‘The 35 Doctors of the Church’ by Christopher Rengers: Book Review
The 35 Doctors of the Church is a well-researched mini-biography of the Doctors of the Catholic Church written by Capuchin Friar, Fr. Christopher Rengers. Rengers’ first penned this book under the title The 33 Doctors of the Church but then updated it to include two additional Doctors, namely, Saint John of Avila and Saint Hildegard of Bingen. The 35 Doctors of the Church is a revised and updated edition of the book, which was first published in the year 2000 and then updated in 2014. The book is an excellent introduction to the 35 Doctors of the Catholic Church, but the latest Doctor of the Church is missing in the book. That Doctor is St. Gregory of Narek, who was declared a Doctor of the Catholic Church by Pope Francis in 2015. Nevertheless, the text in itself is a decent and good introduction to the personages described in them. However, the book does not have a bibliography which could have aided the theologian or researcher in accessing the saintly Doctors’ works. The book instead has a table of the Feast Days of the Doctors, which is very helpful to those wishing to pray and observe the holy days of the revered Doctors. I gave this book four stars on Goodreads.
I picked this book up from St. Paul’s Media Bookstore in Bandra West in Mumbai in 2019. I have always been interested in the lives of the Doctors of the Catholic Church and was keen on learning more about them. One does learn a lot about them in Rengers’ book. Rengers has done marvelous work in researching these Doctors’ lives, especially the Fathers of the Early Church, where there is scant information available on them and their works. However, this book does not list all the works of the Doctors in detail, and there is a tendency by the author to go to great lengths to talk about the lives of his favorite Doctors, which does not sync in with the rest of the book.
There is no actual division in the book. However, Rengers has written about each Doctor according to their date of birth. Thus, Saint Athanasius is discussed first, while Saint Therese of Lisieux is spoken about last. As one reads the text, one gets to know a few details about the personal lives of the Doctors and more about their works. However, not all the works or the history behind their writings is noted by the author. Still, it makes for good light reading. This book can be a splendid introduction for any Theologian or Catholic Scholar, or Philosopher wishing to know the Doctors of the Catholic Church in an organized fashion. Rengers starts with an unusual introduction to each Doctor’s life, then briefly describes their holy lives and contribution to the Church, and in between, or sometimes at the end mentions their works and sometimes the background in brief behind the penning of these works. Each Doctor has a portion in the book where his or her devotion to Mother Mary is mentioned almost in an endearing fashion.
There is a tendency of the author Rengers to overdo the biography part of the female Doctors of the Church. Sure, we are aware that women Catholic Saints typically deal with that realm of Theology which we in Catholicism call ‘Mystical Theology’. Still, I’ve noticed that it is overdone a bit, especially with Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Therese of Lisieux. Otherwise, the book is a good read, but only as an introduction. This book can truly aid the clergy in a deeper study of their favorite Doctors and preach more ardently to their congregations about how their lives gave witness to Christ. Rengers refers mainly to the writings and encyclicals of Pope Paul the Sixth and Pope Emeritus Benedict the Sixteenth, where the canonization and the declaration of these saints is concerned, but that is obvious because they were instrumental in focusing a lot on the Doctors.
The Doctors are shown to have varied Catholic Theological and Philosophical interests ranging from Christology to Mariology, Biblical Sciences to Hammering out Heresies in the Church, Catechism to English History, Christian Art to Eastern Monasticism, you name it, the Doctors have covered almost every aspect of the scholarly work behind the workings of, as it is said, the Holy Spirit in the Catholic Church. There are times when the book seems to be evangelizing the reader. But Rengers lightens our mood by highlighting a few comic incidents in the lives of the Doctors, their quirks, and habits. One smiles to oneself when one reads about Saint Jerome’s vicious tongue, or Saint Teresa of Avila, saying that the clergy would probably have been more ready to believe that the devil was chatting with her rather than God.
All in all, this book is a good collection of biographies of the Doctors of the Church. I would have recommended that you buy the book immediately; however, there is a problem. In my copy, seventy pages are missing! These missing pages start from the middle of Saint Robert Bellarmine’s biography till the middle of Saint Lawrence of Brindisi’s biography. The Doctor in between, Saint John of the Cross, is entirely missing! I hope this is a problem only with my copy of the book. Please take special care to see that all the pages are intact when you purchase your copy. I hope to buy another copy of the book after checking the pages sometime soon.
On a personal note, the book was a joy to read, and rather than being cumbersome, I found it an easy read. I’m sure other readers will find the book highly informative as well as excellent reading. My favorite Doctor in this book is Saint Anthony, who learned the Bible verbatim and who I, in all humility, wish to emulate. I also adore Saint Jerome for his vicious tongue, judgmental behavior, and his many curses, as he seems more human than any of the other Doctors. Also, he is a master of the Biblical Sciences who is a pleasure to read. Saint Bede and Saint Augustine were two of the first Doctor’s works I ever read when I was a teenager entering junior college a long time ago in 2005 when I was just sixteen. I still have my copy of their books, especially Saint Augustine’s City of God, which I used to read early morning before breakfast at my study table pretending to be a monk!
I am quite upset that I missed Saint John of the Cross as he is one of the dearest Doctors close to my heart, and I read his works in 2007 when I had just entered senior college. I was eighteen then, and my Godmother and Godfather kept on telling me that I must not read his works, or I would get depressed! Of course, I did not listen to them. I read Saint John of the Cross’s works and still have his collection in my library. He was the Saint who got me interested in Mystical Theology. However, I mostly pray to Saint Anthony of Padua to help me most of the time. Another Saint that I keep praying to these days is Saint Teresa of Avila. She is the patron Saint of the post-graduate teaching college where I went to get my degree in education. To know more about my life and the books I read during that time, you can check out my memoir titled Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai here. I hope to read, The 35 Doctors of the Church once again after finding a complete copy, and l will update my thoughts on it. I hope to read more Catholic literature soon.
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