If you still need some gift ideas for Christmas, or just want recommendations for your own bookshelf, here are some suggestions from Crux staff and contributors. (Price estimates are from Amazon or local booksellers.)

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John L. Allen Jr., associate editor

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives
By Pope Benedict XVI
Image Books / 144 pages / hardcover $11.60, paperback $17.29

Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke
By Raymond E. Brown
Yale University Press / 752 pages / hardcover $14.41, paperback $31.98

Believe it or not in 21st century America, Christmas actually still is about the birth of the savior of the world. That can be a tough thing to recall amid Santa-mania and the consumerist frenzy of the season, so I always like to dip back into a couple of classics that return me to the spiritual roots of it all. In Benedict XVI, you have the one of the finest theological minds ever to sit on the Throne of Peter; the late Sulpician Father, the Rev. Raymond Brown, meanwhile, was arguably the finest Catholic biblical scholar the United States ever produced. Benedict’s meditation is for general consumption and can be read in an afternoon, while Brown’s is tougher going in places, but both are a great way to feed both mind and soul over Christmas.


The Church of Mercy
By Pope Francis
Loyola University Press / 168 pages / hardcover $15.69, paperback $14.01

Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life
By Cardinal Walter Kasper
Paulist Press / 288 pages / hardcover $23.98, paperback $29.95

We’re at the outset of a special Holy Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis, and these two books help lay out the spiritual vision at its core. The first is a collection of the pope’s speeches, writings and homilies during his first year, while the second is the very first book recommendation Francis made after his election, in his first Sunday Angelus address. (Today Cardinal Walter Kasper is most associated with the debate over Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, but this book is a reminder he’s about much more than that.) If you want to understand how Francis is the “Pope of Mercy,” and what it means for his agenda and priorities, these are great places to start.


Merchants in the Temple: Inside Pope Francis’s Secret Battle Against Corruption in the Vatican
By Gianluigi Nuzzi
Henry Holt and Co. / 240 pages / hardcover $18.72

Avarizia: Le carte che svelano ricchezza, scandali e segreti della chiesa di Francesco
(Avarice: The papers that reveal wealth, scandals and secrets of Francis’ Church)
By Emiliano Fittipaldi
Feltrinelli Editore / 185 pages / paperback €11.90 / $27.87

Since Nuzzi and Fittipaldi are the first two journalists, at least in the modern era, to face a Vatican criminal trial for the books they published, any self-respecting Church affairs junkie is obliged to find out what all the fuss is about. (Alas, Fittipaldi’s book is not yet available in English.) Both books are in large measure based on leaked documents from a papal study commission on Vatican finances that finished its work in 2014. Both detail some embarrassing Vatican chicanery, but here’s the good news: They’re snapshots of a story moving in the right direction, since the information for which Nuzzi and Fittipaldi are being prosecuted for publishing was collected only because Pope Francis empaneled a body of experts to get to the bottom of things, and it’s the basis for the sweeping reform he’s launched.


Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy
By George J. Marlin
St. Augustine’s Press / 272 pages / hardcover $25.14

Admittedly, this book isn’t light holiday reading. (We’ll get to that in a minute.) However, it’s probably the most important title one could pick up, since it’s a dramatic reminder of the agony being experienced by Christians today in the land where the Christmas story took place. Marlin is the US chairman of Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic organization that supports persecuted Christians around the world, and the book is drawn from that experience. “We may be witnessing the final act of Christianity’s long decline in the very place where it was born,” Marlin writes of the Middle East. His book amounts to a wake-up call in the effort to avoid precisely that catastrophe.


The Confessor
By Daniel Silva
Signet / 480 pages / paperback $6.04

Now for that light holiday reading. I spend a lot of time on airplanes, and generally like to indulge a guilty pleasure by reading spy novels. The Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva is always in the mix, and “The Confessor” is my absolute favorite because it involves a juicy Vatican conspiracy — confronted, in this case, by an Israeli spy, working in tandem with a reforming pope and his basically agnostic but ferociously loyal priest-secretary. It’s all fantasy, of course, but let me just say this: Silva, a former journalist who was born Catholic but converted to Judaism, deserves an honorary membership card in the Vaticanologist union, because he really did his homework. (Anyone who doesn’t recognize a real Vatican personality in his depiction of the fictional Cardinal Secretary of State Marco Brindisi, for instance, just hasn’t been paying attention.)

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Margery Eagan, On Spirituality columnist

Open Mind, Open Heart
By Thomas Keating
Continuum / 160 pages / hardcover $25.36, paperback $9.41

Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening
By Cynthia Bourgeault
Cowley Publications / 178 pages / paperback $14.63

Both the Trappist monk Keating and the Episcopal priest Bourgeault have written many books on the meditation practice called Centering Prayer, an ancient Catholic practice that Keating refined and revised in the mid-1970s. Bourgeault was his pupil. For those of you interested in learning the technique, both these books explain it. They also offer its history and spiritual value of Centering. And Keating and Bougeault are wonderful, inspiring writers and teachers. If these sound like self-help books, I suppose in some sense they are. But if the help you’re seeking is a more intimate relationship with the divine, that’s what Keating and Bourgeault are offering.


Gift from the Sea
By Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Pantheon / 144 pages / hardcover $13.80, paperback $8.39

This is a lovely, lyrical and poetic meditation on the stages of a woman’s life, from childhood to motherhood — when a woman is at the center of her children’s universe — to middle-age and later when children are gone, the marriage has evolved, and a woman may feel, or be, very much alone. I first read this book at least 30 years ago. My perspective on it has been tempered by more recent revelations that Lindbergh’s husband, the famed aviator Charles, was not only a controlling cheapskate, bad father, and fascist sympathizer, but also a serial adulterer. He fathered six children with Anne. Then, for 20 years until he died, he maintained three secret families in Europe fathering seven more children with three different women. Supposedly Anne never knew. But in one sense, his betrayal makes “Gift from the Sea” even more poignant and intriguing: What did she really know, or at least suspect? It’s not Catholic or even religious in the strictest sense. Yet it is surely spiritual, as Lindbergh contemplates her desire for simplicity, solitude, and to live in grace.


Three Jesuit favorites:

The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life
By James Martin, SJ
HarperOne / 448 pages / hardcover $18.35, paperback $10.18

The enormously talented and witty Rev. James Martin focuses on the Ignatian way to “find God in all things” and let God into the decisions you make every day in your career, your love life, even your politics.


Sadhana, A Way to God
By Anthony De Mello
Image / 144 pages / hardcover $15.99, paperback $11.97

This is a how-to pray guidebook. De Mello offers nearly 50 spiritual exercises to help those struggling with prayer establish a regular prayer life and re-focus themselves on God.


A Thousand Mornings: Poems
By Mary Oliver
Penguin Books / 96 pages / hardcover $18.93, paperback $12.97

Oliver’s words pop up in so many Jesuit books and sermons. Here’s part of one Oliver poem, “The Gardener:”

Have I lived enough?
Have I loved enough?
Have I experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude?
Have I endured loneliness with grace?


Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God
By Cynthia Bourgeault
Cowley Publications / 104 pages / paperback $11.92

This small book may be too “out there” for some. Yet its theme, no surprise given its title, is wonderfully hopeful. Mystical hope is different from the hope, for example, to get a job or recover from an illness, Bourgeault says. It’s hope based in God’s mercy. So much hopelessness comes from a sense of time running out, of things being taken away, of the roads not taken. Bourgeault sees all things restored in God: our failures and triumphs, our losses and broken relationships, all “held in an exquisite fullness,” she writes, in the mercy of love, in the body of Christ.


Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life
By Henri Nouwen
HarperOne / 96 pages / hardcover $14.69, paperback $19.78

This is also a small book, and easier than Bourgeault’s, above. The point: how to live a spiritual life in the midst of our frenetic, distracted, preoccupied every day. Nouwen, founder of the l’Arche Community for the mentally handicapped, tells us “Jesus wants us to move from the ‘many things’ to the ‘one necessary thing,’” — a life with Him. Nouwen tells us how to get there.


Life and Holiness
By Thomas Merton
Image / 119 pages / hardcover $4.69, paperback $11.71

You can’t go wrong with any Merton book. I chose this one because its lesser known, yet introduced by Henri Nouwen, above, and filled with gems like this: “If we realized the meaning and import of His intimate closeness to us, we would find in him constant joy, strength, peace.” And this: “To be ‘perfect’ then is not so much a matter of seeking God with ardor and generosity, as of being found, loved, and possessed by God.” How do we know the will of God, Merton asks, then answers: by seeking the holy and life-giving relationships and not only our own good, but also the good of others. We can become saints in the ordinary duties of our lives, he says. If we ask, God will give us all the grace we need.


Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness
By Nan Merrill
Bloomsbury Academic / 320 pages / hardcover $50.04, paperback $22.95

A favorite at retreats and in prayer groups, “Psalms for Praying” is a lyrical reworking of the psalms by Merrill, a laywoman who directed retreats herself and worked in prison ministry. Here, for example, is Merrill’s slightly but beautifully altered version of Psalm 139:

Oh my Beloved, You have searched me
and known me!
You know when I sit down and
when I rise up;
You discern my innermost thoughts.
You find me on the journey and
guide my steps;
You know my strengths and
my weaknesses.
Even before words rise up in prayer,
Lo, You have already heard
My heart call…

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Michael O’Loughlin, national reporter

How to practice mercy in your own life:

Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job
By Kerry Weber
Loyola Press / 160 pages / paperback $13.45

Earlier this month, Pope Francis launched the Jubilee of Mercy, and what better way to mark the occasion than practicing some acts of mercy yourself. Kerry Weber, an editor at the Jesuit publication America, offers some ideas in her book about trying to live out her faith in New York City. Accessible, funny, and thoughtful, Weber’s book is perfect for anyone trying to figure out how Catholicism can be lived out in even the most hectic of circumstances.


Working for a Better World
By Carolyn Woo
Our Sunday Visitor / 176 pages / paperback $16.95

I’ve had the opportunity to interview the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, Carolyn Woo, several times. While her passion for her work is always evident, she hasn’t revealed much of her personal story — until now. And it’s fascinating. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Woo arrived in the United States to study and relied on her Catholic faith to help with the difficult transition. She eventually became dean of Notre Dame’s business school and now heads one of the largest American international relief organizations.


Read the pope’s own words:

Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home
By Pope Francis
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops / 128 pages / paperback $12.12

The Joy of the Gospel
By Pope Francis
Image / 224 pages / hardcover $13.30

One of my highlights in 2015 was being in Rome to cover the launch of “Laudato Si'”, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment. If you haven’t read a full copy of it, it’s worth cutting through the spin and seeing what the pope himself has to say about the plight of the planet. And while you’re at it, make sure you’ve read the pope’s first apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” This edition contains essays by Bishop Robert Barron and the Rev. James Martin, and many consider this book to be Francis’ blueprint for his papacy.


Read about the lives of two Americans whom many want to be named saints:

The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist
By Dorothy Day
HarperOne / 304 pages / paperback $13.22

The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith
By Thomas Merton
Mariner Books / 496 pages / hardcover $28.40, paperback $9.30

When Pope Francis addressed the US Congress in September, he held up two American Catholics as models of holiness: Trappist monk and peace activist Thomas Merton and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement Dorothy Day. The pope’s picks were interpreted as a hierarchal nod of approval to two individuals whose relationships with the Church weren’t always rosy. So why not pick up their autobiographies and learn how you, too, can shake up the status quo.


And finally, just read something interesting:

The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between
By Kaya Oakes
Orbis Books / 198 pages / paperback $18.84

Many stories I write include facts and figures about the rise of the so-called nones: folks who have drifted away from their faith and may or may not believe in God. Kaya Oakes, a writing instructor at UC Berkeley, manages to add some flesh to those numbers, and she brings to life the complex and messy stories behind them. The reality is a bit more complex, and Oakes isn’t afraid of asking tough questions, even when she knows answers won’t come easy.


The Vatican Prophecies: Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions, and Miracles in the Modern Age
By John Thavis
Viking / 288 pages / hardcover $20.89

Few people know the Vatican as well as John Thavis, former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service, and he uses that knowledge to tackle a vexing issue for the Church: How to deal with supposed miracles in a thoroughly modern age. From relics to images of Mary to exorcisms, Thavis explains why it seems the Church often goes out of its way not to uphold what some see as miraculous, but to dispel it.


The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe
By David I. Kertzer
Random House / 592 pages / paperback $13.60

One of my most popular stories for Crux was about the Vatican’s secret archive, which Brown Prof. David I. Kertzer happened to use to research his book about the Holy See’s complicated history with fascism in Europe. Kertzer’s view is nuanced, and he leaves some questions open for the reader to decide, but he isn’t afraid of shining light on a turbulent time for the Catholic Church and looking at the compromises it made to protect its own interests.

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Inés San Martín, Vatican correspondent

Conversion of a Continent: Contemporary Religious Change in Latin America
By Timothy J. Steigenga and Edward L. Cleary
Rutgers University Press / 298 pages / hardcover $46.99, paperback $27.95

The Aparecida Document
By the Latin American Bishops Conference
CreateSpace / 190 pages / paperback $15.83 (available online free)

Given that we have history’s first pope from Latin America, “Conversion of a Continent” is essential reading as it explains the changing religious landscape on Pope Francis’ continent. It brings together 12 essays that explain why the reality of the Catholic Church in South America has changed so radically in the past 40 years, from having a monopoly on adherents to coexisting with several other faiths. I found the book to be particularly useful because it goes beyond the big-picture reasons for religious conversion, such as an increased Protestant missionary activity, to explore who’s converting and under what circumstances.

The final document of the Latin American bishops conference in Aparecida, Brazil, from 2007, is a good companion book. It was drafted by then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and it’s an interesting mixture of mea culpas from the Catholic bishops for allowing the Church to stand on past glories and a call for a permanent continental mission of a Church that “leaves the sacristy,” as the pope usually says.


The Way of Humility: Corruption and Sin; On Self-Accusation
By Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio
Ignatius Press / 105 pages / paperback $12.30

Since his election to the papacy, several biographies of Francis have been published, some better than others, with many authors trying to discern the pontiff’s thoughts. This book — technically short meditations divided into separate works, “Corruption and Sin” and “Self-Accusation” — are a peek into the mind of the man before the pope without the added filter of a biographer. On a more spiritual level, the meditations also call for a personal examination without becoming a cheery self-help book.


El bicentenario de la independencia de los países latinoamericanos
(The bicentennial of the Independence of Latin American countries)
By Guzman Carriquiri
Ediciones Encuentro / 136 pages / paperback $11.20

Although available only in Spanish, this book works as a history lesson of sorts that delves into the past and present of Latin American countries, many of which will celebrate the 200th anniversary of their independence in the coming years. Carriquiri, an Uruguayan who is secretary of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Latin America, manages to combine the past, present, and future of these countries from a Catholic perspective. It goes beyond cataloguing past events or doing a sociological analysis of the present, hence providing a good background.


Our Lady of Guadalupe
By Tomie dePaola
Holiday House / 48 pages / hardcover $33.83, paperback $28.99

This one is clearly for the youngest ones in the family, as it’s a children’s book that tells (and shows) the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe and her apparitions to Juan Diego, a poor Indian farmer in Mexico. “La Morenita” is the patroness of the Americas, and Pope Francis has said on various occasions she’s the main reason why he wants to go to Mexico in 2016, so learning her story would be a great introduction to that trip. Also available in Spanish, it’s a perfect book to read out loud as a bedtime story.

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Steven Greydanus, New & Notable on Home Video columnist

Here are some great films available on DVD:

Faustina: The Apostle of Divine Mercy
1995 / Ignatius Press / 75 minutes / $19.95

In the Year of Mercy, this gorgeously shot film about St. Faustina Kowalska — the Apostle of Divine Mercy — is a perfect gift, particularly for any devotee of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Canonized in 2000 by Pope St. John Paul II, Faustina was the 20th-century Polish visionary responsible for the well-known Divine Mercy image of Jesus Christ with red and pale rays of light emanating from his heart; thanks to her efforts, the Sunday after Easter is now celebrated as Divine Mercy Sunday. The Polish-language film, directed by Jerzy Lukaszewicz and starring Dorota Segda (whose performance won an award from Polish film critics), boldly plunges the viewer into Faustina’s visionary world, with rich cinematography and a haunting score.


I Confess
1953 / Warner Home Video / 95 minutes / $8.76

Alfred Hitchcock’s most overtly Catholic film, “I Confess” is a high-concept thriller that offers a compelling twist on one of the director’s favorite themes: the innocent man wrongly accused. What if a murderer confessed his crime to a priest in the confessional — and suspicion subsequently fell on the priest, who would be bound by the seal of confession from implicating the real killer? Based on the play by Paul Anthelme, “I Confess” stars Montgomery Clift as the Rev. Michael Logan, a priest who cannot be said to have nothing to hide, and at least had a motive for the murder for which he is later suspected. Karl Malden (the passionate dockside priest in the following year’s “On the Waterfront”) plays the police inspector who overhears Logan make a startling remark to a married woman (Anne Baxter) after the murder. Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks make excellent use of Quebec locations.


The Miracle Maker — The Story of Jesus
2000 / Lions Gate / 87 minutes / $8.29

Especially ideal for families but appropriate for absolutely anyone, “The Miracle Maker” is an brilliantly written and produced life-of-Jesus movie that is simple enough for children but sophisticated enough for theology students. A co-production of two animation houses in Wales and Russia, the film brings Jesus and his world to life via remarkably lifelike stop-motion animation. The well-researched screenplay, drawing on all four Gospels but relying particularly on Luke, manages to be at once familiar and fresh, putting well-known Bible stories in a new light without seeming to change them at all. Voices include Ralph Fiennes as Jesus, Miranda Richardson as Mary Magdalene, Alfred Molina as Simon the Pharisee, and Ian Holm as Pilate.


The Scarlet and the Black
1983 / Lions Gate / 143 minutes / $12.99

Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer star in this thrilling fact-based World War II drama celebrating the exploits of the “Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican,” Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty (Peck) of the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), who led a covert Catholic resistance movement against the Nazis in occupied Rome that ran an underground railroad for escaped Allied POWs, anti-Fascists, and Jews, saving thousands. Plummer plays his antagonist, Lt. Col. Herbert Kappler of the S.S., who attempts to thwart O’Flaherty, break his organization, and ultimately to catch or kill him at any cost. Shot on location in Rome and Vatican City, the well-produced TV movie also features John Gielgud as Pius XII.


Witness to Hope: The Life of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II
2002 / Xenon / 116 minutes / $7.98

In the heap of TV documentaries on the life of Pope St. John Paul II, there is “Witness to Hope,” and there is everything else. Based on George Weigel’s 1,000-plus page biography, the feature-length film stands alone in its insight not only regarding John Paul II’s significance in 20th-century history, but also his inner life, thought, and spirituality. For instance, where most documentaries mention that Wojtyla’s mentor Jan Tyranowski introduced him to the writings of St. John of the Cross, only “Witness to Hope” offers any glimpse into the nature of St. John’s Carmelite mysticism and its significance for Wojtyla. Narrated by Rene Auberjonois and directed by Judith Dwan Hallet, the doc is exceptionally rich in atmosphere and period flavor for a TV biography, with well-done semi-dramatic footage and location shooting seamlessly integrated with archival footage and still photography and interviews of childhood friends, former students, and others, including Weigel.

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Kathleen Hirsch, Crux contributor

Jesus Before Christianity
By Albert Nolan
Orbis Books / 200 pages / $15

This classic work by South African Dominican Albert Nolan is a must-read for those who want a clear-sighted portrait of Jesus before he became the central figure in an organized Church. Nolan situates Jesus as a man of his times, a brilliantly insightful visionary who broke with John’s rhetoric in order to establish core practices that ran straight into the face of the Judaism of his own time, and have profound lessons for us today. Nolan depicts a Jesus who broke through exclusionary religious scapegoating, “healed” socially-induced diseases, and taught a new “kingdom” that required not weapons but a change of heart, metanoia, and the choice for a “new community” of hope.


Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About the Results
By Robert Lupton
HarperOne / 208 pages / $24.99

Robert Lupton’s “Toxic Charity” exposed readers to the fault lines in many church philanthropic efforts: they tend to make the givers feel good (and in control), while seriously missing opportunities for genuine engagement with, and empowerment of, those they are trying to help. In his new book, “Charity Detox,” he uses his personal experience as a grassroots community activist to outline ways to structure programs that actually improve the quality of life for those who dwell along the ma