The National Catholic Review
Patricia A. Kossmann

If Broadway producers can do it, why not book publishers? “It” is the revival, in the case of theater, or the reissue, in the case of books. Heaven knows there is ample need for updated editions of longstanding classics, or what the industry calls “backlist staples.” And speaking of heaven, as in the place where the holy ones dwell, two notable new editions deserve mentioning.

 

First, Butler’s Lives of the Saints: New Concise Edition, by Paul Burns, the British publisher who was managing editor of the 12-volume revised edition of the masterpiece by Alban Butler, published between 1995 and 2000. The work contains biographies, one page long on average, of more than 365 saints and blesseds, arranged by date (some days include pairs). Many, of course, are familiar; but I personally like searching out the obscure (excluding Jude, of course). Take St. Margaret Clitherow (c. 1553-86), a convert to Catholicism, for whom the Supremacy Act of 1559 mandated attendance at Sunday worship in the Church of England. She found a way, however, to have her cake and eat it too. According to Butler, Margaret “had a secret room built into her house to shelter priests, and Mass was said there often.” She was the first woman martyr of the north of England.

After the final biography for each month, Burns includes a listing of other saints remembered that month. There is also a chronological list of saints by date of death, as well as a brief glossary of terms. The publisher is Liturgical Press.

A most fitting shelf neighbor, weighing in at about the same, is John J. Delaney’s workmanlike tome and superb reference, Dictionary of Saints, published by Doubleday originally in 1980 (on my watch there). Delaney at the time was the recently retired director of religious publishing. These were the pre-computer days for us, and he could barely type. But he did an impressive job of research, card filing and the like to produce the dictionary, which has been continuously in print for almost a quarter century. His widow would not grant permission to the publisher to update the book while she was living. So this is a welcome, and overdue, reissue. (But you will have to wait until January.) The National Catholic Reporter’s Arthur Jones provides the new entries for saints and beati. Unlike the Butler volume, the arrangement here is alphabetical by name. What I have always found especially appealing about this dictionary are the sections on saints as intercessors, as patrons of countries and places and their symbols in art. Even more valuable is the chronological chart of popes and world rulers, as well as monthly listings of saints according to both the Roman and the Byzantine calendars.

From the time I laid eyes on the entry for Christina the Astonishing, who died in 1224 (another obscure one, to most of us), I was fascinated. This Belgian-born woman’s life was incredible and, on the surface, weird. Apparently she “could not tolerate the odor of human beings and resorted to such extraordinary means to escape human contact as climbing trees, soaring to the rafters of churches, and hiding in ovens.” She even provided her own translation of Dante when, during a memorial Mass being said for her after she died, she soared to the rafters and, when ordered by the priest to come down, reported having been to heaven, hell and purgatory.

Alas, however, it is nearly impossible to keep up with the canonizations and beatifications under Pope John Paul II. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is not included in Butler’s Lives. She will have to wait for another printing.

What we could certainly do without are the gimmicky, even exploitative saint books that cross my desk from time to time, books like Gun Saint (St. Gabriel Possenti), which would probably make a welcome “gift” for your nearest N.R.A. neighbor.

Still, it’s reassuring to know we have specific-need intercessors to call on. For any butchers in our readership, may St. Adeleimus bless you.

Patricia Kossmann is literary editor of America.

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