Classic Literature for the Catholic Imagination

Here are a few titles that may inspire you to stay up past your regular bedtime.

(photo: Register Files)

There are some classics that every Catholic should have on his bookshelf. Oh yes, of course, there are the sterling writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien; but there are so many great works of literature that precede those works!

Joseph Pearce, in his new book Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know (Ignatius Press, 2019), rattles off a long list of classic titles (100 in all) and explains what each can teach us – starting with the epic works of Homer and Virgil, then veering on to Sophocles, Dante, Chaucer, Thomas More, Shakespeare and many more. “In knowing great works of literature,” Pearce explains,

“...we come to know ourselves, because the humanities teach us about humanity – both our own humanity and the humanity of our neighbors.”

Pearce is a classicist, a literary biographer who leads his readers through the spiritual depths of the Catholic literary tradition. Among his popular titles are Catholic Literary Giants: A Field Guide to the Catholic Literary Landscape (Ignatius Press, 2014) and Poems Every Catholic Should Know (2016). In Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know, he surveys the panoramic vista of the history of the West and identifies three broad ages of man: the pre-Christian or pagan age, the age of Christendom, and sadly, what he calls the age of Disenchantment. “In the age of disenchantment,” he writes,

“...the wholeness and oneness of Christendom is lost in a progressive fragmentation of thought that continues to this day.”


More Short Stories for the Catholic Imagination

Once you've mastered the classic works on Joseph Pearce's exhaustive list, perhaps you'll appreciate some of the finer Catholic short story authors. Here are a few titles that may inspire you to stay up past your regular bedtime, nose in a book:

The Substance of Things Hoped For: Short Fiction by Modern Catholic Authors selected with an introduction by John B. Breslin, S.J. (1987: Doubleday). A special shoutout to my friend Kim for bringing this wonderful book to my attention! No surprise, I turned first to “The Enduring Chill” by one of my favorite authors, Flannery O'Connor. But there's so much more to discover! The book includes stories by well-known writers Graham Greene and Walker Percy; but keep reading! There are 21 stories in all; and the reader can come to know the work of Catholic writers like Bernard MacLaverty, Muriel Spark, Stuart Dybek, Ignazio Silone, Morley Callaghan and others.

Father Breslin served as professor, chaplain and vice president at Georgetown University; but even more, he was an editor of religion at Doubleday – a role which introduced him to new and creative Catholic writers who might not already be on your reading list. I often keep a book of short stories on my bedside table; and a chapter from The Substance of Things Hoped For is a great way to end a busy day.

The Best American Catholic Short Stories by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp (editors). (2006: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.). There's bound to be some overlap here, as this book also includes works by Flannery O’Connor – but there are other writers to be discovered: John Hassler, Ron Hansen, Tim Gautreaux and more. This book is unique in that the stories in this collection deal with many of the issues brought into the spotlight with Vatican II.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. (1942: Harcourt, Inc.) Well, yes, of course! Lewis's classic masterpiece of religious satire should be on everyone’s bookshelf. Amazon says of the work, “At once wildly comic, deadly serious, and strikingly original, C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters is the most engaging account of temptation—and triumph over it—ever written.”

The Complete Father Brown Mysteries by G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton's famed Catholic cleric was first introduced in “The Innocence of Father Brown” in 1911, and the stellar observation skills of the eccentric sleuth from a tiny Cotswold village have entertained readers and viewers ever since. Chesterton's Father Brown stories have been brought to the television screen twice, in a 1974 BBC series, and again in 2013.