Francis Phillips reviews The Missionary’s Catechism,
Russell L. Ford

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Review of The Missionary’s Catechism, By Russell L. Ford.

The two best-known catechisms that most Catholics have heard of, are undoubtedly The Penny Catechism, which provided the elementary structure of the Faith for generations of people until the 1960s, and The Catechism of the Catholic Church, a wonderful gift inspired by the Holy Father in the 1990s to counteract the catechetical malaise of the preceding 30 years. It has been a recent privilege and pleasure to encounter a third catechism, neither as brief in its answers as The Penny Catechism nor as large and comprehensive as the CCC, and therefore just the right size for the ordinary enquiring Catholic, wishing to revise his/her Faith, to carry about on the dashboard of the car.

Its author, Russell Ford, requires some introduction. He is a prisoner in an Alabama jail and has so far served 16 years of a 25 year sentence. When he entered prison he was, in his own words in his ‘Introduction’, ‘a hate-filled and embittered agnostic’. God, who has a particularly tender love for His black sheep, did not let this state of affairs last long; Russell encountered a Catholic fellow-inmate at the end of his first year and, challenged by this prisoner to read the Baltimore Catechism, began the ‘long and painful process to conversion’. Painful for him; fruitful for others.

Russell became a gifted and inspiring catechist, who has subsequently taught the faith to thousands of people, aided in the conversion of over 100 prisoners and become the godfather (not the Mafiosi kind) to more than 50 convict-souls. He dedicates this book to the Blessed Trinity: ‘Our heavenly Father, who has taught me to cry Daddy; His Son, who has caused love to infiltrate the void of this sinner’s heart; and the Holy Spirit, who is teaching me to appreciate silent conversion’. Others acknowledged include ‘St Herbie’ (!) his Guardian Angel – why don’t we all follow his example and give a name to our own angelic guardians? – St John Bosco and St Josemaria Escriva.

Why does Russell call it a ‘Missionary’s Catechism’? On the front cover is a map of the journeys of the greatest missionary of all: St Paul. But the implicit message is that we all need to be missionaries now, laity as well as priests, and that it is the former Christian West that is now prime mission territory: a wasteland of heterodoxy, agnosticism, neo-paganism and occult practice. The book’s format is in a conventional question and answer format, dealing with the Creed, the Sacraments, the ten Commandments, the precepts of the Church, the Life of Virtue and the Life of Prayer. There are also five appendices which deal with: common objections to the Faith; basic prayers; examination of conscience in preparation for Confession; a Catholic resource guide of orthodox literature; and test questions to check the reader actually remembers what he has read. In all, a clear and comprehensive compendium of ‘our glorious Faith’, as one well-known Jesuit fondly describes it.

There are particularly good answers to question 27: ‘What are we to believe in regard to human evolution?’; question 83: What is the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives?’; question 201: ‘What happens if an infant dies without Baptism?’; and questions 252 and 253, which concern standing or kneeling for Communion and whether it should be received on the tongue. I will not provide you with the answers so that you will be stimulated to buy this excellent book and read them for yourselves. The author adds a special note to the section on the Holy Eucharist: ‘…It is the singular truth of the Holy Eucharist that has made this convert (and countless others) fall helplessly, hopelessly, passionately in love with Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’

‘Situation ethics’, that invention of the liberal conscience, is discussed and Ford’s definition of that overworked word ‘ecumenism’ is included in parentheses, as ‘the dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholics which leads to the reconciliation of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ’. This is not triumphalism, merely the truth. I should mention that this fine book is underpinned by quotations from the Catechism of the Catholic Church wherever it is thought necessary to expand an answer.

The one small snag is: how to obtain a volume so packed with good teaching? At present, it can only be bought from The Magnificat Institute Press, P.O. Box 60591, Houston, TX 77205, (281) 370-8200. If a reader, fired with a similar missionary zeal, would like to be a distributor, the Press would be delighted to offer him/her a discount.

Further, if anyone is interested in reading Russell Ford’s series of five long articles about his personal prison apostolate, ‘Evangelising From The Bottom Up’, they are available, for the cost of postage, from F.J.Bush, 14, Wetumpka Garden Apts. Wetumpka, AL. 36092, USA.. I would recommend them as required reading for anyone seriously concerned with the salvation of souls, not just the souls of convicts; they have an urgency, beauty and passion reminiscent of St Paul himself – another prisoner as it happens, God’s ‘ambassador in chains’.

© 2004 Francis Phillips

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