The newly published Encyclopedia of Catholicism was put through the severest ordeal it could possibly encounter: the “bar car test.”
It occurred on the 5:18 p.m. commuter train from New York to Connecticut. A New York Daily News reporter hefted the 4-pound, 15-ounce tome onto the bar counter and challenged the happy-hour crowd to give him something to look up.
Commuters caught the spirit. They shouted out their challenges, some quite arcane. Reporter Charles “Bill” Bell thumbed through the 4,500 entries in the 1,349-page tome for answers.
“What’s a maniple?’
Page 811: “a short, colored, silk vestment formerly worn by priests over their left forearm.”
“How many popes have there been?”
All 262 popes are included in a 21-page list, beginning with St. Peter. The list includes a short synopsis of each pontificate that amounts to a summary history of the papacy.
“It passed with flying colors,” the encyclopedia’s general editor, the Rev. Richard McBrien, reported last week to parishioners at a booksigning reception at St. Matthew’s Church in Tolland, Conn. Bell had told him about the test, McBrien said.
The encyclopedia encompasses “the whole of
the Catholic tradition, from pre-Vatican Council days and after,” said McBrien, 58, a priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford who has been detached for years to teach theology at the University of Notre Dame. McBrien said he is satisfied that virtually anything of any consequence is covered in the encyclopedia, newly published by San Francisco-based HarperCollins.
The entries are arranged alphabetically, from Aaron, the elder brother of Moses, to Zwingli, a 16th-century evangelical reformer. They are the work of an interfaith group of 17 associate editors and 280 contributors.
Among the contributors are such authoritative figures as Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, the spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Church, who wrote on Anglicanism.
Sales of the $45 encyclopedia are going well. McBrien said 23,000 have been sold to date.
McBrien’s publisher proposed the idea of an encyclopedia in the fall of 1989. He began working on it in earnest two years later when he had a sabbatical leave after serving as chairman of the university theology department.
McBrien is a prolific writer, lecturer and frequent commentator on Catholic affairs for network television.
Besides working on the encyclopedia, he has written 15 other books, including “Catholicism,” a 1980 two-volume compendium of Catholic teaching.
Next on the agenda is publication of a book he has already written for Paulist Press, “Responses to 101 Questions on the Church.” After that, he is thinking of writing a popular history of the popes.
“But I’ll never do another encyclopedia,” he said. “Life is too short.”