May 1999

Cardinal Galsworthy.  By Edward R.F. Sheehan. Viking Penguin. 493 pages. $No price given..

The Catholic Church, with her history and traditions, her saints and apostles, her priests and religious, seems always capable of amazing me anew. In spite of her blemishes, her treasures seem endless. A fresh appreciation of the richness of the Catholic Faith came to me as I read Sheehan’s Cardinal Galsworthy, a novel about a priest in the modern Church. The book is both instructive and delightful. It is a feast — ample, savory, and offering much food for thought about the Church today.

Sheehan’s title character, Augustine Galsworthy, is deeply flawed, a vain man extremely conscious of the handsome figure he projects. The story is told in Galsworthy’s voice, and he describes himself at one point as “arrogant and overbearing. Intolerant and theatrical. Je suis poseur!” He is accurate. Yet there is something about him that earns this reader’s deep appreciation.

Cardinal Galsworthy provides many kinds of enjoyment. The prose is beautiful. And the descriptions of the scenery, works of art, and people Galsworthy encounters around the world are vivid. Then there is the book’s historical value. The story is graced by dozens of memorable vignettes of figures and events from the Church’s past.

When Sheehan describes the people of the latter half of the 20th century, he uses the common devices of the historical novel. Some people and events are identified explicitly, but most are thinly disguised characters based on real people. Often the identities are obvious: The Stern Pope, the Sunny Pope, the Sad Pope, and the Slav Pope. The three cardinals who play central curial roles during the time of Vatican II are Cardinals Baluardo, Sostituto, and Samosata. Part of the fun of the book is to match them to their actual counterparts in Rome at that time. And it is this survey of Church history in the latter half of this century that, although fictitious, is the backdrop against which Sheehan presents us with his important story.

It is the story of the life of a priest: his formation, struggles, and growing maturity. He overcomes many weaknesses and braves many tests. All this he undergoes as the Church herself experiences seismic changes. His career takes him to the Faith’s many mansions: from the Byzantine politics of the Vatican, where he lives in luxury amid great works of art, to the Congo, where he embraces lepers and is instructed in the simple life by the wise Sister Pauline. We also see Galsworthy encountering dissidents in Europe, the U.S., and Latin America. With him we confront the big issues — abortion, contraception, the arms race, Communism, capitalism, and liberation theology — all way stations along “Galsworthy’s Progress.”

Galsworthy emerges as a stalwart defender of the Faith. But we know he is vainglorious, self-admittedly so. In defending the Pope and the Curia, is he currying favor and seeking power? Does he ignore “the cry of the poor”? Sheehan portrays Galsworthy as more in touch with the common man than are the ivory-tower dissidents with whom the Cardinal butts heads. We see people starving for the Truth and the sacraments, and Galsworthy gives the people nourishment while the post-Vatican II innovators starve them.

A revealing passage shows us Galsworthy’s passion: “You consider me a sly and venal Cardinal, an ecclesiastical dissembler craving money and high art to satisfy my gluttony for beauty. You do not believe that I deeply cared what theologians thought of Christ…. You are sinfully superficial! As I hacked through thickets of the New Theology…and…the exegesis of the modern scholars much of me felt RAGE.” Cardinal Galsworthy is interested in more than just his career. He is devoted to Truth.

And so the story is a complicated morality tale. The arms salesman who contributes to the world’s conflicts is also a great benefactor of the Church. The ego-driven priest, although self-serving in much of his charitable work, also helps many poor people. The priest who appears pompous actually attempts to make himself smaller as he seeks to reflect the grandeur of something far bigger than himself, whereas the priest who rejects the vestments and pomp ends up self-inflated and currying favor with the world. And there are the priests whose superficial brand of love, though approved by hip academics and the media, often snuffs out the faith of the layman.

Cardinal Galsworthy is a refreshing change from the trashing of the priesthood and the Church we see in literature, television, and film today. In Sheehan’s book we have an honest assessment of the Church — many warts, to be sure, but also much beauty and wisdom and strength. Cardinal Galsworthy’s Church is truly one established on a Rock, one against which the Gates of Hell will not prevail.

- Paul Koenen



Maurice & Thérèse: The Story of a Love.  By Patrick Ahern. Doubleday. 284 pages. $19.95.

One feels a certain excitement about being called to review a book that within two months of its publication was already in its third printing. No room here for procrastination — Bishop Patrick Ahern’s Maurice & Thérèse is a hot item!

Part of the excitement originates from what is happening now in the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 1997, the centenary of her death, Pope John Paul II named her a Doctor of the Church, and this event was followed, in 1998, by the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the publication of her autobiography, The Story of a Soul. Another part of the excitement originates in the love Catholics show for Bishop Ahern himself. After his homilies at Masses honoring Thérèse at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, people surround him in the vestibule holding out copies of Maurice & Thérèse for him to sign. Neither the last nor the least reason for the excitement arises from the book itself. It’s one of those absorbing books you cannot put down.

Who is Maurice, and how is he related to St. Thérèse? Maurice Bellière came into the life of Thérèse Martin shortly after he entered a seminary in Normandy. Eventually he would be accepted into the Society of Missionaries of Africa (better known as the White Fathers) and sent to North Africa to complete his studies — he was ordained in Carthage on June 21, 1901. But while still in France, Maurice faced a crisis: He was suddenly called up for a year of military service that would interrupt his training for the priesthood. Fearing the worldly influences he would inevitably encounter, he appealed to the Carmel at Lisieux for help. Identifying himself as a seminarian and “an aspiring missionary,” Maurice begged the Mother Superior to choose a nun to pray for him “so that he might obtain the grace to remain faithful to his vocation.”

Perhaps because Maurice wrote his letter on the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila (October 15) and invoked that saint, the Prioress gave the responsibility to young Thérèse. Thérèse received the assignment with joy. She had long lamented that her own brothers had not lived to enter the priesthood, and she gratefully accepted Maurice as the brother she had wished for. The correspondence continued until her death (Thérèse succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 24 on September 30, 1897), but the seminarian and the nun never met.

Until about a decade ago, very little was known about Father Bellière. In the 1970s the Carmelite nuns at Lisieux began to wonder what had become of the young priest for whose spiritual welfare St. Thérèse had prayed so loyally. They consulted officials of the Order of White Fathers and persuaded them to conduct a search of their archives in Rome. Around that time Bishop Ahern arrived in Lisieux. Equally curious about Maurice’s fate, the bishop became a member of this detective team, and to him, ultimately, the work of transposing the joint research into book form was entrusted.

What will one find between these attractively designed covers? First of all, the letters. Letters are, as Bishop Ahern says, “confidential conversations, overheard from the past, between two people unaware that anyone is listening”; in letters, “people best reveal themselves.” In these letters both parties share candid confidences about the ways that God is working in their souls. The fascination of reading these letters lies in the juxtaposition of the two levels of understanding — the deep spirituality of the saint and the earnest enthusiasm of the seminarian. Thérèse, who had been novice mistress at the Carmel for some time and who, in addition, had received unique and transforming graces, gives spiritual direction to Maurice, the beginner.

Second, there is Bishop Ahern’s commentary. Bishop Ahern brings to the book his deep affection for and close interest in Thérèse, his consequent wisdom, and his well-known sense of humor. His lifelong devotion to Thérèse enables him to identify the significant passages in each letter and to explain their spiritual richness. His commentaries also supply a historical setting: For example, we know, but for some months Maurice does not, that Thérèse was dying of tuberculosis. Background material gathered from various archives creates vivid pictures of conditions that missionary orders like Maurice’s faced in the Congo, a “land of few enchantments” where the White Fathers, “drained by the intense heat, devoured by thirst, and assailed by tse-tse flies…encountered fierce hostility from the Muslims and apathy on the part of the natives.”

These two parts (letters plus commentary) unite to form a whole that offers both pleasure and inspiration. Maurice & Thérèse portrays a beautiful relationship: Two young people, “a man and a woman whose lives were given totally, in vowed celibacy, to God and to others,” join hearts within the capacious heart of Jesus. The letters make up a mystery story, too, as the reader waits to find out: Will the noble and glorious aspirations of these two souls be achieved? Bishop Ahern’s thoughtful analyses of the poems of Thérèse (especially Maurice’s favorite, “To Live by Love”) reveal much about her interior life. And, finally, the book includes an annotated bibliography of the best works about this new Doctor of the Church.

Maurice, Bishop Ahern, tells us, is “a man who is like us in many ways, with human limitations which we readily recognize and which perhaps we share.” Thérèse, on the other hand, is “a uniquely great and very famous saint imparting her spirit and her teaching to a friend who is very dear to her.” In these letters “she reveals her extraordinary capacity for friendship to a degree not found elsewhere in her works.” As a consequence, the book takes on a larger significance: “In writing to Maurice, Thérèse also writes to us.”

It is Bishop Ahern’s hope that her letters will be read with this understanding. “Thérèse,” he says, “speaks to all those who worry that they are not better than they are. It is a waste of time to regret that one is not better than one is. Thérèse made short work of regretting.” For her, weakness was the great essential. If one is weak and lacks virtues, one is “all the more suitable for the operations of God’s consuming and transforming love,” for (said Thérèse) “as soon as He sees us convinced of our nothingness, God extends His hand to us.”

- Elaine Hallett



A Time to Heal: John Perkins, Community Development & Racial Reconciliation.  By Stephen E. Berk. Baker Books. 400 pages. $17.99.

Here is a fine study of an unsung hero of the movement for community-building among blacks and whites. It’s an antidote to the discouragement many people feel with the meager results of recent struggles for social justice. John Perkins, a black man, shows how perseverance — with an openness to grace — can win out.

Born in 1930 in rural Mississippi, Perkins was neglected by his father and at the death of his mother became in effect an orphan. Yet Perkins survived: He found hope from male mentors in his community and then from the promise of “better times” in California. A hard worker, he moved from factory labor to a business in Pasadena. He found some success in overcoming racial barriers during this time and while in the military during the Korean War. Soon he was to marry a woman from his old hometown and start a large family. Perkins, as Berk puts it, “was never quite satisfied with the platitudes and pat solutions that most people settle for,” and so “began to explore a number of different religions.” Eventually he and his family found their way to the little Bethlehem Church of Christ Holiness.

Perkins made a total commitment to his faith and began a lifelong study of Scripture. Looking around him, he saw that the black youths coming out to California were likely to become lost in this new world, and something began tugging at him to go back to his hometown.

In 1960 Perkins and his family were back in Mississippi and involved in a multitude of projects. Over the decades, in small towns, in Jackson, Mississippi, and again in Pasadena, his initiatives included solid Bible study for people whose faith failed to integrate mind and heart; opening up new opportunities for work; housing co-operatives and community health facilities; thrift stores serving whites and blacks; and an international study center for Christian community development. These projects represented what Berk calls “constructive black power,” as Perkins worked to end segregation, bring capital into the community, and motivate young black leaders.

Perkins spoke often before white evangelical students and solicited their help with his work. These students and their parents trusted him because of his sound evangelical theology. Perkins tried to steer evangelicals from an ethos of personal success to one of community service. Drawing on Jesus’ approach to the Samaritan woman, Perkins said that white avoidance of their black neighbors would be akin to ancient Jewish prejudice against Samaritans. White evangelicals needed to recognize blacks as their neighbors. As Berk reports, Perkins experienced police violence — and he refused to hate his tormentors.

NOR readers might well study the life of John Perkins to find courage in their own struggles on behalf of Church and society. One of the most beautiful fruits of ecumenical openness is that “separated brothers” can give us fresh hope.

- Ronda Chervin





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