September 2004

Mountains Beyond Mountains.  By Tracy Kidder. Random House. 317 pages. $25.95.

The much-used phrase “pre-ferential option for the poor” takes on new meaning when it is spoken by Paul Farmer, M.D., the subject of this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography.

To think of Haiti or the slums of Peru is to think of poverty and hopelessness. Russia’s prison system does not sound any better. Yet, because of the quirky, but not quixotic, Paul Farmer, these countries can boast measurable gains in controlling tuberculosis and AIDS, two scourges that especially affect poor countries with sharply limited medical resources. It is not, of course, that Farmer knows more about these diseases. Rather, he insists that all patients deserve the best care — and he’s willing to negotiate, demand, or beg to make it possible.

His career as an infectious-disease specialist at Harvard Medical School, combined with clinic work in Haiti and international consulting, requires superhuman personal energy. Wisely, he draws on the logistical support of many, both professionals and volunteers. The details, fascinatingly recounted, will leave readers intrigued and probably a little bit ashamed.

Farmer, to be sure, is not without weaknesses. His friendship with President Aristide of Haiti and his willingness to work with George Soros are not fully explained. That many of Farmer’s views on social justice derive from his Catholic background is alluded to only briefly. Certainly, he is not a saint. Nonetheless, his sacrifices are significant and his devotion to “the least of these My brethren” challenges the rest of us.

- Elizabeth C. Hanink



The Life of the Venerable Francis Libermann.  By G. Lee, C.S.Sp. Roger A. McCaffrey Publishing (P.O. Box 1209, Ridgefield CT 06877). 333 pages. $25.95.

One of the fascinating heroes of our Church is the Jewish convert and, later, superior of the Holy Ghost Missionaries, Blessed Francis Libermann (1804-1852). Due to Adrian van Kaam’s biography, Light to the Gentiles, Libermann is well known in some circles, but many more could benefit from his story. This reprint of an earlier biography, by a member of his order, will allow new readers to meet Francis.

Libermann was born to a rabbinic family in France in 1804. It seemed a perilous time; sons of devout parents were leaving the small towns for the big European cities — often to assimilate and lose their faith. After the heartbreak of losing older sons to Christianity, Rabbi Lazarus Libermann sends his brilliant youngest son to study with city rabbis. To his father’s horror, Francis also converts to Catholicism.

His conversion has a special meaning today, when many hold that it is wrong to evangelize Jews. Francis, the former rabbinic student, wrote: “In the Old Testament, before the coming of Our Lord, knowledge of God and intercourse with Him were very imperfect and obscure.”

Libermann entered the famous seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris. So striking was his holiness that he soon became the counselor of many other students. As Lee remarks: “Some seminarians did resist the new influence, either because mere nature inevitably kicks against naked abnegation, or because they were uncomfortably disturbed by hearing proposed what was beyond their present grace.”

Tragically, bouts of epilepsy, at that time an impediment to ordination, made it impossible for Libermann to be more than a sub-deacon. When told that he must leave his seminary, he spoke thus: “One is happy when he has in this world no resource but God.” Often, when asked how he was doing, he would reply, “I am a Christian, what more is required to make one happy?” Francis waited 15 years for a dispensation to become a priest.

Sent to the pre-theologate because of his illness, Francis soon became the spiritual advisor to those seminarians. Later he would join the Holy Ghost Fathers. Theirs was initially a mission to blacks in Africa and Central America.

Here are some typical words of inspiration from the pen of Libermann: “We want God, and we cannot fully have Him unless we take Him alone. He seeks us, and He will not have other offerings instead of ourselves.”

And: “One never becomes impatient on account of the glory of God.”

When told by one who disliked him, “If you knew how I detest you,” Francis replied, “If you knew how I love you.”

On religious community: “It would be better to be few but thoroughly united and very fervent, than to be many and mixed.”

Van Kaam’s later biography is still my favorite for the depth of its analysis, but Lee’s account does make its own contributions.

- Ronda Chervin



A Bed for the Night.  By David Rieff. Simon and Schuster. 367 pages. $26.

When the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad was bombed, cynics shrugged that of course an organization as politicized as the U.N. would be caught in a crossfire. When the International Red Cross came under similar threats, however, many felt that a line had been crossed.

Increasingly, humanitarian agencies are caught in the middle of an armed conflict, unable to provide help, unable to protect their workers and, on occasion, Rieff claims, contributing to the continuing disaster, if not in fact taking sides. All groups struggle with the question of independence. Some withdraw, as Doctors Without Borders did in the Congo, where refugee camps were being controlled by thugs. Other organizations find a way to observe a rigid neutrality that requires silence about the most egregious violations of human rights. Still they come under threat, and not a few seek the safety that only a military intervention by national powers can provide.

These are just the acute problems. International agencies also need to keep the public interested in them in order to continue the money flow. They have to define their mission so that they are providing the help mandated and yet not overlap with development projects or polarize human rights debates. Those particular arguments can rage unresolved for years.

Rieff reports on multiple organizations. But Catholic agencies receive virtually no attention, and in the case of Catholic Relief Services one wonders why — it is among the largest. He has spent considerable time with field workers and administrative staffs studying most of the recent disasters. U.N. officials receive sharp criticism, yet he recognizes the extreme ambiguity inherent in that organization.

Rieff’s prose is choppy at times and, as a journalist, he fights for objectivity. To his credit, he does offer a unique look at patterns of aid that are increasingly troubling.

- Elizabeth C. Hanink





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