"The Church Visible" is not about Catholic theology or doctrine, but it does concern an area of no less fascination and interest: the ceremonial life, protocol, and ritual of the Roman Catholic Church. Although late 20th century Catholics might tend to think of the Church as a purely spiritual entity, for nearly 1500 years it was also a political powerhouse and the source of almost all of the culture and customs of Western Europe. "The Church Visible" examines the present-day incarnation of the Church in her external life: ceremonies, traditions, vestments, insignia, protocol, and temporal and spiritual governance.
The book is divided into five sections: the Vatican itself, papal honors including orders of knighthood, Church protocol, vestments and insignia, and a brief history of the papacy. A glossary, a name and subject index, and a variety of appendixes including several Church documents are included. Several impressive Catholic figures also have brief forewords including John Cardinal Krol, John Cardinal O'Connor, and Archbishop John P. Foley.
Noonan has done a wonderful job of answering those niggling questions that never seem to be answered in the standard Catholic Q and A books, such as the reason why cardinals have their title placed in the middle of their name and how exactly a papal election is performed. For the latter, the author leads the reader step by step through the protocol that follows the death of a pope, citing examples from recent history, and then to the elections process and then enthronement of a new pope. He even includes sample liturgies and ceremony programs that have been used in the past. The chapter on the College of Cardinals is especially a gem.
Moving on, he examines the different papal honors, who may receive them, how they should be worn, and their relative precedence to other honors. He then studies the two major equestrian orders, the Knights of Malta and the nights of the Holy Sepulcher. For any readers entranced by the idea of knighthood and chivalry as this reviewer was starting when he was a child, these chapters are a joy to read as they reveal that true knighthood, that which begins with Christ, still exists in the world today, and that chivalry does have a place in the 20th century.
The section on protocol is very interesting and especially helpful for Americans who are not used to matters of rank, protocol, and etiquette. Here Noonan even provides sample dinner menus and invitations from past functions. The chapter on forms of address is also a practical guide for anyone who may have an opportunity to write to any clergyman. Overall, this section is will be mainly interesting for those who are curious about orders of precedence and etiquette, even if most will never have the chance to be part of formal pomp and circumstance.
The final section that will be of general interest is the coverage of vesture and insignia. Do you know what a zuchetto is? Do you know when it is worn? Know you will know. A nice addition to this section, and the whole book, are a series of color plate pages on heavy stock that illustrate the various vestments, insignia, awards, historical occasions, and other illustrations that bring to life the written descriptions.
Bottom Line: "The Church Visible" is a fun, interesting, and educational experience that any Catholic interested in the temporal life of the Church should pick up and peruse. It is a fascinating introduction to what might otherwise be an intricate web of inscrutable customs, but are now clearly illuminated as the logical product of the Church's long history as the centerpiece of Western civilization.