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The Jesuit role in the emergence of a Catholic modernity


Priest on the run

Near midnight, on Saturday evening, October 14, 1854, a mob of one hundred men in the small shipbuilding town of Ellsworth, Maine, attacked Fr. John Bapst, a Jesuit priest. Bapst had stopped in Ellsworth, hearing confessions for much of the day, en route to a sick call in a nearby town. Carrying lanterns and torches, the members of the mob surrounded the modest home of a Mr. Kent, an Irish immigrant, where Bapst was known to be staying.  Kent at first denied that Bapst was inside. “We know he is, and we must have him,” yelled the mob. Bapst crept into the cellar of the home, closing a trap door behind him. Kent invited the mob to look in the windows. The  mob would not relent. “If you don’t produce him we will burn down your house and roast him alive.”

Bapst emerged from the cellar to spare an attack on Kent’s home.  According to one witness, he still hoped that the “instincts of humanity” would prevail, but the mob rushed upon him, dragged him one mile down the hill toward the Union River and tied him to a rail. Some in the mob advocated burning Bapst alive. The consensus was to tar and feather him, which the mob did, after stripping him naked, taking his watch and emptying his wallet. One eyewitness recalled plucking feathers from Bapst’s body after a search party had found him, then shaving off the priest’s hair and eyebrows to remove remaining bits of tar.

The next day Bapst said Mass in Ellsworth. Fearful that “the mob would gather again,” he took refuge in the home of one of the town’s leading citizens. This man hustled Bapst out of Ellsworth and rode with him on the stagecoach to Bangor, as accounts of the attack began filtering out from Maine into the far corners of the United States and the world.

The Jesuits and the forging of a Catholic modernity

How can we explain such an odd, disturbing event? What might it mean for us, gathered in this room in New York City in the year 2010? This afternoon I’ll argue that the tarring and feathering of Fr. Bapst tells us much about the building of a Catholic modernity in the nineteenth century, and that it allows us to reflect on the meaning of modernity for Catholicism and Islam. To persuade you of this, I’ll speak briefly about the role of the Jesuits in the Catholic expansion across the world in the nineteenth century. Then I’ll talk about John Bapst and his role in the Catholic revival. Then I’ll talk about his opponents.  Finally, I’ll tie these events to our topic  for today.

This material comes from a book I’m finishing, tentatively entitled Martyrs and miracles: The Jesuits and the American Catholic world they made. I say “finishing,” but of course my service as dean has made me fearful that its publication will be posthumous.  In this book I claim that the Jesuits are central to any understanding of the nineteenth-century Catholic revival and diaspora, a movement of people, institutions and ideas altering modern history on both sides of the Atlantic. The  revival included a surge in vocations to the priesthood and women’s religious orders, the reconstruction of the institutional church after the chaos and persecution unleashed by the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the construction of an intellectual milieu suspicious of modernity and the cultivation of a devotional life centered on acts of personal piety, alert to God’s miraculous intervention in the world.

The history of the Jesuits does not substitute for a history of this nineteenth-century Catholic whole. But it comes close. Growing from six-hundred aged members in 1814 to almost seventeen thousand a century later, the Society moved from the margins of Catholic life to its center. No group is as crucial to understanding modern Catholicism, and no group will help us better reflect on the similarities and differences between modern Catholicism and modern Islam.

The Jesuits: Think globally, act globally

The most important observation to make about these Jesuits was their global orientation. The most influential nineteenth century Jesuit, the Flemish-born Jan Roothaan, the Father General or leader of the Society from 1829 to 1853, viewed evangelization as the Society’s highest priority, and he worked carefully with like-minded bishops to send Jesuits to the far-flung corners of the world. In 1831,  Roothaan pleaded with the world’s Jesuits to volunteer for missionary work, specifically noting the “repeated appeals” made by American bishops for Jesuit assistance. Over half of the world’s two thousand Jesuits immediately volunteered for missionary service, and in the 1830s and 1840s alone the order established new missions in Syria (1831), Calcutta (1834), Argentina (1836), Madurai (1837),  Nankin (1841), Albania (1841), Canada (1842), Madagascar (1844), Algeria (1848) and Australia (1848).

More of these missionary Jesuits—close to one thousand between 1814 and 1900—moved to the United States than any other place. In the United States, by the 1870s, Jesuits from Turin worked in San Francisco and among the Blackfeet Indians in Montana; Jesuits from Naples in New Mexico and as professors at the Jesuit seminary in Woodstock, Maryland; Jesuits from Paris in New York City; Jesuits from Belgium in central Missouri and in the Pacific Northwest; Jesuits from Lyon in New Orleans, Tampa and El Paso; Jesuits from Germany on Indian reservations in Dakota territory and in St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago and Buffalo, and Jesuits from Switzerland up and down the East coast, on Indian reservations in Kansas and Dakota Territory and in St. Louis, Cincinnati and Boston.

In part these Jesuits followed the Catholic tide. The Catholic portion of the  nineteenth-century migration outward from Europe was immense, probably over half of the 55 million immigrants who left all corners of Europe, from Greece to Ireland. These immigrants landed in Britain, Australia, Argentina, and beyond, but the biggest group made their way to the United States. In the 1840s and 1850s alone, close to two million Irish (over ninety-percent Catholic) reached American shores, as did an equal number of Germans (perhaps fifty-percent Catholic). Just three percent of the American population in 1830, Catholics numbered eighteen percent of the population by 1900. And this migration catapulted the American Catholic church from marginalization into an uneasy status as the nation’s single largest religious grouping.

Stories about the nineteenth-century Jesuits who worked with these Catholic immigrants were once told and retold in Jesuit rectories and periodicals, then preserved in Jesuit archives. Now they are largely forgotten. But these Jesuits  carried the books, journals, devotional pamphlets, architectural drawings, chalices, rosaries and holy water from a European Catholic world in crisis, and translated them into an American idiom. They founded dozens of schools and colleges. They preached parish missions as they attacked the Republican party—remember that this is the nineteenth century, not the twenty-first century—for its anti-Catholicism. They promoted devotions such as the Sacred Heart. They defended papal infallibility while promoting miraculous healings. They became loyal allies and admirers of the nineteenth century Popes, some of whose closest aides included Italian Jesuit exiles fresh from stints teaching at a seminary in rural Maryland.

The modern odyssey of a Jesuit priest

But back to Fr. Bapst.  Bapst  was born in 1815 in a small Swiss village. He joined the Jesuits at the age of 20. He spent the next decade studying and teaching at the Jesuit boarding school and college in Fribourg, Switzerland, an important center of nineteenth-century Jesuit life. Once enrolled in the college in Fribourg, Bapst absorbed the central intellectual messages of the Catholic revival, including the conviction that the destruction wrought by modern philosophy and the French revolution had placed Catholics and modern liberals on opposite sides of an unbridgeable chasm.

Bapst’s time in Fribourg was ended by a civil war in Switzerland—actually a war between Protestant and Catholic cantons, a war that stemmed from the uneasiness of Swiss nationalists with the Jesuit role in the Swiss educational system. As the armies of the Catholic cantons surrendered, Bapst fled Fribourg with his fellow seminarians and priests, all in disguise and divided into groups of four or five men. For Bapst and his Jesuit contemporaries, this forced exile—the first of many as Jesuits were expelled from Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Guatemala, and other countries in the nineteenth century—made an enduring impression. As Swiss nationalists denounced the Jesuits in speeches, novels and verse, and as mobs looted Jesuit residences, defaced church walls and destroyed Jesuit libraries, Jesuits found their suspicions of modernity confirmed. As one Jesuit explained to a friend “In the name of freedom [the Swiss liberals have] driven them out of their country looted their house disgraced their churches, desecrated the graves of their brothers.”

Bapst eventually made his way from Switzerland to a Jesuit residence in France. He was then sent, along with sixty other Jesuits, to the United States. Soon he was working in Ellsworth Maine. His work in Maine exemplifies the nineteenth century Catholic revival in four ways.

The catechetical imperative

The first is his effort, like that of other nineteenth-century Jesuits across the world, to instill basic doctrinal knowledge into populations loosely connected to the institutional church. Repeatedly, Bapst worried about the “pathetic state” of catechesis among Maine’s Catholics, the bulk of whom were famine-era Irish immigrants or French-speaking Quebecois. He lamented  the “shameful ignorance in which the burgeoning generation stagnates.” He “announced publicly that not one child will receive his first communion” without knowledge of their catechism, and “we will refuse the future absolution to the parents who neglect the religious instruction of their children.” Immediately upon arriving in Ellsworth, Bapst also gave a set of lectures on Catholic doctrine that attracted significant crowds, leading one group of young women to convert to Catholicism and upsetting their families.

Bapst then set about forming Catholic associations and building up the parish. The first step in this strategy was the parish mission, pioneered by Jesuits in the eighteenth century. After arriving in a town, Bapst typically organized a mission or  “jubilee” often lasting a full week and including a well-publicized series of exhortations, Masses and long hours (for Bapst) in the confessional.

Mission psychology pivoted between a doctrinal severity centered on the horror of sin and everlasting damnation, and a practical, even generous, piety aimed at persuading Catholics to view the sacraments (especially confession) and the Church as their best shield in a bewildering world.  The severity is evident in Bapst’s correspondence. He viewed missions as “spiritual weapons” for “reclaiming  a very large number of bad Catholics” and converting the occasional “Protestant or heretic.” “Hardened sinners” must understand that eternal life depended upon reconciliation with the church.  The generosity is evident, too, in Bapst’s insistence that all could be saved, that any sin could be remedied in the confessional. The Catholic Jesus of the nineteenth century was more the empathetic  sufferer than the judge, more the Jesus of the beating Sacred heart than the wise rabbi or teacher.

Bapst also focused on other markers of Catholic solidarity and identity. This  seemed especially important since Maine’s Catholics lived in what Bapst accurately described as a “nearly exclusively Protestant” milieu. Bapst conceded that many Protestants seemed “generally well disposed toward the Catholic religion” but this superficial acceptance made self-conscious markers of Catholic identity the more vital. While traveling in Maine, Bapst made a conspicuous point of not eating meat on Fridays; when a group of parish trustees in Waterville, Maine, proposed putting the title to the land for their Catholic chapel in their own name instead of the bishop’s,  Bapst rejected them out of hand.

The cumulative effect of  Bapst’s efforts, like that of fellow missionaries across North America, Australia and Europe, was considerable. After a year in Ellsworth he informed his provincial that only a handful of Catholics in the Maine towns he visited avoided the parish mission or did not attend Mass and receive communion at Easter. “The triumph of grace,” he concluded, “ is miraculous.” Once a handful of Catholics in a particular town became enthusiastic about the mission, Bapst reported, “they went from door to door to recruit other great sinners that had not yet repented.” Later, a group of “female members of the Catholic Congregation” pleaded with Jesuit leaders to keep Bapst in Maine. Prior to the arrival of Bapst, these women explained, “Our youth grew up without a proper knowledge of their Faith and consequently many of them were Catholics only in name, though sufficiently identified with the Church to furnish her enemies with a pretext to attribute to her teaching the vices learned of themselves.”

A school of our own

The second way in which Bapst exemplified the nineteenth-century Catholic revival was in his focus on Catholic education. Bapst had two strategies. First, Bapst criticized the use of the King James Bible in Ellsworth’s tiny public school. He noted the differing wording of the Ten Commandments for Protestants in the King James version and for Catholics in the Catholic translation and the general inadequacy, in the Catholic view, of the Bible without a church-supplied interpretive apparatus. As one observer of events in Ellsworth put it, “ Fr. Bapst conceived it his duty or right, to prohibit among [his] people the reading of the Protestant Bible (the version in common use); he instructed the Catholic youth in our schools to decline reading the Bible when asked by their teachers to do so.”

Even as Catholic students began to refuse to read the King James Bible in school, Bapst then organized a petition to protest use of the King James Bible. The school authorities, in turn,  refused to listen to Bapst. He then arranged for the one Catholic attorney in Ellsworth to sue the town for requiring use of the King James Bible in the public school.  The case went all the way to the Maine Supreme Court, where Bapst lost because, as the Court explained, only common texts such as the King James Bible could civilize and create “republican citizens” out of immigrant populations.

As this dispute accelerated Bapst’s second strategy became evident. He founded a Catholic school for local children, convinced that no public school could be religiously neutral.  The teachers in the public school, Bapst explained privately, “think that our children will become Protestants. We MUST have our own school, despite the endless difficulties this will present. “

Against the nations

The third way Bapst exemplifies the ethos of the revival is in his suspicion of the modern nationstate. The nineteenth century—in Italy, Germany, France and the United States—was a period of intense, often romantic nationalism, an almost mystical belief in national character and destiny, for figures as diverse as Otto von Bismarck, Guiseppe Garibaldi and Abraham Lincoln. Nineteenth-century Jesuits, including Bapst, thought such nationalist sentiments dangerous, even in Catholic countries such as Poland and Ireland. They worried about a substitution of national loyalties for the priorities of church and family, what to them seemed the more organic building blocs of any good society. That liberal nationalists in Europe were willing to eject Jesuits from allegedly tolerant nation-states only proved their point. In Switzerland the fact that the student body and faculty at Fribourg came from over a dozen countries occasioned a series of attacks on the Jesuits by Swiss nationalists in the 1830s and 1840s. Because the Jesuits declared their primary loyalty to the Pope, these nationalists charged, they could not inculcate national loyalty. Or as one British commentator put it, the “Jesuits are a body of conspirators who overspread the roman Catholic world; men who have no national ties.”

Bapst  did become a United States citizen in 1856, two years after his tarring and feathering, but he worried that America might become as intolerant of a global Catholicism as the Italian nation-state that had isolated pope Pius IX or the German state that had declared a virtual war on German Catholicism. Many of his fellow Jesuits made a point of not celebrating the Fourth of July; others quietly refused to vote. Bapst and his colleagues sometimes wrote to Rome complaining of overly nationalistic Catholic clergy. Or as one Italian exile complained, “By thus praising the American founding fathers they think they will win popular respect which they love too much and are too much influenced by.” Many of Bapst’s colleagues subscribed to and carefully read, even contributed to, the Jesuit-edited Roman journal Civilta Cattolica, the most influential such journal in the Catholic world, and a journal that kept up a steady drumbeat emphasizing the importance of religious, not national, ties. The Pope met every other week with the editors of Civilta Cattolica to show his support, and all of Bapst’s Jesuit colleagues stressed, far more than in the eighteenth century, the importance of loyalty to the pope, and the pope as a symbol of Catholic unity.

Against modern individualism

This suspicion of the nation-state fed into the fourth way Bapst and his colleagues exemplified  the Jesuit ethos—a broad suspicion of the modern world and the anti-Catholic or even anti-religious ethos it seemed to imply.  Each of the nineteenth-century Fathers General composed sad letters to the world’s Jesuits, a Jesuit jeremiad read out loud during mealtimes on “the current calamities” (1845), the “evils of our times” (1856),  the “bitter harassing by evil-minded men,” (1884) and “On some Dangers of our Times” (1896).

One Father General, Anthony Anderledy—originally from Germany, expelled from Switzerland in 1848 and sent to Green Bay, Wisconsin, then returned to Germany in the 1850s, later sent to Italy and expelled from Rome—complained of the “injustice of the times, and the bitter harassing of evil-minded men whom we see raging against the Church of God, and raging against the Society of Jesus.”

The most disturbing feature of modernity seemed its exaltation of the individual; for example, the individual vulnerable before the forces of the market and industrial capitalism, a concern that led to Jesuit leadership in the drafting of the key documents of modern Catholic social thought such as the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum. The exact same Jesuits who drafted these papal encyclicals also worried about individuals permitted the freedom to choose their own religious affiliation without any guidance or encouragement from the state, a view which led to Jesuits defending the ideal of a union of church and state.

The very term “modern”  became an epithet, with Pope Pius IX famously declaring himself, in an 1864 papal text deeply influenced by German Jesuits, opposed to conventional notions of “progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”Battling this modernity—even through the use of modern technologies such as the printing press, or the speedy travel afforded by steamship and railroad—became a central Jesuit task, an effort to define the meaning of civilization and improvement upon favorable terms.

The deep roots of American Anti-Catholicism

Now one must ask: Why did Ellsworth residents react so violently to Bapst? The passions that provoked the attack on Bapst were not unique to Maine, or even to the United States. Instead, religious and ideological currents from across the Atlantic collided in the unlikely locale of Ellsworth. To be fair, suspicion of Catholics and of Jesuits had deep roots in American history.  John Winthrop famously justified his decision to found the Massachusetts bay colony with the need to “raise a bulwark against the Kingdom of AntiChrist which the Jesuits  labor to rear up in these parts.”  In 1815 Thomas Jefferson described the return of the Jesuits as a move from light to darkness, and another ex-president, John Adams, thought that the Jesuits had been “a greater Calamity to Mankind than the French Revolution or Napoleon’s Despotism or Ideology. They have obstructed the Progress of Reformation and the Improvement of the human mind in society much longer and more fatally.”

These fears became heightened in the 1840s and 1850s in the context of the Catholic migration, even in little towns like Ellsworth. With the exception of slavery, nineteenth-century American ministers wrote more on Catholicism than any single topic, and anti-Catholic tracts were among the century’s bestselling texts.  At its most intense, in the early 1850s, discussion of the threat posed by Catholicism to American society saturated the pages of both the religious and the secular press, occupied theologians in the learned journals and provoked fiery exchanges in Congress. Mobs destroyed a dozen Catholic churches across the North in the early 1850s, and anti-Catholic preachers and orators toured the country to large audiences. The anti-Catholic Know Nothing order claimed 10,000 lodges and over one million members by January 1855, and its political wing, the American Party, elected mayors in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, eight governors, over one hundred congressmen and thousands of local officials.

A nineteenth-century Glenn Beck (or Keith Olbermann)

The crucial figure in Ellsworth was William Chaney, the editor of the Ellsworth Herald, and one of the anti-Catholic agitators who emerged in both America and Europe in the 1840s. Chaney filled his newspaper with anti-Catholic attacks, short stories and even the occasional painstakingly wrought cartoon. Think of a small-town, nineteenth-century version of Glenn Beck or, if you like, Keith Olberman. Chaney  used his position as town clerk to call numerous meetings to discuss the Catholic threat and encouraged the formation of Know-Nothing militias or street gangs. As Bapst wearily noted, “The Bigots of Ellsworth and among others the editor of the Ellsworth Herald indulge in all kind of abuses, outrages, slanders & abominations against the church, the priest, the Catholics & chiefly the converts.”

Chaney’s slashing, crude style did not endear him to Ellsworth’s leading citizens.  But even these men sympathized with his basic message. J.P. French, the town’s Methodist minister, preached that “Catholicism is an old worn-out institution, it is behind the age,” and complained that “For fifty years the various Catholic countries of Europe have been annually disgorging upon our shores, her tens and hundreds of thousands of paupers and criminals….” Charles Lowell, local attorney and essayist, worried that Catholicism remained  incompatible with the “freedom of thought, and personal responsibility, necessary to the support of republican institutions.”

A crescendo of anti-Catholic animus

A wave of street orators, European exiles and prominent ministers traveling through New England and Maine also preached a surprisingly consistent message:  that Roman Catholicism threatened American liberties. Alessandro Gavazzi, an ex-Italian priest who had played a leading role in the 1848 Roman revolution came to North America in 1852 where he created a sensation, lecturing across the United States and in Canada. Gavazzi devoted considerable attention in his lectures to the school issue, concluding, “With the Bible, and Bible alone, the American people will flourish; and I will say to them, remember it was the Bible, and the Bible alone, which made your freedom.” Jesuit exiles in the United States, from Italy, Germany and the “Jesuitical college at Fribourg” seemed to Gavazzi an obvious threat to American liberty, and he advised Americans that they too should consider expelling the Jesuits from their country. Gavazzi’s lectures were reprinted in the Ellsworth paper and widely discussed locally.

Also joining this conversation was Boston’s Theodore Parker, the most prominent liberal Protestant minister in the United States. Parker lectured to Bangor and Ellsworth residents for two consecutive evenings in the spring of 1854, just a few months before the attack on Bapst. By the time he spoke in Bangor,  Parker had come to dwell in his public addresses on the incompatibility of  “a priest [standing] betwixt the nation and its God” and to worry that Catholicism threatened the nation’s continued economic and political progress. (He frequently contrasted public education in cities such as Boston with the “small and mean buildings” devoted to public education in Rome, “where the priesthood is mighty and the people are subjects of the Church.”)  “Jesuits” he warned, “come in abundance, some are known, others stealthily prowl about the land, all the more dangerous in their disguise.” He added: “The Catholic Church opposes everything which favors democracy and the natural rights of man. It hates our free churches, free press and, above all, our free schools.”

What  Bapst’s story allows us to see, then, is the formation of two distinct milieus: one largely Protestant and in the North increasingly concerned about individual liberty. From this Protestant and secular vantage point Catholics seemed incapable of appreciating the virtues of democratic government because of their attachment to a hierarchical church; Catholics failed to appreciate the importance of religious liberty and indeed argued against it because they thought theirs the only true church; Catholics did not recognize the importance of a common public education in producing American citizens out of immigrant populations.  Catholic religious leaders—its priests and nuns—dressed in odd garb.

Catholics, on the other hand, especially Jesuits, became more convinced than ever that they needed to foster communal solidarity to protect themselves against a hostile milieu. They mobilized around mission campaigns, which carried a vision of the Church as distinct from all Protestant denominations and a determination to bind Catholics closer, through sacraments, parish associations and schools, to a shared sense of global Catholicism.  They worried that nation-states such as the United States might substitute national for religious loyalties, and they emphasized  the Pope as a symbol of Catholic unity to link Catholics in the United States to other Catholics around the world.  Some of the Jesuits Bapst knew as European exiles in the United States played an important role in drafting the promulgation of papal infallibility in 1870, an event that starkly contrasted liberal understandings of national loyalty and autonomy with a Catholic focus on communal solidarity and an independent religious authority.

From mutual contention to rapprochement

Over time though, this stark contrast between Catholics and their opponents softened.  The tarring and feathering of John Bapst clearly demonstrated an American intolerance of Catholicism with echoes in Europe and Latin America.  But even in tiny Ellsworth many citizens protested the violence and admired Bapst’s calm behavior during the crisis.  In nearby Bangor, Bapst was presented with a gold watch—which his Jesuit superior after some internal debate extending to Rome allowed him to keep—as partial recompense for what he endured. He moved from Ellsworth to become pastor of Bangor’s largest Catholic church, where a visitor can still pore over his diary, listing, in French, baptisms and weddings performed. By the twentieth century Catholicism had become an important part of Maine’s social fabric, the largest single religious  group in the State, even the single largest church in Ellsworth, and John Bapst’s name was chosen for Bangor’s Catholic high school.  Catholic nations in Europe and Latin America were, as Protestants feared, slower to become democratic nations over the course of the twentieth century, but become democratic they did, and now Catholicism is frequently viewed by political scientists as a welcome pre-condition for the adoption of democratic political structures.

Some Jesuits, too, while decrying the violence against Bapst, also noted that in the United States, as opposed to most of Europe, there was a never a serious effort to ban Jesuits or even inhibit the growth of Catholicism.  Instead the church flourished. The very religious freedom that nineteenth-century Jesuits theoretically opposed, the idea that religious identity was at base an individual choice, allowed them to build schools, colleges and parishes. This religious freedom came to seem to most twentieth-century Jesuits as a good thing in and of itself, not simply something to be tolerated in the absence of a more uniform religious alternative.  Jesuits, including Jesuit John Courtney Murray of the United States, played a decisive role in shifting Catholic doctrine on this issue at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

In both instances, then, for Jesuits such as John Bapst and for his opponents, abstract convictions about the nature of the world were modified by experience and in turn this experience prompted new ideas.

Global patterns, global lessons

These stories point us toward a more global history of religion. Historians of American religion, even historians of American Catholicism, once viewed the nineteenth-century Jesuits, if at all, with their loyalty to the papacy, anti-national inclinations and condemnations of liberalism, as a regrettable detour from the theological road leading to the Second Vatican Council. But viewed comparatively, the nineteenth-century Jesuits and the Catholicism they favored seem less an anti-modern exception and more a global rule. The world’s great religious traditions—including Protestant and Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, Buddhism and Roman Catholicism—all  became more self-conscious about doctrine and uniformity of practice during the nineteenth century, as new modes of  travel (including the railroad and the steamship) and communication (including the telegraph) brought people into unprecedented proximity.

Comparisons between Catholicism and Islam—both diasporic faiths, both intensely communal, both committed to distinct visions of gender roles,  both concerned with the sustenance of religious authority in religiously diverse  settings—now seem useful as a means for understanding how global religions navigate the modern world.  Complaints made about nineteenth-century Catholics—that they obeyed foreign religious rulers, that they could not be good citizens, that they segregated themselves from American society, that they wore unusual clothes—are eerily similar  to complaints about contemporary Muslims.  Muslims, too, engaged modernity in the nineteenth century,  as outlined by the Grand Mufti in his address. Indeed one could argue that many Muslim intellectuals  and political leaders in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century were even more eager than Jesuits like Fr. Bapst to reach out to what they understood as the modern world, certainly in modern Egypt, perhaps most dramatically in modern Turkey and modern  Iran. A religious reaction against this Islamic modernism or moderate Islam is one of the great dramas of the late twentieth and twenty-first century, on display in Iran since the Iranian revolution of 1979 and evident  throughout the Muslim world.

This current religious reaction coincides with a Muslim migration to Europe and to a lesser extent North America, a migration as important to our time as the migration of Catholics was to the nineteenth century. These Muslim migrants—like nineteenth-century Catholics—may become more self-consciously Muslim in exile, through easy access to digitized speeches,  texts over the internet, and cheap flights enabling pilgrimages to Mecca. They may become more aware of Muslim leaders in Egypt, the Sudan and Indonesia just as Catholics became more loyal to the papacy in the nineteenth century. But the Muslim experience will also, inevitably,  mean assimilation. It means the making of Muslim Americans, Muslim Belgians and Muslim Germans too, and the building of Muslim institutions, mosques, schools and associations that will look different from those built by nineteenth-century Catholics but which will serve some of the same communal purposes.

After the Ellsworth outrage, Bapst continued to work as an administrator and parish priest in cities on the Eastern seaboard. His name entered Catholic histories and textbooks as a suffering victim of intolerance, with the most prominent early Catholic historian asking him for a first hand account of his ordeal. In his old age he grew a long white beard fit for “a holy old patriarch” and accounts circulated of his ability to heal the sick through his prayers, or even predict the future.  During his last years, he struggled to distinguish “between dream and reality,” occasionally waking up in horror as he replayed that night in Ellsworth so long ago.

We honor those nightmares this afternoon. But we also remember Bapst’s successes in the United States—successes that included starting several parishes and serving as the first president of Boston College, one of the world’s great Catholic universities (although not, I hesitate to stress, in the view of those of us at Notre Dame, the world’s greatest Catholic university).

Like today’s Muslim leaders, Bapst responded to tugs from across the Atlantic even as he worked in the United States, building churches and schools. We live in a moment when we can see the global dimensions of these religious traditions more vividly than ever, no longer blinded by the patriotic nationalism of the cold war, and alert to the ways in which religious loyalties seem more enduring than citizenship ties in much of the world. We see global religion in the South Asian Catholic priests serving as pastors in rural Michigan parishes, we see it  in a  gathering of 150,000 Filipino Catholics in Los Angeles, we see it in our presence here this evening, in a New York City hotel ballroom, a few blocks from St. Patrick’s cathedral, the Catholic church most associated with the pride and determination of those nineteenth-century Catholics.  Precisely because of this more global religious landscape, precisely because we are here, I hope you agree with me that Fr. Bapst’s story has more than a touch of contemporary resonance.

John T. McGreevy is O’Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History, University of Notre Dame. He is author of the prize-winning Catholicism and American Freedom: A History. His current research examines the transatlantic dimensions of American religion as revealed in the experience of the nineteenth-century Jesuits. This post is the text of the remarks Prof. McGreevy delivered at the public launch of Contending Modernities on November 18, 2010.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Michael J. Burns February 29, 2012, 6:31 pm

    This is really excellent. After I study it I would like to speak with you. In the meantime, fine work.