In my pastoral experience working with converts, I have seen people touched by the Holy Spirit in many ways as they draw closer to the Church.
Some are attracted by the coherence of the Church's teaching, others by the beauty of the art, music and literature that its culture has produced, and others are simply magnetized by the sacraments — the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and holy Communion, and Christ's overwhelming mercy in the sacrament of penance.
Many are won over by the example of the saints and loving friendship of Catholic friends. Oftentimes, the clincher is the answer to the simple questions: Did Jesus Christ found a Church during his lifetime, or did he just leave some disciples behind to transmit his message with no authority to guarantee its authenticity? And, if he founded a Church, which one is it? As Cardinal John Henry Newman put it: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”
Up to now, I have not been able to recommend a one-volume history of the Church that did not have some notable defect. Some, like the works of Msgr. Philip Hughes, the great Church historian of the 20th century, are by now incomplete or outdated. (Hughes wrote a masterful popular history that condensed his scholarly three-volume history that is still in print.)
Others are heterodox or cynical in their approach to the history of the Church, seeing it as a human political institution with a long life span at best, a longer version of the Roman Empire or Ming Dynasty — or as a corrupt, avaricious, power-hungry institution whose chief mission has seemed to foster conflict between nations and fight progress with all its might.
H.W Crocker III answers the simple question about the nature of the Church with verve and energy in his new one-volume history, Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church: A 2000-Year History.
Crocker is a convert, a novelist, and an editor at a prominent publishing house in Washington, D.C. His book is masterfully written with a distinct “attitude.” His unambiguous presumption is that the Catholic Church is a divine institution founded by Christ and destined to last in its earthly state until the Second Coming.
With this as his starting point, he is able to acknowledge the many failings — institutional as well as personal — that come with any organization of human persons.
Pope John Paul II has done the same, with the many apologies he has offered during his pontificate — acts of sorrow expressed first to God and then to the nations, races, and other religions that, perhaps objectively, have felt wronged in the course of 2,000 years.
However, what makes this book so invigorating for readers fatigued by the endless, bigoted carping from authors such as James Carroll (Constantine's Sword) and Garry Wills (Papal Sin), is that Crocker feels free to celebrate the Church's victories, above all, the impact of saints not only in the Church but also on history.
The existence of the saints, in all their particularity of personality and time, and diversity of place, is perhaps the best proof of the divinity of the Church, of the Holy Spirit's dwelling within it.
Any institution should be judged, ultimately, by those who strive and succeed in living up to its ideals, not by those who only pay it lip service. After all, where would the Christian West be without Augustine, Patrick, Benedict, Francis and Dominic, Ignatius of Loyola — or, for that matter, Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II?
Or what if the Christian West, virtually created by the faithful of the Catholic Church, had not nobly struggled against the militant forces of Islam for almost 800 years?
The West might exist, but it would be unrecognizable to our eyes and we all might be speaking a different language.
From Rome to All Reaches
Crocker has been recognized as an up-and-coming novelist by the Barnes and Nobles Discover Great Writer's Program. And he writes like one, with the happy addition of well-researched footnotes (although of secondary resources) and an ample bibliography for his strong statements.
“Thus the Protestant revolt took power in what had been provinces beyond the gates of Rome,” he writes, “in countries with fewer centuries of high civilization and Christianity: the Nordic Countries, northern Germany, parts of old Helvetia (Switzerland), parts of what became the Netherlands. All the barbaric peoples who had gaped and mocked at the legions of Rome and later plundered Rome's empire now rose again in a new barbarian assault against Roman authority. Their objective was overturning the Roman power, not reconciling with it. If Charles V was the new Stilicho, a Roman of barbarian blood trying desperately to plug every hole in Rome's defense, the new Alaric was an ill-tempered, unbalanced, and unhappy monk, Martin Luther, who himself said his monastery was just one mile from the barbarians.”
Crocker does not claim to be a credentialed academic historian and not a few of his more provocative conclusions would be open to challenge and disagreement, even by amateurs. Nevertheless, he provides us with the perfect one-volume companion to the more scholarly magisterial four volumes (a work in progress) of the historian Warren Carroll, founder of Christendom College in Front Royal, Va.
Crocker's Triumph makes the history of the Church come alive, and in the spirit of Hilaire Belloc.
Right now I can't think of a better way to get acquainted with the glorious 2,000-year history of the Church as each one of us, with our free will and God's grace, cooperates in creating the history of the Church for the next 2,000.
Father C.J. McCloskey III is director of the Catholic Information Center of the Archdiocese of Washington. http://www.catholicity.com