How to Start a Catholic Book Club
For the past nine years, James Martin, S.J. has run a popular book club for adult Catholics at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, in New York City. As a way of helping readers who might want to begin a similar club in their own parishes, we offer a brief description of a plan that Father Martin has used, as well as the list of books selected for the club
Overall structure of the club
The book club members read a mixture of fiction, spirituality, theology, biography and Scripture. All the books are currently in print and easily obtained either from either Amazon.com or directly from the publisher. The majority (particularly those books published more recently) are also available from major bookstores. All the books are of reasonable lengths (no more than around 200 pages) and if they are any longer (for example, The Seven Storey Mountain) we break them up into two sessions.) Around Christmas, since most people are so busy, I usually assign a Gospel. Not only is it shorter and more easily fit into this hectic time of year, but it is a great devotional tool for the season. Often participants say that it is the first time they have ever read a gospel straight through.
There are two groups: one for adults under 35 and one for those over 35. This helps the participants, especially the younger Catholics, feel that they are meeting and speaking with people with more or less similar life experiences. (Our separate discussions of books like Cardinal Bernardins The Gift of Peace, which focuses on issues of death and dying made this very evident.)
We meet once monthly, on a Wednesday evening in the rectory. We begin at 6:30 p.m. with a simple dinner (usually pizza and sodas). This avoids the problems of "assigning dinners" to a single person, etc., or providing elaborate meals for a large group. Everyone chips in at the end of the night for expenses--no more than a five dollars per person. The casual dinner lasts for roughly an hour, and is an excellent way of helping people get to know one another before the discussion, as well as building community in the parish. Many book club members say that they enjoy this part of the evening as much as the actual book discussion.
At 7:30 we begin with a brief prayer, and then I ask everyone to introduce themselves. This is especially important at the beginning, but even later on everyone appreciates being reminded of peoples names. (We are always open to new members as well; notice of the meeting times and the months book appears in the parish bulletin on a regular basis.)
During their introductions people are also asked to mention something interesting or significant that has happened to them over the past month. This has proven a wonderful way of very gently encouraging some "faith sharing," and is another way of building community. As the members grow more comfortable with one another, what they offer about the past month often grows more personal. Still, this should only be a few minutes per person. If you have, say, 20 people, you dont want to spend 40 minutes on introductions.
The actual book discussion begins at 7:30 and lasts until 8:30. I begin with a simple question, "How did you like the book?" and then try to facilitate a friendly discussion, paying particular attention to any of the more "spiritual" questions that come up. When there is a question of fact, say, about church history or teaching, about Scripture, I try to explain things, and do a bit of catechesis, but otherwise I try to stay in the background. When possible, I have invited any of the authors who are in the area to join us when discussing their book: this is always a great success.
There are only three requirements that I set out: first, to read the book; second, to respect everyones opinions; and, third, not to "hog" any of the discussions. The evenings end at 8:30 with a prayer and a brief description of next months book. Sometimes, I will hand out supplementary material beforehand, for example, if the book is about an historical figure. For the gospels, I always hand out a brief two-page synopsis, taken from any good commentary.
The book club is a great deal of fun, very little work for the organizer (just publicizing it, getting a room, ordering the pizza and selecting the books) but a great way to build community, do a little catechesis, and encourage faith sharing in the parish in a non-threatening way.
Here are the selections for the last five years:
Jan. -- Mariette in Ecstasy, Ron Hansen
Feb. -- Virgin Time, Patricia Hampl
Mar. -- Meditations from a Moveable Chair, Andre Dubus
Apr. -- The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris
May -- This Our Exile: A Spiritual Journey with the Refugees of East Africa, James Martin, S.J.
Oct. -- The Gift of Peace, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin
Nov. -- St. Augustine, Garry Wills
Dec. -- God and You: Prayer As a Personal Relationship, William A. Barry, S.J.
Jan. -- The Gospel of Luke
Feb. -- Anthony DeMello: Writings, edited by William Dych, S.J.
Mar. -- The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day
Apr. -- Traveling Mercies, Anne LaMott
May -- The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
Sep. -- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby
Oct. -- Signatures of Grace: Catholic Writers on the Sacraments
Nov. -- Opening to God: A Guide to Prayer, Thomas H. Green, S.J.
Dec. -- Joan of Arc, Mary Gordon
Jan. -- The Gospel of Mark
Feb. -- Return of the Prodigal Son, Henry Nouwen
Mar. -- In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, James Martin, S.J.
Apr. -- The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days, Frederick Buechner
May -- Wise Blood, Flannery OConnor
Sep. -- Lying Awake, Mark Salzman
Oct. -- Armchair Mystic: Easing Into Contemplative Prayer, Mark Thibodeaux, S.J.
Nov. -- The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
Dec. -- Jesus Before Christianity, Albert Nolan
Jan. -- The Gospel of Matthew
Feb. -- How Can I Find God?: The Famous and Not-So-Famous Consider the Quintessential Question, James Martin, S.J., ed.
Mar. -- Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris
Apr. -- Thérèse of Lisieux, Monica Furlong
May -- God Moments: Why Faith Really Matters, Jeremy Langford
Sep. -- Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
Oct. -- Professions of Faith: Living and Working As a Catholic, James Martin, S.J., and Jeremy Langford, eds.
Nov. -- Salvation: Scenes From the Life of St. Francis, Valerie Martin
Dec. -- For the Love of God: The Faith and Future of the American Nun, Lucy Kaylin
Jan. -- The Gospel of Mark
Feb. -- The Seven Storey Mountain (Part I), Thomas Merton
Mar. -- The Seven Storey Mountain (Part II)
Apr. -- Finding Grace at the Center: The Beginning of Centering Prayer, M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O., Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O., Thomas E. Clarke, S.J.
May -- Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
Sep. -- Conclave, John Allen
Oct. -- The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser
Nov. -- Running From the Devil, Steve Kissing
Dec. -- Shadows on the Rock, Willa Cather
Jan. -- The Gospel of John
Feb. -- The Saints Guide to Happiness, Robert Ellsberg
Mar. -- Contemplatives in Action, William A. Barry, S.J., and Robert G. Doherty, S.J.
Apr. -- The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
May -- Awake My Soul: Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotions, James Martin, S.J., ed.
Sept. -- The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery, Henri J. M. Nouwen
Oct. -- Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul, Tony Hendra
Nov. -- Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology, Elizabeth A. Johnson
Dec. -- The Gospel of Luke, NRSV or any mainstream translation (e.g., RSV, NAB)
Jan. -- Poverty of Spirit, Johannes Baptist Metz
Feb. -- Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, Helen Prejean
Mar. -- Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis
Apr. -- Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church, Donald Cozzens
May -- Celebrating Good Liturgy: A Guide To The Ministries Of The Mass (Loyola Press, 2005), James Martin, S.J., ed.
Sep. -- Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
Oct. -- Mr. Blue, Myles Connolly
Nov. -- Celebrating Good Liturgy: A Guide to the Ministries of the Mass, ed., James Martin, SJ
Dec. -- Dangerous Memories: A Mosaic of Mary in Scripture, Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ
Jan. -- The Gospel of Matthew
Feb. -- Letters from the Desert, Carlo Carretto
Mar. -- All We Know of Heaven, Remy Rougeau
Apr. -- My Life with the Saints, James Martin, SJ (first half of the book)
May -- My Life with the Saints, James Martin, SJ (second half)
Sept. -- The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
Oct. -- Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words, Willard Trask
Nov. -- Simple Ways to Pray, Emilie Griffin
Dec. -- So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell
Jan. -- Deus Caritas Est ("God is Love"), Benedict XVI
Feb. -- Becoming Who You Are, James Martin, S.J.
Mar. -- From Union Square to Rome, Dorothy Day
Apr. -- Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist
May -- Cosmas, or the Love of God, Pierre de Calan
Oct: Come Be My Light, Mother Teresa
Nov. A Jesuit Off-Broadway, James Martin, SJ
Dec. God, I Have Issues, Mark Thibodeaux, SJ
Jan. The Selfless Way of Christ, Henri Nouwen
Feb: Jesus: A Historical Portrait, Daniel J. Harrington, SJ
Mar: Atticus, Ron Hansen
Apr. Radical Gratitude, Mary Jo Leddy
May. Silence, Shusako Endo
2008-2009 (A year for longer books)
Oct. The Duty of Delight, Dorothy Day
Dec. The Sign of Jonas, Thomas Merton
Feb. The Song of Bernadette, Franz Werfel
Apr. Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris
May. Exiles, Ron Hansen