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From anathema to zucchetto: a faith that speaks volumes.

My childhood, like nearly every American born in the 1940s, was filled with stories about people coping against stiff odds during the Great Depression. One type of story centered on people too poor to go to school. Some educated themselves in public libraries by reading encyclopedias. They knew that education was critically important to their future, that schools held no monopoly over learning, and that they themselves were responsible for the pursuit of knowledge. Such noble and industrious attitudes, so different from today's victimhood mentality, regretfully suggest these stories are from a previous era.

I thought of these people once again when I found the Encyclopedia of Catholicism (HarperCollins, 1995) under my Christmas tree. This three-inch thick, 1,349 page, five-pound tome contains more than 4,200 entries compiled by 280 experts under the general editorship of Father Richard P. McBrien.

My original intention to page through this encyclopedia, generally familiarize myself with its offerings, and place it on the bookshelf for future reference got dislodged. Instead during the 12 days of Christmas I found something alluring and engaging about this book and immersed myself in it. Were my reactions akin to what motivated readers of encyclopedias during the Great Depression?

In the spirit of the season I checked out the entry for MAGI first. These wonderful fellows' title, first and inaccurately called kings, means wise person or interpreter of dreams. Because three gifts are mentioned - gold, frankincense, and myrrh - people assumed there were three magi. And it was a later tradition that named them the familiar Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar.

Other entries were less familiar. I did not know that BUGIA is a style of dripless candlestick, its liturgical use abolished in 1968, named after the wax-rich region of Bougie, Algeria. Nor did I know that EA SEMPER, a 1907 papal bull, limited the rights of the Greek Catholic Church in the United States, and was subsequently modified in the 1914 decree Cum episcopo. I also did not know the headquarters of the pope's representative to a civil government who enjoys ambassadorial status is a NUNCIATURA.

Some items not thought about since my Catholic childhood of the '40s and '50s were present: AMICE, CINCTURE, Maniple - vestments as altar boy I handed to the priest in the sacristy before daybreak Mass. DALMATIC, a vestment worn by a deacon or subdeacon at a solemn high Mass, conjured up memories of people who were married or buried with full liturgical splendor. They always appeared to be either the more involved or the more important Catholics of the parish. BEATIFIC VISION - seeing God face-to-face after death - has a hefty entry. I recalled that my childhood notion of sitting around for eternity watching God rung of boredom.

Contemporary entries nestle alongside expressions from other ages. On the heels of MOTHER ANGELICA, the fundamentalist tele-evangelist, comes the ANGELIC DOCTOR, a metaphoric name for Saint Thomas Aquinas. CREATION-CEN TERED SPIRITUALITY, which embraces all areas of life, stands next to CREATIONISM, which limits God's activity to how it is literally told in the Book of Genesis.

There are also ironies in the encyclopedia. Charles Curran, removed from his position at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., for holding opinions alternate to the hierarchy, writes the article on ACADEMIC FREEDOM. The entry, Charles E. Curran, summarizes this controversy. "In 1968 he led the public dissent against Humanae vitae (the encyclical prohibiting birth control by artificial means) in the United States, an incident that many believe played a role in the decision by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (July 25, 1986) that Curran could 'no longer be considered suitable or eligible to exercise the function of a professor of Catholic theology.'" And then there are curious omissions and commissions. JOHN PATRICK CODY, deceased cardinal archbishop of Chicago merits an entry. But an entry on deceased Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago Joseph Bernardin, under whose leadership the bishops' pastoral letters on war and the economy were accomplished, is curiously missing from this book. But JOHN J. O'CONNOR, current cardinal archbishop of New York, merits an entry which claims him to be," the most influential member of the American Church hierarchy." The entry on KARL RAHNER by comparison is more qualified," probably [sic] the most prominent and influential Catholic theologian of the 20th century."

English Catholic journalist PETER HEBBLETHWAITE merits an entry, but even more satisfying are the entries he wrote before his death on Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, and II. They exude his style, smartly and spritely written, incisive and intriguing. I miss you, Peter.

Many of the longer entries are signed. There are a number of women theologians who contributed to this volume. More impressive than the number, and more important, is the influence and direction women now exert on the definition and discipline of theology.

As I made my way from A to Z, I could not help but think of the current discussions and debates over Catholic identity. In Veritatis splendor, published in 1993, the pope threatens to remove the designation, Catholic from theologians or institutions who do not abide by selected church teachings. Some bishops now threaten to remove the distinction of Catholic from hospitals who merge with other non-catholic institutions, or to withhold the term Catholic from schools, although teaching Catholicism is not officially intertwined with diocesan infrastructures.

There is no entry for CATHOLIC IDENTITY in this book, and rightly so. The entirety of this encyclopedia comprises an entry, not on Catholic identity, but on Catholic identities. Catholicism, as evidenced by this encyclopedia, embraces innumerable identities, always has, and not withstanding the efforts of monolithic academics and ecclesiastics, will do so in the future.

Some describe the present state of Catholicism in the United States as a Great Depression. Church institutions continue to decry their lack of money. Faith-filled Catholics search, sometimes in vain, for the life of the Spirit within their own precincts. The older generation frets over the lack of theological literacy of the younger generation, who, for sure, have come to know religion and church through styles other than academic.

Is this the time to take a cue from the activities of people who lived through the original Great Depression and read an encyclopedia? Might such an activity help people to appreciate the many and varied Catholic identities that have existed, continue to exist, and are yet to come?

Might such an activity help people to realize that at any one given time the church is a myriad of coexisting repressive and impressive enterprises? Might such an activity improve theological literacy, both for older and younger Catholics?

One could do no better than to start with the encyclopedia of catholicism.
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Title Annotation:entries in the 'Encyclopedia of Catholicism'
Author:Gilmour, Peter
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jan 1, 1997
Previous Article:Organ allocation should be an equal-opportunity procedure.
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