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From My Bookshelf

Please note: Africa Magazine and St Patrick's Missionary Society do not stock books that are reviewed. Details of publishers and suppliers are given in each review. 

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Africa, September/October 2023 Vol. 89 No. 6

Review by Fr Sean Deegan SPS, Editor

No Room in the Inn, Reading the Bible Today

Tom Higgins

It goes without saying that the bible is an extraordinary book. It is inspired by God while at the same time written by human beings. Over the centuries we have probably given more emphasis to the divine aspect of God’s written word. However, in recent times the human contribution has come to the fore. As a human endeavour we can say that the bible is more a library of books than a single work, written over many centuries in different countries, in different languages and in different religious contexts. In addition, it contains what are called different “literary genres” (styles of writing). And so, we have myths, legends, prayers, proverbs, letters and many more variations.

 

In our everyday life we spontaneously recognise these ways of speaking in our own language. We don’t treat a joke like a prayer. We recognise when something was written hundreds of years ago and is not immediately understandable. Now we know that to appreciate the full meaning of God’s written word we must tease out it’s human background also. This is the approach Tom Higgins, a retired primary school teacher from Co Mayo, takes in his recent book No Room in the Inn and which he explains very clearly in chapter one. As he says it would be an impossible task to give all the books in the bible the attention they deserve so he gives special attention to key sections from the Pentateuch and the prophets. In the New Testament he concentrates on Mark’s gospel. His work subtly conceals an enormous amount of background research and prayerful reading of the bible text.

 

It is a book to be consulted for a deeper appreciation of the bible rather than to be read at one sitting.

No Room in the Inn, Reading the Bible Today by Tom Higgins 

ISBN 978-1-5272-8639-9; €24.95

Available from: www.amazon.co.uk

Knock Shrine Bookshop (www.knockshrine.ie/online-shop)

The Castle Bookshop, Castlebar (www.mayobooks.ie)

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Africa, September/October 2023 Vol. 89 No. 6

Review by Sr Breda Ahearn CP

Walking, One Step At A Time

Erling Kagge

‘If you are a walker this book will resonate with you, if you have seldom or never walked this book should be compulsory reading.” Rosamund Young

The above words are printed on the cover of this book. I quote these words because they sum up my thoughts after reading it. I enjoyed Walking by Erling Kagge.

 

The act of walking is something we naturally do all the time but do we ever analyse its many benefits or how we walk? This book spells out or describes what can happen as we walk. It is a guide for us to relook at how we walk, how we experience places with our whole body. A person’s gait can sometimes tell us more about the person than their face. If we are walking behind someone, we have time to observe their manner of walking. 

 

It is a delightful short book that is well researched with many references to well known writers. Kagge is influenced by a wide range of authors and draws from their insights. To name a few: Kierkegaard, Hippocrates, George Mallory, Paulo Cognetti and Kathy Sullivan who walked in space. He refers to the recent trend of forest bathing that has become popular in Ireland for its many benefits to health. He has an interesting reference from Genesis where it says that ‘God walked with Adam in the garden in the cool of the day.’ I found it amusing to read that Adam may have been bored in Paradise as outside of Paradise, he could walk for ever. 

 

The stages of walking are fascinating. We are amazed watching a child learning to walk and not aware how perilous this event can be, using arms to balance, spread toes to grab floor and avoid falling by taking short steps. A similar pattern happens in elder years when a person becomes fragile.
The author illustrates how complex the feet are; bone structure, muscles, ligaments and tendons. ‘Your feet are your best friends. The head must be in contact with the feet at all times.’ How we feel is often reflected in the way we walk. Noticing people returning from a walk, they may be tired but their eyes are glowing, they have a spring in their step and smiles on their faces.

 

Walking is one of the best free exercises you can do. To walk alone is to enjoy a simple pleasure, a sense of freedom. No one knows where you are so if you turn off your phone you are alone. ‘Walking and silence belong together.’

 

Why do we walk? Every person will have their own reason for walking. The physical advantages listed in the book will be obvious. ‘He who walks lives longer, memory sharpened, blood pressure falls, immune system gets stronger….’ We all experience walking differently but ‘to put one foot in front of the other is one of the most important things we do. Walking has a way of expanding time rather than collapsing it.’

 

A memorable experience for me was a long walk on the Camino in Spain for a hundred kilometres with my sister Rita, from Villafranca to Santiago de Compostela. I was afraid that I would not be able to walk every day but as the days went by I got into a rhythm of walking. It was a wonderful time for me to reminisce, plan the future and to compare the countryside with familiar scenes of my home area in Co Tipperary and just to be. On reading this book I found myself remembering and reliving some of the experiences of that week.

 

This year, on St Kevin’s feast day (3rd June) pilgrim day walks were organised again in Glendalough. Various groups of walkers walked the many old pilgrim paths down to the monastic city. I Ied a group of 20 people from the Wicklow Gap down the Glendasan valley into Glendalough. It was a beautiful sunny day with lovely fresh breezes to keep us cool. It was an ideal day for walking. We started on the mountain top at the ancient stones of the old pilgrim route at the Gap and reflected as we looked back westwards on all the roads we have travelled in life and then looked forward, eastwards and reflected on all the roads we hope to travel. As we continued our journey, we remembered those who travelled these paths in ancient times. We stopped at places and shared stories, shared thoughts on the walk or short reflections that were coming to mind. I used this book and read appropriate lines about the benefits of walking. The consensus at the end of the walk was that it was a wonderful experience and yes, I did notice in the faces of the group bright eyes, smiles and joy as we walked up the hill to end the walk. This confirmed Kagge’s findings in his book.

 

I like the way the author describes how he feels at home in a new place, experiencing it with the whole body. When I came to Glendalough 18 years ago, I set out to walk every valley and hill to experience the area from different viewpoints. I was letting my feet discover what my eyes were seeing. Now every season as I walk around alone or leading groups, I notice so many changes in the area. Every season of the year opens new scenes. The recent month of May has been spectacular; the blossoms on the hawthorns, the candles on the chestnut trees, the catkins on the willow and the bright blossoms on the gorse and the many tiny flowers lifting their heads from the beautiful earth. There is only one way to experience this great beauty and that is by walking. Certainly a compulsory read for someone who has seldom walked.

Walking, One step at a time by Erling Kagge

Published by Penguin 2020. Prices from €11 approx.

Available in bookshops and various websites.

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Africa, April 2023 Vol. 89 No. 3

Review by Fr Sean Deegan

Becoming a Pastoral Parish Council

Patricia Carroll

The parish, a family of families, has been the foundation and cornerstone of Church life for centuries. Parishioners feel connected to their parish and very often want it to continue ‘as it always was’. Now we see that events and the passage of time is undermining that hope. The old wineskins are being stretched, even ripped apart.

 

Up to recent times, all over the Catholic world, the parish was very dependent on priests. Not alone did they celebrate the sacraments but all aspects of parish life were referred to them. An unintended consequence of this was that the priest became the public face, almost the ‘owner’ of the parish. Indeed he often took on responsibilities in the parish which were not strictly linked to his ordination as a priest at all. And parishioners generally were more than content to let ‘Father’ assume that role. They had busy lives to live supporting their families. 

 

That tradition of parish life that we are familiar with could easily give the impression that ‘the priest is the parish’. And alongside that, the view that the ‘ordained’ person is the one who keeps the Church alive. This has led to the sacrament of Holy Orders being highly revered and indeed at times seen as ‘superior’. Now, the experts  tell us that if any sacrament is to be considered ‘special’ it is Baptism. By Baptism we become Christians and everything follows from that.

 

This is the insight which Patricia Carroll teases out in her book Becoming A Pastoral Parish Council. All the baptised have a responsibility and some gift to contribute to parish life, thus spreading the kingdom of God in their parish and beyond. She chooses key texts from the New Testament which show all the baptised contributing to the community according to their particular talents. To each person is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:7) And so “Every baptised person is called to the ministry of building up” (p.15). She often appeals to Pope Francis’ writings to make those early Church insights applicable to today’s parishes/communities. 

 

If in the past the parish was seen as the place to celebrate (receive) the various sacraments, now it is seen as “an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration” (pp 14-15, quoting Pope Francis). It is the fertile ground where the gifts of baptism, often gone unrecognised, will be nourished and brought to maturity. 

The Pastoral Parish Council’s (PPC) reason for being is to facilitate all the baptised of the parish realise their Christian potential. It is not the finance committee, or the buildings maintenance committee. It is “a faith-filled leadership group through which priests and people work together as co-responsible partners in furthering the mission of Christ in their own parish” (p.17, quoting the Irish Bishops). Ideally the ‘local’ will then extend to the ‘global’.

 

The author’s aim in the book is to help the pastoral council carry out its mission. She succinctly sums up how this might happen with five words, all beginning with the letter ‘P’! Pastoral, Prayerful, Partnership, Planning and Participation. These give the Council its ethos.

 

A message to be got across is that every parishioner by virtue of baptism is called to actively participate in parish life. This as we know is going against centuries of tradition! The PPC is pastoral. It “is primarily focused on everything that relates to the faith life of the parish” (p.22). The model for this is The Good Shepherd. 

 

Prayer is the oxygen of parish and PPC life. In addition to saying the traditional prayers Pope Francis proposes an attitude of prayerful ‘discernment’. The PPC reflectively tries to pick up the movement of the Spirit in the parish.

 

To function as it should the PPC has to stress partnership – the parish is everybody, priests and people together putting flesh on the Good News. The PPC is not a parliament with government and opposition. And finally as the mission of the PPC is to be ‘down to earth’ it requires serious planning to keep it focused. Unless meetings and initiatives are carefully structured, good will and resources can be lost. 

 

This is a little gem of a book. The chapters are short and end with reflection questions. While its focus is the Parish Pastoral Council, along the way it gives us an exciting understanding of what parish life can be. There is no highbrow jargon. It is an exciting and stimulating read for anybody who wishes to become an active member in their parish at a time when parishes are facing big challenges.

Becoming A Pastoral Parish Council by Patricia Carroll Published by Messenger Publications, 2022.

€9.95

Available from www.messenger.ie

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Africa, December 2022 Vol. 87 No. 9

Review by Eamon Mulvihill

Travelling on Titanic with Father Browne

By E E O'Donnell SJ with Foreword by Dr Robert D Ballard

Travelling on Titanic with Father Browne is a very appropriate title for this book celebrating the 110th anniversary of the sinking of the ship on 15th April 1912. The pictures and written sources enable the reader to re-imagine the journey of Frank Browne from Southampton to Cherbourg and Cobh/Queenstown before the great ship, which was said to be practically unsinkable, set sail for America. The acknowledgements at the beginning of the book show that the author E E O’Donnell SJ has been thorough in his research having visited museums, people and places relevant to the story both in Ireland and the USA. 

 

The book will have great appeal to the visual learner and the photos are accompanied by concise detail in script enhancing the historical settings and background. The images appeared in newspapers around the world and after the 1912 disaster they became the collective memory of the tragic event. They reveal real people embarking and disembarking from tenders and ships as well as passengers of different classes and dress styles. Fr Browne was a keen observer of people as some of the best photographs illustrate.

 

Browne’s early life and career are well documented. He was a clerical student at the Jesuit Milltown Institute in Dublin in 1912 and had received a present of a camera from his uncle who was Bishop of Cloyne. The author explains that the Bishop was a father figure to Frank who lost his mother after birth and his father in a drowning accident when he was a teenager. The Bishop’s residence at Queenstown ensured Frank’s links with the sea port and with ships. The second gift was a ticket to sail on the voyage of Titanic on Deck A, first class, room A37, disembarking at Cobh. The reader can discern that Browne was a good people person, naming many in the pictures and it doesn’t come as a surprise to discover that he was offered a ticket by rich American passengers to travel across the Atlantic with them. However, when he sought permission from his Provincial the curt reply was “Get off that ship.” This is one of many ironies revealed in the book which adds to the fascination surrounding Titanic.

 

This publication is enhanced by the Foreword of Dr Robert D Ballard who discovered the wreckage in 1985. It is beautifully printed by GPS Colour Graphics, a Belfast-based print company incorporated in April 1912. Carolanne Henry, Communications and Marketing Executive with Messenger Publications points out that this company was formed “while Titanic was actually on the ocean, sailing towards its doom.” The book has photos and archival records from 42,000 film negatives which were discovered by the author in a case in the Jesuit archive in Dublin. Fr Browne had himself completed an album of Titanic in 1920 which contained 63 pages and 159 photographs. Together they help to produce a fuller understanding of the story of Titanic. Some photos that Fr Browne would have discarded as fuzzy or unsuitable are now revealed showing furniture, decor, rooms, dress, fashion, uniforms and people. A photo showing the last glimpse of captain Edward Smith looking down over a lifeboat appears like a portent of things to come as the lifeboat is central in the picture. Also the boy on deck playing with a spinning top is one of my favourites as it shows adults observing the child at play without realising that they were on camera. The photograph of the gym with the instructor on the rowing machine will be of interest to all fitness and rowing enthusiasts.

 

For students of history this book is a treasure because it lays out a clear and simple chronology of Titanic from contract and construction in 1908/9 to its launch in 1911 and fitting out and sea trials in 1912. Dr Ballard’s discovery of the wreck in 1985 was at a depth of 12,460 feet and the location of the wreck by his joint French-American expedition threw further light on the distances from possible rescue ships on that fateful night of doom. Copies of original telegrams from Titanic to the Russian ship SS Birma are included along with other material sources such as a ship menu received later by Fr Browne. The telegrams reveal the calm, methodical distress messages in handwriting with dual signatures sent from the Communications room which Fr Browne had photographed.

 

There are ironies pointed out in the book which add to the fascination and wonder about coincidences. When the ship split in two before it sank it split through the room on A Deck which Fr Browne had occupied on his voyage to Queenstown. Newspaper reports were positive at first until the scale of the tragedy became clear within a few days. Over 1,500 had perished and about one third of the passengers were rescued. This book contains copies of newspaper reports that Fr Browne collected and letters he received from people after the event. He gave numerous lectures and survivors provided their own descriptions of the atmosphere on deck as the tragedy unfolded. From one amazing letter regarding lectures about Titanic’s sister ship Olympic it is evident that The White Star Line management in Liverpool were anxious to steer lecture topics away from the Titanic in 1913: “…we do not wish the memory of this calamity should be perpetuated.”

 

An interesting account of his journey by Fr Browne himself is included from The Belvederian, a college publication that he founded. The reader gets a clear and concise account of the scale and majesty of Titanic. The poem In Memoriam at the end of the book is full of imagery of the open sea at night where The Ice King had slain his foe. Students of English, geography, communications, photography, history, physical education and engineering can all take insights from this book just as students of history and religious studies can benefit from tracing Fr Browne’s career after Titanic.

 

Titanic was described as a very Protestant-built ship in Belfast even though a number of Catholics worked on its construction. It seems ironic that a Catholic clerical student/ Jesuit priest would become so famous in showing the world the beauty of the ship’s interior and exterior! On reflection it seems right to conclude that this book is better for not highlighting this irony and other myths. It makes it a more universal read, free from anything untrue or sectarian. Every school would benefit from having a copy of this journey on Titanic with Fr Browne. The presentation and layout are excellent and suited to readers of all ages. It would make an ideal Christmas gift.

Travelling on Titanic with Father Browne by E E O’Donnell SJ with Foreword by Dr Robert D. Ballard. 

Published by Messenger Publications www.messenger.ie

Available in bookshops and online. Hardback €25.00

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Africa, January/February 2022 Vol. 87 No. 1

Review by Rasna Warah

Undaunted
Stories of Freedom in a Shackled Society

Gabriel Dolan

Missionary or rebel with a cause?

In his new book, Father Gabriel Dolan explains his life’s work in Kenya and why he chose to speak truth to power.

Six weeks after the coup attempt of August 1st, 1982, a young Irish priest arrived in Kenya to take up his first missionary posting in the Catholic Diocese of Lodwar in Turkana, a deeply impoverished and marginalised region in the semi-arid northwest of the country. Gabriel Dolan couldn’t have come to the country at a more challenging time. President Daniel Arap Moi was tightening the screws on all forms of opposition to his rule, and the country was rapidly descending into authoritarian rule.

 

But Fr Dolan was not daunted by the many obstacles his missionary work in Kenya would likely face. Instead he saw them as an opportunity to carry out Christ’s vision by empowering the millions of people in the country who had been neglected and oppressed by the State for years. Like the many liberation theologians in Latin America who fought against dictatorship in the 1980s, he had a vision of a people being free of poverty, violence, ignorance and oppression. After seeing the dire conditions in Turkana, he founded the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, which became an important vehicle through which the people of the region could voice their concerns.

 

And so began a journey that would see Fr Dolan not only become a thorn in the flesh of powerful Kenyan politicians but the country’s elite clergy as well. The Catholic priest’s human rights work in Kenya over the last forty years, which almost got him killed, has now been captured in his book Undaunted: Stories of Freedom in a Shackled Society – a scathing indictment of Kenyan society and its political leaders. In his book Gabriel Dolan describes his work in Lodwar, Kitale and Mombasa, three very different parts of the country with their unique challenges, but ones he was familiar with, poverty being one of them. Like colonised Kenyans, the people of Northern Ireland had experienced landlessness and evictions under the British Crown. Poverty and homelessness were ever-present threats during Gabriel’s childhood. His father worked as a farm labourer and the family lived in a house that lacked electricity and running water. When the landlord sold the farm, the Dolan family couldn’t find another home for months due to discriminatory housing policies that favoured the ruling elite. That heartbreaking childhood experience, he says, instilled in him a compassion for the thousands of people in Kenya who face the threat of demolition and eviction on a daily basis.

 

It is, therefore, no surprise that much of Fr Dolan’s work revolves around land and housing rights, which in Kenya are extremely volatile issues that have been festering beneath the surface for decades. He does not mince words when he blames post-independence leaders for perpetuating land alienation and displacement that marked the country’s colonial history, and for failing to implement policies that would reverse skewed land distribution.

 

“The families of the country’s three Presidents since independence jointly own around one million acres of the best and most valuable land in the country…Displaying most of your wealth before your citizens’ eyes makes you quite vulnerable in time of conflict and transition. It also provides a powerful motive to retain power at all costs because a radical change in leadership would put your property and businesses in real jeopardy. That message is often not understood by the Kenyan public despite their obsession with the politics of transition,” he writes.

 

Fr Dolan documents various cases of housing rights violations and outright theft of public land by politicians, including a heartbreaking case where the Kenyatta family callously evicted people in Taita Taveta to secure 20,000 acres of land. Not only were the people violently evicted but their water supply was also deliberately cut off. Recent promises by President Uhuru Kenyatta to hand over some of the land to the original inhabitants also resulted in tears as the title deeds issued had no clear owner, with some titles having more than one family registered. Others were given titles to land that was already occupied. “How much land does one family need?”

 

Fr Dolan also wades into various timely topics that have impacted Kenyan lives in the last few years, including devolution. While not dismissive of the concept, he believes that some governors have started to act like mini dictators by milking their counties for their personal benefit. He has a particular bone to pick with Mombasa governor Hassan Ali Joho, who has been challenged in court by Haki Yetu (an organisation founded by Fr Dolan) for taking on an expensive housing project on public land with little public participation, and without consulting the communities affected. Joho regards the Irishman as “an enemy of development” even though it was clear that the project would have benefitted very few people and that private developers would be the biggest beneficiaries.

 

It is quite obvious that Father Dolan has been inspired by another Catholic priest in Kenya who was murdered for defending the rights of the poor. Although he barely knew John Kaiser, the American missionary whose mysterious death in August 2000 led to public outcry and a botched Commission of Inquiry, he sees in Kaiser a man of God who was not afraid to speak truth to power, even if it meant exposing some of the country’s most powerful politicians. Father Kaiser’s revelations cost him his life, but as Fr Dolan says, his death did not end the struggle for truth and justice in Kenya.

 

While reading the book, I couldn’t help wondering if it is Fr Dolan’s deep faith that propels him to work for the voiceless or whether he is an iconoclast who uses the Church to carry out his rebellion. My feeling is that it is both – not only do Jesus’s teachings motivate him but Kenya’s highly unequal and unjust society provides him with a just cause. He is deeply inspired by Catholic priests in Latin America who laid down their lives to protect the poor, and by Pope Francis, who comes from the same tradition. In the spirit of Pope Francis he is not afraid to point out where the Catholic Church has fallen short in its unique God given mission. An obvious example is the relation between politics/politicians and the Church in Kenya.

 

Gabriel Dolan is a man of rare courage. I suppose one of the advantages he has over Kenyan writers and commentators is that he represents a powerful international religious institution that few Kenyan politicians would dare to take on. But as the case of Father Kaiser (who Dolan describes as a martyr) shows, even men of God in Kenya can be eliminated if they pose a threat to the status quo. By documenting his experiences, Father Dolan has done this country a huge favour. Present and future generations in Kenya will get to understand how and why we got to the place where we are at now.

Undaunted, Stories of Freedom in a Shackled Society by Gabriel Dolan

Published by Zand Graphics Ltd, Nairobi, Kenya.

Available from St Patrick’s, Kiltegan

Tel: 059 64 73600 €10 plus postage.

Also available from various online booksellers.

©Africa, St Patrick's Missions Magazine

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