Story by S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - “Great men and women – great souls – are formed by great literature,” Bishop James Conley wrote in the National Catholic Register.
In his 2015 essay, titled, “Sursum Corda: 10 Suggestions for Rekindling the Literary Imagination,” he recommended returning to great literature as a means of gaining “insight into our relationship with God and the world.”
Even before he penned those words, faithful Catholics in southern Nebraska have been turning to literature to feed their souls. Scattered throughout the diocese are a number of book clubs, where books are read and discussed with joyful enthusiasm.
For a group of ladies who meet at St. Mary in Ashland every other Tuesday evening after the kids are in bed, their book club is an opportunity to tend to their own spiritual health while building fellowship with other Catholic women.
“We start the meeting with prayer,” said Joanna Torpy.
The ladies write down and share personal prayer intentions, which they exchange with other members of the group. Each woman prays for another’s intentions over the next two weeks until they meet again.
Started by Maggie Onwiler, who attended a similar group in Lincoln before she moved to Ashland, this club focuses on spiritual reading.
“Right now we are reading Immaculee Ilibigaza’s ‘Left to Tell’,” said Mrs. Torpy.
The club has also read “Women of Grace” by Michaelann Martin, “The Handbook for Catholic Moms” by Lisa M. Hendey, “Rome Sweet Home” by Scott and Kimberly Hahn, and quite a few others since they started meeting in September 2013.
If the ladies have a bit of trouble staying on topic during discussion, it’s only because the personal interaction is so positive – and necessary for moms of young kids who can sometimes let the many duties of parenting get in the way of adult conversation.
During summer months, they swap out books for the Sunday Mass readings and employ other avenues of inspiration, such as a video series. They have also used their time together to serve the parish by organizing the parish library.
“The book club has strengthened my faith through exposure to more spiritual reading and the related discussion than I would achieve on my own,” said Mrs. Torpy.
Other clubs explore many different kinds of books. One group that meets in Lincoln has read a great variety of literature since they started in 2005. They’re on title #82.
“We’ve read almost every genre you can think of: fiction, non-fiction, classics, modern literature, poetry, a cooking magazine, biographies, science fiction, et cetera,” said Joan Tasler.
A member of St. Teresa Parish, Mrs. Tasler founded the group with her husband Matt, and Father Robert Matya, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Lincoln and director of the Newman Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Their group has led to several others, each including about 8-12 people for optimum discussion.
Even when a book does not contain a spiritual message, there is an opportunity for faith development.
“Good and thoughtful discussion, grappling with difficult issues, being challenged and sometimes corrected, and spending time with other faithful Catholics has definitely been a boon to my spiritual life,” said Libby Jaros, a member of the Tasler-Matya group.
She and her husband, Steve, belong to Lincoln’s St. Joseph Parish. The book club group also includes Ben and Maureen Mattern of Lincoln’s Blessed Sacrament Parish, Father Michael Morin, pastor of St. James Parish in Mead, and Dr. Peter and Lori Morin of St. Teresa Parish in Lincoln.
Dr. Morin said the opportunity to discuss books with other Catholics is helpful, even when the reading material itself is not necessarily spiritual.
“Sometimes it feels like it is us against the world, and it is so refreshing and uplifting to go have these book club meetings with like-minded people,” he said.
Mrs. Morin put in, “We are all Catholics who care deeply about our faith yet we do hold a variety of opinions, so I think we challenge each other on some of the difficult topics that can arise.”
In this club, one member will select a title and buy 10 copies for the whole group, then host the next gathering for a meal and discussion.
“I think these are two of the best reasons we have success,” Dr. Morin said.
“We don’t miss unless there is sickness or death,” added Mrs. Jaros.
Mrs. Tasler described the fun rating system the group has developed.
“We count ‘one, two, three,’ and then each member gives a thumbs up, a thumbs down, or a thumbs sideways to rate the book.”
When the lively discussions end, the next member in line passes out the next book, and another meeting time is scheduled.
“I have read many books that I never would have chosen for myself, which is one of the big gifts of book club,” Mrs. Jaros said.
Her favorite book read in her group so far is “Death Comes for the Archbishop” by Willa Cather.
“It is a beautifully written story,” Mrs. Jaros said. “As the decades of the story unfolds, Cather weaves through it many short legends, saints’ stories, outlaw tales that are fun to read and very engaging.”
Lori Morin said her favorite was “Quo Vadis” by Henryk Sienkiewicz.
“It is a historical fiction narrative that takes place in Rome during the time of Nero,” she explained. “We happened to read it during the Lenten and Easter seasons that year, so it coincided with the New Testament Mass readings.”
Mrs. Morin continued, “For me, it brought those readings to life in a new way and I came to appreciate the humanity of Jesus’ early followers in a way I hadn’t considered before.”
This phenomenon of enhanced perspective is something that Bishop Conley talked about in his essay.
“Literature opens our imaginations to wonder,” he wrote. “Good books can spur in us a sense of justice, charity and generosity. They can expand our souls and inspire our hearts to strive for greatness.”