Johannes Messner

Johannes Messner resting on a hike.

I was recently chosen to serve on the board of the Johannes Messner Geselschaft in Vienna, a society formed to promote the work and the memory of a great Austrian social ethicist. We have a new website now, to which I have added a section in English. Continue reading

Maria Theresia

The Studentenverbindung in Heiligenkreuz recently organized a guided tour of the exhibition marking the 300 birthday of the Empress Maria Theresia in the State Hall of the Austrian National Library. Photos of the tour by our Consenior can be found on the Facebook page of the Verbindung. The tour guide was the delightfully amusing and informative Albert Pethö, editor of the Viennese monarchist newspaper Die Weiße Rose Continue reading

Snow in Easter Week

After warm spring weather, the countryside here was confirming the words of the Easter processional “For indeed, after hellish sorrows, to the triumphing Christ: / grove with green and buds with flower, everywhere give laud.” (Namque triumphanti post tristia Tartara Christo / undique fronde nemus, gramina flore favent.) But now heavy snows have fallen, destroying flowers and breaking branches off flowering trees.


Mariazell Again

Yesterday I returned from another walking pilgrimage to Mariazell, this time with the seminarians of the Leopoldinum. The Leopoldinum makes the pilgrimage every year, and takes only three days. The first stage is quite long, so we began before sunrise. It rained hard the first day, but the weather kept getting better after that. We took a slightly different route this time. We spent the first night up on the Unterberg, where I got to celebrate Mass in the lovely little wooden chapel.

Hiking With the Studium Generale

The ITI in Trumau and the Phil.-theol.- Hochschule Benedikt XVI. in Heiligenkreuz recently began a one-year liberal arts program known as the Studium GeneraleIt has two tracks: an all English track, and a German-English track. The program is in its infancy, but I think it has a lot of potential. The University system in the German-speaking world (and throughout continental Europe) lacks the Anglo-American distinction between undergraduate and graduate studies, and students take a highly specialized program from the start of their studies. Perhaps in future the Studium Generale will develop into a liberal arts college along the lines of my alma mater, thus reviving something of the traditions of the medieval universities.

My confrère P. Kosmas, who is responsible for Heiligenkreuz’s contribution to the Studium Generale, organized a weekend in the Southern Austrian province of Styria for the Studium Generale students, and he invited me to come a long, and give a talk to the students. We drove out on Friday evening to Wasserbergschloss that belongs to Stift Heiligenkreuz, and I gave my talk (on freedom). We spent the night in Wasserberg, and on Saturday we took a beautiful hike in the mountains nearby.

Pilgrimage to Mariazell

Last week I took part in a four-day walking pilgrimage to Mariazell with a large part of our community. Many of us had walked to Mariazell with groups from the monasteries parishes or elsewhere, but it was the first time that the community as such made such a walking pilgrimage. The occasion was the year of mercy. Many of us had received new assignments, and it was a good opportunity to entrust them to Our Lady.

There are two main routes to Mariazell from Vienna: the Via Sacra, which is the oldest route, and the Wiener Wallfahrerweg. We took the Wiener Wallfahrerweg, which is supposedly more scenic, as it is more mountainous and goes through less densely populated areas. It is however the “more challenging” route, as the Mostviertel Tourism Office puts it. This made it a real penance for those of us who spend most of our time in doors. On Tuesday there was torrential rain, and we took the steepest ascent from Kaumberg to Kieneck. We completely exhausted when we reached the cabin at the top of Kieneck. But entering that warm cabin after the cold and wet outside was like going to Heaven. This is perhaps one of the main reasons for walking pilgrimages: to remind us that we are in via toward the heavenly city. “If they had been remembering the country from which they came, they would have had oc­casion to turn back; but as it is they long for a better one, that is, the one in heaven.” (Hebrews 11:15-16)

Mariazell is the most important Marian shrine in Austria. The name “Zell” comes from a cell built by a 12th century monk of Sankt Lambrecht to house a statue of Our Lady after a boulder was miraculously split. The “cell” is still vaguely visible in the marble construction in the center of the Church. Mariazell is in the Southern Austrian province of Styria, but near the border to Lower Austria. Growing up I lived for some years in Gaming, which is just on the Lower Austrian side of the border. We often visited Mariazell.

French Nationalism, The Karlskirche, the Empire, and the Meaning of Europe

In a letter to the editor of First Things, my brother Benedict objects to Pierre Manent’s claim that while Western Christianity was born in an imperial form, it “found its form in the nation, or in the plurality of nations once called ‘Christendom,’ then ‘Europe:’”

To me, the nation-state does not mean heroic unity in the face of foreign invasion, but World War I: the destruction of the supranational Danube ­Empire and the creation by violence and forced emigration of homogenous nation-states. […] For Dante, it was precisely the inability of Christendom to unify under a single emperor, Ottoman-style, that was its downfall. Nothing illustrates the failure of the loose federal Christendom model better than its inability to unite against the external threat of the sultan’s armies. French national interest, Venetian national interest, Hungarian national interest prohibited a united effort, and the result was the Ottoman conquest of the entire Balkan peninsula and untold suffering for its Christian inhabitants.

As the example of Dante shows, Medieval Christendom all the way to the end was inspired by the imperial ideal of a universal temporal order. Virgil can be said to be the “father of Europe,” partly because of his imperial ideal was subsidiarist ideal that left room for local piety. And the Roman Church— from Pope Gelasius’s Famuli vestrae pietatis to Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’— has never given up the ideal of a universal temporal power, corresponding in some way to her universal spiritual power.

The ideal was, however, never fully realized, and was made almost impossible by the forces that brought the Middle Ages to an end. Arguably the estrangement of Byzantium and Rome had already made the ideal of empire unattainable, but it was the Reformation that made even a semi-empire in the West practically impossible. And sadly “French national interest” had an important role in making the Reformation possible, preventing it from being reversed, and preventing the emergence of a post-Reformation empire in the parts of Europe that remained Catholic.

However much the medieval popes and emperors quarreled, they always shared a basically imperial idea of Christendom. The quarrel between Philip the Fair and Boniface VIII on the other hand was quite a different thing: it was (among other things) a quarrel between an imperial and a national ideal of human of common life. This was the beginning of the end of the Medieval Christendom. There followed the Avignon exile of the papacy, and then the conflicts between France and the Habsburgs. If France had supported the emperor in the 30 Years War, it is likely that the Reformation could have been reversed. Even afterwards, “French National Interest” continued to make a semi-empire in Catholic Europe impossible. Charles VI losing the War of Spanish Succession to the French was almost as great a blow to the Holy Roman Empire as Francis II formally dissolving it under the pressure of Napoleonic French aggression, less than a century later. Fittingly, it was Charles VI, who left one of the most beautiful symbolic monuments of the empire: the Karlskirche. I celebrate Mass in the Karlskirche from time to time for Una Voce Austria, and it always makes me reflect on the nature of Christendom.


The Karlskirche

As Friedrich Polleroß has pointed out, the Karlskirche is meant to remind us of the Solomonic Temple, the temples of pagan Rome, Hagia Sophia, and St. Peter’s in the Vatican. The classical portico stands for the heritage of imperial Rome, the two great pillars stand both for the for the pillars of Hercules and for Jachin and Boas. The pillars of Hercules show that the empire is to stretch to the ends of the earth. But Jachin and Boas show that the emperor is the new Solomon; above the classical portico is a dome reminiscent of the cupola of St. Peter’s— the Holy Roman Empire exists for the exaltation of the Holy Roman Church.

Pierre Manent is of course right that the EU is antithetical to the true spirit of Christendom, but it is ironic that he praises French nationalism as conformable with that spirit. Oddly enough, the EU was largely put together by Frenchmen. It is even said that Alexandre Kojève was an influence, after his dream of a Latin (i.e. French) Empire failed to materialize.

Postscript: lest I be accused of Francophobia: France is awesome.




My first encounter with Krampus — St Nicholas’s demon slave who punishes the naughty children who say their prayers, while St Nicholas rewards the good children — was also my most memorable encounter with that spirit. I was twelve years old, and we had moved a few months before to the remote town of Gaming in the limestone alps of Lower Austria (before then we had been living in the scarcely less remote (though considerably larger) town of South Bend, Indiana).

On the eve of the Feast of St Nicholas as it got dark I went out to be chased by Krampus. I had heard a good deal about him in the preceding days, and could scarcely believe what I had heard. Last year, said one of my informants, Krampus had chased the daughter of the Fiat dealer in town into her house, and up into her bedroom, and then dragged her out from under her bed and whipped her. This seemed scarcely credible to me.

In any case, I went out. My companions were an American boy named Tommy, a Croatian boy named Josip, and two Austrian boys named (if I recall aright) Thomas and Matthias. At first we went to the Town Hall, were St Nicholas was passing out peanuts and tangerines. Then a police-man gave a speech through a megaphone saying that the Krampuslauf was to begin and requesting that people take care that things not get out of hand, and that no-one be hurt too bad. We walked warily off down the side walk. After a few blocks we suddenly heard the sound of bells behind us. We turned and looked back, and saw a whole of pack of Krampusse pursuing us at a great pace. They were terrible to see. Dressed (as in the picture above) in white sheep skins that gleamed in the ghastly light of the street lamps, with great bunches of cow bells chained to their backs, their faces covered in horrible plastic masks, and in their hands bundles of long switches tied together with electricians tape. We, however, did not stick around to watch, we ran for all we were worth, and managed to get away from that first pack.

But just as we stood panting in the door of the bank regaining our breath, another pack emerged from across the street and cornered us in before we could get away. The Krampusse immediately began to strike us on the legs with all their switch-bundles— a stinging pain at each hit. And then they began to shout at us “Beten! Beten!” [Pray! Pray!]. After some hesitation I knelt down and began to falter through the Our Father in German. I forgot the words half way through, but skipped on to the end, and they were satisfied and moved off.

We were chased a few more times that night, but were not caught again. On one occasion we fled into someone’s house to hide from a pack. The Krampusse came to the door, and the grown-ups invited them in and gave them beer— we peering down at them from the landing of the stairs. When I got home that night I had red welts on my legs, of which I was inordinately proud.

I was just the right age for enjoying in Krampus then. In subsequent years I was a bit too old, but I shall never forget that first Krampusnacht. The custom is much ridiculed, but I found no harm in it.