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THE CATHOLIC REVIEW: Books for a New Year

Three Books to Renew Our Spirits for 2021

12/18/2020 | Comments

At this point in our global pandemic, we maintain hope in our Creator, we understand the manner in which this virus spreads and can take reasonable precautions, and have renewed encouragement from the science that has brought our world effective vaccinations which will be available in the coming year. No doubt we have all been touched by grief and loss, but we are of stronger stuff than those who grieve without hope. And so, we offer reading for the new year, intellectual engagement that will fortify and strengthen our spirits, early light to the beacons of hope that may yet shine upon our church, our nation, and our world.


The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission

Catholic historian George Weigel, well-known papal biographer and bestselling author of two dozen books, has recently published “The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission” (Ignatius Press). He observes that “the next pope will probably have been a teenager or a very young man during the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965); he may even have been a child during those years. Thus, the next pope will not have been shaped by the experience of the Council and the immediate debates over its meaning and reception like Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis.” The next pope, Weigel writes, “will be a transitional figure in a different way than his immediate predecessors. So, it seems appropriate to ponder now what the Church has learned during the pontificates of these three conciliar popes — and to suggest what the next pope might take from that learning.”

Drawing on his personal discussions with popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, as well as his decades of understanding of the Catholic faithful worldwide, George Weigel examines the major challenges confronting the Catholic Church and its 1.3 billion believers in the twenty-first century: challenges the next pontificate must address as the Church enters new, uncharted territory. Weigel asks us to consider “to what is the Holy Spirit calling this Church-in-transition? What are the qualities needed in the man who will lead the Church from the Chair of St. Peter?”

Without presuming to be the final word on the attributes and graces of the next pope, Weigel begins a discussion that one would hope takes place in the papal conclave before the choosing of Francis’ successor. What is the prospect of the New Evangelization in the 21st century? How will the pope relate to bishops, priests and the lay apostolate? What are the prospects for true reform in the Curia, the sexual scandals, and in addressing the serious challenges to a stunning global confusion about the nature of the human person?

Through insight of the scripture, the conciliar writings, and papal writings of these three popes, Weigel underscores the primary need for the next pope to be “committed to leading a Christ-centered church in the world of evangelization” (p.37). Weigel writes “there is a strong correlation between the collapse of Catholic belief and practice in Western Europe and the ongoing attempt there to make ‘Catholic Lite’— a Catholicism of indeterminate convictions and porous behavioral boundaries — work as a twenty-first century pastoral method” (p.55). Weigel observes the hopeless splits into evangelical, Pentecostal, or fundamentalist divisions that has taken place in the major remaining pieces of the Reformation, but nevertheless has respect for at least their “clarity of teaching and strong moral expectation”— unlike the mainstream, mainline Protestant churches that have all but disappeared. “Catholic Lite” Weigel considers “an evangelical and pastoral failure in North America, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand.” The Catholic Church and the unevangelized world will respond to leadership that is committed to doctrinal clarity and a membership manifesting divine mercy.

Framing insightful chapters on these challenges, Weigel concludes that “the next pope must be, above all, a radically converted disciple: a man formed in the depth of his being by the conviction that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God, who reveals to the world the fact of God the merciful Father and the truth about humanity, its dignity, and its destiny. The intensity of the next pope’s relationship with the Lord Jesus, and the wisdom of his discernment of what the Lord Jesus is asking of him at any given moment, will determine whether his papacy advances the cause of the Gospel or frustrates the Church’s evangelical mission” (p.137). We can only pray that those who select the next pope, through the insight borne of the Holy Spirit, may consider this book by George Weigel sage and holy guidance.


Wisdom from the Psalms

The Psalms endure as simple and yet profound expressions of timeless truths. They come to us at times expected — liturgy, funerals, weddings — and unexpected, like hearing a prayer or hymn and remembering its source in the Psalter.

In his new book “Wisdom from the Psalms” (Ignatius Press), Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft asks the question,   “What prayers did Jesus and his disciples pray?” The answer is “the Psalms!” As did all Jews of the time, Jesus and his disciples knew them. The Psalms are God’s answer to our plea, ‘Teach us to pray.’” The Psalms are no less thoughtful and relevant now than in the time they were written. Kreeft chose some of the more popular and familiar Psalms, including Psalms 1, 19, 23, 42, 51, 103, 139, and 150 (and others, 12 in all) for this work. He leads the reader through his personal explorations of this deep ocean of divinely inspired spiritual nourishment, pulling up treasures for the soul along the way.  

We have nothing but love for these hymns, songs, poems, and prayers — all of which are once formal and informal, liturgical and spontaneous, communal and individual. With a forward by Scott Hahn, who admires Kreeft as the singular most effective apologist for the Catholic faith in the 21st century, this book is simple and thoughtful invitation to our souls to “take and eat.”


A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen

Han Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) was a Swiss theologian widely regarded as one of the greatest Catholic theologians and spiritual writers of modernity. Named a cardinal by Pope St. John Paul II before his death, he wrote over 100 books, including Prayer, Mary for Today, Love Alone is Credible, and The Glory of the Lord. It is difficult to find any priest, Catholic scholar or church leader who has not been formed by von Balthasar today.

In “A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen” (Ignatius Press), editor Angela Franks selects relevant portions of von Balthasar’s prodigious writings on “the critical issues that have been unsettling the Catholic laity since the Second Vatican Council. In a clear and readable manner, he focuses on the core elements of the faith: the Word of God; the life, death, and resurrection of Christ; the sacraments; the structure of the Church; and Mary.” (Description taken from

In her foreword for the book, Franks explains why she feels von Balthasar’s writings are still relevant today:

“Speaking about the polarization within the Catholic Church, he also discusses the various ideological trends — such as liberalism, progressivism, and traditionalism — that have undermined the confidence and the unity of the faithful.

“These excerpts engage today’s faithful laity who feel that the solidity of the church is shifting beneath their feet. Von Balthasar speaks to those who fear that the Church has done what she ought not to do: that she is in fact relaxing her demands in order to win favor, not from God, but from man. Into this situation Balthasar re-proposes the ‘form’ of Jesus Christ as revealed in his church. This form is ‘only the whole’: the whole, concrete reality of Christ, conveyed within Catholic tradition. This form is ‘spun from three strands’ of Word, sacrament, and ecclesial authority. These three provide the church with the ability to remain on course despite the winds blowing through history.”

Anyone seeking understanding of the challenges facing the church today need look no further than this slim book. The church has always been the incarnation of the flawless Gospel into fragile, frangible, and fallible humanity; always the necessity is to recognize Christ as the center of our faith. These gritty truths challenge us to accept what our faith should mean. This book can serve as an intellectual rudder in the midst of the blowing winds of our church’s history.

(Editor’s note: This book is available on the Augustine Institute’s FORMED website.)

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