Five Catholic Heroes of the Twentieth Century

Five Catholic Heroes of the Twentieth Century October 29, 2009

After listing my five non-Catholic heroes from the twentieth century, I thought it was important to bring out my five Catholic heroes. It’s a difficult list to create, because there are many who are worthy of recognition. There might be on my list that will surprise some readers, but probably the biggest surprise will be the omissions of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The same could be said for my leaving off Blessed Theodore Romzha from my list (he was one of many Eastern Catholic bishops martyred under the communists, and his feast day is coming up on November 1). This is not because I do not value their input; if I had to do a list of the top ten Catholics, they would probably make it. But I rather wanted to point to those who have had the most influence on my own development, and here I find Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to be less significant than those mentioned here.

The first on this list is St. Edith Stein (1891 -1942). St Edith Stein was an amazing woman. She was a German-Jewish convert to the Catholic faith, based in part with her philosophical studies, and based in part with the spiritual exploration she had with the Carmelites, especially St Teresa of Avilla. She was a philosopher who studied under Husserl; despite her credentials, she never was able to make her way into the academy, in part because she was a woman, and in part because she was a Jew. Before becoming a Carmelite nun in 1933, she was a lecturer and worked for the improvement of women in modern society (her brand of feminism was to further inspire Adrienne von Speyr, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Pope John Paul II, and many others). She knew the danger that was had with Hitler and wrote to Pope Pius XI asking him to denounce the Nazis. The Carmelites moved her to the Netherlands to help protect her, but it was not enough: in 1942, she, with her sister, was captured by the Nazis, and killed at Auschwitz on August 9, 1942. What leads her to inspire me is how she combined several factors at once in one person: a spiritual seeker of the Carmelite tradition, a philosopher who tried to engage phenomenology with Thomism, a feminist who tried to improve the conditions for women in the twentieth century, and a faithful Christian whose death was that of a double-martyrdom: for the Jewish people as well as for the Christians. She was one of many Jewish converts in the modern age who helped bridge the gap between Christianity and Judaism, showing how the two should and could interact without the hostility of the past (other examples here include S.L. Frank and Archbishop Jean Lustiger).

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892 – 1973) is the second on my list. Anyone who knows me knows he is my favorite Inkling, and that I consider him to be a saint (and there has been a movement to get him recognized as such). His works (fiction and non-fiction alike) have been a major influence on how I look at the world. While his major contribution is his literary output, texts which I believe are filled with all kinds of values which are needed for the modern world, we must not neglect the rest of what made Tolkien so special. He was a Catholic; he converted in his youth, when his mother, a single mother, became Catholic (his father had already died). He found in his youth the kind of hardship one must go through to be Catholic; his mother was mistreated by many in his family for her Catholicism, and indeed, he blamed her early death in part because of the family’s lack of concern for her wellbeing because she had become Catholic. He and his brother, Hillary, were given over to the custody of Fr. Francis Morgan when she died, and he helped continue to guide and shape Tolkien’s spiritual development (Fr. Morgan was a resident of the Birmingham Oratory, famous for its association with Cardinal Newman, and it is clear this had an influence on Tolkien and his spiritual development). Throughout his life, Tolkien was a faithful Catholic, despite the hardships he had from it, including a struggle he faced with his immediate family: he required Edith to convert to Catholicism before they got married, but her heart was not in the conversion. At one point in their marriage, she stopped going to church, causing friction in their household; eventually she would reconcile herself to Catholicism, though the heartache this experience caused can be seen in several of Tolkien’s letters when he discusses the problems of marriage (in saying this, it must be pointed out that his love for Edith remained strong; the conflict hurt emotionally, but it did not override his love). Tolkien was known to go to daily mass and eucharistic adoration (and in one of his letters, points out to a kind of vision he had one day, the kind which I am sure helped him in his trials). His son, John Tolkien, must have been deeply affected by his father’s faith, for he was to become a priest. Academically, Tolkien was a philologist; sadly less people are familiar with his work here, though for one fascinated by Tolkien, this should be a side which is not ignored, because his literary works only make sense in relation to his philology – his literary work, in many ways, ended up becoming philological experiments, the kind of which is difficult to detect unless one is familiar with his wide range of studies. Tolkien was highly critical of the modern world; he questioned the drive for domination which is found with technological progress – power corrupts, not just the person who looks for it, but those around him as well; in his works one can note how tyranny leads to pollution (both spiritual and physical). Yet, despite the problems of modernity, Tolkien, who certainly knew sorrow, nonetheless kept a spirit of joy and playfulness which I find intriguing and important, for if one can follow him in it, I believe it can help lead to a spiritual revolution which will overcome many of the problems we see around us today.

For the third, we come to Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905 – 1988). It’s very hard to describe Balthasar and his contributions; he was a brilliant theologian who was well-read and capable of addressing several areas of thought, bringing them together for the sake of his theology. His desire to restore aesthetics as a theological category, bringing it under the category of Glory, has not yet achieved the kind of success he would have liked, but one can say it is because it has not yet been popularized yet. Balthasar’s genius, however, lay beyond his aesthetics (which is very important); it is his desire to show how ancient theological and philosophical explorations can be used to meet the modern world; he understood we do not have to reject one to appreciate the other. Balthasar saw that every age produces greatness, but also every age has its own dangerous undercurrents which one must not succumb to if one wanted to follow the path of truth. Every age, every culture, has its imbalance, its tendency, which, when revealed, shows why one must not entirely adhere to it, but to be moved beyond it to overcome its mistakes. For the modern world, the terrors are great; Balthasar was not one who thought that world history was a one-way street of positive development; instead, he saw it as the constant struggle between the truth and falsehood, between love and hate, good and evil; the light of truth reveals the dark undercurrents, and that which was once hidden in the shadows, now exposed, lashes out with furry. Utopia is impossible because the good provokes evil, sin, and the more intense the good, the more intense the provocation. Balthasar really presents to us the limits of the human enterprise, and the dangers of self-theosis; and it is this realization which, beyond his aesthetics, is needed today. He believed that we are seeing the accumulation and strengthening of evil around us and we should not be surprised if it strikes out against us, challenging our beliefs, and putting our very lives in danger.

Henri de Lubac (1896 – 1991). Cardinal Henri de Lubac is one of the more influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century. His contributions included a rejection of the individualism which had come into the Catholic Church as well as a redirection of Thomism based upon his re-reading of Aquinas and his work with Augustine. He was to look at and examine some of the underpinnings of modern society, showing its relationship to secular atheism; for this reason, he points out why Catholics should not entirely accept the culture at large. Indeed, he saw the progression to secular atheism necessary based upon poor philosophical and theological foundations found during the late scholastic era (the idea of pure nature). But, on the other hand, he did not reject the advances of the modern age, and he was a significant defender of Teilhard de Chardin (he did not agree with all that Teilhard wrote, but he was able to see a Catholic root behind Teilhard’s writings). During World War II, he was actively involved with the French Resistance. He always provided a strong voice against anti-Semitism. His work with patristics led him to co-establish the Sources Chrétiennes series of texts, a collection of critical editions of patristic writers with French translations. While he was elevated to the position of cardinal in 1983, he was first given the chance in 1969 but he declined because he did not want to be a bishop; when he eventually was made a cardinal, he was given a dispensation so that he did not have to become a bishop: he was given the rank of Cardinal Deacon. His work, Catholicism, was his first major theological work and one which was to have critical acclaim, both in his time and after (I was able to see a copy of it in the library of J.R.R. Tolkien), and remains a major influence in my own theological discourse. His examination of the question of “pure nature” found in many of his writings, such as in his Surnaturel, continues to help me in my own work when I deal with the issues of Gnosticism.

Bede Griffiths (1906 – 1993). Dom. Bede Griffiths is an interesting figure; he studied literature under C.S. Lewis, and was to become a life-long friend of Lewis. The two of them were both non-Christian and converted to the Christian faith around the same time. Bede and a group of his friends once tried to live an experimental life, living as if they were in a pre-modern society, and they tried to make do without nay modern luxuries. During that time, Bede became interested in Catholicism, and was to convert and eventually become a Benedictine monk in 1932. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1940. He was to find his monastic life rather easy in comparison to how he had lived before, which is a rare thing to hear about by anyone becoming a Cistercian. In the 1950s he decided to become a missionary and joined in with an inculturated mission  established in India (the mission was started by Abbe Jules Monchanin and Henri le Saux; the way they conducted themselves was in part following the suggestion of Henri de Lubac to engage theology and philosophy through mysticism and to preach Catholicism in a way which would engage Indian traditions). The mission took its inculturated way of life seriously, and followed the standards set up by Robert de Nobili many centuries earlier. Bede would take it, and make it his own, expanding upon it: he actively engaged Hindu and Buddhist texts and thinkers, sometimes writing commentaries on them. He was interested in show how they could relate and even enhance Catholic thought. Despite some debates between the two (Bede tried to convert Lewis), he remained friends with his mentor until Lewis’ death; indeed, one can see how Bede’s life was an active engagement of one of the ideals they held in common: that pagan, pre-christian societies had deep religious roots which could be brought up when brought in contact with Christianity. Indeed, they believed one could always find hints of the Gospel in them, showing that there was a kind of preparation for the Gospel to be found in the religions of the world. Indeed, this meant pagan societies were superior to post-christian ones (Lewis, after saying it might be important to reconvert the world to paganism before it could truly be Christian again, compared the difference between the two kinds of societies with a virgin and a widow, one waiting in expectation, the other having lost what they once hoped for). His work with the mysticism of the East allowed Bede to explore contemporary science, such as quantum physics, and to try to merge Eastern Mysticism, Scientific Progress, and Christianity together in a unique work, A New Vision of Reality. While one can question Bede’s conclusions , one can appreciate the foundations he laid for further, more theologically trained thinkers to follow his steps, and deal with the questions he set up. His way was very popular instead of academic – with the strengths and weaknesses associated with work.  It is those weaknesses which sometimes led him to simplistic conclusions that smacked of syncretism. But one can look at his work, and his own personal holiness, and appreciate what he has done while remaining critical of it. There is much one can learn from him; but as with all trailblazers, one of the things to learn is where not to go, where attempted paths failed. He is a hero for me because he tried to do the kind of work which I think is necessary for the Christian of today, the kind which I try to do in my own work (however different the methodologies and studies I have from him).

Honorable Mention: Servant of God Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Servant of God Dorothy Day, Blessed Mother Teresa, Blessed Theodore Romzha.

Who would you put on your list?


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