How silly we are to those Europeans, take 2. (Oh, and Catholic Matters is back!)

June 8, 2012

There are a lot of benefits to a semester abroad in Rome: Amid the majestic churches and grand ruins, and in between breaks for Ferrero Rocher coffee and panini lunches at the corner bar, I also got the chance to see the pope, chat up Italian women in their native italiano (sort of), educate myself in fine Tuscan wines and Sicilian cinnamon liqueurs, and learn from the example of such manly men as this political genius:

“I am the Jesus Christ of politics. I am a patient victim, I put up with everyone, I sacrifice myself for everyone.”

The pitfall of all these distractions, of course, is that I neglected Catholic Matters for a good 4 months.  And for this, I sincerely apologize.  However, after a period of presumed death comes life with renewed vigor:  Categories have been reorganized and rejuvenated, new ideas for future posts abound, and there are even rumors of a new partner blog called The Catholic Gentleman being tossed around…

Anyway, I think it’s appropriate that my first post back in America be about my Catholic experience in Europe.  Because I have to say, it wasn’t quite what I expected.

You see, you often hear from the American media that Christianity in Europe is fading away — that the breathtaking churches, teeming with beauty, history, and sanctity, are empty.  The Left, of course, delights in showing this to demonstrate the triumph of secularization and statism over religion.  But the Right just as eagerly contributes to this portrayal, too:  We are warned that we must not go the way of Europe, which has “lost touch” with its Christian roots.

As excited as I was for Rome, I was bracing myself for some of this: beautiful yet empty churches.

But obviously, it’s more complex than that.  A few of the Masses I attended, I was disappointed to find, were actually lacking in participants.  However, you have to ask yourself why, exactly, the churches were empty.

It could be that in Rome there’s a church literally on every block, and that every church has at least 4 masses every Sunday — so mass-goers, of course, would be dispersed.

It could also be that many of these churches have long been declared national historic treasures — and who wants to go to Mass with tourists taking pictures of you while you pray? (I, at any rate, found an unassuming church, devoid of tourists, next to my school building that was filled to capacity every Sunday and even on feast days.)

Moreover, the fact is, for many of the Masses I went to, the churches were full — far from the empty-church image I was taught to envision.

Just go to an Easter Sunday Mass at the Vatican to see that European Catholicism is far from fading away.

When some friends from France visited me in California a week ago, talking about attending John Paul II’s beatification and already making plans to go to World Youth Day 2013 in Rio, I was convinced:  There remain good and strong Catholics in Europe yet– a lot, actually.  Sure, Catholic Europe isn’t what she used to be, but she’s not totally lost, either.

Instead of believing the common misconception that old Europe has lost her faith, perhaps it’s better to see many of our European counterparts as like us.  Imperfect, struggling against the tide of modernity.  But still proud to be Catholic, still finding strength in the millennia-old Church that stands for Truth.

So instead of condemning them, let’s pray for them.  Because they surely are doing the same for us.


Venice, 1571: When Merchants become Soldiers

February 14, 2012

Think about Venice, and some of the first images that come to mind are those of enterprising merchants, romantic gondoliers, and masked partiers.  (I saw a lot of masked partiers, at least, at Carnevale di Venezia last weekend!)

But did you know that the Venetians can also properly be known as saviors of Catholic Europe?

In 1571 — in the wake of the Protestant Reformation — Europe was in shatters. Protestant-Catholic infighting was tearing apart France and Austria.  Britain had established a new church revolving around the Queen, thereby effectively withdrawing from Christendom.  Spain, the last great Catholic country, was more interested in gold and silver in her colonies in the New World than in aiding her Catholic allies.

The Ottoman Turks knew this.  Christian Europe was divided, but the Middle East, Asia Minor, and North Africa were united under Islamic rule.  Already the Ottomans were encroaching upon Austrian lands, and they had their eyes set upon ruling the Mediterranean with their superior navy.  It appeared that Europe — let alone Venice — could not possibly stand in their way.

Venice, that famed island city of capitalistic merchants, had always been more interested in money than war.  The Venetians had ignored the Pope’s calls for Crusade in previous centuries; the Muslims were customers of the Venetians, after all — “infidels” to be sure, but infidels with a pretty penny can make attractive clients.

But when the Ottomans seized Venice’s territory of Cyprus — massacring the garrison at Famagusta after it had surrendered in the process — the Venetian merchants finally shelved the abacus to strap on the armor and answered Pope Pius V’s call to form a Holy League in defense of Europe.  On October 7, 1571, 60,000 Venetian, Spanish, Maltese, Genoan, and Tuscan Catholics — rosaries in hand — clashed with 80,000 Ottoman Turks and Janissaries.  The point of conflict was a small bay in Greece called Lepanto.

Venice, the “new guys” as far as Catholic European coalitions go, still distinguished herself as a leader in battle.  It was a Venetian – Agostini Barbarigo – who commanded the Catholic left, and though he was killed by an arrow through the eye when he lifted his visor to issue orders, he had helped to ensure a smashing victory for the left wing of the Catholic navy.  It was the Venetian flags of St. Mark’s Lion that led the charge.

By late afternoon, the Christians, vastly outnumbered, lost 50 ships and 7500 men but freed about as many Christian prisoners.  The Ottomans, in a massive rout, suffered nearly 20,000 casualties and lost 210 ships.  When the Catholic navy’s ships docked at Venice — with Turkish flags trailing in the waters behind them — Europe was in celebration, and Pope Pius V would later declare October 7 the feast day of Our Lady of Victory, later to become Our Lady of the Rosary.

None of that could have happened if those Venetian merchants, gondoliers, and masked partiers had not put aside the distractions of their daily lives to answer the call to become soldiers for Christendom.

Today, we find ourselves in a spiritual battle, as Christendom ever finds itself under assault.  Christians continue to be persecuted by the Communist Party in China, while the rest of the world (outrageously) remains silent.  The media aims to discredit the Church’s authority through misguided and overblown scrutiny.  And in America, in the name of “freedom” and “justice,” the gift of marriage and the lives of the unborn continue to be ravaged by a confused generation.

Before he died, Pope John Paul II said that we were entering a new era of spiritual battle, when the forces of Satan would be stronger than ever.  This could be the last battle, or it could not be.  But as with any spiritual battle, we need fighting Catholics — Catholics willing to be soldiers for Christ in the way they live their daily lives.  The Venetians did it and succeeded.  If we pray and look to their example, so can we.

N.B.:  heavily relied on HW Crocker III’s account of the Battle of Lepanto for this blog post.  I recommend you read it, too, if you’re looking for a thrilling and inspiring read.


Books Catholics Should Read: The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire

January 16, 2012

If you’re looking for a provocative read, look no further than H.W. Crocker III’s Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire.  Here, Crocker takes on the sacred cows of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism and defends (as an American and a Catholic) the legacy of the British Empire.

Our modern world, and America in particular, seems to be extremely hostile towards the idea of empire.  America’s story begins with revolution against empire.  We love anti-imperial nationalist movies like Braveheart and Gandhi.  Our country gets caught in military quagmires when we “meddle” in international affairs (look at Afghanistan and Vietnam).  Aren’t FDR, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, and current presidential candidates like Ron Paul right  for trying to keep America isolationist, anti-imperialist, and anti-colonialist?

Wrong, declares Crocker.  For as he makes clear, the world would not be as humane and just today if not for the British Empire (and her if somewhat unwilling heir, the American Empire).  It was the British Empire that spearheaded the death of slavery across the world.  It was the British who promoted free markets in the New World and Hong Kong.  It was the British Empire that kept Hindus and Muslims from killing each other in India and tribes from warring with each other in Africa.  The British abolished widow-burning and child-abandonment.   The British brought infrastructure, hospitals, and schools to India while comprising less than 1% of the population. The British stood alone (at one point) against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Soviet Russia, and Imperial Japan.  It was the British Empire that introduced ideas of democracy, limited government, and rights to America, Ireland, India, Africa, and Australia.

Sure, the British (almost arrogantly) believed in their own superiority, and they therefore sought to spread their civilization and culture to soften the harsh realities of the rest of the world.  But for an imperialist power, Britain was remarkably open-minded and lenient:  Her colonies could retain their social structures, governments, customs, and language, while gaining all the benefits of British progress and values.  It’s little wonder everyday citizens in Africa and India pined for the British to come back after they left.

The British were an inspired people.  And that, ultimately, is Crocker’s goal: to inspire his readers with the British example.  That is why at its heart, Crocker’s Guide is less of a history than a collection of mini-biographies of some of Britain’s most prominent figures.  These great men were extraordinarily diverse:  Crocker presents conservatives and liberals, Anglicans and atheists, pure-blood Brits and colonial-bred Aussies and Irish.  What ties them all together is their discipline, taste for adventure, brilliance, commitment to empire, and faith in British ideals and values that should be spread to the rest of the world.

H.W. Crocker III is quickly becoming my favorite historian for his swashbuckling, page-turning, and occasionally (and unabashedly) politically incorrect narratives of some of the world’s greatest stories.  (Check out his histories/biography of the Catholic Church, of the American military, of the Civil war, and of Confederate general Robert E Lee; you’d be doing yourself a favor to check out his comic novel The Old Limey while you’re at it).  You won’t be disappointed by his latest installment, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire, either.

In short…
Content
: Survey of the history of the British Empire.
Style:  Section for each major region of the Empire (India, Africa, Middle East, Australia, Ireland), each with a short introductory chapter and three illustrious British men representing a region.  Readable yet elevated writing style.
Catholic?:  One might wonder how Crocker, a Catholic convert from Anglicanism, could praise the British Empire, which persecuted famously Catholic countries like Ireland, but he meets these concerns head-on.  Moreover, he points out how English ideals are compatible with Catholic teaching.

Overall: 4/5


Where did the Rosary come from?

December 2, 2011

Last night, I did a multilingual rosary with some friends.  The question arose:  What was the original language of the rosary?  As a well-trained Classicist, I immediately answered “Latin,” but a friend responded right after that she thought the rosary originated in Ireland.  Turns out, none of us really knew from where the rosary came, so I decided to do some quick poking around online to find out.

Apparently, the origins of the rosary are pretty hazy.  Strings of beads were definitely used in pre-Christian times as aids in meditation and prayer (perhaps as early as 1700 BC, used by the cult of Shiva in India).  Early Christian hermits also seem to have used similar methods, like Paul of Thebes, who used pebbles to keep count of his prayers.  Eventually, prayer string beads gained popularity in Christian Europe through the 15th century, when they began to be called rosaria, or “rose gardens.”  (A “rosarium” designated any collection of similar material; a poetry anthology would be called a rosarium, e.g.)

St. Dominic

Tradition holds that Mary divinely revealed the rosary to St. Dominic.  But many Catholic historians dismiss that as legend, especially since St. Dominic is not usually associated with the rosary.  Most likely, the rosary as we know it developed slowly.  It was first used by religious orders to keep track of the 150 Psalms in the Bible.  Those who wanted to imitate the monks but were not literate enough to read the Psalms used the rosary for prayers they did know, such as the “Our Father,” as they reflected upon the lives of Christ and Mary.  (Our “Hail Mary” prayer originated from this; whenever the faithful began reflecting on the life of Mary, they offered the salutation that the Angel Gabriel offered Mary:  “Hail, full of grace!”)  Eventually, these elements — the psalms, the everyday simple prayers, and the reflections upon the lives of Christ and Mary — formed the rosary as we know it today.

When did the rosary explode in popularity?  In the 1500s, Eastern Europe was being ravaged by a Muslim assault, jeopardizing Europe’s control over the Mediterranean.  In 1571, Pope Pius V organized a fleet under the command of Don Juan of Austria and asked all the faithful to pray the holy rosary to implore the help of Mary, Our Lady of Victory.  Outnumbered but flying the blue flag of Christ crucified on their flagship, the Christians won a smashing victory at Lepanto on October 7, 1571, effectively crippling the Muslim Turkish threat to dominating the Mediterranean.  The next year, Pope Pius declared October 7 the Feast of the Holy Rosary, which is observed to this day.

I grew up praying the rosary with my family, and I love praying it with dear friends.  It’s a devotion to which all Catholics should commit themselves more.  The Holy Rosary and the divine intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary bring tremendous graces, and, as the Battle of Lepanto has shown, they can work incredible wonders.

further reading: History of the Rosary by Fr. William Saunders, The Holy Rosary: Origins from Holy Spirit Interactive, and Beads and Prayers: The Rosary in History and Devotion by John Desmond Miller.

also check out the thrilling account of Lepanto, 1571: The Battle that Saved Europe by H.W. Crocker III


Oh, how silly we are to those Europeans

August 2, 2011

I like history.  There’s at once a loftiness and an accessibility to it that allows anyone to grasp its grand breadth.  It’s why I love my summer job as a museum guide at El Pueblo de Los Angeles–the birthplace of California’s greatest city, and the home to the oldest house and fire station in LA as well as Old Chinatown.

Olvera Street, the prized Mexican marketplace of El Pueblo

It’s interesting comparing the different attitudes our tourists have towards history.  The typical American tourist–the one who cares a bit more than the casual passerby, at least–usually listens in wide-eyed awe when I teach about ranchero life in the 1840s or fire technology in the 1880s.  European tourists, however, are different.  They are among the most charming and pleasant people I meet at El Pueblo, and they are ever fascinated with the history of Los Angeles.  A few of them, though, can’t help but drop me an occasional teasing comment:  “You Americans get excited with a house built in 1818.  But the house I live in now has been passed down through my family for 400 years…and that’s not even saying much.”

No harm intended, only teasing.  But still, what a burn.  Talk about challenging the very legitimacy of my job.

Still, those European tourists got me thinking…because to an extent, they are very right.  If we are so impressed with a century-old building in one city, what are we to think of the Catholic Church, a 2 millennia old institution and global community that is living and vibrant even today?  We have to preserve “significant” buildings in Los Angeles against the march of time, so that they don’t disappear.  But the Church–the Church keeps charging on as alive as ever–even with the seemingly endless assaults that lay upon Her.

Now *this* is history.

Anyway, just some random thoughts I wanted to share.  The Church’s living history is just another reason to be proud to be Catholic.  The grand scope of the Church’s past, as well as the boundless hopefulness for the Church’s future, should be enough to inspire anyone who notices–even us silly Americans.