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The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living

by John Zmirak and Denise Matychowiak

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Cover of The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living (courtesy of Pricegrabber.com)

Cover of The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living.

(Courtesy of Pricegrabber.com)
These days, Catholicism and humor often seem at odds. Whether it's the perennial stories about knuckle-busting nuns or the vulgar attacks disguised as humor of such celebrities as Bill Maher, the Catholic Church is usually the butt of the joke. That makes The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2005) by John Zmirak and Denise Matychowiak all the more unusual—and welcome. Both humorous and faith-filled, The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living is a must-have book for everyone who takes his Catholic faith seriously—yet can still laugh at a good joke.

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Who Are You Calling a Bad Catholic?

You sometimes hear people say, "I guess I'm a bad Catholic, but I (didn't make it to church on Sunday) (ate meat on a Friday during Lent) (haven't been to Confession since my First Communion)." When Zmirak and Matychowiak talk about "bad Catholics," they don't necessarily have such folks in mind—or, at least, not only them. All of us who are struggling to be good Catholics are, in some sense, bad Catholics as well—there's always more that we can do, and we're all too well aware of that fact.

The genius of this book is that the authors make doing more so much fun that we can't help but become better Catholics just by reading it and putting the suggestions into action. And once you've read it, you won't just toss it to the side, because the format of the book will draw you back in again, year after year.

Subtitled "A Loving Look at the Lighter Side of the Catholic Faith, With Recipes for Feasts and Fun," The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living is set up in 12 chapters, one for each month. Each chapter includes a page or two of often fascinating but always hilarious material on each of the major feasts celebrated that month, along with more-or-less reliable biographies of saints (arranged by the date of their feast days), special material on the major seasons of the Church (Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Advent, Christmas), and "executive summaries" of each of the seven sacraments.

Along the way, Matychowiak, an accomplished chef, offers mouthwatering recipes that range from the simple to the sublime, but always have some connection to the feast or saint being celebrated.

But Is It Funny?

I found The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living hilarious, but I'm the first to admit that I might have a somewhat warped sense of humor. A few sample section titles will give you a better feel for the book:
  • Valentine: If It Feels Good . . . Stop It!
  • John Ogilvie (1579-1615): Death Before Haggis
  • Ascension Thursday: Did Christ Fly Standby?
  • Madron (+540): The Saint of Lost Socks
  • Guy Fawkes Day: Go Out With a Bang
  • Ash Wednesday: Catholic Mating Identification Day
In the Ash Wednesday section, Zmirak and Matychowiak discuss the symbolism of the 40 days of Lent, noting that it recalls the number of years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert, on their exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land:
Look at a biblical atlas some time to see how they must have wandered; it's not that far from Egypt to Israel. Those Jews were good and lost. They were probably using Mapquest, which has sent the authors two hours astray in the snow on to service roads of Newark Airport, simply to avoid a seventy-five-cent toll on the New Jersey Turnpike. But we digress.
The authors digress frequently in the book, but the digressions are always as engaging as the real meat.

Let's Get Serious

More often than not, the humor is used to make us think. The ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday are a sign of our mortality; but they are also a witness to our faith. Rather than simply point out the public aspect, the authors approach it with whimsy:
For one day a year, that cute intern you've been eyeing in the elevator, the distinguished executive who doesn't have a wedding ring, the pink-faced Polish waitress or Irish construction worker, walks around all day with a sticker on his or her head that says "Marriage Material."

Yet, never ones to let a good laugh die, the authors follow up that passage with a list of the "Top Ten Catholic Pick-Up Lines," including "May I offer you a light for that votive candle?"; "I bet I can guess your Confirmation name"; and "You've got stunning, scapular brown eyes."

The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living presents such a wealth of information that I'm tempted to suggest that parishes adopt it for high-school catechism classes. Certainly, it's more orthodox, more fact-filled, and far more interesting than many of the catechism curricula currently in use.

Such a suggestion, however, likely wouldn't get too far, because too few educators understand the value that humor plays in helping children learn—and, more importantly, remember what they have learned.

Should You Buy This Book?

Those who are most likely to enjoy this book are, not surprisingly, those who already have something of a sense of humor. If you listen to National Public Radio simply because that's what you're supposed to do, you probably won't like it. If you watch public television just for the British comedies, you almost certainly will.

The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living would make an excellent graduation gift, a non-preachy encouragement to the student going off to college to remain true to his faith. And for Catholic families with young children, this book is a must-have. Plenty of Matychowiak's recipes are simple enough that children can join in the preparation. And many of the feasts include suggestions for celebrations that children will love, such as this substitute for the traditional Easter egg hunt:

[A]s you decorate eggs, don't bother to boil them first. . . . Then come morning, awaken the little ones at sunrise for the Easter egg hunt. But as you collect them . . . have a raucous egg-fight, boys against girls, on the lawn in front of your home. . . .

This is sure to attract the attention of curious neighbors . . . As Catholics, it's our duty to offer such accounts of our creed and customs to anyone who asks, so wait until they've crossed your property line. Then shout "Christ is Risen!" and include them in the fun.

We haven't followed the suggestion to the letter, but our children have asked us to read the passage to them again and again, collapsing in laughter each time.

Who knew faith could be so much fun?

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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