Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, January 20. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.
Brothers and sisters, in your relations with one another,
clothe yourselves with humility,
because God “is stern with the arrogant
but to the humble he shows kindness.”
Bow humbly before God’s mighty hand,
so that in due time he may lift you high.
Cast all your cares on him because he cares for you.
Stay sober and alert.
Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion
looking for someone to devour.
Resist him, solid in your faith,
realizing that the brotherhood of believers
is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world.
The God of all grace,
who called you to his everlasting glory in Christ,
will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish
those who have suffered a little while.
Dominion be his throughout the ages! Amen. (1 Peter 5:5b–11)
Today is the feast of a martyr, St. Sebastian, who gave his life for Christ in the third century, under the emperor Diocletian. Christian art depicts Sebastian as an alter Christus, muscular, young, bound naked to a post, his body shot full of arrows, as Jesus was nailed to his Cross. The epistle of Peter speaks to Sebastian and to all the martyrs. It rings in their ears: “Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith, realizing that the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world” (1 Pet 5:–9). A prowling lion! During the reigns of Nero and Diocletian, Christians were literally fed to lions.
Throughout the centuries, however, the epistle’s exhortation sounds in the present tense. When has the age of martyrs ever ended? To Blessed Basil Moreau, C.S.C., who died on January 20, 1873, and whose feast we also observe today—to him too came the call to martyrdom! A martyrdom suffered not with a pagan emperor’s arrows and not through violent death, but through the suppression of the Church in a fiercely laical France. Facing that hostility and the countless challenges that were his as a founder, he looked to the Cross as his—and our—only hope.
We celebrate these Vespers on the eve of the departure of Notre Dame students and faculty who will be traveling to Washington, D.C. to bear witness to the sanctity of human life in the midst of a culture of death. They will end their march at the steps leading up to the Supreme Court Building, where the Roe v. Wade decision was made in 1973, and where an important case with regard to religious liberty and health care is currently being considered. To the Little Sisters of the Poor, their legal defenders, and their co-litigants, the call to martyrdom has also come. Staying “sober and alert,” they have “cast all their care” on the Lord who cares for them, trusting that he “will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish those who have suffered a little while” (1 Pet 5:7–8, 10).
According to the epistle we have just heard, Christians undergoing persecution and trial can draw strength from the knowledge that they do not suffer alone, that “the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world” (1 Pet 5:9). In our day, “throughout the world” brings to mind a litany of place names: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, India, China, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Burundi, Mexico, Brazil, refugee camps in Europe. Everywhere the lion prowls. And everywhere brave souls continue to love, to hope, to confess Christ, to bow humbly beneath the cross, terrible and triumphant, that conforms the Christian to Christ. Ave Crux, Spes Unica!
On this day, January 20, in 1942, Servant of God Joseph Kentenich (1885–1968), a Pallottine priest and the founder of Schoenstatt, celebrated Holy Mass in his prison cell. Soon to be sent to Dachau, where he was to suffer for three and a half years, Fr. Kentenich freely laid down his life in union with Christ during that Eucharist, celebrated alone and in secret, but in spiritual union with his followers, some of whom were already prisoners in the concentration camp. “The brotherhood of believers” (1 Pet 5:9)! Fr. Kentenich’s risk-taking, his trusting “yes” to the Cross, expressed his deep faith in Christ, but also in the mystical body of Christ, the communion of saints. “What I do, what I suffer, how I love, affects others,” he wrote.
Let us live our lives, day by day, in a greater consciousness of our responsibility for one another, in solidarity with the martyrs who suffer not only for Christ but, in Christ, for us.
July 28, 2014 marked the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Many events—from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand to Germany’s secret treaty alliance with Turkey—led to this fateful day. Like many Europeans at that time, a young German priest by the name of Joseph Kentenich observed the horrific tragedy unfold. For him, nothing happened by chance. God was speaking and he sought to hear His voice by deciphering the signs of the time. Fr. Kentenich was the spiritual director for approximately 85 young men of a high school seminary aspiring to be missionaries to Africa. He wrestled with the customary institutional Prussian education of the outgoing nineteenth century which stressed discipline above all and was little concerned with the individual’s needs and gifts. Reflecting on the formalism, drill and lack of freedom he concluded, “I could not stand the way I was educated and I told myself: No, one must not educate in such a way.” Thus he endeavored to design a pedagogical program for the young men between the ages of fifteen and eighteen founded on a clear cultural analysis of Europe’s historical situation. At the heart of this analysis was the observation that Christian culture was threatened by industrialism which considered the human person as a replaceable piece of a huge machine. In this context he perceived that education without a definite ethical and religious foundation is prone to substitute God and his values with technological progress. Observing the inner restlessness and idealism of his charges, Fr. Kentenich considered his main educational goal to promote and challenge self-education and free initiative among the adolescents. To the surprise of the students, he told them: “We want to learn—not only you, but also I. We want to learn from each other. For we are never done learning, especially not in the art of self-education, which represents the work, the activity which will indeed take our whole lifetime.”
The initial emphasis on self-education was well received among the young men. It challenged them to prove to their superiors that they were mature young men who could be reliable and responsible in their studies and conduct. Yet, before long they came to the realization that they cannot rely solely on themselves. Hence, on April 19, 1914 with 28 students as charter members, they founded a Marian Sodality committed to a voluntary and resolute striving for holiness in the school of Our Lady’s education. Under the guidance of their spiritual director the young sodalists repaired an old chapel, dating from the twelfth century and located on the school’s campus, to be used for their communal prayer. Soon thereafter, while they were on their summer break, the war broke out. The earth shaking event posed extraordinary difficulties on the young men since most expected to be drafted into the military, and thus be removed from the favorable setting of their environment.
Around the same time, on July 18, 1914, Fr. Kentenich read an article in a daily newspaper, Die Allgemeine Rundschau, by the Capuchin Cyprian Fröhlich about the origin of the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii in Italy. It told how an Italian lawyer, Bartolo Longo, had begun this famous shrine in 1871. No apparitions or extraordinary miracles were involved. Undoubtedly, thousands of people read this article. Yet, Fr. Kentenich struggled to perceive what God was telling him through this story. After several weeks of prayer and meditation he arrived at the conclusion—though not without a leap of faith—that God was calling him to invite Mary to take up her abode in the sodality chapel. When the students returned from the summer leave, he welcomed them in his inaugural talk for the new school year with the somewhat challenging message that “according to the plan of Divine Providence, the great European War is meant to be an extraordinary help for you in the work of your self-sanctification… [which] is the armor that you shall put on, the sword, with which you shall free your country from its overpowering enemies…” Fr. Kentenich shared his conviction that a new epoch was approaching “with great strides.” Appealing to the high-mindedness of the youth, he contended, “Do not think that in times like these, when momentous decisions are being made, it is something extraordinary, to increase your striving to the highest degree.”
He then proceeded by introducing them in the form of a modest “wish” to one of his “favorite ideas” upon which he had reflected again and again in the past months. Taking as his starting point the scene on Mount Tabor, where Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, Fr. Kentenich made a comparison and asked, “Would it not be possible for our sodality chapel to become at the same time our Tabor where Mary’s glories are revealed?” And he continued, “Without doubt we could not achieve a greater apostolic deed, nor leave a more precious legacy to our successors, than if we were to prevail upon our Queen and Mother to set up her throne here in a special way, to distribute her treasures and work miracles of grace. You can guess what I am aiming at; I want to make this place into a place of pilgrimage, a place of grace.” The realization of this wish according to Fr. Kentenich would be possible under the condition that “each one of us must achieve the highest conceivable degree of perfection and sanctity according to his state of life. Not simply the great and the greater, but the greatest heights ought to be the object of our increased efforts.” Towards the end of this foundational talk, Fr. Kentenich made clear that his idea is not based on a vision or any other extraordinary experience, but solely on his trying to decipher God’s will. He concluded by saying: “To me it is as if at this moment…Our Lady were speaking to us…: ‘Do not worry about the fulfillment of your desire. Ego diligentes me diligo. I love those who love me (Prv 8:17). Prove to me first that you really love me, that you take your resolution seriously. … This sanctification I demand of you.’”
Indubitably, none of the young men grasped the transcendent nature of that hour. Fr. Kentenich, however, who had dared to take the tremendous leap of faith in the silence of his own heart, was convinced: “How often in world history has not the small and insignificant been the source of the great and greatest? Why should this not also be true in our case?” He later acknowledged that this was the most difficult time of his life, because his faith could only discover a fine ray of light in the darkness. As time went by he would have to endure more painful situations, like imprisonment in the concentration camp at Dachau during World War II from 1942–45, or fourteen years of exile from 1951–65, but by then he was able to base himself on repeated experiences of God’s working in his life.
In retrospect, this talk of October 18, 1914 in the chapel in Schoenstatt was perceived as the Founding Document of a new initiative in the Church: the Schoenstatt Movement. Its source is a unique form of Marian consecration, a covenant between Our Lady and Fr. Kentenich as representative of the young seminarians. Since this covenant was based on the free cooperation of both covenant partners it is called a covenant of love. Patterned after the covenants in salvation history it has a personal character—the covenant of love is sealed between the Mother of God and Schoenstatt’s founder together with his followers—and a local dimension—the shrine, as “our cradle of sanctity” and the educational workshop of Our Lady. Fr. Kentenich’s understanding of the Marian consecration as covenant of love actualizes the mutual giving of self to the covenant partner and thus Mary’s educational task.
From this inconspicuous beginning developed a place of grace, the Schoenstatt Shrine, forming the heart and spiritual headquarters of the International Schoenstatt Movement. During the past one hundred years, this chapel, now called Original Shrine, has been replicated in over two hundred “daughter” shrines around the globe, each built in connection with a retreat center of some kind for education, spiritual formation, and hospitality. These shrines—eleven of which are in the Unites States—have inspired the erection of countless home shrines, Schoenstatt’s unique contribution to the domestic church, and the circulation of thousands of “pilgrim shrines,”all bearing the image of the Mother Thrice Admirable of Schoenstatt, carrying the child Jesus in her arms.
Fr. Kentenich is the first German in the history of the Church and internationally among the pioneers who founded an ecclesial movement. Its charism has since spread to 87 countries on all inhabited continents. Schoenstatt’s covenant culture has inspired multiple initiatives within and outside the Church. To name but one: recently São Paulo, Brazil, instituted October 18 as “Covenant of Love Day.” São Paulo’s governor attributes to this decision the fact that Schoenstatt’s covenant of love and the Schoenstatt Shrine in Atibaia/SP have become part of the culture of the more than 43.6 million people living and working in this territory.
We began by noting that Schoenstatt arose in the context of World War I. Its history proves once again that God can write straight on crooked lines. Amidst indescribable destruction and suffering, God found in Fr. Kentenich and the sodalists willing instruments who cooperated in bringing about a movement of Christian renewal in the Church and world. The obstacles which could have been their destruction proved instead to be stepping stones leading them closer to God. A lesson that can be learned by all of us!
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life