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From the April, 2000
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A Serious Wake-Up Call by Leon J. Podles

A Serious Wake-Up Call

Christendom Awake: On Reenergizing the Church in Culture
by Aidan Nichols, O.P.
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999
(255 pages; $28.00, paper)

by Leon J. Podles

The Dominican Aidan Nichols in Christendom Awake analyzes the current state of Roman Catholicism and suggests ways in which the Church might recover the strength to transform society (especially English society) to such an extent that Europe could once again be called Christendom. He realizes he might appear quixotic, but claims that both the commission to teach all nations and the virtue of hope compel us to work toward a Christian society rather than to be content with life in a Christian ghetto.

Nichols has comments on topics such as biblical criticism, feminism, abortion, philosophy, dogma, economics, and politics. The English context from which Nichols writes leads him sometimes to suggest possibilities that seem not simply quixotic but fanciful. He dislikes the republican form of government and wants a Europe of monarchs with a monarch over all other monarchs, that is, an emperor. Americans may have doubts about this.

The most important areas Nichols analyzes are the liturgy, ecumenical relations, and spirituality.

Nichols laments the transformation of the Mass into a celebration aimed at the “constitution and experience of community as such,” which makes the liturgy “kitschy and homey.” He calls for a “re-enchantment” of the liturgy to emphasize that it is above all the worship of the transcendent God. To do this he calls for more use of Latin, the use of the great music of the Western tradition rather than schlock popular music, and the celebration of Mass ad orientem, that is, with both priest and people facing the same direction. The liturgy cannot be tinkered with and degraded without consequences to the life of the Church: “The Liturgy and its beauty is inseparable from our apprehension of revelation itself, and its glory.”

As a convert Nichols knows both the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church, which share many of the same problems. He says that in Roman Catholicism the problems have been caused by the importation of the spirit of the age, but in Anglicanism the problems are structural, innate in the political origin of the Church. He therefore thinks that the primary ecumenical partner of Roman Catholicism should not be any of the Western churches, which all have the same disease, but the Orthodox Church, which is strong where the West is weak: Orthodoxy is a dogmatic Church, a contemplative Church, a liturgical Church, and a monastic Church. He has the greatest sympathy for Orthodoxy, but critiques the nationalism and ethnocentrism that plague Orthodoxy, and suggests that union with Rome could help overcome these problems. He quotes at length and with approval S. M. Hutchens, a senior editor of Touchstone, on the nature of ecumenical orthodoxy. Nichols calls for “a positive determination on the part of all Christians who share in conscious fashion the central orthodox dogmas pronounced in the early centuries by the Great Church, as well as the common patrimony of a classical Christian morality, to assist each other in the restabilisation of their Churches after decades of theological and ideological turbulence.”

Nichols has a short but very insightful chapter on modern Roman Catholic spirituality, as found in Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower; Charles de Foucauld; Edith Stein; and Teilhard de Chardin. In Thérèse he sees the little way of spiritual childhood, a love that is at once a love for God and neighbor, as opposed to Marxism and liberalism. Marxism posits that the human being does not become himself by receiving but by his own self-creating action, while Harnack and his compatriots rejected the infancy narratives as having any real significance for faith. Edith Stein abandoned herself in utter simplicity to God in the darkness. In and through the hidden agony of a Christian, she speculated, God can perhaps convert others.

Charles de Foucauld changed from a dissolute cavalry officer to a hermit because he was willing to give real assent to the gospel, with mind and body and emotions. For Foucauld and the brotherhood that was founded after his death, the Sacred Heart of Jesus was the center of life. A silent adoration of Jesus would be the chief testimony to the world, for as men draw nearer to that Heart, they are transformed, and become channels of transformation for the world. In this cosmic transformation Teilhard de Chardin saw the ultimate divinization of the cosmos, set afire by the love in the heart of Jesus that radiates outward through those who love him.

Although the book is directed mainly to Roman Catholics, it can help others to understand the current situation in the Roman Catholic Church and to consider ways of restoring historic Christianity in the churches of the West.


Leon J. Podles holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia and has worked as a teacher and a federal investigator. He is the author of The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity and the forthcoming License to Sin (both from Spence Publishing). Dr. Podles and his wife have six children and live in Naples, Florida. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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