal one."1 Though Ratzinger also made clear that the only way to God is through Christ, it was his focus on each man's encounter with the Way that discombobulated the jaded journalist. That same disarming blend of the orthodox and the individual is evident in Ratzinger/Benedict XVI's latest book, Jesus of Nazareth, which the author describes not as an "exercise of the Magisterium" but an "expression of [his] personal search 'for the face of the Lord.'"2

The Historical-Critical Method

The Holy Father's salutary distinction between his office and his opinions does not mean that Jesus of Nazareth has little to do with the teachings of the Church. One of the book's central aims is to rectify that form of biblical exegesis known as historical criticism. Begun in the eighteenth century as an
enlightenment attempt to strip revealed religion of its claims to the supernatural and the miraculous, historical criticism now dominates biblical studies both Catholic and Protestant and shows no sign of abating, despite the rise of other schools of interpretation such as literary criticism.

* * * * * * *
Though Ratzinger also made clear that the only way to God is through Christ, it was his focus on each man's encounter with the Way that discombobulated the jaded journalist.

* * * * * * *

As its ideological beginnings make clear, historical criticism is a mixed blessing for Christianity. On the one hand, it was designed to undermine the believer's confidence in the reliability of the sacred text, and consequently it has destroyed not only many a man's orthodox convictions but his entire faith. For contemporary examples of this one need only think of the twaddle advanced by the "Jesus Seminar" or the articles gracing the covers of Time and Newsweek every Easter that deny the Resurrection on the authority of renowned biblical "experts."

On the other hand, it is thanks to the methodology of modern biblical studies that we have made enormous strides in understanding our biblical manuscripts, in our grasp of the original languages, andin our knowledge of Scripture's historical and cultural context. At its best, historical criticism helps exegetes better understand the literal sense of the text.

Benedict makes clear in his preface that he is aware of historical criticism's "indispensable dimension" as well as its significant "limits" (xv, xvi). Undergirding the conflict between historical-critical studies and Christian orthodoxy, however, is a deeper issue: who is the ultimage interpreter of the Bible--the Church, with its rule of faith, or the Academy, with its own canons of judgment? One of the most chilling passages in Jesus of Nazareth is Benedict's reflections on a short story by Vladimir Soloviev in which the Antichrist comes as a renowned Scripture scholar who believes that one should "measure the Bible against the so-called modern worldview" (35):

The Antichrist, with an air of scholarly excellence, tells us that any exegesis that reads the Bible from the perspective of faith in the living God, in order to listen to what God has to say, is fundamentalism; he wants to convince us that only his kind of exegesis, the supposedly pure scientific kind, in which God says nothing and has nothing to say, is able to keep abreast of the times (36).

It is no doubt statements like this that led Cardinal Renato Martino to say that Jesus of Nazareth is not only a book with "salt and pepper" but with "hot peppers."3

* * * * * * *
Most of the controversy generated by Jesus of Nazareth so far has been not over any of Benedict's interpretations of this or that passage but his underlying conviction that the Church is in a beter position to understand its own sacred texts than the Academy.

* * * * * * *

For Benedict, only eyes fortified by Faith, Hope, and Charity can truly see the living mysteries disclosed in the Scriptures.4 While historical criticism can be useful, it must be firmly subordinated to the Apostolic Faith (xxiii), and it must remain cognizant of the fact that its own reconstructions of the past are hypothetical and hence tentative (xix). Most of the controversy generated by Jesus of Nazareth so far has been not over any of Benedict's interpretations of this or that passage but his underlying conviction that the Church is in a beter position to understand its own sacred texts than the Academy. That this should come as a surprise or a scandal to anyone indicates the extent of the crisis we are in and why the Pope is wise to address it.

[Saint Jerome from a mural]

On the whole, however, Benedict's own approach is more constructive than critical. His Holiness highlights the auspicious "fact that the inner nature of the [historical-critical] method points beyond itself" (xviii). Just as modern science, when it is understood properly, points to the need for a science or scientia greater than itself, so too does historical criticism implicitly (and perhaps unwittingly) reveal the possibility that every word in the Scriptures "contains more than the author may have been immediately aware of at the time" (xix).

A Master Exegete

Hence, there will always be a need to examine what the Church Fathers called the sensus plenior, the fuller Christological meaning of both Testaments made present through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. To hold this involves no blind appeal to authority or voluntaristic suspension of discernment. On the contrary, Pope Benedict masterfully demonstrates that the most rational and reasonable way to read the Scriptures is with the recognition that the so-called "Jesus of history" is the "Christ of faith" (xxii), that the dichotomy between the two created by many exegetes invariably butchers the very text they purport ot understand and thus undercuts their own claims to competency. Two examples will suffice to illustrate this point.

In his chapter on the Baptism in the Jordan, Benedict takes advantage of the spectacular discovery of the Qumran or "Dead Sea" scrolls in the 1940s, reflecting on the possible connections between the desert Essenes (an ascetical, quasi-monastic Jewish community) and Saint John the Baptist. But while many scholars tend to reduce John's ministry to that of the Essences, Benedict, looking at the same data, more convincingly argues that in light of what we know from Qumran, "the Baptist's appearance on the scene was something completely new; the baptism he enjoined is different fromthe usual religious ablutions" (14). The Essenes had frequent ritual washings to be sure, but these stand in contrast to the unrepeatable act by the Baptist that is "meant to be the concrete enactment of a conversion that gives the whole of life a new direction forever" (ibid.). Like any good Catholic missionary, John was taking preexisting symbols and transforming their use and meaning to betoken a new and divine reality.

Second, in his chapter on the Gospel of Saint John, Benedict reviews the commonplace contention that while the other three Gospels are more or less historical, John's Gospel is a much later product of theological speculation and hence does not reflect the "real" Jesus. Yet as Benedict points out, this conjecture presupposes that theological reflection is a hindrance rather than an aid to knowing who this Man is, and this is absurd: if Christ is who He says He is, the only way to know him is through faith. Ultimately undergirding the "historical Jesus" obsession is a remarkably naive understanding of history as something that can be captured in a series of transcripts. But as John himself points out in his Gospel through his use of the conceept of memory, "remembering" the story of the Christ can only happen through an awakening of the Spirit that makes the data of the past intelligible (231-34). Benedict's careful exploration of the biblical author's self-understanding provides a key to unlocking the text that modern exegetes have been trying in vain to pick.

Genuine Dialogue

It is no coincidence that Jesus of Nazareth is itself an excellent example of how historical criticism, purified of its pretensions to high science and rightly reordered, can bear much fruit. But the book, which covers the earthly ministry of Our Lord from His baptism to His transfiguration (a second volume on the infancy narratives and the Passion is forthcoming), boldly engages a number of other controversies as well. Perhaps the most fascinating example of this is the Pope's response to Rabbi Jacob Neusner, whom Benedict calls a "great Jewish scholar" (69) and a "truly attentive listner" (118). Neusner is the author of the 1994 book A Rabbi Talks With Jesus (reprinted 2000), in which he imagines himself in the crowd listening to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. As Benedict summarizes:
He listens to Jesus... and he speaks with Jesus himself. He is touched by the greatness and the purity of what is said, and yet at the same time he is troubled by the ultimate incompatibility that he finds at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount.... Again and again he talks with Him. But in the end, he decides not to follow Jesus. He remains--as he himself puts it--withthe 'eternal Israel'" (103-4).
Neusner, a distinguished professor of Judaism at Bard College, was unimpressed with the "Judeo-Christian dialogue [that] served as the medium of a politics of social conciliation" rather than a "religious inquiry into the convictions of the other."5 He lamented the post-WWII "conviction that the two religions say the same thing" and the Enlightenment "indifference to the truth-claims of religion."6 In other words, he was tired of the very same things that make a traditional Catholic bristle when he hears the words "interreligious dialogue."

Neusner's response was A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, in which he takes with the utmost seriousness and respoect the teachings of Jesus even though he ultimately cannot accept them. Why not? Because "the Torah was and is perfect and beyond improvement,"7 whereas Jesus, with His frequent "You have heart it said... But I say unto you" emendations, is clearly going beyond the Torah and hence daring to improve it. Neusner rightly recognizes that with these statements Jesus is claiming to be God, and this astonishing assertion is something to which he cannot assent.

Rabbi Neusner later said of his book that he wanted to explain to Christians why he believed in Judaism, and that this explanation "ought to help Christians identify the critical convictions that bring them to church every Sunday."8 It certainly did for one reader. Benedict writes: "More than other interpretations known to me, this respectful and frank dispute between a believing Jew and Jesus, the son of Abraham, has opened my eyes to the greatness of Jesus' words and to the choice that the Gospel places before us" (69).

* * * * * * *
This is interreligious dialogue at its very best, the kind of serious conversation reminiscent of Saint Thomas Aquinas' turn to Rabbi Moses Maimonedes, where respect for the other does not devalue respect for the truth.

* * * * * * *

In what is the longest treatment of any living author in Jesus of Nazareth, the Pope joins "in the rabbi's conversation with Jesus" (70). He argues that Neusner is absolutely right in his analysis of what Jesus is saying, but he contends that this does not constitute a violation of the Torah. On the contrary, drawing from the testimony of the Hebrew Bible the Pope argues that the Torah points beyond itself, beyond the borders of Israel, that God's "one great definitive promise to Israel and the world" was the "gift of universality" which is made possible by the God-man who comes to save both Jew and Gentile (116).

This is interreligious dialogue at its very best, the kind of serious conversation reminiscent of Saint Thomas Aquinas' turn to Rabbi Moses Maimonedes, where respect for the other does not devalue respect for the truth. Neusner himself was amazed that the Pope should honor him in this way. In responding to Jesus of Nazareth, the rabbi wrote, "Someone once called me the most contentious person he had ever known. Now I have met my match. Pope Benedict XVI is another truth-seeker. We are in for interesting times."9

Theological Wisdom

To dwell as I have done on the Holy Father's disputations with contemporary issues such as biblical criticism and Judeo-Christian dialogue should not, however, obscure the more fundamental fact that Jesus of Nazareth is first and foremost a treasure of timeless theological wisdom. Benedict is a master reader of Holy Writ, a sleuth of the sacred who artfully connects seeminly disparate scriptural passages or Patristic interpretations to reveal a deep and rich teaching. No matter how well you think you know the Bible, the Pope will surprise you.

* * * * * * *
For Benedict, only eyes fortified by Faith, Hope, and Charity can truly see the living mysteries disclosed in the Scriptures. While historical criticism can be useful, it must be firmly subordinated to the Apostolic Faith, and it must remain cognizant of the fact that its own reconstructions of the past are hypothetical and hence tentative.

* * * * * * *

To mention just two examples: Benedict's explanation of why Jesus deigned to be baptized is not that He wished to rid Himself of His guilt (for He obviously had none) but that He wished to "load the burden of all mankind's guilt upon his shoulders" (18). Like Jonah the prophert, Our Lord inaugurated His public ministry by being thrown into the sea so that others may live. Benedict notes that in Eastern icons depicting Christ's baptism, the river Jordan appears "as a liquid tomb," a Hades into which Christ descends and out of which He rises to be greeted by the Father and the Holy Spirit" (19).

Similarly, Benedict offers a powerful exegesis of the three temptations in the desert by framing this event with a difficult question: Why didn't Jesus turn stone into bread (if not to feed Himself then at least others) or take control of all nations in order to bring peace on earth? Indeed "What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world?" (44). "The answer," Benedict continues, "is very simple: God. He has brought God. He has brought the God who formerly unveiled his countenance gradually, first to Abraham and then to Moses and the Prophets, and then in the Wisdom literature.... It is this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the true God, whom he has brought to the nations of the earth" 944).

As this answer suggests, the Pope is never far from the face of the Lord in his exegesis. Everything that Christ says, such as his preaching on the Kingdom of God (ch. 3) or His parables (ch. 7) brings us primarily, not to a doctrine, but to Himself. When Our Lord speaks of the Kingdom of God, for example, He is speaking about His own kingship, Himself. And when He tells the Parable of the Prodigal Son, He is indicating how He Himself is the "concrete realization of the father's" mercy towards the sinner (208).

I mentioned earlier that Peter Seewald was disarmed by Cardinal Ratzinger's answer about the ways of seeking god, and now I should add that that experience reignited his own search for the Lord and his return to the Church. Let us hope that the hot but nourishing peppers in Jesus of Nazareth will have the same effect on those of us whose love of the Lord has grown cool.

  1. Joseph Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium: An Interview With Peter Seewald, trans. Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 32. [back]

  2. p. xxiii. Cf. Ps. 27:8. [back]

  3. "Cardinal: Pope's Book Goes Against Grain," Zenit.org, 22 July 2007. [back]

  4. Looking at the logical lapses of Rudolf Bultmann, for example, "we see how little protection the highly scientific approach can offer against fundamental mistakes" (220). [back]

  5. Ibid. [back]

  6. Ibid. [back]

  7. Ibid. [back]

  8. Ibid. [back]

  9. Ibid. [back]

[Dr. Michael P. Foley is a professor of Patristics at Baylor University and the author of Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday? The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). The present review of Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI was originally published in Latin Mass: A Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition (Winter 2008), pp. 34-37, and is reprinted here by permission of Latin Mass Magazine, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060.]

St. Francis -- a Mensch of a Saint

If you're tired of portraits of St. Francis as little more than a Birkenstock-clad hippie, a Peace Corps social worker, or an effeminate tofu-eating Green Party activist, read this book. Frank M. Rega, St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims (TAN, 2007) reveals the real St. Francis, who, among other things, was also a brave “knight of Christ” who boldly preached Christianity to the Muslims at the risk of his life. St. Francis accompanied the Crusaders to Egypt on the Fifth Crusade, and boldly walked right into the Muslim camp in a spectacular attempt to preach Christianity to the sultan and his followers. His goal was to convert the Muslims, rather than to simply engage in “dialogue” as such. Yet at the same time, he actually was also a supporter of the armed Crusade. He made such an impact with his preaching, that the sultan rebuffed some of his own religious advisors, the imams, who were insisting that Islamic law required that Francis must be beheaded.

This historic event constitutes the focus of this book, yet this volume also includes a comprehensive biography of the saint. Here's what some others are saying about the book:
  • "The most important book on St. Francis in English, in recent years." Brother Alexis Bugnolo, Editor, the Franciscan Archive, www.franciscan-archive.org.

  • "This is a rare and daring approach to the life of St. Francis and one that is so necessary in our world at this time." From the Preface by Father Angelus M. Shaughnessy, O.F.M. Capuchin and EWTN TV Host.
Mr. Rega has been a Third Order (Secular) Franciscan for the past 25 years. His first book, Padre Pio and America, is also published by TAN Books. A Henry Rutgers Scholar and Phi Beta Kappa at Rutgers, Mr. Rega studied at Yale University’s Institute of Human Relations on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. Most recently he was employed by Compuware Corp. as a software engineer on projects for NASA and the Department of Homeland Security.

A 'must read'

Tracey Rowland, Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II (London: Routledge, 2003).

Thomism's influence upon the development of Catholicism is difficult to overestimate - but how secure is its grip on the challenges that face contemporary society? Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II rexamines the crisis of Thomism today as thrown into relief by Vatican II, the 21st ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church. Following the Church's declarations on culture in the document Gaudium et spes - the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World - it was widely presumed that a mandate had been given for transposing ecclesiastical culture into the idioms of modernity. But, says Tracey Rowland, such an understanding is not only based on a facile reading of the Conciliar documents, but is flawed by Thomism's own failure to demonstrate a workable theology of culture that might guide the Church through such transpositions.

A Thomism that fails to specify the precise role of culture in moral formation is problematic in a multicultural age, where Christians are exposed to a complex matrix of institutions and traditions both theistic and secular. The ambivalence of the Thomist tradition to modernity, and modern conceptions of rationality, also impedes its ability to successfully engage with the arguments of rival traditions. Must a genuinely progressive Thomism learn to accommodate modernity? In opposition to such a stance, and in support of those who have resisted the trend in post-Conciliar liturgy to mimic the modernistic forms of mass culture, Culture and the Thomist Tradition musters a synthesis of the theological critiques of modernity to be found in the works of Alasdair MacIntyre, scholars of the international ‘Communio’ project and the Radical Orthodoxy circle. This synthesis, intended as a postmodern Augustinian Thomism, provides an account of the role of culture, memory and narrative tradition in the formation of intellectual and moral character. Re-evaluating the outcome of Vatican II, and forming the basis of a much-needed Thomist theology of culture, the book argues that the anti-beauty orientation of mass culture acts as a barrier to the theological virtue of hope, and ultimately fosters despair and atheism.

What people are saying about the book:
  • “The Second Vatican Council was a turning point, a moment of grace; the Catholic Church, ever suspicious of Western society, at last joined the modern world. As observers feared at the time, however, the Council was much too optimistic about the nature of modern Western culture. In this careful and well-documented study, Tracey Rowland analyses its failure to make a radical critique of the problems that have afflicted Catholicism in the post-Conciliar years.” -- Fergus Kerr OP

  • “Tracey Rowland provides a critical but lucid analysis of the contemporary illusion that it is possible to convert to Christianity a modern culture wrongly thought of as ‘naturally’ Christian. In response, Rowland advocates the development of a Christian culture conscious of its own strong specificity. This book offers valuable insights into how the Christian faith can tackle the cultural challenges it faces today.” -- Serge-Thomas Bonino OP

  • “This ... is an extremely important book, and no serious student of theology or pastor of souls can afford to ignore it.” -- Laudetur

  • “This study...deserves a wide readership...[Rowland's] powers of elucidation and clarification of tangled issues are in full stride in this sustained and persuasive argument.” -- David Forest, Nova et Vetera

  • “For anyone interested in contemporary Thomism or the future of Vatican II's theology, there is much of interest here. ... There is no doubt that anyone interested in current thinking on Vatican II would gain from reading this book. The argument is impressive, challenging, and expressed with clarity and force.” -- Theology

  • “Tracey Rowland's compelling new book ... [is] impressive in many respects.” -- FCS Quarterly
[Tracey Rowland is Dean of the John Paul II institute for Marriage and the Family, Melbourne, Australia, and part of the international ‘Communio’ school of post-Conciliar Catholic theologians.]

Grootheis, "Franky Schaeffer Escapes from Reason," again

Some of you may remember the piece we posted "Jaded: Frank Schaeffer 35 years later" (November 3, 2007). Douglas Groothuis, professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary, has just published a fairly scathing review of Frank Schaeffer's new book, Crazy for God, entitled "Franky Plays Schaeffer Card, Again" (The Pearcy Report, December 18, 2007), in which a persistent question is whether the junior Schaeffer has not lost his faith. A few passages in Schaeffer's book encourage such speculation, such as the one on p. 388 in which he questions the existence of God. Again, there are texts such as these:
“We never have any real information about anything important. . . . The most ridiculous thing in the world is a Ph.D. in theology, an oxymoron if one ever existed” (102).

“Perhaps Mom and Dad were right. In an infinite universe, everything must have happened at least once, someplace, sometime. So maybe there is a God who forgives, who loves, who knows. I hope so.” (end of book)
But then again, maybe Groothuis is wrong, and there is a Franky who really does believe, knows and loves God. I hope so.

[Hat tip to E.E.]

Priestblock 25487

I have just received a review copy of Jean Bernard's Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau, trans. Deborah Lucas Schneider (Bethesda, MD: Zaccheus Press, 2007) from Zaccheus Press Editor, John H. O'Leary. In an accompanying letter, he notes that the original German edition of the work, published in 2004, was adapted into an award-winning European film called The Ninth Day the same year, but has never before been translated into English.

This is a work of non-fiction, a work of reputed literary merit, which promises to be not only a great read but to offer a tremendous witness to the power of faith. Read some of the consistent five-start Amazon reviews of the film version of the story for confirmation of that.

Here are a number of editorial reviews:
Product Description

In May 1941, Father Jean Bernard was arrested for denouncing the Nazis and deported from his native Luxembourg to Dachau's "Priest Block," a barracks that housed more than 3,000 clergymen of various denominations (the vast majority Roman Catholic priests).

Priestblock 25487 tells the gripping true story of his survival amid inhuman brutality, degradation, and torture.

This important book, originally published in Germany in 1963, was adapted by director Volker Schlöndorff into the film The Ninth Day in 2004.

Introduction by Robert Royal. Preface by Seán Cardinal O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston.

Praise for Priestblock 25487

"Stunning... Casts light into dark and previously neglected corners of the horror that was the Third Reich."
Richard John Neuhaus, Editor in Chief First Things

"Father Jean Bernard's portrait of survival in a German concentration camp is simple, forceful and vivid and therefore impossible to put down or forget. It ranks with the great 20th Century personal testimonies against totalitarian violence... Priestblock 25487 is a diary of Catholic discipleship under extreme conditions that will deeply move all persons of conscience."
Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Denver

"Gripping! This crisp story of the 3,000-plus Christian clergy at Dachau in 1941 forces me to turn pages quickly, in horror... In its understated power, this brief book is unforgettable."
Michael Novak, author of Washington's God (with Jana Novak)

"Many hundreds of books have been written and published about German concentration and extermination camps during World War II, including at least two or three dozens written or dictated by their actual survivors.

Of these, Father Jean Bernard's Priestblock 25487 is among the very best, because of the exceptional intelligence and honesty of its author. Dachau, where he was imprisoned, was not the worst of all those camps, and Father Bernard was, surprisingly, released after two years of imprisonment: but perhaps because of these very circumstances his diary is extraordinarily telling, convincing, and graphic.
Every scholar and student of that dreadful chapter of twentieth-century history ought to read—and ponder—its contents."
John Lukacs, author of The Hitler of History; and Five Days in London: May 1940

"Father Bernard has left readers with a gripping testimony of the brutal treatment the Catholic clergy received at the hands of the Nazis in Dachau. Despite the grim subject matter, the strong Christian faith held by these men is inspiring."
William A. Donohue, President, Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights

"Deeply moving... The suffering of these priests for the sake of the loving God is one of the modern age's glorious mysteries."
Father George Rutler, author of A Crisis of Saints

"It is dramatic. It is brutally honest. I loved the book and could not put it down."
Teresa Tomeo, Ave Maria Radio

"Priestblock 25487 is an important work—a gripping firsthand account of the persecution of anti-Nazi Catholic clergy. I highly recommend this excellent book."
Sr. Margherita Marchione, author of Yours Is A Precious Witness: Memoirs of Jews and Catholics in Wartime Italy