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.
Africa, April 2023 Vol. 89 No. 3
Review by Fr Sean Deegan
Becoming a Pastoral Parish Council
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.
Available from www.messenger.ie
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
Africa, June 2022 Vol. 87 No. 5
Review by Sr Patricia Lynott RJM
The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse
The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse is written by Charlie Mackesy. The book opens with a brief Hello from the author. He introduces each character and alludes to some of the themes that emerge later throughout the book.
The adventures of the boy and the mole begin to unfold as they gaze into the wild. It is springtime. The wild conjures up images of unchartered terrain hitherto unexplored. Spring awakens a sense of boundless energy bursting forth with endless possibilities. Confronted with the vastness of the wild, the mole encourages the boy to embrace it. Throughout the story the boy is curious about many things. He engages and wrestles with important concepts such as love, kindness, friendship, and life itself. The mole has a distinct liking for cake and is his ‘go to’ on occasions. As the story progresses and friendships are cemented, the cake pales in significance and is superseded by a hug. When the fox enters, he is already trapped and ensnared by an external wire from which the mole releases him. The fox is generally silent. The boy, the mole and the fox appear so tiny in comparison to the large horse. The horse is full of tenderness and kindness. The drawings depict a remarkably close connection between the other three and the horse. Often the horse is gently touching the boy’s head or all three may be sitting on his back. The close bond is further reflected in the drawing at the close of the story when the boy gently caresses the horse’s head as the mole and the fox look on.
This book is a treasure, a worthwhile addition to anyone’s library. It is a feast for the senses. Words crafted into thought-provoking sentences, embellished by evocative drawings, invite the reader into a world of mystery and enchantment. The absence of page numbers may indicate that this book is suitable for dipping into, rather than reading page by page, cover to cover. As pages fall open, a treasury of insights awaits the reader across all age groups. It is possible for children to grapple with the mysteries and concepts it offers at their level. The black and white drawings depict the various scenes and greatly serve the overall impact of the book. Mackesy, describes the drawings as “islands, places to get to in a sea of words.”
Mackesy nudges the reader to see each character, the boy, the mole, the fox and the horse, as an aspect of themselves. He writes: “I can see myself in all four of them, perhaps you can too.” There is ample opportunity for the reader to explore their own inner landscape against a backdrop of kindness and compassion. The use of soul-searching dialogues enables this process, for example: “What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said? asked the boy”. ‘Help,’ said the horse.” “What do you think success is? asked the boy.” “To love, said the mole.”
The characters tussle with concepts that have a widespread resonance: forgiveness, kindness, success, fear, ensnarement, freedom, silence, beauty, bravery, and love. Friendship is affirmed and valued. The boy asks: “What do we do when our hearts hurt?” The response is: “We wrap them with friendship, shared tears, and time, till they wake hopeful and happy again.”
To conclude, this book is delightful, challenging and evokes self-reflection. Perhaps, one character may have an appeal above and beyond the others. It is comforting to know that the horse is there for us too, guiding, holding, and caressing us on our way. We too can develop wings and fly. Enjoy, the adventure!
The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy.
Published by Ebury Press
Price: €12/£9/$10 approximately, prices vary.
Available from bookshops and online.
Africa, March 2022 Vol. 87 No. 2
Review by Fr Joe McCullough SPS
Streets and Secret Places
Reflections of a News Reporter
Denis Tuohy is a natural born storyteller as is clear to see in this fine collection of evocative and interesting reminiscences. The anthology draws primarily on his work as a broadcaster and journalist for over fifty years, covering news events and stories from around the world for the major networks and journals. In some of the pieces we catch a glimpse of his thespian endeavours in later life.
This engaging and intimately readable book records twenty-two of Denis’s two-and-a-half-minute broadcast contributions to BBC Radio Ulster’s Thought for The Day (TFTD) with a linking retrospective commentary from the author. They invite the reader into key aspects of his personal, professional, and spiritual life. He has the very skilful journalist knack of relating to his audience the human-interest aspect of the story.
Listeners to the BBCs TFTD will be familiar with the necessity that each brief vignette has to be sharp and well structured, and must engage the imagination with what is happening in the world of news and beyond. Tuohy certainly achieves this; the absence of waffle or jargon is a feast for the eyes.
It is little wonder then that Denis receives a resounding endorsement and the highest accolade on the back cover from none other than John Humphrys, the great doyen of British broadcast journalism, who writes: “He is a hack of the old school – and in my book there is no higher praise. And he writes like a dream”.
That being said, I was slightly disappointed with his reflection on South Africa about an integrated Belfast singing group during the oppressive days of Apartheid. (Pg 17-18), I felt Denis could have given us much more; something that captured the insidious consequences of the dark history of colonialism and apartheid in the rainbow nation.
A riveting aspect of this book is that we do get to travel the world with Denis and read about his compelling encounters with notable characters. I was particularly captivated by his meetings with two larger-than-life personalities in the Belfast household of my youth – Margaret Thatcher and Muhammad Ali. As you may expect the hostile one was with the Iron Lady whilst the legendary world boxing champion pens a touching note to him: “To Denis from Muhammad Ali, death is so near and time for friendly action is so limited. Peace.”
In New York Tuohy covers the numbing aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination and in his linking commentary tellingly remarks: “more than half a century later, the turmoil following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has shown how little fundamental change there has been in the country when it comes to race.”
The author’s advocacy here for dialogue and encounter that seeks to uphold the equal rights of all is admirable. It is a subject that is also central to Denis’s reflection on his acting role in Sam Thompson’s famous play “Over the Bridge“ about sectarianism and bigotry in the Belfast shipyard during the 1950s.
I was particularly moved by this reflection having listened many times to my own late father’s first-hand experience of this at the time, and recalling too the sectarian murder of my own brother in Belfast in 1972. But it also evoked many happy memories for me personally having treaded the boards myself on many occasions at the Belfast Group Theatre.
Throughout the book, there is a deep understanding and knowledge of the Christian faith by the author, and how transformative it can be when it is lived out. He gifts us with a remarkable story of how the famous choir master Gareth Malone encourages school children devastated by the Grenfell fire disaster to start a choir, and to write and perform a special song for their families and friends. It is a beautiful story of hope and a beautiful song of transformation in the midst of tragedy.
It is in reflections like these that we see the writer’s interior journey of spiritual and inner experience, and at times it is a very personal one.
It is profoundly captured in the author’s dedication of the book to his son Chris who died earlier this year and includes the evocative poem Wellspring written by Chris and the mystical photo on the cover of the book, taken by him in Richmond Park shortly before his death.
Denis probably has his own “Way of the Cross” in mind when he walks with two teenage guides as they recount their contemporary interpretation of the Stations of the Cross in the author’s home parish in Rostrevor, Co Down.
Towards the end of the book there is a timely reflection that seeks to connect the reader with the author’s experience of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on family life: “We’re getting to know more and more about each other’s daily lives than we did before.” How true!
This compelling and inspiring collection of encounters of immense human interest has enlivened and nourished my spirit. It has evoked many similar memories and aspirations from my own life experience and how graced it has been by the people and events within it.
It is an essential read for anyone interested in themselves, in the world around them, and in their fellow human beings.
Denis’s final line on page 77 says it all: “I have come to believe that we can indeed sense that wind of constant truth if we listen carefully to the different ways in which it speaks to us.”
Streets and Secret Places: Reflections of a News Reporter by Denis Tuohy. Published by and available from Messenger Publications. €12.95 www.messenger.ie
Also available from various online booksellers.
Africa, January/February 2022 Vol. 87 No. 1
Review by Rasna Warah
Stories of Freedom in a Shackled Society
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.
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