A History of the Church in 100 Objects
By Mike Aquilina and Grace Aquilina
Ave Maria Press, 2017
448 pages, $24.95
To order: ewtnrc.com or (800) 854-6316
Given that this book is coauthored by Mike Aquilina (written with his daughter Grace), one is tempted to simply write, “The book is Aquilina’s work,” as a sort of code for “It’s great; buy it,” and leave it at that. After all, every title this reporter has ever read by this author has proven not only well-written, but helpful and even deeply moving. Why would this latest work be a departure from that mold?
And it is not. Well-written, insightful and often surprising, this book is a treasure worth having. Aquilina and Aquilina have done a remarkable service to the Church, for they have taken a tremendous amount of research and distilled it into a greatly condensed form that anyone — whether a casual reader or harried scholar — can find useful.
The book consists of 100 very short chapters, making it perfect for quick bursts of reading that do not require a tremendous amount of attention. In each, the authors riff off a picture to give their audience an insight into Church history and how that has shaped our world.
“Riff,” actually, is the appropriate word. As a jazz musician riffs off of a melody line to create a cross between the exciting and new, so the writers have done here.
Take for instance the chapter, “A Vessel for Wine in the Dark Ages.” The accompanying color picture shows a large amphora, and one might expect from a glance at the title and image that the writers will describe, say, the Mass or the Wedding Feast at Cana or how the monastic orders saved the art of wine-making.
Instead, the chapter is really about how the Church rescued the West from the dimmest, most tenebrous periods of the Dark Ages. And off of that, the Aquilinas move the topic to the person of Pope St. Gregory the Great — all in the space of two and a half highly readable pages. (Sometimes the stories take just a little more than a page.)
The way they pivot from what at first glance appears to be a chapter’s subject into its real purpose is seamless, and this writer frequently found himself admiring the skill this took.
More than once, this reader came away thinking, “I never knew that.”
Beyond the truly interesting facts and the compelling stories is the balance the authors strike.
Take, for example, Object 56, “Alexander VI’s Seal.” Most writers can find nothing good to write about this Borgia pope, and justifiably so. He was a scoundrel and an embarrassment not only to the papacy and the priesthood, but to humanity itself. Yet the Aquilinas note some positive traits in the man, although it is faint praise (of the, “Well, at least he didn’t murder his mother,” variety).
More noteworthy is their treatment in the same chapter of Father Girolamo Savonarola. This man belonged to the Order of Preachers and ruled Florence for 15 years in the late 15th century. It is from his reign of terror that we get the enduring phrase, “Bonfire of the Vanities.”
Most historians treat the megalomaniacal Dominican monk as either the most beastly person who ever lived, a flawed yet heroic champion for their pet cause, or an unrecognized saint.
The Aquilinas cut through the clutter of such assessments to give a fair, balanced and accurate accounting of the man. He was not, they write, “a hero; he might have been ... but power drove him mad.”
They also use chapters to build upon one another so readers get a fuller sense of the times, people and places discussed in the work. So the story of the Renaissance gets traced from Michelangelo through Pope Julius II’s decision to tear down and rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica to the glorious music of Palestrina to the papacy of Pope St. Pius V and beyond.
The book also tells stories that even knowledgeable readers will not know. Take, for instance, the story of Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, a Spanish Franciscan who served as a cardinal. Several chapters on, we learn the connected story of the Dominican friar Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas. Both were agents of Church and social reform who worked to prevent the slavery so tragically employed by Spanish colonies in the New World. Most know nothing of these two figures, and yet both were two of the first prominent activists for a universal conception of human dignity.
It is not unusual to find oneself at the end of a story wanting to know more. If someone wants to gain a better understanding of a subject, each chapter concludes with two books for suggested reading.
At $24.95, some will find the price a bit dear. Others will consider it a bargain for all of the knowledge packed inside its 448 pages. If you like learning and value having easily accessible information at your fingertips, then this book is well worth owning.
Brian O’Neel writes from Quarryville, Pennsylvania.