Religion Booknotes

Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium
Rita Ferrone
Paulist, $15.95, 134 pp.

Scripture: Dei Verbum
Ronald D. Witherup
Paulist, $15.95, 176 pp.

Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium by Rita Ferrone and Scripture: Dei Verbum by Ronald D. Witherup belong to a series of eight volumes dedicated to the major documents of Vatican II. It is interesting to read these two books in tandem because of their intersecting concerns. 

After all, the council’s constitution on the liturgy had a lot to do with sacred Scripture. It called for an expansion of the lectionary and for homilies rooted more deeply in the readings, while the question of the vernacular in the liturgy inevitably overlapped with questions concerning biblical translation. The never-ending controversies about liturgical translation have a parallel in the controversies about how the Bible is to be translated and who is to authorize the translations. When the Vatican issued Liturgiam authenticam in 2001, many biblical scholars and liturgists were appalled by its demand that translations be based on the Vulgate rather than on the texts in the original languages. And recent discussions among the bishops of this country demonstrate that the language wars aren’t about to end.

These two books follow a similar pattern. After brief discussions of the arguments for reform before the council (many developments in both liturgy and scriptural studies can be traced to influential encyclicals issued during the papacy of Pius XII), both books review the history of the conciliar documents themselves as they evolved through several drafts. Both offer commentaries on the final documents, discuss how the documents were received, and finally present the problems that remain to be solved. The back-stories are fairly well known already, and the development of the documents has been exhaustively documented in the five volumes of The History of Vatican II, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph A. Komonchak. What is useful about these new, briefer studies is that they include tidy accounts of the council’s afterlife. Witherup is particularly perceptive in his account of the controversy about the adequacy of the historical-critical approach to the exegesis of Scripture. Ferrone, by contrast, has less to say about doctrinal issues and more to say about the pastoral dimension of the liturgy. She makes some good points about the impact of Vatican II on ecclesiology, and her discussion of the relationship between Scripture and liturgy has ramifications for the interpretation of Lumen gentium.

Witherup and Ferrone both offer shrewd assessments of what Vatican II did and did not manage to accomplish. Neither regards the conciliar documents as perfect, but both are eager to defend the projects embodied in them. In short, these are useful books that provide a kind of status questionis. They are particularly attentive to the ecumenical context in which the council’s documents were written and to how they are received today. Now, when we are almost two generations removed from Vatican II, it is good to have such well-written and well-argued accounts of what was achieved by the council—and what is still left to be done.


Jesus: A Portrait
Gerald O’Collins, SJ
Orbis, $25, 246 pp.

The Australian Jesuit Gerald O’Collins has been a prolific author. A long-time professor at the Gregorian University in Rome, Fr. O’Collins has written on everything from Christology and Trinitarian theology to fundamental theology and ecclesiology. His book Christology (Oxford University Press, 2004) is the foundation for his Jesus: A Portrait, which is less academic than the earlier book and more pastoral. The subtitle signals the tenor of the book: O’Collins uses his years of theological reflection to provide sketches of Jesus Christ as he emerges from the gospel accounts. O’Collins’s approach derives from the work of contemporary theologians such as Richard Bauckman, N. T. Wright, and James Dunn, who—in response to the most radical historical-critical exegetes—argue that the Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony as refracted through the faith of the apostolic writers. He is sympathetic to the argument made by Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth that John’s Gospel has eyewitness veracity. This premise allows O’Collins both to look back at Jesus in his own words and deeds and to consider how those words and deeds were distilled in the records and reflections of the biblical authors. Toward that end, O’Collins is not afraid to use the most judicious conclusions of historical-critical writers like John Meier and the late Raymond Brown.

Jesus: A Portrait begins with a reflection on the beauty of Jesus and ends with a reflection on his abiding presence. In between, O’Collins meditates on Jesus as preacher, healer, and storyteller, and on his passion, death, and Resurrection. O’Collins’s approach is elliptical, using the particular to illustrate and suggest the whole. In a brilliant chapter of only thirty pages he analyzes the parables of Jesus according to some fundamental themes—among them, discovering the kingdom of God and watching for its arrival. The next chapter is about Jesus as teacher, and O’Collins presents an extended analysis of the story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate Christ’s way of teaching. So the general introduction to the parables is brought to bear on a particular parable, which in turn sheds new light on the usefulness of parables.

It is the author’s gift for examining the particular that makes this work so profoundly instructive. O’Collins offers a brilliant reading of the Beatitudes, a succinct reflection on the Lord’s Prayer, a careful study of the deep significance of Jesus’ utterance from Psalm 22 when he was on the cross, and an acute analysis of the Resurrection story in Mark. The real value of this work is that it demonstrates that one can combine technical biblical studies and theological rigor with a sympathetic and faithful understanding of Jesus’ life. Readers will discover small but important facts about the Gospels (for example, that the phrase “I am the Good Shepherd” can also be read “I am the Beautiful Shepherd”). But, beyond the facts, they will also be led to consider the profound truths embedded in Christ’s stories and in the story of his life.


Christ in His Mysteries
Blessed Columba Marmion
Zaccheus Press, $21.95, 466 pp.

To compare Christ in His Mysteries to O’Collins’s book is to see just how radically the world of biblical commentary has changed over the decades. Christ in His Mysteries was the second book in a trilogy composed by the recently beatified Benedictine abbot Columba Marmion (1858-1923). The first book in the trilogy, Christ, the Life of the Soul, has already been discussed in this column (November 3, 2006). The third, Christ, the Life of the Monk, will undoubtedly attract a more specialized readership.

Zaccheus Press is reissuing these books, newly translated by Alan Bancroft, in an inexpensive softbound edition. After some preliminary chapters that explore what is meant by “mystery,” Christ in His Mysteries follows the life of Christ as it is proclaimed in the scriptural texts of the liturgical year, the book’s structure corresponding to the schedule of readings in the old lectionary. Marmion starts with Advent and proceeds through the seasons to Pentecost. In three post-Pentecost chapters, he discusses the feasts of Corpus Christi, the Sacred Heart, and All Saints.

Marmion is interested in how Christ’s mysteries become our mysteries. One does not find—nor should one expect to find—any allusions to critical scholarship in this book. Marmion, after all, was writing in the heyday of antimodernism. His Christology is high and his interest in solving conundra within the texts is minimal. In a contemporary work of Christology, one would not expect to find, as one does here, reflections on the fourteen Stations of the Cross in an examination of the Passion narrative. That said, Marmion demonstrates a profound knowledge not only of the sacred texts themselves but also of liturgical and patristic sources—especially Augustine. Whatever its value as a work of scholarship, Christ in His Mysteries is spiritual reading at its best. It is the sort of book one might read bit by bit over the course of the liturgical year.

I first read Marmion many years ago, in an English translation done in the late 1920s. Bancroft’s new translation is readable and lively. His footnotes are another matter. Most of them are not helpful, and many struck me as intrusive. When Marmion speaks of Pauline “predestination,” Bancroft rushes in to assure us that Marmion was not invoking the Calvinist doctrine. Bancroft’s system of biblical citation is also too cumbrous, referring the reader to several translations. It would have been simpler to choose one translation (Marmion wrote in French; he probably knew the Latin Vulgate by heart) and cite only the chapter and verse in the text.

These quibbles aside, it is good to see this old classic back in print. Marmion was one of the most widely read spiritual authors in the period before Vatican II. His writings nourished many in his own day, and one hopes that a new generation of readers will be helped by his work to discover the unfolding of the mystery of Christ, which, in the words of Paul, “has been hidden in God before time began.”

The Im-possibility of Interreligious Dialogue
Catherine Cornille
Crossroads, $24.95, 280 pp.

Catherine Cornille is one of the best-known thinkers working in comparative theology today. An expert on Hinduism, Cornille did her studies at Louvain and now teaches at Boston College. Her new book, The Im-possibility of Interreligious Dialogue, can be read as a kind of prolegomenon to a serious study of interreligious dialogue. This book treats five large topics: humility, commitment, interconnection, empathy, and hospitality. At a generic level, these themes would seem rather banal. After all, no one believes that interreligious dialogue can work if participants are proud, indifferent to their own traditions, rigid, unsympathetic, and inhospitable. But Cornille’s study pursues her broad themes at an unusually deep and sophisticated level. The humility she urges is not only a spiritual virtue, but also epistemic—a humility that recognizes that all theology has both eschatological and apophatic dimensions. Some truths can be formulated in doctrine, but this fact should not lead us to conclude that the final word has already been uttered.

This deep sense of humility carries over into Cornille’s discussion of other virtues necessary for dialogue. There is an obvious connection between humility and empathy. In interreligious dialogue, the most stringent demand of humility occurs when a participant, who has a firm commitment to his or her own creed, must enter into an alien worldview. My Notre Dame colleague John Dunne has described this as “passing over.” As both participants in this kind of conversation pass over to the tradition of the other participant, there is both a teaching and a learning moment. In such an interchange, one’s understanding of one’s own faith is enriched, even as one begins to understand another tradition.

Cornille’s book is intended for those who wish to undertake intellectually serious dialogue. While there is nothing wrong with the more practical work of interreligious cooperation, where the chief aim is often tolerance, it is important for those engaged in dialogue at a more substantive level to approach their work honestly and competently. Cornille quotes with approbation a remark made by Jürgen Moltmann. Dialogue partners, he said, must be answerable to those for whom they speak; if they deviate from their own theological traditions, “they will never be respected in reporting back to [their own] communities and they will eventually end up by being isolated, representing only their own opinions.” It is to Cornille’s credit that she never falls prey to this temptation. 

Published in the 2009-06-05 issue: 

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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