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Book moves Catholic heroes down from pedestals and into our hearts

“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.

Reviewed by Nancy L. Roberts
Catholic News Service

Just in time for your autumn spiritual practice, is a book that invites 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.

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