April 2014

The Things Lily Knew.  By Sherry Boas. Caritas Press. 182 pages. $12.95.

Sherry Boas has created a series of novels featuring characters whose lives are transformed by a woman with Down syndrome. Her latest book, The Things Lily Knew, the fourth installment in the Lily series, involves moral dilemmas facing professionals in scientific occupations, and impending medical interventions that threaten the sanctity of human life. Boas also portrays the coarsening attitudes that not only afflict the lower echelons of American society but crop up regularly in esteemed scientific and educational bastions. The plot centers on and appeals to booksellers’ favorite demographic: the successful, still-coming-of-age woman.

Twenty-seven-year-old Annabel Greeley is a Rhodes Scholar, a geneticist, and a beautiful dreamer caught in a web of indecision. Boston-based Annabel has been seeing dreamy architect Logan Horne, who proposes marriage to her from the podium in front of a large audience. He has a judge at the ready and their friends have assembled, but Annabel finesses the moment with a plea for planning time, and she chastises Logan for seeking “a YouTube moment.” The dialog-driven narrative is notable for snappy repartee, and an emphasis on appearances by young professionals reveals the culture’s obsession with materialism and multiple diversions.

Annabel’s former beau, the dapper Brad Beauchamp, offers her a business opportunity, “a project that will change the course of humanity.” Annabel and Brad completed graduate studies together at Oxford, and he is involved in the development of a vaccine for women that “targets eggs with genetic abnormalities and renders them incapable of being fertilized, resulting in a vast reduction in the number of birth defects.” When Annabel questions the ethics of it all, he asserts that the vaccine would “spare countless people suffering and prevent the breaking of hearts” and “mean less of a drain on society, less stress for families and teachers, less expense for schools, fewer burdens for the government.” Brad stresses that there is no conception — and therefore no abortion — because targeted eggs are never fertilized. He asks, “Isn’t this what geneticists go into the field of genetics for?”

Much of the action involves Annabel’s extended family — a large tribe of vocal characters. She visits Uncle Jake and Aunt Terry Lovely, who reminisce about Annabel’s Aunt Lily, whose simple, exemplary life is a warm memory. Lily, who was “grateful for the smallest things,” had Down syndrome. In contrast to this, and rounding out the superficial side of things, Terry Lovely is an interior designer (another career in the book that concerns appearances) and Annabel describes Jake Lovely as “probably the most handsome man I’ve ever seen in his age group. Actually, in all age groups.” Brad Beauchamp, of course, is also one handsome dude; the significance of characters’ names will elicit a chuckle or two.

Annabel consults relatives about love and marriage as her dilemmas concerning Brad and Logan prove vexing. As for Brad’s scientific breakthrough, a cousin contends that “there’s always a cost to eliminating a cost.” What are the moral and ethical costs to identifying potential human beings as damaged goods not worthy of life? The cousin observes that suffering is part of all life, and counsels, “Be careful about the mistakes you make when you are young. Everyone makes them, but there are some that do irreparable harm, and you live every day of your life wishing you could have those moments back.” As Brad continues to champion the righteousness and supposed benefits of his project, Annabel considers that “if even one of our numerous generations of ancestors had not made it to child-bearing years, we would not be here. So there must be a reason for each person who exists. Who are we to take that person out of the running by obliterating his or her egg?”

To complicate matters further, Marty Bender, a musician who works with disabled people, is also interested in Annabel. Marty is embarking on a mission trip to Jamaica’s Kingston ghetto, “one of the most violent places in the world,” and he invites Annabel along. Bewildered by projects, plans, and menfolk (and also between research grants), Annabel flees with Marty to an alternate universe of the seriously ill and the desperately poor. The trip is not a comfortable charity-tourism junket. Marty and Annabel explore the purpose of suffering and the significance of random, terrible events. She asks the age-old question: Why did our Lord “have to be tortured and killed to save us? There are a multitude of other ways an almighty and merciful God would [sic] have chosen to save humanity….” Marty asserts that “the cross makes suffering mean something. Science just makes it random.”

Annabel leaves Jamaica following a tragic event, and Aunt Terry comforts her with the knowledge that suffering and sacrifice form the core of loving. All the while, Annabel ruminates upon a momentous family secret surrounding her mother’s pregnancy with her — a fearful situation that harkens back to Lily’s beneficent role in the whole family.

The footloose Annabel continues to need constant distraction, and she contemplates extending her road show with a Hawaiian vacation. Readers may be dismayed by this character, who presents an unflattering picture of a highly educated, privileged, failure-to-launch woman in her late 20s. Three men want her, and her relatives indulge her as she crisscrosses the country in search of guidance. Which suitor will receive her favors? Will she accept a new research grant or simply travel the world for a while? (No spoilers here.) As readers enter the elitist milieu of well-heeled, spiffy young professionals, they see firsthand the paralysis and confusion that bounties of choices often generate.

- Mary McWay Seaman



Ten Years in Prison.  By Carmel Duca. Translated by Mary Rose Mifsud. (First published in Malta, now independently published and available on Amazon.com). 268 pages. $16.

Brother Carmel Duca joined the Missionaries of Charity in 1990 after earning a degree in biology at the University of Malta. He took vows in 1993 and, after working in Italy and Peru, was sent to Medellin, Colombia, a city where murder is the most common cause of death. In 2001 he began visiting Bellavista, a prison where inmates must “rent or purchase a place to sleep,” where 20 people may be living in a cell built for eight, and the poorest will be lying along the corridors. With 5,000 prisoners and only 150 guards working on each of two shifts, discipline is kept by the prisoners themselves. The inmates are guerrillas, terrorists, murderers, extortionists, and drug traffickers.

Br. Carmel is devastated when two young men who had served their sentences are released but then killed while exiting the prison gates at night, the usual time for release. The other prisoners reassure him, “In Medellin it’s normal for such things to occur.” One inmate confides to Br. Carmel that after his first murder he couldn’t sleep, but a friend advised him, “Kill another one and you’ll see how you’ll sleep.” Many prisoners know only their mothers and have a saying, “There is just one mother but the father can be any son of a bitch.” In prison they deeply regret “the mother’s birthday party that they did not attend, the son’s first words they never heard.” One prisoner worries about his mother, a crack addict on the streets whom he can no longer protect. Time passes slowly and sometimes religion is seen as merely a way of speeding it up. Br. Carmel is dismayed when one inmate chews bubblegum at his Confirmation Mass and says that someday he will kill the man responsible for his imprisonment. Br. Carmel wonders, “Is it true that they can change or am I fooling myself?”

At first Br. Carmel believes what the prisoners tell him; then he begins to doubt, reflecting that they live “in a world of false promises. A world of lies.” At one point, when a prisoner is telling him why he is inside, Br. Carmel silently prays, “Jesus, forgive me, but I do not believe him.” At first he also believes that visiting prisoners brings out “the best” in a person, but after a while, when he knows more about prisoners’ lives in and out of Bellavista, he begins to utter prayers like these: “Dear Jesus, I feel drained. I have nothing to offer these youngsters. I feel even more empty than they themselves do…. What the heck am I doing in here?… You take care of him, Jesus. I’m sick and tired.” Br. Carmel writes that he brings to the Lord all the stories of sorrow he hears, “complete with names and faces,” at his daily adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. In the end, he realizes that they are not “my prisoners,” because they sometimes change their attitude toward him from one day to the next. Rather, “I am theirs.”

After three years in Medellin, where he would be content to stay, Br. Carmel’s superiors send him to Guatemala. He visits Pavon Penitentiary, where two gangs are at war: the 18th Street Gang, or Mara-18, and Mara Salvatrucha, or MS. Some of the gang members are tattooed from head to toe, with symbols like a spider web or a skull to show their status in the gang. It is claimed that there are 60,000 pandilleros (gang members) in Guatemala, of whom 800 are in prison. It is also claimed that these gangs came to Central America by way of U.S. deportations.

Br. Carmel finds the gang members placed in close quarters in Pavon, with only plastic sheeting to divide them. No surprise that a massacre occurs in August 2005, and the police find eight Mara-18 gang members murdered by the MS. When they go to court, the Salvatruchans are made to sit right behind the Mara-18 prisoners, whom they attack with shanks (homemade knives). The judges and lawyers flee the scene of carnage. Two days later, no one has bothered to clean the wounds of one Mara-18 victim, whom Br. Carmel finds listening to the rosary on the radio and wearing the same blood-stained clothes. Br. Carmel tends to his wounds and prays silently, “Jesus, nobody gives a damn for them.”

Br. Carmel mourns these “twenty-year-old lads who are killing their own souls: ‘Oh, Jesus, Jesus, do something.’” He feels that his faith is on the line: “Is there any hope for them to change? Is there any hope for me?… But if I say there’s no hope, it means that I have no faith in You? Isn’t that so?” Br. Carmel has hope for a 19-year-old who tells him, “I have great trust in you.” The young man gives him something he wrote on Christmas 2005: “I would sincerely like to cling to Him, be His soldier and fight the good battle, a battle one can only win if one is liberated internally and covered in the suit of armor He gives us to be who we are and to change.” Br. Carmel writes that his heart aches “for all they’ve done in their lives and for what’s waiting for them — prison or death.” He doesn’t know why he loves them but, he exclaims, “Damn it! I love them all.”

Br. Carmel’s superiors send him next to Los Angeles where, to this day, he works in the chaplaincy of the county jail. There he finds only drab colors on the walls, benches, and doors, and “not even a window to let in God’s light.” The situation is grim; time is measured by meals and body counts. He believes with Mother Teresa that “we are called to be faithful not successful,” and so he looks only for “small resurrections in the midst of death.” He also prays and offers his days for the souls of the victims and the needs of their families.

Once in California, words seem to fail him and he shifts to visual art. Ten Years in Prison offers over 50 works depicting his experience in a place where 700 men are awaiting capital punishment. His most compelling images are those of Christ as a prisoner: Corpus Verum, a man in the electric chair bearing the five wounds; Cristo Negro, the Black Christ of Guatemala, with the names of all those awaiting execution written in white ink on the black body and cross; and Mandylion, an image of Christ’s head surrounded by a halo of barbed wire. A Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, is made up of the sufferings of prisoners he knows. He Is Stripped depicts an inmate naked and being searched, while He Is Buried shows a tomb-like prison cell.

Br. Carmel powerfully chronicles the events that ended up changing him as much as, if not more than, the prisoners he befriended. They led him to a silent contemplation of Christ’s Passion. Ten Years in Prison is poignant, deeply introspective, and interspersed with prayers for and about prisoners.

- Anne Barbeau Gardiner



The Church Under Attack: Five Hundred Years that Split the Church and Scattered the Flock.  By Diane Moczar. Sophia Institute Press. 256 pages. $18.95.

Diane Moczar has earned a reputation for being a no-nonsense Catholic historian who sets the record straight. In her newest book she tells the history of Western civilization from the dawn of the 16th century to the close of the 20th century and considers what those 500 years have meant for the Catholic Church. Modern historiography has a notoriously anti-Catholic bias that has distorted most people’s impressions of the Church in this time period, yet when the historical facts are encountered, the Church is inevitably vindicated. As Pope Leo XIII once said, the Catholic Church has no reason to fear historical truth. In a conversational style colored with tasteful humor, scholarly insights, and refreshing frankness, Moczar explains what really happened during these past five centuries from a faithfully Catholic perspective.

The author argues that, at least for the purpose of this book, Western history can be divided into two periods. The first period started with Ancient Greece and Rome and lasted through the High Middle Ages — a period when the Church emerged, Catholic culture flourished, and “the general course of civilization appears to be upward.” The second period, and the focus of the book, marks a dramatic shift, beginning with the Protestant Reformation, “the first of a series of great spiritual, intellectual, and cultural crises,” and continuing through the post-Cold War era. In this latter period, the Church has suffered unprecedented attacks on her beliefs and unity, and the West has spiraled into chaos. Moczar examines the major developments of this period to show how and why the West took on its current shape and where the Church stands today. Since a truly comprehensive examination would take many volumes, she offers suggestions for further reading after each chapter.

Western civilization, traditionally known as Christendom, was founded on the one true Catholic faith and thrived on the labors of the faithful. Then came the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, when Martin Luther publicly professed a new set of religious doctrines of his own invention and, due in part to temporary troubles in the Church and political tensions, sparked revolts throughout Europe that led to the establishment of three new major religions: Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anglicanism. While the Reformation had its greatest impact in the spiritual realm, it also had significant consequences in the temporal order.

Deadly conflicts quickly broke out across Europe, thanks to ideological divisions that had set in, with the most vicious persecutions of the Church occurring at the hands of militant Calvinists like England’s Oliver Cromwell. These conflicts exacerbated tensions and caused wars of increasing scale. Despite the Catholic Church’s best efforts to heal these divisions and regain what had been lost for Christendom, the new Protestant sects, and the cultural systems they formed, became permanent fixtures in Europe. As the great European powers — Catholic and Protestant — established colonies in the New World, their ideas went with them, entrenching these disparate religions and cultures on far-off continents.

Throughout these five centuries, new intellectual and cultural movements arose that, more often than not, compounded the break with traditional Catholic thought and steered the West into further turmoil. The scientific revolution of the 17th century, for instance, had some good aspects but divorced faith and reason and “deified nature.” This paved the way for the Enlightenment, which “affected — mostly negatively — the whole intellectual climate of Europe and the Americas.” The Enlightenment’s main “fruit” was the horrific, anti-Catholic French Revolution of the late 18th century, which inspired numerous revolutions of a similar kind throughout the West in the following centuries. Moczar notes that the French Revolution “has never really ended” and that it still plays out today in the unrestrained claim of “rights.”

“Ideas have consequences,” Moczar repeatedly asserts — a point true as ever in the 19th and 20th centuries, in the wake of the Enlightenment. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, with its overall devaluing of human life and religion, led to the eugenics movement and the abortion industry, among other evils. Karl Marx, who in his youth penned ghastly poetry to Satan, applied Darwinism to the economic and political spheres and became the father of atheistic communism. The adherents to this radical ideology, which spread around the world, became major antagonists of the Church alongside the Nazi regime in the 20th century — the most catastrophic in human history.

The real heroes of these centuries are the many holy men and women who kept the faith and lived out the Church’s mission in spite of great adversity. The Counter-Reformation era alone saw a host of saints, like St. Francis de Sales and St. Teresa of Avila, as well as the development of vibrant new forms of Catholic culture. The witness of missionaries such as St. Isaac Jogues and his companions, along with the countless martyrs of the revolutions, testifies to the holiness of the Church in this period. Courageous popes also emerged in these centuries, like St. Pius V, who organized a successful effort to push back the Ottoman Turks at Lepanto; Pius VII, who endured captivity under Napoleon and was a model of mercy; and St. Pius X, who fought valiantly against modernism, “the compendium of all heresies.” Still more saintly figures were graced with mystical revelations from Christ and Our Lady regarding world events, revealing the role of divine providence in the midst of a tumultuous period.

Moczar concludes that, although the Church continues to suffer assaults, she flourishes and forever endures. As proof, Moczar points out three present-day “good sign[s] of our times” — namely, the rise of new, highly orthodox religious communities, the revival of sound Catholic education in new schools, and an increasing appreciation for the Church’s liturgical heritage.

All Catholics would do well to read The Church Under Attack. The faithful need to be more aware of Church history in order to better understand her mission and prepare for a new wave of persecutions that are on the horizon. Like her divine Spouse, the Catholic Church shall never be defeated, but she must first undergo her passion before she comes to full glory.

- Stephen J. Kovacs



Drawn from Shadows into Truth: A Memoir.  By Ray Ryland. Emmaus Road Publishing. 256 pages. $15.95.

Naval officer, Disciples of Christ minister, Episcopal minister, lawyer, teacher, husband, father of five, and Catholic priest: All of these titles and roles were, at one time or another, defining aspects of Ray Ryland’s life. Today, with over two dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Fr. Ryland lives with his wife, Ruth, in Steubenville, Ohio, where he continues to mentor and serve as chaplain and board member of Catholics United for the Faith and the Coming Home Network International.

His journey to Catholicism is not unique, but it is not a well-traveled road either. Not everyone who comes to recognize the Catholic Church as the one true Church has the courage to join, much less become an ordained priest. In the case of someone who spent years studying for Protestant ministry, the prospect of change can be particularly perilous because it can mean the loss of family and friends. (We Catholics often underestimate the hostility some denominations feel toward Rome.) There is also the loss of economic security. Several children to feed and a rapidly diminishing income become a formidable obstacle, or at least a reason to pause. But some, like the editor emeritus of this magazine, do take the step, and Fr. Ryland offers insight into how and why they do.

It isn’t as though every question or doubt is resolved before submission to Rome. That would be too easy. But somehow — and this is the miracle of faith — converts of all types find the critical key that helps them unlock the door to the Church. In Ryland’s case, it seems to have been recognizing that the source of all authority in the Church is Jesus Christ. In this, he recalls his reading of Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman, G.K. Chesterton, and, more recently, Karl Adam, author of The Spirit of Catholicism. Adam’s book helped Ryland overcome that “last phase of real doubt” about the papacy.

Having settled into the Church before Vatican II, Ryland did not become a Catholic priest for 20 more years, during which he served as a professor of theology at the University of San Diego and Franciscan University of Steubenville. Those experiences, coupled with his years in Protestant ministry, have made him especially adept at apologetics. Toward the end of his book, he tackles several perennial questions about Church discipline, such as why the celibate priesthood is preferable, why the Church offers final answers that limit the scope of legitimate dissent, and why Protestant denominations offer unacceptable “reform.” His refutations are brief but interesting for those who are looking for an overview of how the various breakaway denominations differ from Catholicism.

Autobiographies are tricky. If they involve an interesting life, they can run to volumes. Fr. Ryland shows us, in a succinct fashion, the childhood influences, the reading and study, and the mental and spiritual work that led him to become and remain a Catholic.

- Elizabeth Hanink





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