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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

In this cold, bookish season here are some recent books that will nourish your inner selves.

The first is something of a curiosity: Becket and Henry, the story of the 12th century struggle between an Archbishop of Canterbury and the King of England, which ended with the assassination (and rapid canonisation) of the archbishop. The curious thing about this book is that it is written by the Chief Justice of New South Wales, James Jacob Spigelman, whose previous books were on censorship and the nuclear industry. Venturing into medieval history, the chief Justice writes with clarity, verve, sympathy and refreshing absence of legal gobbledygook. He judges that Becket's imperious personality energised his fight for 'church freedom'; and where others have seen his public mortifications as the surfacing of a repressed religious vocation Spieglman thinks they were mainly for show. The Kiss of Peace, that Henry constantly refused to Becket, he reads as a less weighty ceremony than other medievalists, who account it as quasi-sacramental, to fracture which was a sin. The book ends with Becket dead on the floor of his cathedral; but that is not the end of this story. For Becket had taken his case to the pope, which changed everything: "thereafter appeals from the English church to Rome became frequent, so that one can say that the papacy, especially in its legal mode, is in many ways a creation of the medieval English church". Spigelman's attractive book is published by the St Thomas More Society, who don't sell it through the shops; a letter to them (GPO Box 282, Sydney 1043) with a cheque for $51.50 may secure you a copy. Better than The Da Vinci Code? You bet.

Now for something quite different. Homan Potterton, once director of the national Gallery in Dublin, the son of a long settled and large protestant family, grew up in rural Ireland in one of those big houses that somehow escaped depredation during the Troubles. Rathcormick: A Childhood Recalled (Vintage, $26.95) is the story of his family, as seen by a growing boy. I've read it twice, enchanted by its wit, style, tenderness and insight. It's not obsessively religious, yet Online Catholics readers will relish the introduction it gives them to the experience of being protestant in Ireland 50 years ago, since that experience and what went beforehand has fed into our Australian history. The rectitude and worthiness of the Pottertons, especially of his father, cannot stay the slow strangulation of their community as the RC church's mixed-marriage demands and unsympathetic land laws do their work. Nevertheless, Homan Potterton observes the Catholics - the new 'ascendancy', as the great chronicler of Protestant Ireland, William Trevor, calls them in his foreword - with a mild eye. The differences are cultural, rather than theological: different names for the same thing ('the Lord's prayer' vs 'the Our Father'), different places to meet (tearooms vs pubs) and different people to meet there. It's a great book, as (some of) the Irish would say.

A local publishing industry is one of the signs of a mature church - witness Dove Communications in the post-Vatican II years: it meant Australian Catholics did not have to rely entirely on imported books for their intellectual or spiritual lives. Since then, there have been sporadic enterprises such as David Lovell Publishing, whose current title, Why I am still a Catholic edited by Kate Engelbrecht is going well in the shops. (Acknowledging an interest here, I should say how happy I am, as an author, with the way David Lovell published two of my own books.) Now in recent years bookshop browsers have begun to notice the excellence of books coming from St Pauls Publications in Sydney. Three of their latest titles show the characteristics of this publishing house.

The first is by Cardinal Edward Clancy, Walk Worthy of Your Vocation: A spiritual journey with St Paul ($15.95). It's short - not more than 20,000 words - written from intimate acquaintance with the texts and aimed at readers who wish to explore the big themes of those texts. A seminary Bible lecturer before becoming a bishop, Cardinal Clancy is also author of Come Back: the Church Loves You ($17.95), a work of apologetics in the mode of Thomas Aquinas rather than of Pascal or Newman, each chapter of which ends with a small personal reflection - so good, that I wrote to the author pleading for more autobiographical material. Perhaps his publishers can persuade him. Along side Cardinal Clancy's Pauline book St Pauls has published Why the Mass Matters: a guide to praying the Mass ($15.95) by the dynamic Marist priest Gerard Moore. It has the considerable strength of being firmly rooted in the history of the Mass: readers will thereby be enriched, while at the same time absorbing the lesson that liturgy is not something you make up for yourself. Also by a Marist priest, Dealing with Bullies: A gospel response to the social disease of adult bullying ($19.95) comes from Gerald A Arbuckle, who has an international reputation in anthropology, especially concerning cultural change and leadership. It is an intensely aware book, written especially, I would judge, for people in organisations such as schools or hospitals. Each chapter ends with points for discussion.

Three cheap good new Australian books: they show the strength of St Paul Publications; and that the Catholic adult education revolution, a central feature of our history in the past half century, is not exhausted yet.

Books from:

Sir Thomas More Society, GPO Box 282, Sydney 1043

Mind Body Spirit Internet Bookshop

St Paul Publications

David Lovell Publishing

Previous Columns:

  • Issue 1 Books Etc
  • Issue 3 Books Etc
  • Issue 5 Books Etc
  • Issue 7 Books Etc
  • Issue 9 Books Etc

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