Michael J. Matt (MJM) In a nutshell, what is Heroism and Genius about?
Father Slattery (Fr. Slattery) Heroism and Genius is the story of the lives and struggles of the Catholic builders of the West’s civilization. It narrates the saga of the men, who, during the Dark Ages, from the genius of Christianity and the cultures of the Jews, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Germanic peoples, built a new culture and society, embodying within its structures the Christian vision of God and man, time and eternity.
Heroism and Genius is no mere account of political events but a flesh-and-blood narrative of the real men who built Western Civilization at the cost of pouring out their very lifeblood in red or white martyrdom.
MJM What inspired you to write Heroism and Genius?
Fr. Slattery: To communicate that Catholicism matters. Catholicism matters not only to the individual’s soul but to society’s soul.
I want Heroism and Genius to enlighten and encourage priests, strengthen seminarians, foster vocations, and make all Catholics so proud to be Catholic that they become pro-actively pro-convert.
MJM: I think our readers would be interested, Father, in just a brief word about your own vocation. At a time when the Catholic priesthood is suffering perhaps the greatest trial in the history of the Church, how is that a young man is nevertheless able to see past all that and, not only answer the call himself, but also write an entire book in praise of the glorious legacy of the Catholic priesthood?
Fr. Slattery: Through the fierce light of eternity! That “light [that] shines in the darkness, and [which] the darkness has not overcome” (John 1:5). Nor will it ever be overcome! All I ‒ or any Catholic ‒need do to renew enthusiasm is to go to the fountainhead of light and life in the sacred liturgy. There we will receive clarity of vision and strength unto endurance that the world and the allies of Satan will never be able to overpower!
MJM The sub-title of Heroism and Genius is “How Catholic Priests Helped Build – and can Help Rebuild – Western Civilization. What benefit would lay Catholics – married men and women, students ‒ get from reading the book?
Fr. Slattery: The heroism and genius that Heroism and Genius refers to is not the personal property of extraordinary individuals but first and foremost it is the supernatural heroism and genius found in Catholicism. It is Catholicism’s heroism and genius!
Heroism and Genius underlines that the formidable priests of the Dark Ages were great priests because firstly they were great Catholics! All of the heroism and genius of the new civilization sprang from Catholicism!
Today, the world needs strong Catholics but to be a strong Catholic you must be a proud Catholic. Heroism and Genius aims to instill that pride in its readers.
Moreover, besides narrating the stories of the great priest-builders, Heroism and Genius also presents, even if only briefly, many of the great lay men and women of the first millennium.
Men like King Louis IX of France, father of eleven kids; Charlemagne, emperor of the “first Europe”; and the Knights Templar.
Women like the great queen of France, Blanche of Castille; Dhuoda a 9th century mother, spouse, and writer; Bertha, the Parisian princess who supported Augustine on his arrival in England; Theodolinda, the Bavarian princess who became Queen of the Lombards in northern Italy and worked with Pope Gregory the Great to convert her people.
MJM In Part I you speak about the “Catholic Matrix” of Western Civilization, what exactly do you mean by that?
Fr. Slattery: By the Catholic matrix of Western Civilization I am referring to the fact that what makes western civilization original amid the civilizations of history is that the institutions that mark it as original originated in Catholicism.
The original form of Western Civilization, medieval Christendom, was, to use an image of Heinrich Heine, a passion flower that blossomed from the blood of Christ. It flowed from the supernatural power of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, mystically present in the liturgy of Catholicism, transforming the souls of men, and inspiring their creativity.
MJM What are a few of the original institutions of Western Civilization that were created by Catholics?
Fr. Slattery: Heroism and Genius presents especially the institutions and ideals of chivalry, the romanticism of Christendom, Gothic architecture and Gregorian chant, and Free Market Economics.
It also gives special attention to four other institutions that were crucial to the building of the new civilization: the Traditional Latin Mass, Celtic confession, the birth of that remarkable reality, the parish, and the monastery.
Heroism and Genius also briefly alludes to other key Western paradigms that sprang from Catholicism such as the sense of the superior dignity of the individual over the collectivity, the role of reason, and the scientific-technological mentality that first appeared during the Dark Ages.
MJM Some of the chapters are especially intriguing, for instance Chapter 8, “Clandestine Revolutionaries of Romanticism”. Briefly, what exactly is that about?
Fr. Slattery: It tells how the most romantic religion in the world, Catholicism, created the first culture of romantic love.
The culture gradually formed during the Dark Ages and then exploded in the sunlight in the France of the 12th century
MJM Why do you say it was an original culture of romanticism?
Fr. Slattery: Because nowhere else, ever, in all of history, has a society held up an ideal of relationship between men and women in which the woman was placed on so high a pedestal, men stood at the foot of their beloved’s balconies on moonlit nights to sing their praises, and rode to war with the colors of their beloved strapped to their arms.
MJM How did this come about?
Fr. Slattery: Heroism and Genius explains that the new culture of romanticism was possible because of the new vision of the relationship between man and woman. This, however, was due to the new Catholic understanding of masculinity and femininity which, in turn, derives from the new vision of humanity that appeared to men one night in a cave in Palestine.
MJM Romanticism isn’t something you normally associate with the history of the Catholic priesthood.
Fr. Slattery: You’re right. And yet during the Dark Ages the barbarians of Europe did most certainly surround the great evangelizers with an aura of romanticism.
They never used the term “romanticism” but they sensed in the great priests of Catholicism men who had made a deep sacrifice for the sake of a higher and deeper love in renouncing marriage for the sake of priestly fatherhood.
For instance, the first biographer of Columbanus ‒ a “Father of Europe” as he was called by the Prime Minister of France, Schuman ‒ makes it clear that Columbanus in his youth was not only strongly attracted by, but also to, the opposite sex.
It was this self-sacrifice through the vow of chastity that gave an aura of almost super-human grandeur to these first missionaries of Western Europe and wowed so many barbarians, inspiring confidence in these priests as true “soul-friends”.
MJM Heroism and Genius has many human interest stories. Give us a few examples.
Fr. Slattery: For instance, Alcuin of York, the man whom Charlemagne, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire called “my mentor”, the educator of an empire’s educators, the instigator of the first political program of universal education, and the restorer in Western Europe of the tools of intellectual culture.
Bernard of Montjou who, at 8000 ft above sea level in the Swiss Alps, founded the famous hospice at the mountain pass now known as the “Great St. Bernard” and after whom the magnificent dogs are also named.
Ambrose, bishop of Milan, whose sensitive soul described the beauty of the Atlantic waves but who also barred the entrance of Milan cathedral to Theodosius, emperor of the Roman empire, until he repented publicly of his sin.
Augustine, the intellectual par excellence, on his deathbed urging the citizens of his city of Hippo to fight off the besieging red-haired Vandals of Genseric.
Gregory the Great, confined to bed in tremendous pain, yet forcing his wearied body to plan the conversion of England.
Leo the Great, riding out on horseback to save Rome from Attila the Hun.
Idealistic European youths riding to Templar castles in order to embrace a life of warriorhood in a monastic environment.
The group of thirty teenagers and twenty-year-olds banging at the door of the Cistercian monastery amid the swamps of Citeaux in order to expand an order that centuries later even had the blueprints for the industrial revolution.
The peasant’s son, Suger, who rose to be prime minister of France and the founder of Gothic architecture.
MJM Chapter 6 is entitled “Guardians of the Ancient Rite” What exactly is this about?
Fr. Slattery: Heroism and Genius recognizes ‒ as historians such as Christopher Dawson and Arnold Toynbee have demonstrated ‒ that since cultura comes from cultus, culture comes from religion, which, practically, people find in the liturgy.
If there is no religion, then culture is formed by the dominant worldview, a pseudo-religion, such as the materialism in contemporary Western society.
The religion that inspired the creative minorities of Western Civilization was that of the traditional Latin Mass!
For instance, men built Chartres cathedral in all of its magnificence because it was to be the sanctuary for the “ancient rite”.
Music rose into the night of the Dark Ages in the form of Gregorian Chant to express and lend beauty to the ancient liturgy.
Chivalry and medieval romanticism breathed the spirit of the traditional Mass’s collect prayers and symbols.
MJM What role, if any, do you see the return of the Traditional Latin Mass playing in the restoration of the Catholic priesthood in the modern world?
Fr. Slattery: The traditional Latin Mass is the embodiment of Catholicism for us Latin Catholics.
How could it not be? For within it is almost two millennia of the action of the Holy Spirit inspiring the men of holiness and genius who built up the Church.
Heroism and Genius asserts briefly but clearly, with footnotes and bibliography, strongly ‒ even fiercely! ‒that the traditional Latin Mass was crucial to the creation of the flourishing civilization of Christendom.
This is so for many reasons. Chief among them is the fact that the ancient Mass taught men the meaning of history by training their eyes to gaze toward the East.
The popes, kings and queens, knights and peasants of Christendom built a civilization sealed with a poignant sense of sacrificial love because for them the ancient Mass was the mystical enenactment of the Supreme Sacrifice, the most sublime act of sacrificial love in history, that of Christ Crucified.
Therefore, the way forward for Catholicism and for the priesthood lies crucially in the restoration of the ancient form of the Mass!
MJM In the chapter “Fathers of Chivalry: A New Type of Warrior” you point out the relevance of chivalry for contemporary men. Why?
Fr. Slattery: The history of the Catholic Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, one of the leaders in the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler—codenamed “Operation Valkyrie”— illustrates the relevance.
A descendant of knights in a seven-hundred-year-old aristocratic family, von Stauffenberg had been educated from boyhood to live by the principles of the natural law and chivalry. His university years brought him to fall in love with the concept of a “secret Germany”, a nation to be created in the future inspired by Judaeo-Christian and chivalric principles. As I wrote in the book:
This was the source of his moral conviction, as he and his tiny band of conspirators stood almost alone, surrounded by a mentality of blind obedience to Hitler on account of the oath of loyalty to the dictator (Reichswehreid ). For many German soldiers von Stauffenberg was a criminal since under German law he was committing high treason—to which he once defiantly retorted, “I am engaged in high treason with all the means available to me.” After the failure of the attempt, his last words, in the early morning of July 20, 1944, as he stood in front of the makeshift firing squad in a courtyard lit by the headlights of a truck, were “Long live our secret Germany!” (Heroism and Genius, pp. 180-181)
MJM What is the chapter “Men with Music, Artistry, and Drama in their souls” about?
Fr. Slattery: This chapter unfolds the truth of Orson Welles’ intuition, expressed in his soliloquy as he stood gazing at Chartres Cathedral in his last major film, F for Fake:
Now this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man, perhaps in the whole Western world, and it’s without a signature. A celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of man. All that’s left, most artists seem to feel these days, is man. Naked, poor, forked radish. There aren’t any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know, it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things—this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation—which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish. (Heroism and Genius, pp. 198-199)
MJM Heroism and Genius has a chapter about the role of Catholics in founding free-market economics. This is rather a controversial point, even among Catholics. Where do you stand on capitalism?
Fr. Slattery: It is challenging to explain free-enterprise economics and capitalism nowadays for two reasons.
Firstly, because free-enterprise economics exists nowhere in the purebred form in which it existed during Christendom.
Secondly, because free-market economics is different from capitalism.
The free-enterprise economy is an environment where, free from government interference, individuals have the liberty to fulfill their vocation to be “sub-creators” through private property, business creativity, and the right to bargain freely. In it, individuals and not the government, regulate the size of businesses and the management of capital.
Capitalism, however, is very different. It is an economic system whereby capital is largely concentrated in the hands of either a powerful state or mega corporations, or, as in many countries today, in a combination of both.
MJM In fostering and nurturing vocations here in what’s become a dangerously secularist society, what role does the Catholic family play?
Fr. Slattery: Crucial! As St. Thomas stated, the supernatural builds upon the natural. For that reason, we are called to create our own genuinely Catholic institutions (schools, mass media, colleges, homeschooling associations, scout groups, peer support groups, professional associations) that will surround, protect, and nourish Catholic family life.
MJM Heroism and Genius has a very upbeat, inspiring tone, filled with hope for the future of Catholicism. Why is that, considering the tremendous crisis the Church is going through?
Fr. Slattery: The history of Catholicism in the Dark Ages reveals the truth alluded to by Saint Paul in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 8, when he stated that the events of history conspire to fulfill the mission of the Church.
“Conspire” because on the surface all may appear to be darkness.
As during the Dark Ages.
Up to almost the last minute before the birth of Christendom, things seemed to be out of control and that the darkness would last forever. Christendom’s arrival in the 12th century was, for those who lived in that era, a most surprising reality.
Why? Because even as late as the 10th century, the Church herself was darkened by the horrendous corruption of the papacy.
But, thanks to the Catholic remnant, the creative minorities of faithful Catholics who never ceased to build, rebuild, plan, hope and hand on the sacred Tradition the glory of Christendom was born.
Hence, in this second Dark Ages, after the massive destruction not only of Western Civilization but within the very sanctuary of the Church, we can still shout “We shall rebuild!”
MJM Many thanks, Father. I pray your most timely book will help provide a counterbalance to the recent crisis in the priesthood--a crisis which in many ways was self-inflicted and which so many non-Catholics now believe to be representative of how things have been for centuries. Nothing--as your book makes so beautifully clear--could be further from the truth. Heroism and Genius is available at amazon.com