“Great Christian Thinkers: From the Early Church through the Middle Ages” by Pope Benedict XVI. Fortress Press (Minneapolis, 2011). 328 pp., $16.99. “A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms: 52 Companions for Your Heart, Mind, Body and Soul” by Lisa M. Hendey. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Ind., 2011). 320 pp., $16.95.
Reviewed by Brian Welter Catholic News Service
“Great Christian Thinkers,” a collection of Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly audiences on central theological thinkers up to the Reformation, offers a concise, well-balanced introduction to the history of doctrine. Accessible to all, it shows not only Benedict’s famously concise language, but also his pastoral side.
While the pontiff is not afraid to depict the frequent, intense theological conflicts that have happened throughout Christian history, he shows how theologians constantly found a solution or offered a new insight that could solve the problem.
Heresy could be a life-and-death issue, as Christians tended to judge each other harshly. Inner divisions were a constant problem in Eastern, Greek- and Syriac-speaking Christianity. Thus, Benedict informs us, Theodore the Studite, born in 759, “became the leader of the iconoclasm of (Byzantine Emperor) Leo V.”
Even mundane religious activity would be punished in such a theological battle: “The procession of icons organized by the monks of Studios evoked a reaction from the police. Between 815 and 821, Theodore was scourged, imprisoned and exiled to various places in Asia Minor.”
Thinkers such as Theodore were fighting for the truth. Benedict’s concern for this battle comes out time and again in these writings. The truth is never easy, so struggles were common.
Each short chapter focuses on the background, life and theology of each individual, and Benedict offers us a sense of the personality of some of these thinkers.
One of the great accomplishments of the first Christian millennium was the use of Greek philosophy in the service of the good news. Rabanus Maurus, born in 780, is only one of many who exemplify this. Abbot of Fulda, then archbishop of Mainz, he was an “exegete (interpreter of the Bible), philosopher, poet, pastor and man of God.”
Benedict notes throughout the book the need for a deep Christian engagement with the surrounding culture, writing about Maurus: “This method of combining all the arts, the intellect, the heart, and the senses, which came from the East, was to experience a great development in the West.”
The pontiff uses these weekly addresses as a way to emphasize the importance of faith and reason, using the Greek heritage, especially reason, at the service of the faith.
He shows how this has played an essential role in Christianity from nearly the beginning, with the first century philosopher-theologian Justin Martyr, or with the sixth-century Dionysius the Areopagite, the first great theologian who used the Greek term “mysterion” to denote a person’s personal journey toward God, and not simply to pertain to the sacraments. (In the Orthodox churches to this day the sacraments are often called “the Mysteries”.)
With Dionysius, “the word mystic becomes more personal, more intimate,” Benedict notes.
Dionysius would later influence St. Bonaventure in the healing of sharp Franciscan divisions. Benedict is keen to show readers how later thinkers always came back to earlier ones, thereby using tradition as a way to reform the church.
Lisa Hendey’s “A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms” also walks readers through the Christian centuries, this time focused more on the concerns of females, and emphasizing the devotional aspects related to each saint. The author offers a saint for every occasion and concern, such as mental health, widows, converts and editors, and reflects on how this holy person has been a part of tradition through the centuries.
Regarding Montreal’s Andre Bessette, she notes, “In his early childhood, Andre’s father, a lumberman, taught his son a love for his patron, St. Joseph. Research with your children the lives of their own patron saints. Read their stories, learn their lessons, and plan a family feast with a few meals in honor of some of your family’s communion of saints.”
A strength of this book is the author’s positive attitude toward the more traditional aspects of being a woman, such as motherhood and making a home for a family. As such, “A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms” offers a useful alternative to the usual push to reject or minimize the importance of traditional women’s work, showing just how important a strong motherly presence is in the life of the faith.
Both books thus celebrate and teach the Catholic tradition in a simple, straightforward, yet challenging manner.
Welter is studying for his doctorate in systematic theology and teaching English in Taiwan.