Catholics in America: an Introduction to the Series

June 16, 2012

Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote that America is, at once, the most democratic country in the world and the one where Roman Catholicism would make the most progress.  This is peculiar, because nearly everyone recognizes America as a “Protestant nation,” going all the way back to the Puritans of Plymouth Plantation.  One need only look at our economics, laws, government, and even everyday customs and sensibilities to see the imprint of Protestant Christianity on American society.

Yet Tocqueville’s observations have been surprisingly prophetic.  Back in 1776, Catholic numbers were negligible.  But today, Catholics form the nation’s religious majority at nearly 25% of the population, and it seems that we see them everywhere in the news, media, and pop culture.

Moreover, through the years their contributions to the nation have been undeniably essential to America’s identity.  It was Catholics, for example, who helped formulate the American ideal of religious freedom (in Maryland).

It was Catholics (Spanish colonists in Florida and the far West, and French colonists in Louisiana) who prepared the way for America’s dream of Manifest Destiny.

Catholics drove America’s industrialization through their immigration (Irish, Germans, Austrians, Poles, Italians, French Canadians) in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it’s humble Catholic immigrants today who take a lot of the jobs no one else wants (Latin Americans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Indians).

Catholics filled the armies, started businesses, and got into government.  Today, Catholics on every level are leading the way in protecting America’s traditional and most cherished rights — above all, the rights to life and religious liberty.  In short, Catholics have become as much of Americans as their Protestant brethren.

July 4th is coming up, and as we celebrate the founding of our country and how far we as a nation have come, I thought it would be neat to do a little series on the history of Catholics in America — a tribute to their struggles, their dreams, their contributions, and their triumphs.  Three posts to come as we anticipate the celebrations on the Fourth of July.

Part I. Colonizing a New World, Cultivating the Old Faith:  from colonial times to post-Revolution – what you didn’t know about the role of Catholics in the new Protestant nation

Part II. Immigrant Infiltrators or Loyal Fighters and Workers?:  from the 1840s to the 1960s – on the explosion of Catholic immigration, and America’s paranoid response to the “foreign, monarchist, and papist threat”

Part III. (Divided) Defenders of America’s Traditional Values:  from JFK to today – how Catholics, divided but impossible to ignore, are increasingly finding themselves at the forefront of America’s most important issues.


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


The Christmas Candle: A Story of Heroism, a Story of Love

November 30, 2011

With the arrival of December, my dorm’s begun putting up Christmas decorations, including Christmas candles in the front windows.  Countless of our cherished Christmas traditions, upheld even in today’s secular world, are rooted in Christianity.  But the story behind the Christmas Candle is particularly special:  For it is a story of heroism and love that can inspire a world deeply in need of more heroic and loving Catholics.

The Christmas Candle originated in Ireland in the late 17th – early 18th centuries, when British rulers attempted to suppress Catholicism in Ireland.  Their “Penal Laws” forbade Catholics from practicing their faith and even expelled all Catholic clergy.

However, a faith so full of hope is not easily abandoned, and it kept the Irish together.  Bishops and priests traveled in circuits to minister to their people in secret.  During Christmastime in particular, a Catholic family — hoping to be ministered the sacraments by a priest — would place a lit candle in their front window and leave their door unlocked.  It was in this way that priests knew which homes to visit.  When the British authorities became suspicious, the Irish explained that it was a superstition of theirs:  They lit candles and left their doors unlocked because they hoped to be visited by Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

It’s a beautiful story that demonstrates the heroic, sacrificial nature of the priesthood and the courageous commitment to the Catholic faith of the Irish.  And it’s because of that story that the Christmas Candle is a cherished tradition.

Today, Christmas Candles are recognized as a beautiful Christmas decoration, yes.  But next time you see it, remember for what it stands: the heroism of the priesthood, and the hope and love only the Catholic faith can offer.

Happy Advent!


Thank God for Buffalo Chicken Wings (literally)

September 7, 2011

How sad would the world be if Buffalo chicken wings did not exist?  Life with all its flavors would be that much duller.  Luckily, Buffalo hot wings do exist, and as the story goes, we have the Catholic Church to thank for them.

I ate these last night, thanks to the Catholic Church. 🙂

Some of you know that I visited the birthplace of the Buffalo hot wing this summer — Buffalo, NY — and needless to say, I made a point to get my fill of them.  There are lots of stories as to how the wings were invented, but one in particular struck me:  Upstate NY has historically had a strong Catholic population.  Like good Catholics, they abstained from meat on Lenten Fridays, but like good Americans, they immediately dug their teeth into meat after 12am on Saturday.  Some of the restaurants and bars in Buffalo, seeking to cater to their Catholic patrons, decided to create a unique finger food (with a kick) to be served the midnight after a Lenten Friday to satisfy carnivorous cravings.  That food was the Buffalo hot wing.

And look at what’s become of it.  It’s a beloved staple at bars, restaurants, football game watches, and even in the Notre Dame dining halls people wait in anticipation for the popular “wing night.”  Last night, too, I ate chicken wings at 2 different restaurants with good friends, and while we tried lots of flavors — Jamaican Jerk, Spicy Asian, Garlicky Parmesan, and Honey Mustard — our collective favorite always tended to be the medium-spicy original Buffalo chicken wing.

Catholic culture has made countless contributions to humanity– some things being overwhelmingly influential, and some things being simple small pleasures.  The Buffalo wild wing is one of those small pleasures without which the world would be less flavorful and exciting.  No big deal, though.  Just another (of my favorite) examples of why being Catholic matters.


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.