Tag Archives: book reviews

Book Review: Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro

Conversion and reversion stories never fail to fascinate. Stories of how and why a person freely decides to embrace the Catholic Faith, or return to the Catholic Faith of his or her childhood after having freely rejected it, are intriguing. Such stories edify Catholics in their Faith, giving them more reasons to love it. For open-minded non-Catholic readers searching for truth, these stories open up more avenues for the search.

Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro tells a unique reversion story. Its subject matter is not a canonized saint or a famous apologist, but Dr. Jose Rizal, the Philippine national hero whose writings played a major role in the Philippine struggle for independence from Spain during the 1890s.

Every Filipino learns in school about Rizal’s life and writings. Inevitably, we learn that at one point in his life, he studied in Europe, got exposed to Enlightenment philosophies, became a Freemason, wrote about the abuses committed by the Spanish friars in the Philippines, and was shot by a firing squad on accusations of treason against the Spanish government. His novels, which we also study as part of the basic education curriculum in the Philippines, present the Catholic Church in an unflattering light: lustful, avaricious, cruel, and power-hungry friars; caricatured depictions of superstitious piety of ordinary folk. Most of the heroes of the novels are free-thinkers; in one chapter of the first novel, one of them scoffs at the Catholic doctrine on purgatory and indulgences.

We also learn that before he was executed, Rizal signed a written retraction of his anti-Catholic writings, but historians debate his sincerity in signing it. Rizal’s admirers seem to think that retracting his anti-Catholic writings would reduce his greatness, and surmise that he signed the retraction only out of convenience – an odd position to take about someone whom one is presenting as a hero worthy of emulation (and which, for me, does not make sense because the retraction did not save Rizal from the firing squad).

However, it is documented that before he was shot, Rizal went to sacramental confession four times and contracted a sacramental marriage with Josephine Bracken with whom he had previously been cohabiting. In one of his last recorded conversations before he was shot, he serenely asked the priest accompanying him if he would go to Heaven on the same day if he gained a plenary indulgence.

Rizal Through a Glass Darkly by Fr. Javier de Pedro traces Rizal’s spiritual journey from the piety of his childhood, through his estrangement from the Catholic Faith and his immersion in Enlightenment thought, to his return to the Faith of his childhood before he died.

The author, Fr. Javier de Pedro, is a Spanish priest who fell in love with the Philippines, having lived and ministered here for many years.  He has doctorates in Industrial Engineering and Canon law and, according to those who know him, is a Renaissance man like Rizal himself. Thus, he brings to the book a valuable perspective: that of a Spaniard who knows and loves the Philippines and Rizal a lot, who has done extensive research about his subject matter, and who, as an experienced priest in the confessional, frequently encounters the tension between sin and grace in souls.

Indeed, the book is detailed, well-researched, and reveals the author’s thorough familiarity with Rizal’s writings, which the author refers to as “mirrors” of Rizal’s soul.

The book presents not only the life and thoughts of Rizal, but also his historical context, including the intellectual trends in fashion in the Europe where Rizal developed his ideas.  Thus, the book is valuable not only as a source of spiritual edification, but also as a work of history. It avoids the common pitfalls of isolating Rizal from the historical context in which he lived, and of giving the impression that Rizal’s thoughts remained static and did not develop throughout his life.

The pastor’s perspective is another valuable element of the book. The author shares his insights and analysis on what contributed to Rizal’s estrangement from the Catholic Faith as well as what helped him find his way back to it. Thus, the book also serves as a cautionary tale on what may lead a soul away from the Faith, as well as a guide on how to help oneself and others regain the Faith when it has been lost.

I appreciate the author’s affection for Rizal even as the author points out Rizal’s missteps. In the Prologue, the author refers to Rizal as someone “for whose soul I am now raising a prayer, even if I am convinced that he received long ago the welcome of the Father to the house of Heaven.” The author understands Rizal and acknowledges Rizal’s legitimate grievances against certain clergymen that arose from Rizal’s real experiences. The author is careful to base his insights on Rizal’s spiritual journey on verifiable facts and texts, and emphasizes that in the end, Rizal’s spiritual journey is an mysterious interplay between his freedom and God’s grace.

The book is a compelling read. I especially like the narration of the last days of Rizal, where the author describes recounts details such as the parallel Christmas celebrations of Rizal’s family and the Spanish guards of the prison where Rizal was incarcerated (Rizal was executed on December 30, 1896).  That chapter is full of drama and humanity.

Unfortunately, the book is not widely available. As of now, the only place I know where it could be bought is the bookstore of the University of Asia and the Pacific here in the Philippines (inquiries may be made here).  In fact, one reason I reviewed Rizal Through a Glass Darkly was to change this by promoting interest in the book.

Indeed, the story in Rizal through a Glass Darkly deserves to be more widely known. It is of particular interest to Filipinos, but it is of interest, too, to everyone else. It is a touching story of a talented man with great ideals and who is credited for a lot of important things, who was at the same time a flawed human being who committed grave errors but eventually found redemption. Like every other conversion and reversion story, it is fascinating.

Book Review: Saintly Youth of Modern Times by Joan Carroll Cruz

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When I was growing up, stories of child- and teenager- saints made me feel uncomfortable. These spiritual prodigies loved the Mass and the Rosary, rarely quarreled with others, and died smiling as they offered up cancer pains for the conversions of sinners. I, on the other hand, preferred listening to music over praying the rosary, threw temper tantrums, and whined about things like hot weather or food I did not like.

At the same time, on the other hand, I found myself irresistibly drawn to these stories – perhaps in the same way that the people who knew these child- and teenager- saints during their lifetimes were irresistibly drawn to them. The idea of becoming a saint at a young age was, for me, intriguing as well as inspiring.

Such is the nature of sanctity, that it inspires and attracts even as it makes people uncomfortable. This, in a gist, is my reaction to Joan Carroll Cruz’s book Saintly Youth of Modern Times.

Saintly Youth of Modern Times is a compilation of short biographies of twentieth-century child- and teenager- Servants of God, Venerables, Blesseds, and Saints, as well a few whose Causes for Beatification had just been started as of the time of writing of the book. The book includes some well-known ones such as St. Maria Goretti; Blessed Jacinta and Francisco Marto, the child visionaries at Fatima; and Blessed Jose Sanchez del Rio, made famous by the movie “For Greater Glory”. Most of the others I have known only because of reading the book; nevertheless, their stories are just as edifying.

The book features many young people who come from either Spain or Italy, but the book also features representatives of other nations: for example, St. Anna Wang, a 14-year-old martyr from China; Blessed Laura Vicuña, a 13-year-old from Chile who offered her life for the conversion of her mother; Servant of God Stephan Kaszap, a Hungarian boy who died of a tumor in his throat at the age of 19; Blessed Isidore Bakanja from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) who died at the age of 14 from the effects of physical abuse received from his anti-Christian employer; among others.

The diversity among the young people featured in the book extends not only to race. While many of them, understandably, came from good Catholic families, quite a few came from less-than-ideal backgrounds, like Blessed Laura Vicuña, whose mother was in an irregular marital situation; 12-year-old Servant of God Joseph Ottone, who was the product of an incestuous relationship of a married woman and whose adoptive father was “cruel, disagreeable, argumentative, and frequently intoxicated”; 19-year-old Venerable Paula Renata Carboni, whose father was hostile to Catholicism. Clearly, having a less-than-ideal family background is no obstacle to the attainment of sanctity.

One thing I like about this book is that it avoids a common pitfall of some biographies of saints – that of downplaying the humanity of their subject matters. In this book, we learn that 14-year-old Servant of God Alexia Gonzales-Barros knew about video games, liked movies, and had a crush; that 16-year-old Servant of God Faustino Perez-Maglano monitored soccer games on his death bed; that 18-year-old Servant of God Montserrat Grases did not like being teased about being overweight.

The book quotes 15-year-old Servant of God Maria Orsola Bussone as having said, “Great works, those of Beethoven, Chopin and Bach, I don’t understand. What attracts me is the ‘beat’…a flood of life.”

Of the 11-year-old Venerable Anne de Guigne, the book says, “We read in the lives of many saints that their infancy or earliest childhood was distinguished by definite indications of future sanctity, but this could not be said of Anne de Guigne. She displayed a tempestuous spirit, a determination to have her own way even among older playmates, an inclination to be bossy with her younger brother and two sisters, and a deep jealousy when her mother showed attention to her little brother, who had succeeded her in the cradle.”

For me, it is very important for biographies of saints to highlight their humanity, because human, indeed, the saints were. The Church honors the saints to tell us that we, too, can be like them; we would only be inspired to even try to imitate the saints if we can see that they, too, were human like us and had the same struggles we had. Furthermore, it is easier to pray to a saint knowing that he or she is someone whose friend we would have wanted to be, or could have been, had we been born during his or her lifetime.

As expected, the book discusses what made these young people saintly. Again, there is great diversity among them here, but a common thread runs through these diverse young people: a heroic love for God and others, even amidst suffering.

In today’s world of many disillusioned and lost young people, it is refreshing to read Saintly Youth of Modern Times: stories of real young people who lived and died for God. At the same time, the book is disturbing, but in a good sense. For me, at least, the book is a wake-up call. It makes me realize that if these young people were able to become saints within their brief lifetimes, there is no excuse for me to waste the time God has given me to love and serve Him and others. The book prods me to reflect on how seriously I am taking God’s call to sanctity.

The book contains an explanation of titles such as “Servant of God”, “Venerable”, “Blessed”, and “Saint”. It also contains an index listing the occupations, difficulties encountered, and organizations of the young people featured. I like this index because it helps the reader find someone to approach for a particular problem or someone with whom the reader can identify for having a similar life situation.

My only complaint about the book is that it needs updating. The edition I read is copyrighted as of 2006. Some of the young people listed as “Servant of God” in the book are already “Venerable” or “Blessed” by now. The book mentions that Servant of God Alexia Gonzales-Barros named her guardian angel “Hugo”; perhaps future editions should include a footnote clarifying that in 2001, the Vatican forbid the assigning of names to the angels whose names have not been mentioned in the Bible.

These nitpicks notwithstanding, Saintly Youth of Modern Times is a fascinating book, one that has introduced me to many new young friends who must be praying for me right now.

Book Review: Mysteries of Salvation History

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“I have my Bible in my pocket,” said Edgardo C. De Vera, a Filipino apologist, to a group of three Protestants with whom he was discussing. Intrigued, they asked to see it.

De Vera then fished out his Rosary from his pocket and declared, “The Bible is in the Rosary and the Rosary is in the Bible.”

Startling as this statement may be, it is logical. If the Bible is centered on, and points to, Christ, and if praying the Rosary is a way of contemplating the events in the life of Christ and His mother Mary, then it follows that the Bible and the Rosary complement each other. Indeed, Pope Paul VI also said, “The Holy Rosary is a compendium of the Gospel.”

In his book Mysteries of Salvation History, De Vera explains the biblical basis for each of the mysteries of the Rosary, linking the New Testament accounts of the mysteries with the relevant typologies from the Old Testament. “My intention…was to show how biblical typology could be employed as a meditative aid in praying the Holy Rosary,” De Vera writes.

For example, in his discussion on the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery, the Carrying of the Cross, De Vera discusses the Gospel accounts of the event and correlates them with Isaac carrying the wood for his sacrifice up Mount Moriah (Gen. 22:2-9) and the carrying of the sin offering during the Day of Atonement liturgy out through the sheepgate in Jerusalem (Lev. 16), as well as the passage in Job 31:36 which reads, “Surely I would carry it on my shoulder, I would bind it to me as a crown…”.
De Vera analyses all the mysteries of the Rosary in a similar way, adding his own insights, comments from some Fathers of the Church and other saints, and historical explanations. The mysteries of the Rosary are arranged in chronological order – Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious. Illustrations accompany the text.

The book is short and concise. De Vera himself acknowledges the limitations of his brief work and mentions that he had to exclude some insights for the sake of brevity.  He encourages the reader to explore the mysteries in all their richness by studying the Bible further on his or her own and by habitually meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary. He stresses the need to explore the Bible in the context of the liturgical readings of the Mass and in conjunction with the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

I personally find the book helpful. I sometimes struggle with the Rosary because I run out of things to think about when meditating on the mysteries and end up getting distracted as I force myself to mechanically recall what happened in each mystery. I welcome tips to help me get more out of praying the Rosary and De Vera’s book has suggested to me a fresh approach to this timeless devotion.

De Vera’s book made me appreciate the Rosary more. It showed me that the Rosary combines, to use the words of St. Josemaria Escriva, “the piety of children and the sure doctrine of theologians.” With the Rosary, we repeat loving words to God and to Mary while studying the Bible at the same time. De Vera’s book showed me how the Rosary involves both the heart and the mind, thus fitting in a unique way the definition of prayer as “the lifting up of the mind and heart to God.”

At the same time, De Vera’s book motivated me to become more familiar with the Bible. It also showed me that Bible study should not just be an intellectual pursuit (although that in itself is an important endeavour), but an activity that nurtures piety.

I recommend Mysteries of Salvation History to anyone who, at one time or another, has struggled with boredom while praying the Rosary, and to anyone who wants to learn more about the Bible but does not know where to start.

The book has been praised by foreign apologists such as Steve Ray and Tim Staples, and by prominent local preachers and priests such as the late Fr. James B. Reuter, S.J., who, in an article he wrote on June 2, 2007, listed the book as a “rare book”.

Indeed, both the Rosary and the Bible are necessary: they help us know God more, which in turn helps us love God more.

For more information about Edgardo C. De Vera’s Mysteries of Salvation History, you may contact Totus Bookstore & Publishing House at info@totusbookstore.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Breakfast in Bethlehem

breakfast_in_bethlehemresizedThis is a heartwarming children’s book, but it will make readers of any age feel closer to the birth of our Savior.

In 40 pages, Edward Looney crafted a story giving a message that does good to the soul: Christmas is about Baby Jesus. It’s about going with the Holy Family as they journey through Bethlehem in search of shelter. It’s about reflecting on the beauty of that stable where He was born.

The writing often verges on pleasant and hopeful poetry. A perfect example can be found on the first page:

I hear church bells ringing.

Ding. Dong. Ding. Dong.

Ding. Dong. Ding. Dong.

Ding. Dong. Ding. Dong.

The bells rang twelve times.

It is midnight.”

In the above passage, I could hear the sound of the church bells as they rang. I felt solemn, as if standing before the altar surrounded by music that sounded as if the angels themselves were celebrating. The writing in this book is superb.

It’s a charming way for children to experience the story of Christmas. It follows a boy’s dream that he is in Bethlehem watching the celebration of a baby’s birth. A star guides people to the little stable, and people give all they have as gifts to the child. Those who don’t have material possessions give song, or their very presence at the gathering. It’s easy to read, making it simple for a child to become engrossed.

The following passage warmed my heart:

In a little while, I heard a baby crying. Mary held the baby in her arms. Joseph looked at Mary holding Jesus in her arms and he smiled because he knew this child was very special.

Breakfast in Bethlehem is a wonderful gift to give in the season of Advent. What better story for a child than that of our Savior’s birth? This little book wraps you into Jesus’ birthday party where the whole world celebrated. Complete with lovely illustrations, it will make Christmas rich for the young reader.