Pope's Visit to Highlight Catholic Roots Of Switzerland and Europe

VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II's short visit to Switzerland on June 5-6 will be more significant, symbolic and timely than one might imagine.

Although he will be spending time in a country whose Catholics have been some of the most resistant to his papacy, he will also be traveling to a land whose historical patrimony addresses two particular concerns of the Pope: reverence for the Eucharist and a return to the Christian roots of Europe.

The particular patrimony in question revolves around one man.

Ask any Swiss national who is the most admired figure of their past and he will probably not cite Albert Einstein or William Tell but a father of 10 children who left his wife and family to live as a hermit in the Swiss mountains.

Yet although St. Nicholas von Flue, the country's founding father and patron saint, continues to draw much affection from the Swiss, few recognize the power of his testimony or the striking relevance of his life to this present age.

St. Nicholas was a farmer who at age 50 answered a calling to radically live a life characterized by the interior journey. The son of a devout Catholic mother, his life was marked by obedience and such intimacy with God that, as a hermit, he was said to have lived a miracle by finding sustenance from the Eucharist alone.

The fruits of this could be seen through his reputation as a peace-maker, which spread throughout Europe and led many people, from peasants to royalty, to visit him and seek his counsel.

In 1480, he performed the so-called “Swiss Miracle” when he was called out of his hermitage near the Swiss village of Stans to mediate a dispute that threatened civil war and the breakup of the Swiss confederation of cantons (states).

So successful and miraculous was his peacemaking that it helped his compatriots form a country that, for the large part of 500 years afterward, has remained at peace with itself and its neighbors.

According to Father Agnell Rickenmann, general secretary of the Swiss Bishops' Conference, St. Nicholas, otherwise affectionately known to the Swiss as “Brother Klaus,” gave his compatriots “a great example on how to realize one's identity, how to live one's faith and the manner in which to live one's relationship with God.”

Saint for Today

Michael McGrade, author of The Invisible Crown — a biography of St. Nicholas' life through the eyes of his wife, Dorothy — believes his testimony has wider implications that have “never been more relevant” to the modern world.

“By using a saint who for 20 years miraculously embodied the union of Christ with the soul to effect a lasting union of the warring cantons,” McGrade said, “God signified the centrality of socio-political harmony and peace to the holy Eucharist and thus the Church, which alone confects and preserves it.”

All of St. Nicholas' actions were so “profoundly Catholic,” so God-centered, that they united the warring cantons “despite themselves,” McGrade said.

“According to St. Nicholas, for the state to remain peaceful and prosperous it must be united, free, independent, defended and above all else, Catholic,” said McGrade, who believes that unless Europe is likewise united once more in the Catholic faith, “lasting peace will remain unattainable.”

Recalling the words of Pope Saint Pius X, who said in 1910 that “there is no true moral civilization without the true religion [i.e. Catholicism],” McGrade believes the “materialistic and relativistic ideology” of the current European Union is “utterly opposed to this Catholic worldview.”

And he draws a parallel with what “John Paul continually points out and the truth that St. Nicholas lived by: ‘… that Christ has established a teaching authority within the Church to safeguard and make known the truth of the faith.’”

But he believes this wisdom, instinctively understood in St. Nicholas' day by those who shared the Catholic faith, “is ignored.”

And echoing John Paul's concerns over Europe, St. Nicholas had particularly strong words of warning for nations that pay scant attention to their religious heritage: “What the soul is to the body, God is to the state. When the soul leaves the body, the body falls apart. When God is driven from the state, the state is doomed to ruin.”

Swiss Youth

John Paul, who has always held youth in great affection, is expected to draw at least 15,000 young people to the country's National Catholic Youth meeting in the capital, Bern.

He is making the visit at the invitation of the Swiss bishops, but “it was the country's youth who had the idea to invite the Pope and organize this meeting,” Father Rickenmann said. “I think a great part of the Swiss youth will be very positive about it.”

Father Rickenmann added that the bishops' conference has been “surprised” at the “positive reactions” from the civil authorities, especially considering the visit will take place in or around Bern, which is in a Protestant canton.

He hopes the meeting will encourage the Swiss people to have faith, hope and “to be a little proud to be Catholic.”

“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Where is the joy among us Catholics in Switzerland?’” Father Rick-enmann said. “We have a message of hope, a message of faith and of the future, and that to give all this to our population today can, I think, be a great, great light.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.