Page 13, 10th February 2006

10th February 2006
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Page 13, 10th February 2006 — Spiritual Books Francis Phillips
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The Miracle, The Message, The Story: Jean Vanier and L'Arche by Kathryn Spink. Darton, Longman & Todd £12.95 In 1964 a French-Canadian former naval officer and philosophy lecturer, Jean Vanier, bought a small house in Trosly-Brcuil, near Paris, and invited three men with learning disabilities to live with him. From this naive yet inspired beginning has grown the worldwide organisation called L'Arche. As its name implies "L'Arche" means both "ark" and "bridge": a place of welcome for disabled people as well as a bridge between them and society, which often jostles them to ong side. Vanier, who comes from a devout and well-connected family (his father was a governorgeneral of Canada), had thought of the priesthood. Friendship with a saintly priest, Pere Thomas Philippe, gradually led him to discover his true vocation: as a layman, to live the beatitudes in poverty of spirit and in solidarity with the dispossessed. As he put it many years later: "I only knew that I wanted to live the gospel and to share my life in community with those who were poor."

This was a new attitude towards mental disability. From the beginning, L'Arche communities reflected a "communion" between carers and those cared for, deliberately eschewing a hierarchical or patronising approach. Fundamental to Vanier's thinking has been the prophetic role of handicapped people their obvious need for loving friendship conveying the message that material or intellectual success might satisfy the purse or head but not the heart. The growth of the organisation was swift: today there are 126 communities in 31 countries. The author describes the inevitable growing pains of the new movement as it wrestled with its structure, organisation,.ecumenical prayer-life (L'Arche is inter-faith as well as interchurch) and the formation of the carers, often young and enthusiastic but unwilling to make long-term commitments. Spink, who had many conversations with Vanier, sounds somewhat in his thrall, almost as if he is ghosting her book in his own confessional fashion. Yet it is a tale

worth telling in our times, when the weakest are often banished to the wall.

The Pope Benedict Code by Joanna Bogle. Gracewing £6.99 The title of this work is clearly a coded allusion to a book, very popular in recent years, that includes a Renaissance artist in its own title. However, Joanna Bogle takes pains to point out that "there isn't really a code to crack. Catholicism is an open book which anyone can read." Her purpose in this compilation of short extracts from the Holy Father's recent speeches and some earlier writings is to introduce Pope Benedict XVI to ordinary people. It is not so much an introduction to his theological concerns as an invitation to prayerful meditation on certain themes, such as the Church, the Eucharist. the priesthood and the Christian heritage of Europe. She begins with a brief survey of Pope Benedict's life and his academic distinction when teaching in several German universities. Fr Joseph Fessio SJ, whose doctoral director in the 1970s was the then Professor Ratzinger, recalls, "Even then one felt a presence because of his goodness, his openness and his wisdom." Far from the negative media labels that Pope Benedict received in his time as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joanna Bogle shows his courtesy, holiness and humility as well as his intellectual rigour.

Like his predecessor, the Holy Father's vision is entirely Christ-centred. At his inaugural Mass un April 24, 2005, he declared: "With great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long experience of life, I say ... do not be afraid of Christ!" Though a man of hope, Benedict is not afraid to issue prophetic warnings when they are needful; speaking about the depopulation of Europe he states: "We are forced to make comparisons with the Roman Empire at the time of its decline: it still worked as a great historical framework, but in practice it was already living off those who would dissolve it, since it had no more vital energy:" For Pope Benedict, this "vital energy" can only truly be found in a "personal response to the call of holiness", a renewed love of and commitment to the Church and the saving, sacramental life she offers.

Intelligent Life in the Universe? by Br Guy Consolmagno SJ, CTS EL 95 The author, who has an advanced degree in planetary science from MIT and who is among a dozen Jesuits working at the Vatican Observatory, raises fascinating questions that he makes it clear he cannot answer. Yet to speculate is not a waste of time; it teaches us much about the immensity of God's creative energy there are 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe alone and only an extraordinarily delicate chemical balance makes life possible on earth. Yes, the Church erred greatly over Galileo, but she has also encouraged scientific research: in the 18th century Jesuits ran a quarter of all the astronomical observatories in Europe and a 19th-century Jesuit, Angelo Secchi, pioneered the study of astrophysics. In current disputes between creationists, intelligent designers and Dawkins, the author spells out the Catholic via media: the Bible is "divine science", a work about God; it does not profess to be physical science or tell us about "the configuration of the heavens".

Genesis simply tells us that God willed the world and loves it, but not how he created it. As to the question of little green men somewhere in space, Consolmagno reminds us that God has already created intelligent, nonhuman beings. In case you are puzzled (as I was), the answer is the angels.




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