Pope Benedict XVI
Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2008
Summary: Wow. This is a good book. You should go buy it.
I was very daunted, as you may recall, at the prospect of having to actually read this book. Although I very much wanted to read it, or specifically, I wanted to have read it, I was afraid that it would be much too hard for myself, a junior intellectual. Fear not. The most difficult chapter is the first, and even in that one, there was only one sentence that I could not understand. And which, on a second reading, I do understand. So here it is, the very hardest sentence in the whole book, found at the bottom of page 8, emphasis in the original:
Clement’s letter touches on topics that were dear to St. Paul, who had written two important letters to the Corinthians, in particular the theological dialectic, perennially curent, between the indicative of salvation and the imperative of moral commitment.
If you can read that, you can read the whole book. And if you can’t read that, you can probably still read all the other sentences, which aren’t nearly so bad. I read the entire rest of the book not knowing what that sentence meant, and never really suffered for my want of knowledge.
What is in the book?
The Fathers is a series of twenty-six biographies of church fathers, starting with St. Clement of Rome and finishing with St. Augustine of Hippo, one person per chapter. The text is taken from the Holy Father’s weekly general audiences from March 7, 2007 to February 27, 2008; depending on the person, the chapter might have been covered in a single talk, divided into two separate talks (usually “life” first and “teachings” second), or in the case of St. Augustine, three talks. So, almost blog-like in format. If, say, you had a blog written by the pope.
As a result each biography can stand alone, although they form a continuous whole if you have the time and interest for reading the book cover to cover. I recommend doing that, by the way, if you can. But if you can’t, don’t panic. You could also put the book out in a convenient space and just pick it up periodically to read a chapter at random, and you will still benefit significantly.
Each entry gives a history of the life of the church Father (all but three are saints), including the context in which they lived. It will help if you have some knowledge of the history and geography of ancient Rome. If not, this is as good a place as any to get your introduction. I had only one place-name that left me completely stumped: Aquilea. Never heard of it before. Usually the text gives some clue – the modern name of a city, for example, but for this one all we were told was that it was in the Decima Regione. I, sadly, did not know my Regione – though I do now. At least that particular one. The rest of the biographies, though, gave me no geography trouble at all.
Following the history is a section on the father’s teachings. Here again, a junior scholar’s serving of theology is helpful. I would say that if you are comfortable with the Catechism of the Catholic Church – that is to say, you can pick it up and read it and make good sense of whatever it is you are reading – then you can probably work through this book with similar confidence.
Is it a boring book?
Here are the three things I found most interesting:
1. You get a real sense of the depth of the catholicness of the early church. You cannot come away from this book persuaded that early church history is just a bunch of myths shrouded in the mists of time, nor that our (catholic) understanding of it is based on a few scraps of paper interpreted how we want to read them. You really get a sense for the weight and substance of our catholic heritage.
[One possible pitfall: After reading this, if someone pulls one of those anti-catholic ‘just a medieval invention lines’, you’ll probably just stare at them dumbly and wonder where they came up with that nonsense. You’ll be thinking some piece of apologetic brilliance along the lines of ‘Are you one of those people who has twenty cats and tin foil on your windows?’ So be warned. Knowledge of history really is knowledge of the catholic church. They aren’t making that up.]
2. The biographies find a beautiful balance between breadth and depth. Each entry is substantial enough to give you something to chew on, but not overwhelming. You will feel like you’ve ‘met’ the church father – if it is your first meeting, you come away with a good idea of who he is and what he thinks, and will want to get to know him better; if he is an old friend, you’ll enjoy the chance to say hello again, and be reminded of the reasons for your friendship. Even more, if you read the whole book front to back, you will get a sense of who the fathers are as a group – how they fit together, how they fit into church history, and how their theology fits into the history of catholic doctrine.
3. There is Pope Benedict XVI’s ever fresh and practical spirituality. There is just nothing dry in any of these biographies. Every one of these church fathers could be your parish priest, speaking to you, today, about the spiritual challenges you face. The holy father isn’t trying to ‘make’ the ancient fathers of church ‘relevant for today’ – he shows you that they what they teach, both by their lives and their writings, really is as inspiring and applicable to us in the 21st century as it was so many centuries earlier.
Conclusion: This is a book to keep around the house. I definitely give it a ‘buy’ recommendation. If not for All Saints (really, you should), then put it on your Christmas wish list. Good for reading, and good as a reference for your all your quick-look-up-a-church-father needs. It isn’t an easy book, but it isn’t a hard one either. If you are a basic model catholic blog reader, it should be about your speed, challenging but not overwhelming. If you’re more advanced, it will be light and refreshing. If you are a junior junior catholic, you’ll have to work through it, but the format is such that you can bite off just a little at a time and still benefit, without having to feel like you have to read the whole thing right away.
Good book. Get yourself a copy.
And now a word from our sponsor . . .
This review was written as part of the Catholic book Reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on The Fathers.
. . . The opinions, of course, are entirely my own. When I say it’s a good book, it’s because it’s a good book. That said, it’s not like I’m going to sign up to review anything that looks like it’s a bad book, heh.
The Catholic Company is still accepting new reviewers, by the way. Here’s the link: http://www.catholiccompany.com/content/Catholic-Product-Reviewer-Program.cfm Free books, but of course you have to actually read them, and then tell people what you think. Not that you don’t do that with your books anyway.