Saturday, April 21, 2018

Hungary's Traditionalist Pushback to the EU's Secular Authoritarianism is a Hopeful Sign

Patrick J. Buchanan speak outs on the pushback in Hungary against the secular globalists of the EU, Soros, and the US. He is spot on. This is spreading in Central Europe, and the so-called Visegrad4: Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia are all leading the way for traditionalist/nationalist alternatives to the traditional culture-destroying paradigm of open-border globalism embedded in the elitist institutions found in much of the EU and the US (not to mention the total rejection of traditional European culture in higher ed).
This shift away from secular liquid modernity is fraught with peril. But if this traditionalist/nationalist pushback is imbued with authentic Christian social ethics–as articulated by Catholic Social Teaching–it is much preferable to the authoritarian secularism that grips the cultural institutions of the EU, the US, and the rest of the West.
St. Elizabeth, Pray for Hungary. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn: the Menace of Democracy

"In order to denote the classical interpretation of democracy as well as its cultural concomitant we have chosen to use the word ochlocracy and--as its adjective--ochlocratic. The Greeks used this expression strictly in the sense of mob rule, regardless whether these mobs created majorities or minorities.  the selection is not a very happy one, and the reader is reminded that we understand under "mob" not the "lower classes," but just the vast masses of inferior people which can be found everywhere; these products of a soulless culture and civilization who in their terrifying mediocrity are neither fish nor flesh, have neither face nor expression, neither wisdom nor knowledge, piety nor enthusiasm, faith nor charity, hatred nor love, those who go neither with the angels nor the devils and because of their lukewarmness will be spat out by our Lord on the day of reckoning."
             --Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Menace of the Herd, p. 10

It might seem counter intuitive to begin a survey of Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn's thought on history, and political theory and philosophy by quoting a paragraph that will surely rankle and annoy the typical post-modern man. But since Kuehnelt-Leddihn was not post-modern, a full disclosure of his presuppositions is the order of the day.  Simply stated, Kuehnelt-Leddihn was no friend of democracy, but rather one of its most trenchant modern critics.  In all of his writings and speeches, he was uncompromising in his critique of democratic theories, he eschewed any comparison between the words democracy and liberty, and he insisted that liberty could not flourish in the long-term under democratic rule.  Keuhnelt-Leddihn believed it better to label the whole Enlightenment project of democracy democratism.  Such a label was more accurate because it "put stress on the totalitarian (all-embracing, all-controlling) tendencies of democracy as an ism" (Menace of the Herd, p. 9). It is clear that he did not accept the current popular notions of democracy=equality or democracy=liberty.  He even went so far as to consider equality and liberty to be at odds with one another (on this, see what many consider his magnum opus, Liberty or Equality: the Challenge of Our Time).*

The Ritter von appellation of Kuehnelt-Leddihn's name should alert my readers that he descended from aristocratic nobility in his native Austria, and that as such, his worldview and mindset were imbued from start to finish with traditional aristocratic notions of class and station in life.  Not very American, to be sure, but a perspective that acts as a counter to the egalitarian impulse of post-modern, post-Enlightenment society.  The above header paragraph should leave no doubt to anyone that this is so.  As such, many will question whether there is much edification to be gained by a thorough examination of Kuehnelt-Leddihn's thought, given such anti-democratic and class-ridden assumptions about the nature of human society, let alone the jarring content of his rhetoric. It should be noted that Menace of the Herd was originally published in 1943 under the pseudonym Francis Stuart Campbell.  Given US involvement in World War II, Kuehnelt-Leddihn believed his German sounding name would not be well received. Moreover, his use of cultural phrases and terminology reflected the convention at the time, which some today would find off-putting or even offensive. However, as with all philosophy, history, political theory, theology, literature, and the rest of the humanities, authors must always be read within the context of their own milieu, and we must avoid foisting post-modern sensibilities upon their work as the final measure of the truth and value of their ideas.  Simply stated, is there truth in Kuehnelt-Leddihn's ideas worth considering?

Kuehnelt-Leddihn was a thorough-going Thomist and he assumed that objective reality and universal moral truths were available to all and could be comprehended by all with the use of reason.  This placed him outside the scope of the modern subjective philosophical project, not least of all the project of post-modern create-your-own-reality.  Moreover, he insisted that morality carried with it a public obligation, railing against any political theory which sought to relegate moral truth to the private realm.

Although a Catholic monarchist at heart, he was nonetheless favorably disposed towards the republican form of the US Constitution, though with the caveat that the representatives were selected from among the best of the natural aristocracy.  He cites Thomas Jefferson extensively on this very subject, whose own view of the aristocracy was quite similar, yet often overlooked in modern textbooks.  For example, Keuhnelt-Leddihn disabuses modern notions of Jeffersonian democracy by quoting Jefferson at length in a letter to John Adams from 1814:

"The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts and government of society.  And indeed, it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed men for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of society.  May we not even say that form of government is the best which provided most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?" (Letter to John Adams, Oct. 28, 1814; quoted in Menace, p. 4).

Kuehnelt-Leddihn even went so far as to insist that the term democracy itself be abandoned entirely, due to its constant misuse by both politicians and the masses, or at least insisted that it only be used in its original and ancient Greek meaning, as found in Plato and Aristotle.  He decried that "the vast majority of the population of the United States uses [democracy] to denote anything at random with which they agree in the realm of politics, social life, and economics" (Menace, p. 1). For Kuehnelt-Leddihn, referring to republican institutions as democratic was a misnomer, for they could just as well be called "republican, Catholic, Christian, decent, traditional, American, fair, conventional" (Menace, p. 10). He lamented popular misuses of the term and was rhetorically jarring when providing examples: "Mr. Black is against Negro lynching, denouncing it as undemocratic. (As soon as the majority of a township want to hang a Negro this action is un-Christian, illegal, but certainly very democratic" (Menace, p. 1).**  For Keuhnelt-Leddihn, democratic rule just as easily mutates into tyranny as a monarch turns to despotism.

Perhaps the most relevant aspect of Kuehnelt-Leddihn's critique zeroed in on precisely one of the main causes of these distortions, misinterpretations, and foolish uses of the term democracy:

There is something pathetic in seeing Americans almost daily besmirching unconsciously their ideas and their traditions--all thanks to a faulty education. The Founding Fathers would turn in their graves if they could hear themselves called 'Democrats'; America indeed was never a democracy, and never will be...unless we make "democracy work," and replace, within the framework of a 'pure democracy,' our legislation by Gallup Poll.  Those who have been taught the wrong interpretation may ask their money back from the schools where they have wasted their adolescence.  And the textbooks which preach a spurious democracy may still provide us with fuel in the cold days to come" (Menace, p. 8).

For Kuehnelt-Leddihn, the real fight in the world of political ideas is liberty: "Human dignity can never be preserved without liberty" (Menace, p.8).  His chief rhetorical question? "Is there not rather the world over a desperate craving for liberty, personal liberty, group liberty, national liberty, religious liberty?  Are we not rather going to win the world over to our side by appealing to the unquenched thirst of liberty without which, as we have said, there can be no realization of human dignity and personality?" (Menace, pp.8-9).


So what relevance does this rather obscure aristocratic Austrian nobleman--whose rhetorical style is so provocative--have for the 21st century?  Why should his anti-democratic ideas be given serious consideration?

It is my opinion that Kuehnelt-Leddihn's breadth of political theory, his grasp of the societal ramifications stemming from popular democratic rule, and his prescient description of the tyranny of democratism all deserve thoughtful engagement, precisely because he has so accurately described much of what the US now endures as a fractured, fragmented, and atomistic dying civilization.  We are witnessing the ascendancy of an ochlocratic style of governance.  I would modify Kuehnelt-Leddihn's description by adding the qualifier oligarchic.  The US is now a practicing oligarchic ochlocracy; a government ruled by powerful economic and cultural elite forces that actively stir up the masses on their behalf.  It is reminiscent of Spanish thinker Ortega y Gassett, who argued in The Revolt of the Masses that the masses are easily pumped, and they do not particularly care--or even know--whose hand is on the pump handle.  The 2016 election manifested this scenario on both sides of the current popular divide.  Progressives lamented the mob character of the GOP presidential nominee's supporters, and the non-progressives (conservative traditionalists like Kuehnelt-Leddihn no longer exist in any significant number) lamented the mob character of the DNC-handpicked nominee's supporters, though both sides would dispute the term "mob" as the operative word for their fellow compatriots.

What the country faces is a raw battle of mob will, manipulated by ruling elites, in which the only ethic in play is might is right; a sort of Nietzche-style collective will to power that seeks to bring to submission all dissident ideas and persons that threaten the status and rule of the collective in power. Kuehnelt-Leddihn correctly identifies the totalitarian nature of this conflict.  I would add that the fuel driving the current battle is comprised of antithetical presuppositions about right and wrong, good and evil, and what constitutes a just society.  Given these ethical opposites, all that remains is for one side to seize and exercise government power to enshrine the one ethic, and hem in its polar opposite.  Without a common bedrock of the meaning of virtue and vice, even a republican form of governance--which seeks to restrain majorities--cannot long survive.  One side will win, and seek to bring the other to heel, by violent means if necessary.  Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn's trenchant, uncompromising critique of democratism and ochlocratic rule provides an important counterpoint to the prevailing gale-force winds of the status quo.

*Astute readers will notice that the ebooks by Kuehnelt-Leddihn mentioned above are available through the Mises Institute, dedicated to the Austrian School of Economics, and its principle exponent, Ludwig von Mises.  It would be a mistake, however, to label Kuehnelt-Leddihn a modern-day libertarian, for he departs from libertarianism at several key points.  Kuehnelt-Leddihn described himself both as a "liberal of the extreme right," and an "extreme conservative arch-liberal."  In some ways, his thought is hard to categorize.  Where he most sympathized with Mises and company was in his thorough-going rejection of totalitarian statism, whether democratic, socialist, National Socialist, fascist, or communist.

**It should be noted that Kuehnelt-Leddihn fully rejected the practice of slavery in the ante-bellum period of US history, as well as the violence of the Reconstruction era and Jim Crow period. He specifically noted the early efforts of Charles Carroll, the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, to ban the practice of slavery in the state of Maryland (see Menace, p. 12).  Kuehnelt-Leddihn used the term Negro only as normal convention of the time.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Beginning Again with Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn

When one neglects a web blog and its attachment to a social media page, one is constantly reminded—via that social media—of a continual lack of postings. Guilty as charged. Time to repent and start again, which is one of the great blessings of the Catholic faith: repenting and starting over again. At least 490 times. I wonder what happens after the 490 times is exhausted?


I have come across a most fascinating 20th century thinker and author, whose work in the area of political philosophy and history remains largely unknown to the intelligentsia in the high courts of the academy, and even more so among general reading public in the US. The depth of his knowledge, insight, and critique of the modern era is truly as profound as it is unique. Many of his ideas run counter to modern historical convention, whether scholarly or populist. In explicating his insights and observations, he avoids mere assertion; rather, he provides substantial evidence for the positions he holds. His use of rhetoric can be jarring and brusque to post-modern sensitivities. Anachronistic at times, and certainly a man of an older era, he nonetheless offers alternatives to enlightenment era Republicanism (historically understood) and modern mass democracy, whether of the Right or of the Left. I am speaking of Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (1909-1999).

His three principal volumes include Menace of the Herd: or Procrustes at Large, a bracing historical critique of democracy; Liberty or Equality: The Challenge of Our Times, considered his magnum opus, an in-depth look at the Enlightenment influences on ideas about equality and the danger such ideas pose for individual human liberty; and Leftism Revisited: From De Sade and Marx to Hitler and Pol Pot a detailed historical overview of the rise of the Left from the French Revolution to the 20th century.

My hope is to post several reflections on von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s thought as found in these volumes, with particular emphasis on how his observations might relate to current events and issues that occupy the public consciousness. Of course, one cannot project modern sensibilities back onto the works of a writer from a previous era. This would be to misunderstand von Kuehnelt-Leddihn and to reshape him into a modern, even fictitious figure. However, where he speculates about how a thought or an idea might be consequential regarding later developments in the history of a society, such speculation becomes a legitimate means of interacting with the currents that such thought might foreshadow.

Von Keuhnelt-Leddihn was a polyglot and a polymath, whose prodigious multi-lingual abilities and encyclopedic knowledge of the humanities, along with his tireless travel life and teaching career (living both in Europe and the US; he visited every state in the US; he taught at Georgetown and Fordham) made him an experienced observer of modern political realities and the history and philosophies out of which they grew. He was an Austrian nobleman and aristocrat (the Ritter attached to his name was a German title of nobility, not unlike English knighthood). He was also a devout Roman Catholic and Catholic monarchist. All of which made his ideas rather noteworthy--if sometimes quixotic--and in some ways without equal within the scope of his worldview and perspective. My hope in these posts is to encourage further exploration into the ideas and perspectives of a person William F. Buckley Jr. called “the most fascinating man [he] knew."

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Why I Became a Roman Catholic Part VI (Or How Coming Home Was Only One Step Along a Continuing Journey)

The final leg of our journey couldn't have happened without the ministry of the Holy Spirit through a priest named Father Pat Sullivan. Father Pat was a godsend to my family. As pastor of two Catholic parishes (St. Elizabeth in Dilworth, MN, and St. Andrews in Hawley, MN) this wonderful servant of God has to keep track of a lot of sheep. And the Hershberger sheep wandered into the St. Andrew's pasture, quite by accident (though not without the providential guidance of the Spirit). As Cindy and I continued to explore Catholic faith by attending Mass at various parishes, we wondered if it would be more authentically "Catholic" to actually attend the parish closest to our home. That would be St. Andrews in Hawley. And so, armed with my iPhone Daily Mass locater, I discovered that St. Andrew's held weekday masses on Tuesday and Thursday. I showed up. I was immediately embraced by those who worshipped there and Father Pat began to minister to me in a very helpful way. We had good conversations. His manner of answering questions was winsome and affable. He clearly accepted me as a brother in Christ, even though I was not yet in full communion. As the weeks over the summer progressed, I grew to love attending Mass at St. Andrews and there were very few times that I was not in tears at some point during the worship. Cindy and I decided together that I should resign from my position as organist-choirmaster at the Episcopal cathedral in order for us to begin worshipping together at Mass on Sundays. My friends at the cathedral were very understanding and encouraging. They all wished me well and asked me to stay in touch. I don't think any of them were surprised by my decision to explore Catholicism. We began attending Sunday Mass at St. Andrews and I still attended weekday masses when I could. It was great to worship together! And still, tears usually flowed for me at different points in the Mass, on different occasions.

The next step for the Hershbergers was to begin the RCIA program. The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults is the Catholic Church's way of preparing non-Catholics for reception into the Church. For those who are not Christians, it is an extensive and intense means of instructing them in the basics of the Christian faith as well as the practices and teachings of the Church. Those desiring to become Christians and Catholics are referred to as catechumens. Their journey culminates in baptism, reception, confirmation, and first communion, which usually occurs at the Great Easter Vigil, which is the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday (a practice that goes back to the earliest centuries of Christian history). Those Christians who desire to come into full communion with the Church are referred to as candidates for reception. Baptism is not necessary for them, as the Church recognizes all water baptisms in the name of the Triune God, regardless of denomination. The RCIA program is used to make certain there are no holes in a Christian's understanding of the basics of the Christian faith and then to instruct them in Catholic faith and practice. They are also usually received, confirmed, and given first communion at the Great Easter Vigil. So, the Hershbergers began the RCIA program at St. Andrews in September, fully expecting to be received into the Church at the end of Holy Week before Easter Sunday at the Vigil. The classes were taught by Father Pat and/or Deacon Tom, the permanent Deacon at St. Andrews. We covered the topics that most Protestants coming into the Church would need to cover: the Sacraments (seven of them), Mary and the Saints, Purgatory, as well as the traditions of prayer, charity, and what the Christian life looks like for Catholics. I was already primed for these issues, and had been reading, studying, and praying about such things for some time. Cindy was, of course, much more cautious and needed plenty of time to think through such drastic changes in the practice of her faith. But she never wavered from the conviction that God was moving the family in this direction. Father Pat was particularly helpful to her in all of this, encouraging her to remain open to the moving of the Holy Spirit. As he once said to her, "None of us can ever fully understand all the depths and richness of the faith, God is only calling us to remain open to the leading of His Spirit to enter more fully in as we grow in the Lord." As the classes continued, I became more and more excited at the prospect of us entering into the Church. Cindy continued to quietly believe that God was calling us to become Catholic. Our children were openly willing to move forward as well.

I will never forget that night in November, shortly before Thanksgiving, when Father Pat called. He wanted to talk to both Cindy and me about something important. Cindy got on the other phone line and Father Pat told us that, in talking to Bishop Hoeppner, it was clear to him that the Hershbergers did not need to wait until Easter to be received, confirmed, and given first communion by the Catholic Church. Normally, catechumens and candidates are confirmed by the Bishop of the Diocese. Under special circumstances, the Bishop can grant a priest permission to receive and confirm. Such would be the case with us! Father Pat thought that the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 21st 2014, would be the perfect time for us to be brought into the Church. We were surprised and overjoyed at this news. Since our children were all ready and willing to join us in this, we all set to work making preparations.

Now, coming into the Catholic Church isn't just a simple transfer of membership, or the changing of churches. It is truly a conversion in many, many ways. We all chose patron saint names with which to be confirmed. I just couldn't decide between St. Francis of Assisi and St. Michael the Archangel. Father Pat assured me I could be named both. Cindy chose St. Margaret of Scotland. Valerie chose St. Winifred. Brett chose St. George, a nod in the direction of our Anglican background. Jillian chose St. Martha, and Julie chose St. Cecilia. We also had to choose sponsors. Brett and I chose my brother-in-law Doug, Cindy chose her close friend Michelle. Valerie and Jillian chose Cindy's sister Sarah, and Julie choose her cousin Emily. They would all stand with us and lay hands on us during our reception and confirmation. Most important, during the week prior to our reception and communion, all of us would make our first confession. Having already experienced "auricular" confession with several Episcopal and Anglican priests, I was not daunted by this at all, in fact, I was chomping at the bit. Cindy was understandably nervous. Father Pat was God's servant for her in her first confession, and she discovered the wisdom and counsel that arises out of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. After her time, I walked in to the confessional, and sat down opposite Father Pat and said, "Father, I hope you brought a snickers bar, because we're going to be here for a while!" He chuckled and said, "Jay, there is nothing you can tell me that I haven't heard before countless times!" I shared my life story, my struggle with sin, my failures to live as God wanted me to live, and my need for help. Father Pat was patient, a keen observer of the underlying needs I had, and a wise counselor with specific ways to help me live as God would have me live. When he pronounced absolution, I wept openly. He gave me a wonderful hug and we both walked out of the confessional. I embraced Cindy and continued to weep. We then visited with Father Pat for a time, and I felt as if chains, shrouds, and weights had all been lifted off of me. St. James' admonition to "confess your sins one to another" suddenly came alive for me in a whole new way.

And so, on December 21st, 2014, the Hershbergers swam the Tiber River. The water was warm, inviting, and cleansing. From that time forth we were known as

Jay Alan Francis Michael Hershberger
Cynthia Ann Margaret Hershberger
Valerie Ann Winifred Hershberger
Brett Daniel George Hershberger
Jillian Marie Martha Hershberger
Julie Anna Cecilia Hershberger

And here is a picture of the whole clan that day, including our sponsors, Father Pat (upper left) and Deacon Tom (upper right).

And so now you know our story. It is only one step along a continuing journey, however. The Christian life is a journey of faith, not a one-time event. Jesus is the object and heaven is the goal. The path is difficult, rocky, sometimes obscured, and sometimes God only allows one to see ahead by one or two steps. But Jesus provides the means of God's grace, the strength to make the journey, the light to light the path, and the nourishment to continue on. Such love, mercy, and peace. God picks us up when we fall and says, "now begin again and keep going." We are helped and cheered on by a tremendous cloud of witnesses in the arena of heaven. Only by God's grace and will of love towards us can we ever truly stay on that pathway to Himself.

Oh, Joyful Light, of the Holy Glory of the Father Immortal.
Heavenly, Holy, Blessed, Jesus Christ,
since we have come, to the setting of the sun,
and have seen the evening light,
we praise God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
It is proper for you to be praised at all times by fitting melody.
Oh, Son of God, Giver of Life,
wherefore the world glorifies You.
--Melkite Catholic Church setting of the Phos hilaron

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Why I Became a Roman Catholic, Part V (or Why My Wife is the Bravest Person I Know)

How in the world was I going to tell my wife that I would like for us to consider becoming Roman Catholic? That was uppermost in my mind as I returned from that fateful trip to Washington DC in June of 2014. She had always been much more Protestant than I, having been raised in a very small fundamentalist denomination that looked with suspicion on all denominations, especially the Catholic Church. She had come to a lot of the same conclusions as I in our faith journey together, though usually with a lot more turmoil and struggle than me. But this? Becoming Roman Catholic? I feared that this would be a bridge too far, even for her. I decided to keep this to myself. I asked God to show me the right way to approach her, and I told Him I would not do this without her, so that if we were going to do it at all, she would want to do it as well. For the next three weeks I read everything I could get my hands on. I read Tad Szulc' biography of John Paul II, a volume I had picked up several years ago at the Archive used bookstore in Pasadena, CA. I began reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church (still working on that one), which I found in a thrift store. I checked out of the college library Patrick Madrid's Surprised by Truth and Mark Shea's By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition. I also brought home from the Episcopal Cathedral a copy of Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking, a powerful testimony about this brave nun's ministry to death-row inmates. Of course, there was Chesterton's Orthodoxy which is a rollicking swashbuckler and full of insight. I prayed, I read, but said nothing to my wife. I spoke daily with my brother-in-law. I met my sister-in-law for lunch and we talked about how to approach Cindy. I also spoke two or three times a week with my Italian concert pianist friend Tom about my desire to become a Catholic. The encouragement I received from them all was reassuring and motivating. But I had no clue as to how Cindy would respond. And still, I said nothing to her.

Then it happened. And she was the one who initiated it! We were sitting at the table one evening talking about the current state of cultural decay in modern society, and as usual, I was bloviating about solutions to the world's problems. Cindy is a patient listener, and is sure to be a saint for that alone! All of a sudden, she looked at me and said, "Jay, are you thinking about becoming a Roman Catholic?" My mouth opened, then closed, then opened again, but I was so unsure of what to say, that I could only stammer out the words, "I am thinking about it, but I wouldn't ever do such a thing without you." Her response stunned me. "Okay, I would be willing to check it out. I need to think about it for a couple of weeks, though." Simple. Direct. To the point. I was so in shock I did not know quite what to say. All I could think to ask was, "How did you know?" "Jay, I am not stupid or blind. I've noticed that you have been reading a lot of Catholic material lately, and so knew that this was probably in the wind." Again, I was stunned. All I could think was that I am married to an amazing woman, whose inner spirit and beauty is just as deep and wonderful as she is beautiful to behold.

That next week, I had to stay in town while I taught at a summer music camp at the college. My wife wanted to read something about the Catholic faith, but she isn't one for the dry and dusty details of doctrine or dogma. Her faith is encouraged by stories of Christians whose lives inspire and motivate. She picked up Sister Prejean's book Dead Man Walking. She also began talking to her sister, finding out that we had been talking as well, which she teased me about. When I came home from music camp, she was ready to talk. She enjoyed the book by Prejean, but of course, was mystified by Catholic devotion to Mary, praying the Rosary, seeking the intercession of the saints, and all of those things that Protestants tend to focus on when thinking about how different Catholicism is in practice. Despite that, she indicated that she was willing to try it out, not promising anything, but added that I would need to be patient with her, for she could probably get there at some point. Unlike me, with my Hofferian true believer temperament, she is far more prudent and cautious, and has to think through it all before she embraces change. Patience is not my strong suit, but in this case, I assured her I would be as patient as an oak tree. We would do this together, or not at all.

We decided that the best way to check out the Catholic faith was to experience it directly. Because my Sunday mornings were still occupied as organist-choirmaster at the Episcopal Cathedral, we started to attend Saturday Mass at various Catholic churches in the area. Much of Catholic worship is familiar to Anglicans and Lutherans, for the basic structure of worship is the same, rooted in a common heritage of practice. There were some wording differences in the Creed and some congregational responses that took some getting used to. Of course, the few Marian references seem strange, even exotic and mysterious, but made sense in the overall shape of the liturgy. I was a nervous wreck, going to observe our first Mass together. I wondered if she would respond afterwards with something like "I don't think I can do this." We went to the Cathedral of St. Mary in downtown Fargo, where my brother-in-law and his family attend. That seemed a logical place to start. After Mass, we walked down the street to a local pizzeria and visited about it all. I was prepared for her to be unhappy. To my pleasant surprise, she enjoyed it. She said she felt that she had been to church, and although there were things she didn't understand, she thought that we needed to keep doing this. The biggest blessing was that we were finally worshipping together as a family. And the tradition of after Mass-pizza was a bonus. She also told me that she had begun talking to a friend of hers, the mother of the young man that dated our teenaged daughter, whose family was Catholic. Cindy had grown very close to this woman, and part of her attraction to their friendship was that her friend's faith seemed so real, quiet, and yet genuine. If this was what being Catholic was, she could well contemplate such a possibility. As well, Cindy had always stated that she loved Pope Francis, and even once said, "With a Pope like that, I could even consider Catholicism." She resonated with Pope Francis' love for the poor and marginalized, his practical, down-to-earth approach to faith and life, and his surprising manner of doing things that shocked and amazed the world, including some Catholics!

My wife is a brave and courageous human being. Birthing five children took a great deal of courage, and especially when one of them was stillborn, knowing ahead of time that the pain and agony of labor would produce only death and grief. Over the years, putting up with my career and over-the-top extroverted personality took a lot of courage and patience. Even more, to contemplate a fundamental change in religious faith and practice for her required courage of spirit. My wife has it all, and my respect and admiration for her grows and grows as we journey together in life. Her act of courage on this particular journey would be perhaps the biggest one of all. You see, when someone grows up in a fundamentalist tradition, there's a little micro-chip recorder implanted in the brain that sends out a signal instructing the believer not to think about anything that might challenge the tenets of their faith. And it sends out electrical shocks when the believer starts asking questions about Catholicism. Am I being facetious? Perhaps, though just a little.

An even bigger surprise was in store for us when our adult children decided to take this journey with us. Our oldest daughter, a single mom with two wonderful daughters, and our son, a manager of a local shoe store, learned of our decision to check it out and decided to join us. Moreover, when we sat down with our two younger daughters and informed them of our intention to pursue the Catholic faith, the older of the two said, "I am so glad to hear you say this because I was going to talk to you about whether or not I could become a Catholic." I couldn't have asked for a more beautiful miracle from God than this. So...the Hershbergers began this adventure towards home in the summer of 2014. And a great tale hangs thereto...

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Why I Became a Roman Catholic, Part IV (Or How JRR Tolkien, My Seminary Professor, and an Italian Concert Pianist Broke My Resolve)

[√Čomer]: "...The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?"

"As he ever has judged," said Aragorn. "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house."
---JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, p. 348.

My life-long fascination with the works of JRR Tolkien continues unabated. It is a sickness. An obsession. I even teach an introduction to the liberal arts course that uses The Lord of the Rings as the primary text. Ever since I can remember first reading Tolkien, I have had an inner sensation that I am reading something that captures the transcendent first things of life in a literary and poetic way. Perhaps that is why I have returned to it again and again. There is something wholesome and even cleansing about this fascinating work of fantasy. Something that washes away the grime of so much modern entertainment. Even during my fundamentalist period, and despite the frequent bromides against Tolkien and CS Lewis for their dabbling in "magic!" I have held Tolkien's writing in high regard. When I read Joseph Pearce's biography of Tolkien--Tolkien: Man and Myth--I first made the connection between The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's Catholic faith and devotion. Since this occurred during that period of time when several of us from St. John's Episcopal Church were reading and studying the ancient Christian traditions, I was primed for such an interpretation. The novel suddenly opened up in a deeper way. When read in conjunction with his detailed and fascinating collection of letters, which provided a wealth of running commentary on his own work as it related to his life as an Oxford don and Catholic Christian, I was hooked. For me, Tolkien had become the 20th century's author of the century. The seedlings dropped into the soil of my mind, heart, and will certainly played a role in my eventual embrace of Mother Church built upon the Jesus the cornerstone and the foundation of St. Peter and the apostles. Imagine that. An entire secondary world, with its own cosmology, mythological traditions, races, languages (some of which can be learned and spoken), complex plot, and layered characters, all from the mind of a rather shy and crusty old Oxford literary don. And that becomes a doorway into a deeper love for God, His Son, His Church, and a love for the grace by which one can live in friendship with God. The seedbed was planted and waiting germination, flowering, all looking towards a fruitful harvest.

If The Lord of the Rings is one of the greatest works of literature to come out of the 20th century, can it compare with the best selling "book" of all time: The Bible? Ever grateful for the love of the Scriptures formed in me during my time among my fundamentalist sisters and brothers, I have always regarded the Scriptures as the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and used by God to reveal the Incarnate Son, Jesus. This was brought home to me in a palpable way when I began my seminary studies at Nashotah House. I was not expecting what the House had in mind for me in their New Testament survey course. The professor was both a godly and first-rate Roman Catholic theologian and biblical scholar. His classroom teaching was as detailed and critical as his devout spirituality and charity was clear and real. He asked great questions, introduced me to the best of the tools for New Testament study and criticism, and used Raymond E. Brown's monumental introduction to the New Testament. His respect and reverence for the Scriptures was clear in all that he did in class. I found myself simply overwhelmed by this humble, yet prodigious individual. It left a lasting impression upon me. If this is an example of Roman Catholic scholarship at the seminary level, and he was willing to share that scholarship with Nashotah House, a non-Catholic seminary, then this man must be an extraordinary Christian. Even after the seminary term finished, I stayed in touch with him via phone and by email. He was helpful in many different ways, and his genuine concern for me as a human being was moving and compelling. I don't think I could have asked for a better biblical mentor. A lot of my former fundamentalist objections to the Catholic faith were beginning to shrivel and fall like leaves on an autumn tree. God bless this man for his ministry to me!

As much as both Tolkien and my seminary professor paved the way for me to finally give up my resistance to the Roman Catholic faith, it was my dear friend and professional colleague Tom, an Italian concert pianist and professor of piano at Catholic University of America. He finally managed to shake me loose from my stubborn pride. Tom and I had known each other since 1995 when I first met him at a music festival in upper-state New York. Tom was a fabulous concert pianist and an artist/teacher of high level undergraduate and graduate piano students, many of whom were prize winners. We usually attended the same music festival each year and shared hotel rooms to reduce our travel expenses. Tom was a devout practicing Catholic Christian, whose life just emanated Jesus in all that he said and did, not by preaching nor brow-beating, but by a quiet and pious life of prayer, service, and intellectual rigor. We stayed up night after night discussing theology, philosophy, history, politics, family, friends, struggles, triumphs, dreams, and our journey of faith. In many ways, he was a sort of father confessor for me, and I always relished our conversations together. He became one of my closest professional and personal friends. On many occasions at the yearly festival, I would attend Catholic Mass with him, and always felt moved by the liturgical worship. He used to say to me, "Jay, you're already a better Catholic than many life-long Catholics I have known." And I wasn't even a Catholic! My resolve was fast disappearing.

In June of 2014 the final straw went into place like this: during the last time Tom and I were together before his death, I stayed at his home with he and his delightful wife Mary Ann. I had the privilege of attending several daily Masses with Tom at a Catholic Church in Silver Spring, MD. The Priest was a wonderful servant, and I enjoyed his homilies and his manner of saying the Mass. Tom and I spent lots of time talking about faith, music, pianists, piano teaching and performing, and all the other things we shared in common. Since my flight home wasn't until the evening, I got on the Metro from Silver Spring and headed to Union Station in DC to meet a friend for lunch. After he went back to work I had several hours before I needed to be back in Silver Spring. I could have stayed at the Mall, but something inside told me to take the Metro to Catholic Univ. and visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The Basilica is an imposing structure, Romanesque in its interior architecture, and glorious inside. I walked into the nave and sat down. I was simply overwhelmed by the beauty, mystery, and transcendent sense of the sacred. I got up and wandered down into the bookstore. It was there that I made the fatal mistake: I bought a copy of GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy, went back up in the nave, sat down and began to read. Reading Chesterton in a glorious Catholic Cathedral is hazardous to Protestant sensibilities. What little I held onto melted away. My resistance broke. I texted my brother-in-law (remember him? My royal pain in the neck? See part III). It went something like this:

Me: You'll never guess where I am?
Him: Where?
Me: I am sitting in the nave of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in DC.
Him: That is just awesome!
Me: Are you jealous?
Him: Is the Pope Catholic?
Me: Well, speaking of which, I could get into this Catholic thing...

My cellphone rang almost immediately.

Him: So...what did you mean by that?!?
Me: Mean by what?
Him: That you could get into this Catholic thing?
Me: Well...I'm beginning to see your perspective.
Him: Praise the Lord and Hallelujah!
Me: Now, don't do a victory dance just yet. I have no idea how my wife will react to this. I won't do this without her.
Him: No problem. We've been praying for her too. This is all in God's hands.
Me: It is indeed...

And so...I walked out of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC an aspiring Roman Catholic. I flew back to Fargo-Moorhead wondering just how my wife would react and respond to all of this. I could not do this without her...

Monday, October 19, 2015

Why I Became a Roman Catholic Part III (Or How My Brother-in-Law was a Royal Pain in the Neck)

You can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family. Remember the other family I kept referring to in parts I and II of my conversion story? One of the adult children? Well...back then he was my friend. Then he became my brother-in-law. At the time, I thought it was pretty cool. My friend married my wife's sister. We all spent lots of time together. It was a rather wonderful period of time. We transitioned together from the Episcopal Church to the traditional Anglican mission. Then they started having kids. LOTS of kids. I kept accusing them of being closet Catholics. They kept muttering things about letting God plan your family. His brother and father would chime in on how important it was for Christians to reclaim society by raising lots of faithful Christians. I'd already done my part with 4. Well...actually 5, though one was now unseen and beyond the veil with Jesus. But, hey. We were all happy Anglicans. Like any mission endeavor however, when the newness and novelty of a small parish wears off, the hard business of really living and building becomes difficult and even frustrating. My brother and sister-in-law were frustrated too. And, after a certain time, he decided that they just couldn't do it any longer, and so he consigned himself, his wife, and their little growing family, to the outer darkness of Christian exile. They wandered from church to church, burned out and in need of healing. How my wife and I wagged our heads at their decision. We tolerated their non-conformity as best we could. We soldiered on at the mission. Despite our pastor's valiant and best efforts, the mission began to unravel. But we would stay on to the bitter end.

Meanwhile, my brother-in-law's family went through quite a disruptive and traumatic experience. Our beloved mission deacon, the patriarch of this wonderful family, died suddenly one day. It was the end of an era, and a huge hole was left in our little group. How we missed his wonderful Gospel readings on Sunday and his children's sermons for the little ones running around. Things were never quite the same. The older brother and sister in the family had already moved to the Phoenix area. The widowed matriarch soon joined them. And then they had the unrepentant nerve to all become Roman Catholics. What bad form. I exhorted my brother-in-law to keep to the Anglican side of the divide. He assured me this was so. His older brother was not so sure. "It has already been determined that you will swim the Tiber. It's only a matter of time." For a Roman Catholic, the older brother still sounded like a good Calvinist. My brother-in-law insisted that he would die a good Anglican. Strange, since he refused to attend the only real Anglican church in town. Of course, I reminded him of this often. But it was all for naught. you could see it coming like a looming thunderhead. My brother-in-law and his family Poped. They swam the Tiber. They became bloody papists. Mariolators. They embraced the Romish Whore of Babylon. Depressing...

And then in rapid succession, the mission shrank even more, and finally became unsustainable, and closed. But I was a good Anglican, and since the Episcopal Church was the only game left in town for me, I stayed with the Episcopal Church, while my wife, who had no desire to return to it, went to a small rural Lutheran Church near our home. It wasn't that we disagreed on much about our faith, but the circumstances dictated our compromise, and we were content to worship in different churches. It seemed reasonable at the time, but it was a bad idea that I knew, deep in my heart, wouldn't last.

Meanwhile, my brother-in-law was now a brand new Roman Catholic. You know converts. They are zealous, enthusiastic, and every aspect of their new-found faith is like a bright shiny object. And boy are there a lot of bright shiny objects in the Catholic Church! And the conversations at family gatherings? I had to steel myself before getting together with him. Oh, he tried to restrain himself as best he could, but there were times when he just couldn't resist. "Never say never, Jay." "The Roman hound of heaven is just bidding his time with you." "I'm enlisting the saints in prayer for your conversion." The odd thing was, our theological perspectives weren't really that far apart: Gospel, sacraments, liturgy, the communion of saints, priests, bishops, psalms, social ethics, etc. It just kind of galled me that he jumped ship, and I was determined to prove him wrong by remaining on the Anglican side of the divide. Oh, I had all sorts of justifications about it all. Being salt and light in a church that needed me. I could fend off the temptation to assimilate. I "knew who I was." Such arrogance and presumption on my part. Sometimes self-deception is...well...deceptive...

And yet, I couldn't argue with the evidence before my eyes regarding my brother-in-law, my sister-in-law, and their little family. My wife and I watched them slowly begin to change. There was a transformation in their lives that was plainly the work of the Holy Spirit of God. Our admiration and respect increased little by little, as we witnessed this transformation. Their actions began to radiate love, compassion, mercy, patience, understanding, and real grace. There was an aroma of empathy and sympathy that permeated their words and actions. I began to envy them. Their shoulders were down and relaxed. There was real joy in their home. That joy seemed missing from my life. In the words of the diner patron in that famous scene from the movie When Harry Met Sally: "I'll have what they're having..." Still, I was resolved to never give my brother-in-law the satisfaction. How pride goeth before the fall of such misplaced resolve...