The life of this great American thinker, Orestes Augustine Brownson, which spanned the major part of the nineteenth century (1803-1876), found its meaning in a vision and a vocation. His vision was to make America Catholic. His vocation was to labor towards this objective by marshalling the very traits and energies, characteristically American, which had been historically in opposition to the Catholic Church.
Brownson himself was not merely the philosopher and prophet of this worthy undertaking – the conversion of a great country to the One True Faith. He was also the pioneer and trailblazer. His confidence sprang from this principle: If Brownson was able to do it, why not everybody? For he was brought up as far from the Catholic position as could be imagined.
During his childhood, passed in a small New England town in Vermont, when the Catholic Church was represented to his mind as possibly the only one vested with divine authority, he felt a convulsion of his whole being against the very thought. And yet even in that cold, puritanical atmosphere he frequently found himself, as a child, indulging in such Catholic diversions as the one described in his book The Convert, where writing in his later life, and recalling his early childhood, he says:
“The simple history of the Passion of Our Lord, as I read it in the Evangelists, affected me deeply. I hung with delight on the Mystery of Redemption, and my young heart often burned with love to Our Blessed Lord, who had been so good as to come into the world, and to submit to the most cruel death of the Cross that he might save us from our wicked dispositions, and make us happy forever in Heaven. I wanted to know everything about Him, and I used to think of Him frequently in the day and the night. Sometimes I seemed to hold long familiar conversations with Him . . . and with the Blessed Mary, and with the Holy Angel Gabriel. . . . I was rarely less alone than when alone. I did not speculate on the matter. It all seemed real to me, and I enjoyed often an inexpressible happiness. I preferred to be alone, for then I could taste the sweets of silent meditation, and feel that I was in the presence of Jesus and Mary, and the holy angels; and yet I had not been baptized, and had very little instruction except such as I had obtained from reading the Holy Scriptures.”
There was no Catholic church in the village of his childhood, and he seems never to have had any Catholic companions. The counsel which had the deepest effect on his life, and which could be said to have started his journey towards the Faith, did not come from a priest. Nor was it something he read in some book of apologetics. It was advice given to him by an elderly Protestant neighbor, who must have done some Yankee independent thinking on her own. We let Mr. Brownson tell the story by way of reminiscence on his childhood experience:
“One of our neighbors, an elderly woman who had seen better days . . . was a Congregationalist, a stanch adherent to the Standing Order. She was now very poor, and lived in a miserable log-hut on one corner of our farm, and was treated generally by our neighbors with great contempt, because she insisted on maintaining her self-respect and personal dignity, notwithstanding her poverty. I had a great affection for her, because I found her a woman of intelligence and refinement. I visited her one evening, when I was in great distress of mind, and told her my fears and resolutions. She heard me with great patience, till I had concluded my story.
“‘My poor boy,’ she replied, ‘God has been good to you, and has no doubt gracious designs towards you. He means to use you for a purpose of His own, and you must be faithful to His inspirations. But go not with the Methodists or any of the new sects. They are New Lights, and not to be trusted. The Christian religion is not new, and Christians have existed from the time of Christ. These new lights are of yesterday. You yourself know the founder of the Christian sect, and I myself knew personally both George Whitfield and John Wesley, the founders of Methodism. Neither can be right, for they come too late, and have broken off, separated from the body of Christians which subsisted before them. When you join any body calling itself a Christian body, find out and join one that began with Christ and His Apostles, and has continued to subsist the same without change of doctrine or worship down to our own times. You will find the true religion with that body, and nowhere else. Join it, obey it, and you will find rest and salvation. But beware of sects and New Lights: They will make you fair promises, but in the end will deceive you to your own destruction.'”
Orestes was ever haunted by the words of this wise old woman from the time he heard them. But it was a long time before he acted on them. In the meanwhile he joined several sects and misled by many false lights. He wanted to reform the world. He wanted to be patriotic, and to bring temporal happiness to his fellow countrymen. Brownson was over forty years of age before he finally “found rest and salvation” in the One True Faith.
Could we not hope that his excellent counselor, the lady of independent and courageous thinking, did no less for the salvation of her own soul? For how could she have gone through the rest of her life thinking that Saint Augustine or Saint Francis were Congregationalists?
One day Mr. Brownson was in the national capital, Washington, D.C. He was engaged in a lively religious discussion with President James Buchanan and John C. Calhoun, the famous southern leader, when Daniel Webster suddenly joined the group. President Buchanan proceeded to explain to Mr. Webster that Brownson had been insisting that “if one wanted to be saved, one should join the Catholic Church.”
“Have you just found that out?” Webster responded. “Why, I have known that for years.”
Orestes Brownson himself was thoroughly convinced, and tried to convince others, that American Catholics could convert their fellow countrymen. But they could do it only if they truly had the Faith and truly had the charity to want to share it.
When Mr. Brownson eventually came upon the Faith, after varied and disappointed wanderings, he also, and almost incidentally, discovered the meaning of true patriotism. For a nation, like an individual person, can only achieve temporal happiness, by “seeking first the Kingdom of God and His justice” (Matt. 6:33). And while that Kingdom is one and eternal, and its Faith and Morals are always the same, still no two peoples were ever converted by the same approach. God somehow adapts His grace to the peculiar circumstances of each nation. And the religious mission of the United States, according to Mr. Brownson, is not “to establish the Church by external laws, or to protect her by legal disabilities, pains, and penalties against the sects, however uncatholic they may be; but to maintain catholic freedom. . .”
For a wealth of resources on Brownson, including his prolific writings, we highly recommend the fine web site of the Orestes Brownson Society.