Sherry Antonetti is a freelance writer, blogger and published author of The Book of Helen. She lives just outside of Washington, DC with her husband and their ten children.
My dad always used to send me theological articles to read, like Hans Von Balthasar's essay, “Does Original Sin Exist?” Steeped in toddlers at the time, I couldn’t wrap my brain around them, so I scribbled back, “Yes. Next question.” I still have the essay, and I still struggle with some of the denser work available for someone seeking to grow in understanding of the faith. Like a person who does not know wine, being given too fine a vintage, I know it’s good. I also know I’m not ready for it. Still, he lit the spark, which is all the Holy Spirit asks of any parent. Recognizing my own need to learn more, I created a folder called “Sherry's Continuing Catholic Education” and began filling it with articles and writers I knew had a relationship with Christ, and loved the Catholic Church. That organic decision led to a library which I now present as a Catholic Reader starter kit for those wading into the rich waters of our literary and faith tradition. It's my own list of necessary staples for your Catholic brain and heart’s pantry.
1) No matter who you are, you need a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Not to be confused with the Baltimore Catechism), this green cover second edition is a gift to the faithful, and to those who want to know why we profess what we profess and how we came to believe it. It's also readable (though not in one sitting).
2) It seems obvious, but everyone who wants to know Christ needs to know Scripture. Everyone needs a good Catholic Bible, one you can carry with you, one you can thumb through, one that will become well-examined. I'd also vote for a slightly larger font. This book will be with you for decades, but your eyes might not always be as awesome. A word to anyone in the market for the Good Book: Go to a Catholic book store and remember that not all translations are the same. Words matter. They affect meaning and understanding. Thumb through, read the translation of a few of the parables and look at the notes. This is not merely discerned through personal preference; this is looking to see if reading this translation and subsequent footnotes help makes the stories of Scripture feel like flesh. Scripture always speaks, whether we're listening or not. However with a good translation and good notes, reading Scripture should allow you to ask questions, and if not find parts of the answer, find reference points for further study.
3) The Magnificat is a monthly magazine that I consider a must if you’re just starting out reading Scripture — especially if you think you're too busy. My mom gave me my first back in 2002 after my fifth child. I'd keep it in the car to read while waiting for pick up in the parking lot. It became the equivalent of spiritual vitamins, to have it every day at my fingertips. I love it because it's portable, gives the saints of the day, the readings for the Mass and a reflection. This is the 16th year of my subscription and it continues to feed me because it's well done. The only problem I have with it is when I can’t find mine. I admit, it becomes a near occasion of sin for me if I misplace it early in the month.
4) Catholic Christianity by Peter Kreeft is a great readable version of the Catechism, all of it. Most people may use the Catechism for references, but few read it cover to cover. (It’s over 900 pages long.) But Kreeft’s book is readable. I’ve read it through and recommended it as a gift for confirmation candidates as a way of always being able not merely to know what your faith teaches, but begin to understand it more deeply.
5) City of God by Saint Augustine. I know everyone loves Confessions and I’m no different in this case, but while Confessions tells his conversion, City of God is rather like, “If a saint blogged.” You can almost picture Saint Augustine walking through the streets of Hippo and thinking, “I saw what they're doing, now I have to say something.” He'd go home and fire off a letter. After graduate school, my dad and I took turns reading it aloud as we drove all my stuff home from Boston to Beaumont, Texas. What it taught me was that saints live real lives. They’re connected to the world around them, and their writings reveal things which are universal, even though they’re time-specific.
6) C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. This work is less well-known than The Screwtape Letters, but a friend recommended it to me and I'm forever grateful. Lewis explains Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in a way I can access. Lewis’ depiction of passengers on a bus coming to a strange land and having to grope their way (with guides and free will) either toward something better (God), or drift further and further away resonates.
7) Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos is a fun favorite. It is more relevant now in this age of relativism than it was when it came out, even if some of the references are dated. This is another one of those books you don’t devour in one setting, not because you couldn’t, but because if you do, you’ll forget a lot along the way. Allow yourself to read and enjoy, laugh and think, because this book is best when served like dessert, where you don’t over-stuff yourself.
8) Word by Word: Slowing Down with the Hail Mary. This book, edited by Sarah Reinhard, should come with a warning. You will never be able to speed through praying the Hail Mary again without KNOWING you are trying to check off the box of praying, rather than entering into prayer. It is a lovely way to fall deeper in love with Our Lady, and again, it’s one word a day for the whole of the prayer, and if you allow yourself just a little every day, the process works on how you pray every prayer, and in this day and age, learning to carve out the quiet time in one’s heart to listen to God, and give praise to God, and to pray to God, is very necessary.
9) The Doctors of the Church by Pope Benedict the XVI is a favorite for three reasons: 1) Pope Benedict is an enormously gifted teacher/writer. 2) He gives the reader an overview of each Doctor of the Church without overwhelming one in minutiae. 3) Reading about each of the 35 Doctors of the Church will whet the appetite for further exploration of particular Doctors. I love any book that inspires me to the next book.
10) I'd love to tell you the next book was something impressive like The Dark Night of the Soul or The Story of A Soul or The Interior Castle or Summa Theologica, but I'll admit, my 10th selection for the Catholic Starter Kit Pantry isn't a book. It's the Catholicism series of video essays by now-Bishop Robert Barron. It captures my students in special needs CCD. It captures my children who aren't always interested in what Mom (or CCD) has to say, and no matter how many times I see it, it's still a feast for the eyes, ears and heart. That's my list. It's by no means exclusive or exhaustive. It's a beginning for anyone who wishes to use it. Having faith is a gift, like the seed sown. Growing in faith is an act of the will, to take in the living water and turn our faces toward the Son. It is a day by day process of growing deeper and deeper roots in the faith, and reaching up and out to God with everything you have. In every field of endeavor, if we want to become more informed, we must commit the time. These books helped me sandwich in time in between carpool runs and diaper changes, homework and meal planning to grow interest in the faith more and more and more. Each of these texts, each of these works is an invitation (through the lens of the writer) to know more about our faith, and about God. Have fun getting started.