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Liam Brophy



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 radio.

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 and Existentialists?

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 the world."

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 inspired literature.

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 Movements.

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 Printery).

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.

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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