Late bishop’s Little Black Book provides many with Lenten inspiration

Ashes are distributed during Ash Wednesday Mass last year at St. Helen Catholic Church in Glendale, Ariz. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

Ashes are distributed during Ash Wednesday Mass last year at St. Helen Catholic Church in Glendale, Ariz. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

By Sam Lucero
Catholic News Service

ALLOUEZ, Wis. (CNS) — Every year, Catholics look for ways to observe the 40 days of Lent.

Finding inspiration for prayer — one of the three Lenten faith traditions, along with fasting and almsgiving — is a top priority and one favorite source for many is the Little Black Book.

Now in its 17th year of publication, the Little Black Book has its origins in the Diocese of Saginaw and was the idea of Saginaw’s bishop, the late Bishop Kenneth E. Untener. A gifted homilist and writer, Bishop Untener died in 2004.

Cathy Haven has been editor of the Little Black Book since 2004. In an interview with The Compass, the newspaper of the Green Bay Diocese, she explained how this Lenten resource Bishop Untener created for members of his diocese turned into an internationally popular devotional book.

It is now published in English, Spanish and Vietnamese and also comes in different colors and themes: the Little Blue Book for Advent/Christmas; the Little White Book for the Easter season; and the Little Burgundy Book, an undated four-week reflection on stewardship in light of the Gospels. For copies, visit www.littlebooks.us.

(CNS illustration/Nancy Wiechec)

(CNS illustration/Nancy Wiechec)

“In the mid-1990s, Bishop Untener had decided that he wanted to do something that would kind of bring the traditions of Lent to the forefront of peoples’ minds,” said Haven. “He started a Lenten task force and chose the theme of reconciliation.”

The task force included diocesan staff members with backgrounds in religious education and liturgy. The result was a Lenten reflection that was well received. The popularity of this reflection led to the first Little Black Book.

In 1999, Bishop Untener asked Haven, who was diocesan director of communications, and Sister Nancy Kyotte, an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister, to help him create a reflection that would use the tradition of “lectio divina,” a prayerful way of reading Scripture, to help people prayerfully experience Jesus’ passion.

However, “he wanted something that could be put into a coat pocket,” said Haven, a booklet with no artwork identifying it as a religious publication so anyone could carry it in public. The goal was to “spend six minutes with the Lord” every day.

“Even though it was intended for our diocese, we received a lot of calls from around Michigan,” said Haven. “Then it kept growing.”

According to Haven, more than 3 million books have been sold worldwide. “Last year, we did an Advent and Lenten book in large print. It was so well received that we also added an Easter book in large print.”

Haven said she is pleased that the Lenten booklet remains popular today, nearly 13 years after Bishop Untener’s death. She also feels blessed to be part of continuing the bishop’s legacy. While new material is featured each year, the staff of Little Books — a nonprofit corporation not affiliated with the Saginaw Diocese — continues to draw from Bishop Untener’s writings.

“I am honored by the fact that I am doing this,” said Haven. “I know God’s hand is in it because of how well it’s done. We have a small group that works on this and I think we all feel like we’re part of something much bigger than us. There is a very strong sense of purpose in what we are doing.”

One person who is grateful to see the Little Black Book continue is retired Green Bay Auxiliary Bishop Robert F. Morneau, a longtime friend of Bishop Untener and author of numerous books on spirituality and stewardship.

“I had the privilege of knowing Bishop Untener for over 15 years,” said Bishop Morneau. “He was an excellent teacher, a powerful homilist, a dedicated shepherd and a disciplined evangelist.”

Bishop Untener had a gift and a strong desire to “draw people closer to the mystery of God revealed in Jesus,” said Bishop Morneau.

“One of the ways that he did this was through the publication of the Little Black Book. I used to watch him make entries in his Franklin Planner, carefully noting passages from Scripture, lines of a poem, his encounter with children and adults, his daily experiences of grace,” the bishop said “He was a ‘noticer.’ He had the gift of language. Season after season he would write down his experiences of faith and share them with the people of his diocese and far beyond.”

This Lent, thousands of Catholics in the Diocese of Green Bay and elsewhere will turn to the Little Black Book for their Lenten inspiration. Reflections, based on Christ’s Passion according to John, began Feb. 26 and end Easter Sunday, April 16.

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Lucero is news and information manager at The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay.

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