8 Catholic Books to Help You Become a Saint

“Don’t neglect your spiritual reading. Reading has made many saints.” —St. Josemaría Escrivá

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, “Monk in White, Seated, Reading,” c. 1850-1855
Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, “Monk in White, Seated, Reading,” c. 1850-1855 (photo: Public Domain)

“Have you ever thought of putting together an essential reading list for Catholics?”

A friend asked me that question recently and the answer is: Yes, but it’s impossible to do so. 

The reason it’s impossible is simply that, unless one is a theologian with a prodigious memory, and enough time to read all that is essential to Catholicism, you might never have the time to read all and everything that is of import to Catholics.

Someone on Twitter once tweeted, “Can we just all agree that there should be an eighth day of the week and it’s to be devoted entirely to reading?” But even with this extra, imaginary day in our lives, I doubt we could get through the seemingly insurmountable works of just St. Thomas Aquinas and his teacher St. Albertus Magnus, whose entire works take up a bookcase.

Still, my friend asked a question and he deserves an answer — so, in the words of Alexander Haig, “Let me caveat you” and tell you that the upcoming list is incomplete, arbitrary and leaves out some obvious “required reading”:

1. The first works of “essential reading” are the Gospels. Pressed for time? Start with the Gospel of Mark. It is by far the shortest, and the action is quick, fast-paced and at times breathless. True, there’s no Nativity story (as in Matthew and Luke), or the incredible poetry of the beginning of St. John (“In the beginning was the Word…”), but if you’ve never read the Gospels — or any Gospel — from beginning to end, your best bet is probably St. Mark.

2. The Catechism of The Catholic Church. This is one of the “final” documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) as the Council wanted a revised Catechism, but knew that there was no way to get it done during the council. (In fact, it wasn’t released until almost 30 years after the Council ended.) The structure of it actually lends it to bite-sized readings on almost every single subject one could possibly imagine. Still too much for you to digest? Try the abridged Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church — it’s even more reader-friendly than the original Catechism.

3. The Imitation of Christ. The second-best selling book of all time (after the Bible), Thomas à Kempis’s classic gained the silver medal in sales for a reason —it charts the soul’s progress up to and including its union with God (in Holy Communion). There are so many English translations of it that choosing one can make one’s head spin, but I’ve always preferred the Confraternity of the Precious Blood edition, with the stunning illustrations by Ariel Agemian.

4. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Before anyone balks at the 12-volume edition of Butler’s Lives that was produced in the 1980s or the four-volume edition in which each book is the size, literally, of a brick, know that you are in good hands with Michael Walsh’s 1991 one-volume edition, expertly abridged —  and if not “complete,” then at least it is a good representative sampling of 365 saints, even though it leans a lot on those holy souls of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales.

5. The Psalter. Someone once called the Book of Psalms “Jesus’ Prayer Book,” and they weren’t wrong. Paulist Press produces an oversized, hand-lettered edition, as well as hand-held one “for singing” (since, after all, the psalms should be sung, or at the very least chanted). Also worth investing in: Donald Jackson’s beautifully illuminated Saint John’s Bible one-volume edition, which is larger than most coffee-table books but literally a work of art.

6. If one is going to have a Psalter and the Gospel of Mark, it seems impossible for an essential Catholic reading list not to suggest the entire Bible. Again, there are more editions than you could imagine. I often reach for is the Catholic Study Bible published by Oxford (with the ecclesiastical approbation of the USCCB). The translation tends to be a bit ponderous and the notes are, as one scholar said, “absolutely baroque,” so another choice is the Jerusalem Bible, one of whose translators was J.R.R. Tolkien. I also enjoy the flavor of the Douay-Rheims Bible, with its delightfully old-fashioned language, and the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible (Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition) is very good too.

7. The Handbook of Indulgences. This slim tome contains all the ways one can garner either a plenary or partial indulgence.

8. The Little Office Of The Blessed Virgin Mary. A book I’ve written about before for the Register. In an ideal world, all the Catholic laity would be conversant in the Liturgy of the Hours (aka The Divine Office) and understand the complex structure of the four-volume English edition (or the even more difficult pre-Vatican II Latin/English edition). Or, for that matter, even the one-volume “Christian Prayer” edition. However, the world is not ideal, thus the slender “Little Office” of Our Lady is about as good an introduction to “the Prayer of the Church” as one could hope for.

Again, this is an incomplete list, but it would still take some searching for the books themselves, and the time to read them before one could say that there are obvious gaps (no Confessions of St. Augustine or Summa Theologiae by St. Thomas Aquinas, for example) that we didn’t have time for!