Ever since the victory of Protestant Prussia over Catholic Austria at Königgrätz (Sadowa) in 1866, there has been talk in conservative-Protestant and liberal circles in German territories of the “ultramontanes”, those people who were guided by forces “beyond the Alps”. My conservative grandfather also spoke like this, his meaning clear: a vom Hagen is Prussian and therefore Protestant.
I grew up in the 1970s and 80s in the Württemberg region in West Germany, where every old church is Protestant. The pastor came once a year to visit us for four o’clock coffee and cake, and for confirmation we had to memorise Luther’s 95 Theses. Only refugee families from Germany’s old East, migrant workers, or a few folks from the Swabian Alb or the Black Forest were Catholic. There was no Catholic church in my town until the 1950s, and new Catholic churches were modern and ugly. Most of my classmates were Protestant, and Catholics seemed as foreign as Orthodox classmates from Greece or Muslims from Turkey.
At university at Lake Constance, I formed a close friendship with a fellow student who had attended a Jesuit boarding school in the Black Forest and enjoyed telling me about this mystical world in evenings over red wine. As a reserve officer, I was impressed by the strict discipline of the Jesuits that he described in his stories. A sign at the Konstanz Minster Square reminded us hikers that it was 2,340km to Santiago de Compostela – the thought of such a journey excited us.
Yet it was during an internship in a provincial city of Gujarat that my Christian values became clear to me. To my surprise, I found that the deep sympathy I felt for the plight of the poor was not shared by the general Indian population. Only at one place were the beggars provided with alms – a Catholic church. There, long queues of Hindu beggars would form each day. I must confess that I was almost shocked to discover my Christian values so abruptly.
Once I returned to Germany, I began attending church services regularly, but it was difficult to find a traditional Protestant congregation. Nonetheless, these services offered me time for reflection and transcendence, even if the sermons felt superficial and the communion wine was merely white grape juice.
Once I emigrated to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 2006, I found a Lutheran congregation, which was comprised of parishioners with German ancestors as well as some who had come to Canada after the War. Unfortunately, however, the congregation was quite liberal. One evening, I attended a lecture by an Anglican priest at the local theological college. Afterwards we went to the pub, where I found myself more or less press-ganged into the local high church Anglican congregation. What a ceremonial world full of choral singing, bells and incense!
I was able to come to terms with the fact that the Queen was supreme governor of the Church of England, the mother church of the international Anglican Communion, as this particular congregation was founded in the 18th century by German immigrants. The Anglo-Catholicism maintained in that parish is a small movement within Anglicanism that has existed since the 19th century, when, under the leadership of John Keble, John Henry Newman and Edward Pusey, the Oxford Movement attempted to revive many of the Catholic beliefs and practices underlying Anglicanism.
Worship in this high-church parish familiarised me with the saints of the Western Church and Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. It also led to me to a soulmate. The evening before St Matthias’s Day, a young woman named Tracy and I attended Evening Prayer and were afterwards invited home for dinner by the parish priest, who had become a friend. The following year we were married in a wedding service of more than two hours. Tracy had a doctorate in theology from St Andrews, Scotland, where she had become an Anglican, and so the secular year was for us increasingly determined by the church year and feast days in honour of the saints. We took part in retreats, and my theological interest was stirred.
After a few years my wife became gravely ill, and in 2016 she was given only six months to live. Tracy was an avid reader of National Geographic, and the December 2015 issue was devoted to the worldwide Marian apparitions and their associated pilgrimages. She was convinced that the Mother of God could also heal her. Our priest pointed out that there was a Marian shrine for Anglicans in an English village called Walsingham. The Virgin Mary had appeared there in 1061 and had asked for the replica of her birthplace (the Holy House) to be built next to the monastery. During the Reformation, both the monastery and Holy House were destroyed, but the Oxford Movement had made Walsingham a place of pilgrimage again.
Yet Tracy was too weak to make the arduous journey from Canada to England, and she died at the end of the summer of 2016. The grief threw me into turmoil for more than two years. Our friend, who had married us, was now in Oxford, where he was responsible for the Anglo-Catholic Pusey House. He invited me there, and I took the opportunity to go to Walsingham on behalf of my wife.
On the day I landed, I took the train from London to Norfolk. From there I made a pilgrimage by foot over two days on trails and along roads to the Marian shrine, where I arrived late at night. The Anglican priests celebrate the liturgy there three times a day, and a sacred spring rises directly under the shrine church, where a replica of the Holy House stands. Praying for Tracy in the midst of that holy village I felt the closeness of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a great lightness came over me. Our Lady of Walsingham ultimately healed me of the pain of my grief.
Back in Halifax, however, I became painfully aware that the devotion to Mary that can be found in Walsingham is largely an exception among Anglicans, even among Anglo-Catholics. The high church service became desolate to me, and when our congregation recommended a woman for ordination, I knew it was time to cross the Tiber to Rome.
I had discovered that a Franciscan order had been in existence in Halifax for over a dozen years, and its Franciscan sisters and friars make their home at a local parish. There I was offered a shortened Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) programme, which was led by a sister who oversaw my instruction in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
In the summer of 2019 I was received into the Catholic Church in front of the congregation. It may just be the Franciscans, but since joining the “Romans”, as they are termed by traditional Anglicans, such a cheerful world of devotion has opened up to me.
More than this, the rigour and significance of the seven sacraments has left a lasting impression on me. And at the same time, I feel a lightness that has its origins in my encounter with the Blessed Virgin Mary in Walsingham. She seems to be everywhere with her blessings, and nothing ever seems to happen merely by chance any more. In receiving her as a Mother, I finally found Jesus as a Brother: their love led me to take off the worldly armour I wore for so long and allow Her Son to enter my heart.
In this regard St Maximilian Kolbe used the title Immaculata for Mary. Her purifying role in Christ’s work of salvation is unique. Mary leads those who give themselves to Her to Jesus Christ. The Militia Immaculatae, a secular order founded by Fr Kolbe in 1917, therefore advocates that Christ be recognised again in the world, knowing that there is, as St Pius X said, “no other more effective means against the evils of today than restoring the sovereignty of our Lord”.
Crucifixes, rosaries and friars’ habits have an almost shocking effect on people in the West who consider themselves to be progressive and tolerant. To them such trappings are as irritating and alien as they once were in the German Empire over a hundred years ago. If, as a true conservative, one does not want to pay homage to the current hedonistic zeitgeist, one can but seek refuge and a new home in the Catholic Church.
So, ironically, liberalism must watch as its supposed triumph leads to a traditionalist regeneration of the Church. Many countries of the West are witnessing a small but brilliant and powerful Catholic renaissance. Devout Catholics are not like the broad masses, because they have a clear conception of man and adopt a coherent ethics based on faith in Jesus Christ. Under the banner of the Immaculata, they form a small but growing army, which survives even the greatest tests of our times and ultimately prevails against the supremacy of indifference, decadence and evil. As Mary predicted in Fatima, “In the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph!”
This article first appeared in Die Tagespost and is printed here with permission