10 Classic Catholic Books That Would Make Good Christmas Gifts

Here are 10 Catholic classics I’d recommend to anyone, especially as Christmas gifts.

(photo: Josep Tapiró Baró, 1836-1913)

Last week on FlipBoard — which is a really neat app in which you can “customize” articles you’d like to read and then, literally, “flip” through them, there was an article called “10 Books All Christians Must Read (In Addition to the Bible)”. It wasn’t exactly ten books that I would want to read, as both Calvin and Luther were on it, and I wouldn’t want to have to slog through Dietrich Bonhoeffer, either. However, it made me think of the ten books that—out of the hundreds, if not thousands—of Catholic classics I’d recommend to anyone, especially as a Christmas gift.

(1) The Imitation of Christ. The second-best selling book of all-time (after The Bible), “the Imitation”, as it’s universally-known, charts the soul’s individual progress up through its unification with Jesus in Holy Communion. Though it sometimes sounds like it was written by a misanthrope: “It is truly a misery to live upon this earth,” it’s also chock full of good wisdom throughout: “I’d rather feel compunction than know what it means.” Of the hundreds of editions available in English, my favorite remains My Imitation Of Christ by the Confraternity of the Precious Blood, illustrated by Ariel Agemian.

(2) The Confessions of Saint Augustine. The greatest theologian of his age and most important Catholic convert since St. Paul, one could choose any of the many volumes of St. Augustine (FlipBoard’s list preferred City of God). However, The Confessions is important as a literary work for another reason: it holds the distinction of being the first autobiography. Like The Imitation, it’s also quite quotable: “Our hearts are made for You, O Lord, and they are restless until they rest in You.” Again, English translations are legion but the one I like best is by Dr. R.S. Pine-Coffin (Yes, that’s his real name).

(3) True Devotion to Mary. St. Louis de Montfort’s classic—along with his shorter The Secret of Mary and The Secret of the Rosary—is excellent preparation for anyone wishing to consecrate themselves to the Blessed Virgin Mary, or more simply just to be introduced to a popular form of Mariology. Throughout St. Louis quotes from the great saints who had great devotion to Mary, including St. Bonaventure: “My loving and redeeming Mistress, I will have confidence and will not fear because you are my strength and my praise in The Lord…I am altogether yours and all that I have belongs to you!”

(4) Butler’s Lives of the Saints. While there’s no substitute for the gigantic four-volume version, Michael Walsh’s one-book revised and expanded edition is a capable version of this Catholic classic of hagiography. Though there is an admitted over-abundance of British (and Irish) Saints, and the prose style is decidedly stilted (wonderfully so!), Butler’s remains the first-stop for anyone wishing to dip into the lives of the saints. Uneven in parts—some saints are summed up in one small paragraph while others go on for four pages—it is still the best English-version we have of the lives of the saints.

(5) Christian Prayer/The Liturgy of the Hours. If you are unfamiliar with the Liturgy of the Hours (formerly known as the Divine Office) or you know someone who is ready to take their spiritual life to the next level, you can start with the brief Shorter Christian Prayer, which is almost pocket-sized. The hefty one-volume Christian Prayer (which also comes in a Large Print Edition) contains the Office of Readings. The full-blown four-volume Liturgy of the Hours (also available in Latin according to the rubrics of 1962) is more than a book, more than a devotion: it is part of the Liturgy of the Church, or as it is often called, “The Prayer of The Church.” While it is difficult to figure out where all the ribbons go and what page to flip to, inexpensive Ordos (literally Calendars with page directions) are also available. Also: I don’t know a priest or Religious who wouldn’t want to help any member of the laity who wanted help getting started with the Divine Office.

(6) The Little Office Of The Blessed Virgin Mary. A good way to get the feel for the Liturgical Hours (Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, and Compline—and Prime, if you use the 1962 version). The Little Office is almost small enough for your pocket and a nice compliment to the Holy Rosary. Includes the Litany of Loretto (and in the 1962 edition, en face Latin/English throughout).

(7) Introduction to The Devout Life. St. Francis de Sales no-nonsense step-by-step instruction for those who wish to enter more deeply into the spiritual life. Full of great quotes: “Pray a half-hour every day, except when you are busy: then pray for one full hour.”

(8) The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Begin—and if you must, end—with the “Inferno”. Since 1994 at least a dozen new translations of Dante into English have sprouted up. However it is good to remember that Dante was (a) first and foremost a Catholic poet who was perhaps the most brilliant man of his age, and (b) a “Comedy” doesn’t mean there a lot of laughs in this epic Italian poem. It DOES mean that the end—Paradiso—guarantees a happy ending, especially St. Bernard’s prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the final Canto. Mark Musa’s translation is very good (and loaded with notes), but in terms of a gorgeous gift book, Allen Mandlebaum’s translation with illustrations by Barry Moser has still not been beat.

(9) The Seven Storey Mountain. Thomas Merton’s autobiography that got a lot of young men knocking on the doors of American Trappist monasteries in the 1950s. Expertly edited by Merton’s Columbia classmate (and Catholic publishing legend) Robert Giroux, the book is a timeless look at the always-fascinating conversion story of a soul. In a sense, it makes a sort of bookend with Augustine’s Confessions.

(10) Prayers And Devotions: 365 Daily Meditations by Pope John Paul II. My favorite book by Pope St. John Paul II (and originally published in 1984), editor Bishop Peter Canisius Johannes Van Lierde did an admirable job of marshalling a lot of (even just six years into John Paul’s papacy) St. John Paul’s writings, speeches, and informal talks to one-page summaries on everything from the saint of the day to “The Message of Fatima” and “Shadows and Imbalances of Our Generation.”

Note—not that it’s too hard to miss—there are no women represented in the above list. This is due only to limitations of space. Perhaps we will visit St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, St. Therese’s Little Way, and the diary of St. Jane Frances de Chantal in another post, God-willing!