Monday, June 20, 2016

Summer Reading (UPDATED)

As my family visit wound down, I managed to fit in a few of the "must-do" New Orleans things. Before that, I was playing trucks and dinosaurs with my sister's three year old grandson. We had charbroiled oysters (and raw, for one of my sisters) for lunch: the haul included two grey pearls, one of them almost large enough to be strung. (I got another pearl in my gumbo!) At my sister's house her three-year-old grandchild kept asking to "kiss Jesus," meaning the crucifix at the end of my decade rosary. (Jesus got a lot of love from that little boy this week; I aimed to keep the kisses coming by giving the little guy a crucifix of his own.) My sisters and a couple of cousins scarfed down a beignet each before embarking on a French Quarter music tour with writer Chris Rose.

In between (and in the car), I was able to read the three books I had brought with me from Boston, plus part of one found at my Texan sister's house. I enjoyed all of them, and you might, too. Three of these books were gifts to me; I thank the donors again for all the enjoyment and inspiration I received through them.

Church of Spies: The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler (Mark Riebling) came to my attention by means of book reviews. This title dovetailed nicely with The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican, which I read while in Rome last month, and with the books by or about people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Father Alfred Delp, and Dietrich Von Hildebrand that I had read over the past several years. Many of the protagonists of these books showed up in Church of Spies. However, during the first couple of chapters I was seriously doubtful I would actually enjoy the book or find it credible. I felt seriously betrayed by prominent reviewers whose recommendation I had based myself on in choosing the title. Author Riebling had opened the book by setting up a Da Vinci Code-esque environment with secret knowledge, secret chambers, secret codes and secret handshakes going all the way back to Jesus Christ and the Apostles. Thankfully, he let go of this conceit fairly soon and let history speak for itself. At that point, I couldn't put the book down. (Who needs fiction, anyway? You can't make this stuff up!)

According to Riebling's research, Pope Pius XII was himself the communications link between Germans plotting Hitler's overthrow and the governments of Great Britain and the US. The Pope was insistent that "the Vatican" as an institution not be involved, named or "credited" with this clearly non-neutral behavior; that it was something he was doing personally (through one or two of his aides). This is probably one of the reasons there is so little documentation (though there is a good bit, in the US and UK archives).  In fact, Riebling indicates that the Pope personally met with one of the German double agents on more than one occasion, and was moved to tears on seeing the man (an incredible Bavarian lawyer named Joseph Müller) after his release from the Nazi prison where he had been literally called away from the scaffold moments before his scheduled execution.  This amazing and creative lay Catholic is sometimes considered the "godfather of the Euro," because of his early (pre-WWII) conviction that a common European market would serve as a brake on dangerously nationalistic ideology.

My seven-year-old great niece kept looking incredulously at the page number I was on, comparing my progress through the book with hers (she's an avid reader). I think I convinced her that "epilogues" are worth reading.

Reading Church of Spies was like encountering heroes of indescribable stature and being challenged by their convictions--and their willingness to suffer and die (as many of them did) for truth and justice.  [Added June 23: Here's an interview with the author, Mark Riebling!]
Related titles:

Another book that challenged me to see truth and justice and act according to what I saw was Hope for the City: A Catholic Priest, a Suburban Housewife and Their Desperate Effort to Save Detroit. This book introduced me to Father Bill Cunningham, a real "Vatican II priest" (and I mean that in both the positive and less positive senses in which the term is used). Cunningham and his right-hand woman, Eleanor Josaitis, were the dynamic duo behind Focus:HOPE, which began as a small, grass-roots effort to get government-provided food aid to needy mothers and children and grew into a complex organization that aims to overcome the effects of racism in a thousand concrete, positive ways.

Starting shortly after he witnessed a destructive and deadly riot in Motor City, the visionary priest and the practical, steady-thinking housewife (with an incredibly generous husband!) started with food aid, but before long began putting together a series of educational and industrial projects that created "facts on the ground" to provide not just job training, but jobs--good, solid jobs in areas involving manufacturing and engineering so that families would not be dependent on the uncertain (and shrinking) free rations. They did it through a combination of fund-raising and grant-writing coupled with government and industry contracts (including work for GM and the Department of Defense). He answered critics like pacifist Bishop Thomas Gumbleton by saying that it was better for the DOD to put money toward training American workers than paying foreign factories to manufacture weapons, and that putting Americans to work was better than sending them off to war. (However, Cunningham's spun-off manufacturing company did manufacture weapons components.)

Recognizing that family needs led some of the parents in his program to quit their training and abandon the job prospects it offered, he launched a state of the art childcare and early education facility nearby. Parents could drop in an check on their children at any time. Cunningham worked with local, state and national politicians to achieve this and so many other projects, once commenting that it was easier for him to get grants from Republicans (who didn't know how to address social ills) than from Democrats (who thought they had the answers). As a sign of how bi-partisan his support was, Focus:HOPE received generous funding (and official visits) from Republican Vice-President George Bush and later from President Bill Clinton.

Cunningham was a post-Vatican II variety of what used to be called a "brick and mortar priest": a pastor who knew how to build--whether it was a church or school, or a high-tech training institute. He was also the kind of "Vatican II" priest who seems to have had a vague, even superficial understanding of the sacraments and sacramental regulations, exacerbated by the sort of clericalism that led him to take liberties with the liturgy. He tore the confessionals out of his parish church, rhetorically asking who was he to listen to and pardon people's sins (they could "do that for each other") and he officiated at a sacrilegious wedding service, using the sacramental ritual for a couple who were both divorced (one of them more than once), and giving the bride and groom the Eucharist. (His bishop publicly rebuked him and sent him for a two-week retreat for that.) Definitely not the sort of priest I appreciate for liturgy.

Despite his liturgical failings, Cunningham's commitment to the poor and his passion for racial justice called me to an examination of conscience. He was 100% given to and for his needy neighbors. He loved them with the love of a shepherd who cannot rest until all his sheep are adequately pastured. He was not content to meet the immediate needs he recognized, but sought to discover their root causes and address those. At the beginning of his Focus:HOPE work, he organized a thorough survey of food prices in and around Detroit, demonstrating that the higher prices being charged in the black communities contributed to the hunger and malnutrition that compromised children's ability to learn. He launched legal action against a major company that was moving its headquarters from Detroit to an all-white suburb--and proved from the company's own internal documents that the motive was racist. A lawsuit against the same company (again, launched by Cunningham) awarded damages and back pay to its black women employees for employment discrimination. Mostly, though, Cunningham was convinced that the most effective way to address the social breakdown he saw in the black communities in Detroit was to address their abysmal schooling (people were being given high school diplomas who were functionally illiterate) and the lack of job opportunities. Cunningham died in 1997, but the conditions in Detroit still give Focus:HOPE plenty to do.

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I didn't just read churchy books. I also managed to read Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania and a little over half of Stalag Luft III: The Secret Story(from my brother-in-law's library). After that it was Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (basis of the movie Unbroken) and now I am halfway through Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis (she finally gets a book of her own, and it is full very rewarding reading). More about these later.

For summer reading picks for kids and teens (and parents!), visit the Pauline summer reading page. One of the teen titles just won first place in the Teens and Young Adults category in the Catholic Press Association's book awards! If you haven't already read Oscar Romero: Prophet of Hope, that's an award-winner, too (from the Association of Catholic Publishers). (Here's my review of it.)

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