Gary Potter’s ‘In Reaction’: A Vision of Virtue

THE VISION OF VIRTUE 1  that informs In Reaction, the literary testament of a man who speaks the truth, is, essentially, the culture of sacramentality: the cultivation of grace upon our createdness; the intimate culture of the Incarnation. It is the culture of the Humility of God and the extensions of His mercy: His love reaching out to our lowliness, deep disorder, and destructively cramped wretchedness; and inviting (and awaiting) our free responsive generosity. No gift of God is for ourselves alone.

Such is G. K. Potter’s perception of reality and the realization of the good, where the test of all happiness is gratitude, and where gratitude itself must be a voluntary offering freely given, hence, ultimately, a sacrifice. Potter’s vision of virtue is instinct with the joy of receptive gratitude, as when he kneels to receive the nourishing Humility of his God in the Blessed Sacrament. For Potter, our death, as well as our life, is to be rendered as a grateful gift to God; and our life is to be a sustained sacrifice, an oblation of gratitude, because of the gift of the Humility of God and His sustaining grace. The gift of the Incarnation is the first and ultimate sacrament, where the ultimate work of creation was linked with the origin of that creation. In the words of Josef Pieper, another man of fidelity and sacramental vision:

We have only to think for a moment how much the Christian understanding of life depends upon the existence of “Grace”; let us recall that the Holy Spirit of God is Himself called a “gift” in a special sense; that the great teachers of Christianity say that the premise of God’s justice is His love; that everything gained and everything claimed follows upon something given, and comes after something gratuitous and unearned; that in the beginning there is always a gift.

Uniting concrete intimacy and sacred mystery, this sacramental culture is also, as we shall see, the incarnation of Christian chivalry. It mediates the sacred order to man in ways of beauty (the splendor of order and the splendor of truth) that are intimately proportionate to his nature, with all the implications of this createdness. Along with this splendor ordinis and splendor veritatis, Dante said that spiritual beauty, rooted in purity, is also “the coruscation of joy.” Such chivalry matures with discipline into spiritual childhood and the hope of the Christian martyrs. With such an informing vision of virtue and sustaining culture, Potter’s profound book fosters, as well, the fuller fructification of sacramental Confirmation: the Sacrament of Martyrdom.

Confirmation has been called the sacrament of martyrdom, whereby the willing young soldier of Christ is strengthened to live the truth in love, with a readiness to accept God’s purifications, perhaps terrible and mortal, with the brave openness of a trusting heart and so experience its fertile and transforming power, even unto the perfection of spiritual childhood and the hope of the martyrs, whose readiness for suffering is immediately bound with the affirmation of the highest worth and of the highest reality, and whose moment of death amidst humiliation and apparent helplessness, like Calvary, is really the fulfillment of their existence. Under grace (sub gratia), virtue is the utmost of what a man can be (ultimum potentiae): it is the realization of the human capacity for being.

Such words of amplitude distill the key insights and affirmations of Thomas Aquinas and Josef Pieper, but summarize, as well, the responsive, ingrained disposition of Catholic chivalry that marks the ethos of Gary Potter’s book and draws the grateful reader to imitation, and to plenitude. In Reaction, a distillation of his writings over the years of maturation and slow fruitfulness, is the testimony of a man who, like Belloc, speaks the truth and calls things by their right names, and who, therefore, has suffered, as is fitting, for the Faith. It is a great gift to us. I am honored to have been his companion on the pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres and elsewhere, where I also saw his pluck and sustained courage, and response to moral and spiritual beauty. Charles Peguy, a spiritual brother of Potter, made the same pilgrimage to Chartres and wrote, in gratitude, his poem of great beauty: The Mystery of the Holy Innocents. It was a foretaste of his later poem of beauty on the virtue of hope: the vivid hope of spiritual childhood and of the Christian martyr.

In such trustful and youthful readiness to accept God’s purifications and be His martyrs, even to the end of the earth, we are generously disposed to fulfill Christ’s explicit final command — His final words — to His disciples (Acts 1:8) before the Ascension. For this reason, and many others, this little book is a great witness and gift to us, promoting our gratitude and greater fidelity, and our even more responsive generosity.

Moreover, in reaction to the permeating Revolution of Naturalism, which denies the reality of grace and the supernatural order, Potter’s subtle sacramental book, In Reaction, makes us vigilant and trenchantly illustrates Pieper’s succinct and profound insight of truth, namely that “the root of de-sacralization is the denial of sacramentality.” Denying the culture (vital medium) of sacramentality, the bonds of life and responding love are broken. Without the intimate, sensible link between the temporal and the eternal, between nature, created grace, and indwelling Divinity, de-sacralization develops many other forms of divorce and disorder. The divorce and rejection of sacramentality divide man from himself and each other and from God. When sacramentality is denied, as in “organized Naturalism,” de-sacralization destroys, as Pieper and Potter most inwardly understand, and convey. It is from such insight that we, in gratitude, derive “gaudium de veritate”: the joy that comes from truth, which is reality manifesting itself to a knowing and receptive mind.

Pieper’s succinct insight and Potter’s illustrative book are heightened in meaning in the further light of Father John A. Hardon’s amply supported convictions. For, as Hardon himself always says, “we are only as courageous as we are convinced” — as were the martyrs: either those who have died as martyrs or those who have, sometimes more painfully, lived as martyrs.

Father Hardon believes that the crisis in the Catholic Church today is essentially a crisis of faith, and at the heart of the crisis of faith is the denial of the Real Presence. It is the denial that the Humility of God is still among us intimately, “Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity,” and still working miracles (especially moral miracles) as He did when He walked the land of Palestine: when God spoke with human lips, healed with mud and His own spittle, and beheld beauty with human eyes — and even held the hand of the diffident one who touched His human heart, His risen yet still wounded heart.

From the denial of the Real Presence, everything unravels, everything goes: the Mass, the Priesthood of Christ, the other sacraments of His mercy, Christ’s prayer of hope (the Pater Noster), and, consequently, the Kingship of Christ over the social order of all nations. One of the petitions of the prayer of hope (as Catholic tradition calls it) explicitly says, with a politely commanding request (the “jussive subjunctive”): “Fiat voluntas tua sicut in caelo, et in terra” — “also upon earth” — or, more emphatically, “even upon earth.” This very prayer of hope thus manifests some of the other rights of God, that is, His claims, in justice, over us. We are His subjects. Others, including the democracies, are not, therefore, to deprive God of His subjects, popular sovereignty notwithstanding, nor the Supreme Court. Every human right, moreover, is based on a prior obligation to God by virtue of our very createdness. The virtue of religion or pietas is itself a perfection of justice (even though, as with our parents, mentors, and patria, we never repay what we owe Him — i.e., the suum cuique).

When we further counterpoint Potter’s book that conduces to such generous virtue with the memorable concluding words of Leon Bloy’s The Woman Who Was Poor [La Femme Pauvre], a novel of nearly a century ago out of France, we may see even, here and now, the profound personal transformation that occurred in that book from the soil and soul of France, and that is now required, as well, of us. The concluding words of Bloy’s 1897 novel are, after the depiction of so much suffering, spoken by the Narrator: “The only sadness is not to be a saint.” When one also remembers that the first words of this disturbing novel are words of piercing blasphemy — “This place stinks of God” — one more fully understands the profound transformation that must have transpired, under grace, in the course of the novel, and that should now occur in our responding life.

For Potter, the answering heart must be rooted in the culture — the vital medium — of the Incarnation, and the Incarnation continued in the sacramental order. And, given the pervasive and sustained culture and sacramental bond between concrete intimacy and sacred mystery, even in the tonalities and counterpoint of his classically restrained vivid prose, Potter’s book might well have been entitled lnvisible Friends in Visible Places, since these words convey well the ordo et mysterium and intimacy of full sacramental visibility.

In Reaction might also have been revealingly sub-titled The Sacramental Order of Christ the King or The Sacramentum Pietatis of Christ the King. By these very words, sacramentum pietatis, Saint Paul himself (1 Timothy 3:16) signified the mystery of the Incarnate God’s devoted mercy. Pietas with reference to God means “mercy,” pietas with reference to man means “gratitude and respect to the point of reverence”: a concept with a significant and intimate reciprocity! “Pietatis sacramentum manifestum in carne” (1 Tim. 3:16) signifies the mystery of the generous humility of God inviting our responsive generosity, as “a voluntary offering freely given,” or “sacrifice” — the sacrifice of gratitude. Such is Potter’s deeply rooted vision.

This sacramental vision penetrates the reader who reads with attentive receptivity and who savors the well-woven writings and reflections of Potter over twenty-five years (1965-1991): a resonant and counterpointed book of sacramental, non-fictional prose. But most importantly, the author’s manifest courage and mercy and lucid truth foster and confirm as is so much needed today, the hope of the Christian martyrs, and the gift of spiritual childhood: docility, humility, and trust.

Toward the end of the book, Potter searches and leads the reader with some questions: “Are we always strong and courageous at the times that matter? Do we always uphold the Christian standard against the majority that hardly knows anymore that it exists? Pilate failed to become a saint.” Pilate failed in mercy, after all, even with the sustaining support of his wife. Had he been, says Potter, “strong and courageous enough to resist the inflamed will of the majority,” he “could have become St. Pilate on that first Good Friday.” He could have become like the Good Thief who was steadfast and rich in mercy, Saint Dismas, or like the Centurion, Saint Longinus, and thus also be visibly present with honor in Saint Peter’s in Rome: an invisible friend in a visible place, as well as in the communio sanctorum.

By his further range of reference — a sacramental allusiveness — Potter deepens this point and his fuller purposiveness. “Speaking of the mob incited by the Sanhedrin,” he says, the French Bishop Bossuet also trenchantly observed, some hundred years before the French Revolution, that “from the very day that a popular assembly imposed the condemnation of Christ on Pilate, the Church has known that the rule of the majority can lead to any crime.” It may come even by way of a Totalitarian Civil Society, not just an Intrusive Therapeutic State, both of which are analogous manifestations of the prophesied “Pseudo-Order’’ of the Anti-Christ.

In this context, Potter’s way of sacramentality then also allows Pope Saint Pius X to speak for the Church, three years after the expulsion of the religious (hence teaching) orders from France and dispossession of Church property (1905) by the essentially Masonic government: “In our time the chief strength of the wicked lies in the cowardice and weakness of good men. All the strength of Satan’s reign is due to the easy-going weakness of Catholics.” Burdened as well as blessed with the gift of foresight, Saint Pius spoke these words about cowardice, carnal prudence, sloth, and tepidity on the occasion, savored by Potter, of Saint Joan of Arc’s beatification in 1908. The substance and resonant tonalities of Potter’s book, full of lucidity, mercy, and courage, bolster us lesser soldiers and centurions for such high purposiveness, and thus the full fructification of sacramental Confirmation: martyrdom out of selfless love and gratitude.

In Potter’s own grateful book, by way of an eloquent classical restraint and poise of style, the author unmistakably conveys a certain selfless generosity; and thus helps cultivate in a reader’s responding heart a further incarnation of the chivalric disposition, as in Saint Bernard of Clairvaux’s De Laude Novae Militiae (In Praise of the New Chivalry). The incarnation of Catholic chivalry, properly and thus unsentimentally understood, is itself a part of the realization of Christ’s mission of Social Kingship and abiding love of little children. The more defenseless someone is, the more he calls out for our defense — our provision and our protection and willingness to suffer on his behalf. Such is the ethos of chivalry. Potter conveys this ethos discerningly in his essay on Christian politics as the politics of mercy:

Mercy requires before everything else that we act first of all, as did Our Lord, in the interest of the poor and defenseless. That is why the Christian is bound. . . to protect the unformed minds of children from the morally corrupting influence of pornographic sex education courses: he will want to curb those who exploit the mass media to enrich themselves by inflaming appetites that really need disciplining and who purvey false ideas and beliefs to an audience intellectually ill-prepared for recognizing their falsity. . . he will want to do all he can to defend the most defenseless of all the classes of suffering mankind today, the innocent preborn . . . . Mercy demands it.

In such a vision of Catholic Order, where mercy as a virtue is the fruit of purification, the soldierhood of Christ must itself ripen and mature and be converted to Spiritual Childhood, and hence to the hope of the martyrs. This creed and code is no sentimental or illusory vision. Without such cultivation of heroic virtue today, the Faith and its families will not even survive in America and its growing culture of death. Without such deepened virtue, moreover, we will not have the prerequisite and sufficient love ourselves to convert our culture of death to a more abundant life. What we have is nature; what we need is grace. And no gift of God is for ourselves alone. Salvation is a social process. We receive the gift of the Faith from others — external channels of grace — who intimately held and loved and lived the Faith. And we shall finally be judged by how many persons we helped get to Heaven, that is, by our lives of practical charity.

Such a responsive discernment and virtuous disposition of heart, in reaction to the growing anti-Catholic revolution of disorder inside and outside the Church, are, as I understand it, at the heart of Potter’s book. The greater the evil that God allows, the greater the good He intends to bring out of it. Promptus ad bonum, promptus ad melius, ad majorem Dei gloriam — this is the foundation of Christian hope and the proper response of Christian chivalry. Such is Potter’s essential message and gift to us, which deserve our own responsive gratitude. As G. K. Chesterton understood so well, the test of all happiness is gratitude. Our oblation of gratitude, moreover, is our way of living the Mass, with a greater readiness to render even our unseen death as a gift. If God does not call us to die as martyrs, we pray at least to live as martyrs, mediating the Catholic fullness to others as a channel of grace.

To the extent that we are soaked in sinful pride we shall, correspondingly, be instruments of Satan. Thus, by making Orestes Brownson’s hard-earned words of humility and wisdom his own, Potter deftly introduces his reader to his own, more mature orientation:

I willingly admit that I made many mistakes, but I regard as the greatest of all the mistakes into which I fell. . . . that of holding back the stronger points of the Catholic Faith. . . . of laboring to present Catholicity in a form as little repulsive to my non- Catholic countrymen as possible: and of insisting on only the minimum of Catholicity. . . . What is most needed in these times [circa 1873] — perhaps in all times — is the truth that condemns, point blank, the spirit of the age, and gives no quarter to its dominant error . . . [for] nothing can be more fatal than to seek to effect a compromise with the errors of or to form an alliance with what is called Liberalism. Brownson’s own contemporary, Cardinal Newman, said that theological liberalism was essentially the view that one religion is as good as another, but none of them is true. Liberalism is also an attempt to form a culture and civilization independent from God, as if the rights of God do not exist or do not matter, and as if the “rights of man” are not dependent upon prior obligations to God. Liberalism is essentially the revolt of “a part” against “the whole.” It institutionalizes Original Sin and our consequent sinful propensities as if it were a liberating order, rather than an illiberal disorder.

Perhaps its most insidious disorder is the sin of complicity. It is this false tolerance which Brownson came to recognize and rebuke, as does another later convert to the Faith, Potter. The anti-modernist popes also keenly detected and eloquently articulated where the inner logic of liberalism leads. Religious pluralism leads to religious indifferentism, and such sloth itself is preparatory to despair and nourished by the tristitia saeculi — the sadness of the world apart from God and His hilaritas mentis, the “cheerfulness of heart,” which is the seal of selflessness.

Potter quotes Father Denis Fahey who, also striving to live the Mass, “declares his readiness to stand for the integral program of the rights of God, for which the Head of the Mystical Body suffered death.” Potter, too, as a “member of Christ,” is attentive first to the Rights of God, including the rights of God in the temporal order, as expressed explicitly, once again in the Pater Noster: “fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo, et in terra.” Christ the King gave us this prayer of hope Himself. Moreover, “the principal [notion] was adumbrated by Our Lord Himself in the last command His followers received from Him: to make disciples of all the nations.” “In a word,” Potter adds, “the idea of a Christian Commonwealth is what we are all talking about.” The proper Catholic orientation, therefore, must especially include “the positive attitude” of “striving to organize the whole framework of society under Christ the King and of impregnating the State, family-life, education, and economic orientation with the great truth of human solidarity in Christ’s Mystical Body.” The Catholic attitude is “not intended to be merely the negative one of not allowing themselves to be carried in the direction of Naturalism [ i.e., as if the order of grace did not exist and were an illusion] by the current of life around them” — especially when the cultural hegemony of this secular naturalistic current of life is so intimately permeating. There is, indeed, the permanent danger that, in response to “the contagion of the world’s slow stain” and tristitia saeculi, the combative Catholic will develop only “logical completeness” closely combined with “spiritual contraction.” This dangerously constrictive combination is what Chesterton called “madness,” which he also saw present in the isolated, restless, and unconnected over-development of a single virtue. This disproportion he called the “madness form of virtue.” Belloc, too, knew and often said that “for man, most truth resides in proportion” and “truth is one, error is multiple, but the Faith is rich in interpretation.”

Even the combative negative attitude, however, as with Belloc, is positive with respect to real virtue. The true perfections of a virtue always have reference and deference to a fuller order of virtue, with integrity and spontaneity, and with wholesomeness and winsomeness. Therefore, it is today indeed a manifold challenge to our virtue wholesomely to resist, on many fronts at once, the potent current in the direction of naturalism, “organized” or “unorganized.” The latter form, perhaps more insidious, also contains revolutionary tendencies of disorder whose end is the impersonal and anonymous society, and, ultimately, the inner leveling of the person: and whose immanentism is, after all, and before our own eyes, the culture of death and despair. To keep humility, love, “battle joy,” and hope in such a milieu, and against such a current, therefore, is certainly a formidable indispensability, and impossible to sustain without abundant grace and our responsive generosity. For, as Chesterton observed, “only a live dog can swim against the stream” — even in the order of mere nature.

Potter’s attitude shows this fuller poise of life and alacrity “in reaction.” His tonic spirit is always generous in affirmation and admiration. Let us savor a little now some of the persons — and kinds of persons — he admires and why, and what his deft tonalities thereby affirm, as well. There is, first, “the French Catholic” — “a certain kind of French Catholic” — whom Potter admires, among whom he is grateful to have true friends, such as Arnaud De Lassus, a man of virtue. Such a French Catholic “sees himself as still fighting for the Faith against the errors of the Revolutionary spirit and the forces of organized naturalism,” and “the chances are that his ancestors for two centuries have similarly viewed themselves.” He may even “have a relative with a living memory of the last time religious orders were expelled from the national territory (that was as recently as 1905).” This kind of Catholic is “apt to believe. . . that he sees his Church being infiltrated by the errors of the Revolution.” Many of his earlier confreres “did not budge when Pius XI banned Action Francaise,” as was the case with “the eminent Jesuit theologian Louis Cardinal Billot,” who “helped write Pascendi, Pope St. Pius X’s encyclical condemning Modernism,” but who resigned as a Cardinal (“one of the few resignations from the purple in modern times”) because he considered this “papal ban” of Charles Maurras’ “Action Francaise royalist movement” an injustice. (Some were “even ready to go to their graves without Catholic burial” because of this ban.) Pius XI seems later to have recognized this somewhat himself, but “moves inside the Vatican bureaucracy (engineered by the future Pope Paul VI)” were able “to thwart the peacemaking efforts,” although Pius XII would, in a few years, silently lift the ban. Such French Catholics were still around in France when Potter was there (1961-1965) who remembered the actuality of “a martyred bishop”: i.e., “when an Archbishop of Paris was last murdered, shot by a communard firing squad in 1871, and the gutters of the city ran as thick with Catholic blood as they had in the Terror eighty years before.”

Like Solzhenitsyn, Potter would give to his people a memory — a vivid and living memory, a faithful memory, a memory of the Body, finally. After “a reminder of just how devastated is the Lord’s vineyard,” he recalls those who are called “to remember by a moment of silent recollection on their knees at the Communion rail that, partaking of God as they soon would, they were about to become active participants in history’s most stupendous event and eternity’s greatest mystery: the incarnate God’s sacrifice of Himself for them.”

When “Christ again becomes more visibly the center of the Mass,” such a memory and sense of presence will be enhanced and attention will be directed “more exclusively toward Christ become present on the altar.” “Lose the sense of the Real Presence,” Potter says, “and much else is lost,” for which reason “the celebration of the liturgy should aim to make it more visible. When the music of William Byrd (Mass for Five Voices) or Hayden’s (Mass in a Time of War) supports the actio sacra of the Mass, the beauty and order will also further “draw us toward and intimately into that moment when a priest standing at the top of the altar and facing God the Father lifts God the Son between his hands for us to see,” while “the ringing of a bell underscores the silence into which we are bound to fall faced by God.”

It is a sorrow to consider that only two years ago the second in authority in this hierarchically ordered Church said, at Wigratzbad, Germany, after celebrating the Tridentine rite on Easter, that he “had forgotten the liturgy of St. Pius V was so beautiful and that it was directed so much ‘toward God.”’ How much more did another prelate unwittingly convey, when, in Florence, Italy, in the late 1960s, a certain papabile Italian Archbishop told someone from Una Voce International that the Tridentine Mass would never be restored because “it’s tied to an outmoded Ecclesiology” — a divinely founded, providentially ordered hierarchical communion, that is, instead of something less monarchical, more collegial, and certainly more democratic! A more participatory People’s Mass, it was implied, fits better with democracy and a “congregationalist ecclesiology.”

But, says Potter, “when the Church is at her best, she will want her sacred rites performed in such a way as to mirror as nearly as can be done in this human and therefore imperfect world those that are enacted in Heaven,” in which case the Mass will manifest no subversive attenuation of sacrificium, sacerdotium, or sacramentum and will thus inherently (sacramentally) be “bound to work upon the senses like any other beautiful thing.” Beauty enhances and intimately intensifies the central actio sacra of the Mass, as when a soldier at risk, in the joy of receptive gratitude, “has . . . at the hour of sunrise seen his God descend for him upon the Altar,” as Ernest Psichari (1883- 1914), professional soldier and novelist, was to write in Le Voyage du Centurion (1915).

In his own discerning final essay on “Suffering,” Potter further touches upon mystery, a “tremendous mystery”: “The root of all suffering is our estrangement from God, yet it is in suffering that we approach Him the nearest. Thus everyone who would evade his own suffering, thereby estranging himself still further from Him, will only suffer the more — and draw still nearer!” Note the comparative — “ nearer.” The greater the evil that God allows the greater the good He intends to bring out of it. This affirmation is the disposition of a man of hope and chivalry.

Potter’s hope is such that he trusts God’s providential mercy even to draw a greater good out of the “hedonism and moral anarchy” to which so many of the young today “abandon themselves.” Like the French author Huysmans who converted, through his suffering, to the Faith, so too it is the case for a young person today who is also an “agonized man,” “increasingly disillusioned,” and not yet knowing perhaps that “this dawning awareness of the essential imperfectibility of man is an important step on the Way”: “Now he must choose between the muzzle of a pistol [for Revolution or for suicide] or the foot of the Cross. Well, He suffered on the Cross.” Potter thus concluded his arrangement of essays with the Friend whom we are to imitate and help.

The last Habsburg Emperor, Charles (Karl), and his wife, Empress Zita, and their family of eight children are an embodiment of much that Gary Potter affirms. Karl’s “family’s historical mission for 1,200 years [was] to uphold the interests of the Faith temporally.” It was Karl’s ancestors who “occupied the throne and wielded the sword during the five centuries [of the Habsburg rule] before 1918 when Karl . . . left Vienna and went into exile — without abdicating” his “gift from God” and “inheritance from his ancestors.” The “cause for his canonization” has been introduced, and for reasons that we shall better come to understand.

After Karl, who had “ruled one-hundred million subjects in the name of God,” finally “agreed to withdraw from the active exercise of power” (11 November 1918), and after several corrective initiatives failed, “Karl and Zita were exiled to the damp and rainy island of Madeira. Marooned there without any funds on November 19th, 1921, they had to accept the offer of a local banker who gave them the use of his unheated summer house 2,000 feet in the mountains. There was fungus growing on the humid walls.” The arrival of their children brought them joy, but shortly thereafter “in early March, 1922, a dense fog and deep chill caused the Emperor to catch a bad cold. There was no money to summon a doctor and the cold developed into a fatal case of pneumonia.” Potter’s further depiction is worthy of extended presentation:

As Karl’s end approached, he placed himself with complete resignation into the hands of Jesus. His eldest son and heir, Archduke Otto, [who “was six when his family left Schonbrunn the last time” (1918)],was brought [age 10] to the side of the deathbed so that as future head of the House of Habsburg he might learn, in Karl’s words, “how one behaves in such circumstances as a Catholic and as an Emperor.” Zita was once more pregnant. The Emperor had already prayed for each of his children by name: “Dear Jesus, protect our children. Protect their bodies and souls, take them away rather than they should commit a mortal sin.” Finally, placing his hand over the womb of the Empress, he prayed especially for their unborn child, Archduchess Elizabeth. As a Christian Emperor, Karl expressed forgiveness of all his enemies, including the Masons. Suddenly he declared in an emphatic voice, “I have to suffer so much in order that my peoples may be united again.” Then, kissing a crucifix, he began to pray in what sounded like a dialogue. “Thy holy will be done. Jesus, Jesus, come! Yes, yes, my Jesus, as thou willest it.” Conscious to the end, the Emperor [on 1 April 1922] gave up his ghost, exhaling with his last breath, “Jesus . . . ” Because of the many miracles worked at the tomb of Karl in Funchal, Madeira, and granted to persons who invoked him in prayer, the cause for his canonization was introduced in Rome in 1949. He has since been declared “Venerable.” On the fiftieth anniversary of his death, April 1st, 1972, his coffin was opened by an ecclesiastical commission (the late Cardinal Mindszenty was present), and his body found incorrupt.

In such a way, does Potter representatively convey the memoria corporis, hence the living tradition, of his invisible friend in a visible place, nourishing thereby the Catholic Faith and the sustaining tradition of Catholic sacramental culture.

Potter asks his reader: “What can we see in the Emperor’s life. . . that recommends canonization?” Answering his own question, he says: “[H]e was a champion of peace and reconciliation”; “a champion of social justice”; “a champion of Austro-Slavonic unity and minority rights”; “a champion of Christian family life” — “the life of the family he headed stands in contrast to the spirit of a society dominated by liberal materialism and where mortal sin is a normal and socially acceptable way of life”; and “a champion of the preborn” who “challenges contemporary society where the human sacrifice of abortion on the altar of liberal democracy is defended as ‘right.”’ Further, Karl and Zita’s last three children “came into the world after he had been dethroned and left penniless,” which “sets an especially instructive example for the many deliberately childless modern couples who choose an affluent ‘lifestyle’ over having a family.”

Potter is a man engaged with his time, and his writing is instinct with vitality. He inspires one to act as a moral person whose essence is to be open to the truth of real things and to live by perceived truth. The innermost direction of the cardinal virtue of prudence is to move from “the knowledge of reality” to “the realization of the good.” As Pieper also says, our moral deeds are steps in our self-realization. The human self grows toward its fulfillment by performing the good. In all moral virtue there exists “the basic attitude of the voluntary affirmation of the good,” and the virtue of prudence itself exists “only if one loves the good through and through.” And by doing the good — and the more that it is fruitful — “the love for good grows over and over.” Such a disposition of generosity is in Potter, as well as in Pieper, though they are two very different personalities.

Pieper, now 89 years of age, and Potter, now in his early-mid fifties, are both Catholic men of fortitude enlivened by Christian hope, and each one knows himself to be recipient of a gift. Potter’s book exemplifies these resonant qualities; Pieper’s own lucid exposition (as well as embodiment) of the virtues gives fresh light to our reading of Potter and his fundamental disposition: a Centurion in kneeling receptivity and preparation for the Holy Eucharist, even as his Viaticum: “Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter in under my roof; speak but the word and my soul — my child, my spiritual childhood — shall be healed.”

Pieper observes, with characteristic insight and spiritual beauty: “Here a new depth becomes manifest: namely, that purity not only is the fruit of purification but also comprises in itself the readiness to accept God’s purifications, perhaps terrible and deadly, with the brave openness of a trusting heart and so experiences its fertile and transforming power.” Thus was the Blessed Mother disposed in her own spiritual childhood at the Annunciation. Thus was the Centurion disposed who said to our Lord: “Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur puer meus.” In her liturgy of the Mass, the Church has changed puer meus to anima mea, and when the spiritual childhood of a Centurion like Gary Potter receives his God on his knees, he also utters with gratitude the humble words of the Centurion and is fostered thereby in the hope of the martyrs and in a higher chivalry.

  1. This article originally appeared in Modern Age, a publication of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. It appeared on pages 360-369 of that journal’s Volume 35, No. 4 (Summer of 1993) edition. We are indebted to the publishers for kindly granting us permission to reproduce Dr. Hickson’s review.