Sergeants and the Bread of Life

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“Therefore I say that you are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus did not mean that the Church would withstand hell’s offensive. Gates are meant to be battered in. Peter, that fisherman with the quick tongue and the rough hands, was to be the chief of a band of brothers in their offensive against the barbed wire and trenches with which hell and its deceived lieutenants ring the world.

Yet we hear that the priesthood is a kind of career, like being an accountant, which should be open to whoever desires it. We hear that hierarchies are unjust. We hear that priests should be our pastoral partners, not our fathers, nor blood-brothers of men in arms; and many are content that it should be so, because it makes life much easier. The deluge can come later.

I am an unapologetic defender of a soldierly priesthood. Grace perfects nature, says Aquinas. It does not ignore it or supplant it. It is natural for men to unite in works of grave danger, self-sacrifice, and high moral resolve, to protect and promote the common good.

When World War I began, an American Quaker was in London, an engineer who had been reorganizing bankrupt mining properties. He was scrupulously honest. He had worked his way through Stanford, and his post-graduate education, at the insistence of his professorial friend and mentor, included spending months down a mine shaft with a pick and an ax, “to learn the commonplaces of mining, get light on the handling of men and the other innumerable questions connected with labor that no man will ever learn for himself by being merely an employee.”

So writes one Hugh Gibson, one of the Quaker’s admirers, for The Century, July, 1917. Note that date.

It was the sort of thing that an older man could require of a younger man. The lad became one of the world’s most capable mining engineers, commanding teams of men who sweated and slogged with him in such inhospitable places as the outback of Australia and China during the Boxer Rebellion. He dodged bullets in the siege of Tientsin, ignoring the pleas of his Chinese friends that he and his young wife should escape while they could. Instead he organized his staff to build barricades, put out fires, and keep people fed, so that the 2,300 Chinese soldiers could hold the city against the rebels. We might say that he fought like a Quaker, and commanded like John Paul Jones.

So when the World War broke out, he was the one man in London who could ensure that Americans fleeing the continent could get home with their families safe and their property intact. He too was about to go home, when word came that the people of Belgium, overrun by the Kaiser’s armies, were starving. Then famine struck occupied northern France also. Tons of food had to be gotten to these millions, daily. Who could do it, when no nation trusted another?

Herbert Hoover, c. 1915
Herbert Hoover, c. 1915

This Quaker engineer thus became the general of a platoon of friends who followed him into the breach. Consider the delicacy of their situation. They had to remain utterly neutral in their words and deeds, no matter what they thought, because if the Germans ever lost trust in them, they would bar them from Belgium and France, and millions would starve. In other words, there had to be perfect obedience.

“He was the only man alive,” says Gibson, “permitted to travel freely from one belligerent country to another, received in entire confidence by the leading men of all those governments,” even the Germans. Whenever his friends grew near to despair, he would say, gritting his teeth, “But we must remember that we are here to feed the Belgians,” and that was that.

“When it comes to be written,” says Gibson, “the history of the Commission for Relief in Belgium will fill volumes,” and much of it would be devoted to the deeds of this Quaker commander, “for he was throughout the guiding spirit, the active directing force, and the inspiration of the body of picked men who carried on the work and made possible the greatest work of conservation in the history of the world – the conservation of one of the finest races that civilization has produced.”

Had he died by a stray bullet a day before the armistice, Herbert Hoover would be revered as one of the finest men that broad-shouldered America ever bore. Had the Belgians persevered in their Christian faith, we would not now wonder how anyone could have so highly praised that cavity of bureaucracy where a heart and soul once dwelt. History indeed can be cruel. But do we have to be foolish to boot?

No coffee klatch ever dredged a harbor. No committee on assuaging hurt feelings ever blasted a tunnel through a mountain. We face now a far more difficult challenge than mere water and rock. It is a wealthy and technologically sophisticated civilization, in rubble. If it were only bread that people lacked!

Even we, bureaucratic and self-congratulatory and inattentive, might get the job done, provided that the hungry weren’t too far away, and we weren’t in danger of life or limb. But they lack the bread of life, and not one of our public institutions will even allow its members to recognize the lack. They are starved spiritually. We aren’t too sturdy ourselves.

And what are we debating? How to get them their bread? No. We’re wondering how little or big a smile we can give to other silly denials of created nature, such as supposing that a baby is a blob, or a boy is a girl. If that’s all we Catholics are, fellow fools, capitulators, then let’s ordain the lady down the street, marry the man to the boy, and let the infernal Kaiser in.

His name ain’t Wilhelm.

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • Tom Williams

    Not to take away from the good Herbert Hoover accomplished as a humanitarian, it was significant as you have aptly covered, but at heart he was a technocrat which you also correctly identified as a problem. Aside from the fact he did not fair well in the political sphere, I believe he did help advance technocratic philosophy which is more in control over our world political systems than most people care to acknowledge.

  • Mr. Graves

    “One of the finest races civilization has produced” caused me to do a double-take to make sure you were still talking about Belgium. DS and I have been expats in the formerly Catholic, still French-speaking region of Belgium for several years, and the situation is far worse than one of a “cavity of bureaucracy.”

    Nature abhors a vacuum, and when virtue fled this region, it was replaced by what Edward Banfeld called “amoral familism,” an utterly vacuous approach to community life that is absent both common sense and common decency. Not only is Belgium a beauracratic nightmare (50 percent income tax, 21 percent VAT) and a moral horror (euthanasia for a 24 y/o depressed woman in Brugge [thanks be to God she changed her mind]), but daily life is also complicated thanks to a me-first-in-all-things attitude.

    • Tony

      Yes, it is a dreadful thing to behold.

      The same year of The Century featured a very fine article on the Lion of Mechlin, Desiree Cardinal Mercier. I’ve written about him, too. The Century, in decades past, had been at once staunchly Christian and staunchly protective of family life and staunchly “progressive,” or what was then called progressive. The article on Mercier is one of the last strong echoes of the old music.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    As often is the words of Christ have dual meaning. If “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” that “it” the Church will remain otherwise hell and Satan will prevail. The Church then contrary to your interpretation will be attacked but will win. Albeit you are correct that most interpret a defensive rather than offensive meaning and that is your salient point. You isolate the vital issue of today’s Church which is the innocuous state of the priesthood. You give exactly what should be done which is to go on offensive, to storm the gates of hell and save souls. Our problem is we priests lack leadership. Cardinal Timothy Dolan is a very warm likable person who I met occasionally in Rome. His bad example at the St Patrick’s Day Parade attending as grand marshal when gays were allowed to march and promote homosexual behavior and Right to Life was refused is a prime and devastating example that detrimentally affects clergy and laity. We priests are admonished not to be ‘offensive’ and ‘make nice.’ We are anesthetized and smothered by a blanket of New Age false doctrine emanating from hierarchy. Perhaps priests need to pray to Saint Joan of Arc to rally priests to be defiant, to speak out fearlessly with fire and conviction and storm Hell’s gates.

    • kathleen

      Thank you, Fr. Morello, for that. Oh, how I wish and pray that our priests would speak out fearlessly with fire and conviction. I will ask St. Joan of Arc to intercede for our good priests that they will get all the encouragement they need and all the help and prayers from all of us laity who are so concerned during these difficult times for the Church and the world.

    • AAD1

      Yes, we are being anethetised and smothered by new heresies emanating from old fear. Not fear of the Lord as prescribed by the prophets and the evangelists, but the ancient fear of survival. Fear of God is out, awe of God is in. Prudence no longer means acting correctly, it means cowering because nothing is correct.

  • grump

    Tony, your prose often borders on the poetic, which inspires me to post the last stanza of Kipling’s “If”:

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

    If all men count with you, but none too much;

    If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son

  • Bro_Ed

    I always heard we should take “the gates of hell will not prevail” as a literal promise that Jesus would always protect His Church against defeat from without, or within. Gates aren’t made to be smashed in. They’re made to be defended and to resist assault.

    Jesus’ promise has brought comfort to those of us who know that a few untrustworthy/incompetent members of the hierarchy won’t bring us down any more than the threat from the barbarians without.

    • Tony

      He says that the “gates of Hell” will not prevail against the Church. Think of the meaning of the words. He did not say that Hell will not prevail against the gates of the Church. Our position is not defensive but offensive. Of course, if we say that Hell will not prevail against our offensive, that implies that we will not be defeated by Hell. But Jesus promises more than that we will not be defeated. He promises that the Church will triumph and that HELL will be defeated.

      I hold no brief for evil captains. Nor for evil foot soldiers.

    • It’s necessary to see the gates of hell in one’s imagination. They tower and try to keep us locked in sin. Christ gave the Church the power, through Him, to continue to pull captives to safety.

      And even when the gates surround those inside the Church, those who ought to be saving others, Christ continues to pull captives to safety through the Church. It’s a both/and reality that we can’t fully understand this side of heaven.

  • Thomas

    The Professor’s romanticized “Huck Finn” view of masculinity ignores some hard realities in the Church’s history.

    I think especially of the first Easter morning as described in the Gospels. Perhaps one could say that the Church itself was then in a fetal stage of development and the danger to its existence was never greater.

    And the manly Apostles? Cowering in fear and hiding. It was the women who checked all of the Professor’s italicized boxes, braved danger and went to the tomb. They made it safe for the Apostles to be Christian men.

    • Stanley Anderson

      Perhaps, as a mother does in protecting it in her womb that she might bear it safely into the world? (and whereas the women “entered in”, Peter ran and stormed in, head first, not unlike a newborn baby breaking out into the world at birth?)

      Mothers play their part too in protecting the leadership of the Church that it might then properly lead. I suspect modern feminists would, if possible, have tried to abort that fetal Church by having someone roll the stone back over the opening and pretend it never happened. Too messy and uncomfortable, don’t you know…

    • Tony

      Yes, I’ve heard it many times before. The Romans were not going to crucify the women. I’m not taking anything away from their fidelity, but they were not in danger of their lives. The murder of Christian women came much later, during the spasms of persecution. Please do try to keep focus on the point of the article.

      It is not “romanticized,” either. Men in groups have done great things, for good and for evil. That is nothing other than plain historical fact, to be found in every culture, at every stage of technological development. Jesus had a purpose in choosing twelve men to be His apostles. It isn’t that women are not faithful. Maybe he wanted to redirect men’s natural propensities — for a change — so that we would get the Church Militant, rather than the Same Old Militant.

      • Dave Fladlien

        I think it probable that one reason Jesus chose 12 men is that women priests would, in His time, have been considered prostitutes, as which is what the pagan women priests often, if not always, were. I think it is *very* dangerous to imply any meaning to His selection beyond that of the societal norm of the time, which I hypothesize that He did not want to defy any further than already necessary, lest He put an unnecessary stumbling block in the way of His new Church.

        Bottom line: we are all speculating about the motives of Jesus. That puts all of us on pretty shaky ground. Maybe we should just stay with what we know.

        • Romulus

          One thing we know is that Jesus came when he did, and not some other more “liberated” time, notwithstanding the “societal norms” he encountered. I think it is very dangerous to suggest that Divine Providence and the economy of salvation are subject to history and coincidence.

          • Dave Fladlien

            Tony and Romulus: Christ lived on earth in a specific time and a specific place. He dressed according to the norms of His day. He ate and drank according to the norms of His day. He traveled (with one notable exception) by the means of His day. He did not exist outside of the society of His times, but in it, as we are supposed to do also.

            Please note too the last sentence of my previous comment: “Maybe we should just stay with what we know.” Please consider all of my comment, not just part. Thanks.

          • Romulus

            What we know above all is that Jesus is Lord over time and therefore did not find himself compelled to accommodate his ways to the time in which he found himself. The time of the Incarnation is not an accident; it’s the “fullness of time”. The Lord’s choice of men as apostles was and is deliberately and richly sacramental and in no sense can be described as a concession to then-prevailing social norms. It was no more societally-driven than the revealed truth of the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

            That is “what we know”.

            No more of these hypotheses, please.

          • Dave Fladlien

            Well, a person as knowledgeable as you claim to be will no doubt be familiar with the account where Peter came to Jesus with concern about payment of the temple tax. The Pharisees were asking Peter why Jesus didn’t pay the tax. What did Jesus do about it? First, He explained why He didn’t have to pay it. Then He told Peter to go pay it, one payment for him (Peter) and another for Himself (Jesus), so as not do dis-edify anyone.

            So unless Scripture no longer tells the truth, Jesus certainly did make accommodation to the attitudes and thinking of those around Him. We can ignore any question about why He didn’t ordain any women, and the point is still valid that He did live in, and function in, His society, just as we should do. And while He was very willing to go up against the society, He also chose His places and moments to do so, saving them for the spiritual impact He wanted.

          • Dave Fladlien

            Update: I went back to add the Scripture citation and the comment had already been posted so I couldn’t update it. Here’s the citation: Mt 17:24-27.

        • Tony

          I am loath to attribute merely local and temporary motives to Our Lord. Here is why:

          He is the Son of God.
          God, in His providence, chose to become Man in that particular place, at that particular time.
          Jesus never seems to cut His message to allay the feelings of His audience.
          Jesus’ action, in choosing the twelve Apostles, is of a piece with the whole of revelation: He is re-founding the people of God, making a new Israel. That is not a local and temporary motive.

          Jesus did things all the time that the people around him misinterpreted. What could they have done worse to Him than they in fact did?

          He’s the one who said what He said to Peter. I do not ever speculate on what Jesus “would have” done … I do not believe in a Jesus of the Subjunctive Mood.

          But I do very much believe that His deeds and His words are profound wellsprings of significance, and that they are never to be interpreted (or dismissed) as merely conditioned by place and time.

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          “[W]omen priests would, in His time, have been considered prostitutes, as which is what the pagan women priests often, if not always, were”

          I find this quite implausible.

          Priestesses were very common in the ancient world.
          The most revered sanctuary in Greece was the shrine of Phœbus Apollo at Delphi, where the oracle was uttered by the Pythian priestess. Readers of Plato will know that the temple of Zeus at Dordona was also served by priestesses. Both Apollo and Zeus, it should be noted, were male deities. The play “Iphigegnia in Taurus” contains no suggestion that there is anything unusual in a woman being a priestess.

          In Latin, the word “sacerdos” is common gender. The SC De Bacchanaliis of 184 BC, which is preserved in monumental inscriptions, as well as literary sources, forbids women to offer sacrifice by night, except when celebrating the rites of the Good Goddess. Why, if they were not permitted to offer sacrifice at all?

          That the Vestals were priestesses is affirmed by Gaius, a very careful jurist and the Sybil at Cumæ was a priestess, according to Vergil, who describes her offering a sacrifice.

          It would be a cheap display of very trite learning to multiply examples.

  • Stanley Anderson

    Is today’s column by Anthony Esolen a modern day version of Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech or what? Where do I sign up? Oh, ok, I suppose my Confirmation was the swearing in ceremony. Let me see now, where did I put that assault weapon they handed me with the rest of the Armor of God? A storm’s a brewin’…

  • Quo Vadis

    Interesting piece praising Hoover’s early life and deeds. Left out was his campaign against the first Catholic to run for President, Al Smith. He was subject to the most vile anti-catholic attack ever launched against any candidate for possibly any candidate in the history of the country. Hoover did nothing.

  • TBill

    “No committee on assuaging hurt feelings ever blasted a tunnel through a mountain.”
    If the British had been better able to deal with their fear and envy of a rising Germany, WWI might have been prevented and millions fewer people would have been blasted. If Muslims were able to experience the emotions associated with humility with greater (or even some) equanimity a couple million Americans would have had a a lot more time with their families and hundreds of if not thousands of Muslims might not have chosen to blast themselves wearing suicide vests.
    Heroes are unfortunately necessary, but generally because somebody has fouled the situation badly through cowardice, rashness, anger or sloth. Self control and the ability to manage one’s emotions are greatly underrated qualities.

    • Stanley Anderson

      “Self control and the ability to manage one’s emotions are greatly underrated qualities.”

      Yes, something numerous other columns by Anthony Esolen have lamented as the result of not raising boys as boys so that they might firmly master those qualities in order to be the men they need to be.

    • Tony

      And hierarchical structures are, among other things, useful precisely because they require individuals to set aside their emotions — NOT to be stuck on themselves.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    There are lots of comments on WW I instead of the real issue we are confronted with is salvation. At any rate I’ll add I comment. WW I was won by the French Army led by the commander of the Paris garrison to attack the German flank when all thought the war lost. Elan Vital was the French incentive to attack. It meant absolute courage in face of adversity and impending disaster. France was by all military logic defeated. The attack turned the tide that is known as the Miracle of the Marne. Courage and the willingness to die for a good cause is part of our human character. God did not create cowards, We become cowards through rationalization. The Church needs precisely what Esolen recommends not armchair critics who sit on their duffs.

    • Ernest Miller

      Fr. Morello,
      …”We became cowards by rationalization”.
      What an insightful observaion!

  • Dave

    So I’ll weigh in the matter of salvation, because Fr. Morello is right and Tony’s point is very well taken — as are some of the exceptions to it, none of which draw away from his main point, of men acting as men in fulfillment of duties that are costly, dangerous and even life-threatening. Pace Fr. Morello and other excellent priests on this website and elsewhere, we laity should rely on our clergy for authentic sacrament and homilies and spiritual direction based upon the fullness of divine revelation and, may I say, little else. We don’t need to have Catholic Charities, or the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, or Catholic Relief Services, or you name the hundred other organizations that have sold out in whole or part to the agenda of the secular Left. What we need is initiative. Concerned about the lack of teaching in the parishes? Immerse yourself in divine revelation and teach your family, your friends, your acquaintances and whomever else God places in your path. Concerned about the “social justice” hi-jacking of the works of mercy? Volunteer at a hospital, a food bank, a shelter, or anywhere else, and gather people around you. Don’t say it can’t be done: with God, “all things are possible to those who believe.” Hoover did not ask permission of the hierarchy in order to do the good that lay before him. So we, too, should do the good that lies before us, which includes encouraging the good and great members of the hierarchy and praying for all of them, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. The hierarchy gives us a structure in which to worship, to receive formation, and to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit when he speaks to us. The rest is up to us. We should not forget that one can go to hell for mortal sins of omission as readily as mortal sins of commission, and we should stop castigating those clergy who give us, um, it’s Christmas so let’s just say pause, then use the castigation for doing nothing ourselves. Cursillo puts this nicely: Piety, Study, and Action. Ignore the bad ones, support the good ones, and forward, march.

    • James Stagg

      Marvelous, Dave! Well said!

  • Veritas

    Impression. Seem to be saying. The reality:

    Some clergy agree and some disagree with church teachings on marriage, homosexuality, abortion, contraception, etc.

    The gates of hell will assail the Church and its teachings, but they will not prevail against the Church. The spineless do not have the “genetic” capability to survive.

    Standby for the next generation of preachers.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    You are basically correct in your assessment in both respects. Foot soldiers [priests] will inevitably adjust to and follow a good and confident commander.

  • LAM

    May priests and Catholic men turn more and more to the fearless Saint John Paul II as a role model for faith and perseverance in the struggle to defend marriage, the Eucharist, sexual morality and the priesthood and convert those who are fighting aggressively against his powerful legacy for the Church and world.



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