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Briefly Reviewed: June 2024

Remnant of Paradise: Selected Essays

By Alice von Hildebrand. Edited by John Henry Crosby

Publisher: Hildebrand Press

Pages: 173

Price: $17.99

Review Author: Pieter Vree

Alice von Hildebrand needs no introduction to longtime readers of the NOR. She was, after all, a contributing editor and wrote some 20 articles for this magazine. But as time marched on, her contributions became less frequent as her overall output diminished (her final appearance in these pages came in the form of a letter to the editor in Sept. 2016). Recent readers will be familiar with Lily, as she was affectionately known by those close to her, thanks to Ronda Chervin’s loving tribute, “A Woman Philosopher for Our Times,” which appeared in the June 2022 issue of the NOR, shortly after Lily’s death at age 98.

For those not familiar with Lily, or who simply miss her presence in Catholic media (she made over 80 appearances on EWTN), Remnant of Paradise, a slim volume of select articles of hers and remembrances by those who knew her, provides a portrait of sorts and a summary of her work.

Who was Alice von Hildebrand? She will be forever linked to her husband, the eminent Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977), a towering intellect. So significant was his work that Pope Benedict XVI would write, in his preface to Lily’s biography of her husband, The Soul of a Lion, “I am personally convinced that, when, at some time in the future, the intellectual history of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century is written, the name of Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time.” Pope Pius XII called him “the 20th-century Doctor of the Church.”

But Lily did more than just stand behind a great man. Although she saw it as her duty to preserve and promote her husband’s work, she herself was no intellectual slouch. (Lily and Dietrich met at Fordham University in the 1940s when she was a student and he a philosophy professor. Lily eventually assisted him as his secretary, typing — and critiquing — his manuscripts. They married after Dietrich’s first wife, Margarete, died.) A philosopher herself, Lily taught for nearly 40 years at Hunter College in New York City, as well as at other institutions, including the Catechetical Institute of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York; Franciscan University of Steubenville; the Thomas More Institute in Rome; Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Michigan; and the Notre Dame Institute in Arlington, Virginia. She wrote several books (one being Introduction to a Philosophy of Religion) and countless articles for The Wanderer, Touchstone, Homiletic & Pastoral Review, and, of course, the NOR — a “continual stream” of writing, as John Henry Crosby puts it in his foreword. But she was “at her finest in the presence of a live, in-person audience,” whether delivering lectures across the country (indeed, around the world) or in a classroom. “She could hold a room full of teenagers captive just as easily as she could command the attention of distinguished academics and clergy,” Crosby writes. Teaching, Lily once said in an interview in America magazine, “taught me that souls are starving for truth and mostly deprived of it. I also learned that when truth is freely offered to them many find their way to God. The great enemy of truth is relativism in all its forms.”

Though diminutive in stature, Lily was “a formidable woman,” recalls Anthony Esolen, and “a powerful thinker.” Echoing that thought, William Doino Jr. writes that “her voice was as soft as a whisper, but it carried the power of a mighty battleship.” Rocco Buttiglione remembers Lily as “intensely intellectual,” and Scott Hahn describes her as “brilliant, but utterly without pretense.” And, as “she began to diminish in her intellectual strength, and her phenomenal memory became less clear,” writes Fr. Francis Mary Roaldi, a former student of Lily’s, “she taught me some of the greatest lessons. As I visited her almost monthly, over time she taught me how to leave this world as a person of faith.”

Lily’s articles culled for this volume span several decades and range in theme from the “pains” of widowhood to the “joy” of being indebted and the “blessings” of old age. She ruminates on friendship (which she calls “the remnant of paradise,” hence the book’s title), the “scientific slavery exercised by the press” that renders the masses “incapable of authentic thought” (presaging the virtual slavery of social media), and the efficacy of tears (St. Augustine, she notes, “wept at the very moment of his conversion”).

Lily is at her best when defending womanhood and the role of the so-called weaker sex in God’s redemptive plan. History, she observes, is often a catalogue of “the great deeds of the male sex. Females are a sort of appendix, to satisfy men’s needs, serve them, and produce children.” But in the Christian account, history as the story of man alone is set on its ear. “Adam honors Eve with a glorious title,” she writes. “He declares her to be the ‘mother of the living.’ Can one imagine a more beautiful and more noble title, hinting at the bond between God and the woman, for God is Life?” Even Satan “addresses himself to Eve and not to her husband…. Being very astute, the devil knew that Eve had enormous influence over her husband, and that the ‘strong sex’ would follow suit in whatever decision she made.” At the Annunciation, the strong sex is “excluded” from the event that would split history in two: “The human male will play no role whatever in the miracle that will take place in [Mary] as soon as she gives her consent…. In the drama of redemption, the ‘weak sex’ is in the foreground.”

Indeed, Lily came to be known as the foremost exponent of “Christian feminism.” She demurred, however, at the description. “I would not call myself a Christian feminist but a champion of femininity,” she insisted. “The sublime beauty of the female mission as virgin, wife, or mother has been so degraded that I felt called to shed light on ‘the privilege of being a woman,’ which is also the title of one of my books.”

How do you sum up a life? Can you? Perhaps Doino puts it best when he says of Lily that he’d “never met a lay person who better exemplified what it means to be a Christian in the contemporary world. May [her] legacy grow, and may it continue to point people toward Heaven!”

Alice von Hildebrand is greatly missed. And she will never be replaced.

My Perfect Wife, Her Perfect Son

By Joe Benevento

Publisher: Addison & Highsmith Publishers

Pages: 240

Price: $29.99

Review Author: Helen Bungert

What did Joseph think when Mary informed him that she was pregnant yet still a virgin? How did he feel when he was told he was to be foster father to the Messiah? Joe Benevento, with humor and compassion, imagines the answers to these questions in his novel My Perfect Wife, Her Perfect Son.

Joseph’s first reaction to this news is a very human one: “You’re going to birth the Moshiach himself and to top it off said Messiah is actually going to be God’s son?!” The Bible tells us that Joseph considers not marrying Mary until an angel appears to him in a dream to change his mind. As Benevento imagines it, this is a very different kind of angel, an angel named Shlomo, who is “short, with dark, receding hair that looked unwashed. His spindly legs and dirty sandals were not hidden by angelic robes…. More disturbing still, there were no wings.” His words to Joseph are even more surprising. “Doubts? You’re giving me doubts? Are you crazy or just stubborn?” Joseph soon realizes that no matter how unconventional the messenger, his marriage to Mary has been divinely ordained.

All the important events of Jesus’ life that Joseph witnessed are recounted in My Perfect Wife, Her Perfect Son. When shepherds arrive singing after Jesus’ birth, Joseph grumbles about being awakened by the racket. Amid such humor are hints of what is to come. When visiting Jesus’ cousin John, Joseph is struck by John’s high energy and strangeness. Even Jesus seems a bit disconcerted by John at first. He tells Joseph, “He makes me afraid, but I know he means me no harm. There’s a wildness in his eyes, though, Father, especially when he looks right at me, that makes me afraid.” We watch Jesus and John grow from two very different little boys to young men who understand their place in each other’s lives.

Another important figure in Jesus’ life is the Apostle Simon, and here again we meet a figure who’s perfectly credible as a human being. In their first encounter, Jesus tells Simon that He’s always wanted to go out on a boat in these waters. Simon replies, “And why should I give a rat’s rear about what you have always wanted, stranger?” He’d been a fisherman all his life, and here comes a young Jesus, wanting to come along on his boat. Simon is incredulous, rude, and dismissive. Until he isn’t, until he becomes a witness to one of Jesus’ first miracles.

And then there’s Mary. The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was born without Original Sin, was incapable of committing sin, and remained a virgin all her life. How does a writer portray such absolute goodness and still depict a human being? What Benevento gives readers is a loving Mary who feels grief for Joseph and what he must endure yet is steadfastly convinced of the path that God has ordained for her. Despite her love and compassion for Joseph, she will follow God’s plan. Despite his frustration, Joseph ultimately understands that all of Mary’s decisions serve God.

Benevento’s Joseph gradually comes to realize Jesus’ true nature, that He’s fully God and fully man. He asks himself why Jesus even needed an earthly father. Wasn’t Jesus born good, above temptation? He grows to understand his own role in Jesus’ life. “I understood now, as completely as an imperfect man could, that even as Mary had modeled Jesus’ heavenly nature to him, it had been my role to model what it meant to be a normal human being, and much of what was good and understanding and sympathetic about Jesus had been helped along by my imperfect example.”

This enjoyable and humorous book brings the various characters of the New Testament to life and, while never straying from Christian theology, gives Joseph his humanity and his voice.

Two Patients: My Conversion from Abortion to Life-Affirming Medicine

By John Bruchalski

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 185

Price: $15.99

Review Author: Charlene Rack

Two Patients is, in a nutshell, a prodigal-son story with more twists and turns than the original. John Bruchalski grew up in a devout Catholic family that was obedient to Church teaching. He felt blessed and happy, even though winter-morning rides to serve at daily Mass took place in an unheated car. At an early age, a cousin introduced him to the Visible Man and Visible Woman models, and he eventually collected nearly all variations. He developed a strong interest in the human body, and by fifth grade his call to be a doctor was imbedded.

After secondary school, John chose to go to Spring Hill College, a private Catholic institution in Mobile, Alabama. His mom had visited the school with him and found it fitting; his dad had been pleased as well. Neither of them realized that the Jesuit priests there were what they would refer to as “liberal Catholics.” The professors talked more about social justice than Church teaching. John found himself “learning all about the merits and virtues of Marxist-inspired theology,” along with the theory of proportionalism.

John’s college classes offered “ethical thought experiments” for which there seemed to be no clear answers. Professors purposely confused their students with these exercises in order to promote agendas they thought best for our world, with minimal regard for Church teaching. This brings to mind something a friend of mine who taught at a Jesuit college once told me. When he challenged a fellow professor on some of the questionable things he was teaching his students, the professor replied, “I like to mess with their little Catholic minds!” Never mind St. Luke’s warning that it would be “better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin” (17:2).

Throughout his education, Bruchalski tried to remain “neutral.” The brainwashing that began in college continued via older doctors whom he trusted. His first participation in an abortion took place in 1985, alongside an esteemed doctor who had sought out Bruchalski to assist him. John felt privileged and did not want to disappoint the doctor. Deep down, he knew what they were doing was wrong, but he pushed such thoughts aside and focused on doing a good job. When he had finished his first abortion, he convinced himself “it wasn’t that big of a deal,” just another dilation and curettage like he’d done many times after a miscarriage. And, he reasoned, if he hadn’t done it, another doctor would have. He began to believe that abortion was the right choice for women in poverty or with no support from the child’s father or who just didn’t want to deal with a baby. John’s education and experience had convinced him he should do what the mother wanted. Each time he performed an abortion, his qualms about the procedure diminished by degree, while he continued to think of himself as a good doctor.

Bruchalski’s call to conversion began in 1987 on a mission trip to Mexico, where he saw Our Lady of Guadalupe’s tilma for the first time. Moved by the experience, he knelt in prayer and “heard” the words Why are you hurting me? He didn’t know what it meant, and he tried to reason with himself that as a doctor, he could help women, ease their fears, and do what was best for them. He knew he had a knack for being a good listener, especially to women, and he would use this gift to help them. He buried the memory of those haunting words and continued performing abortions when he thought it best for his patients. Along with many of his peers, he believed that abortions should be “safe and rare.”

Bruchalski’s tower of denial and self-deception finally came tumbling down one fateful night at Norfolk General Hospital. A patient came in demanding an abortion. “I just want it out!” she said of the baby in her womb. Based only on how far along the patient “guessed” she was in her pregnancy, Bruchalski ignored protocol and induced delivery. He was shocked to see a baby much further developed than the mother had said. He had nearly aborted a viable fetus, which was illegal in Virginia at the time. His stomach dropped after weighing the baby, and he hit the emergency button to call the neonatology team. Team leader Dr. Deborah Plumb assessed the situation and was angry. She reminded Dr. Bruchalski that there were two patients involved in an abortion, the mother and the baby. She accused him of treating fetuses like tumors and harshly challenged him to do better. John knew he had messed up and had made the neonatology team’s job difficult. He stood there feeling numb, knowing his life was about to change drastically.

Slowly, Bruchalski’s eyes were opened, along with his heart. His fate was sealed by another moving pilgrimage he made with his mother, which brought about a miraculous transformation of his soul. John’s conversion story in Two Patients reminds readers that God never gives up on us, no matter how lost we allow ourselves to become.


©2024 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.


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