Friday, July 29, 2011

Guest Post: A Pilgrim Shares Her Journeys to World Youth Day

It's just a little more than two weeks until the start of World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid, Spain.  Since this month I reviewed two books that are WYD-friendly,  I wanted to feature the WYD stories of people in the Peoria diocese.   I am delighted to be able to feature a dear friend and her WYD experiences.  Amy Dyke is wife to Craig & mom to four wonderful girls, with another baby on the way shortly.  Amy, thank you so much for taking the time in your busy schedule to guest post here and share your experiences (and some great "vintage" photos!)

By Amy Dyke

Every few years when World Youth Day is celebrated somewhere new throughout the world, I am reminded that I’ve had the blessing of attending two World Youth Days in my younger years.  My first was in Denver, Colorado, in 1993, with my parish Youth Group.   My second was in Manila, Philippines, in 1995, as part of my year of missionary work when I took a year off from college.   I’ve also had the honor of seeing John Paul II in Rome and the Czech Republic in 1997 while I studied abroad in Austria.  Yes, I was perhaps a bit of a groupie, but I must admit that after my first encounter with JPII as an 18 year old, my life absolutely changed for the better.  To be given the opportunity of literally being in the presence of holiness is something I’ve learned to never pass up.
Each WYD experience, both Denver and Manila, had its own unique way of speaking to my heart and turning my life, in a more powerful way, toward God.  Denver, though, was the most impacting experience for me.  I had just graduated from high school and was on my way to college.  I had no idea of what to expect, especially since our Youth Group called this adventure a pilgrimage- a completely foreign concept to me at the time.  I quickly realized that this was not an ordinary trip with friends, focused only on fun and games.  Rather, I learned firsthand that a true pilgrimage is about prayer, a deeper understanding of God and a deeper quest into my own faith journey.

The cramped sleeping quarters, simple food, and continual emphasis on prayer were necessary components for me to understand the idea of pilgrimage, but that was actually only a small part of it all.  My eyes were opened in ways I never thought possible.  It was both profound and inspiring to see other Catholic youth who possessed not even a morsel of embarrassment or hesitation in talking about spiritual things and/or their own faith journey.  I was, in turn, relieved to feel the freedom to let down my own guard and speak openly about my love for Christ and the Church.  After having experienced numerous, powerful interactions with other Catholic youth in those first few days of WYD, I remember going to sleep in the evenings, immersed in prayer, feeling absolutely blessed and thankful to be in the presence of sincere Catholics who were not just proud, but truly joyful in proclaiming their Faith.  I look back now and am confident that this simple, yet bold experience of other youth living out their Catholic Faith played a huge role in the development of my own faith life.  What an unexpected gift, especially at a time of life when the lure of the world is shouting out, ever so loudly, to college-bound young adults to abandon their Faith and embrace a hedonistic lifestyle, one of so-called freedom and happiness.

Over the course of the week, my faith life had exploded in ways I didn’t know possible.  I made rock-solid friendships – ones which I treasure and have kept alive to this day.  Yet, the highlight of World Youth Day for me was my extraordinary, albeit momentary, encounter with JPII.   He had finally arrived into Denver and I struggled to get as close as humanly possible to the path where he would slowly cruise through Mile High Stadium in his pope-mobile.  The strong anticipation I physically felt in awaiting our Holy Father came as a strange surprise to me.  My breathing became heavier, my hands were shaking and I found myself biting my bottom lip so hard, that I eventually tasted my own blood.   …It was brief, perhaps only a few seconds that I was directly in JPII’s presence, but for that very brief, faith-filled moment, the entire world stood still for this child of God.   A sense of calm came over me as his loving eyes gazed down upon me, as if he could see directly into my heart.  His joy, love and holiness literally overcame me.  I felt an overwhelming sense of security in his strong, loving eyes- eyes that were filled with unspeakable hope and joy.   I felt the presence of God, the holiness of God in a way that I had never known possible.   I was simply in awe.  As I watched him leave, I realized that I had tears literally pouring out of my eyes—tears of joy at their finest, and clearly an instinctual reaction of an indescribable experience- one of purity, joy, love and the unmistakable presence of Christ’s peace and holiness.   I’m confident that those tears -and the incredibly wet collar of my shirt- was my small little gift from God to always remember and cherish that magnificent, life-changing moment of my youth.  

I’ve read various books and articles since JPII’s passing, and they all seem to be consistent in this one area:  JPII had come into contact with hundreds of millions of the Catholic Faithful, yet when it was specifically you that was in his presence, you felt as though you were the most important person in the world, truly the only one that mattered in his eyes.  Yes, his personality was magnetic and all-encompassing, but there was something much deeper and profound about his presence that captured the hearts of the Faithful.  His sincere charism of profound Christ-like love, holiness and personalism, which he carried with him throughout his life and freely shared with all those he encountered, was one of the many tremendous gifts that he bestowed upon the Faithful—of which, I am incredibly grateful to be included.

Even though I did not realize it at the time how monumental this encounter was upon my life, it certainly is obvious now as I look back and see how God’s hand worked out the details and led me toward a life of Truth.  I was joyfully inspired by JPII’s proclamation that the youth are the future and the hope of the Church.  I was thrilled by his assertion that there is but one Truth, which is found in the very person of Jesus Christ, with our Holy Catholic Church loyally safeguarding and affirming this Truth.  I was enthusiastically being drawn into these simple, yet concrete, answers- ones for which I didn’t even realize my heart had been asking, struggling or longing.  The Truth was proclaimed in such a powerful way, with confidence and joy, in a way I had never before heard.  JPII attracted and brought souls to the Truth by speaking directly to that part of the person’s heart that was crying out for meaning, truth, hope.  His words carried authority, love, compassion, honesty.  The Holy Father was, and continues to be, the living, breathing representative of Jesus Christ on earth.  Yes, the authority and grandeur of his presence were absolutely awe-inspiring, but even more so, it was the purity and holiness of his very person that lovingly pierced the hearts of the Faithful, changing them for the better.  For me, that brief, overwhelming experience of being in the Holy Father’s presence was but a taste of what I imagine the heavenly experience will be when we are in the love and holiness of Jesus Christ Himself.   St. Augustine wisely and accurately said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord.”   Such great consolation these words are, especially after experiencing this loving, humble man of God, JPII.  He granted me, and so many others- through a simple glance of his strong, loving eyes- an incredibly vibrant taste of holiness, and perhaps a sincere foretaste into the pure joy of Eternal Life with our Lord Jesus Christ.  What an astounding treasure God has in store for those who love Him!

As a cradle Catholic, I unfortunately never fully realized the gift I had in my Catholic Faith.  I hadn’t taken much time to think about the Pope- or that he would ever be an important figure in my life.  Denver’s WYD, however, changed everything for me and gave me an eye-opening awareness of the importance and necessity the Holy Father is to our Holy Catholic Church and especially the amazing treasure we’ve been given with Apostolic Succession.  From our first pope, the Apostle Peter, all the way to our present day pope, Benedict XVI, all Catholic Bishops throughout the world, for the past two thousand years, can trace their lineage directly back to Christ.  What an incredible reality this is.  Jesus Christ Himself told Peter, “You are Rock and upon this Rock I will build my Church.”  These are words that should make us Catholics tremble.  With great resolve and confidence, we are led into the fullness of Truth through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in the Chair of St. Peter.  What a feeling of both relief and joy to know that we are home, being led by the Bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Christ on earth- and exactly where our Lord wants us to be.

Blessed JPII has passed on to his eternal reward and our Church is now blessed with our good and faithful shepherd, Pope Benedict XVI.  My admiration and love overflow greatly for this holy man of God.  My heart melts when I see him shyly smile upon the adoring crowds and in the sincere way he humbly exhibits the love and holiness of God upon the Faithful.  I have great hopes of seeing him someday, perhaps even at another World Youth Day.   The reality, however, of the blessings of family life, along with baby #5 due soon, puts somewhat of a cramp in my travel habits of the past.  So for now, I cannot be Benedict’s groupie, but I will heartily rejoice with my husband and daughters in simply knowing that he is here on earth, praying with and for all of us, and boldly shepherding our Holy Catholic Church into all Truth, Beauty and Goodness.  What a treasure.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Q&A with Colleen Swaim, author of Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints

Following is my interview with Ablaze author Colleen Swaim.  I was delighted to get the opportunity to find out more about her book and writing, and I sincerely hope to read more books in the future from this engaging young author.  In the meantime, I'll be keeping her and her husband Matt in prayer as they expect their first child later this year.

First of all, well done on Ablaze. All the readers in our family found this book super engaging. I had trouble getting it back from my 13-year-old so I could write a review of it. Did you plan for it to be so widely enjoyed by a variety of ages, or were you primarily writing for teens?

A. The primary intended audience is indeed teenagers, but I chose the saints with a view toward capturing the sense of adventure that sanctity entails, and I believe that that is something that is appealing to people of all ages who seek Truth. I myself am 29, and I chose saints who first caught my own interest.

Q. What gave you the idea for the book?

A. Liguori Publications approached me with the idea for a book on saints for teenagers, and from there we came up collaboratively with the theme of teenagers who pushed the boundaries and radically lived for Christ, even if their own cultural milieu was working against their best intentions. Liguori and I both were very much looking to incorporate interactive elements that would take print material to the next level, and I believe that was achieved through building in the references to Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as applicable prayers and reflection questions.

Q. You’re a high school teacher. Other than this book, how do you challenge students immersed in the popular culture to pause and really take a look at these saints and their lives?

A. From my perspective, the most difficult part of that challenge is the call to pause - silence and reflection are difficult to come by for anyone, adults included, so the most impacting thing that I can do is to model deliberate contemplation. Sometimes that is through recalling powerful experiences I've had while on silent retreat, while other times it's discussing slower forms of entertainment, such as book reading, as cogitating a passage or collection of passages can be very difficult if it is broken up by intervals of multi-sensory stimulation, such as video gaming or tweeting. If they can take some quiet time, students will quickly realize that even the most contemplative saints lived very active lives beyond their wildest dreams.

Q. I love the cover design and the design elements throughout the book. Did you have a hand in that?

A. I really cannot take any credit for the illustrations, although I agree that Liguori's team did an amazing job! It really communicated to me that they are very in touch with the book's audience, as its graphic appeal is relatable to both male and female adolescents. They even had temporary tattoos made up of the front cover art, which have been a big hit.

Q. How did you discover the saints you write about? Some are relatively well-known, but some are less popular and yet deserve a hearing.

A. Researching for the book was one of the best parts of the experience. My goal throughout the process was to seek out saints of both genders who are representative of the worldwide vitality of Catholic youth lived to incredible heights. With some saints and blesseds, that meant scouring Vatican resources for newly recognized individuals, while others fell into my lap through the recommendation of a friend of a friend. I tried to include both classics and those who I felt Americans need an introduction to, and I believe the book succeeded on those fronts.

Q. Who is your favorite saint from the book, and why?

A. I very much enjoyed learning about the life of Chiara Luce Badano, as she was beatified right in the midst of my writing the book, in September 2010, so I got to watch her beatification live on television and really get a better sense of the excitement felt by those close to her cause. She died in the 1990's so she really is an individual contemporary teenagers can relate to on a variety of levels.

Q. How did you get the idea for the “saintly challenges,” such as the recipes, prayers and other challenges for readers to implement?

A. Some of the more unique aspects of the book, those came to me as I examined each saint more closely in an attempt to help the readers come to a deeper appreciation of the saint through concrete activities. I wanted to have an answer to the inevitable question of "Now what?" that can crop up after one has heard a particularly powerful story. The challenges are meant to be an answer to that question through encouraging the reader to delve deeper into the saints' struggles, motivations, and methods of seeking aid.

Q. I wrote in my review of Ablaze that my only critique of the book is that I wish you covered more saints. Were there any saints you wish you could have included, and why?

A. The most difficult aspect of the project was paring down the list of prospective saints and blesseds! It was whittled down by considering which saints' stories we as a Church know enough about to dedicate a chapter-long section and interactive selections to, as well as American Catholics' current familiarity with the individual and his or her region of origin.

Q. On the same topic: Do you have plans for Ablaze 2? Any other projects you are working on?

A. I would very much enjoy creating a follow-up to Ablaze that would feature more of the saints I wasn't able to include in the current edition, because as you pointed out, there are many more stories to tell. My husband and I are currently expecting our first child, so that is the ultimate project which we are looking forward to. That being said, I had an excellent experience working with Liguori Publications on 'Ablaze', and so would welcome any future projects with them.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

25 Years of World Youth Day

I couldn't resist sharing this wonderful video about World Youth Day, since my column this month focused on books great for those going to WYD or who wish they could.  Enjoy!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Catholic E-Book Spotlight: The Ironic Catholic

Do you need a good laugh?  I always do, and that's why I'm so grateful for the newest book by the ever-humorous Ironic Catholic.

Felow Blames 1970s Church Architecture for Life of Sin is the long-titled but very, very funny new book from The Ironic Catholic.  Longtime Catholic Post Book Group readers may remember my interview with IC, as she is known, last year.

Felon Blames 1970s Church Architecture for Life of Sin (let's agree that I can shorten it to Felon from here on out) may be slightly awkwardly named, even off-putting to some, but trust me, it is hilarious, faithful Catholic humor.  There's not a bit stuffy or mean about IC's humor, which I think is why I enjoy her work so much.

From the description of the book:

In the style of The Onion, Stephen Colbert, and occasionally Jonathan Swift, the writer of "The Ironic Catholic" website offers light satirical takes on the world of Catholic news. The fake news stories (Attendees of Flannery O'Connor Conference Meet Dire End, Tired Mother Announces 'Come and See' Weekend, Re-gifting Chia Pets Not Considered Lenten Sacrifice, etc.) both entertain and teach.  

Okay, now for my take.  Many "news" stories in Felon, but in particular"Attendees of Flannery O'Connor Conference Meet Dire End," had me literally in tears of laughter.  This is because my secret shame, as a Catholic book lover, is how much I detest the writing of the esteeemed O'Connor.  There, I've said it, once and for all, so I can be removed from the serious Catholic readers fraternity.  I don't necessarily believe my distaste comes from O'Connor's writing--I'm sure it's wonderful--as much as my trouble with  Southern fiction. As much as I try, and try again, to appreciate Souther fiction, I just keep thinking when I read any of them, okay, here comes the stifling heat, the weird violence and the big ol' cast of quirky Southern characters.  I'm convinced that my purgatory will be a room full of Southern books--and nothing else--to read.

Every other story is also truly funny, so that you will be laughing out loud and the people around you will be asking, hey, what's so funny?

Felon is available as a Kindle e-book and a Barnes & Noble Nook book, making it effortless to download and read on a Kindle, Nook or other device.  And the price is right--$2.99 on Amazon, $1.99 on B&N.  I found it super easy to download and read, now that I have the hang of how Kindle works.   The book is also available at Smashwords, and while I had no trouble downloading Dear Communion of Saints from Smashwords last year, when it was only available in that format, I couldn't easily figure out a way to get it off the computer.  I'm sure it's quite easy, but now that IC's books are available as Kindle books, I'm all set.

Have you read any Catholic e-books lately?  I've downloaded a few titles recently, as the prices can't be beat, and it's handy having them on multiple devices.   In fact, I downloaded a copy of the book I'll be reviewing in August, since my review copy went missing for several weeks, and I've found it really convenient.  I'd love to find out about new titles available for e-readers or your experiences with them.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Meet a Reader: Dana Garber

I'm excited to be able to feature one of the many young people from our diocese traveling to Madrid, Spain for World Youth Day next month.  You can read the Catholic Post article about the ISU group here.

How you know me:

I'm Dana Garber, a student at Illinois State University in Normal, and involved with the John Paul II Newman Center at ISU.  I am part of a group called “Witnesses to Love,” that recorded a song, “Planted,” for World Youth Day (WYD), and I will be one of a group of 29 students from the Newman Center attending WYD in Madrid next month.

Why I love reading:

I love to read because I love to learn. Learning and understanding more about God and our Faith helps me to grow as a believer and to love Him more.  I usually get recommendations from my friends or family.

What I'm reading now:  

I am reading Transforming Your Life Through the Eucharist by Father John A. Kane.  This book has been really good because it explains the beauty and grace of the sacrament. I am also reading Benedict of Bavaria by Brennan Pursell.  I’m reading it so I have a better understanding of the Pope and his life before I see him in Madrid for World Youth Day.

My favorite book:

One of my favorite books is The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis.  This is more of a devotional book and is very rich.  It focuses on the interior, every-day life.  Another one of my favorite books is Practicing the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence.  He was a French Monk in the 1600s.  This book is an easy, simple read.  It explains in practical terms how our lives are a constant prayer and how to live that out.  I also love all Scott Hahn books; the last one I read is Rome Sweet Home, which is one of my favorites.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Real Books Still Matter

Here is my column that appears in this weekend's Catholic Post.  I'd love to hear your feedback and suggestions of other "real" books that matter.
Do real live books matter any more?

Since I write about books, you probably think that I am required to say “yes.”  I am a huge book lover, having a houseful of many genres.  I get books from publishers nearly every day and am always searching out the best of new Catholic books to share with readers.

But I’m no Luddite when it comes to reading.  I get much of my news from news apps on my phone & the computer; I have a Kindle app that I use frequently; and regular readers of the Catholic Post Book Group blog know that I love to promote Catholic titles available for e-readers.

And yet, there is “something” about a well-done book that inspires admiration.  Books—the real thing-- are a unique format for transmitting ideas, stories and life that simply can’t be replaced in any other way, particularly in a digital format.

Take the YOUCAT, for example—the Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church—released this year worldwide in advance of World Youth Day next month, but intended to be a perennial resource.  YOUCAT is an extraordinarily well-produced volume that takes seriously how books can-and should- matter.   The feel  of YOUCAT is “just right,” the photos are handsome, and the line drawings exhibit both a sense of humanity and humor.  It’s clear that the design team took care to make it both beautiful and fun. This book matters, and not just because of its comprehensive content.

I had the book for more than a month before the design “sense of humor” caught up with me, and I discover new elements each time I open YOUCAT.  For instance, each section of the 10 Commandments begins with a tiny line drawing of Moses leaning on a tablet displaying the commandment’s number.   Another clever touch that will make you laugh: if you have a copy of the YOUCAT, start at the first page and look in the lower right hand corner, and you’ll know what to do.

Even though the YOUCAT is full of extras, it doesn’t have that cluttery feel some modern books-with-lots-of-sidebars exhibit. 

One very minor frustration with the YOUCAT—the numbering doesn’t mirror the Catholic Catechism of the Church, since the YOUCAT has 527 entries, and the CCC has more than 2000.  This isn’t a huge problem, as both volumes follow the same four-section organization (creed, sacraments, morality and prayer), so it’s pretty easy to look something up in the CCC if you want to expand on a particular topic.

The other downside is that the terrific quotes that line the pages of YOUCAT are not indexed.  So when you want to find that great little quote you might have to search.  That’s not the worst thing, as YOUCAT is a joy to spend time with.

Most will consider YOUCAT a reference, but I hesitate to call it that lest it be left on a shelf like a dictionary, to be consulted rarely.  YOUCAT should be in constant use.  As Pope Benedict XVI writes in the introduction, “Study this Catechism with passion and perseverance.  Study it in the quiet of your room; read it with a friend; form study groups and networks; share with each other on the Internet. You need to be more deeply rooted in the faith than the generation of your parents.”

Young people and others will appreciate another book that matters, in both content and design:  Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints, by Colleen Swaim.  This book is a gem, plain and simple.  Here are just three of the best elements:

*the book include several well-known saints, like St. Dominic Savio and St. Maria Goretti, but these bios aren’t the “same-old” facts.  Swaim infuses the stories with a fresh, invigorating voice that shows these remarkable people as more 3-dimensional than the usual narratives.

*the bulk of the book is new-to-most saints, or saints most will only have a passing knowledge of, from St. Kitizio of Africa to Blessed Chiara of Italy, and many others.   Their stories are told in a way that makes Ablaze a must-read.  It truly inspires a sense of longing for holiness.

*each saint/chapter ends with “saintly challenges,” offering readers a chance to apply the lessons of the saint’s life to his or her own, through media, prayers and recipes.  Think trying a homemade chai tea recipe to give as a gift after reading about St. Alphonsa from India, or being challenged to put into practice a daily schedule to emulate St. Stantislaus.  There are movie suggestions, simple virtue development ideas, and tons of other great ideas and challenges.

Friday, July 1, 2011

First, What are You Reading? Volume 11, July 2011

Here are my answers to the four questions I ask on the first of each month:
first, what are you reading?
what do you like best about it?
what do you like least?
what's next on your list/pile to read? 

As always, I hope you'll consider your current reads on your blog and/or sharing here in the comments or on Facebook.  Happy reading!

What are you reading?  

A lot.  We've had some extended family vacation time, and that has allowed me to bring along a lot of varied books and to actually read most of them.  Here are just two.

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory & Why Outsiders Thrive After High School by Alexandra Robbins, after I learned about the book when Mary deTurris Poust put it up on her Facebook page and then wrote about it here.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, a classic that I read about somewhere recently and wanted to preview for my children.

What do you like best about it?

For The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, I would have to say the title, and that's about it.  (This is a reversal for me, as I usually am disliking the title of books, or the profusion of subtitles).  Honestly, the title is the "one great thing" about this book.   This book really, really dragged as Robbins tells the stories of how being an outsider is good by following a half-dozen or so teens and giving them a challenge, then peppering it throughout with examples and studies to prove the point.  I was shocked at how little I came away with.  Truly, the New York Times article about the author and the book gave all the information one needs to know about it.

The New York Times article really made the author likeable and the message of the book much more accessible than in the book, frankly.  I would really enjoy getting to talk with the author about quirk theory, etc., but I would not want to read another book from her unless it was wildly different.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, so far, is not wowing me.  I don't know if I'm just disliking everything I read, or this book is a clunker to me.  I'm trying to give it a chance as a way to learn more about early 20th century Irish immigrants in NYC, but so far it hasn't impressed.

What do you like least about it?

I think I've already covered that in "what I like best," but let me share one more thing.  When Robbins shares stories of the teens, the parents and other siblings are virtually absent from the narrative.  And I'm thinking, what?  Wouldn't it be helpful to have a parent or two, or a sister or brother, talking a teen through some of these issues?  I felt she really downplayed the importance of family as a way to navigate the world.  I'm not sure if that's because she is not a parent (I'm actually not sure if she is or not), or she doesn't consider parents or family relevant, but that in itself seems weird to me.

At the end, Robbins does share some short, helpful tips for teens and parents to allow young people to embrace their difference in order to

What’s next on your list to read?

I think I need to re-read Marybeth Hicks, Bringing Up Geeks, because this was a book I thought The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth could have been.

Bringing Up Geeks is a nice reflection and validation of being somewhat countercultural, from a family perspective.  This to me seems much more helpful than individual kids making their way through the Wild West of school and teen culture.  From my notes about the book when I read it several years back:

GEEKs is Hicks' acronym for genuine, enthusiastic, empowered kids. Hicks, a columnist, has a sensible, fun style that is enjoyable to read and glean from. Unlike the teens in The Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth, where the teens are left to fend for themselves, Hicks advises parents to be mindful of their influence on kids.

Here are just a few of her "rules" that I found resonant: raise a brainiac (one who values learning and is curious); raise a sheltered kid (one who consumes appropriate amounts and kinds of media); raise a true friend; raise a faithful kid.  When my teenager saw The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth and we had a discussion about it, I told her I thought we could instead together read and discuss Bringing Up Geeks, so maybe that will be a mid-summer project.

So, what are you reading?  Care to recommend some good titles?