From My Bookshelf, Frank Conlisk reviews

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, November 2020, Vol. 85 No. 8

Light in the Darkness, Exploring the Path of Christian Hope

by Peter Sills

The world around us has gone through enormous changes in recent years. Old certainties have been shaken, revered ways of doing things have been ditched. Rivalries have been sharpened in politics and in the Church. In social life trust and respect are ignored, protests are on the increase. Indeed some have called it the age of ‘anger’. So how can committed Christians see meaning in their faith in such an atmosphere? Has faith anything to offer? This book, by Peter Sills, says yes!


The author claims it is hope that inspires a truly happy life and he presents Jesus as the source of genuine hope. Going back to ancient refrains (antiphons) that monks sing during Advent he identifies seven characteristics that underpin Christian hope – truth, justice, freedom, new beginning, light, peace, love. And every human being longs for these gifts. 


Our modern culture recognises the appeal of these aspirations and tirelessly tries to sell them to us. Sills examines the basis of these offers and finds them wanting. Most are shallow and short term. For most people peace means the absence of war, for Christians reconciliation is necessary also, it’s not easy! Compare Korea or Kashmir with Northern Ireland or South Africa. 


So, using the bible, Church documents, his extensive knowledge of economics, politics, psychology, social media and current affairs he contrasts how a Christian would live with how somebody following the current fashion would. The ultimate goal for the Christian would be to see God’s kingdom come ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. The alternate is to build ‘my kingdom as soon as possible’.


The focus of the book is how one can live a Christian life in today’s turbulent world. It is remarkably current – Brexit, Coronavirus, Isis, social media waywardness, the environment – all feature. Have economists replaced bishops as ‘influencers’? In the UK if the NHS didn’t exist would it be set up? 


Companies must respect their stakeholders as well as their shareholders. Almost throwaway phrases which prompt reflection abound.


This is not a ‘fast food’ book. Each chapter can be read in isolation and is a meal in itself. Indeed it would be better not to read it at one sitting. Time to digest is needed! However, for anyone seeking to look at life today through the lens of faith it’s a most rewarding read. A bonus is that on a number of occasions he cites Donal Dorr, a frequent contributor to this magazine. No better recommendation needed!

Published by Sacristy Press


Tel: +44 (0) 191 3038313

Africa, July/August 2020, Vol. 85 No. 6

Well of Living Water, Jesus and the Samaritan Woman

by Magdalen Lawler SND

In this issue, I’m taking a look at something rather special. It is Magdalen Lawler’s recently published Well of Living Water – Jesus and the Samaritan Woman. Magdalen Lawler is a Sister of Notre Dame, living in Bermondsey, London. She has worked in spiritual direction, student chaplaincy and teaching. She has also been a member of an Ignatian retreat team at Loyola Hall, Merseyside and has several publications to her name. 


This book of guided prayer is inspired by an icon called The Woman at the Well which is held in a private collection by the British Province of the Society of Jesus. Sr Magdalen has been using it on retreats since the 1980s. The icon is small “clearly…domestic…[and] would have been kept in the prayer corner of a household”(p11). It is thought to be Greek in origin and dates possibly from the early 1800s. The wood panel is damaged with age but this “does not detract from the fact that [it] is an exceptionally beautiful depiction of this theological conversation between Jesus and the woman of Samaria”(p13). 


There are only two figures depicted – Jesus and the woman. The delicate hand gestures focus our attention on the conversation taking place between them. That conversation is recorded in John 4:1-42. It is the longest dialogue that Jesus has with anybody in the Gospels. Helpfully, we are given the entire text as translated by Nicholas King SJ. In the icon, Jesus wears his customary dark red/purple royal tunic representing his humanity while his blue mantle – faded with age – infers divinity. The woman, whose moral character has long been a subject of debate among scripture scholars, is dressed, interestingly, in the white garment of a newly baptized catechumen. Over this she wears a bright red cape representing passion and energy and also, resurrection. 


Both are seated on the edge of the well which is “central to the image and is large and imposing, reminding Christians of the centrality of baptism”(p13). Jesus offers the Living Water of a new, spiritual life. The woman leans forward slightly. She is intensely engaged in conversation while at the same time she is ready to receive, indicated by her raised, open hand. 

The town of Sychar is in the background. The lives of its citizens are about to be changed radically by the one whom they considered to be an outsider, an outcast. The divine nature of Jesus is revealed to her in the raw reality of her life, in the context of weariness and thirst, in the pain of one condemned to live on the fringes of society. But now, filled with missionary zeal, she will leave her precious bucket behind and run to bring the Good News to the very ones who had shunned her. Her dignity restored in the acceptance, forgiveness and healing of Jesus, she will, from now on, find the spring of Living Water within herself. The viewer is invited to make the same spiritual journey. 


For those who are not familiar with icons and don’t usually pray with them, Sr Magdalen offers a brief but useful background to the tradition. We are also given helpful, historical notes on the people of Samaria and on the background to their divergence of beliefs from mainstream Judaism which resulted in their rejection by the Jews of first century Palestine.  


In each of the nine chapters we are led in meditation before the icon. Enlarged details from the image are provided and further scriptural passages for reflection are offered to conclude each prayer period. There is an abundance of thought provoking insights throughout as we are drawn into the icon’s symbolism and theological references. “The well is deep”, she points out to Jesus. Might the depth of the well be a metaphor for her experiences, as it can be for ours? What ‘deep’ events might “have coloured her life and formed her understanding of God? What events can you recognize in your own life that formed a foundation for your own beliefs and values?”(p31). 


This publication will be of interest both to the beginner and to those who are experienced in meditating with icons. It is beautifully produced. It anticipates questions and possible stumbling blocks and introduces us gently and with an experienced hand, to the rich wellspring of Ignatian spirituality. Enjoy…and be nourished! 

Published by Messenger Publications and available from €10.95/£9.15

Africa, June 2020, Vol. 85 No. 5

Pedro Arrupe SJ, Mystic with Open Eyes

by Fr Brian Grogan SJ

The Jesuit priest, Pedro Arrupe, may become a saint. The cause for his beatification was launched in Rome in February 2019. This month I’m taking a look at a booklet entitled Pedro Arrupe SJ – Mystic with Open Eyes by Fr Brian Grogan SJ which introduces us to his life. 


At one time Arrupe was a prisoner of Imperial Japan. He was a first responder when the atom bomb fell on Hiroshima. He was a pioneer of Catholic social justice and a founder of the Jesuit Refugee Service. He was also the twenty-eighth Superior General of the Society of Jesus. 


Inspired by the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, he initiated a programme of renewal of the Jesuit order and refocused the resources and works of the Society on the mission of justice in the world. Yet, he is not well known outside of religious circles. All that may change however, now that the process for his beatification is underway. 


The profound effect that Arrupe has had on the Jesuit congregation generally and on individual members within it, is attested to by Fr Peter McVerry SJ in the foreword. McVerry is a well-known advocate for the poor and homeless in some of the most disadvantaged communities of Dublin’s inner city. “He set out a new vision for the Jesuits”, McVerry writes, “a vision that identified the promotion of justice in our world as the defining characteristic of every Jesuit ministry and of the work of every Jesuit…[this] set the Society of Jesus…on a clear and firm path into the future which continues to this day.”


In twelve short, engaging and easy-to-read chapters, Grogan traces the events in the life of Arrupe from his early influences through to the struggles and achievements of his adult life. He is anxious that we appreciate at the outset, what it was that made Arrupe “tick”: his strong, intimate relationship with God. He quotes Arrupe: “It could be said that every line of the Gospel, every word of it, is throbbing with the boundless love of Christ, who is burning with love for every human being…Nowadays the world does not need words, but lives which cannot be explained except through faith and love for Christ’s poor” (p3). 


Like St Ignatius, who founded the Society of Jesus in 1534, Pedro Arrupe was a Basque. He was born on 14 November 1907 in Bilbao, Northern Spain. He was the last born in a family of five siblings. His four sisters doted on him. While a student of medicine, he went to Lourdes in 1926 and worked with the Bureau that investigated reported cures. We read of the miracle there that changed his life and gave him a profound sense of the closeness of God…a conviction that would stay with him and sustain him through many trials (p12). We are given glimpses of him in Japan, of his time in prison and of his experience of the horrors of Hiroshima in 1945. 


He faced challenges of a different sort when, at fifty-eight, he was elected Superior General of the Society of Jesus in 1965. His vision for renewal of the congregation met with both enthusiastic support and strong opposition. Grogan describes certain aspects of his renewal programme as “sea changes”. Yet despite opposition, it is clear that Arrupe was not afraid to ask the difficult questions, as when he enquired of the Jesuits in America: “Why so little of our effort in the past has been expended in work for and with black people?” (p27).


The 1970s were years of great difficulty for Arrupe. Conflicts around renewal and the promotion of justice were rife. “Within the Society, conservatives and liberals became highly polarized…The growth of liberation theology in Latin America was seen variously as deriving from Jesus or Marx” (p41). We read of the threat of a break away by a group of Spanish Jesuits “in order to restore the traditional Jesuit way of life” and of the growing tension between Arrupe and Pope John Paul II in the 1980s. Yet he managed to set up the Jesuit Refugee Service which, Grogan claims “has become a dramatic symbol of what the Society of Jesus is meant to be” (p46). The booklet concludes with an account of Arrupe’s final years and an assessment of his legacy. 


This short introduction to the life of Pedro Arrupe makes for inspiring reading. It leaves you wanting to know more – much more – which I suspect, may have been one of the reasons why Brian Grogan choose the booklet format. It is published in Ireland and the UK by Messenger Publications and at €4.95/£4.50 it whets the appetite, very economically, for a deeper investigation into the life and times of this extraordinary man of God.

Published by Messenger Publications and available from €4.95/£4.50

Africa, May 2020, Vol. 85 No. 4

The Village of Bernadette - 

The Irish Connection

by Colm Keane & Una O'Hagan

For the month of May, I’m taking a look at a recently published book The Village of Bernadette – The Irish Connection by journalists and authors Colm Keane and Una O’Hagan. Colm Keane has published 28 books including eight No.1 bestsellers and has received awards as a broadcaster. Una O’Hagan is a No.1 bestselling author and former news-reader with Radio Telefís Éireann (RTÉ).


In a style that is simple, direct, matter-of-fact and generally understated, the writers trace what can only be described as Ireland’s fascination with the events that occurred in Lourdes between February and July 1858. The focus is on the sick, “the aristocracy of Lourdes…For nobody can see their twisted and broken bodies, their resignation and faith in God, and go unmoved” (p170) in the words of Kevin O’Kelly who visited the shrine in 1952 and who would later become the Religious Affairs correspondent with RTÉ.


Bernadette’s early life is recalled. We read of the poverty of her childhood, living with her parents, sister and two brothers in a “one-roomed cesspit…dark, dank and infested with lice” (p9). There was the constant hunger that at times bordered on starvation. And we read of her ill-health, especially of her struggle with asthma. Given such circumstances, we are somewhat surprised to meet the “unflappable, headstrong young girl” of 14 who not alone is confident and unwilling “to be pushed around” but is also honest, kind and has a sense of fun. She would need all of these resources as she faced intense interrogation and ridicule, the challenges of convent life and years of suffering before her death. After “almost 13 years battling a frightful array of symptoms” (p38) mostly related to TB, Bernadette, known by now as Sr Marie-Bernard of the Sisters of Charity, died at Nevers on April 16th 1879. She was 35. 


While gathering firewood to ward off the harsh, winter cold, the 14 year old Bernadette Soubirous saw “a lady in white” in the grotto of Massabielle, half a mile west of Lourdes. It was February 11th 1858. She would see the apparition 18 times over a period of five months until July 16th. On February 25th a spring of fresh water was uncovered. It would become known as “Lourdes water”. On March 25th the “beautiful lady” revealed her identity: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Reports of the curative powers of the water spread like wildfire. Life, for the young Bernadette, for the villagers of Lourdes and for the millions of pilgrims who would soon flock to this place, would never again be the same. 

Reports of the events at Lourdes appeared in Irish newspapers just four weeks after the apparitions began. Reaction was mixed. There was nothing for it but to go and see for oneself. This is exactly what the Co Waterford-born priest, Monsignor Thomas John Capel did in 1859, “most likely becoming the first Irishman” (p46) to meet Bernadette who by now, at just 15, had entered the convent.


Through the remainder of the book, the writers trace the extraordinary growth of Irish interest in Lourdes. Reports of the many miracles are presented in a matter-of-fact, undramatic fashion with accounts from the individuals involved, their relatives, eye witnesses, newspaper reports and before-and-after statements from the examining medical personnel. Most moving are the verbatim accounts of those who were cured. The facts are laid before the reader and no attempt is made to convince him/her one way or the other. 


I found some accounts to be of particular interest. There is the story of the popular French novelist Émile Zola whose book, Lourdes, published in 1894, caused uproar (p76). Also of interest is the first Irish National Pilgrimage of 1913 when over 3,000 people travelled against the backdrop of the 1913 “lockout” (p86). We are given full accounts of those who were cured while on that pilgrimage. 


This book gives us a glimpse into a very different Ireland to that of today. It was a country profoundly Catholic and of deep faith. Thousands travelled to Lourdes even in times of political upheaval both at home and abroad. Spurred on by faith and hope, it is their stories and the case studies of individuals who found “peace of mind and soul” (p211) that make this well researched publication a page-turner. This is a heartwarming, uplifting and thought-provoking read.


We might wonder with Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, after his pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1958: “How many unsteady wills have received the strength to persevere?...How many in darkness received light in Lourdes?” (p186). He would soon become the beloved Pope John XXIII.

Published by Capel Island Press, Baile na nGall, Ring, Dungarvan, Co Waterford, Ireland €14.99.

Available from bookshops and websites.

Africa, April 2020, Vol. 85 No. 3

Pastoral Ministry in Changing Times - 

The Past, Present and Future of the Catholic Church in Ireland

by Aidan Ryan

This month I’m taking a look at Fr Aidan Ryan’s recently published book Pastoral Ministry in Changing Times – The Past, Present and Future of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Fr Ryan is a priest of the Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnois, Ireland. He has been pastor of a rural parish for many years. He has also been a spiritual director and has served as a missionary in Zambia. Over the past thirty years he has led retreats for diocesan clergy in most of the dioceses of Ireland. 


What is the priest, the parish council or the parish worker to do in an Irish parish today? They face the ever increasing demands, the fallout from the abuse crisis and the rapidity and extent of cultural change which is, in this writer’s view, “without precedent in the history of our country.” This is the question which Fr Ryan attempts to address in this timely publication.


In the preface, he identifies “the idea of the ending of an era” as the unifying theme of the book. He divides the history of the Christian faith in Ireland into eras. The last he calls “the Cullen/McQuaid era” (p19), after the two towering archbishops of Dublin who fashioned and dominated a particular type of Catholic life in Ireland. This, Ryan suggests, is the era that is now coming to a close. In this book, he hopes to “make sense of that ending and to find some bearings in this transition time, with all its uncertainties and insecurities.”


What is it like to be at the end of an era? Fr Ryan imagines how “The Last Monk of Clonmacnois” might have felt as he celebrated the last Mass after the final destruction of that great monastery. He blows out the last candle and wonders how the wavering flame of faith will be kept alive. There is a “huge temptation to discouragement” (p12) but it is a time to go back to basics, Ryan suggests, and to focus on four core elements: the support of a community, the scriptures, the Eucharist and other related sacraments and a sense of God/prayer/spirituality. “We are entering a new era in Ireland,” he asserts, “an era that can truly be described as missionary. However, we have no training or expertise on how to be missionary in mentality, lifestyle or methodology.” The challenge is to develop this expertise, he says. But I wonder if this might be too great an expectation of leadership and clergy who are getting very thin on the ground and are “in the evening time of life” as he himself puts it on page 21. 


Fr Ryan is realistic in his critique of Irish life today. He identifies profound and rapid cultural change as a major contributing factor to the decline in religious practice. He asks some hard-hitting questions of the clergy. “Given that we are more at home with maintenance than mission, is it possible that an undue amount of our declining energy has been devoted to the maintenance of our own comfort and convenience?” he wonders. And he describes well the “variety of Catholics” in Ireland now and how challenging it can be for parish workers in pastoral interactions with people who may be “nominal”, “occasional”, “practicing”, “committed”, “devout” or “Gospel” in their Catholic lives (64). 


I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in Catholicism in Ireland and its future. It offers a good analysis of the current situation as well as some helpful suggestions for moving forward. It is easy to read, realistic and practical. However, I would like to have heard Fr Ryan’s views on broadening our understanding of and implementing new approaches to the ministry of priests and deacons given the decline in clergy numbers and current conversations around equality and inclusivity. His recommendations on the selection and training of catechists at parish level and on the key question of how to involve families in the preparation of their children for the sacraments would have been welcome. Also, the opinions of this experienced priest on the possible development of a synodal model of church in Ireland would have been of interest. 


Nevertheless, this is a worthwhile read and would make useful material for parish study groups or for individual reflection.

Published by and available from Messenger Publications, 

37 Lower Leeson Street, Dublin 2, Ireland.  Price: €12.95, £11.95

Africa, March 2020, Vol. 85 No. 2

Newman, A Short Biography

By Michael Collins

His deepest desire was that people “pray for him, that in all things he [might] know God’s will and at all times be ready to fulfill it.” He insisted on being buried with his friend, a fellow priest: “this I confirm and insist on.” He chose as the motto for his memorial tablet: “… from shadows and images into the truth.” He was, according to this biographer, “Loyal to his friends, easily wounded, nervous and anxious, gentle yet often querulous, diligent in work, a voracious reader, a highly productive writer with a remarkable capacity for concentration [and] was wont to take on too much and blame others for failure” (p127). He was also the most prominent convert to Catholicism in the religious history of England in the nineteenth century and one of its most controversial figures. And he has been characterized as perhaps the greatest Catholic theologian since Thomas Aquinas. This was John Henry Newman who was canonized by Pope Francis on October 13th 2019 in St Peter’s Square. 


That should be enough to pique your interest in this very human saint and this month’s book Newman, A Short Biography by Michael Collins, a priest of Dublin Archdiocese, Ireland, would be a good place to start your investigation. A great deal has been written about Newman since his canonization. Much of it has focused on his academic career and his contribution as a theologian, an educator, a poet and a defender and seeker of “the truth”. Collins takes a different approach. In twelve chapters and just 131 pages, he places the emphasis on Newman the man – the man who, it seems, was dismissive of biographies! “A man’s life is in his letters,” Newman wrote to his sister Jemima in 1863 (p8). In them his complex character and his struggles in his personal and professional relationships are clearly evident. So also is the development of his extraordinary relationship with God. 


Collins sets the scene with a look at the world into which Newman was born at 80, Old Broad Street, London, on 21st February 1801. This was the London of Charles Dickens – a rapidly growing city of sharp contrasts and marked by the strict social conventions of the Victorian era. There were the magnificent public buildings and the elegant residences of the gentry, but most people lived in disease-ridden slums and miserable poorhouses: “the stench of the East End was infamous” (p12). Born into a middle-class, Anglican family, the eldest of three sons and three daughters, Newman enjoyed an excellent education at Ealing and qualified to attend Trinity College, Oxford. But when his father’s bank collapsed in 1816, the young John Henry had to secure a scholarship to stay there and John Senior found himself running a brewery.


It is the inclusion of such detail that gives this account its appeal and in a similar, easy to read vein, Collins recounts Newman’s rise to prominence both as an academic and Anglican priest. The story of Newman’s conversion to Catholicism is particularly interesting. Newman saw it as a homecoming: “for I was a ship that finally came to port” (p52). However, he had underestimated the rift it would cause. Many colleagues cut him off completely while his family refused to respond to his letters. But his decision was dictated by his conscience. Later he observed: “But here below, to grow is to change and to be perfect means to have changed often” (p54).


Change often he would. Collins describes well Newman’s journey towards Catholic priesthood, his founding of The Oratory, his role in founding The Catholic University in Dublin which would eventually become University College Dublin and the events around Pope Leo XIII’s decision to make him a cardinal in 1879. Newman had come a long way from when, at age fifteen, he was convinced that the pope was the antichrist!


For the newcomer to the subject, Michael Collins’ book is an excellent introduction to Newman the man, his times and his faith journey. After this engaging page-turner, you may be tempted to dig deeper…and there is no shortage of good publications on Newman to choose from.

Published by and available from Messenger Publications, 

37 Lower Leeson Street, Dublin 2, Ireland.  Price: €9.95

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