Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity feel privileged to share these observations from Fr. Nathan Reesman. He is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and Pastor of St. Frances Cabrini https://saintfrancescabrini.com/ and St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception https://www.stmaryparishwb.org/, two dynamic and faith driven parishes in West Bend Wisconsin.
References to Fr Samuel Mazzuchelli, home in the Madison Diocese (where we visit) and Bishop Frederic Baraga, the first Bishop of the Marquette Michigan Diocese (one of the dioceses where we serve) underscore timely wisdom: These saintly 19th century missionaries in the Upper Midwest mainly relied on the truth of the Good News to effectively evangelize.
Fr Nathan reminds us that Good News of the Gospel unerringly illuminates the way forward, especially in uncertain times.
Dominican Samuel Mazzuchelli
Some of you know of my interest in the Dominican Priest Samuel Mazzuchelli who was a missionary in the Upper Midwest in the 1800’s. Italian by birth, ordained a priest in Ohio after arriving as a new immigrant, he was sent to do mission work in what is now the Michigan Upper Peninsula, and then later on he was relocated to what is now Southwestern Wisconsin and Northwest Illinois. He died in February of 1864 and is buried behind a little country church in Benton, Wisconsin, just a stone’s throw from State Highway 11. His cause for Sainthood has been under consideration for awhile now, and his story is a fascinating one.
To read his memoirs is to step back into an American era when it was the case that a dominant theme of local (and sometimes national) discourse was the question of how to interpret the Bible. At times American life was indeed very consumed in the question of who was right: the Protestants or the Catholics? How does one understand the Scriptures? How does one bring them to bear on the pressing moral questions of the day such as the topics of slavery, state authority, gambling, worker safety, the consumption of alcohol, and who should be allowed to vote? Father Mazzuchelli recounts several stories that reveal just how much inter-Christian disagreements were on the minds of average Americans. One stands out especially from his missionary time in the Upper Peninsula, when he and a local Protestant minister decided to stage a public debate about theology and the Bible, with much advertising and fanfare, to which the whole town came in much the same way people would gather today to watch a high school football game.
In that era, it was widely understood that the Scriptures were the authoritative key for how to understand and interpret reality. This is why they were at the center of so many of the public debates and discussions in American life. As history reveals, there were of course fierce arguments, sometimes bloody, about how to understand this same, common text that is at the core of the Christian faith. One could say that the Civil War was in many respects a war over how to correctly read the bible, with Protestants on both sides taking sharply opposing stances over the same pieces of text.
I mention all of this as a contrast and a sense of perspective on our current American reality. America has arrived at the point where we have left behind the Scriptures as a common authoritative text to guide our debates. We have yet to replace them with any source of authority that is widely recognized as a common authority. Most people today are not well educated or trained in philosophy, logic, or the art of thinking as they once were. We have no common cultural or ethnic heritage to rest on. We cannot currently agree on an authoritative way to understand and interpret our nation’s history without framing all of it in terms of a power struggle. We have oceans of data, and we have medicine and science, but we do not grasp that none of those things by themselves actually provide grounding answers or meaning to our existence in the same way that philosophy, religion, and culture does.
In such a climate, it makes great sense that everyone is suspicious of whatever is presented by public voices of the media, government, or institutional life. This explains a great deal of what lies behind our very divided nation. Donald Trump is, frankly, a very inadequate source of truth. So is CNN. So is Fox News. So is President Biden. So is the CDC. So is Twitter. So is, frankly, the chattering of voices in my head. Something higher or deeper must ground us.
Western Civilization, as we know it, is now teetering on the precipice of the chasm of totally lacking a common grounding in reality. While it is true that we all used to argue about how to understand the Scriptures, it was still something of a safety net for the culture that we all at least recognized them as a common authority. Today there is nothing of the sort. We just argue without having a common frame of reference for what the argument is even about.
Classical Sources of Authority
The good news is that as time continues to pass, I do think more and more people will begin to realize the inadequacy of so many of the voices we are currently leaning on for guidance. Which, in turn, will hopefully force us to do what cultures have often done in our predicament: to return again to classical sources of authority. From there we can rebuild. The bad news is that things have not gotten bad enough yet for us all to understand this. History suggests that things have to get worse before they can get better.
For us who are believing Catholics, we know the foundations of reality that we can rest upon no matter what else is swirling around us: Sacraments, Scriptures, Saints, devotions, etc. This is the time for all of us to cling tightly to them, and to thank God for them. They are what has always pulled the world forward through turbulent times. They will do so again.
Added Note: Venerable Bishop Baraga and Dominican Fr. Samuel Mazzuchelli, pray for us. (They met each other, offered each other spiritual direction and encouraged each other as fellow priests!!)