Not Less than Everything

A group of Catholic writers profile "religious realists" through history.

Not Less than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience from Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero Edited by Catherine Wolff HarperOne 339 pages.

Dorothy Day disliked religious romantics. “I want a religious realist,” she told “The Village Voice,” “…one who prays to see things as they are and to do something about it.” If there’s one phrase to describe Day and the other 25 subjects profiled in this anthology, it’s the phrase, “religious realist.”

The book’s editor, Catherine Wolff, could also be called a religious realist. She believed in the reforms set forth by the Second Vatican Council, especially the importance of the individual conscience. So when the hierarchy tried to limit the effects of Vatican II, she became frustrated and decided to compile an anthology which would focus on inner-directed figures, like herself. 

Despite its somewhat unwieldy title, Not Less than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience from Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero, the book is engaging. It gathers characters from New Testament times to the present. The collection is lively; the many fresh faces, voices, and styles keep it from being just another book with an axe to grind.

The people profiled here aren’t necessarily Catholic. (Martin Luther, for example, left the Church and started the Protestant Reformation). Nor are they typical heroes. (Gerard Manley Hopkins acquiesced to his superiors and destroyed much of his poetry). Some, like Bartolomé de las Casas, Hildegard von Bingen, Michel Montaigne, and Mary Magdalene, are famous historical figures. But others, like Horace McKenna S.J. and Father Charles Strobel – both parish priests who spoke out against racism and spoke up for the homeless and downtrodden – are known only in the small circles of their influence.

Yet all of those profiled took the example of Jesus Christ for inspiration. This is not the pretty Jesus pictured on holy cards. It is Jesus the iconoclast, the one who threw the money changers out of the temple, who publicly chastised hypocrites, and who disdained the authorities. This is the Jesus who did what he thought was right and bore the consequences.

Wolff suggests that her heroes are part of the communion of saints – officially or unofficially. But, of those included, only Ignatius of Loyola and Joan of Arc are actually saints. Others, like El Salvadoran bishop Oscar Romero who was assassinated for his beliefs, could be thought of as saintly as could the Australian nun Mother Mary MacKillop who was excommunicated for insubordination. But it’s hard to imagine how anyone could think of the alcoholic poet (and suicide) John Berryman (1914-1972) or bad-boy artist Caravaggio (1571-1610), as saints. Yet this is a quibble in a thoroughly engrossing collection of mini biographies of familiar or unfamiliar but always fascinating characters – as seen through the eyes of highly regarded contemporary authors. 

These authors – including Bo Caldwell, James Carroll, Colm Tóibín, Katherine Harrison, Charles Curran, Mary Gordon, and Patrick Jordan – discuss (in order) “heroes” like Henry Bartel, Isaac Hecker, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Joan of Arc, Bernard Häring, Simone Weil, and Dorothy Day. Theologians, philosophers, professors, poets, journalists, and missionaries, the subjects were activists of one kind or another. Here is a sampling:

Henry Bartel, (1873-1965) a 20th-century Mennonite missionary believed he heard God speak to him as he toiled on the family farm in Kansas. After asking for and receiving his father’s permission, Bartel left home to move to China where he and his wife and five children spent their lives working as Christian missionaries.

Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), a German Protestant from New York, became a disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson and later joined Brook Farm – a commune which warmly “emphasized the person and teaching of Jesus Christ.” Hecker was inspired by Transcendentalism and its belief in the over-soul – all of which led him to convert to Roman Catholicism.

Dorothy Day (1897-1980) had given up on religion but, after the out-of-wedlock birth of her daughter, converted to Catholicism. A journalist and activist, she was one of the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement and spent her life bucking authority while helping the poor. Day is now up for canonization – talk about a zigzag path.

Ultimately, the subjects of these essays not only challenged authority. They also risked their reputations, livelihoods, and sometimes even their lives. They were people who did what they believed was right and refused to do things half way. Right or wrong, they gave it their all.

Diane Scharper is the editor or author of several books including “Reading Lips and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability,” winner of the Helen Keller Foundation International Memoir Competition. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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