“I have my room, some books, and a nearby chapel. That is complete happiness.” –St. Miguel of Ecuador
You’re likely a Catholic who wants to learn more about their faith. You are probably aware that there are loads of great books, videos, and study programs to help you grow in your faith. You likely relate to the St. Miguel quote above on a spiritual level, and may already have it cross-stitched on several pillows.
Sometimes, though, it can be nice to get your information directly from the source. Here is a list of original sources any Catholic can benefit from reading. These writings have educated our Church for centuries. So grab a mug of your favorite hot beverage and copy of The Golden Legend, and prepare to learn!
1. The Catena Aurea
This is a fun one. Many of the Church Fathers wrote commentaries and exegeses on Scripture in the years during and after the lives of the apostles. After the fifth century, theologians began to compile these commentaries. These works were called catenae, after the Latin word for “chains”, because they strung together the commentaries of Scripture like links in a chain. This allows us to see the development of our understanding of various passages. It had the added benefit of preserving some early theologians’ work after their original writings had been lost or destroyed.
The most famous of these compilations was actually edited by St.Thomas Aquinas. It is called the Catena Aurea or “golden chain”. He compiled excerpts from over eighty commentators on the Gospels.
The spiritual benefits of reading this cannot be overstated. While every book on this list can help you grow in your faith, this one can help you grow uniquely in the knowledge of Christ. It will show you how the people who lived right after Christ understood his teachings, which helps you avoid the pitfalls of studying Scripture alone. Also, it’s super old and in the public domain, so you can read it online for free. Although to be fair, that’s true for every source I’ve listed in this post.
P.S. If you like the Catena Aurea, here’s a worthwhile series that shows the Fathers’ thoughts on every book of the Bible.
2. The Works of Josephus
Flavius Josephus was a Pharisee in the first century. He became swept up in the Jewish rebellion against Rome and was appointed as the commander of Galilee. He was taken as a prisoner to Rome, and through a series of bizarre events wound up earning his freedom. He returned to Jerusalem with the emperor’s son, which made him less than popular with his people. He ultimately returned to Rome and became a Roman citizen.
Josephus blessed all of mankind by writing extensively about his life and Jewish history, thus preserving the knowledge of the Jewish people at the time of Christ. He even shared stories that were being told about Christ, as well as other characters in the Bible.
Josephus is not necessarily easy to read since he chose to record things like famous palm trees and salt taxes along with early biblical history. But his work gives us an insight into the world of the Jews around the time of Christ.
3. Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History
Eusebius was the bishop of Cæsarea in Palestine in the third and fourth centuries. We don’t know much about his family, but they must have been influential because he was the only one in a group imprisoned by Diocletian to receive a pardon. At some point, Eusebius met a Phoenician named Pamphilus, who is one of the most famous librarians in world history.
Pamphilius had sold his patrimony and gave all the proceeds to the poor. He was too humble to write anything himself, and instead spent all his time teaching and caring for the magnificent books in the library of Cæsarea. He was an editor of the Septuagint, and devotee of the works of Origen. Pamphilius and Eusebius worked together so closely that some scholars posit that Pamphilius eventually adopted his student.
Eventually, Pamphilius was imprisoned, tortured and beheaded. Eusebius then left Cæsarea and visited Tyre and Egypt, where he saw many martyrdoms. The fact that he had observed so many martyrdoms while not being martyred himself led to many less than subtle accusations of cowardice against Eusebius. But they must not have been warranted, because he was elevated to the status of bishop.
He did have an unfortunate soft spot for the heretic Arius, and an equally unfortunate beef with St. Athanasius, but he was apparently such a good orator that no charges against him could stick. It also didn’t hurt that he was quite close to Emperor Constantine.
Eusebius’s biggest contribution to theology is the Ecclesiastical History. Before Eusebius, other writers had written treatises against the Jews and heretics that preserved elements of Church history. But Eusebius was the first writer to actually write an historical account of the Church from the time of Christ. In fact, historians after him have consistently used his writings as the definitive historical source on the first three centuries after Christ.
The brilliant thing about Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History is that you can see how Catholic doctrine developed in the first centuries after Christ. His writing fills in the gaps and answers questions that many of us are left with after reading Scripture. It’s quite dense and long, but worth a read. And as a bonus, some of the passages were likely added by St. Jerome.
4. The Didache
One of the chief advantages of being born in the modern era—other than access to things like vaccines and tacos—is being born into a world with access to the Didache and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Didache is mentioned by Eusebius, Athanasius, and other writers who generally only reference things Christians should be happy to read, and nearly all of whom put the Didache on par with Scripture.
Unfortunately, the Didache was thought to be mostly lost to history (except for a few preserved quotations), until the Metropolitan of Nicomedia, Philotheos Bryennios, shocked the world by publishing it. He had found it in a small 120-page codex in a library in Constantinople.
The Didache (or “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”) was likely written between 80-90 A.D., although like with any ancient text, there are very clever people who will argue passionately about the exact date.
It consists of three parts. The first part is called “The Two Ways”. It compares a Christian life with one lived for evil. I love re-reading this from time to time, as it spells out the basics of the Christian life in a clear, no-nonsense way. It covers a shocking breadth of subject matter in just a few pages–everything from avoiding infanticide to “offering it up” to the importance of virtuous friendships. My favorite line is:
“Frequent the company of saints daily, so as to be edified by their conversation.”
The second part is called “A Church Manual” and gives instructions for simple versions of worship and discipline in a Christian community. It’s fascinating to read what the Eucharist looked like so soon after the time of Christ. There were special caveats on how prophets could do prayers of thanksgiving! This bit of the Didache also includes instructions that Wednesdays and Fridays should be fast days because others fasted on Mondays and Thursdays. It’s full of seeds that would grow into traditions we recognize today.
The final part of the Didache is addressed to teachers, and addresses things like how to tell a false prophet from a true one and how long guests should be allowed to stay in a Christian household.
Altogether, my version of the Didache is less than seven pages. It’s a simple read, but great fodder for meditation and reflection.
5. Summa Theologicae
St. Thomas Aquinas was one of the greatest minds to ever live, and he put every ounce of his mind toward explaining and defending the Faith (until the end of his life when he became uber mystical and tried to burn all of his writings because loving God is more important than knowing him, but that’s a story for another post).
We’ve already explored how he compiled eighty ancient sources of Scripture commentary for the Catena Aurea. Now it’s time to discuss his most famous work.
In 1251 or 1252, Thomas was sent to Paris in a move that could be considered the beginning of his public career. His main job was to explain the work of the theologian Peter Lombard. These explanations went on to become the spine of the Summa.
Thomas would later refer to the Summa as a manual for catechists and students. Most theologians will refer to it as one of the most important pieces of Western literature ever written.
The Summa is fantastic because of St. Thomas’ disciplined, scientific approach to theology. He begins by identifying problems plaguing theology students in his day, especially preponderance of silly arguments and information, repetition, and lack of order in learning.
I won’t summarize the entire work here because I’m far from qualified, but if you have a question about the Faith, it’s most likely answered within the pages of the Summa.
A word of warning, though—the Summa is a bit strange to read. I wasn’t prepared when I first opened it for a college paper and had no idea what I was looking at. Basically, St. Thomas will first pose a question. Then, he will follow that question with objections that go against what we really believe. He will then say “on the contrary … ” and say something else that seems strange to read a saint write. Then he will say, “I answer that…” and explain why we believe what we believe, and then go through and answer each objection in order. Here’s a great article with an example.
6. The Golden Legend
The Golden Legend was one of the most influential books of the Middle Ages. It was compiled in the thirteenth century, when it was actually quite common for writers to compile books of liturgical and doctrinal facts and stories. The idea was that a busy priest could use such a book to help catechize and give homilies. This was especially important because newly formed mendicant orders, like the Dominicans, were dedicated to educating ordinary Christians.
One such Dominican was Blessed Jacobus de Vorgraine. Vorgraine pulled from earlier collections of saint and liturgical stories. Even though the market was fairly saturated with such books, Vorgraine’s book became immensely popular. It was originally titled “Legenda Sanctorum”, but people began to call it “Legenda Aurea” or “Golden Legend” because they thought it was worth its weight in gold. It changed the way we approach writing about the saints, was translated into most of the languages of Western Europe, and had more editions printed than the Bible after the invention of the printing press.
If you’ve ever read a medieval account of a saints life, then you know that they can get weird, fast. The Golden Legend is the biggest, weirdest collection of medieval saint stories on the market, and has been for centuries. It can go from inspiring to horrifying to hilarious to confusing in a single page. The story of St. Thais the Courtesan is a prime example of this.
Honestly, some of the stories read more like fairy tales than stories of the saints. As Eamon Duffy says in his introduction to my copy:
“This was holiness presented not so much as a pattern to be imitated, but as a power to be harnessed, and a source of intercession to be supplicated.”
It’s important to remember that many of the critical skills we’ve learned to approach history with did not exist at this time.
The Golden Legend is a fascinating, if enormous, read. It shows us the origin of many of our traditions and legends about the saints. Just use a bit of common sense as you read it.
7. Butler’s Lives of the Saints
Alban Butler was an English priest who lived in the eighteenth century. He went to school in Daoui, France, where he was such a good student that he was asked to stay on as a professor. He helped another professor write Memoirs of Missionary Priests, a collection of stories about those who died under Elizabeth I.
Around this time, he began to work on a book of his own that would require over thirty years of research. He was working as a tutor for the nephew of the Duke of Norfork in Paris when he finally finished it. Butler’s Lives of the Saints contained biographies of over sixteen hundred saints. It has been revised several times since then and has been translated into several languages. The most modern version I could find has over twenty-five hundred saints included!
Butler was known for his fastidiousness, and his collection of stories about the saints is essential to anyone who wants to truly study them.
8. The Roman Martyrology
A martyrology is really just a list of martyrs and saints organized by their feast day, so that we celebrate them on the appropriate day. The practice started in the early Church, when martyrs and bishops were remembered by the faithful on the anniversary of their death. Each local church had its own list. Over time, neighboring churches began to add names from their neighbor’s list. After the first wave of martyrdom ended, people began to add the names of especially holy people. The irony is that there isn’t a copy that encompasses all the saints of the twentieth century, which contained more martyrs than all the other centuries combined. But the copies we have contain more than enough, and actually used to be a part of the Liturgy of the Hours.
The official compilation of every recognized saint and martyr in the Roman Catholic Church is called the Roman Martyrology. It is not necessarily a fun read, but it isn’t meant to be. Each entry consists of the names of the saint, where and when they lived, and the means of their martyrdom, if applicable. There is usually a couple of sentences about them, but not always.
The Roman Martyrology is a simple thing to add to your day, but it can be transformative. It allows you to learn about the holy men and women who came before us, and how they suffered to pass the Faith on to us. Each one of them wants to meet you in heaven, and is waiting for your prayers.
9. The Catholic Encyclopedia
This is by far the most modern source included in this list, but I’ve included it because you’ll probably need it if you’re going to read anything else I’ve mentioned. It was also my primary source for this piece.
The Catholic Encyclopedia came into existence in 1907, because Catholics were unhappy with the way other encyclopediae skipped over events that were important to them.
It’s exactly what is sounds like: A reference containing over ten thousand entries on everything Catholic. If you happen to read a word found mainly in Catholic texts, chances are pretty good it’s in there.
You May Also Like:
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What’s Feeding Your Spiritual Life? [CFR’s video]
Holding Hands During the Our Father, Loss of Zeal, and Rap [Ask Fr. Josh podcast]
Epic: A Journey Through Church History [study program]
Melissa is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in St. Louis. She has been writing weird things that Catholics seem to like since her freshman year at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where she graduated with degrees in communications and foreign languages in 2012. Melissa then took her oddball talents to the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), where she helped found the Digital Campus. She has worked on award-winning multi-media stories for the Archdiocese of Denver and contributed to The Catholic Hipster Handbook before moving back home to St. Louis, where she helped parishes start support groups for the bereaved and the divorced and separated.
This article was updated on Oct. 2, 2019, and was previously titled “10 Lesser-Known Resources All Catholics Should Know”.