Volume > Issue > Briefly: November 2014

November 2014

Last Call: Twelve Men Who Dared Answer

By Ronda Chervin

Publisher: Goodbooks

Pages: 262

Price: $12.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Last Call consists of the utterly frank and deeply moving stories of twelve men who were called to the priesthood at the eleventh hour. They each tell of a turning point in their lives when they heard the “last call.” Some were called from a great distance: Two were born in Latin America, one in Lebanon, one in Canada, and the rest in the U.S. Two remain anonymous. All are connected to Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, where Dr. Ronda Chervin, the book’s editor, teaches philosophy.

Luis Luna, one of the two South Americans, had told God in prayer to come for him if He wanted him. A priest arrived in Luis’s town on horseback, explained that the Holy Spirit had “pushed” him to come, and asked if he wanted to be a priest. Luis joined the Missionaries of the Holy Apostles and later taught at their seminary.

Youssef-Mariam Hanna, raised a Catholic in Lebanon, had an experience of pure joy walking on Florida’s Delray Beach — literally translated as “the beach of the king.” Thereafter he began to live a chaste life, pray the rosary, and attend daily Mass. He decided to write down all the graces God had given him to change his life when he heard the last call. In 2002 he entered the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, professed his final vows six years later, and began to study for the priesthood.

John Trambley, a television-program director in New Mexico, came to a turning point when he heard “a former Protestant minister preaching a mission” and realized that “the True Presence was real” and that “the prayers of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass made sense.” He filled out a form to attend an archdiocesan vocation-discernment weekend, but for the next three years did not mail it. Finally, his father told him to “stop talking about it” and do it. He was ordained in 2010 at age 44.

Another Southwesterner, Jeffrey Thomson, assessed his life options in writing from two perspectives: with God and without God. Soon after returning to God, he was driving along the coast, took a side road by impulse, and came upon the New Camaldoli Hermitage. Deeply impressed, he went back twice a year, began attending daily Mass, and was urged by fellow worshipers to consider the priesthood. Rejected by several seminaries (he was 54), he heard about Holy Apostles, sold everything, and undertook what he called “Operation: Pearl of Great Price.”

Detroit cradle-Catholic Bob Schikora was drawn to the priesthood as a child, but went in the opposite direction until he came to a crisis in his mid-50s. His turning point came at a March for Life in Washington, D.C., where he met the rector of Holy Apostles. Soon after, a late-vocation seminarian suggested that Bob become a priest and introduced him to a bishop who also encouraged him. Bob was ordained in 2011.

Lars Markham, raised a Catholic in New York City, enjoyed the high life until he asked himself why he “never felt settled” and felt like he was running in place without a “sense of purpose.” His parish priest urged him to explore Catholic life communities. He did, but chose Holy Apostles. After two years of formation in the permanent diaconate, he is now using his background in finance, capital procurement, and building to serve the Church.

Two former Baptists are included in Last Call. “My faith life began at a Baptist Sunday school,” says Bradley Pierce, but it lasted only four years. After a stint in the army, he ran nightclubs in New York City until 1974, the year he received the grace to know he was a sinner. “I immediately got on my knees and asked God to forgive me,” he writes. Bradley resolved to follow Jesus wherever He led him, took instruction at St. Patrick’s, and was baptized. The turning point came in a leprosarium in India, when a priest urged him to consider the priesthood. He decided to “just walk in the direction of the priesthood and put the burden on God either to open or close that door.” He was ordained in 1983.

The other former Baptist, Dan Bastarache, was born in New Brunswick and served in its coast guard. He went in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous for years, always stopping at the third step. His turning point came when he completed the fourth and fifth steps by writing 44 pages on the sins he had committed. He then declared he wanted to be a Catholic, was baptized in 1994, heard the call in 2004, and was ordained in 2011.

Guillermo Gabriel-Maisonet, raised a Methodist in Puerto Rico, grew enamored of the Anglican liturgy. His “great thirst for worship” and belief in the Real Presence led him to attend daily Mass, though he had no desire to become Catholic. After studying the General Catechism, he “ceased to be a Protestant,” but became a Catholic only after reading Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Guillermo’s spiritual director told him he had a call to the priesthood. He accepted an invitation to Tyler, Texas, where the bishop sponsored him to Holy Apostles.

Finally, “Brother Jon” recounts how he lived a “terrible life” until one day these words came to his mind: “When was the last time you were happy?” The answer came immediately: “When I loved God!” He returned to the Mass, rosary, and confession, and became involved in a lay apostolate, speaking at parishes and conferences. Upon receiving an annulment, he sought direction from a priest and was asked, “Why don’t you join us?” He was 59. Initially, his religious community’s vocations director accepted him only as “an aggregate to the community without formal vows.” But seven months later he was offered vows as a brother.

Chervin divides these brief memoirs with pen-and-ink drawings well worth pondering, with her own love songs about the priesthood, and some exquisite prayers written by saints on behalf of our priests. The combination can help spur an unsure vocation and inspire laymen to greater love for priests.

Walking with Mary: A Biblical Journey from Nazareth to the Cross

By Edward Sri

Publisher: Image Books

Pages: 176

Price: $21

Review Author: Christopher Gawley

When I first entered into Holy Mother Church in my late 20s, I made a secret promise: I would be a faithful Catholic but I would not be a Marian Catholic. In order to understand such a promise, one must understand the context for my conversion. While I was theoretically a “Catholic” all my life, my family had lapsed; I don’t recall seeing the interior of a church as a child or a teen. During my early 20s I was introduced to evangelical Christianity through my wife’s family and soon became a “Bible-believing” Christian. While it is easy to scoff at some of the excesses of evangelical Christianity, I can say with some certainty that their witness put me on a road that would eventually, ironically, lead me to the Catholic Church. Thus, after growing certain that evangelical Christianity was wrong on the question of, among other things, authority and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I converted. But my conversion was such that I feared certain excesses of Catholic piety — namely, veneration of the Virgin Mary. I would be a Catholic, but a “Jesus-centered” Catholic. I would not be an idolater.

Years later I look back at that inane promise with incredulity because, as time would tell, not only would I become a Marian Catholic, I would conclude that there is no other type of authentic Catholic. As for my embarrassment at offending our Lady, I rely on her inestimable sense of forgiveness. In any event, I have spent enough time with her holy rosary that I am confident that she now knows how much I love her.

In 2005 Edward Sri published a truly outstanding work, Queen Mother: A Biblical Theology of Mary’s Queenship, which remains one of my favorite contemporary studies of our Lady. So it was with great anticipation that I read Prof. Sri’s latest work, Walking with Mary: A Biblical Journey from Nazareth to the Cross, which builds on many of the themes presented in Queen Mother.

Walking with Mary is a comprehensive study of our Lady’s life as presented through the Gospels. Interspersed throughout are Sri’s homey applications of Marian virtues and lessons to the believer’s daily life. Both Queen Mother and Walking with Mary seek to present our Lady as more than a painted statue or other-worldly figure. In Queen Mother Sri presents the unassailable biblical basis for Mary’s role as Queen of Heaven. Walking with Mary has a different orientation and thesis: that Mary is the ideal disciple and Christian. She is, Sri maintains, the most complete model of Christian piety, the embodiment of the faith, to which we should hope to aspire. More discretely, Sri unpacks the chronology of Mary’s life as proof that no biblical creature has lived a more humble, more faithful, or more heroic life than the Virgin Mary.

Many writers have written paeans to the triumphs of our Lady. Not only is love for Mary a great theme of the saints, one might observe that it is also a predicate of saintliness itself. So, after hundreds, if not thousands, of years of writings on Mary, what could Edward Sri have to offer? Quite a bit. He brings both a fresh approach to the topic and an invigorating biblical analysis. Sri is foremost a biblical exegete, and his ability to explain and connect verses is always interesting and impressive. He takes a small detail and expands on it; for example, on the archangel Gabriel comforting Mary with the words “The Lord is with you,” Sri writes: “Some of the greatest leaders in Israel’s history are greeted with this message…. From Moses to Jeremiah, the pattern is clear: ‘The Lord is with you’ signals that someone is being called to a great mission that will be difficult and demanding. And the future of Israel is largely dependent on how well that person plays his part.”

Sri dwells on certain themes at length, by which we learn the full extent of their significance; for example, Mary as “woman.” Our Lord calls His mother “woman” on two critical occasions: the wedding feast at Cana and at the foot of the cross. Sri explains: “By calling Mary ‘woman’ with the Creation story in the background, Jesus in the narrative of John’s Gospel is associating Mary with the woman of Genesis 3:15…. She is the New Eve, the woman whose long-awaited son will defeat the devil and fulfill the prophecy of Genesis.” Sri succeeds in showing that every aspect of Mary’s recorded life is replete with profound biblical meaning. She is the very model of what we should be, and it is thus fitting that God chose her from eternity to be the human portal through which He took on human flesh.

For some readers, especially devout Marian Catholics, Sri’s style of writing and manner of presentation will be unusual. Evangelical readers will be more comfortable — aside from the topic, of course — with his method of relentless scriptural cross-references and treatment of the Bible almost as a closed universe. Sri draws on virtually no post-biblical accounts of Mary. He makes no mention of Marian apparitions or mystical writings by which we have grown to understand Mary better. Nor does Sri draw on the various saints, such as Maximilian Maria Kolbe, who spent their lives in contemplation of the Mother of God. Sri limits himself to the biblical data and interprets only according to its terms.

Although other Marian writings, more typically Catholic, have their place, Edward Sri should be read more broadly by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. For the latter, especially for “Bible-believing” evangelicals, Walking with Mary serves as an important apologetic that explodes the myth that Catholic veneration of Mary is somehow unbiblical.

Living on Fire: The Life of L. Brent Bozell Jr

By Daniel Kelly

Publisher: Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Pages: 253

Price: $27.95

Review Author: Elizabeth Hanink

It is unusual to finish a biography and think to oneself that not only was the book good but the person described was good too — maybe not a saint but a fully engaged, committed individual who loved God and sought to do His will. Did L. Brent Bozell Jr. always do the right thing? Of course not. He drank too much, he was quick to judge (often erroneously), and he frequently tore off on tangents that were counterproductive. Many of his actions left family and friends hurt and bewildered. Yet at the end he triumphed, not with conventional, worldly success but with quiet acceptance of God’s will for him.

Bozell converted to Catholicism in his youth, and the Church could not have gained a stauncher defender. From the very beginning he tried to bend the culture to a more Catholic understanding and practice, and he advocated long and hard for a truly confessional state. To Bozell, Catholicism was not simply a religion but an entire way of life.

Bozell is probably best known as the founding editor of Triumph, a magazine that provided the forum for expanding his idea of “The Confessional Tribe.” In his imagined Catholic America, the “first citizen” would be the Church. “She would not govern directly…but she would be the anchor…. Her articulation of divine and natural law would be the constitution…with which any human legislation would be expected to comport. Her ceremonies and feasts, her penances, would set the rhythm of the public life. Her art and music would fill the streets of the public life. Her compassion for sinners and for suffering would shape the soul of the public life.”

Bozell had a finger in many pies, including political campaigns, public speaking, and publishing (he was a contributing editor of this magazine). Along with his brother-in-law William F. Buckley, Bozell ranks high among the early heroes of the conservative movement. Christendom College, among the few authentically Catholic colleges still around, developed as an outgrowth of a popular yet short-lived venture in higher education that Bozell had established years earlier in Spain. (He sustained his enchantment with the land of Phillip II, whom he saw as the sole monarchial holdout against creeping Protestantism, despite having never learned more than eight words of Spanish.) Less well known is the role he played in some of the first public demonstrations against America’s ultra-permissive abortion laws.

In Living on Fire, Daniel Kelly’s emphasis is on Bozell’s personal life, though it was a life inextricably bound to the public arena. Kelly had access to the family and friends of his subject, along with much of Bozell’s private correspondence. He deftly draws on his resources to portray a complex and talented man who struggled in the shadow of Buckley, yet yearned for his affection and depended on his financial support. Bozell’s quixotic decisions oftentimes seem ill-advised, yet they almost always — as with his move to Spain — reflected a desire to protect his family from the pernicious culture gaining ground in the U.S. His 10 children must have had much to endure; still, except for Michael, who became a Benedictine priest, the book mentions them mostly in passing. We are left to wonder what damage two alcoholic, bombastic parents wrought.

As strongly as Bozell felt about and wrestled with an issue, he was capable of a complete reversal of opinion. He fully repudiated his book on the Warren Court and eventually came to an acceptance of cultural and religious pluralism — although, according to Kelly, never moral pluralism. A pivotal series of trips to Latin America made him sympathetic to immigrants, whom he saw as co-religionists and allies in the effort to revitalize American Catholicism. Eventually he came to accept the papal teaching of Populorum Progressio (“the superfluous wealth of rich countries should be placed at the service of poor nations”), a surprising development given his earlier political perspective. In due course he was quite estranged from mainstream conservatism.

St. John Paul II’s articulation in Dives in Misericordia (1980) that mercy is “an obligation — the dominant obligation of every country’s foreign policy” became a fulcrum. Bozell’s article “The Politics of Mercy” (Mustard Seeds, 1985) reflected his growing belief that the bestowal of mercy should be the “supreme goal and standard of Christian politics.” Also influential were the Diary of St. Faustina Kowalska, who spread worship of the “King of Mercy,” and the writings of an 18th-century Jesuit, Jean Pierre de Caussade, who promoted a spiritual life based on “abandonment of self to God so that rather than our doing God’s will, God does His will through us” (Abandonment to Divine Providence).

Bozell’s high-energy personality shifted to manic-depression with wild mood swings that made it impossible for him to restrain some of his more outsized notions, often with disastrous results. Accepting the inevitability of daily medication, occasional hospitalization, and the need to stop drinking alcohol did not come easily or at once. His family stood by him; his wife, Tricia, eventually assumed most of their financial burdens, but not without a cost to her own mental health.

It was at the end, with his health irremediably wrecked by years of incautious living, frail and weak, that Bozell really triumphed. Now God’s plan, to make him suffer and so to teach him about mercy, came to fruition. He was not suffering from meaningless misfortune or as a pitiful victim; his suffering gave him a formidable power to bestow mercy. He spent his last years in constant service to the poor and downtrodden, many times looking worse off than the recipients of his care. In these efforts, Bozell pushed himself to the very limits of his health because, as he saw it, God withholds mercy from those who withhold it from others. One of the last acts of Bozell’s life was to complete his vows as a third order Carmelite — coming full circle from the Carlist Requetés of his youth.

Mind, Matter & Nature: A Thomistic Proposal for the Philosophy of Mind

By James D. Madden

Publisher: Catholic University of America Press

Pages: 307

Price: $34.95

Review Author: Brian Besong

Under the influence first of logical positivism, later of W.V.O. Quine, and perhaps concurrently the so-called spirit of Vatican II, the English-speaking world was deprived for a time of serious, mainstream philosophical defenses of Thomism. No longer. While it may miss the mark to say that we are now experiencing a new springtime of Thomism — the movement seems more mature than that — it is nonetheless true that Thomism is enjoying a resurgence of popularity in philosophical circles. Catholics reap the benefits, for despite being the “Common Doctor,” St. Thomas’s thought is often difficult for non-specialists to understand.

James D. Madden’s Mind, Matter & Nature is one of the fruits of this ripening crop. Subtitled A Thomistic Proposal for the Philosophy of Mind, the book is one part serious philosophical defense of Thomism and one part introductory survey to contemporary Anglophone philosophy of mind — i.e., that branch of philosophy interested in explaining the underlying metaphysical nature of the mind.

Designed ostensibly for an undergraduate course in the philosophy of mind, Madden’s book is exceptionally straightforward and clear in its presentation of the current debates, assuming little to no philosophical background on the part of the reader. While offering somewhat of a challenging read to an absolute philosophical novice, Madden has done an outstanding job of reserving the challenges for where they really lie: in the philosophical issues themselves, rather than in their presentation. As such, Mind, Matter & Nature comprises a perfect complement for Catholic undergraduates taking philosophy courses at universities that do not take the Thomistic project seriously — which is far too common even at purportedly Catholic universities — but interest should not be reserved to these only. Readers of all backgrounds who want to understand the serious problems facing both the culturally predominant materialism on the one hand, and the sort of mind-body dualism that appears to prevail in books of pop spirituality on the other hand, will find a comprehensive guide here.

Madden begins by locating the reader in the contemporary debate, discussing briefly the naturalist proposal for explaining the nature of the mind. (Surveys suggest that approximately 55 percent of contemporary philosophers accept or lean toward a view like this, with slightly higher support among philosophers whose primary area of research is the philosophy of mind.) Then the reader is introduced to key problems with the naturalist’s proposal that make some form or other of mind-body dualism philosophically attractive. Next, Madden makes a case against dualism, focusing particularly on the sort of dualism (i.e., Cartesian dualism) that one is most likely to find presented — and refuted — in a variety of contexts, notably those media through which the discoveries of contemporary psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science are disseminated. Cartesian dualism is indeed a popular whipping boy for nearly everyone involved in the philosophy of mind, but Madden’s attention here is not some misplaced, obligatory abuse: Something like Cartesian dualism retains favor in popular circles as the naïve conception of the soul. Madden’s attention to the problems facing this version of dualism, among others, provides a useful basis of comparison to Thomistic dualism, which carefully avoids the problems introduced by Descartes’s conception of the mind.

Madden explains in detail the prevailing materialist position regarding the mind. Here, as elsewhere, he is charitable in his presentation of the considered position, discussing not merely the major arguments in favor of the materialist view but also nuanced variations of materialism, some of which enjoy greater plausibility than others. These proposals are followed by their major problems. As the problems facing materialism have bothered not merely philosophers inclined to some form of dualism but others who are committed to a naturalist program, Madden discusses what one might call “hybrid” views (i.e., emergentist theories) that try to escape the implausible consequences of materialism without going so far as to endorse some variety of dualism.

One of the chapters that makes Mind, Matter & Nature particularly useful and interesting is Madden’s foray into the Thomistic “philosophy of nature.” Here Madden details the sorts of concerns that motivated the Aristotelian conception of change and substance more broadly. Madden’s primary concern appears to be fending off the potential charge that St. Thomas’s explanation of the relationship between soul and body is ad hoc. But the chapter is doubly useful since it may otherwise be difficult to find such a clear and concise presentation of the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysical system that is both accessible to introductory readers and engages the language and issues that dominate Anglophone philosophy.

Finally, Madden makes his case for the Thomistic conception of the mind. His case is partly negative, as Thomism has much to offer in solving the problems facing rival theories, and partly positive, as Thomism is plausible in its own right and for reasons that are independent of the problems facing alternative conceptions.

Mind, Matter & Nature is thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended to audiences from a variety of backgrounds. Those who have had some exposure to philosophy will find it easiest to read and understand, but anyone interested in the nature and existence of the human soul will find Madden’s presentation engaging, comprehensive, and clear.

Dietrich von Hildebrand and Edith Stein: Husserl's Students

By Alice von Hildebrand

Publisher: Roman Catholic Books

Pages: 52

Price: $5.90

Review Author: Stephen J. Kovacs

Since the death of the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977), his widow, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, has dedicated herself to furthering his work and telling the story of his extraordinary life. In this short book, she has the unique aim of drawing parallels between her husband’s early life and that of another philosopher of his generation, Edith Stein (1891-1942). A major similarity between these two provides the framework for this book: von Hildebrand and Stein were both favored students of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, who in the early 20th century founded the so-called Phenomenological School. Later, as Catholic converts, von Hildebrand and Stein made important contributions to phenomenology — which has its starting point in human experience — in part by trying to harmonize it with the objective, realist metaphysics central to Catholic philosophy, thereby putting this new school at the service of the Church.

As fascinating and worthwhile as it is to read the works of great thinkers such as these, it’s sometimes just as edifying to read about their lives, with knowledge of their personal background often shedding new light on their writings. Think, for example, of how our understanding of St. Augustine’s theology of grace is so enhanced when placed against the backdrop of the dramatic conversion story told in his Confessions. In the pattern of St. Augustine, von Hildebrand and Stein each wrote their memoirs, chronicling important events and personal developments. Our author bases her book on these memoirs, and throughout it she compares, and occasionally contrasts, the early lives of these philosophers, to offer an intimate look into the personalities of two outstanding modern Catholic thinkers. She makes no attempt to draw parallels between the philosophical achievements of her husband and Stein, but she does suggest that this task be taken up by scholars in the future. (We may hope somebody will accept the challenge!)

At first glance it’s hard to imagine as many similarities as there are existing between Dietrich von Hildebrand and Edith Stein, coming as they did from such different backgrounds. Von Hildebrand was born into a life of privilege as the son of the famous German sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand. Though irreligious, the von Hildebrands were highly sophisticated and mingled with the cultural elite. In stark contrast, Stein was born into a simple working-class family of German Jews.

Early on, Dietrich exhibited a sanguine temperament, while Edith had strong melancholic and phlegmatic traits. Both youngsters, however, could be “unruly and rebellious.” Once, Dietrich got so frustrated with his mother that he threw a can at her head. Edith would throw such wild tantrums that her older sister finally tried to subdue her by locking her in a dark room. As they grew, they quickly overcame their volatile tendencies, and Edith became a peacemaker within her troubled family.

Even in youth, Dietrich and Edith had a “strong innate moral sense, and [were] spontaneously attracted by the true, the good and the beautiful.” For instance, both were naturally repulsed by sexual impurity and had great reverence for the dignity of love and marriage. This is all the more remarkable because neither had real religious faith (Dietrich was nominally Protestant; Edith renounced her family’s Judaism for atheism by her early teens). In young adulthood, their love for the truth and keen ethical sense led to the development of virtues that would come to full bloom once they converted.

Von Hildebrand and Stein both had incredible intellectual curiosity; however, while Edith was studious and desired solitude, Dietrich preferred adventurous experiences over study, and craved companionship. His carefree nature gave him a bright outlook on life, but she suffered from bouts of depression. In her memoirs, Edith candidly reveals that for a period of time she secretly wished she would get run over by a bus whenever she crossed a street. Still, such melancholy did not keep her from pursuing her intellectual interests. Like Dietrich, Edith was a well-rounded intellectual, though both gravitated toward the study of philosophy in particular, for which each had a tremendous gift. For this reason, they ended up at the University of Göttingen as students of Edmund Husserl, who took great pride in them. Dietrich and Edith in turn admired their professor and formed close friendships with him.

Because of their slight age difference, Dietrich and Edith were never more than acquaintances, yet their times as university students were very similar. They excelled in their philosophical studies and eventually earned doctorates with high praise from Husserl. In the meantime, through series of grace-filled events, Dietrich and Edith both turned squarely in the direction of Catholicism, thanks in part to the influence of philosopher Max Scheler. Dietrich finally entered the Church in 1914; Edith followed in 1922. Strangely, Husserl’s reactions to their conversions were very different. His warm relationship with Edith remained intact but he permanently distanced himself from Dietrich and treated him with bitterness.

Von Hildebrand and Stein became accomplished philosophers and strong witnesses for Christ. Dietrich fought gallantly against the rise of Nazism and earned a reputation as “Hitler’s enemy number one,” finally fleeing for his life to the U.S. Throughout his career he used his talents for the Church and strongly defended Catholic teaching, for which Pope Pius XII unofficially declared him “a 20th-century Doctor of the Church.” Edith, greatly inspired by the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, became a Carmelite nun under the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She lived a saintly life as a scholar and nun and courageously met her death at Auschwitz, later to be canonized as a Christian martyr.

Readers will likely come to the end of this interesting little book wanting to read the memoirs of Dietrich von Hildebrand and Edith Stein for themselves. Stein’s memoirs, Aus dem Leben einer Judischen Familie (Life in a Jewish Family), are currently available in English translation. Von Hildebrand’s memoirs, which consist of an astounding 5,000 handwritten pages, remain in the private possession of Alice von Hildebrand. However, she wrote an excellent biography of considerable length based on his memoirs entitled The Soul of a Lion (2000), which is still in print. Additionally, the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project is in the process of translating parts of his memoirs to be made available to the public in English, with a volume covering his battle with Nazism set to be released soon.

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