Scripture scholar Msgr. Bob Nusca, left, historian Fr. Seamus Hogan, theologian Josephine Lombardi and homiletics expert Deacon Peter Lovrick cut into a cake at a celebration of their recent publications. Lovrick pubished A Practical Guide to Catholic Preaching in 2016, Lombardi brought out Experts in Humanity in 2016, Hogan’s Extraordinary Ordinaries arrived this year, and Nusca’s Contemplating the Faces of Jesus in the Book of Revelation hit bookshelves this year. Photo by Michael Swan

Catholic books look to reflect and create a ‘culture of encounter’

By 
  • November 26, 2018

In a first for Toronto’s St. Augustine’s Seminary, students, faculty and friends came together recently to celebrate four Catholic authors who happen to also be St. Augustine’s professors. Celebrating Catholic authors, Catholic books and Catholic publishing is important, said Toronto Auxiliary Bishop Wayne Kirkpatrick because books build Catholic culture and add to a legacy of faith.

“They allow future generations to share the faith that has inspired you,” Kirkpatrick said, before inviting Msgr. Bob Nusca, Deacon Peter Lovrick, Josephine Lombardi and Fr. Seamus Hogan on stage to speak about their books. 

The books cover a wide swath of Catholic interests, from history to spirituality to a practical guide for preachers. Whether the authors succeed in the bishop’s vision of sharing the faith will be for history to decide, but seeking to make a connection with Canadian readers through a Catholic lens has long been a challenge.

“I feel like my book shelves are full of people with whom I have relationships,” explains popular Catholic writer Leah Perrault. “The authors whom I like put words to things I have thought or believed but didn’t have words for.”

Rather than a thing, a book should be an encounter between an author and readers. Encounters build a culture. For Pope Francis, the “culture of encounter” is the only culture worth having.

In a 2016 sermon, Pope Francis described the opposite of a culture of encounter.

 “So often people eat while watching TV or writing messages on their phones. Each person is indifferent to that encounter. Even right there at the core of society, which is the family, there is no encounter,” he said. He finished off his sermon urging people to “work for the culture of encounter, in a simple way, as Jesus did.”

Catholic writers, Catholic books and Catholic publishing are to Catholic culture what good wine and carefully prepared food are to dinner. They’re not secondary, by-products of cultural life. They are the thing itself, but neither can they be presumed.

“We don’t publish Catholic books for some sort of abstract good around developing a Catholic culture,” said Novalis publishing director Joe Sinasac. “We publish them for specific reasons.”

Those specific reasons translate into all kinds of different books — from apologetics to catechesis, to poetry and fiction, to self help and even Catholic cookbooks. Books are published for particular uses and particular audiences. Making Catholic culture isn’t the job of any one book, one author or one type of book. But Catholic publishing functions “to help in the dissemination of stories about who we are,” Sinasac said.

Though it is often tempting to imagine ourselves in modern exile from some long-ago golden age, there are reasons to wonder whether our culture can sustain Catholic publishing and whether Catholic publishing can contribute to our culture.

“We have conservative echo-chamber apologetics — which involves restating Church teaching, but louder — and liberal, bland, self-help for aging hippies,” is theology professor David Deane’s take on contemporary Catholic publishing in Canada and elsewhere.

Deane is waiting on delivery of his new textbook, Roman Catholic Apologetics: The Difficult Questions. At first he found no takers among publishers, even though the Atlantic School of Theology course he teaches on apologetics is popular.

“In order to get a contract for my apologetics book I had to stop pitching it as an apologetics book,” he said in an e-mail. “Catholic apologetics and indeed Catholic publishing is in a bad state.”

Deane isn’t alone in his disappointment.

Michael Higgins, a Catholic literary critic and popular commentator on the Church, worries that Catholic literary life is dying on the vine.

“We’ve become ghettoized. We’re on the cusp of being turned into a sect,” Higgins told The Catholic Register. “That is, I think, especially disturbing. Because we’ve been such an important part of the evolution of culture in this country.”

The days when Canadian Morley Callaghan was both a popular and respected writer, who was also recognized as a Catholic writer, seem very distant.

“The larger Canadian mosaic is sometimes very enriched by having specific voices that contribute to that larger chorus,” Higgins said. “Where is that voice heard now in Catholic Canada?”

There certainly are important Canadian literary writers alive and publishing today who are Catholic — poets Tim Lilburn and Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, novelists David Adams Richards, Vincent Lam, Nino Ricci and Yann Martel, essayist Margaret Visser and playwright Judith Thompson. But few people, not even Catholics, write or talk or think about them as Catholics — even if that’s how they think of themselves.

“Part of the problem is the fracturing of that unified Catholic culture… I don’t think we can look to the recovery of a uniform Catholic culture that existed everywhere at one particular time,” Higgins said. “It’s not retrievable, because historical circumstances have changed. We’re in a different climate and it’s not all for the bad, by any means.”

Leah Perrault’s career as a Catholic writer began when she was still a teenager. She and Brett Salkeld, one of her university friends, found themselves busy at parishes and on Catholic university campuses delivering a talk they had worked up on the topic of sex. The talk was in such demand that she and Salkeld were fielding requests for the book before they had even thought of writing it. How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating has been through revisions and a couple of different printings since it was first published in Canada in 2009.

That a book should be a response to the Catholic community doesn’t at all surprise Perrault.

“In the world that we live in we’re constantly looking for community, but in ways that our grandparents find confusing,” she said. “All forms of writing, whether it’s on the Internet, or books, or articles, offer us the opportunity to connect with a person whom we might not otherwise get to meet.”

The result of that, Perrault has discovered, is a legion of people she meets at public speaking engagements who already know her, though she has never met them.

“On a few rare occasions these readers have become friends. That’s a really lovely gift of the writing process. There have been so many interactions that have just been pure gift,” she said.

The most successful Catholic publishing in Canada is neither argument nor instruction. Writers like Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen and Ron Rolheiser have no interest in battles either within or outside the bounds of the Catholic Church. Nor would any of their books be terribly useful in an RCIA course. They write Catholic books for convinced and peaceable Catholics. It is a literature intended to encourage, to invite into prayer, to enlighten the path to wisdom, to nurture a dialogue between hearts and minds.

“I’m not happy that my readers are all old,” Fr. Ron Rolheiser told The Catholic Register in 2016.

But Rolheiser doesn’t think the demographics of his readership are the result of some sort of cultural decay. His most recent book, Wrestling With God, published this past May, is about facing death. His constant, life-long query into meaning and commitment is not the kind of thing young people can interrupt their lives to entertain.

“You don’t start teenagers with the dark night of the soul, you know?” he said. “It’s a senior sport.”

But as we turn a page into that last chapter, it is time to think about our lives in total. At that turning point, Rolheiser and his books will be waiting. Most of all Rolheiser believes truly Catholic writing is entirely the opposite of culture war ammunition.

“We’re supposed to be the healers. We’re supposed to be deflating this rhetoric — the rhetoric the Church has been using on each other,” he said. 

“The liberal-conservative divide and viciousness and demonization in society has spilled over perfectly into the Church. You can’t tell the difference sometimes between the secular literature and you know…”

Despite the hundreds of thousands of books Rolheiser has sold, he never set out to be a writer. As a young priest and graduate student at the Catholic University of Leuven, the shy prairie boy from Saskatchewan was discovering a broader world and wanted to share that with his friends back home. He started writing a column for the Prairie Messenger and the Western Catholic Reporter

“Sometimes, if you’re a writer you think, ‘Well, wouldn’t it have been great to be born in New York and to have the influences of Norman Mailer and all the stuff like that,’ ” he said. “In terms of pure creativity, it would be. But as a religious, as a priest, as a minister I’m really grateful for those roots (in prairie farming). It gives an anchor.”

For a writer like St. Augustine’s Seminary theology professor Lombardi, the whole point of Catholic literature is to help people discover the gifts they’ve been given in their faith and tradition.

“It’s so important that we make our tradition accessible,” she told the gathering for authors at St. Augustine’s Seminary. “At the end of our days, we will be accountable for how much we have shared of our tradition.”

The digital revolution doesn’t scare Sinasac at Novalis. People still read books. They still need a deeper relationship than web sites can furnish, he said. Nor is he worried that people will stop writing books.

“We have no shortage of manuscripts,” he said. “We’re not having difficulty finding good books to publish.”

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