"Not Less than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience, from Joan of Arc to Oscar Romeo," edited by Catherine Wolff. HarperCollins (New York, 2013). 338 pp., $17.99.
"Monsenor Romero: Memories in Mosaic" by Maria Lopez Vigil, translated by Kathy Ogle. Orbis Books (Maryknoll, N.Y., 2013). 303 pp., $30.
Just in time for your summer spiritual practice, two new books invite prayerful contemplation about Catholics who were once persecuted for their beliefs, but who ultimately gained the church's respect.
"Not Less than Everything" is an engaging testimony to the power of following one's conscience. It gathers profiles of 26 figures, from Sts. Joan of Arc, Ignatius of Loyola and Hildegard von Bingen to Jesuit Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dorothy Day and Archbishop Oscar Romero. As the editor, Catherine Wolff, notes in her introduction, all of these Catholics "see through a lens of great moral clarity, and their passionate motivation serves as leaven to the rest of us."
Graced by the writing of the best modern Catholic writers, including Alice McDermott, Tobias Wolff, Patricia Hampl, Robert Ellsberg and Ann Patchett, "Not Less than Everything" can be savored an essay at a time. But it's hard to put down this compelling collection of stories. Every author grapples in a personal way with the tensions between conscience and dogma that each case study illuminates. The collective result is thought-provoking and inspiring.
For instance, there's the Dominican friar Bartolome de Las Casas (1484-1566), "who was so affected by what he had seen during the early decades of the (Spanish) Conquest that he devoted his long life to raising an outcry and bearing witness before an indifferent world." Ellsberg recounts how Fray de Las Casas became a passionate advocate for human rights for New World indigenous peoples. He affirmed Indians' human dignity, even as the conquering Spaniards practiced "diabolical cruelty" (including massacres and dismemberments) to subdue them.
And there's St. Mary Magdalene, long mistakenly portrayed as a "repentant prostitute," but who was actually a leader in the early Christian community, an "apostle to the Apostles." Her mini-biography (contributed by Lisa Sowle Cahill) is one of many in this collection that enlarge our understanding of who can be a Christian witness. In fact, Wolff notes the bias inherent in papal authority's exclusive control of canonization since the 12th century, which has resulted, she says, "in a group that is lopsidedly male celibate, clerical or aristocratic."
Of course, an anthology like this almost has to include Archbishop Romero (1917-1980), El Salvador's great archbishop who embraced the poor in a period of civil conflict, and whose courage eventually cost him his life.
When a repressive, violent new government came to power there in 1977, Archbishop Romero followed his conscience and boycotted the new president's inauguration. "At a time when it was much safer to claim that everyone shared equal blame for his country's distress," Jim Shepard writes, "he publicly affirmed that the ruling class's economic self-interest was the main cause of state violence and that its security forces' primary agenda was to suppress protest."
Shepard adroitly cuts to the heart of Archbishop Romero's brave witness, but readers looking for a more extensive treatment will be rewarded by Maria Lopez Vigil's new book, "Monsenor Romero: Memories in Mosaic."
A writer and journalist who has worked in Nicaragua since 1981, Vigil has created a portrait of the martyred leader composed of the anecdotal reminiscences of his friends, family, peasants, theologians, pastoral associates and others. Each little story shows an intriguing facet of Archbishop Romero. For example, we learn that he "was a bit of a worrywart about his health" who "never snubbed anybody or turned up his nose at an invitation" and whose lifelong love of the circus dated from childhood.
He was also a gifted orator whose sermons sometimes ran to an hour and a half. Typically, he preached against materialism.
"It pains the church that there are people who idolize money and turn their backs on God. Those people are on the road to ruin," he said in a homily from Sept. 18, 1977, which is excerpted here. It's followed by a reminiscence from Coralia Godoy that begins, "The rich detested him. They were outrageous in their disdain for him. It got to the point where you couldn't go to an afternoon canasta game, or a dinner if you admired Monsenor Romero, because you would only hear insults and contemptuous remarks about him."
Vigil includes an excerpt from the archbishop's personal diary at his last spiritual retreat (Feb. 25, 1980), in which he acknowledged his fear "about the risks to my own life. It's hard for me to accept the idea of a violent death, which in these circumstances is very possible." He added, "I place my entire life under the loving providence of God, and I accept death, no matter how difficult, with faith in him."
An anecdote contributed by Aronette Diaz recalls how, when people saw Archbishop Romero driving his little car down San Salvador's streets alone, with no driver, they questioned such risk-taking. "I prefer it this way," the archbishop replied, as quoted by Diaz. "When what I'm expecting to happen happens, I want to be alone, so it's only me they get. I don't want anyone else to suffer."
The sum of reminiscences like this creates an engrossing profile. It fully limns the archbishop as a human being whose conscience compelled him to speak truth to power, despite his doubts and fears.
Together, "Not Less than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience, from Joan of Arc to Oscar Romeo" and "Monsenor Romero: Memories in Mosaic" move these saints down from their pedestals and right to our hearts. There they call us to traverse that rocky terrain of bearing Christian witness, always heeding conscience.
Roberts directs the journalism program at the State University of New York at Albany. Her books include "Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker."