Monday, December 26, 2011

The Secret World of Saints: Inside the Catholic Church and the Mysterious Process of Anointing the Holy Dead (Giveaway)

UPDATE: Timothy won and has been contacted.

I've been trying to read Diarmid MacCullouch's heavily-praised Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, but after three months, I've made it through less than 300 pages. It's just too much of a slog, and I find I'm retaining almost nothing.

By comparison, Bill Donahue's The Secret World of Saints: Inside the Catholic Church and the Mysterious Process of Anointing the Holy Dead was a pleasure that I devoured in a sitting.

Here's the official description:

When Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk Indian, converted to Catholicism in 1676, she did it with gusto. She slept on a bed of thorns. She had a friend whip her. She put hot coals between her toes. She suffered from smallpox, and the disease left her almost blind. Yet she still fasted, in penitence, and ministered to the sick and elderly. When she died, it was said, the smallpox scars instantly vanished from her face. It wasn’t long before people began to credit her with miracles.

Indeed, the Vatican has just announced, 300 years after her death, that Tekakwitha is a miracle worker. She will be named a saint—America’s first indigenous saint, no less—as early as next fall. But what, exactly, does that mean? How does someone become a saint? What’s the vetting process?

In this thoroughly entertaining investigation into the mysterious world of saints, Bill Donahue tells the strange and fascinating story of how the holy get their halos. The journey to canonization is long (sometimes, as in the case of Tekakwitha, it can take centuries), lurid (decayed body parts play a role), and, nowadays, surprisingly cutting-edge. Tekakwitha earned her saint status thanks to a medical miracle she allegedly caused in 2006: A boy suffering from a fatal flesh-eating bacteria suddenly and inexplicably recovered after his family prayed to the Blessed Kateri. Church experts grilled the boy’s doctors, studied his MRIs and hospital chart, and came to the conclusion that a force stronger than modern medicine saved him.

In addition to Tekakwitha, Donahue introduces us to a cast of celestial characters, from Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II—both on the fast track to sainthood—to Saint Francis, Joan of Arc, and the shady Padre Pio, who claimed to suffer stigmata and raise bodies from the dead. But it’s what happens after these holy folk die that’s arguably even more intriguing. Mixing legend and science, history and on-the-ground reporting, The Secret World of Saints sheds light on one of the Catholic Church’s most arcane and captivating traditions.
The book alternates between Donahue's anecdotes about his own life, and the history of Catholic saints. The characters he writes about really come alive.

Here's just a taste - - part of a footnote about his mother deciding to no longer display Saint Christopher in the her car:
Saint Christopher was gone from the dashboard by the time I entered first grade. And it was only recently that I discovered why. In 1969, when I was five, Pope Paul VI removed Chris’s feast day from the Church calendar. Christopher was a third-century Roman martyr. Sixties-era research revealed that almost nothing was known about him: The cult around him may have been a corny sixteenth-century invention; he was almost make-believe. My mom read the news reports and then cooled to Chris. “I got a new car,” she told me recently, “and I thought, What’s the point of carrying Saint Christopher around if he didn’t exist? Plus, having a Saint Christopher medallion was just one of those clich├ęd things that Catholics do—like rooting for Notre Dame. I wasn’t going to knock myself out for it anymore.”
Highly recommended, and available as a $2 download at Amazon.

I also have one copy to give away. For a chance to win, simply comment on this post and include your email so I can contact you if you win. One comment per person, and this contest is open worldwide. I'll pick a winner Sunday night.