Catherine: Creator of Catholic Culture

Catherine: Cause Newsletter #20 — Spring 2013

From the Postulator’s desk of Father Robert Wild

Catherine’s life and teaching cannot be fully understood unless we try to grasp the completely Christian culture from which she came. I don’t know of any other founders of ecclesial communities in the 20th century who have had such a background.  It is because of this total immersion in a Christian culture during the formative years of her life that she was able to create a total Catholic culture for her community in our times. Her genius as a creator of Christian culture is the topic of this newsletter.

Much is being written these days about the need to restore a Catholic culture. It was the genius and culmination of the charism of our foundress to create, at least on a small scale, a place where people could experience such a culture. St. Benedict created little Catholic worlds in his monasteries which became the seedbeds of European Catholic culture. Our main center – Combermere, Ontario – and our houses — are places where a totally Catholic milieu can be experienced. Such places are not the only answer to the present cultural need, but they are one answer. Many such small Catholic worlds exist.  People can visit them and take back into their specific social circumstances whatever of the culture they have experienced; people often do this, for example, after visits to monasteries. This article is an attempt to give a very brief and limited rationale as to how Madonna House seeks to answer the call to provide an experience of Catholic culture in our times.

I was tempted to entitle this article “Madonna House a Divine Milieu.” The phrase, of course, comes from the title of a book by Teilhard de Chardin, one of the most influential and inspiring Catholic writers of the last century. We live every moment surrounded and penetrated by Infinite Love. We live in a divine milieu. It’s an apt and beautiful phrase to express how a deeper penetration into Love and by Love is the purpose of our Madonna House way of life. To be is to love. Everyone is seeking a kind of fullness which gives life meaning. This fullness is both a vision of reality and a search for a place in which to live it out.

For us in Madonna House this fullness is Catholicism expressed in the gospel vision of Catherine. Madonna House seeks to incarnate a spiritual environment, an atmosphere, a “Catholic divine milieu,” if you will, where this vision can be experienced in order to heal the wounds every one of us has, especially the wounds stemming from an increasingly secular culture.

The over-arching, umbrella-like milieu within which other dimensions of the community life takes place is the Catholic Church. Every parish, every community, is an ecclesiola, a little church. This is the depth of the reality of Madonna House. The basic formative agent is the community life itself in a Catholic form. The great Catholic historian, Christopher Dawson, offers a description that says very accurately what Catherine’s vision of community life is:

For from the beginning Christian education was conceived not so much as learning a lesson but as an introduction into a new life, or still more as an initiation into a mystery. Christian education was something that could not be conveyed by words alone, but which involved a discipline of the whole man; a process of catharsis and illumination which centered in the sacred mysteries and which was embodied in a cycle of symbolism and liturgical action.[i]

This is also how our foundress conceived Christian education or formation: it must address and touch the whole person, and not simply the mind through instruction, as in a classroom. Using a phrase from the Russian author Gogol she called Madonna House a “university of life.”

The Second Vatican Council was seen as a new Pentecost, with the nature of the Church as its major emphasis and concern. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the 20th century saw the birth of several hundred new families of dedicated life, and they are still being born. ouse the mother of all the new communities in CandaThe Church calls them ecclesial communities because the Holy Spirit, in this era of the Church, is seeking to reveal the many-faceted splendor of the Church’s life. Tertullian called the Church the “Church of the Holy Spirit.” And one of the chief thrusts of the Spirit’s activity has been to give new experiences of the Church in a contemporary form rooted in tradition.

For a variety of reasons the faith problem for many people in our society today is not primarily the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus Christ, but the Church. People wondering about Christianity do not so much want to hear “what the Church teaches” as what does Christ say. By giving birth to these new communities the Holy Spirit is seeking to reveal the many ways in which the beauty and reality of the Church can be lived and experienced, so that seekers can better hear what Christ has to say coming from a believable Church.  Young people especially need to experience the life-giving beauty of the Church, and not just read about its problems in the newspapers.

Madonna House is one of the earliest of these new ecclesial communities, having its origins in the early 1930’s in Toronto. The Canadian Cardinal Marc Oulette, now well-known as one of the papabile of the recent conclave, called Madonna House the mother of all the new communities in Canada. Because of Catherine’s spiritual genius, one of the greatest gifts she offers the new communities is a profound vision of formation in the Christian/Catholic life. Already some of these communities are using Catherine’s spirituality for their own formation programs.

For over 50 years we ourselves in the community in Combermere have been trying to live the genius of her wisdom concerning Christian formation, as well as sharing our experience with others. (We joke that without the help of our guests with the work we wouldn’t be able to practically survive! I would say that without them we wouldn’t be able to survive spiritually either.) Indeed, the sharing of life with our guests is one of the essential elements of our Madonna House way of life: being open to people not actually members of our community is essential for our gospel authenticity. There is always the danger for small communities of becoming too inward-looking, too self-absorbed, failing to add to the ideal of Acts 2 – “they held all things in common” – with the Lord’s injunction to “go out to the whole world (Mark, 16:15). Having guests as part of our community life is one way, among others, of being in constant contact with people outside the community in an apostolic way. (We have many other apostolic works that keep us looking outward: our guests are the “world” coming to us!)

The interior life of our guests spans a very wide spectrum. Some may have had a very good Catholic formation in a home school environment. Thus, already, in their minds and hearts, they may be permeated by the Catholic divine milieu, may already be centered in their faith, and may be well along on their pilgrimage. At the other extreme some guests may be coming from a dysfunctional family, been in and out of the Church, on or off drugs. They may be in various stages of spiritual and emotional confusion. They might have some kind of Christian background in some other faith community. One does not have to be Catholic to come as a guest. Many are seeking some deeper understanding of Catholicism.

But whatever their inner world may be, they will be in need of further Christian transformation on all levels. This is what we seek to provide in a comprehensive sense. To quote Dawson again from the same article: “Christian education was not only an initiation into the Christian community, it was also an initiation into another world, the unveiling of spiritual realities of which the natural man was unaware and which changed the meaning of existence.” (205)

“Another world” doesn’t mean a “spiritual world” abstracted from ordinary life. (The perennial temptation of Christian theory and practice has been to over-spiritualize the basic humble, human condition given to us by the Creator.) The “other world” is the transcendental world of faith, the divine life of the Trinity which penetrates this world, and for which our whole being longs.

Madonna House seeks to communicate, unveil, and give a good taste of the mysteries of faith, to fill the “transcendental longing” that is in everyone’s heart.  Madonna House is a transcendental place where one can breathe the world of faith. The Christian tradition has centuries of experience about how to address this longing, about how to expose people to a “process of catharsis and illumination,” leading them along an authentic path of a change of life illuminated by faith.  Madonna House seeks to form the whole person so that she or he may become – yes — a person in the fullest meaning of that word.

I found the book A Secular Age [ii] by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor very helpful in understanding what the Holy Spirit is doing at Madonna House. I have no doubt that Catherine’s experience of secularism, after coming from a totally Christian culture, must have been very traumatic, and was certainly one of the strong incentives for her to create an environment where the wounds of secularism could be healed, and where a totally Catholic culture could be experienced.

Here is Taylor’s opening sentence in Chapter 1: “One way to put the question that I want to answer here is this: why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable? What happened between 1500 and 2000?” (25)

He goes on to develop his thesis that in the ages of faith people lived in an “enchanted world” of God, good and evil spirits, numinous objects such as relics, shrines, sacraments that emitted spiritual power. The human person was porous, open to these influences, embedded in a society permeated by spiritual realities. And then, down through the centuries, due to innumerable intellectual, political and cultural factors, the “great disembedding” took place. One after another buffers arose and buffeted people from the spiritual world. Many modern, secular people are now non-porous, isolated in their buffeted prisons. They have lost all sense of transcendence and are totally secular, that is, “of this world.” They are no longer porous to the transcendental world of faith.

Pope Benedict, in his speech to the German parliament (2011-09-22) used another analogy to describe the same buffeted cultural state described by Taylor. He said: “The positivist reason recognizes nothing beyond mere functionality. It resembles a concrete bunker with no windows in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world. The windows must be flung open again, we must see the wide worlds, the sky and the earth once more, and learn to make proper use of all this.” Madonna House seeks to fling open all the windows to God’s light and love that have been systematically closed over the past centuries.

The “windows” analogy prompts me to offer one of my own.

Imagine western civilization in that year of 1500 inside a great cathedral with the sunlight streaming through stain glass windows depicting the mysteries of our redemption. Then, as the centuries go on, these windows are white-washed over, no longer conveying the sacred images. Whitewashed with what? The brush of rationalism (only what we can know with our minds is true); the brush of scientism (only what can be measured and observed is real knowledge); the brush of relativism (there are no absolute truths); the brush of indifferentism (one religion is as good as another); the brush of atheism (there is no God); the brushes of unbelief in the Scriptures, in Christian tradition, and finally in the Church.  Thus, in our present world, many people are in a dark building with perhaps only a few candles or electric lights illuminating their immediate surroundings.  They can see enough to be able to physically walk in their darkened world, but there is no transcendent light illuminating their minds and hearts. No stain glass windows, no sun pouring through to illuminate the many-splendored beauty of the mysteries of the transcendental world of faith.

Using Taylor’s terms, Madonna House is such transcendental space, seeking to make the person porous to spiritual realities, to the presence of the Trinity, dismantling the myriad of buffers that have been erected over the centuries to block out the transcendent. A Secular Age is the best book I’ve ever read that explains how we got from a time when it was really impossible to entertain the notion of God’s non-existence to our time when atheism is one of the normal and acceptable options – indeed, aggressively propagated by some.

Another general characteristic of secularism is the collapse of Christian culture, the theme with which I began this article. Beginning in the 16th century “culture” meant the domain of human growth and development.  Eventually the word “civilization meant the same thing: Civilization entailed a set of restrictions and limitations no less than a host of virtues and possibilities. To be civilized meant that human character is to be shaped by received communal traditions and mores, that citizens are formed by values and virtues which they do not choose for themselves but which they receive almost through the pores of their skin, via the atmosphere of their homes and schools, their holy places and their cities.”[iii]

My emphasis will be on culture as something received, in contrast to the modern subjective attitude of creating one’s own personal culture.  Just as many people are forced to construct their own religion because they are cut off from any living tradition (Peter Berger called it the heretical imperative), so now the individual is forced to use the fragments of civilization to construct a personal cultural world. (Note in the above quote the use of the same analogy of pores – the pores of people were open to receive culture.) But first let me give examples from my own experience of a received culture with which many older readers of this article may identify!

For most of my life I have lived in a Catholic culture.  Catholicism seeped into my pores like the air, as something objective, without my having to construct it out of my subjective choices. (Such a project would never have occurred to me!) First there was the solid Catholic family and parish life; then Catholic High School; then 2 years in both a Trappist and Carthusian monastery. Especially in those two monastic experiences the Catholic culture was total and objective. I grew in faith in the monasteries by absorbing, through my pores, the liturgical life, the formative rules, the blessing of silence, and the directives of those who knew more about Christianity than I did.  Only by the grace of God were my pours still open. I have experienced, for most of my life, Max Weber’s definition of culture as the “web of significance, the matrix with reference to which everything else makes sense. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz defines culture in similar terms as ‘a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols.’” (Wood, 13) (This is not to say that I did not imbibe certain secular attitudes from which I had to be healed.  But that is another story!)

Such an experience of cultural life in our civilization is totally foreign to most people in North America who were born, say, after 1960.  Many people experience what goes by the name of “culture” in our society thus:  “Culture in the modern sense does not seek to shape us toward definite pre-determined ends so much as it liberates and improves us according to ends, whether personal or social, that we freely choose for ourselves. (My italics) (Wood, 13)

I want to emphasize this difference between how traditional culture was received,  and the modern “culture-creation of the subjective self” as these existential stances form one of the very major differences between life in the modern world and what one experiences in Madonna House.

“The notion that we are free only as we become autonomous selves who have been immunized from all moral and cultural obligations except those we have independently elected is, after all, a notion of very recent vintage.” (Wood, 21)  “We are all largely unaware that our entire culture is collapsing. Christopher Clausen argues, in the Faded Mosaic, that we are not witnessing the dawn of a new freedom-giving multiculturalism but rather the sunset of culture as such – if by culture we mean ‘a whole way of life.’” (Wood, 23-24)

I believe that the crowning achievement of Catherine’s life was the creation of a Catholic culture that offers – at least on a small scale and, for most people, for only a limited amount time – an invitation to live in a Catholic culture. There are few founders of new communities in North America – or perhaps in the whole contemporary western Church — who came from a totally Christian culture as did Catherine, and was able to form such a total Catholic culture. And she didn’t simply try and transplant her Russian experience in our western society. She used some of those elements. But her spiritual genius was very eclectic. She drew the elements of the culture of Madonna House from the best she knew, in both East and West, and in contemporary spirituality.

Yes, pre-revolutionary Russians were not living the gospel completely. What Christian people ever did! But the culture was there — the literally thousands of churches, the home customs, the monasteries, the magnificent liturgies including the liturgical crowning of the czars, the pilgrimages, and the omnipresent icons.  Catherine was able to create, in North America, a Christian culture in the traditional sense, a “web of significance,” “a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols.” Those who come to live in such an atmosphere are asked to accept and give themselves to this culture in order to be formed through the transcendental light pouring into their whole being. Part of the struggle of our guests, perhaps especially the young (born after 1960!), is to give up – at least while they are here! — the enterprise of constructing their own cultural world, and open their pours to the objective cultural milieu of the community

Cardinal Ratzinger before becoming Pope – and then retiring! — refers to a concept of “creative minorities” in his book, Without Roots, He is speaking about the renewal of Christian roots in Western societies, and especially in Europe. He refers to the historian Arnold Toynbee’s analysis of the crisis and cure for the restoration of our civilization. Toynbee called for the creation of “creative minorities”: “Here we must agree with Toynbee that the fate of a society always depends on its creative minorities. Christian believers should look upon themselves as just such a creative minority.” [iv]

Along with the bible and the Church the Cardinal saw monasticism as one of the foundation stones of European Christian civilization: “Throughout the great upheavals of history [monasticism] has continued to be the indispensable bearer not only of cultural continuity but above all of fundamental religious and moral values, the ultimate guidance of mankind. As a pre-political and supra-political force, monasticism was also the harbinger of ever welcome and necessary rebirths of culture and civilization.” (55-56) The Cardinal would call monasteries “creative minorities,” and his description would “fit” creative minorities such as Madonna House.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. is one of the foremost scholars of the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar. He quotes a passage where the latter is decrying modern man’s inability to create authentic culture: “Before the dawn of the technical age it was easier to create genuine culture from genuine recollection. Life was more peaceful; man’s surroundings expressed eternal values more directly. How immediately can a landscape absent of men unite us to God, for example high mountains, a large forest, or a freely flowing river?  In the cities, however, only man’s handwriting is everywhere visible. Concrete and glass do not speak of God; they only point to man who is practically glorified in them.”

Then Oakes comments: “Perhaps Christians will wake up to this pathos and create, like the Benedictine monasteries after the collapse of the Roman Empire, little islands of civilization and peace, where prayer becomes once again possible in union with nature; but the prospects for such a turn of events, it should go without saying, are not bright.” [v]

Perhaps the prospect of another St. Benedict establishing hundreds of little islands of Catholic culture to renew our civilization are not bright, but hundreds of small places of great variety have been established throughout the Catholic world that offer something of a transcendent culture for modern people. Madonna House is one of them.

Ratzinger asks” “So how can Europe attain a Christian civil religion that overcomes the boundaries between denominations and gives voice to values that sustain society rather than console the  individual? Such creative minorities cannot be built by experts, since no committee or council, whoever its members, can possibly generate a global ethos. Something living cannot be born except from another living thing. Here is where I see the importance of creative minorities.” (120) Then he gives this beautiful description of a Christian creative minority:

Human beings who in their encounters with Christ have discovered the precious pearl that give value to all life (Matthew 13:45ff.), assuring that the Christian imperatives are no longer ballast that immobilizes humanity, but rather wings that carry it upward. Such minorities are formed when a convincing model of life also becomes an opening toward a knowledge that cannot emerge amid the dreariness of everyday life. Such a life choice, over time, affirms its rationale to a growing extent, opening and healing a reason that has become lazy and tired. There is nothing sectarian about such creative minorities. Through their persuasive capacity and their joy, they reach other people and offer them a different way of seeing things. (120-121)

This passage can serve, along with Dawson’s understanding of a Christian community, as a broad definition of Madonna House. Madonna House was not born from some abstract plan of what a Catholic community should be, worked out by experts; much less was it put together by a committee! It came forth like a baby from a very “living thing,” our foundress, Catherine Doherty, “a convincing model of life.”

It is significant that in this exchange with Marcello Pera about roots, Ratzinger, in his concluding remarks, dwells considerably on this need for creative minorities: “The medieval monastic communities knew forms of belonging or of reference to the monastic family that enabled their energies to renew the Church and society as a whole  Meeting places that become yeast’ (Matthew 13:33) – a pervasive force that acts beyond the more closed sphere until it reaches everybody – should therefore be formed around the minorities that have been touched by faith.” (122)

At the end of his book After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre says our civilization needs a new St. Benedict. As noted, so far a single individual of the stature of Benedict has not arisen. What we are witnessing, however, as mentioned, is a number of new religious geniuses who are giving birth to those creative minorities that Toynbee called for. We need many new St. Benedicts and St. Scholaticas, and the Holy Spirit, in the last century,  has raised up many such new creative personalities. We believe Catherine is one of them. As well as revitalizing all the ecclesiolas – families, parishes, communities of all kinds –the Holy Spirit is creating many little “cities of light” to give people a more comprehensive experience of Catholic culture.

A fairly recent term used to describe our Catholic life today is Evangelical Catholicism (EC).  I first came across it in John Allen’s The Future Church where he calls it a trend. [vi] He does so because his book is focused on various trends in the world-wide Catholic Church that will be with us for the foreseeable future.  However, I don’t think he would disagree with how George Weigel uses the term in a more recent book, Evangelical Catholicism. [vii] There Weigel uses it to describe the essence of the whole Church. I do not wish to engage in any prolonged presentation of EC.  For my purposes, Allen’s brief description will suffice, along with a few of the more systematic characteristics outlined by Weigel relevant to my topic of Madonna House. I will follow up these descriptions with a few comments relating EC to Madonna House, that is, that our community is a place where seekers can experience the EC these authors are describing.

“The defining features of evangelical Catholicism are: A clear embrace of traditional Catholic thought, speech, and practice, the usual word for which is ‘orthodoxy’; eagerness to proclaim one’s Catholic identity to the world, emphasizing its implications for culture, society, and politics (my italics) ; faith seen as a matter of personal choice rather than cultural inheritance. “ (Allen, 56)

The Main Characteristics of Evangelical Catholicism according to George Weigel were delineated in an even more recent article. I will just quote several more relevant to my theme:

  • IV Evangelical Catholicism is a call to constant conversion of life, which involves both the rejection of evil and active participation in the works of service and charity.
  • V Evangelical Catholicism is a liturgically centered form of Catholic life that embraces both the ancient traditions of Catholic worship and the authentic renewal of the liturgy according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
  • VI Evangelical Catholicism is a biblically centered form of Catholic life that reads the Bible as the Word of God for the salvation of souls.
  • VII Evangelical Catholicism is a hierarchically ordered Catholicism in which a variety of vocations are respected.
  • VIII Evangelical Catholicism is both culture-forming and countercultural.
  • X Evangelical Catholicism awaits with eager anticipation the coming of the Lord Jesus in glory, and until that time, Evangelical Catholicism is ordered to mission – to the proclamation of the Gospel for the world’s salvation.[viii]

As I was reading about EC I couldn’t help but keep thinking “this is the nature of Madonna House.  This is Catherine`s vision.” This conviction is based on my living of the Madonna House way of life for over forty years, and on my knowledge of Catherine`s life and teachings. And then, when both Allen and Weigel said they saw the origins of EC in the writings and pontificate of Leo XIII, the formative aspects of Catherine’s life immediately came to mind.

Weigel especially believes that Leo XIII “set in motion the end of Counter-Reformation Catholicism that has continued into the twenty-first century.” His ground-breaking encyclicals on social issues, biblical studies, liturgy, and Thomistic philosophy set in motion the trends of EC. Catherine studied those encyclicals, and her mentors were some of the teachers who implemented those teachings in the Church of the early 20th century: Dom Virgil Michel on liturgy; Paul Hanley Furfey on the social encyclicals; the great Thomistic scholar Fr. Carr in Toronto.

Weigel concludes his book on the theme of the universal call to holiness: “Thus the first task of Evangelical Catholicism is to foster the holiness of all the people of the Church. (258) Again, Catherine was preaching this universal call all her life, beginning in the 1930’s. One of her favorite sayings was that of Leon Bloy: “The only tragedy in the world is not to be a saint.” I read this as a young high school student one night as I was studying Greek vocabulary.  It was a turning point in my life. When I came to Madonna House, I heard Catherine repeat this saying many, many times; it was one of her favorites. In the 30’s and 40’s it wasn’t being preached that everyone was called to be a sanit. But Catherine was preaching it.

And Weigel’s final point that “Evangelical Catholicism awaits with eager anticipation the coming of the Lord Jesus in glory,” was preached by Catherine more than any other gospel teacher of our time.

All this to say that  ouse Iheard Catherine repeat it many times. In the 30’s and 40’ you never heard that everyone was called to be a saint.  Catherine was a pioneer in what is now being described as EC.  When you come to Madonna House you will be immersed in EC. Keep these characteristics of EC in mind if you ever come to ouse Madonna House. You will be experiencing the essence of Catholicism according to this new understanding as evangelical.

Although Catherine was involved in many aspects of the Christian life – inter-racial justice, writing, public speaking – I believe her deepest intuition was that the Church today needed new forms of consecrated life.  This article concentrates on only one aspect of our community life – the restoration of a Catholic culture.

Hans Urs von Balthasar was also involved in many areas of the Christian life, most notably his enormous output of writings. But he also saw – to my amazement! — the creation of new communities as his top priority. The following quote from him ties together the main theme of Catherine’s genius – Madonna House – and the needs of evangelical Catholicism for our times:

The activity of being a writer remains and will always remain, in the working-out of my life, a secondary function, something faute de mieux. At the centre there is a completely different interest: the task of renewing the Church through the formation of new communities which unite the radical Christian life of conformity to the evangelical counsels of Jesus with existence in the midst of the world, whether by practicing secular professions, or through the ministerial priesthood to give new life to living communities. All my activity as a writer is subordinated to this task; if authorship had to give way before the urgency of the task of which I have spoken, to me it would not seem as if anything had been lost; no, much would have been gained. This is fundamentally obvious to one who lives in service of the cause of Jesus, the cause that concretely is the Church.[ix]


[i] “Education and the Crisis of Christian Culture, Lumen Vitae, April, 1946, 204-205.

[ii] (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England, 2007).

[iii] Ralph Wood, Contending for the Faith (Waco, Texas: Provost Series B: Baylor University Press 2003), 13.

[iv] (New York: Basic Books, 2006), p. 80.

[v] The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2004), 271.

[vi] (New York: Image, 2009).

[vii] (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

[viii] First Things, George Weigel, “Evangelical Catholicism,” March, 2013, pp.  33-40.

[ix] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Another Ten Years,” in The Analogy of Beauty, ed. By John Riches (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark Ltd., 1986, 223. Quoted by Marc Ouellet, Balthasar and the Integration of Faith and Culture, Communio, Spring, 1991, pp. 119-20.

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