By Ronald D. Witherup, S.S.
The Year for Priests provides a good occasion to reflect on many aspects of priesthood. In the course of my own ministry to priests, I am frequently asked about recommendations for basic resources for pastoral ministry.
This can be a challenging question to answer. We live in an age of multiple publications, and the arrival of the Internet has not diminished the flood of new books and magazines. On the contrary, it seems to have encouraged more publishing. In addition, the availability of information on the World Wide Web, some it not entirely reliable, has added to the information glut.
So what's a busy pastor to do? How does one choose reliable resources for pastoral ministry in the midst of such plenty?
The purpose of this essay is to provide some recommendations of essential resources that priests should consider having on hand. This is not an exhaustive bibliography, which would be impractical as well as impossible. Rather, I will suggest in brief narrative fashion, rather than through an annotated list, some of the most useful resources for priests in parochial ministry.
First, readers should be clear about how I set about this task. There were five main criteria for selecting recommended resources. I sought out resources that were not too technical, were readable, had a reasonable shelf-life that would be worth the purchase price, were affordable to most priests or parishes, and that might be useful for those who do not have theological libraries handy. Most of these resources should be readily available through local bookstores or the Internet. Also, I was restricted to English, despite the importance of Spanish in the contemporary parish.
Second, out of an enormous set of possibilities, I limited the scope of choices to twelve major areas: Bible, systematic (dogmatic) theology, moral theology, liturgy and sacraments, Church history, homiletics, spirituality, canon law, priestly identity, pastoral ministry and social justice, journals, and electronic resources.
Third, I devised a shorthand system of recommendations based on three categories. One asterisk (*) means a basic or essential resource. Everyone should have it available. Two asterisks (**) mean it would be nice to have on the shelf as a good reference tool. Three asterisks (***) represent resources more geared for the ''brave of heart,'' those who either want to delve more deeply into subjects, are willing to tackle more academically-oriented presentations, or who have more purchasing power.
Finally, it should be noted that I do not include classics, such as works by justifiably famous authors like St. Augustine, John Henry Newman, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Thomas Merton, Theresa of Avila, Dorothy Day, and so on, nor do I include basics like the Catechism of the Catholic Church, an edition of the Documents of Vatican II, or collections of Patristic writings (which are also available online). I presume readers are familiar with these basic resources. They are always worth consulting over and over again. Instead, we will concentrate on more contemporary resources.
I should also add a disclaimer: As a published author, I have had some relationship with several of the publishers listed below. Nonetheless, I have striven to be as objective as possible in my choice of recommended resources.
This area is probably of greatest interest to priests, not only because the Scriptures themselves are so important for virtually all aspects of priestly ministry, but also because the study of Scripture can greatly enhance the quality of preaching. Everyone should have at least one good Bible dictionary and a one-volume commentary on the shelf.
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary* (Prentice-Hall, 1990), The Catholic Study Bible* (Oxford, 2d ed., 2002), The Harper Bible Commentary** (Harper, 2d ed., 2000), and Eerdman's Dictionary of the Bible** (Eerdmans, 2000) are excellent choices.
Also, a useful volume for quick definitions can be found in R. N. Soulen and R. K. Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism** (3d ed.; Westminster John Knox, 2001). If I may, I also recommend my book The Bible Companion* (reissue; Crossroad, 2009), which has been well received as an inexpensive and accessible introduction to the whole Bible.
When it comes to recommended commentaries on the Bible, this is a wide-open field. One difficulty is that there is no one ''best'' commentary series. At times, the quality of individual commentaries in a series varies, even though the series as a whole may be good. For the money, I recommend the Berit Olam (Old Testament)** and Sacra Pagina (New Testament)** commentaries from Liturgical Press.
Many priests still find the Barclay Commentaries** useful, although they are dated. A newer series with a Catholic orientation, which has made a promising start, is the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture**, published by Baker Academic Press. For Bible study groups, though numerous good resources are available, I believe the Little Rock Bible Study** (Liturgical Press) is consistently reliable and has the advantage of many materials in Spanish as well.
The best way to cover the broad area of systematic theology is to have at least one good theological dictionary on hand. A Concise Dictionary of Theology* by G. O'Collins and E. Farrugia (2d ed.; Paulist, 2000) is handy, and The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia*** edited by M. Glazier and M. Hellwig (Glazier [Liturgical], 1994) contains many helpful articles. H. P. Bleichner has written a very accessible explanation of the truths of the Catholic faith that would provide a good review, titled In the Circle of Mysteries* (Crossroad, 2008).
More challenging expositions of certain contemporary theological issues, such as the understanding of God and of Christ, can be found in R. Barron's The Priority of Christ*** (Brazos, 2007) and Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith and Revelation: Reflection on the God Debate*** (Yale University Press, 2009), the latter written by an astute literary critic.
This area moves at a rapid pace, especially because of the many moral questions that have arisen in modern times because of scientific advances. Two worthwhile books to consider are W. C. Mattison III's Introducing Moral Theology* (Brazos, 2008), which provides a general introduction to the field at a good price, and J. E. Smith and C. Kaczor's Life Issues, Medical Choices: Questions and Answers for Catholics* (St. Anthony Messenger, 2007), which addresses bioethical issues from a Catholic perspective.
This is another broad area where many resources come to mind. J. F. White's A Brief History of Christian Worship* (Abingdon, 1993) provides a good historical summary. For an explanation and analysis of principles, three books are useful to consider: A. G. Martimort, et al., The Church at Prayer** (Liturgical, 1992); D. P. Smolarski, How Not to Say Mass* (rev. ed.; Paulist, 2003) and by the same author, Sacred Mysteries: Sacramental Principles and Liturgical Practice** (Paulist, 1995). Although written for laity, R. Barron's Eucharist* (Orbis, 2008) is a helpful exposition of the Eucharist for priests. A solid reference work in this area, despite its age, remains A New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship*** (Liturgical 1990), edited by P. Fink.
Having an historical perspective is important in ministry. Without it, we could fall into a fundamentalist perspective that would not serve our people or the Church well. The area of Church history is vast, but at least three works are useful for consultation. I highly recommend the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church*** (Oxford, 2d. ed., 2000) for an overall outstanding dictionary that covers history and theology. T. S. Bokenkotter's longstanding A Concise History of the Catholic Church* (rev. and expanded ed.; Doubleday, 2004) is a fine resource.
Because of its importance and the upcoming 50th anniversary of its opening (2012), some resource on the Second Vatican Council is essential. G. Alberigo's A Brief History of Vatican II* (Orbis, 2006) is a concise, accessible summary of the Council, and M. Sullivan's 101 Question & Answers on Vatican II* (Paulist, 2002) provides a good orientation to it. The eight volumes of the Rediscovering Vatican II series** (Paulist Press) edited by C. M. Bellitto are affordable and thorough, if one is looking for more detail on individual documents from the Council.
In the area of homiletics, two types of resources come to mind. The first area covers books about the art of preaching; the second would be homiletic services or preaching guides for the liturgical year. In the first category, I recommend R. Waznak's An Introduction to the Homily** (Liturgical Press, 1998), K. Untener's Preaching Better* (Paulist, 1999), or W. J. Bausch's, Storytelling the Word*(Twenty-Third Pub., 1996). For useful comments on the liturgical seasons, R. E. Brown's little volumes, now collected into one volume, with added homiletic resources, Christ in the Gospels of the Liturgical Year** (Liturgical Press, 2008), still provide wise insights.
Numerous volumes of short expositions of the readings of the liturgical year are available, such as those by D. Bergant (The Word for Every Season [Liturgical, 2009]) or J. R. Donahue (Hearing the Word of God [Liturgical, 2002-2004]), which originally appeared in America magazine (Liturgical Press); they can be helpful for quick overviews of the Sunday readings. R. H. Fuller's classic Preaching the Liturgical Year* (3d. ed.; Liturgical Press, 2006) remains quite good to start ruminating about a homily. Among the many good collections of homilies and sermons, those of the late W. Burghardt and R. Waznak are useful examples, and those of W. Bausch and R. Barron are inspirational. While the homilies of others can provide some wonderful reflective material, there is no substitute for meditating on the Scriptures yourself and applying them to your own congregation with contemporary applications.
One of the most successful publications in spirituality is R. Rolheiser's The Holy Longing* (Doubleday, 1999), whose syndicated columns continue to inspire. It is still one of the best contemporary books on the topic. R. J. Wicks' Handbook of Spirituality for Ministers** (Paulist Press, 1995) offers a wealth of information proposed by many different authors. Although personal preference dictates a lot in the area of spirituality, I have found P. Elie's book They Life You Save May be Your Own*** (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2003) about Flannery O' Connor, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day to be rewarding, as well as B. Kolodiejchuk's Mother Theresa Come be My Light** (Doubleday, 2007), the collected letters of one who many believe to be a contemporary saint, and J. Martin's award-winning My Life with the Saints* (Loyola Press, 2006).
Numerous writings of Pope Benedict XVI also come to mind that are a kind of crossover category between spirituality and theology. Three noteworthy volumes are Jesus of Nazareth *** (Doubleday, 2007) and The Apostles* (OSV, 2007) and The Fathers* (OSV, 2008), all of which contain rich historical and theological observations.
Yes, canon law should be considered an essential area! For one thing, there are practical questions about marriage and the like that priests should keep abreast of. Also, canon law exists to help the people of God, and it can be used to great effect for those familiar with it. The best single resource in English is the New Commentary on Canon Law** (Paulist, 2000), edited by J. P. Beal, et al. and sponsored by the Canon Law Society of America. Also useful is J. M. Huels' A Pastoral Companion: A Canon Law Handbook for Catholic Ministry*** (3d ed. rev.; Franciscan Press, 2002), which may be rather expensive. Frankly, though, in this area there is wisdom in consulting the canon law experts of one's own diocese for specific questions.
Publications on the priesthood have flooded the market in recent years, and more will doubtless appear in the course of the Year for Priests. Narrowing a choice is a struggle. From a modern sociological viewpoint, D. R. Hoge and J. E. Wenger's study, Evolving Visions of the Priesthood*** (Liturgical Press, 2003) gives some essential data to understand how priesthood has changed in recent years and is in the process of change in a U.S. setting. Timothy M. Dolan's collected essays, Priests for the Third Millennium** (OSV Press, 2000), are insightful and easy to read, and the collected essays in The Spirituality of the Diocesan Priest*** edited by D. Cozzens (Liturgical Press, 1997) offer a broad range of viewpoints.
Msgr. S. J. Rossetti's The Joy of the Priesthood* (Ave Maria, 2005) offers a passionate view of the priesthood based on his many years of ministry to troubled priests and religious, and D. Brinkley and J. M. Fenster's Parish Priest** (William Morrow, 2006), a biography of Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, is inspiring. Father H. Bleichner's View from the Altar (Crossroad, 2004) offers wise observations about the priesthood based upon many years of priestly formation.
Pastoral ministry is a very broad topic. For a biblical foundation, I like J. W. Thompson's Pastoral Ministry According to Paul (Baker Academic, 2006). In the area of catechetics, a short, well-focused introduction can be found in G. Infantino's Handbook for Today's Catechist (Ligouri, 2009), part of an inexpensive, down-to-earth series of Catholic handbooks published by that Press.
In the area of social justice many good resources have appeared. One of the best is Modern Catholic Social Teaching*** (Georgetown University Press, 2005), edited by K. Himes et al. Smaller books also offer good over- views, such as T. Massaro, Living Justice** (Sheed & Ward, 2000) and M. Pennock, Catholic Social Teaching* (Ave Maria, 2000), which is attractively produced and user-friendly. Catholic Social Teaching: Our Best Kept Secret** (Orbis, 2003) by E. P. Deberri, et al. contains many of the official pronouncements of the Church as well good explanations of them.
Amid the multiple possibilities, sociological surveys have noted that many priests in the U.S. gravitate toward three main journals: America, Church, and The Priest. These three give a basic orientation to many contemporary issues that affect priestly ministry. They probably deserve the * designation, to which I would add The Bible Today, which contains in short and readable fashion excellent updates on biblical topics. In the *** category would likely be Worship, Theological Studies, and the Catholic Biblical Quarterly because these are all more technical.
Those interested in liturgical/musical issues might subscribe to Pastoral Musician or Liturgy, and those concerned about catechetics would likely gravitate toward Catechetics.
The main point in this category is to subscribe to some contemporary magazines that you find interesting and useful. (Many also have electronic subscriptions available and free online materials.) The magazine format allows many contemporary issues to be addressed quickly and affordably, without waiting for the definitive word on a topic in book form. Besides, even the busiest priest should be able to find time to read short, focused articles on given topics.
I would be remiss if this category were to be left out, but if it is difficult to choose from libraries of resources, making choices from the endless stream of electronic resources is nigh on impossible. Yet I have found some useful and reliable resources to recommend.
For general Catholic issues Jesuit Father F. Just maintains a useful site, catholic-resources.org with lots of pertinent information about the Bible and liturgy, and Father R. Barron's site www.wordonfire.org is very creative.
Many resources for priests can be found on the Congregation for Clergy's website, www.clerus.org and Father E. Hemrick's www.jknrp.org. For homiletic resources, I would recommend www. textweek.com or www.smnz.org.nz/liturgy as places to begin.
Listening to CDs in the car is one way busy priests can find time to catch up, and many excellent resources are available. One company, nowyouknowmedia.com, has produced some fine collections of CDs on a wide variety of topics that may provide many hours of worthwhile listening.
The age-old advice ''let the reader beware'' pertains to the Internet as well. While many Catholic newspapers, magazines, libraries, and so on maintain websites that have both paid subscription and free resources available, there is a note of caution to heed about Internet resources. Not all the information is accurate.
A phenomenon, for instance, like the free, online encyclopedia Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com and related sites) is a remarkable free resource for all kinds of information, but because the sources of the information are not necessarily trustworthy, one must be careful of the facts, especially for positions that are said to be ''Catholic'' or claim to present the truth in unadulterated fashion.
There are skeptics who believe that the era of the written word is disappearing. The age of audiovisuals is said to reign supreme, especially among the young. True enough, television, films, DVDs and videos are captivating. They can also communicate a lot of information effectively. One famous computer expert even dismissed the idea that devices for electronic books would ever take off because so few Americans read any more.
He apparently did not foresee an Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, or some other e-book invention. While it may be true that reading, in general, is on the decline, the book industry is alive and publishing at an astonishing rate. Whether it is a healthy and profitable industry is another matter, as technology is changing the face of literature as we speak.
Yet educated people cannot afford to stop reading. Reading is life-giving and forces one to confront modern issues with some wisdom. There is no substitute for education to improve the lives of people, especially if it helps them take responsibility for their lives.
Modern priests are by definition educated men. During this Year for Priests, Pope Benedict has proposed the saintly figure of Saint John Vianney as a model for all priests. He is particularly potent as a model because of his spiritual depth and his selfless dedication to pastoral ministry, especially in the confessional. But we would be mistaken to think the Curé of Ars was simplistic and naive.
In fact, he had a personal library that outnumbered most of his contemporary priests, amounting to well over one hundred books. Although he had difficulty mastering Latin in seminary and was not the most academically inclined student, he did value education. From his experience and knowledge he gave people more than pious platitudes. He offered them sound spiritual advice that helped them cope with the challenges of their everyday lives.
Although he was also personally ascetic, he went out of his way to host fellow priests with festive meals and to promote a common priestly bond. One might imagine him sharing thoughts on priestly ministry with brother priests in a fraternal setting, such as many priests do today by means of support groups.
The Church rightly expects of its priests familiarity with the Catholic Tradition and the ability to communicate it faithfully and in an understandable fashion. Pastores Dabo Vobis (''I will give you shepherds''), Pope John Paul II's apostolic exhortation on priestly formation, contains a whole chapter on ongoing formation that states clearly that continuing education is an essential quality of the priesthood today. Just when we are tempted to say to ourselves, ''I'm too busy to read,'' or ''I just don't have any time to reflect and keep up in theology,'' is exactly when we should remember the obligation we owe the Church and the people we serve to stay current.
The resources in this two-part article are just some suggestions. One could easily quibble with the choices, and there are many excellent resources that have been left out. Also, major areas have been overlooked for lack of space. The point, though, is that a good pastor's bookshelf should have at least a basic variety of resources that can serve pastoral ministry in one's own context. Making time to deepen our comprehension of the faith and the nuances of contemporary theology is not an optional exercise but a critical way of staying relevant in ministry.
Cardinal Newman once said, ''Life's short; read only the best books.'' We get to choose what to read, but whatever we do, we should read. TP
FATHER WITHERUP, S.S., is Superior General of the Sulpicians and author of numerous books, most recently having co-edited with Cackie Upchurch, The Four Gospels: Personal Catholic Study Edition (Liturgical, 2009).
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