Tag Archives: Catholic history

Did you know Marco Polo was Catholic?

December 7, 2015

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40 Catholics cover

A remarkable amount of world history — including some surprises — is packed into the 266 pages of “Forty Catholics Who Shaped the World.”

Had you ever heard that Marco Polo was Catholic, or that his well-known journey was part of a request of Kublai Khan to know more about Christianity? Were you aware that Ferdinand Magellan evangelized native peoples as he attempted to circumnavigate the globe?

The best part of the stories that author Claire Smith shares in this new book published by St. Pauls may be the historic context in which she places the figures, making every chapter a history lesson as well as an inspiring personality profile.

Read the courageous account of Pedro and Violeta Chamorro’s struggle to bring democracy to 20th century Nicaragua and you’ll get a tightly summarized recap of the era of Somoza, the Sandinistas and the ordeal that led to the Iran-Contra Affair.

If all you remember about the revolt in the Philippines during the 1980s are Imelda Marcos’ thousand pairs of shoes, you’ll want to reconnect with the name of Corazon Aquino, the rosary-praying widow who led the People Power Revolution and forced the dictatorial Marcos family from the country.

Smith divides her list of 40 into seven separate categories: Scientists, scholars, innovators; modern-day apostles; leaders and pioneers; explorers; artists, musicians; early Christian heroes, and famous Doctors of the Church.

Some — Father Jacques Marquette, Michelangelo, St. Paul — may be better known than someone like Herrad of Landsberg, for example, a 12th century nun who compiled the first encyclopedia.

The inclusion of Christopher Columbus, St. Valentine, Mother Angelica of the Annunciation of EWTN fame might raise some eyebrows. To point to just one of those, though, the Mother Angelica story will amaze even those whose spirituality leans in a different ideological direction.

Personally, I found the entries of the artists weak, especially those of El Greco and Raphael. But I wish I had known before about Caroline Chisholm, the woman who did so much for emigrants to Australia. And all will appreciate that Smith doesn’t ignore the character blemishes of her subjects, noting that Maryland’s Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a slave owner.

If you’re one who tends to skim, the author has done you a great favor: The initial paragraph of each entry is a concise explanation of who the person is and what they have done to deserve to be included in a list of those who have shaped our world.

 

 

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‘My Battle Against Hitler’

April 21, 2015

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My-Battle-Against-Hitler-Denied a professorship in Munich because of his stand against National Socialism, Dietrich von Hildebrand fled Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power. He was tipped that his arrest was imminent.

The Catholic philosopher subsequently narrowly escaped Vienna with a death threat over his head as the Nazis took over Austria. The SS missed him by four hours.

He went first to Switzerland and later to France, only to once again have to run for his life when German tanks rolled into France.

Considered by Hitler one of National Socialism’s greatest obstacles, von Hildebrand found his way to the United States in 1940 and taught for 20 years at Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York City.

What he stood for and why he had to flee come to life some three-quarters of a century later in a translation of von Hildebrand’s memoir from those turbulent times, “My Battle Against Hitler.”

John Henry Crosby — with the assistance of his father, John F. Crosby — translated and edited the Image book, which is subtitled “Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich.”

By late 1921 von Hildebrand was already finding the political philosophy of National Socialism at odds with Catholicism — and earning the ire of some Germans, including German Catholic clergy, who saw it as a bulwark against communism.

By 1933, while Hitler was being appointed chancellor, the Reichstag being burned, the rule of law being disregarded by the government and Jews being arrested and hauled away, von Hildebrand was writing that one could not be both Catholic and a supporter of the Nazis.

“It was clear to me,” he wrote about that timeframe, “that I could no longer teach in a National Socialist country because I was convinced that I would be forced to make compromises, and that I would either have to keep silent about the injustices that would come or else risk the concentration camp.”

Compromise was something von Hildebrand couldn’t do when it came to what his Catholic faith taught. Nor could he be silent.

“His struggle against Hitler,” the authors note, “was above all carried out on the battlefield of conscience.”

Early on von Hildebrand warned those who thought Catholics could influence National Socialism for the better that that would not happen.

He warned Catholics, too, not to believe Hitler’s promises to respect Christian churches and to work with them, a warning that proved prescient when priests began being arrested and sent to concentration camps.

He railed against Catholics who put up with Nazi atrocities as long as the Catholic Church was not victimized.

Once safely in Vienna he launched a periodical that took on the Nazis from a Catholic intellectual perspective. It was a safety that was short-lived.

The last third of the book includes essays the von Hildebrand wrote for that Austrian journal he founded and led between 1934 and 1937, “Der christliche Standestaat” (“The Christian Corporate Standard”).

These are the persuasive writings of a philosopher who fought “at the level of first principles,” the authors explain. He argues for ethical choices and decisions, and goes point by point comparing the core principles of the Nazis against the teachings of Christ and the Church. In his writing:

• He calls nationalism the greatest heresy of the 18th and 19th centuries, justaposing it with patriotism, which he terms a love of one’s nation that acknowledges that every other nation is valuable and has rights, too.

• He lists Nazi sins, including racism, anti-semitism, the persecution and death of Jews, sterilization, regulating marriage, trumped up charges, “pharisaical trials,” defamation of individuals and murders, and warns against becoming “used to” or morally blind to them.

• Rather than politicizing Catholicism, “one must Catholicize politics,” he writes, and calls Catholics not to be silent or apolitical but to act, asking, “Are you for Christ or against him?”

In sum, von Hildebrand terms Nazism so unChristian and so unsound that it cannot be corrected or reformed, but must be destoyed.

His defense of the teachings of the Catholic faith is matched in this memoir only by his defense of Jewish people.

He defends Jews as a people of God, writing in 1937 with a Catholic heart in the very best sense:

“Above all, Catholics must all perceive the present-day attack against the Jews as something that directly threatens them. Did not Christ the Lord say, ‘What you have done to the least of my brothers, you have done to me?’

“Is not the defamation and degradation of the Jews a direct attack against the incarnate God, against human nature sanctified by the Incarnation? Indeed, what is happening today is not the special concern of a particular people. No, true for us all are the words, ‘Tua res agitur!’ — This concerns you!”

Bob Zyskowski writes the bobzbookreviews blog on
http://www.CatholicHotdish.com.

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Breuer and the Benedictines build a church

October 2, 2014

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Here’s the story of how a famous architect and the liturgy-reforming monks of St. John’s Abbey collaborated to create a very special modern church in the middle of Minnesota.

abbey church coverFor more than 50 years, motorists and passengers on I-94 some 60 miles north of the Twin Cities have seen an enormous concrete structure peeking above the treetops to the south as they near the exit for Collegeville and St. John’s University.

The flat trapezoid, the row of bells and the cross in the cutout at the top are a beacon for the modern wonder of a church below.

Now the story of how that massive architectural masterpiece came to be has been captured in a University of Minnesota Press book, “Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space.”

Victoria M. Young, with access to never-before-seen archives from both the abbey and the architect, tells the story of the development of the history-making worship space. Young is a professor and the chair of the art history department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

As she gives the behind-the-scenes details of the planning for and building of the Abbey Church, Young persistently reminds readers why this worship space is architecturally significant.

Several keys to success

Nestled as it is in the middle of the country, far from the architectural centers on either coast, the Abbey Church was:

  • Designed by a famous architect, Marcel Breuer.
  • The architect collaborated with his client — the Benedictine monks at St. John’s Monastery.
  • Their collaboration called for the use modern materials, modern engineering and modern construction methods.
  • Their goal was to create a worship space for the modern Catholic liturgy, the laity-including Mass that the monks themselves had experimented with and championed as leaders in the 20th century liturgical movement.

abbey monks & architects“The collaboration between the Benedictines and Marcel Breuer and his architectural team reveals important themes in mid-century religious architecture,” Young noted.

“Central to the subject is how the building operates as a vessel for the reformed liturgy, reconciling the visions of a modern architect and the traditions of his monastic patrons.”

Liturgical leaders

Beginning in the 1920s, St. John’s had become the American center of the liturgical movement due to the passionate efforts of its monks, notably Father Virgil Michel. The reform liturgy stressed the participation of the laity in the Mass, the use of the vernacular (the language of the people instead of Latin) and the repositioning of the altar so that the priest faced the people as he led them in prayer.

The result was that Breuer designed a worship space with no pillars blocking views and no seat more than 85 feet from the altar.abbey drawing interior

“This building project announced the Benedictines as leaders of liturgical reform within monasticism and confirmed Marcel Breuer’s position as one of the most innovative architects of the mid-century,” Young wrote.

“Their relationship was an architectural collaboration of the highest level. Knowledgeable clients carefully delivered a plan for reinvigorated worship and liturgy to a skillful architect, who sensitively shaped a space to support it.”

With access to letters between Breuer and the monks and to the architect’s handwritten notes on drafts of the design plans, Young is able to answer questions such as why did the monks want Breuer, and why did Breuer want the job.

Ahead of the liturgical curve

With the project first beginning in 1953, construction started in 1958 and completed in 1961, the building of this modern worship space preceded the promulgation of the new liturgy by Pope Paul VI by several years.

“The Benedictines were looking beyond their history as they planned their church,” Young told The Catholic Spirit. “Both the monks and Breuer took a leap of faith.”

Although he was a well-regarded architect, Breuer had never designed a church, she said.

“Architects want to explore different things, different building types,” Young added. “Designing a church was really interesting to him.”

Breuer also liked the project because the commission was for a campus master plan. “He liked the scale of the project,” Young said.

And the monk’s desire for a modern church allowed for the use of modern materials, specifically concrete, just coming into fashion for architectural design after World War II.

“Breuer loved the ability to shape and create space,” Young said, “and concrete gave him the ability to do that.”

Building the Abbey Church also put St. Paul construction company McGough on the map. “Larry McGough told me that it changed their company,” Young said. The experience that McGough’s team derived from developing new ways to build and the notoriety from having built the Abbey Church set McGough on a trajectory to do other large projects.

An architect who listened

The author repeatedly pulls readers back to one point, that it was the collaboration between the Benedictines and Breuer that was crucial to the outcome.

Breuer was one of five architects with great reputations who the monks invited to Collegeville to discuss their vision for the church they wanted to build. It was April 17, 1953.

“A powerful moment occurs when Breuer comes to St. John’s and he doesn’t speak much the whole first day,” Young said.

Instead, Breuer asked questions and listened to the Benedictines about their vision for their church. That was the kind of collaborative relationship the monks sought.

“They wanted to engage a designer of great character,” Young wrote, “someone who would listen as well as inform, a designer with whom they could collaborate to create significant monastic and liturgical space that would serve their order for the coming century.”

As a result, during the three-year construction period many modifications in Breuer’s design were made because of input from the monks.

“Shaping space around the new liturgy was, for the Benedictines, central to their role in the Catholic world, and their church needed to uphold this mission,” Young noted.

The full story

“Saint John’s Abbey Church,” while underscoring the compatibility of Breuer and the Benedictines, includes no small amount of space to the tensions that rose as the project went on.

There’s significant coverage of the disagreement about who should design the most significant work of art in the building, the huge stained glass window that makes up almost the entirety of the north wall. Breuer wanted Bauhaus artist Josef Albers; the monks chose Bronislaw Bak, a
St. John’s faculty member.

abbey window“Even today,” Young pointed out, “Bak’s window is still a source of debate for the monks and scholars. “Many at Collegeville wonder how Albers’ window would have changed the space and feeling of the church.”

Nor does the book ignore that fact that not everyone likes the Abbey Church.

“Not all were ready for such a brazen statement within religious architecture,” Young pointed out.

“For many, modernism was not an appropriate building style for the Catholic faith.”

Critics used terms to describe the Abbey Church such as “devoid of beauty,” “utilitarian” and an “ecclesiastical garage.”

abbey photo of interiorOthers, however, admired it, calling the Abbey Church “the most exciting thing in church architecture since Michelangelo’s great dome,” “one of the great sacred buildings of our time” and “a milestone in the evolution of the architecture of the Catholic Church in this country.”

Young, a member of Our Lady of Angels parish in Minneapolis and a Minnesota native who grew up in Comfrey in the southwestern part of the state, said that although she specializes in modern architectural history, she appreciates more traditional church designs as well.

Church architecture typically reflects the vision of “a group of people trying to figure out what would be good for that moment,” she said. “There’s a reason why it exists.

“When people say, ‘This is not a vessel for the liturgy,’ I say, ‘Have you been there?’ ”

Related events:

  • VictoriaYoungFriday, Oct. 24, 7 p.m.: Evening Prayer in the Abbey and University Church in Collegeville, followed at 7:45 p.m. by a talk by author Victoria M. Young, “Breuer and the Benedictines: A Modern Collaboration,” in the Abbey Chapter House. Book signing and reception afterward.
  • Saturday, Oct. 25, 10 a.m.: Tour of the Abbey and University Church by Victoria M. Young. 11:15 to noon: Book signing in the St. John’s University bookstore.
  • Sunday, Nov. 16, 2 p.m.: Reading, reception and book signing in the sanctuary of Christ Church Lutheran, 3244 34th Ave. S., Minneapolis.
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