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Spring Books

An odd collection of catholic classics

By Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.
Loyola Press, $19.95, 242 pages


A mind is a terrible thing to waste, or so we’ve been reminded in television ads, but a mind is a lovely thing to enrich, or so Jesuit Fr. Ray Schroth’s latest would have us think.

Coming from the family that owned and operated the historic Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, Schroth has lived, written and taught journalism. Among generations of students at five Jesuit colleges, he has a golden reputation as a tough teacher and a good confessor. He’s also done a fairly creditable biography of Eric Sevareid, a journalist himself.

Every book reader in the United States, it seems, has composed a list of the “100 Best” of this or that genre in this or that century. Schroth himself did it in 1987: Books for Believers: 35 Books That Every Catholic Ought to Read. Now he’s done 50 books, from Genesis to Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.

He set out three principles of selection. Each book had to have passed the test of time; in this he consulted others. Each author didn’t have to be religious, but had to have dealt in a meaningful way with the great issues of life and death. Each title had to be understandable by the commonly educated reader, with the obvious exception of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her.

Among his selections:

Scripture: Genesis, Job, David, Luke, John.

Fiction: Dante, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Sigrid Undset, François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Alan Paton, John Powers, O’Connor (Edwin and Flannery).

Hagiography: Michael Walsh’s one-volume condensation of Butler’s quixotic four-volume Lives of the Saints and Robert Ellsberg’s eccentric All Saints, which includes John, Joan and Jogues, but also Mozart, Van Gogh and Camus.

Spiritual writers: Augustine, Kempis, Cardinal Newman, Thérèse of Lisieux, Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Religious and secular intellectuals: Schweitzer, Teilhard, Rahner. Biographers and autobiographers. Eight women. Three African-Americans. And lots of priests.

Supreme choice: Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man, the volume commemorating the 1955 photographic exhibition of the same title at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. A happy reminder that not all books are meant to be read.

Schroth frames his interesting observations on Steichen with a continuing reference to the first meditation of the second week of The Spiritual Exercises in which Ignatius Loyola called for a picture. Not inappropriate, I admit, but I wonder if it shouldn’t have been the other way around. When it came to photography, Steichen didn’t need help from Loyola to be understood and appreciated. Loyola was the one who was enriched by being associated with a photographer like Steichen who truly knows what a picture is. Again, a supreme choice!

Overall, it’s an odd collection, but in a good sense. A catholic as well as Catholic work. Obvious choices and indeed surprise choices. He calls Shusaku Endo’s Silence “one of the most depressing novels I’ve read -- but I’ve read it three times.”

Schroth’s book, on the other hand, is such a pleasure to read. It’s also a reminder of the pleasure of reading in general. Also, it makes me want to review the occupants of my own bookshelves with a view to making up a list of my own. In each of Schroth’s book descriptions, there’s something of a reflection, a stinger or a fervorino.

At the end of Schweitzer, there’s a polemic on the expensiveness of drugs needed by the poor. At the end of Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, there’s a coda about weapon development, from the blunt instrument Cain used to the so-called smart bombs of today. At the end of Kempis, Schroth contrasted a young ad exec surrounded by the perks of his rapid ascent in this world with Kempis’ description of the exec’s possibly rapid descent in the next.

At the end of Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her, “As long as women Christians are excluded from the breaking of the bread and deciding their own spiritual welfare and commitment, ekklesia (the kingdom) as the discipleship of equals will not be realized and the power of the gospel will be greatly diminished.”

With sadness Schroth concluded with Cardinal Newman’s saying that liberal education can’t make persons better. “If I believed that for a moment, I’d have to quit all my jobs of teaching, preaching, and writing.” Schroth’s opinion is that “we grow morally by confronting the virtues -- and vices -- in our fellow men and women.”

Of course, what’s a classic for one Christian isn’t necessarily a classic for another. One of the two books that almost made Schroth’s list was Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity (1976). When that already-contracted-for manuscript arrived on my desk at Macmillan in New York in 1975, I rejected it on the grounds that both author and manuscript were bonkers. Lord Weidenfeld, the British publisher, was not pleased. Within hours, even in its unread state, Athenaeum accepted the work for publication. The rest has been publishing history. Oh well.

William Griffin’s latest book is a contemporary translation of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (HarperSanFrancisco).

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002