Rev. Francis Xavier Weiser, S.J.
BEING A COLLEGE PROFESSOR BY
DUTY AND HABIT, I SHALL probably write this sketch as I would
give a lecture in class. However, at times even a college class
may turn out to be interesting and enjoyable.
I was born in Vienna, Austria,
in 1901. At that time the city was still the gay capital of a
famous empire. Furthermore, it was, and still is, the great metropolis
of music and song. You might say that we grew up to the tunes
of Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Strauss. I have a
vague feeling that this atmosphere of culture, music, and art,
had much to do with my desire to write. At the age of eight or
nine, while still a little boy in grammar school, I used to ask
God daily in my evening prayer to "let me write books."
According to the Austrian system
of education, I started the study of Latin at the age of eleven,
and Greek when I was fourteen. For good measure, there was added
a three-year course in Italian; also religion, literature, history,
geography, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, drawing,
music, art appreciation, and singing. All these subjects, topped
by a two-year course in fundamental philosophy, constituted the
secondary schooling (Gymnasium). After that, at the age of nineteen,
we were ready for the university.
However, instead of proceeding
directly from the gymnasium to the university, I entered the
novitiate of the Jesuit Order. In 1924 I started the seven-year
course at the University of Innsbruck in the Tyrol. The fruits
of these studies, at least the recorded ones, are academic degrees
in philosophy, theology, and education. The unrecorded fruit
(which is more important), is supposed to have become a part
of my personality, and is known only to God.
After ordination in 1930, I
came to the United States for a year of special studies. From
1932 to 1938, I was stationed at Vienna as editor of a youth
magazine and national moderator of the student sodalities. When
the Nazis occupied Austria in 1938, Catholic youth work was made
wellnigh impossible. I "returned" to the United States
that same year and have remained here ever since, first as a
parish assistant in Buffalo and Boston, then, from 1943 to 1950,
as pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Boston, and since 1950 as
a teacher at Emmanuel College in Boston.
The desire and urge for writing
never left me. My superiors prudently encouraged this trend even
during my years as a student. From 1928 to 1953, I wrote sixteen
books in German: novels, biographies, and six plays. Some of
these works are still "going the rounds" in new printings.
Since the first of them appeared twenty-eight years ago, many
parents in Europe who had read my books as youngsters and whose
children read them now, think of me as either dead and buried,
or as a very, very old man. Who can blame them! I greatly enjoyed
their startled looks when I met many of them in Europe last year.
It does flatter your ego to surprise people by being younger
than they thought you were.
But let us talk about my books
in English. First, I am often told that my style is somewhat
accomplished, clear, and pleasantly attractive to the American
reader. Allow me to tell you a secret. I never had the benefit
of "studying" English; never had a teacher or any formal
instruction in this language. All the English I know, was-to
use a popular expression-just "picked up" by reading
good English books. (The word "good" refers to both
English and books.) That is the reason why I am now so keenly
and sadly aware of the incredible harm which the atrocious language
and spelling of our comic books must cause to the minds of children.
If reading "good English" books gave me my knowledge
of the language, what kind of language habits will the comics
produce in our children?
How did I come to write these
books? When I arrived in this country in 1931 and again in 1938,
I was deeply impressed by many aspects of American life. Among
them was the charming sight of the popular Christmas celebration.
This tradition had been molded into one unit out of the best
national Christmas lore of various immigrant groups. It was only
during the second half of the last century that our American
Christmas observance came to be established.
Soon I discovered that most
people have no clear notion of the origin, background, and true
meaning of these customs which they observe in their homes. Since
the great majority of our Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and
other observances actually go back to the inspiration of liturgical
thought and symbolism, I judged it a worthwhile subject to explain.
Also a priestly subject; for, given the fact that our popular
customs contain the radiation of the liturgy, the understanding
of this radiation would make the celebration of our Christian
feasts within the family warmer, holier, and more truly joyful.
At the same time, a better grasp of the religious meaning and
message of our family customs would give parents valuable help
for the religious training of their little ones.
It took me six years of research,
which I did hobby-fashion, besides and between my many other
duties. (Here comes the college professor again, looking at you
over the rim of his glasses, raising his finger, and telling
you that much can be accomplished in the course of years by using
spare minutes.) I extended my studies over the span of the whole
ecclesiastical year, its feasts and seasons, including both the
liturgical observance and the traditional folklore.
At times, of course, I felt
very much like abandoning the project altogether, especially
when repeated efforts at clearing up a particular point remained
fruitless. Once I tried for weeks to find authentic information
about the traditional pictures imprinted on a certain kind of
European Christmas pastry. In vain I searched the pertinent encyclopedias
and other literature in various languages at the greater libraries
of Boston. Finally, when on the point of dropping the matter
completely and leaving it out of the book, I happened to be told
by a family that they had an old Christmas pastry pan in the
attic. Immediately I went and looked at it. Hidden beneath the
dust of years, I found a mold pattern of fifty pictures-exactly
the ones I had been looking for.
The books appeared at intervals
of two years: The Christmas Book in 1952, The Easter Book in
1954, and The Holyday Book in 1956. In the summer of 1956 I wrote
a booklet of about a hundred pages on Religious Customs in the
Family which was published by the Liturgical Press at the end
of the year. My plans for future writing hold as the next item
a Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, and after that-well,
I'd better not look too far ahead.
I have not discussed the publication
of books with other authors, so I really do not know much about
the problems, disappointments, and frustrations to which writers
might be subject, except from occasional hearsay. If you should
infer from this remark that I am personally free from such annoyances,
you have conjectured correctly. It is a pleasure, almost amounting
to a duty, to publicly acknowledge the courteous and cordial
spirit of cooperation exercised by my publishers, Harcourt, Brace
and Company, and by all the members of the firm who had anything
to do with my publications.
Autobiographical sketches are
sometimes a nuisance for both writer and reader. In this case,
however, it is different, at least on my side of the printing
press. I did enjoy writing these lines; and since genuine joy
is contagious, I hope and pray that my readers will not have
wasted their time in perusing what I have written. God bless
Originally published by
Walter Romig in The Book of Catholic Authors