One of the great perks of doing what I do (however one might describe that) is that I get to read a lot and be the recipient of many books for review, usually for some sort of journal or periodical or even sent by a publisher more generally for my consideration. This provides me with a number of texts that represent a variety of spiritual, theological, philosophical and pastoral themes. Unfortunately, I’m not always able to get to some of these texts right away. Such is the case with The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass (Alpha/Penguin, 2011).

The fourth book written by Mary DeTurris Poust, The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass is similar in style to her second book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Catechism (Alpha/Penguin, 2008). It’s primarily a basic-level introductory text and resource guide all in one. At a little more than 300 pages, The Essential Guide is chock-full of material that coverages a wide range of subjects related to prayer, spirituality, Church history, liturgy and the like.

It is a text that must be considered from the perspective of its apparently two-fold purpose: introduction and resource guide.

Introduction: From the aim of offering an introduction to subjects such as prayer and liturgy in the Catholic tradition, it does a relatively decent job. DeTurris Poust had the theological assistance of a diocesan priest from New Jersey who was assigned to assist in checking out matters of technical import.

In reading through this book, I tried to keep in mind what one of my Jewish, Protestant or Muslim friends might think if they picked up this book in an effort to get a sense of what Catholic spirituality, prayer and liturgy were all about. For the most part, I think the text provides the uninitiated reader (or even the more “nominally” Catholic reader) with a concise overview of the major themes of the tradition (e.g., prayer, types of prayer, introductions to some saints, Mary, the Rosary, the Mass, and so on).

That said, there are some questions that this text raised for me along the way about how certain more “controversial” or traditionally sensitive ecumenical and interreligious subjects could have otherwise been treated. The most obvious example is the significant portion of the book that is dedicated to Marian themes: intro to Mary herself, the Rosary and the so-called “other devotions to Mary.” What I feel is lacking in these chapters is some overt introduction to an orthodox Marian theology that could help the reader contextualize “devotions” and the Marian emphasis of some styles of Catholic prayer more. This is presented somewhat implicitly in the introduction to chapter 9, “Turning to the Blessed Mother,” but a more explicit correlation drawn between veneration of Mary (as very distinct from worship, yet akin to saint veneration) and our prayer to Jesus Christ would have been helpful for the reader.

The adage Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi shines true so often in particular cultures that blurs, if not crosses, the line between veneration and worship of Mary.  I would have like to see an introductory book of this sort pay more attention to that pastoral need.

Additionally, in the sections about liturgy, particularly as it concerns the Mass, there are some questions that the text raised for me that would not likely matter to most readers, but does provide a subtle misdirection. For example, in the otherwise excellent section on prayerful postures (157-159), the short treatment of kneeling reads:

Kneeling is a posture of total reverence and adoration. We kneel at Mass during the entire Eucharistic prayer because it is then that the bread and wine become Jesus, making this the pivotal moment of the celebration.

Not quite. And my objection is threefold. First, while kneeling is what the Bishops of the United States have generally prescribed for the assemblies of their respective dioceses, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal does not specify kneeling as the mandatory posture for the Eucharistic Prayer. In many, if not most, of the dioceses of the rest of the world, standing is the normative gesture, both for pragmatic (lack of chairs) and theological (referential and universal sign) reasons.

Second, to say that “the bread and wine become Jesus” is again not exactly correct. During the Celebration of the Eucharist we believe that the the bread and wine are transformed by God’s Spirit into the “Body and Blood of Christ” (the minister of communion does not say, “the body of Jesus,” nor should the presider say “behold Jesus,” but say, “behold the Lamb of God.”). While it seems like nit-picking, there is a serious theological matter underlying this distinction, stemming from historical and sacramental Christology. We partake in the Sacramental Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species, not that of a historical person named Jesus of Nazareth (I know, confusing, but I don’t want to belabor this here — just make a quick reference to a common confusion, but real concern).

Third, the so-called institution narrative, what is described above as that which is made “the pivotal moment of the celebration,” is not how the highest authoritative documents of the Church on the liturgy, (e.g., Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium) presents the theology of the Celebration of the Eucharist. Neither the phrase “institution narrative (not used by DeTurris Poust here, but commonly used among Catholics) nor the description of the Liturgy of the Eucharist or any discreet part of that prayer are said to be the pinnacle or pivotal point of the celebration. Instead, the Church teaching is that the entirety of the Celebration of the Eucharist — Liturgies of the Word and Eucharist inclusive — constitute the entire “source and summit” of the Christian faith. It must always be viewed integrally and holistically.

Resource: This is, overall, an excellent resource. Its most marketable quality is the one-stop nature of a text that includes your basic collection of prayers, with little vignettes and introductions, as well as (and here is where you get you money’s worth) the new congregational texts of the Roman Missal 3rd edition, which is scheduled to be implemented this November.

DeTurris Poust goes through each of the major divisions of the Celebration of the Eucharist: The Introductory and Penitential Rites, the Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Chapter 18, “Making Mass Your Own,” has a very misleading title. The chapter itself is a very fine introduction to the assembly’s role as real concelebrants of the liturgy (as Sancrosanctum Concilium explains), who are to be active participants and not merely “spectators.” The following chapter about the carrying forward of the Celebration of the Eucharist is also a good addition, although I would have preferred to have found more of the Catholic tradition’s Social Teaching here and its connection to the source and summit of Christian life in the Eucharist. In other words, we are called to “love and serve the Lord,” by loving and serving each other.

The book concludes with some excellent bibliographic and internet resources, a glossary of terms and a helpful index. The real value of this book is its reference or resource-like quality. While I can appear tough on the more particular aspects of the theological content, I value and recommend this book especially for its reference-book function (I even gave a copy of this book to my brother around the time of his confirmation shortly after it was published). No book is ever perfect and a text like this is bound to have its imperfections, but overall it is a good resource and an inexpensive book worth keeping on the shelf, office or car.

UPDATE: I was reminded via the social network that readers might be interested to know: “This book has an imprimatur, as well as endorsement from Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.” Also, the “third” point above was somehow deleted in the initial publishing of this post, it has been restored above.


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