Christmas

Bill Donohue Is Accused of Starting the Fight over Christmas

Deal W. Hudson
December 20, 2010

I was putting together my list of “ten most laughable public attacks of 2010” when I received an e-mail newsletter from Chris Korzen and the team at Catholics United.

Korzen’s letter – an attack on Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York – was packed with alternately risible and pathetic statements, but one of them goes right to the Number 1 spot on my list of laugh lines.

After accusing Donohue of being “the most divisive figure in the U.S. Catholic community” (yawn) and of defending Glenn Beck’s critique of social justice (gasp!), Korzen asks, “Or what about Donohue’s annual effort to turn the Christmas holiday into a culture war battleground?”

Surely Korzen (or his staff writer) knows that this is a gross misrepresentation, but decided to leave it in any way. After all, an attack piece is just that: an attack. Accuracy and fairness are irrelevant. (A more vicious, and less humorous, attack on Donohue is found in this blog post by Korzen’s sidekick, James Salt.)

Anyone familiar with current events knows that Christian symbols, even the word “Christmas” itself, are being expunged from public places across the nation. And Korzen and his “team” accuse Bill Donohue of waging a culture war?

Now, I would fully agree with Korzen if Donohue had done something like what the Archdiocese of Boston did in 1952 when it banned the new song “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” from the radio. Evidently, the Boston chancery in those days didn’t think the presence of mistletoe removed Santa’s culpability. But that isn’t the case here.

Of course, Korzen’s swing at Donohue was also a not-so-veiled attack on Archbishop Dolan – who, according to Korzen, was the “conservative” elected by the bishops to head the USCCB in place of the “moderate” Bishop Kicanas of Tuscon. More humor!

Archbishop Dolan is vilified by Korzen for defending Donohue and the Catholic League in a recent post on the archdiocesan website. In “Why We Need the Catholic League,” Dolan explained his support of Donohue’s successful effort to have a video removed from an exhibition at the Smithsonian that depicted the crucified body of Jesus covered in ants. The archbishop argued:

Popular opinion may demand that Catholics suffer in silence, or more, embrace an insult as a work of art, but that doesn’t mean that we should, no matter how many in public and private expect us to do so.

Korzen thinks that Archbishop Dolan’s election portends the move of the bishops’ conference toward the political right:

In May 2009, a number of Catholic bishops joined culture warriors in opposing President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame. And last year, the bishops all but turned their backs on Catholic values by lobbying against health care reform.

I don’t need to look at my notes to recall that the bishops were not opposed to health-care reform but to federal funding for abortion, another one of those facts that Korzen and his allies refuse to admit.

Presenting the bishops’ opposition to abortion as a move away from “Catholic values” requires a level of casuistry that only an experienced labor organizer like Korzen could pull off.

He calls upon his e-list members to send an email message to Archbishop Dolan saying that “Bill Donohue and the Catholic League have no business speaking for Catholics.”

I’m sure whoever watches those emails plunk into the archdiocesan spam folder will be about as amused as I was when Korzen sent his friends my way for not being sufficiently convinced of global warming.

Toward the end of his letter, Korzen finally admits the real reason he is targeting Donohue, asking rhetorically whether Archbishop Dolan appreciates the “Catholic League’s role in leading the Catholic right’s attack on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008.”

Korzen links this question to a press release by Donohue from February 2008 titled, “Obama Champions the Culture of Death.” In it, Donohue commented on Obama’s statement that the only vote he regretted was having supported the Senate bill giving a federal district court jurisdiction over the Terri Schiavo case.

It’s hardly proof of the full extent of Donohue’s importance to the pro-life, pro-family cause, but the headline does seem sadly prescient of the Obama presidency.

Chris Korzen and Catholics United support any pro-abortion candidate who happens to be Catholic and Democratic. Thus, his attacks on Catholics who publicly defend the teachings of the Church can easily be seen for what they are.

 

Sacred Music for Christmas

Deal W. Hudson
December 5, 2014

At Christmas, music abounds. There is no other sacred day or holiday, so deeply intertwined with music.  If you are considering stretching your musical palette this Christmas, here is a list to choose from.  You may already know many of these pieces but you may not know the particular recordings I have recommended.

I’ve limited my choices to recordings that are presently available on CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays, or digital downloads. This list is alphabetized, rather than listed in chronological order. This was necessary since recordings will often include several pieces composed years apart, perhaps much more.

sacred music

What I would call ‘Indispensable Sacred Music Recordings’ are marked with an ***.

1. Barber, Agnus Dei, The Esoterics (Naxos).
2. Bernstein, Mass, cond., Leonard Bernstein (Columbia).
3. Briggs, Mass for Notre Dame, cond., Stephen Layton (Hyperion).
4. Brubeck, To Hope! A Celebration, cond. Russell Gloyd (Telarc).
5. Bruckner, Motets, Choir of St. Mary’s Cathedral (Delphian).***
6. Byrd, Three Masses, cond., Peter Phillips (Gimell).
7. Burgon, Nunc Dimittis, cond., Richard Hickox (EMI Classics).
8. Celtic Christmas from Brittany, Ensemble Choral Du Bout Du Monde (Green Linnet)
9. Chant, Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos (Milan/Jade).
10. Charpentier, Te Deum in D, cond., Philip Ledger (EMI Classics).
11. Christmas, The Holly and the Ivy, cond., John Rutter (Decca).
12. Christmas, Christmas with Robert Shaw, cond., Robert Shaw (Vox).
13. Christmas, Cantate Domino, cond., Torsten Nilsson (Proprius).***
14. Christmas, Follow That Star, The Gents (Channel Classics).
15. Christmas in Harvard Square, Saint Paul’s Boys Choir (AimHigher).
16. Christmas: Moravian Christmas, Czech Philharmonic Choir (ArcoDiva)
17. Desprez, Ave Maris Stella Mass, cond., Andrew Parrott (EMI Reflexe).
18. Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius, cond. John Barbirolli (EMI Classics).***
19. Finzi, In Terra Pax, cond. Vernon Handley (Lyrita).
20. Gonoud, St. Cecilia Mass, cond. George Pretre (EMI Classics).
21. Gorecki, Beatus Vir & Totus Tuus, cond. John Nelson (Polygram).
22. Handel, Messiah, cond., by Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia Mundi)***
23. Haydn, Creation, cond., Neville Marriner (Phillips).
24. Haydn, Mass in Time of War, cond., Neville Marriner (EMI Classics).
25. Hildegard of Bingen, Feather on the Breath of God, Gothic Voices (Hyperion).
26. Howells, Hymnus Paradisi, cond., David Willocks (EMI Classics).***
27. Hymns, Amazing Grace: American Hymns and Spirituals, cond. Robert Shaw (Telarc).***
28. Lauridsen, Lux Aeterna & O Magnum Mysterium, cond. Stephen Layton (Hyperion).***
30. Liszt, Christus, cond., Helmut Rilling (Hannsler).
31. Liszt, The Legend of St. Elisabeth, cond., Arpad Joo (Hungaroton).
32. Morales, Magnificat, cond., Stephen Rice (Hyperion).
33. Palestrina, Canticum Canticorum, Les Voix Baroques (ATMA).
34. Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli, cond. Peter Phillips (Gimell).
35. Parsons, Ave Maria and other Sacred Music, cond., Andrew Carwood (Hyperion).
36. Poulenc, Gloria & Stabat Mater, cond., George Pretre (EMI Classics).
37. Respighi, Lauda Per La Nativita Del Signore, cond., Anders Eby Proprius).
38. Rheinberger, Sacred Choral Music, cond., Charles Bruffy (Chandos).
39. Rutter, Be Thou My Vision: Sacred Music, cond., John Rutter (Collegium).***
40. Saint Saens, Oratorio de Noel, cond., Anders Eby (Proprius).
41. Shapenote Carols, Tudor Choir (Loft Recordings)
42. Tallis, Spem in alium & Lamentations of Jeremiah, cond., David Hill (Hyperion).***
43. Vaughn Williams, Five Mystical Songs, cond., David Willcocks (EMI Classics).***
44. Vaughn Williams, Pilgrims Progress, cond., Adrian Boult (EMI Classics).***
45. Victoria, O Magnum Mysterium & Mass, cond., David Hill (Hyperion).***

Christmas 2014 — A Poem

Deal W. Hudson
December 20, 2014

By Mary Jo Matthews 
(1927 — December 18, 2014)

Oh, little town of Bethlehem,
Do men still gaze above,
Through bombs and smoke,
To seek the Christmas star?

Godless men defile their faith,
Bestowed on them with love,
Faith that guided the Magi,
When they travelled from afar.

Oh, land God chose and blessed
To be the birthplace of His Son,
Who, two thousand years ago,
Brought sweet peace to earth.

So many despair today,
Yet carols fill the air.
Let us follow the shepherds
With hope in a baby’s birth.

War, blood, hate and sin,
Tarnish God’s sacred lands;
Terror knows no love,
Children search in vain.

Seek the love of two young peasants,
As they kissed their tiny Savior’s hands.
Love is sometimes elusive,
But it heals man’s pain.

Shun the headlines, spewing
Horror, greed and crime,
And seek faith, hope and love
As our light in this troubled time.

matthews_mary jo

Mary Jo Matthews gave of herself and her talents tirelessly to St. Mary’s Hospital in Athens, Georgia. She penned this poem just before her death. We pray that Mary rests in peace.

Eight Books for Christmas, from Politics and a Thriller to Paris, Moscow, Chartres, New York City, and My Back

Deal W. Hudson
November 18, 2017

Several of these books I read as audiobooks, which in the case of those by Ali Land and Scott Isacoff simply added to their enjoyment. Nowadays, I probably read two audiobooks for every print book I read, the advantage of the former being their availability while driving and getting dressed in the morning. I’ve never caught the bug of e-reading which leaves me rather confused about what I have read and where I left off in the book. Seeing words on a page helps me to remember what I have read, though I am not sure why. And listening to a talented narrator can make a good thriller, such as Good Me Bad Me absolutely riveting. I live surrounded by books, the piles of books and overflowing bookcases have probably pushed the foundation of my house deeper into the ground, which is a metaphor for why books matter so much.

Ali Land’s first novel, Good Me Bad Me, is terrifying in the best possible way, that is, as superb fiction. Land uses her background as a mental health nurse who has worked with traumatized children to create a cast of characters that will leave a permanent mark on your imagination. It begins with the arrival of Milly, the daughter of a serial killer mom, at a foster home where the father is a psychiatrist, the mother outwardly warm but is inwardly fragile, and a daughter, the beautiful Phoebe who immediately sets out to make Milly’s new life as miserable as possible.  The psychological struggle between Phoebe and Milly seems to be stacked in Phoebe’s favor because of her absolute command over the local high school. But Phoebe has her own, shall we say, resources as a result of the years spent in her mother’s home.

Cathryn Jakobson Ramin has given millions of back pain sufferers a precious gift — her Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry and Getting On the Road to Recovery exposes the false promises of the back pain industry, especially the dark side of back surgery which is rarely successful and more often causes greater damage. The author has done exhaustive research on the recent history of the back pain “business,” and the results are devastating, especially for the chiropractors. I predict her book will eventually reshape and redefine how back pain is treated by our nation’s medical community, as well as how it is covered by insurance companies, Medicare, and Medicaid. The bottom line is this: Millions of taxpayer dollars and thousands of out-of-pocket dollars are being needlessly spent on back pain treatments that not only have no benefit but also present serious medicals risks for patients, from induced strokes to partial or total paralysis.

In When Paris Sizzled: The 1920s Paris of Hemingway, Chanel, Cocteau, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and Their Friends, Mary McAuliffe probes well beyond the well-known, often-told, stories of Hemingway, Picasso, Stein, Joyce, and Proust. McAuliffe displays an excellent grasp of the revolutionary music of the period — not just Stravinsky and Ravel, but also Satie, Milhaud, Auric, Honegger, Poulenc, and Tailleferre — and its creative collaboration with photography, ballet, painting, and theatre, especially through the mediation of Jean Cocteau. She also manages to connect the pots between the conservative political poetics of Paul Claudel, the monastic escape of Max Jacob, and the rise of Charles Maurras.  The artistic development of Man Ray as a photography is presented in parallel with the Modigliani, Duchamp, and Dada, as well as the modernist trends in architecture, primarily Le Corbusier. The entry into filmmaking of Jean Renoir is also deftly woven into the narrative, which justly underscores how French cinema recovered from the devastation of the war years.

With Trotsky in New York, 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution by Kenneth D. Ackerman has written a hugely interesting narrative about the ten weeks Leon Trotsky spent in New York City in early 1917. What surprises me was the warm welcome that greeted Trotsky and his wife and how all the radical organizations and their leaders were eager to align themselves this emissary from the upcoming Bolshevik Revolution. Within only a few days after his arrival, Trotsky attracted an overflowing hall for his first public speaking appearance. When Trotsky got the news of the Russian uprising and tried to return home, he was taken captive by the British authorities in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Rather than fretting, Trotsky set out, successfully, to convert his fellow captives to Bolshevism.

Scott Isacoff tells a fascinating and important story in When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath. Those of my generation will have a memory of Van Cliburn’s remarkable victory at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War. While illuminating the life and achievement of Cliburn, Isacoff shows how Cliburn single-handedly created a revitalized, warmer relationship between the Soviets and America. Part of this was due to his Appolinian talent but just as important was his charismatic presence — tall, boyishly handsome, with a broad Texas accent,  a natural humility, and impeccable manners, Cliburn won over the Russian people, millions of whom listened to his performances on the radio.

Stephen Baskerville’s The New Politics of Sex: The Sexual Revolution, Civil Liberties, and the Growth of Governmental Power may be the most important book of 2017 — he has written a masterly and authoritative account of how “sexual radicalism” has infected and transformed culture, politics, and the legal system. He reveals the full impact of feminist and homosexual activism on the entire criminal justice system which Baskerville sees as creating an entire network of self-serving agents enforcing laws that ignore the presumption of innocence, due process, and public transparency. Baskerville also shows with jaw-dropping clarity how “no-fault” divorces laws have allowed the intrusion of federal and state government so far into our private lives that “privacy” no longer exists.

Visions of Mary: Art, Devotion, and Beauty at Chartres Cathedral is quite a magnificent book. Jill Geoffrion is not only a superb writer but also an equally talented photographer. But her book is far more than a comprehensive survey of all the images of Our Lady at Chartres Cathedral, rather Visions of Mary is a splendid introduction to the theology and spirituality of Marian devotion. As an ordained American Baptist minister, Jill Geoffrion arrives at Chartres with completely fresh eyes and an open heart. Through this book, she communicates her excitement of discovering why Catholics venerate Mary and how that devotion could enrich her own faith. As she writes, “if God wants to use an American woman minister to introduce others to praying with a Catholic relic in France, who am I to say no?” This book is her resounding “Yes” to the calling she felt to share her experience of Mary at Chartres with persons of all faiths and no faith. This is a book you can give to anyone who asks about Mary or anyone who already knows and loves her as Our Lady. Both will be enriched.

Sharyl Attkinsson has explained the present political climate better than anyone I know: The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote is a tour de force of classical reportage, revealing the Russian “scandal” and the “fake news” accusations for what they are — pure inventions of a political party desperate to remain in power at any cost. It’s remarkable that major news operations continue to talk about Russian interference in the 2016 election and fake news after Attkinson has put all the pieces together and traced these allegations back to their source in a Google-funded think tank. The Smear deserves a lot more attention and traction than it has received, a fate often accorded to authors to publish the truth too soon, before the public is ready to hear it.  Perhaps the time has come?

Eight Recordings for Christmas — From Grand Mahler and Sacred Rachmaninov to Superlative Rozsa and a Requiem for Mothers

Deal W. Hudson
November 19, 2017

In spite of habitually slow sales, in comparison to pop music, recordings of classical music continue to be released by the dozens each month, and some of them equal or supersede the best recordings of the past.  Examples from this list are Brabbins’ performance of Vaughan Williams 2nd Symphony and Thierry Fischer’s 8th Symphony of Gustav Mahler.

There’s new music, too, well worth hearing, such as Stephen Edwards much-lauded “Requiem for My Mother” which will warm the heart of anyone who loves those by Faure and Durufle. Though it’s not strictly new, the American works for piano performed by Laura Downes are deeply satisfying and suggest there must be more from that well to tap.

Beethoven symphonies played on the piano may not appeal to you at first glance, but if you listen to the first few minutes of these Lizst transcriptions you won’t stop. As far as I am concerned there can’t be enough recordings of the film scores of Miklos Rozsa, especially when they sweep the field before them as Nic Raine has done with his recent “Ben-Hur.”

I always come back to Haydn, even before Mozart, but I’m not going to argue the case — I am immediately drawn into his sound world, so full of emotion, of dancing and weeping, and the conductor Giovanni Antonini is afraid of neither. Finally, the All-Night Vigil of Rachmaninov belongs to the pantheon of great sacred music and the recording by Gloriae Dei Cantores catches the sacred in this sacred music.

Stephen Edwards, Requiem for My Mother

Film composer Stephen Edwards has written and recorded a remarkable Requiem for My Mother that will eventually make its way into the repertory of sacred music regularly performed in churches and concert halls. His Requiem is quite beautiful, radiant in many places, majestic and fiercely resolute in others, a remarkable tribute to his mother, Rosalie, as well as to all mothers. The opening Requiem aeternum is masterful, with the statement of a beautiful and memorable main theme which becomes the foundation for the work as a whole. Edwards has written a work that will be performed for many years to come. I predict his “Requiem for My Mother” will catch on quickly among those who know and love sacred music but find a much larger audience.  What Edwards has composed will become contemporary Requiem of choice to those who seek beauty first.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, 2nd Symphony, “London.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 2nd Symphony, the “London,” has been recorded many times quite successfully, but Martyn Brabbins new recording of the “1920 Version” has an exceptional emotional force — this disc has the sense of occasion usually missing from even very good performances.  The famed Lento movement has never sounded more expressively tender. This marks the beginning of an entire Vaughan Williams symphony cycle for Brabbins and Hyperion, and if future recordings remain at the level it will challenge all the previous best, such as Previn, Handley, Boult’s EMI version, and Haitnik.

Lara Downes, American Again (American piano works)

Lara Downes pianism in American Again will both melt your heart and make foot start tapping with delight. Downes has collected an unusual assortment of American piano pieces, from arrangements of familiar folk tunes such as “Shenandoah,” “Over the Rainbow,” and “Blue Skies” to lesser-known works by composers such as Morton Gould, Leonard Bernstein, Coleridge-Taylor, Ernst Bloch, Duke Ellington, Roy Harris, Aaron Copland, and Howard Hanson.  There’s not a dud among them. The Coleridge-Taylor arrangement of the spiritual “Deep River” is especially moving.  The sound is state-of-the-art.

Miklos Rozsa, Film Music for Ben-Hur

A great Christmas gift for any music lover: Nic Raine’s new recording of the Miklos Rozsa soundtrack for “Ben-Hur.” This re-recording surpasses any other in both performance and sound quality. Order from Tadlow Music in the UK and your discs will arrive in about a week on your doorstep. I just finished listening and am swept away…..The City of Prague Symphony Orchestra has a wonderful set of players and the soloists are superb. The choir knocks it out of the park.

Beethoven, 6th and 9th Symphonies (transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt)

Yury Martynov has recorded all the Lizst transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies, and all of them are worth hearing — not only are they delightful to hear for themselves but also afford an opportunity to learn more about their structural development. You can start with his recording of the 9th Symphony and you will be surprised by how lively and fulsome the final movement, “Ode to Joy,” comes across in Liszt’s piano version.  His 6th Symphony, the “Pastoral,” is just as irresistible.

Gustav Mahler, 8th Symphony, “Symphony of a Thousand.”

Mahler 8th Symphony, conducted by Thierry Fischer, Utah Symphony, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and soloists, is exceptional, among the best 8ths I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard most of them. The soloists are first class, especially the tenor, Barry Banks, meeting all the challenges of the score. One expects the MTC to be great but here they surpass themselves, helped greatly by the RR engineers. Thierry Fischer has a marvelous feel for Mahler and delivers at every step of the way. The finale is appropriately overwhelming, but few recordings actually pack the kind of punch the composer imagined. Repeated hearings may lead me to say this is the best of all.

Haydn, Symphonies 60, 70 & 12; Cimarosa, Il maestro di cappella

Some recordings of familiar music are just that, familiar, but this one immediately grabs you and won’t go — it gets to the heart of Haydn’s greatness as a symphonic composer, his evidently inexhaustible invention allied with master craftsmanship, and the ability to capture the totality of all human emotions. Giovanni Antonini conducts Il Giardino Armonico in the Haydn, Symphony 60, “Il Distratto” in C major; Symphony 70 in D major; Symph0ny 12 in B major; and Cimarosa, Il maestro di cappella (Orch. M. Brolli).

Rachmaninov, All Night Vigil, Op. 37

The Gloriae Dei Cantores deliver a spectacular new recording of Rachmaninov’s “All Night Vigil” (1915), augmented by two Russian Orthodox choirs and two opera singers from the Kiev Opera. As stated in the 52-page booklet accompanying the CD, the conductor Peter Jermihov was determined to perform the Vigil in order to fully express its Christian intent and meaning. The result is an overwhelmingly beautiful and moving liturgy sung on the Saturday before the Resurrection. Music critics have praised it as “one of the very best recordings this work has received,” and I agree. This is deeply-felt sacred music written when Rachmaninov was in his prime, having already published his 2nd Symphony.

10 Christmas Albums You May Not Know

Deal W. Hudson
December 4, 2017

I chuckle at my use of “albums” given the remarkable comeback of vinyl recordings, though downloading is actually the medium gradually replacing the CD.  Thus, I would advise the reader to check both CD and download formats for the recordings listed below (links to both, where available, are provided). I’ve been something of a Christmas music nerd since my teenage years, due possibly to my sentimental nature but more likely because of a body of music that has stood the “test of time” and, even more, the challenge of repeated hearings.

These tunes are mercilessly pumped through elevators, malls, and, now, gas pumps, making me wonder how they have avoided complete secularization.  But, no, their power remains, and each season our hearts are lifted by hearing them again.

With this in mind, I offer the following recordings as an example not only of the best in traditional presentations but also those whose innovations are firmly guided by the spirit of the Great Mystery they represent. (See note at bottom on buying CDs and downloads.)

A Merry Christmas played by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

Available for download on iTunes. (Amazon, too, but charges more.) The CD seems to be out of print.

These orchestral arrangements of 19 well-known carols and songs, which I am listening to while I write this column. The arrangements are lovely, each is a winner as far as I am concerned, and the Shanghai string sections possess a warm, rounded, shimmering sound that pleases the ear greatly. You think you won’t like this, but I guarantee, you will.

A Cabaret Christmas

CD available here and download at iTunes.

Fifteen Christmas songs and carols arranged for the best cabaret and jazz singers around at the time, 1993: Ann Hampton Calloway, Barbara Cook, Billy Stritch, and Andrea Marcovicci. Vocals include “Silent Night” by Barbara Cook, “Winter Wonderland” by Ann Hampton Callaway, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Barbara Loudon.” Delightful!

String Quartet Christmas Vol. 1-3 played by Arturo Delmoni & Friends

CD available here and download at iTunes for only $17.99.

Sixty-eight, yes, that’s 68 carols and songs arranged and played by the string quartet. Don’t nod off! These recordings really have magic and help you listen to the music with fresh ears. I find myself coming back to them every year, and I’m impressed all over again. Great for Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.

Christmas Music from Sweden played and sung by the Orpheus Singers, conducted by Peter Sund and soloist Christina Högman.

CD available here and download at iTunes.

One of the musical highlights of all Christmas recordings is to hear Högman sing “Quelle Est Cette Odeur Agreable” (When Is That Goodly Fragrance Flowing”). This entire recording is one to treasure and makes many English language ensembles sound like amateurs. Add the superb BIS engineering and we have a classic. What they call a “desert island disc”!

Adeste Fideles: Christmas Music from Westminster Cathedral sung by the Westminster Choir conducted by James O’Donnell.

If the English Cathedral style appeals to your ear, then this recording from Hyperion is the best I know. The Westminster Cathedral Choir was at its peak under James O’Donnell, and this recording has not been bested by any choir since, though David Willcocks and the King’s College Choir were the best of his generation.)  I particularly treasure O’Donnell’s recording of “Once In Royal David’s City” and, yes, the title song, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

CD available here and download at iTunes.

Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity sung by The Cambridge Singers, conducted by John Rutter.

CD available here and download at iTunes.

There are many John Rutter Christmas albums, but he never improved on this early one for his own Collegium label. There is a sparkle and joy in these renderings that are not always matched in later recordings. A youthful Gerald Finley sings “I Wonder As I Wander” with complete authority, while the renderings of “A virgin most pure”(14th century) and “I sing of maiden” (15th century) belie the centuries of their origin.

John Rutter: Music for Christmas sung by Polyphony, conducted by Stephen Layton.

CD available here and download at iTunes.

This is one of the most consistently beautiful Christmas recordings I know. Rutter’s compositions of new carols and new arrangements of traditional ones will be an enduring gift to our celebration of Advent and Christmas. “What Sweeter Music” will be sung for centuries to come, as will “Mary’s Lullaby” and the “Nativity Carol.” You may have heard some of this music but not known its composer, John Rutter. If you don’t know, you will be glad to become acquainted.

Angels’ Glory sung by Kathleen Battle, accompanied on guitar by Christopher Parkening.

CD available here and downloads at iTunes.

Kathleen Battle has a rather embattled career, highlighted by her expulsion from the Metropolitan Opera for 20 years, a ban lifted only recently, but her vocal gift cannot be questioned.  Battle and Parkening combined here to create one of the most satisfying solo Christmas albums in the repertory. Parkening, himself, has been very public about his Christian faith which has provided the match lighting up these 19 selections. Battle’s high pianissimo passages are quite amazing to hear. Listen to “Gesù bambino” and try to resist.

Christmas In Harvard Square sung by The Boys of St. Paul’s Choir School, conducted by John Robinson.

CD available here, downloads at iTunes, and on DVD here.

The Boys of the St. Paul’s Choir School is one of the best-kept secrets in Catholic America.  It’s the only Catholic choir school in the nation, a school where adolescent and teenage boys are trained daily to sing the choral repertoire of the Church and, then, perform it at Masses and other liturgical celebrations. They were discovered, so to speak, by De Monfort Music record label whose co-founder, Monica Fitzgibbons, I interviewed on “Church and Culture.” John Robinson, conductor, and organist is destined to become, in my opinion, the American John Rutter, based upon his arrangements and original compositions such as the lovely “The Infant King.”

Messiah by G.F. Handel performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, with soloists Jon Vickers, Gorgio Tozzi, Monica Sinclair, and Jennifer Vyvyan.

CD available here for $9.99, download at iTunes for $4.99.

If you sample Jon Vickers singing “Comfort Ye, My People” or “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted” you will immediately hear one reason why this 1959 recording is so special, Vickers had an extraordinary voice which really could not be compared to anyone else for its sheer power and beauty, every note sounds effortless.  One could call this performance old-fashioned, but such labels are decimated by the joyous beauty that emanates from Beecham’s direction of his own orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, and four soloists who were among the best of their generation. Finally, it’s doubtful that any recording of the “Hallelujah Chorus” will match Beecham’s for its befitting regal grandeur — “King of Kings and Lord of Lords”!

*Note on buying CDs and downloads: I suggested using iTunes for downloading because they are reasonably priced and widely available. However, higher quality downloads of most of this music can be found at www.eclassical.comwww.theclassicalshop.com, www.prestoclassical.uk.co, and www.classicsonline.com. Many often buy CDs from Amazon, but you might also consider supporting vendors such as www.arkivmusic.com.

Why the Wise Men Followed the Star

Deal W. Hudson
December 23, 2017

Wise men have always looked at the heavens with wonder. For them, the night sky filled with stars represents the luminous, the utterly ineffable, the holy. With this sense of overwhelming awe, comes a question: “What lies behind it all?”

Wise men don’t ignore this question by burying themselves in practical matters, to ignore their own inner prompting – they search. With the first step another question is evoked; it comes as an unexpected whisper — “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Wise men are thus called because they seek what the ancients called knowledge of “first things,” the foundation of all knowledge, and the source of all. When the Three Wise Men were amazed by the one star outshining all the others in the Eastern sky they saw it as their destination, the goal of their search, a place where all they sought would be revealed.

Thus, from the East, the Wise Men came, from the crucible of civilization, the most ancient of learned cultures, to the court of Herod in Jerusalem. Whether they were deceived by Herod’s flattery we do not know, nor do we know if they sensed his murderous intent in asking them to return and report on the child’s whereabouts. Though wise men, we do not know if these kings were worldly-wise. We do know, however, they believed in the message of their dreams.

They found who they were looking for, the babe with the title “The King of the Jews,” but would come to realize they had found much more, perhaps something else altogether. After all, they must have thought, “Would a king be born like this and to a peasant family?” But this was the place where the star’s light had led them. The Three Kings did not turn back; they knelt in the stable, worshipped the babe, and offered him their royal gifts.

The Wise Men slept deeply that night because they had journeyed far. During their sleep, a dream arose containing a warning not to return to Herod, as they had promised they would. They did not know why — they did not know then that the birth of this child born to peasants had provoked a Roman king to a murderous rage, born of fear and jealousy.

As they rode away, without returning to Jerusalem, the Three Wise Men must have asked each other why a child born in a manger to a carpenter and his young wife would pose any threat to Herod, or the Empire itself. But then, the night had been extraordinary in other ways. They had not been the only ones to pay tribute – they had knelt as kings next to shepherds who reported being summoned by angels.

What they had experienced at the end of their journey was not expected. A poor child in a stable, with some sort of divine protection, was something they had never even imagined. Did this newborn child explain their wonder at the existence of things? Not at all.

But they didn’t accuse the star of leading them to the wrong place or consider their long journey a mistake. For they had received a glimmer of something to come: Their experience with the babe in a manger seemed to announce the beginning of a life that would overturn the order of things and challenge the supremacy of all earthly powers.

“But for what purpose came this child?” they might have asked themselves. Whatever it was, they may have reasoned, it must be universal, a mission to all men. What else could bring kings and shepherds to kneel together, cause the most powerful man in the land to rage, for some divinity to send a dream of warning, and set the night sky itself aglow with the brightest star the world had ever seen.

100 Best Movies for Christmas

By Deal W. Hudson

As with my list of Catholic novels, I am not following any rigid theory of the “Catholic film” in making these recommendations. Rather than advance a thesis about what constitutes an “authentic” or “orthodox” Catholic film, I’m hoping that you, the reader, will discover on this list some films that will bring you enjoyment. Perhaps you will find some inspirational or edifying and be moved to a renewed aspiration toward the source of all beauty.

It’s regrettable that Catholic educators have yet to regard cinema as an important artistic tradition, one that should be studied along with literature, painting, theater, and music. The advantage of studying film is its relative youth, having been born only a little over a century ago. The other, more obvious, advantage is that students will have spent literally hundreds of hours watching films of various kinds, as opposed to their time spent with books, or much less in a museum with the masterworks of painting and sculpture.

Here’s the good news: It’s still not too late for the diligent and perhaps obsessive student, with a few years of study, to gain a satisfactory overview of film history.The “Catholic film” is actually a good place to start on such a journey, since both Catholic filmmakers and Catholic subjects have been a part of film’s history from the beginning of the “silent” era to the present. (Remember, there were very few silent films since musical soundtracks were used in films since 1920. And, to add a curious side note, the capacity for “talking” films had been available for several years prior to the 1928 Jazz Singer but was considered unnecessary to film as a rapidly developing, and primarily visual, art form.)

You will see below my list of 100 Best Catholic Films in chronological order. The only difference between this list and the book list is that I am not insisting that the author be Catholic. My choices are made film qua film, not by any reference to the faith of the producer, director, or writer. Given that any object of art should be enjoyed and understood in itself, apart from its creator, I regret somewhat not using this criterion in making my list of 100 Best Catholic Novels, but then, what is done, is done.

Thus, I ask the reader not to take me to task if the director of a particular film is a notorious this-or-that, as is definitely the case with a number of the films listed below. And, after all, how do we know under what inspiration, or whose inspiration, an “unbelieving” director brought a film into being.

Unlike the 100 Best Catholic Novels, I have not added links to all my recommendations. The reader can easily search them out at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or any of the many film vendors on the Internet. If you don’t wish to buy them, you can find out the basic information on any of the films by making use of the International Movie Database at http://www.imdb.com.

1.Carl Theodore von Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928.
2.Cecil B. DeMille, King of Kings, 1927.
3.Frank Capra, Lady for a Day, 1933.
4.John Ford, The Informer, 1935.
5.Frank Borzage, Strange Cargo, 1940
6.Henry King, The Song of Bernadette, 1943.
7.John M. Stahl, The Keys of the Kingdom, 1944.
8.Leo McCarey, Going My Way, 1944.
9.Leo McCarey, The Bells of St. Mary’s, 1945.
10.Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946.
11.Robert Bresson, Au Hasard Balthasar, 1966.
12.Michael Powell, Black Narcissus, 1947.
13.John Ford, The Fugitive, 1947.
14.John Ford, Three Godfathers, 1948.
15.Leo McCarey, Make Way for Tomorrow, 1947.
16.Vittorio De Sica, The Bicycle Thieves, 1948.
17.Roberto Rossellini, Stromboli, 1950.
18.Roberto Rossellini, The Flowers of St. Francis, 1950.
19.Gordon Douglas, Come Fill the Cup, 1951.
20.Robert Bresson, The Dairy of a Country Priest, 1951.
21.Akira Kurosawa, Ikiru, 1952.
22.Vittorio De Sica, Umberto D, 1952.
23.Alfred Hitchcock, I Confess, 1953.
24.Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront, 1954.
25.Raffaello Matarazzo, The White Angel, 1955.
26.Carl Theodore von Dreyer, Ordet, 1955.
27.Alfred Hitchcock, The Wrong Man, 1956.
28.Luis Bunuel, Nazarin, 1959.
29.Fred Zinnemann, The Nun’s Story, 1959.
30.William Wyler, Ben Hur, 1959.
31.Robert Bresson, Pickpocket, 1959.
32.Mervyn LeRoy, The Devil of 4 O’Clock, 1961.
33.Richard Fleischer, Barabbas, 1961.
34.Nicholas Ray, King of Kings, 1961.
35.Otto Preminger, The Cardinal, 1963.
36.Peter Glenville, Becket, 1964.
37.Pier Paolo Pasolini, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964.
38.Carol Reed, The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1965.
39.Luis Bunuel, Simon of the Desert, 1965.
40.Fred Zinnemann, A Man for All Seasons, 1966.
41.Robert Bresson, Mouchette, 1967.
42.Michael Anderson, The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968.
43.Franco Zefferelli, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, 1972.
44.William Friedkin, The Exorcist, 1973.
45.Anthony Harvey, The Abdication, 1974.
46.Joseph Hardy, The Lady’s Not for Burning, 1974.
47.Franco Zefferelli, Jesus of Nazareth, 1977.
48.Robert Bresson, The Devil Probably, 1977.
49.Ermanno Olmi, Tree of the Wooden Clogs, 1978.
50.John Huston, Wise Blood, 1979.
51.Francesco Rosi, Christ Stopped at Eboli, 1979.
52.Hugh Hudson, Chariots of Fire, 1981.
53.Charles Sturridge & Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Brideshead Revisited, 1981.
54.Ulu Grosbard, True Confessions, 1981.
55.Martin Scorcese, The Age of Innocence, 1982.
56.Paolo & Vittorio Taviani, Night of the Shooting Stars, 1982.
57.Jerry London, The Scarlet and the Black, 1983.
58.Robert Bresson, L’argent, 1983.
59.Norman Stone, Shadowlands, 1885.
60.Alain Cavalier, Therese, 1986.
61.Roland Jaffe, The Mission, 1986.
62.Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire, 1987.
63.Gabriel Axel, Babette’s Feast, 1987.
64.Rodney Bennett, Monsignor Quixote, 1987.
65.Maurice Pialat, Under the Star of Satan, 1987.
66.John Huston, The Dead, 1987.
67.Krzysztof Kieslowski, The Decalogue, 1988.
68.Krzysztof Kieslowski, A Short Film About Love, 1988.
69.Ermanno Olmi, Legend of the Holy Drinker, 1988.
70.John Duigan, Romero, 1989.
71.Denys Arcand, Jesus of Montreal, 1989.
72.Bruce Beresford, Black Robe, 1991.
73.Stijn Coninx, Daens, 1992.
74.Nancy Savoca, Household Saints, 1993.
75.Mel Gibson, Braveheart, 1995.
76.Liv Ullmann, Kristin Lavransdatter, 1995.
77.Lee David Slotoff, Spitfire Grill, 1996.
78.Marta Meszaros, The Seventh Room, 1996.
79.M. Knight Shyamalan, Wide Awake, 1998.
80.Joe Johnston, October Sky, 1999.
81.David Lynch, The Straight Story, 1999.
82.Agnieszka Holland, The Third Miracle, 1999.
83.Patrice Leconte, The Widow of Saint-Pierre, 2000.
84.Jim Sheridan, In America, 2002.
85.Alexander Payne, About Schmidt, 2002.
86.Bruce Beresford, Evelyn, 2002.
87.Denys Arcand, Barbarian Invasions, 2003.
88.Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ, 2004.
89.Tommy Lee Jones, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 2005.
90.Christian Carion, Joyeux Noel, 2005.
91.Pavel Lungin, The Island, 2006
92.Alejandro Monteverde, Bella, 2006.
93.Jean-Pierre Dardenne, L’enfant, 2006.
94.Martin Provost, Seraphine, 2008.
95.Mark Pellington, Henry Poole is Here, 2008.
96.John Patrick Shanley, Doubt, 2008.
97.Klaus Haro, Letters to Father Jaakob, 2009.
98.Xavier Beauvois, Of Gods and Men, 2010.
99.Philip Groning, Into the Great Silence, 2007.
100.100. Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life, 2011.

Published at Catholic Online, December 12, 2014.

Christmas is for Children

Published December 1, 1997
DEAL W. HUDSON

I heard our president on the radio this morning, announcing, “We must make sure that parents are able to spend time with their children whenever they can.” If the “we” had been the American people, not the government, then the comment was merely an obvious truism. Apparently, though, the president feels that the facts—a fifty percent divorce rate, the spread of the two salary family— require that the government step in and ensure children get enough quality time with their parents.

Sad, isn’t it, that we have created a society in which we must talk about children in this way. In a country where forty-five percent of all children under a year old are in day care, it’s no wonder manger scenes are banned from public places. We don’t like reminders of the family we have lost.

The Christmas season reveals the fault lines everywhere— inside ourselves, within our families, and throughout society. It’s not simply a matter of our anxiety about meeting emotional expectations. At Christmas we relive the definitive entrance of God into the world, establishing himself for all time as “the way, the truth, and the life.” Christmas inevitably reveals the direction of our spiritual compass.

It is ticklish, to say the least, to raise the issue of childcare in this way. So many heroic parents are raising children by themselves, so many others are working hard together to support their families. But as much as those parents want our sympathy and support, I would imagine those same parents deeply wish for a world of intact families where every child is raised by a parent at home. In other words, it is one thing to sympathize with the present situation, and quite another to hope for what children really need.

We have lapsed into the cynicism of accepting the status quo, speaking vaguely for the need for sympathy, and resolving to “face reality.” What troubles me, however, are the deeper currents that course through the culture. I notice, for example, how a kind of gay chic has taken hold of the popular mind. The call for toleration has been replaced not merely by normalization but by positive celebration. Nothing could spread messages more at odds with either Catholic social teaching or the natural law.

We have seen it all before. Remember the speech in Plato’s Symposium extolling the superiority of homosexual love over heterosexual? The argument is based upon the supposed advantage of begetting ideas and “beautiful conversations,” rather than the gross matter of human life. Heterosexual couples, or “breeders” as they are now sometimes called, are naturally inclined toward shaping their lives around the creation of a family, specifically for the purpose of raising children. With the mainstreaming of homosexuality into our culture, children are pushed more and more into the background of our attention and our caring.

In the context of Greek culture, we understand why abstract ideas are given more importance than the life of a human person. Even Aristotle, for all his realism, didn’t base his argument for heterosexuality on the creation of life, but on proper biological functioning. With the coming of the Incarnation, however, it was no longer possible to misunderstand the unique value of the person, or the fundamental purpose of marriage, family, and sexuality to beget and nurture persons.

Charity requires a great deal more than sensitivity and concern for the heroic efforts of single parents who raise children, or for those parents whose two salaries combine to put their children in private schools. Charity requires that we actively work and pray for a transformed society, one that does not depend upon government daycare to do the job of parenting, but one where fathers and mothers are actually present.

At Christmas time, we focus primarily on the perfect humility of Mary but in the midst of these thoughts my mind turns to Joseph. Joseph married the woman he loved, but found that he would never consummate his marriage or receive its physical comforts in the expected fashion. Despite this, he remained chaste and true to his family. He is the purest example of a true promise keeper. Joseph understood his role as one of taking care of his family, not of using his family as a means to his own personal fulfillment.

Gay chic, following on the heels of the “pro-choice” movement, only throws fuel on the fire of the culture of death. It is for this reason the Church has wisely chosen the term “objective disorder” in describing the tragedy of homosexual orientation. Since lay Catholics have been invited to join a dialogue on homosexuality, we at CRISIS think that the gathering of the Holy Family at Christmastide is an ideal occasion for beginning that conversation.

Not Your Usual Christmas Gift Recommendations

Deal W. Hudson
Published December 6, 2010

As I was thinking about making some recommendations for Christmas gift giving, I thought I would challenge my friends by asking them to send me only one item – the kind of thing, I said, “you grab running out of a burning house (after the family, of course).”

Most of my friends responded as requested – though some disobeyed by sending two, and others clearly weren’t quite in the “burning house” state of mind when they hit “send.” (I can say that because I know these people well enough to know what they would grab!)

For example, when Jim Towey, former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, recommended the DVD The Hangover, he was having a little fun, saying, “It reminded me of a White House party with Vladmir Putin and Karl Rove – to this day neither of them remembers what happened.”

After rereading my criterion, Towey said the book that came to mind was Jesus of Nazareth (2008, Ignatius Press) by Pope Benedict XVI. “The good news about getting a book that has been out for years is that you can buy it at the discount rack. The bad news is that this is one book that should have been planted in the soul immediately.”

That’s what I was asking for – the kind of books, music, and movies that should be “planted in the soul,” and I thank Jim for that eloquent phrase.

Speaking of Karl Rove, he recommended another book about Jesus (2010, Viking) by Paul Johnson: “For a subject about which so much has been written, a powerful and insightful volume from an original writer and unusual mind.”

Since Christmas is about Jesus, Rev. Roger Landry, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, Massachusetts, suggests going back to the original sources in the spirit of Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic declaration Verbum Domini. “I’m suggesting that people pick up a new or used copy of the Bible, such as theIgnatius Catholic Study Bible, and read it – or at least acquire and read a good commentary on the Word of God, like the recent editions of the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (BakerAcademic).”

Bishop James D. Conley, auxiliary of the Archdiocese of Denver, recommended a book I did not know, A Memory for Wonders by Mother Veronica Namoyo Le Goulard, P.C.C. (1993, Ignatius Press), calling it “an extraordinary autobiographical story of grace and conversion.” Lucette is a French girl who becomes a Poor Clare and an abbess, though she was raised by aggressively atheistic parents in Morocco. She receives the gift of faith but somehow remains obedient to her parents whose own lives are remarkably changed.

Bishop Robert F. Vasa of Baker, Oregon, calls his contribution “a bit startling” – a video created by Mark Crutcher at LifeDynamics called Maafa 21. According to the bishop, this video “details the plan to rid America of blacks after the civil war and is a severe indictment of Planned Parenthood and their continued attempt to rid America of those some would describe as undesirable.”

Meanwhile, Bishop David Ricken writes from Green Bay, Wisconsin, to recommendThe Impact of God (1995, Hodder & Stoughton) by Iain Matthews, “a tremendous introduction to the thought and spirituality of St. John of the Cross.”

Damian Thompson, who writes about the Church for the UK’s Observer, suggests a set of CDs by Haydn – all twelve of the London Symphonies by Mark Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre of Grenoble. Calling Minkowski a “genius,” Thompson says these “white-hot live performances of this period-instrument band” made him realize just “how adventurous [the symphonies] are.” “In the Military Symphony No. 100, it’s as if the Turkish army has just marched across your living room.”

David Quinn, who is the former editor of the Irish Catholic and a columnist with the Irish Independent, and can be followed on Twitter here, offers Covenant & Conversation by Britain’s wonderful Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. This book, consisting of weekly reflections on the Book of Genesis, gave Quinn “a new appreciation of the Old Testament” and shows Judaism to be “one of the most civilizing forces in history.”

I was glad that Frank Hanna, president of the Solidarity Foundation in Atlanta, recommended Beautiful Dreamer, a CD of Stephen Foster songs rendered by 22 different artists including Yo-Yo Ma and Allison Krauss. Hanna rightfully describes these songs as full of “joy and wistful melancholy” and Foster himself as “an American classic who at times had been relegated to a cliché, now enjoying a rebirth.”

My friend Anne Hendershott, who teaches at King’s College in New York City, is buying copies of the DVD Restrepo “for my husband and for our son,” which she found to be “one of the most moving films I have ever seen.” Based on the book by Sebastian Junger, Restrepo tells the story of American soldiers in Afghanistan. But, as Anne explains, “The film is really for anyone who might want to learn more about what our courageous soldiers are experiencing as they fight the War in Afghanistan.” “This film,” she says, “transcends political viewpoints; you cannot help but feel more optimistic about the future of our country (and the world) knowing that there are still many brave soldiers willing to do the things they do in this movie.”

David Carlin teaches political science at the Community College of Rhode Island but recommends a classic French movie, The Red Balloon (1956). It’s only 30 minutes long, but I will never forget seeing this magical film. As Carlin says, it’s about “the Parisian adventures of young Pascal and his anthropomorphic balloon and is ideal for watching with your grandchildren.”

Patrick Lee, a professor of bioethics at Franciscan University, reminds us of a modern theological classic: Germain Grisez’s The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vols. 1-3. Lee writes, “In my opinion, this is a truly great work in moral theology and contains a wealth of philosophical insight as well. In a faithful, analytically rigorous, and original manner, it answers Vatican II’s call for a renewed moral theology that emphasizes the unity of theology and the moral life. It is truly an inspirational work as well.”

Jack Smith, editor of the Catholic Key newspaper and blog for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, suggests we read The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten (Vintage Books, 1998).

Smith says, “It’s recommended for foodies, grouches, and those prone to praise God for his carnal gifts.” That should get the reader’s attention! “Beyond the food porn,” Smith writes, “the best reason to watch Iron Chef America is to enjoy the acerbic commentary of judge Jeffrey Steingarten, whose barbs are most often directed at fellow judges who don’t take the subject of food as thoughtfully as he does.” Steingarten evokes “an unmistakably Catholic joy in the created world,” though Smith has “no reason to believe he is Catholic.” Steingarten also philosophizes – “amidst his virtual prayers to fine bread and ultra-fresh Northwest seafood, his criticism of pan-Asian ‘cuisine’ and salad fanaticism, and his decimation of vegetarianism (as it is practiced), and the puritanical and unscientific decrees of government nutritionists.” Steingarten’s explanations often raise the question: “Isn’t that a teleological explanation bordering on the religious?”

From Michael Sean Winters, who writes for the National Catholic Reporter, I received the recommendation of a “small” academic book. He reminds us of Ignatius Press’s The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion, which contains a discussion between German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Winters says he keeps lending the book out and is forced to buy a new one. “This discussion between two of the leading, and very different, minds of our times is compelling in every regard, clarifying the often confusing debate about the dictatorship of relativism, the relationship between faith and reason, the limited value of natural law in crafting a public morality in today’s culture, and many other important themes.”

The novel Wheat that Springeth Green (2000, NYRB Classics) by J. F. Powers “bowled over” David L. Holmes, Walter G. Mason Professor of Religious Studies at William and Mary. This was Powers’s second and last novel, and dealing – “as his stories invariably do – with the life of priests and with their loneliness, friendships, conversations, consumption of alcohol, and daily routine.” The novel moves between moments of humor and deep seriousness. For example, “The story of how its priestly protagonist in the Twin Cities refuses to call the archdiocese for the information (for he dislikes the monsignor who would take the call) and instead tries to learn his new assistant’s name by telephoning the division of motor vehicles is hilarious. But late in the novel, when a shady night-club operator with ties to organized crime declares that the priest “is an [expletive-deleted] saint” and a reader in surprise agrees, this enjoyable novel suddenly becomes serious indeed.”

Andrew Rabel, whom I met with in Australia earlier this year, writes and blogs about the Church from Melbourne. He strongly recommends God’s Invisible Hand: The Life and Times of Francis Cardinal Arinze (2006, Ignatius Press) by Gerard O’Connell. He calls Cardinal Arinze “one of the most impressive churchmen in the last 30 to 40 years.” I wish I could quote Rabel at length, but here is the gist of his admiration: “Arinze was the first native born person to head the diocese of Ontisha in Nigeria. When he took over the helm, virtually the only priests there were missionary ones. Today Ontisha is sending priests as missionaries, to the formerly Christian parts of the world.”

I’ve known Rev. James Massa for many years, now executive director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue at the USCCB. He recommends a book he owned for “well over a year” before he read it: John Adams (2008, Simon & Schuster) by David McCullough. “Adams emerges from this stupendous biography as a truly heroic figure – not only for his role as statesman and diplomat in the American Revolution, but also for maintaining his personal integrity in the conflict-ridden aftermath of the war.” Father Massa was also struck by “the troubled friendship” between Adams and Thomas Jefferson. “How could they have been so similar in their devotion to family, country, and book-learning, and yet differ so dramatically on the concrete decisions that needed to be taken for the good of America?”

Denis Coleman, former board Chair of InsideCatholic and Covenant House, likes the new book by British prime minister Tony Blair, A Journey: A Political Life (2010, Knopf). Coleman finds the “quality of the writing is head and shoulders above anything that I have read in years” and praises its “balance.” Blair explains “how, coming from two different philosophies, he and George Bush arrived at the same intersection point” and how old Labour, new Labour, Thatcherism, and neo-conservatism were “built upon each other.”

I’m no longer surprised when our intrepid music critic Robert R. Reilly comes up with something I’ve never heard of. His recommendation is a “tale of high adventure and extraordinary courage” first published in 1922, Among the Wild Tribes of the Afghan Frontier (2010, Nabu Press) by Theodore Leighton Pennell. “I put this book down with awe and reverence.” Pennell, a British missionary doctor working near what is today the Afghan-Pakistan border, delves into Afghan tribal culture during the years 1890 to 1906. Reilly says, “If you want to understand Afghanistan today, you must read this book. But what shines through this book is Pennell’s heroic Christian charity. If you wish the privilege of encountering a great-souled man, here is such an encounter.”

Martin Anderson, who writes from London, is the founder and president of Toccata Classics. Martin comments, “As a regular reviewer of recordings, I get sent so many CDs that I run the risk of growing blasé: it takes something special to make a jaundiced critic sit up and pay attention.” But Anderson commends to our attention the late Pehr Henrik Nordgren’s The Lights of Heaven (Taivaanvalot in Finnish), calling it “one of the most deeply impressive compositions by any recent Finnish composer that I have heard in years.” Anderson, who probably knows Scandanavian repertoire better than anyone alive, describes it as “one of the least orthodox, too, in content and form, setting creation myths from the Kalevala with a primal energy, a fierce joy, which brings up the hair on the arms. It mixes together different musics, too: Finnish runic folk songs sit alongside sophisticated western art-music (you can hear echoes of Szymanowski, Hindemith, Sibelius, Mahler, Tormis, and more) and shamanic ritualism. The scoring should pique your curiosity as well: to a chamber orchestra and chorus, Nordgren adds five five-stringed kanteles (the Finnish folk zitmher), three 36-stringed kanteles, two goat’s horns, reed pipe, herdman’s flute, bullroarers, percussion plaque, shaman drum, bowed harp. Somehow he manages to pull this ragbag of styles together in an epic score that is cathartic in its elemental sweep and constantly fascinating in its unusual colors and procedures.”

It’s conducted by Nordgren’s long-standing friend and colleague Juha Kangas, on the Finnish label Alba (ABCD 269). Anderson adds, “Nordgren, who died in August 2008, was a very gentle man himself, but The Lights of Heaven proves that he had the spirit of a giant.”

Anthony Esolen, a professor of English at Providence College, lauds The Way of the Lamb (2000, T&T Clark) by Rev. John Saward as “an eminently readable and joy-filled book on the ‘little way’ of holiness, manifest in the lives and the works of Saint Therese of Lisieux, Charles Peguy, G. K. Chesterton, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.” High praise, indeed! “Father Saward,” Esolen explains, “puts them in dialogue with one another – a book that will encourage you in the quest for holiness.”

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League and one of my personal heroes, tells me that “one of the more inspiring, yet tragic, books” he has read in some time is Haiti: The God of Tough Places, the Lord of Burnt Men (2010, Transaction Books) by Rev. Rick Frechette, a Passionist. “It’s a riveting tale of human suffering, and what one man – a priest and a physician – is doing to combat it. It makes one proud to be a Catholic.”

Colin Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring, likes the recently published The City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010, Moody) by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner. “It provides a fresh and balanced look at one issue squarely in the center of Catholic consciousness in this time of remarkable political realignment: just what is the proper role of Christians in politics and public policy?” Colin describes it as “a short book and a quick read, but the subject it tackles is both vast and relevant.”

Paul and Evelyn Vitz both teach at New York University, though Paul also teaches at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. Paul recommends The Shadow of His Wings: The True Story of Fr. Gereon Goldman, OFM (2000, Ignatius Press), while Evelyn suggests the “unusual sound of Alfred Deller’s The Holly and the Ivy,” and The Best of Nowell Sing We Clear, 1975-1986 by John Roberts and Tony Barrand. Evelyn adds, “These two Englishmen are specialists in the traditional British song; they have interesting voices and sing wonderfully together. Not every track on these two CDs is totally in the spirit of Christmas (as I understand it), but the best tracks are, I think, really grand!”

Karen Swallow Prior, a friend who invited me to speak at Liberty University on the topic of beauty, is chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages. Karen’s contribution, The History of Beauty and On Ugliness by Umberto Eco, explores this subject. “Through these two companion texts – which together serve as a veritable crash course in art history – an acclaimed literary theorist, novelist, and philosopher provides a critical, historical, and visual exploration of a central paradox of the human condition, one that reflects both our divine and fallen nature: We are compelled to indulge our morbid fascination with the grotesque, while at the same time we seek to fulfill an inherent and insatiable desire for beauty. In this stunningly illustrated hardcover boxed set, form and content beautifully unite.”

Frank Keating, former governor of Oklahoma, submits In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex – the real story that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. Keating calls the tale of how the Essex was destroyed by a sperm whale, “a portrait of Man at his best and worst. The book is a nail biter of all ten fingers.”

Akiva Eldar, chief political columnist and editorial writer at Haaretz, calls The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prison to Peacemaker (forthcoming in February, 2011) “the most authentic account of the painful ordeal of the Palestinian refugees I have ever read and is essential reading for anyone interested in a deep understanding of the Palestinian- Israeli conflict.”

Jean Duchesne, an adviser to the archbishops of Paris since 1981, commends Le Prix à Payer (The Price to Pay) by Joseph Fadelle (2010, L’Oeuvre publishers, Paris). This books tells “the hair-raising story of a young ruling-class Iraqi who becomes a Christian after reading the Gospel and has to face death threats in his family and torture in Saddam Hussein’s prisons before he narrowly escapes to France where he now lives with his wife and children (also baptized) under a fictitious identity to avoid the fatwa against him.” Duchesne’s second recommendation is one he edited: Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger on Christians and Jews (2010, Paulist Press) about “the common roots Jews and Christians share, but also and above all what they are now called to accomplish together.”

Former senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum likes Washington’s Crossing(2006, Oxford) by David Hackett Fisher. “Through the prism of these revolutionary war battles, we see from the words of both British and American leaders insights as to the fundamental differences between the two countries that is essential in understanding the nature of the fight we are engaged in today.”

James Coffey, vice president of the Papal Foundation, confesses that he was “floored” by Matthew Kelly’s CD, Becoming the Best Version of Yourself. Coffey explains that Kelly “takes you through the readings for the four weeks of Advent – you’ll still have time to listen and prepare for Christmas like never before. He also has a plan for making four New Year’s resolutions that will change your life!”

Mark Brumley, president of Ignatius Press, suggests Peace, Like a River by Leif Enger (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002). Brumley describes it “as a marvelously delightful, spiritual novel, set in early 1960s small-town Minnesota, that recounts a young boy’s experience of his janitor-mystic father, outlaw brother, and precocious, literary sister.” This family encounters great tragedy and “responds with faith, sacrifice, and undying love, in a story in which the miraculous seems commonplace and the ordinary, extraordinary.”

Walter Simmons, an independent record producer, author, and classical music reviewer for Fanfare, suggests a recording of American music I dearly love – theNaxos recording of Flagello’s Missa Sinfonica (1957) and Rosner’s “Symphony No. 5, Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina” (1973). “These are two works scored solely for orchestra,” Simmons explains, “and whose structure and expression are based on the Roman Catholic Mass; both are based on traditional Chant melodies as well, and in that sense they are symphonic Masses.” Both composers are best characterized as “neo-romantic,” although their actual musical styles are dramatically different from each other. “While Flagello was Catholic and Rosner Jewish, the latter chose the form and spirit of the Mass as an expression of his pacifist beliefs.”

Russell Shaw, Catholic journalist par excellence, has recently discovered the greatness of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. He writes, “I am dismayed that it took me so long to get around to it, but I rejoice that I finally did. But this tale of adultery and marriage is, quite simply, the best, most penetrating, most thoroughly honest account of the relationship between the sexes that I’ve ever come across, bar none.” Shaw concludes this novel “should be required reading for homilists, lecturers, writers, and every literate person.”

Marjorie Campbell, another regular contributor to InsideCatholic, also recommends a classic: Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley. Campbell thought she had read this book at some point but nonetheless downloaded it on her Kindle. After starting to read, she realized that she had only seen a few of the film’s versions. “What a treat to discover the gripping saga of man as Creator and his creation Frankenstein. A science fiction classic, this volume plumps bioethical questions more relevant today than when first published anonymously in 1818.” Campbell pulls this quote for your consideration: “You must create a female for me with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being. This you alone can do, and I demand it of you as a right you must not refuse to concede.”

Bishop Rene Henry Gracida, bishop emeritus of Corpus Christi, has “no hesitation” in recommending Karl Richter’s 1958 recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on DG. The bishop has “played it over and over again” because he finds it “so moving artistically and spiritually.” I have a special fondness for this recording myself, because these were some of the LPs through which, in college, I discovered the greatness of classical music.

David Barton, president of the national pro-life organization WallBuilders, likes the DVDs How Great Is Our God and Indescribable by Louie Giglio for a better understanding “of the splendor and majesty of God our Father, the Creator of everything that exists.” The images on these DVDs, shown from the Hubble Telescope, give “new and unimaginable meeting to Psalms 19 – ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows His handiwork.'”

Michael Voris, president of St. Michael’s Media and RealCatholicTV, writes to recommend The Desolate City (1990 HarperCollins) by Anne Muggeridge: “To completely understand the crisis of faith that has gripped the Catholic Church, this book is indispensable.”

The president of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Rev. Terence Henry, TOR, writes about the visit of Newt and Callista Gingrich to Franciscan University last fall to present their movie Nine Days That Changed the World, about John Paul II’s historic 1979 pilgrimage to Poland. “This movie inspires and fills the viewer with hope in the power of truth and love by powerfully conveying how John Paul II’s first visit to his homeland as pope triggered the fall of this godless government.”

The President and Editor-in-Chief at Catholic Exchange, Harold Fickett, recommends a film that has haunted him since seeing it three years ago: Danish director Susan Bier’s After the Wedding. “This film captures humanity in a way rarely seen on film and moves through a series of suspense drama premises that finally give way to a universal ethical dilemma: How much do we owe to those closest to hand versus those far away?” Fickett says, “It begins with Jacob Peterson (Mads Mikkelsen), a Dane pursuing humanitarian work in Africa, who returns to his homeland, ostensibly, to court a potential funder. The donor turns out to be married to Jacob’s ex-wife, and Jacob suspects revenge may be at hand for his formerly dissolute life.”

Matt Pinto, president of Ascension Press, has for years, he tells me, “lamented being off in the clouds during my middle school days, but I have now discovered at least one benefit from this past laziness – reading.” He’s now discovered and recommends Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2006, Simon & Schuster). Calling it “a fabulous read for anyone who is historically-challenged,” Matt marveled at how providential the election of Lincoln was for this particular moment in history, as well as the tragic loss of so many lives.

Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, recommends Politics – According to the Bible (2010, Zondervan) by Wayne Grudem. Land admires all of Grudem’s work, but this work is “both extremely readable and comprehensive” and “destined to be a classic reference on the subject for years.”

Patrick Langrell, director of Young Adult Outreach in the Archdiocese of New York, recommends a book by his boss: To Whom Shall We Go? Lessons from the Apostle Peter (2008, Our Sunday Visitor) by Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan. Langrell describes it this way: “This short yet profoundly deep and spiritually uplifting series of reflections on the words and actions of St. Peter provides all of us with the perfect reading material that will help us cultivate and flourish in an even deeper relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ. Without a doubt, this book is a must-read for all Christians, and due to its simplicity and clarity is the perfect Christmas gift for a family member, friend, or ‘on the edge’ inquirer.”

Janet Sahm, executive assistant at InterActiveCorp and contributor to InsideCatholic.com, also writes from New York City to suggest Men, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility(2007, St. Anthony Messenger) by Edward Sri. “The summarized version of John Paul II’s ‘Love and Responsibility’ literally rocked my world. It changed the way I approach every relationship in my life; between friendships, dating, and even family members. This book is vital for young adults, yet relevant for every age.”

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, likes the present he is receiving from his wife Samah: Magic: The Complete Course (2008, Workman) by Joshua Jay. “I have not yet begun the book that is my entry point to my next ‘fun project’ – magic. It comes with magic tricks and promises years of frustrating fun.” I’m going to avoid the obvious comment about the difficulty of lowering taxes…

An associate professor of English at Liberty University, Carl Curtis recommends a DVD that is already on my Santa list: The Complete Metropolis (Kino International). All previous versions have given way to the recent discovery in Argentina of a nearly mint-condition print of the 1927 classic silent film. “What should one call it – sci-fi classic, dystopia run amok, Marxist nonsense, materialist nightmare, German decadence on a platter, Christian vision, touching romance, sloppy romance, farce? Something for everyone. The perfect gift.”

Francis Fusco calls The Lord by Romano Guardini (1982, Gateway) “the book that keeps on giving, one foundational to the thought of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, including John Paull II, Benedict XVI, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Henri de Lubac.” He adds a recommended DVD, The Andy Griffith Show. “What reader of Inside Catholic would not want their children to watch good, wholesome The Andy Griffith Show instead of the current children’s drivel on television and DVD?” I second that thought!

Quin Hillyer, senior editorial writer at the Washington Times, recommends “an inspirational story of the meeting of mind and will along with a faith once lost that was found anew.” Hillyer is talking about Clarence Thomas’s My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir (2007, Harper), the story of “Justice Thomas’s rise from abject poverty; his willingness to question socio-political shibboleths and think, with integrity, for himself; and his rediscovery of his Catholic faith, all combine to create one of the most unforgettable and highly treasurable memoirs of the past quarter-century.”

Joseph Susanka, a regular writer for InsideCatholic, has finally discovered Renaissance music, finding “the melodic ideas expressed by most composers of that era a trifle too dissonant for my Baroque-trained ears, I fear.” Now he shares his “growing obsession” with the work of Christopher Bell and the Praetorius Consort on their album Praetorius: Dances from Terpsichore & More. “Most people have heard of Praetorius, but it is the works of the recording’s secondary composers – Arbeau, Holborne, and Demantius – that really captured my attention. I challenge even the most decorous of listeners to give this one a whirl without succumbing to a fair bit of toe-tapping.”

Anyone who knows Ray Flynn, former mayor of Boston and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, knows two things: He is a pro-life Democrat and completely unpredictable. In keeping with his reputation, he sent neither a movie, nor a book, nor a CD recommendation, but rather a story about “the decency of baseball fans.” Flynn says that “after hearing the following story, I said to my son, ‘God must be a baseball fan.'”

That game was June 1, 2010, in Detroit, when the Tigers’ Armando Galarraga missed out on a perfect game when first-base umpire Jim Joyce incorrectly called the batter safe at first with two outs in the ninth inning. Galarraga, who got the next batter out to finish with a one-hitter, was extremely gracious over the missed call, saying, “We’re human. Nobody is perfect. He’ll [Joyce] probably feel bad after he sees the replay.” Joyce did just that, admitting: “It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked it.” Joyce was the home plate umpire when the two teams met again the next day, and Galarraga was sent out with the Tigers’ lineup card. The two men shook hands, and Joyce tearfully apologized to the rookie pitcher, who had just been called up in May, for costing him a chance to go into the baseball record books.

I’m glad Ray Flynn sent me that story to cap off this wonderful group of Christmas recommendations. Merry Christmas!