ON A GREY, AUTUMN EVENING IN
1939 I SAT WITH a group of agitated students in a café
on the Boulevard du Nord, Brussels. Six months earlier we would
have been discussing a Sartre play with histrionic pessimism.
Now the advancing wave of war had made tragedy and suffering
too real for literary poses. Even the most frivolous minds were
swept back to fundamentals, and many discovered for the first
time what they really believed. There was an air of tidying up
all unfinished business before the final catastrophe overwhelmed
us, and, all unpremeditated, we found ourselves going over old
debates as if to add them up lest the scroll of European culture
might be destroyed forever. Now and then the quick, subdued tones
would pause to listen to the hysterical announcements from the
I found myself returning to
an old contention of mine: that the Catholic writer should be
"engaged" in the sense in which the Communists were
using the term; that he should deliberately aim at influencing
the thought and action of his time. Some confused discussion
about propaganda and the freedom of the artist followed. But
the comments of a student from Namur remained in my mind because
they seemed to bare the dilemma of Catholic letters. "That
is all very well, my friend," he said. "You see how
it is when Mauriac or Greene keep on the lay level in their work.
It has the tang of reality about it. But when they try to work
their way out of a difficult human situation by advancing spiritual
solutions they lose touch. These fine intimations that religion
will find a way may be helpful to Catholic novelists but they
are not proofs. God seems to elude reality."
I began to refute him on the
theme that an adulterous generation asked a sign, and to force
a definition of "reality" from him. Having completed
my philosophy course at Louvain, I was eager for straight thinking.
But the rapid coming and going of agitated students, and the
clang and rumble of gun carriages in the streets drowned the
debate and we were swept our several ways in the torrents of
those fearful times.
Vivid impressions followed
in rapid succession with the years. But few things remained more
deeply impressed on me than the dilemma expressed by the student
from Namur. It became like a small thorn which embedded itself.
My Faith assured me that God never escaped reality, that He was
Himself the Holy Realityía sainte realité. But
had Catholic literature been giving that impression? Does it
make religion seem unreal? Do Catholic writers, journalists,
and poets seem less competent to deal with catastrophe than Communists
From the time I was ten years
of age, attending the Christian Brothers school in my native
Dublin, I wanted to be a writer. I first broke into print in
the pages of a Franciscan magazine edited by the Capuchin Fathers,
who were the kindly guardians of literary enthusiasms. In spite
of such small beginnings, the feeling that I could do something
in writing beyond mere pot-boiling never deserted me. The depression
hit Ireland as I left school and I gravitated to various jobs
from an architect's office to a coal yard, from librarian to
Labor Exchange employee. Then I yielded to the magnet of Fleet
Street, London. I became friendly with the Franciscans at Forest
Gate where ex-sailor Father Alexander took me under his Seraphic
wing. "Remember, lad," he was wont to say, "words
are delicate and dangerous things. And a journalist can do great
things, you know, like the jongleurs in St. Francis' time. Some
of them embroidered lust for leisured ladies; but others followed
him and lifted the hearts of men to holy joy." He gave me
Chesterton's St. Francis of Assisi, which I read under
the wizened trees of Hampstead Heath. Here was a saint the world
must get to know about, I thought. I would drop hints of him
in all the periodicals I could.
Most writers, I expect, have
felt life to be a sort of paper-chase in various ways. We run
from one literary scrap to another for the fun or frenzy of the
thing, and all the while we are being drawn on to some goal but
dimly surmised by us. Hack-work was an extremely dead end. I
resolved to study Catholic journalism. The Forest Gate Friars
told me that it was taught so efficiently in Louvain University
that it was necessary to have a doctorate in philosophy before
beginning the course. So I found myself in the Belgian Athens.
But just as I was ready to begin the long-cherished course in
journalism the tempest of war intervened.
Tossing to and fro through
Europe, I met all manner of frightened people clutching feverishly
for some fixed and unshaken faith in the midst of a reeling world.
I remembered Dante's cry, giu per lo mondo zenta fine
amaro, (though I was nowise bitter), and his practice
of visiting Franciscan friaries. Beginning with Cologne, I made
a veritable pilgrimage of the Franciscan friaries of the European
capitals, and everywhere I found that air of cheerful serenity,
of simplicity and courtesy in these cases in the midst of desolation.
I earned my bread by teaching English and by various literary
labors. The paper-chase was still on.
Lisbon was then the clearing
house of Europe, and here again I was a guest of the Franciscans,
this time in Rua las Pedras Negras. At the house of an English
lady I met a young, talented Jewess, who had been lucky enough
to escape from Germany. She too had had literary aspirations.
"But what is the use of writing now," she exclaimed.
She told of the terrible things being endured by her people at
home. Like Haecker just then,she was obsessed by the terrible
power of evil. "Your Christian writers have put so little
love in their books that an uneducated ex-Catholic is able to
concentrate in Mein Kampf enough positive hate to destroy
I related the devastating criticism
to the Guardian of the friary. "Hate has indeed taken over,
my friend," he said. "If someone could make peace seem
as desirable as war, make love as dynamic as hate, some writer
with power and vision, how wonderful it would be!"
The following day he approached
me after Vespers and Compline, and took up the theme again. "I
have been told you are a writer," he said. "Forgive
me if I ask you to consider your calling seriously, for so much
harm has been done by sensational journalism. For you, for any
Catholic author, it is a real vocation. Study apologetics. Strive
to acquaint men with the truth. Put the spirit of our dear Father
Francis before them!"
I answered that I had long
loved St. Francis and was, in fact, a Tertiary. Encouraged by
his interest, I went on to describe my many vicissitudes, varied
studies, literary labors, and secret ambition. To air my little
Latin, I concluded, Uno itinere non potest pervenire ad tam
grande secre tum
"So it is, my friend,"
the old Friar responded, "to attain the crowning secret
of their lives, God requires some to travel many paths. Before
the Catholic writer finds the summit of his career he must have
a deep knowledge of men and places, and know life at first hand.
Intense study is also necessary, and an up-to-date acquaintance
with modern culture and scientific thought."
"You appear to have a
deep interest in Catholic letters," I ventured.
"Yes, I had dreamed once
of founding a school of Catholic literature here in the heart
of our peaceful Catholic country so favored by our Lady of Fatima.
But the time is not ripe."
"Father," I said,
"I too believe that Franciscan spirituality is the real
remedy for the world's ills." And here, in the quiet garden
of this little friary in the center of neutral Portugal we talked
of our plans for a Catholic literature which should liberate
all the essential goodness in the hearts of men, a literature
near to the bosoms and the businesses of men, a literature of
joy, fresh and free from all technical tricks and cults,-a Franciscan
I found my way back to Ireland
on a tramp steamer which was running the submarine gauntlet of
bristling Biscay. We had spies, French schoolboys, and refugees
on board, one of whom revealed himself as an Anglican clergyman.
With him, too, pacing the pitch-dark decks at night, with all
that intensity of feeling that condemned prisoners know, I fell
to discussing fundamentals. He was one of the sincerest men I
ever met and wonderfully versed in the Christian mystics. His
favorite reading, he told me, was St. Bonaventure's Itinerariurn
Mentis ad Deum. More latent Franciscanism, I thought.
Back in Ireland, I hungered
for security, after a life of so many vicissitudes, and found
my way into Civil Service. As thoughts began to take shape and
congeal, I began to write for the Catholic press of America which
I had always admired for its frank and courageous approach to
modern problems, its realism and virility. A world famished for
the bread of life will not accept the sweetmeats of sentimentality
which the Catholic press of the Old World offers all too frequently.
American Franciscan editors
in particular have been helping me realize my ambition to spread
Franc iscanism. In Echoes of Assisi (Franciscan Herald
Press, 1958), to which Cardinal Cushing graciously contributed
a foreword, I tried to show how Franc iscanism is exactly fitted
to provide the antidotes to the acids of Modernity. In Canticles
and Chorus (Franciscan Printery, 1956) I endeavor to show
how the Franciscan spirit of joy can sing its way into the rhythm
of any man's or woman's job. The Social Justice Review, to
which I have contributed more than a hundred articles, plans
to reprint the best of them in a book to be entitled Men and
My favorite form of book writing
is biography, and in this I prefer the pilgrim souls and the
happy ending in God's embrace. The Ardent General (Clonmore)
is the story of a gay and gallant soldier who loved and fought
his way across Europe till he became General of the Cistercian
Order. The book I enjoyed writing most was the life of Blessed
Ramon Lull, So Great a Lover (Franciscan Herald Press).
Here was a Franciscan Tertiary who was the wonder of his age,
a many-sided genius like Leonardo da Vinci, whose fame is experiencing
a revival. A kindred spirit was the fighting Franciscan who saved
Europe from the Turks on the walls of Belgrade, St. John Capistran,
whose life I wrote under the title God's Commando (Franciscan
The Catholic writer of our
time must experience something of the sense of adventure and
great beginnings the followers of St. Francis felt when they
brought the Gospel to men, simply, directly, and with joyousness,
spreading peace through a world torn and tormented by repeated
wars. And if he be to the fore he cannot but feel the dawn winds
of a coming Renaissance blowing on his face.
published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig,
Sixth Series, 1960.