1. The Fathers Know Best by Jimmy Akin
Dive into the world of the Church Fathers! This is spiritual treasure the most AMAZING resource to learn about the beliefs of the Early Church. So many people ask me how to study the Church Fathers and this is the most direct unbiased book you could find. Written by the man behind Catholic Answers it has block quotes of different Church Fathers in chronological order organized by topic. Everything from baptism, the eucharist, church leadership, confession, liturgy, beliefs about Christ and the theology of Mary, etc. you can read for yourself exactly what the Early Christians believed and determine whether or not the first few centuries of Christianity "look Catholic."
2. The Essential Catholic Survival Guide By the Staff at Catholic Answers
This book is the most comprehensive explanation of every single Catholic belief!!! It is overwhelming how perfect it is if you know nothing about Catholicism and have hundreds of questions and concerns and doubts and things that you hate. I wish I'd bought this the moment I became 1% open that Catholicism could be true. It is several hundred pages and explains in-depth so many facets of every single Catholic doctrine. Even after almost two years of researching and reading intently into Catholicism I continue to peruse this and have huge epiphanies about things I never understood. Absolute must for every convert.
3. Church History By Eusebius
If you care at all about the Early Church you NEED to read this. This is the most classic Christian text of the first 300 years of the Church. My favorite book I've ever read. Eusebius is a 4th Century bishop and historian and this is the first comprehensive guide of Early Christian history. Your experience reading will be like the most intense vivid movie, it is so immersive and emotionally pulls you into the lives of the first believers. Heavily quoting from Church Fathers and conserving major oral tradition of the Apostles and primitive Christian communities found nowhere else, Eusebius passionately details a Christianity dominated by martyrdom, heresies, lineages of the bishops from every city going back to the first generation of believers and details of the missionary work of the Apostles! This book made me fall in love with the Early Christians and gave me the most comprehensive understanding of the Church Fathers and Early Christian history. It will leave you with a renewed sense of hope and gratitude for the Faith that's been passed down to us.
4. Upon This Rock By Stephen K. Ray
Eternally grateful to this baptist convert for dedicating so much time in researching into the most fascinating depths of Biblical exegesis around the infamous passage in Matthew 16 when Jesus says to Peter "upon this rock I will build my Church." The most compelling part is actually the following verse "I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven" which seems to be definitively referring to the steward, second-in-command, political position within the Jewish Monarchy. The steward was in charge of the city if the King left and would literally carry around the keys to the city on his shoulders. This is blatantly referred to in Isaiah 22:20-25, Genesis 41:43, throughout 1 Kings 4 and in Revelation 3:7. The arguments in this book made me accept the Papacy as the most intellectually compelling explanation of Peter's role throughout the New Testament. Part 1 of this book is a Biblical exegesis of Matthew 16 and Peter's place amongst the Apostles throughout Acts and the Gospels. Part 2 is historical evidence from the Early Church of the Roman Bishop having primacy and the Catholic theology of the Pope being blatantly evident in the first few centuries of Christianity.
5. Christianity and Politics by C.C. Pecknold
The best book I've ever read in my life! The title and cover-art make it seem really boring but I PROMISE this is the most vivid intense exciting journeys of intellect you'll ever go on!! C.C. Pecknold takes you through elements of second-temple Judaism and Greco-Roman culture playing into how EXTREME and SHOCKING Jesus and His ministry was and how Christianity throughout the Patristic period stood as such a dynamic contrast to the pagan culture. This was a textbook in my favorite class I took at Pepperdine, taught by a Catholic Professor, who was extremely influential in my conversion. There's a whole chapter on how the Early Church believed in Real Presence and at the time I scoffed it off to "Catholic propaganda" but looking back this book steered me toward Truth. Insights of how Christianity changed the ancient view of time have permanently changed how I understand my faith. I remember thinking of themes from this book EVERY TIME I took communion at church for a year after, making it feel so much more meaningful and it is beautiful, makes me feel so grateful looking back to how much this book lead me toward Christ in the Eucharist.
6. Rome Sweet Home by Kimberly and Scott Hahn
The most loved and iconic conversion story! Scott Hahn is such a gift to the Catholic world and I listened to some of his lectures early on in my journey. I finally read this book coauthored with his wife once I was already in RCIA, and it really helped me to process my experience and feel emotionally validated, understood in my journey. I related to dozens of parts of the book and it helped me sort out some theology I was still struggling with, especially the fear in embracing Mary. It is INTENSE and painful to read at times: these raw emotions of how much hell their marriage went through when Scott read dozens of theology books and converted into the Church while his wife was IN SHOCK. The tension and horror and heartbreak that Kimberly felt as she watched her husband leave their church ministered to me in a way. It was this bitter storm of what I was putting my parents through and I cried in many parts of the book. The end of it is beautiful in how they brought their best friends into the Church and it gives me hope that some of the people I love the most in my life may years from now come home with me too.
7 . Church History: Five Approaches to a Global Discipline By Dyron B. Daughrity
A Protestant perspective on Christianity from my Church History Professor at Pepperdine! The writing in this is so beautiful, the most amazing flow and it feels like art to read. Although I disagree with some of his interpretations of the Early Church, I find it an amazing resource and extremely comprehensive of an understanding of Christianity as a whole. It gives you a big picture view of Orthodox, Catholicism and all the denominations of Protestantism from the apostolic age to post-modernism, while throughout giving these gems of details of personal stories of Christians who were heroic in living out their faith. If you're addicted to details like I am and want Christianity to be brought to life and made vivid in your mind, you'll love this book. It is similar to the essence of Eusebius' Church History! I think it is SO important to read ALL perspectives of Truth in deciding which Church to be a part of. This is an incredible Protestant perspective.
8. The Constitution and Law of the Church in the First Two Centuries By Adolf Harnack
Another Protestant perspective! Harnack is a Lutheran and this book is a comprehensive analysis of the "development" of Priests and Bishops within the Church. It was helpful for me seeing what a Protestant must grant regarding Early Church leadership. Many Catholics will say that there were priests in the 1st Century but it is complicated because priest-bishop distinctions were at first obscure. When it comes to anything in the 1st Century it is foolish to claim absolutes because we have scant evidence and it is a historical question as to how certain things are popping up in the mid-2nd Century. The Catholic perspective is that there were priests in the 1st Century in that bishops were priests, but it seems that the hard-and-fast distinctions arose later. It was helpful learning that early on only one parish gathering was allowed in each city and one bishop overseeing each church. As Christianity grew in the 2nd Century and multiple gatherings were happening in each city, a distinction was made in priests and bishops, so that priests could oversee individual parishes. It was fascinating as well Harnack's exegesis of the New Testament and the "charismata" i.e. speaking in tongues and prophesying during the Apostolic Age as seen in the New Testament. Understanding that these types of worship faded out after the first generation of Christians was helpful in understanding why the Montanist Heresy of the 2nd Century was so polemical.
9. Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought by Luigi S. M. Gambero
As a Protestant convert ALL the theology around Mary initially seemed dangerous and fabricated, even sacrilegious. Some of the other apologetics books of Marian theology focus on a sole exegesis of scripture, with little historical backing. This does the opposite. It is a really thick textbook that thoroughly explores every mention of Mary throughout the Early Church. If you want to cover ALL the Marian dogmas in a single read, this is the perfect book! You can objectively look at all the mentions throughout the Early Church of how Marian theology was intertwined with Christology.
10. Against Helvidius by Jerome
This is not a book, but a short essay that I found helpful in understanding the Catholic dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary. Jerome is writing in the 4th Century and refuting some of the same beliefs I had regarding Bible Verses referring to Jesus' "brothers and sisters" and the meaning of "until" in Matthew 1:25, which make it seem like Mary and Joseph had sex and had children together. This heresy was thoroughly refuted and I found the arguments to be strong. Jerome's style of mockery and hyperbole made the read quite enjoyable!
11 . Against Heresies By Irenaeus
Irenaeus was one of the most prolific bishops of the Early Church. Born in the early 2nd Century, he was directly taught by Polycarp, who was taught by the Apostle John. Through the writings of Irenaeus we have direct access to the way the Gospels and teachings of Jesus were meant to be interpreted. Against Heresies is specifically written to fight against Gnosticism (a group of heresies founded on the denial that Jesus came to earth as a physical person) and the first two books solely relay and summarize Gnostic theology. I picked Irenaeus as my patron saint (am obsessed with him) and I personally found the first 200-pages describing these depths of Gnostic's most bizarre exegesis of the New Testament where there are multiple gods and these hidden meanings of "aeons" to be enjoyable, humorous and fascinating!! Many people may find a lot of the beginning part to be very dense and not that relevant, as these ancient brands of gnosticism do not exist anymore. Irenaeus' rebuttals to the Gnostic theologies later on in the book are more helpful and a presentation of Early Church theology of Real Presence along with some of the first recorded theology of Mary being "the New Eve" and being referred to as "The Virgin" which seems to imply the perpetual virginity.
12 . Confessions by Augustine
The most loved conversion story by protestants and catholics alike! An amazing read that will challenge your soul and deepen your spirituality. This was the first autobiography in world history and has been integral in so many Christians understanding the Faith. Just remember when you're reading this that Augustine was a Catholic Bishop.
13. The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton
A passionate conversion story from one of the most prolific figures of the 20th Century. Thomas Merton went through a dynamic revision of worldview, converting into Catholicism at 23 and taking vows into Monastic life at 26. His conversion is full of mystic awe, shaking intellectual discoveries and a deep passion. He produced dozens of books throughout his life; this is his stunning autobiography. Many have called it the 20th Century version of Augustine's Confessions.
14. The Life of the Virgin by Maximus the Confessor
A 7th Century classic that reads like a screenplay! One THE BEST books I’ve ever read in my life. It will make you laugh and cry and meditate. This helped me immensely in my conversion and made me fall in love with Mary and understand why Catholicism emphasizes her: because SHE is the only one present at all of these integral moments of Jesus’ life. To fully know and love Jesus is to see Him through Mary’s eyes. Even up until my confirmation I didn't understand how someone could have a devotion to Mary or feel some sort of relationship to her. This book changed everything. Maximus the Confessor writes the most passionate narrative, a DRAMATIC RE-ENACTMENT of the story of Jesus. As Simeon prophesied in Luke 2 the crucifixion would be a sword piercing through Mary's soul and this integration of oral tradition helped me understand Mary's intercessory role in the Church and got me so stoked and excited to pray the Rosary!
15. The Lamb’s Supper by Scott Hahn
My favorite Scott Hahn book! Theologically rich but practical in understanding what goes on at Mass. It exudes the spiritual power of the Eucharist and how liturgy and consecration s is when heaven meets earth, that's what Mass is: being within the Throne room of God and one in the same with the Saints in Heaven as we are with the Christians worshipping on earth.
16. The Eucharist by Alexander Schmemann
Schmemann is a Russian Orthodox theologian! This is the most in-depth spiritual treasure of the theology of the Eucharist. Beyond apologetics-type historical proofs of Real Presences, this intensely dives into the way Real Presence was dynamic in primitive Christianity and the ways it has been understood since. It critiques aspects of modern liturgy that have veered away from the essence of what Christ established. Schmemann presents a harsh challenge to our individualistic culture and critiques the western ideologies feeding into Protestantism. The Eucharist received within the lived out political community of believers must be in continuity with a tangible unity of mind.
17. The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
A more scholarly, in-depth look into everything that goes on at Mass and the Catholic theology of the Eucharist.
18. After Virtue by Alisdair MacIntyre
Digesting this was absolutely crucial for me to begin to see beyond the intellectualism of the Enlightenment. It begins with the most terrifying premise and is this painful critique of what I loved and studied at Pepperdine: Analytical Philosophy. I cried so much reading this and felt like it disseminated part of my identity. It shows the Enlightenment to be a failure and reveals our biases of academia in portraying ethics and history that is blinding us from the richness that Christianity built up in the philosophies of the Middle Ages. It refutes the relativism and utilitarianism that modernism has brought us but explains why our culture got to this relativistic "after virtue" madness. The solutions MacIntyre offers are toward Catholicism and Virtue Ethics or Atheism and Nietzsche.
19. The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy by Étienne Gilson
The book that converted Thomas Merton into Christianity. For me, this was a part 2 to After Virtue. It goes in-depth into the beauty and treasure that the failures of the Enlightenment disseminated. Originally a lecture series, it begins with a premise that many Christian Philosophies developed within the Medieval Ages and presents this as an extremely controversial claim that many will immedialty dismiss. The myth of "The Dark Ages" has become immersive and this illustrates that the scholarship of Catholicism made amazing developments beyond just Aquinas, although it does give excellent insights into the Summa! Gilson is frustratingly pretentious in constantly quoting Latin but not translating it. I was still able to make sense of his ideas and found this as an excellent intro to Catholic philosophy! Coming out of an Analytical Philosophy background, I look back on that perspective as being entrapped away from a lot of richness and this exploration was invigorating!!
20. Crossing the Tiber by Stephen K. Ray
The story behind the baptist convert who wrote the Papacy book! This conversion memoir is way more chill than Rome Sweet Home. Instead of stress in his relationship with his wife, I found so much joy and admiration in their marriage in how they researched and debated and fell in love with the Church together. This began as a letter Ray wrote to his parents in why he was becoming Catholic and the second-half of the book is apologetics of biblical exegesis and historical evidence supporting infant baptism and pouring water vs immersion (a HUGE hurdle I also ran into as coming from a similar adult full immersion church) and the theology of the Real Presence of the Eucharist. I related to him and his wife's emotions of anger in not having been evangelized to by Catholics. And found so much joy in how their best friends who had recently converted helped to bring them home!