September 2019 Print

Heroism and Genius

Time for Our Second “long march through the institutions

Interview with Fr. William J. Slattery, Ph.D., S.T.L.

Interview with the author of Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build and Can Help Rebuild Western Civilization, William J. Slattery, Ph.D., S.T.L.

What inspired you to write this book—clearly the fruit of much labor and research?

Urgency! It’s time for us Catholics to do again what we did during the first “Dark Ages”—to begin “the long march through the institutions” (Rudi Dutschke) in order to recapture them from the forces of the “Dictatorship of Relativism” (Benedict XVI) and build a new Christian civilization.

Therefore, we must form—everywhere—creative Catholic minorities by equipping them with an intellectual, ascetical-mystical, and missionary formation rooted in the millennial tradition of Catholicism.

Integral to this equipping will be the training of future leaders in both Church and State with that ability to act with that realistic insightfulness springing from “historical imagination.”

Winston Churchill is a clear instance of such a leader. His principled steadfastness as an enemy of Nazi appeasement in the 1930s despite derision and banishment from public office was largely due to this nurtured sense of “historical imagination.”

As Isaiah Berlin remarked: “Mr. Churchill’s dominant category, the single, central, organizing principle of his moral and intellectual universe, is a historical imagination so strong, so comprehensive, as to encase the whole of the present and the whole of the future in a framework of a rich and multi-coloured past.”

As I worked on Heroism and Genius in the 17th century library of the Pontifical North American College near the ancient Forum in Rome, I wanted to empower young Catholics with this “historical imagination.”

Because we Catholics have the same mission now in this second “Dark Age” as our forefathers did during the first “Dark Ages.”

What was your principal purpose in writing it?

To shout that Catholicism matters!

Catholicism matters not only to the individual’s soul but to society’s soul.

Only a civilization founded on the truths of Catholicism has the intellectual clarity and supernatural guts to confront, combat, and overcome the fatalist ideology of Hegelian-derived cultural Marxism with its revolutionary lie that truth is measured by the changing events of history, that the new is always the standard, and that Tradition (adherence to the Natural Law and to the divinely revealed, unchanging truths of Catholicism and their cultural expression) must be exiled from social institutions.

Among all the towering churchmen you describe in its pages, do you have a particular favourite?

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.

Leo the Great, riding out on horseback to save Rome from Attila the Hun.

Gregory the Great, confined to bed with painful gout, yet forcing his wearied body to plan the conversion of England.

Idealistic youths riding to Templar castles in order to embrace a life of warriorhood in a monastic environment.

The group of 30 teenagers and 20 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.

Bernard of Montjou who, at 8,000 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.

Alcuin of York, the man whom Charlemagne, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire called “my mentor,” the educator of an empire’s educators, strategizing to create the first system of universal education

Louis IX, man of government par excellence, with his 11 children at the royal court in Paris.

Their heroism and genius can speak to us today because it is the heroism and genius they released from Catholicism itself—the genial creativity that is the dynamism of the Catholic Faith and the courage that flows from the supernatural powers of the soul sanctified through grace.

You write about the Traditional Latin Mass in a way that suggests you wish it had not been removed after Vatican II; indeed, that it is “the Mass of the Ages.” Would you like to have it more widely revived? Is this realistic?

The public worship of God (cult) has been the root and soul of culture in all of history’s civilizations.

Sociologically, Catholicism brought to birth a new culture in Europe chiefly because its most influential doctrines were embodied in the word form, symbolism, and ceremonial of the Mass according to the Church’s most ancient rite, what we nowadays call the “traditional Latin Mass.”

“Everything that the [Western] Christian world possessed of doctrine and poetry, music and art was poured into the liturgy, moulded into an organic whole which centered round the Divine Mysteries.” (Christopher Dawson, The Formation of Christendom)

Realistic? Realism often requires tenacious struggle for what is not an option but a need.

Just as the Traditional Latin Mass was at the center of the building of Christendom in the 12th century, so it has been at the center of the missionary expansion of Catholicism in every century.

One of the greatest missionaries of the 20th century once expressed how he personally had experienced this transforming power of the ancient Mass:

“I lived day by day, year by year, in Africa and particularly at Gabon, where I spent 13 years of my missionary life, first at the seminary and then in the bush among the Africans, with the natives. There I saw–yes, I saw–what the grace of the Holy Mass could do... I saw it in those pagan souls transformed by assistance at Holy Mass... These [were] men produced by the grace of the Mass. They assisted at the Mass daily, communicating with great fervor and they have become models and the light to those about them... I was able to see these pagan villages become Christian—being transformed not only, I would say, spiritually and supernaturally, but also being transformed physically, socially, economically and politically; because these people, pagans which they were, became cognizant of the necessity of fulfilling their duties, in spite of the trials, in spite of the sacrifices; of maintaining their commitments, and particularly their commitment in marriage. Then the village began to be transformed, little by little, under the influence of grace, under the influence of the grace of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass…” (Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Sermon on the occasion of his sacerdotal jubilee [English version: Michael Davies, Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre, Kansas City: Angelus Press, 1983), II, 334-35])

In the subtitle is the phrase “how priests can help rebuild Western civilization.” Do you hope that the current malaise in the West, to which you refer in several places, can be reversed?

Heroism and Genius shows why and how we Catholics built a civilization during an age of relative darkness. The historical circumstances have changed, but not man’s nature nor Catholicism’s identity. Hence, what we did before, we can do again!

The darkest hour can come just before the dawn because of the “conspiracy” of God’s providential action. History, essentially a battleground between the forces of the City of God and the City of the Prince of Darkness, is always His story.

However, within this drama each of us is called to play out a role in the act of the drama assigned to him.

Heroism and Genius narrates how, in the history of the Dark Ages, often only a hair’s breadth separated the West from actions or omissions that would have prolonged the darkness for one shudders to think how long.

It was Catholics who, alert to their providential mission, made the difference! Why? Because they were convinced that Catholicism is the vitally important difference!

And back then the darkest hour did indeed come before the dawn. The 10th century saw the Church almost brought to her knees by the corruption of the papacy. Barbarianism abounded even inside the ranks of churchmen.

And yet, in the 12th century, men arose to see Gothic spires piercing the skies of Europe; chivalry changing “men with claws” into Christian knights; a sublime romanticism idealizing woman; statesmen like King Louis IX who have often been emulated but rarely if ever surpassed.

All because the creative minorities of Catholics had stubbornly held their ground against the forces of “Mordor.” Relentlessly, with the clarity of mind from Catholic Tradition and the supernatural vigor of the sacraments, they converted Europe and—to their surprise—built a new civilization.

Because their worldvision was that of divine Providence governing events, they wasted no time in pessimism. To Frodo’s complaint “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” they would all reply with Gandalf, “So do I and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

St. Ambrose versus Theodosius

Heroism and Genius can be obtained at Angelus Press or at

The author, Fr. William J. Slattery, Ph.D., S.T.L., can be contacted through the website