History: Gateway to Catholic Culture

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The Catholic Church through the lens of 2,000 years of time often provokes consternation and wonder among those non-Catholics who have a firm grasp of  history.

One such man was Winston Churchill, the“Lion of England” who defied Hitler in the 1930s when almost everyone else appeased the dictator. 

On August 23rd, 1944  Churchill visited Rome and after meeting  with a great priest, Pope Pius XII,  returned to the British embassy greatly stirred in soul by his experience. There, in the presence of his  physician, Lord Moran, he declaimed from memory a text about the Church written by a non-Catholic,Lord Macaulay.

To fully appreciate the excerpts of it that follow, it helps to remember that Macaulay wrote it in 1840 when the sun never set on the British empire:

“There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church.

“The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilization. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains.

“The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigor. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustine, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila. The number of her children is greater than in any former age. Her acquisitions in the New World have more than compensated for what she has lost in the Old. Her spiritual ascendancy extends over the vast countries which lie between the plains of the Missouri and Cape Horn, countries which a century hence, may not improbably contain a population as large as that which now inhabits Europe. The members of her communion are certainly not fewer than a hundred and fifty millions; and it will be difficult to show that all other Christian sects united amount to a hundred and twenty millions.

“Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigor when some traveler from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.” (LORD MACAULAY, Essay on Leopold Ranke’s History of the Popes,1840)

The wartime leader of England concluded with moist eyes – and with an unexpected remark of his own: “There must be something in a Faith  that could survive so many centuries and have held captive so many men.”

Such a remark was no slipshod comment but one that came from a mind rich in knowledge of history because from youth it had held the conviction that history is the broadest education for any man who wants to change the world. From long hours of  reading about the origins and growth of his own civilization came insights into the human heart,  the nature of society and  the achievements  of his forefathers – all of which converged into an intense experience of awe and awareness of the sublime as he walked the streets of the Eternal City and encountered the 260th  head of the 2,000 year old Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, the builder of Western Civilization.

For the study of history is not –contrary to current opinion – a subject for specialists but a road for the man who wants to  breathe as a universal man: universal in his perspective of the greatness and perversity of the unchanging human heart; universal in his knowledge of what moves history refusing to accept the tunnel-vision caused by philosophers like Hegel and others who claim it is only economics or fate or some other mono-engine; universal in experience, wanting to open his heart beyond the limitations of his own ‘now’, ‘here’, genes  and academic specialization.

With the help of the great historians he forms an “ancient soul”. He becomes a man who can patiently “get inside” the past by analyzing not only the external geo-political events but also by learning to empathize with the men and women involved. Reading  history will teach one about economics, finance, the workings of industry and politics but above all it will educate about the perennial factor:the human heart. For it is the heart that the priest as physician of souls and leader of the Ecclesia Militans  is called to know.