I love God. I also love books. When I can combine the two, it is a good day. The array of available Catholic books is vast and I wish I could hit pause on my life, curl up on my patio, and read for eleven years. Alas, that’s not possible. Maybe heaven has a library …
For now I am constrained by time. There is never enough. If you, like me, are a devoted reader, here is a list of thirteen books I consider absolutely necessary for the journey of faith.
1. The Holy Bible
How could I lead with anything else? It can be read over and over and the reader gets new insights every time. It’s just good writing. There’s a joke that tells of a person who greets God at the pearly gates and is asked what he enjoyed while on earth.
“I loved reading,” he says.
“What books did you enjoy?” asks God. The person lists some great books.
“Hmmm, very nice,” replies the Creator of the Universe. “Did you read mine?”
The Bible is a challenging tome in that it doesn’t lend itself to starting on page one and slogging through to the end. When a reader gets to Leviticus, the story goes from being a grand journey to a book of laws that feels remote. To solve that, Jeff Cavins and the good people at Ascension Press came up with The Great Adventure Catholic Bible.
(According to The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Church recognizes the New Revised Standard Version – 2nd Catholic Edition and the New American Bible-Revised Edition as the gold standards.)
The Great Adventure Catholic Bible makes reading and understanding the overarching story of salvation easy. It breaks salvation history into twelve periods:
- Early World
- Egypt & Exodus
- Desert Wanderings
- Conquest & Judges
- Royal Kingdom
- Divided Kingdom
- Maccabean Revolt
- Messianic Fulfillment
- The Church
It then explains which books of the Bible tell the story of each period and which books are supplemental.
For example, the Early World and Patriarchs time periods are covered in Genesis with Job as a supplement. Joshua, Judges, and the beginning of 1 Samuel tell about the Conquest & Judges period. The book of Ruth is a supplement. When broken down like this, the Bible’s story becomes clear. Also included is a reading plan to help you get the main meat of it in ninety days. It is a wonderful resource. This, together with the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament—which has fantastic explanatory notes, cross-references, and a concordance—will have any one who is new to the Bible in a good place.
2. The Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Catechism is what I lovingly refer to as the rulebook. The Baltimore Catechism of the pre-Vatican II era has a question and answer format and, while difficult to find, is an excellent resource. The updated version dispenses with that format in favor of paragraphs. It is divided into four parts: what we believe, sacraments, life in Christ, and prayer. It can be read cover to cover and probably should be.
To make the Catechism more approachable, I suggest the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (published by the USCCB and recognized as a “definitive text”) and/or the YouCat (which has the nihil obstat and imprimatur).
The USCCB’s publication is an adaptation of the Catechism and includes in each chapter a story/lesson of faith, the teaching, relationship of the teaching to culture, doctrinal statements, and a meditation and prayer.
The YouCat returns to the question and answer format referencing specific paragraphs from the Catechism. It is friendly for teens and those new to the Faith as it also offers sidebars with quotes and definitions. Together, these three resources provide an excellent foundation and explanation of the Catholic Faith.
3. A Biblical Walk Through the Mass
The Catholic Faith is more than just reading stories and dogma. It must be lived, and we do that in part via the Mass. Edward Sri wrote a lovely book, A Biblical Walk Through the Mass, to help us understand what is going on in this giant one hour prayer we call the Mass. Whether you’re a cradle Catholic who wasn’t formed well or a newbie going through RCIA, this book lays it all out and connects it to the Bible.
4. An Ignatian Introduction to Prayer
This book by Timothy Gallagher, OMV also rocked me. I’m sheepish to admit that until my faith reversion I didn’t know that the Bible is alive and God talks to us through it. That’s present tense: God talks to us now. This slim volume offers forty Scripture passages, a meditation for each, and three questions to pray with. It is a way to start wading into the pool of praying with Scripture, and for me there were a lot of “Wow!” moments as I encountered God through his Word for the first time. Whether one is a seasoned Scripture reader or new, this is a great way to be with some of God’s greatest hits.
5. A School of Prayer: The Saints Show Us How to Pray
This book is comprised of Pope Benedict XVI’s general audiences in 2011-2012. The chapters are short and meaty and an opportunity to learn from the saints via a pope. It is a book to savor slowly, ideally in front of a fireplace with some tea.
6. Lift Up Your Heart: A 10 Day Retreat with St. Francis de Sales
Fr. John Burns wrote this in five days from his own retreat journals and in doing so has gifted readers with a personal mini-retreat with St. Francis de Sales. This book offers ten meditations with focused prayers on topics from paradise, hell, creation, and sin. It is full of beauty and will fit in a busy life.
7. On Human Life
This book includes Pope Paul VI’s controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae and commentary by current writers who know a lot of stuff. The encyclical confirms the Church’s teaching opposing artificial contraception and makes predictions that have come to fruition about what would occur as a result of contraceptive use: lower moral standards, increased infidelity, and less respect for women. This is an easy to read book on an important topic.
8. Theology of the Body in One Hour
Theology of the Body was introduced by St. John Paul II in his general audiences and in addition to confirming the teachings of Humanae Vitae, goes further to reveal God’s plan for love and how masculinity and femininity are part of that plan. The original document is over five hundred pages. To get a taste of it, read Theology of the Body in One Hour by Jason Evert.
9. 33 Days to Morning Glory
This do-it yourself retreat by Michael Gaitley, MIC, prepares the reader for consecration to Jesus through Mary. Drawing from the writings of St. Louis de Montfort, originator of Marian consecration, Fr. Gaitley delivers a four week, five day plan to prepare. He walks the reader through lessons of other Marian consecration fans: St. Maximilan Kolbe, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and St. John Paul II. Consecrating oneself to Mary is a beautiful way to get our spiritual mother’s help in growing closer to her son, toward whom she is always pointing.
10. Forming Intentional Disciples
After starting out with some troubling statistics about the state of the Catholic Church today (only thirty percent of Americans raised Catholic still practice and ten percent of all adults are ex-Catholic), author Sherry Weddell discusses how we can help others know and follow Jesus. She outlines the thresholds of conversion: trust, curiosity, openness, and seeking. Weddell co-founded the Catherine of Siena Institute which developed the Called & Gifted discernment program to help people identify and discern their personal charisms.
11 & 12. Searching for and Maintaining Peace and In the School of the Holy Spirit
Fr. Jacque Philippe is one of my favorites. His writing is gentle and poetic. Searching for and Maintaining Peace is a tiny book that explodes with wisdom. My copy is full of underlined passages and exclamation points. If it wasn’t absurd (and painful) I’d consider tattooing the whole thing on myself so I could keep it with me always. Here are some jewels:
“To preserve peace in the midst of the hazards of human existence, we have only one solution: We must rely on God alone, with total trust in Him.”
“When we are powerless, let us be quiet and let God act.”
If I had skin remaining, I’d tattoo In the School of the Holy Spirit on myself because like Searching for and Maintaining Peace, it is full of pearls like:
“The Spirit of God is a spirit of peace, and he speaks and acts in peace and gentleness, never in tumult and agitation.”
13. He Leadeth Me
Last, a wonderful and inspiring book by Walter Ciszek, SJ who spent twenty-three years in Russian prison and labor camps. This is the story of how he endured by relying completely on God. Despite torture, hard labor, and years of solitary confinement, Ciszek learned to discern God’s will for each twenty-four hour period. Odds are we’ll never be in a Soviet gulag but we can take his lessons and apply them to our own challenges. The cause for Ciszek’s canonization was opened in 2012.
Bonus: How to Read Your Way to Heaven
If these books don’t appeal to you or you desire more, How to Read Your Way to Heaven by Vicki Burbach offers one, three and five-year plans that include Scripture, Catechism and a whole bunch of other great books. She makes it crazy easy and accessible by giving detailed reading plans that can be done in fifteen to thirty minutes a day, five days a week.
What do you recommend all Catholics should have on their bookshelf? Let us know in the comments at the bottom of the page.
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Merridith Frediani’s perfect day includes prayer, writing, unrushed morning coffee, reading, tending to dahlias, and playing Sheepshead with her husband and three teenagers. She loves leading small faith groups for moms and looking for God in the silly and ordinary. She blogs and writes for her local Catholic Herald in Milwaukee.