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. Among his books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.