A Sampler of Books for Catholic Families During the COVID-19 Lockdown

by Sean M. Wright

North Texas Catholic

pile of bookspile of books
 

There’s nothing as satisfying as reading a richly textured novel. The mid-20th century was a Golden Age of speculative history with a Biblical or Christian bent.
 

BIBLICAL NOVELS

Lloyd C. Douglas, having penned bestsellers like Magnificent Obsession and Doctor Hudson’s Secret Journal, turned to the New Testament. In 1942 The Robe appeared and sold 2 million copies. This was followed by The Big Fisherman about St. Peter. It’s not quite as good as The Robe since, Douglas, a Protestant minister, was, for obvious reasons, conflicted about depicting Simon Peter as leading the Christian movement.

Thomas B. Costain was a journalist and editor of The Saturday Evening Post. Reading of the large, ornate, silver chalice discovered at an archeological dig in Antioch in 1910, he became fascinated. Decorated with images of Jesus and the Apostles it was thought to be a reliquary for the much smaller, plain silver cup within. For decades it was accepted that the chalice was created to hold the long-lost Holy Grail.

Costain’s novel, The Silver Chalice, appeared in 1952 because, said the author, he was weary of “all the Arthurian tripe about the Holy Grail.” In the story, Basil, an artist unjustly sold into slavery is ransomed by Luke and commissioned by Joseph of Arimathea to create a shrine for the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper. Simon the Magician seeks the cup to destroy it. He still resents Peter’s stinging rebuke when Simon offered to pay for the power to call down the Holy Spirit (Acts 8). It’s a much better book than the 1954 epic film version, Paul Newman’s less than auspicious big screen debut.
 

LIVES OF THE SAINTS

Louis de Wohl had been a successful German novelist in the 1920s who fled to Britain with the rise of Hitler in 1933. Eventually employed by M15, the British army’s propaganda unit de Wohl mimicked Nostradamus with fake quatrains prophesying Hitler’s defeat, dropped by planes over German cities.

After the war Pope Pius XII suggested de Wohl “write about the history and mission of the Church in the world.” A series of 18 novels about saints and Catholic history followed including: The Living Wood (St. Helena); The Joyful Beggar (St. Francis of Assisi); The Quiet Light (St. Thomas Aquinas), and Lay Siege to Heaven (St. Catherine of Siena). The Spear, about Longinus, the soldier who stabbed Christ on the Cross won international acclaim. Written in the late 1940s until the 1960s, these novels still hold up and are suitable for ‘tweens and teens. His final completed work, Founded on a Rock, is a history of the Church, often used as recommended reading for RCIA students.

An even more popular novelist, Taylor Caldwell, was a Catholic who struggled with her faith due to the tragedies in her life. Yet her Catholic writing is first rate. Her 1958 novel about St. Luke, Dear and Glorious Physician, was an incredible success, winning much praise and touching many lives. Grandmother and the Priests is a superb collection of short stories: British, Scottish, and Irish priests relate tales suffused with mystery, suspense, wit, humor, romance, hypocrisy, the sanctified, the damned, and diabolic—speaking of which ...

Dialogues with the Devil, is a fascinating look at an imagined correspondence between Lucifer, Murderer of Hope, and Michael, Prince of the Heavenly Host. Challenging each other, they debate the Crucifixion and the purposes of God, the ultimate fate of mankind, and the end of days within a lively blend of theology and folklore. Her later novels, Great Lion of God about St. Paul, and I, Judas, were popular and enjoyable but somewhat diminished in comparison to her earlier works.

 

CATHOLIC NON-FICTION

In a refreshingly different approach to catechetics, the mantle of the great Catholic apologist, G. K. Chesterton, has fallen upon John Zmirak, editor, college instructor, and screenwriter, who manages to convey holiness with hilarity in: The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living; The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey, and Song (both co-authored with noted Chef Denise Matychowiak), blending stories of saints and seasons of the liturgical year with recipes, little known historical incidents, and why we should be grateful to a number of monks who learned the secrets of distilling and brewing the most flavorful spirits. On his own, Zmirak continued with The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism, The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins, and Politically Incorrect Catholicism.

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen was the first renowned clerical television personality (“Of course Bishop Sheen beat me for the Emmy Award,” comedian Milton Berle commented after his loss. “He has better writers — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John”). His television program “Life is Worth Living,” originally broadcast 1952-1957, was amazingly popular. At the same time, he was auxiliary bishop of New York City and in charge of what was then the Society of the Propagation of the Faith, raising millions for the poor of the world. The cause for his canonization has brought him to the brink of beatification.

archbishop fulton sheen
Archbishop Fulton Sheen (CNS photo/CUA archives)

Sheen made a point of appearing on his TV shows attired as a bishop: cassock, sash, pectoral cross, a zucchetto on his head, enveloped in the wide cloak called a cappa. Even non-Catholics warmed to Sheen’s engaging style, intelligence, and wit (“One little boy, I hear,” Sheen told his audience, “turned on this program and ran to bring his mother in. ‘Look!’ he told her excitedly, ‘It’s Superman!’”).

Bishop Sheen wrote over 90 books. His Peace of Soul was on my father’s nightstand for over a decade. Among other titles are Three to Get Married, The World’s First Love, Life Is Worth Living, series 1–5 (the TV show episodes transcribed), and the bishop’s reflections on the Life of Christ. His books always bore a heartfelt dedication to the Virgin Mary.

Speaking of Bishop Sheen, Reflections from Rome (2013) is a cheerful collection of exercises in practical spirituality written by a member of the team working on the cause of the bishop’s canonization. Msgr. Richard Soseman works in the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome but was born in Peoria, Illinois and he’s not forgotten his rock-solid, Midwestern sensibilities: his muse is St. Martha, Jesus’ level-headed follower. Msgr. Soseman’s everyday reflections are bursting with holiness. He doesn’t just celebrate “Mass.” For him it’s “Holy Mass,” an edifying distinction seldom heard these days. Msgr. Soseman makes his case for virtue and morality when — BAM! — out of the blue, he’ll recall a youthful memory with refreshing candor, such as eating Velveeta pizzas as a boy or later, in France, being presented with roasted birds, complete with beaks, feet, and a few feathers. His gems of spiritual wisdom take up no more than three- or four-minutes reading time so they can form an effective morning offering or evening thanksgiving. Be sure to spend time with these reflections for a smile, a laugh, and some thoroughly Catholic edification.

The search for St. Peter’s tomb begun by Pope Pius XII is the subject of two books published online by the Vatican. The first is The Tomb of St. Peter by Professor Margherita Guarducci who was a key figure in identifying the bones now revered as those of St. Peter in the necropolis found beneath the basilica.

The Bones of St. Peter by John Evangelist Walsh also describes the fascinating search for the tomb beneath St Peter’s Basilica. Although this volume can be purchased, it is also published online by the Vatican.

 

Sean M. Wright is an Emmy nominated television writer, a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and is a member of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita, California. He responds to comments sent to [email protected]

There’s nothing as satisfying as reading a richly textured novel. The mid-20th century was a Golden Age of speculative history with a Biblical or Christian bent.

Published