Volume > Issue > Briefly: September 2009

September 2009

Light and Shadows: Church History Amid Faith, Fact, and Legend

By Walter Brandmüller. Translated by Michael J. Miller

Publisher: Ignatius Press

Pages: 286

Price: $16.95

Review Author: Daniel J. Heisey

Since the soul consists of intellect, will, and memory, developing a sense of history is part of growing as a human being. Whether it be the appetite for local gossip or comparison of recent athletic events with past victories or defeats, man has an innate interest in what John Lukacs has called “the remembered past.” That interest is also the interest of a shareholder; man has an inherent stake in the truth about the past. Thus, despotic regimes seek first to control the past by turning history into propaganda, and democratic ones make it a branch of public relations. Especially in the age of the Internet, historical in­formation is easy to come by, but distilling wisdom from that flood of data is the special gift of the historian. Antiquarians collect and catalog the facts and artifacts of the past, but the historian studies them and uses them to tell a true story that is worth hearing again and again.

Upon first reading, Light and Shadows, a collection of 15 essays by Walter Brandmüller, engages and entertains, and in years to come it will repay re-reading. Now 80, Msgr. Brandmüller was a professor of Church history at the University of Augs­burg and is president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences. From the pages of this book he emerges as a witty man devoted to seeking historical truth and to serving the Church. Ignatius Press has done English-speaking students of history a great service by making these essays available in a readable translation from their original German.

For most readers of history outside Europe, Brandmüller is no household name. After a weekend with this volume of essays, however, he stands out as a learned and avuncular presence. Not only does his ability as a researcher and storyteller appear manifest, but his perceptive insights and ways of repeating important points suggest that he was a good teacher. For example, his understanding of medieval civilization shows profound meditation on the facts available from archives and chronicles. He sees that civilization as a combination of “Old and New Testament revelation and Greco-Roman culture with the Germanic-Celtic element into a history-making synthesis.” Elsewhere he reminds us that the Middle Ages were “a synthesis of [classical] antiquity and Teutonic culture, with the Gospel of Christ as the formative principle.” Far from a stagnant twilight of knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers, the millennium or so between Constantine and Columbus was permeated with cultural and intellectual vitality, all stimulated by the leaven that is the Church.

Ever since the self-congratulatory days of the much-vaunted Enlightenment, anyone who puts in a good word for the medieval world must be ready for a fight. Without becoming aggressive or overbearing, Msgr. Brandmüller cheerfully sets facts before a candid world, to paraphrase a great text from the Enlightenment. His graceful prose conveys what can best be described by the cliché of “formidable erudition.” One senses that arguing with him is a dangerous task, mortal combat conducted with a twinkle in the eye and never a sweat broken as he lands a series of carefully aimed and palpable hits.

The old liberalism that lurks beneath much of current neoconservatism leaves Brandmüller unimpressed. Whereas for many Americans, at least, ancient history means the Second World War, Brandmüller has traveled widely in the past, from pagan antiquity through the Middle Ages and into recent centuries. He is thus free from chronological confinement and sees through the danger of “the liberalism that rejects any subordination of the individual to universally valid truths and norms.”

These essays address the controversial topics about which any Catholic can expect to be accosted. Often such attacks occur when one is least ready for them, say in some social setting where the standard polite inanities are shattered by grilling or rants about the Crusades or the Inquisition. Msgr. Brandmüller takes on these challenges, using the surest foil for deflating dinner-table bores and bullies: historical perspective. Let us talk, he says, about deaths during the Inquisition, and let us also consider deaths from the 20th century’s labor camps and abortion clinics. With equal frankness, he addresses the question of Church scandals, papal primacy, the Protestant Reformation, and the role of Church councils.

Regarding the last named, he rightly points out that councils have been and will continue to be a recurring part of the life of the Church. He observes that whenever and wherever the next ecumenical council takes place, it will stand within the tradition of the Church. He has no fear of “Vatican III, Nairobi I, or even Moscow I,” and he is not afraid to recognize disappointing aspects of the most recent Church council. With judicious pondering of the past fifty years, he concludes that “it would have been for the council an honorable page in the annals of history if it had followed in the footsteps of Pius XII and found the courage to condemn communism repeatedly and explicitly.”

Here is the voice of a man who has seen too many utopias imposed at gunpoint. He has surveyed the blood-stained panorama of three thousand years and sagely notes that, whereas once Christians faced tensions between throne and altar, they have of late been forced into confrontations between Mother Church and Big Brother. Twice Msgr. Brand­müller quotes Thomas Babing­ton Macaulay’s observation in 1840: “The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour.” What for Macaulay caused dismay imbues Brandmüller with serenity.

As a priest and historian, Brand­müller makes sense of the past by seeing it within the context of divine revelation. He thus stands in the great but fading tradition of Christian humanism. This book of his essays on Church history and how it intersects and informs secular history will be a valuable resource in ongoing discussions about what the past means for the present. While it would have been interesting to know the occasions and journals for which these essays were first written, satisfying that bit of curiosity is not very important. What is sad to say about these essays is that when compiling them the author made a regrettable mistake by deciding to omit their original footnotes. That omission, as well as the lack of an index, limits the scholarly usefulness of the book, but it does not diminish the invigorating confidence it encourages.

Life of Christ

By Bishop Fulton J. Sheen

Publisher: Image Books/Doubleday

Pages: 688

Price: $17.95

Review Author: Hurd Baruch

Apart from the four Gospels, the single most important reading material for a Christian who wishes to understand and strengthen his faith is a well-written life of Christ. Why? Because Christianity is based upon the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It is He, personally, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life — and not religious teachings, however important and well stated they may be.

The Gospels are biographies in miniature, rather than, say, statements of belief like a creed, or principles of ethics or social policy. Acting somewhat like counsel in a secular trial, the author of a life of Christ summarizes and harmonizes the testimony of the witnesses and the documentary evidence (the Old Testament), calling attention to and explaining the significance of certain facts. Aided by insights of saints and theologians over the past two millennia, he shapes the whole into a persuasive proof that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the divine Son of God who took on human form in order to suffer and die, so that our sins might be forgiven and that we might become adopted children of God.

No two-trial counsel would make the same argument based on the same evidence, so it is not surprising that no two biographers tell the story of Jesus Christ the same way; indeed, there are authors who even now maintain that the jury that tried Him and judged that He was a mere man rendered the right verdict!

How is a believer to find a truly helpful biography among the hundreds of books readily available about the life of Christ? Recent decades of scholarly discoveries, including the quest for the so-called historical Jesus, have not resulted in a satisfactory picture. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI, in his own book, Jesus of Naza­reth, expressed the view that modern “reconstructions” of Jesus have become “more and more incompatible with one another” and with Church teachings; they are more like “photographs of their authors and the ideals they hold.”

Where, then, should NOR readers look to find an honest-to-God life of Jesus that is historically sound, faithful to the Magisterium, and spiritually uplifting? Reserving the Pope’s book for serious students, I recommend either the library for two classics — R.L. Bruckberger’s The History of Jesus Christ and Romano Guardini’s The Lord — or the bookstore for the new edition of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s Life of Christ, recently published to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first edition by the late, world-renowned radio and television evangelist.

Sheen’s book is a superb resource for a Christian who has not studied the Bible in depth. I say “resource,” because to get the most out of it, one should not sit down to read it straight through like an ordinary biography, but rather read it chapter by chapter, interspersed with meditations. Sheen brought forth from his storeroom both the old and the new, citing Scripture on every page (albeit using the unfamiliar, idiosyncratic translation by Msgr. Ronald Knox), and weaving the two Testaments together seamlessly. Starting with Old Testament foreshadowings of the Messiah, Sheen covered the early years from Jesus’ birth on through His baptism, desert experience, and the miracle at Cana. The middle section of the book is devoted to topics from Christ’s public ministry, such as His teachings, what He had to say about Himself, and His interactions with people.

Sheen was incensed at how the modern world had bowdlerized the story of Christ’s sacrifice for us: “The Western post-Christian civilization has picked up the Christ without His Cross. But a Christ without a sacrifice that reconciles the world to God is a cheap, feminized, colorless, itinerant preacher….” To correct this false picture, he devoted the last 200 pages to a dramatic retelling of the story of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection.

A few passages of Sheen’s prose may seem over-the-top to modern tastes, but all of it is graceful, sometimes even lyrical. Spiritual gems abound, often in the form of an apothegm such as, “He would act on one soul in one way, and on another in another way, as the sun shines on wax and softens it, and shines on mud and hardens it.” Describing Herod’s fear of John the Baptist, he wrote, “The ungodly like religion in the same way that they like lions, either dead or behind bars.” His imagery can be memorable. In describing the abasement involved in God becoming man, Sheen went well beyond St. Paul’s description of Jesus “taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7), likening the Incarnation to a man taking on the form of a serpent, and then living among serpents.

Sheen’s Life of Christ is an intellectual and spiritual tour de force — engaging, enlightening, and inspiring. An angelic voice is calling out: Tolle! Lege! Pick it up and read it!

Saints of the Bible: Exploring Scrip­ture with Holy Men & Wom­en

By Theresa Doyle-Nelson

Publisher: Our Sunday Visitor Books

Pages: 112

Price: $9.95

Review Author: Pieter Vree

In this nifty little book, Theresa Doyle-Nelson briefly examines the “saints of the Bible,” the men and women mentioned in sacred Scripture, primarily the New Testament, who have been so designated by the Church. Doyle-Nelson devotes two pages to each saint; her subjects, 48 in all (the Three Wise Men, Holy Innocents, and Guardian Angels rate one entry each), are listed in order according to their feast days in the modern Church calendar, from the Blessed Mother Mary on January 1 to the Holy Innocents on December 28.

This slender volume will prove handy for devotional purposes for Catholics who don’t have the time to invest in the study of weightier tomes of biblical exegesis. (There is, of course, absolutely no substitute for sacred Scripture itself, and no excuse for not reading it.) Those interested in detailed expositions of biblical personalities will have to look elsewhere. Likewise, those already possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture won’t find this book useful. And although the information it provides is available in scattered sources, this is one of the few books that compiles the material in a concise, well-ordered manner. Those who will get the most out of Saints of the Bible are those busy Catholics who are looking for quick blasts of meditation material that will give them greater familiarity with sacred Scripture and help them stay attuned to the Church’s calendar of feasts.

Each of Doyle-Nelson’s entries contains general information about a particular saint: a significant Bible verse plus additional scriptural references; a brief biographical sketch, including the saint’s role in biblical events; what, if anything, can be gleaned about his life from tradition; and the known or probable cause of his death. Also included is the saint’s patronage. Here one is given a glimpse of how the Catholic Church, rather ingeniously, promotes her holiest members as sources of inspiration for people from virtually all walks of life and in all circumstances. For instance, St. Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, is the patron of emergency medical technicians; St. Michael the Archangel, of paratroopers. St. Stephen the Martyr is patron of headache sufferers; the Three Wise Men, of fever sufferers. St. James the Greater is the patron of arthritics. St. Onesimus the Slave is the patron of discouraged employees; St. Jude Thaddeus, of desperate causes. It goes to show that in whatever predicament we find ourselves, there is a saint from whom to seek inspiration and to beg intercession.

There is one peculiar anomaly in Doyle-Nelson’s list of saints: St. Jason, patron of guest keepers, who appears in Acts 17:5-9, and whom St. Paul mentions in Romans 16:21. Although Jason’s feast day was most recently celebrated on July 12, Doyle-Nelson writes in her Introduction that, after reading the “most up-to-date” Martyrologium Romanum (Civitate Vaticana, 2004; the Vatican’s “official” book of saints), she “discovered Jason was no longer listed as a saint!” When queried for this review, she responded that Jason’s exclusion might have been an oversight — a possibility others have suggested to her as well. He was evidently dropped during the preparation of the fully revised version of the Martyrologium Romanum that appeared in 2001.

Nevertheless, because Jason’s story is so intriguing, and because he was considered a saint for so long, Doyle-Nelson elected to include him in Saints of the Bible, but sans the title of “saint.” He is a worthy inclusion; he rates an entry in the complete, four-volume Butler’s Lives of the Saints for July 12, and remains a unique figure in Christian tradition. According to Doyle-Nelson’s entry, St. Paul named Jason bishop of Tarsus, their common birthplace. One of the early Christian missionaries, Jason died on the Greek island of Corfu. There stands the (Byzantine) Church of Agios Iasonas and Sosipater, named in his and his missionary companion Sosipater’s honor (Paul’s kinsman from Rom. 16:21). Dating from the 12th century, the cathedral is one of the island’s major attractions. A monastery called the “House of Jason,” revered as the house in which he sheltered Paul and Silas in Acts 17, is to this day a popular pilgrimage site in Thessaloniki, the capital of Mace­donia.

The mystery of Jason’s disappearance from the official book of Roman martyrology has an interesting counterpoint: Since the publication of Saints of the Bible, Doyle-Nelson has compiled a list of some 60 saints who were dropped from 1969 Martyrolo­gium Romanum only to be re-introduced in the 2004 edition. She hopes to publish a “volume II” of her book based on these additional saints from Scripture, many of whom appear in the Old Testament. Until then, we can be content with this initial concise compendium of the characters who fill out the stories we hold close to our hearts.

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