The best Catholic literature is not about apologetics. It’s not about using a story to pack in the teachings of the faith, nor is it about the Scriptures. Often, it’s not even about providing a model for Catholic life. Instead, great Catholic literature captures and expresses the Catholic worldview through human lives and stories — characters and events that point to the sacred among the profane and the extraordinary in the ordinary. For the young Catholic seeking to make sense of a faith that our culture deems archaic and outdated, these beautiful novels can teach us what really lies at the heart of Catholicism in our everyday lives. Plus, they’re great summer reads — on top of offering greater wisdom, they deliver that great feeling of reading a moving and page-turning story.
1) The Robe by Lloyd Douglass
A timeless classic, immortalized in the famous 1953 film, The Robe is a beautiful example of Christian imagination bringing Scripture to life. A Protestant minister who saw literature as a method of preaching, Douglass’ greatest work is a historical novel recounting a young Roman tribune’s participation in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the radical change in his life as a result of gambling for Christ’s robes and winning them.
2) Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Think an English Great Gatsby with immense wit, irony, and most importantly, a prescription for the moral wasteland of modernity. Waugh’s novel is one of those classic works that has a great, unique hidden treasure for each reader that dares to open it. Waugh, an outspoken Catholic in an age of nihilism and a culture of faux Anglicanism, is not a Christian apologist. His is a story capturing the search for the sacred in a secular time.
3) The Samurai by Shūsaku Endō
Shūsaku Endōis no romance or adventure novelist. His historical fiction cuts right to the heart of a period of immense suffering and brutalism; it is for the brave reader only. The Samurai is lesser known than Endo’s other acclaimed book, Silence, but deals with the same horrific persecution of Christianity in Japan in the seventeenth century and the fallen humans that contributed to it. A masterful account of how suffering tests the human soul, The Samurai is an emotionally and religiously trying story.
4) Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers
Few have the talent to turn the mundane and ordinary into great literature as J.F. Powers. In many ways though, J.F. Powers’ greatest ability as a Catholic writer is precisely that: finding the sacred and transcendent amid the profane. In this hysterically ironic, entertaining, and witty story of the behind-the-scenes life of Catholic clergy in America, the observations Powers makes, and questions he asks, are sincere. The deeper meaning, depending on the reader, may prove radical.
5) Joan of Arc by Mark Twain
Mark Twain is best known for his biting social commentaries and entertaining stories Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. What few readers know, even his devoted literary admirers, is that Mark Twain said his greatest work was his historical account of the life of St. Joan of Arc. Twain, after five years in France at the national archives researching this saint’s life, ultimately tells another tale of how those least respected in a society are often the true heroes of justice and compassion.
6) With God In Russia and He Leadeth Me by Fr. Walter Ciszek, SJ
A spy novel, or the autobiography of a modern saint? With God in Russia, and the accompanying spiritual autobiography He Leadeth Me, recount the unbelievable tale of Fr. Ciszek’s unexpected ministry in the hearts of the Soviet regime and its gulags and prison camps. One of the most powerful examples of self-sacrifice and a life devoted to God of our time.
7) The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
Nothing about this collection of the mythology that Tolkien created is necessarily “Catholic.” It is not about a world where religion even exists, to a degree. But everything about his imagination, and the incredibly dignifying and transformative act of “sub-creation,” gives credence to a world full of the sacred and a view of time as a long, but hopeful, battle between good and evil. In short, his mythology expresses “beauty” in written form.
8) That Distant Land by Wendell Berry
The famous agrarian Wendell Berry is a master of authentic story-telling. What exactly his stories “tell” is up to the reader, but what the reader cannot escape is an overwhelming recognition of finding God and transcendent meaning in our relationships and “places.” Our identity is not something we determine on our own, but in relationship to others and our Creator. Berry speaks so strongly to the human heart that one cannot escape the laughs, tears, stresses, and triumphs that his own characters experience.
9) Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
Lewis was no stranger to the Christian imagination and its power. But what Till We Have Faces accomplishes is the exploration of how the Christian world existed in classical mythology even before the time of Christ.
10) The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
Many consider Merton’s autobiography to be a “modern Augustine’s Confessions.” For the young soul facing the modern world’s questions and lackluster answers, Merton relates his own long search for meaning and his incredible journey to an unlikely place to find peace.
Image via Maureen Didde.