Renewing Your Faith: The Book Review

Ever wanted to spend time with someone who impacted your life but is now gone? As we see the annual odometer spin ever faster, that desire becomes more common. For Christians, we have the assurance that we will see those people who were likewise committed to Christ once again on the other side. But the time we really need their counsel is on this one.

Some leave a legacy of books, videos or other tangible expressions of self. I’ve commented before that one influential person who died too young was my first parish priest as a Roman Catholic, Donald Connolly. In addition to being a seminary academic (he taught homiletics) he left a few books. One of them was In a Holy Year, Renewing Your Faith: An Anthology of Spiritual Readings. I managed to read his abridgement of The Imitation of Christ in his A Voice for the Heart: The Imitation of Christ and An introduction to the Devout Life for all Christians, but never got to the first one (for reasons I’ll try to explain later.) It’s obviously not a substitute for one-on-one dialogue but the subjects he covers answer some questions and address some contemporary issues that Catholics face.

As explained in the introduction, the book was prepared for the Holy Year of 1974-5 proclaimed by Pope Paul VI. For the uninitiated, that technically means the liturgical year, which started on Advent I (1 December 1974) and ended on the Feast of Christ the King (23 November 1975,) although the Pope himself used the calendar year for the event. It is an anthology of twenty-four Catholic authors and works covering six topics:

  1. God
  2. The Bible
  3. Jesus
  4. Mary
  5. Sin, Angels and the After-Life
  6. Spiritual Helps
  7. The Catholic Apostolate

There was also an appendix on indulgences. Some Trads like to think that the indulgences were officially abolished with Vatican II, but such was not the case: on 29 June 1968 the Vatican issued a Handbook on Indulgences, and the Appendix is an “executive version” of same, complete with one simliar to this.

It is difficult to summarise the wide variety of authors that Connolly used, including Romano Guardini, Bruce Vawter, St. Louis de Montfort, Walter Farrell, and Columba Marmion. It’s worth noting that Connolly included both pre- and post-Vatican II authors. As he expressly states in the introduction:

No one has ever been able to explain the Faith so flawlessly and perfectly that an updating was not occasionally felicitous. Indeed, scholarship today advances so rapidly that one can find his work out of date almost before the manuscript ink is dry. True, many of the selections chosen for this Anthology were published before the world was given the insights of the Second Vatican Council. Yet, there are millions of souls who reached heaven long before the Second Vatican Council was convened…some of them by reading the books selected here.

The selections in this Anthology were deliberately chosen for their orthodoxy, their simplicity, and their ability to communicate. Some of the words used by the authors are now regarded as archaic; as, “Holy Ghost” instead of “Holy Spirit.” It was decided to leave things as they were originally printed, in the hope that moderns would come to realize that efforts were made in generations past, to propagate the Faith, and that not every work of spiritual value has to be mottled with quotations from one’s one immediate literary environment. It seems ironic that while people still revere Shakespeare, they often regard written classics on the spiritual life as irrelevant if the publication date is more than a year old. Love of God, dedication to Christ, and devoted loyalty to the teaching authority of the Church are not new concepts…

That leads to the first observation: unlike the gap between Lazarus and the rich man, the gap between pre- and post-Vatican II Catholicism is crossable and in fact products of both co-exist quite nicely in this book. That suggests that, even at this early date, a smooth transition between the two was envisioned and thought possible. The fact that the American church botched the transition is more of a reflection on the Americans (and others) than the Council.

The second is the strong underpinning of Thomas Aquinas’ thought in most of the works in the anthology. As long-term readers of this blog know, Thomism has been a major influence in my life, and this book confirms that my interest in the subject was encouraged by Connolly himself. (A good sample of that is here.) I think that Connolly felt that Thomism was the theological glue that would hold things together in the transition. Unfortunately his support base for that was thin. On the left, I had at least one priest who attacked the Aquinan view of things, and I doubt he was alone. On the other, I don’t see the Trads promoting it, preferring to content themselves with sacramentals, ceremonials and (like Mormons and many Evangelicals) a “waist-down” view of life. But there’s no doubt in my mind that, without Aquinas, Catholic theology and thought are doomed. To use a distinction that my Calculus I professor (who was a Catholic ex-seminarian) taught me, it may not be sufficient, but it’s necessary.

Much of the book is helpful to Catholic and non-Catholic like, more than one might think. Obviously the two parts of the book that are least to the taste of the non-Catholic are Mary and purgatory. His treatment of the Blessed Mother–chiefly drawn from St. Louis de Montfort–shows that it’s easy to go overboard on this, especially when she is referred to as co-Redemptrix. (This is impossible because Mary is entirely a created being, even the current Occupant of the Vatican understands that.) As far as purgatory is concerned, the problem with this was suggested from reading Aquinas himself: if disembodied creatures (such as angels and demons) move towards or away from God instantaneously, why should disembodied human souls after death do any differently? It’s worth noting that Connolly didn’t really put these front and centre in his own parish ministry; John Paul II made them (especially Mary) wedge issues to push unauthorised ecumenism out of the Church.

However, for me the least satisfying part of the book is the last one, on the Catholic Apostolate. Like Catholic theology in general, it’s long on how the lay Catholic should internalise the Christian life and short on how he or she should externalise it. Although the length and the scope of the book make a thorough treatment of the “how-to” aspect impossible, for someone who worked in the field of lay ministries this omission is very problematic. (And I might add that Roman Catholicism isn’t unique in its defective vision of the role of the laity.) This part also bares some of the problems with Catholic social teaching, which I discuss here.

As someone who has put out several books as a solo effort, I can sympathize with his struggles with getting things right, especially with the technology of the time and his probable lack of proofreaders. The book suffers from numerous spelling errors and other printing mistakes. Overall, however, it’s a good read, and frankly it’s aged well, even (or especially since) it does not reflect the “either-or” mentality in which our social media-driven world delights. With some cleaning up it would make a decent reprint. The book, unfortunately, doesn’t give any indications of the permissions he got from the various authors and publishers, and in some cases his references are so defective it’s hard to track down the original book from whence some of them came.

In my next post I will discuss the impact that the thought represented in this book had on my life, and how my subsequent ecclesiastical adventures have panned out.

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