“We feel bound to disagree with these prophets of doom.”
Nestled in the foothills below Saddleback Mountain in “the O.C.” there is an abbey of priests and a small boarding school. There is nothing there that would remind one of the lubricious television program that made the initials of Orange County, California, proverbial; rather, there is the round of services in the abbey church fulfilling the royal psalmist’s prophecy “Seven times a day I praise thee” and the going and coming to class, dorm, playing field, and pew of the boys, some confident and mature, others still scrappy and rough-edged, one sullen and homesick, another determined and docile. Just as there is nothing at the abbey at the end of the naughts to indicate the rootless, reckless hook-up scene favored by media producers, or the “purpose-driven” world of personal trainers, hair-removal parlors, silicone enlargements, mega “churches,” and big-tent Republicanism, so, too, there is little that would tell the story of how it came to be that the late-18th-century absolutist state with its Enlightenment policies, resistance to papal authority, loathing of the Jesuits, and distaste for solemn liturgy and monastic silence is the remote but very real reason why the habited confrères devote themselves to the education of youth. Theirs is the triumphant irony of history for which no easy ideology of left or right can fully account.
The seven founders of the abbey had fled their native kingdom of Hungary in 1950 when the anti-Christian reprisals and “land-reform” initiatives of the new communist regime finally moved to close down their 660-year-old mother abbey of Csorna near Györ. When in 1956 the young Christian reaction to the new socialist paradise failed for lack of help from the “free world” the Fathers knew that their exile would be permanent, and they began a new community in Orange County with a view to receiving American candidates for the priesthood and continuing their work of educating the youth. The seven who fled had all been instructors in the two gymnasia run by their abbey. The communists were determined that priests who were teachers would not be licensed in the future to function as priests, since those with influence over youth were especially dangerous. The professor-priests who remained in Hungary worked at various jobs for which their doctorates had hardly prepared them; a few of these lived to see their abbey reopened and their schools restored after the end of Soviet control.
Yet this dispersal of the brethren by the forces of international socialism was not the first in their history. In fact, the abbey had last been suppressed and its brethren spread abroad by the “Sacristan Emperor” Joseph II in 1786 in the application of the famed Edict on Idle Institutions. At least 700 monasteries were suppressed and their agricultural properties confiscated in a bloodless state expropriation, which became the model for all such efforts in the future. The House of Savoy, the Bourbons, the Napoleonic regime in Bavaria—all imitated the efficient elimination of stable monastic communities perfected by the Austrians. The numerous sleepy, domestic abbeys that dotted the landscape became simple parish churches, and the only monastic houses that were permitted to exist had to accept the running of schools and other state-improving “non-idle” activities. Thus it was that the little abbey of Csorna was reopened in 1802 under the condition that it accept two boarding schools and limit all monkish activities to the abbey, from which the canons would be dispersed after ordination to live their lives as gentlemen professors of the new enlightened regime of education and social advancement. The schools were very fine but strictly regulated by the state, which even required affirmative action, with quotas of Protestants, Jews, and non-Magyar Christians for each class, and there were no visitations permitted by Roman or order authorities. All this in the lovely world of the Catholic Habsburgs.
It was the Jesuits, though, who had earlier perfected the model of an active priesthood, not bound to the public prayer of the Church in choir, without abbey churches, cloisters, or chapter rooms. Their own system of education—with its ratio studiorum open to new developments in cosmology and mathematics, concentrating on the education of a nonclerical class of lay bourgeoisie, and supplementing the traditional rhetorical education of the liberal arts with the much-vaunted “math-science” standard—was the envy of enlightened rulers. It was this envy of the princes (and not a few bishops, Dominicans, and Franciscans) that had led in 1773 to the complete suppression of the Jesuits by Pope Clement XIV. In his brief of suppression, Dominus ac Redemptor Noster, he determined:
Further, we will, that if any of those who have heretofore professed the institute of the Society of Jesus, shall be desirous of dedicating themselves to the instruction of youth in any college or school, care be taken that they take no part in the government or direction of the same, and that the liberty of teaching be granted to such only whose labors promise a happy issue, and who shall show themselves averse to all spirit of dispute, and untainted with any doctrines which may occasion or stir up frivolous and dangerous quarrels. In a word, the faculty of teaching youth shall neither be granted nor preserved but to those who seem inclined to maintain peace in the schools and tranquility with the world.
Joseph II and his minister Prince Kaunitz were only too happy with the suppression of the Jesuits. His mother, Maria Theresa, with whom he ruled as coregent at the time of the suppression, was not. Nor was her fellow sovereign to the north, Frederick II, who wrote to her regarding the Society of Jesus:
Announce distinctly, but without bravado, that as regards the Jesuits, I am resolved to uphold them for the future, as I have done hitherto. Seek a fitting opportunity to communicate my sentiments on the subject to the pope. I have guaranteed free exercise of religion to my subjects in Silesia. I have never known a priesthood worthier of esteem than the Jesuits. Add to this, that as I am an infidel, the pope cannot dispense me from the obligation of performing my duty as an honorable man and an upright sovereign.
The great Prussian model of state regulation of education was not built on the suppression of monasteries, which had already largely passed away with the Reformation, but promoted its ideal with a certain admiration of the Society so hated by Enlightenment Catholics. The Russian Empire followed suit in refusing to promulgate the suppression.
The early history of the establishment of what we are accustomed in modern times to call “Catholic Education” is truly a convoluted one, and its manner of proceeding has been shared both by the enemies and the friends of our culture and religion. It was the pope who first showed the powers that be in the Europe of the Enlightenment that religious entities could be suppressed on a grand scale to be gobbled up by rapacious civil or ecclesiastical successors. It was the Orthodox czar and the Lutheran king of Prussia who protected the Jesuits, who were never suppressed in their territories precisely on account of their system of education. It was the ultra-Catholic Habsburg emperors who imitated the papal zeal for suppression, but then turned around and used communities founded in the Middle Ages to continue the new style of education brought in by the now-defunct Jesuits, this time without papal direction. It was the communists who suppressed the orders that ran these imperial gymnasia and forbade the priests from continuing in them, with results for the priests rather similar to those that Clement XIV’s letter had for the Jesuits. And today in Southern California it is the reaction to the same now morally and academically corrupt Enlightenment model of centralized education, still the norm for both public and parochial schools, that leads parents to send their sons to our preparatory school in the hills of South Orange County—a school whose historical origins are in that very system.
Here are some words of one of the graduating seniors of St. Michael’s Preparatory School of the Norbertine Fathers in Orange County, who had lost his brother in a swimming accident in West Virginia:
On October 7, 2006, my brother Matthew tragically passed away. My family hurried to the church where we remained for the rest of the day in prayer. My heart felt as if a millstone was holding it down and it needed to be released. This release would come only through prayer and sacrifice. I knew it was my responsibility to help Matthew reach his end. Through my suffering, I suddenly understood death, and with it life.
The next day I returned to St. Michael’s. All who resided here consoled me with their heartfelt words and prayers for my brother’s salvation. Although I had a strong desire to remain with my family, I desired to be closer to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. The reception of Him each morning in the Holy Eucharist and visiting Him in adoration each night enabled me to grow in my Catholic faith. This I knew was the greatest grace to offer my brother.
I do not know what would have become of my weak will if I had not come here. It was here that I matured and learned to act as a man should. Through the challenging academics, the sports, and the many prayer opportunities, I have learned a great deal about endurance.
Without the great sacrifices my loving parents made, I would not have been able to attend this school. I am ever grateful to all the teachers and faculty of this school who have helped me accomplish the task of persevering here. I particularly would like to thank Mr. Tomescu for his patience and devotion to the school, Father Victor for his continuous joy and persistence, Father Chrysostom for his many heartening words of encouragement, Fr. Claude for his cheerful patience, and above all, Fr. Gabriel for his great love and dedication to the school. Lastly, I thank my class. Every single one of you has been a true friend. As I ready myself to leave, I can say that I will miss attending this school.
Here is the triumphant irony of history. The not-so-hidden hidden agenda of the Enlightenment was the removal of revealed religion and the complementary Roman civil order that favored it, and their replacement with an anthropocentric and statist conception of human society. The key means of bringing about this change was the suppression of monasteries and the control of education by the state. Yet the Church was hardly free of the tendency to imitate the structure, even if not the content, of the New Order. Now, in the O.C., when this long and strange commerce in culture and education between “faith-based” and revolutionary mind-sets has elsewhere ended with the capitulation of the former to the latter (Georgetown, with its black triangle over the Holy Name of the Savior, “Our Lady’s University” declaring our new “Lider” a doctor of laws), there is a klein aber fein school where the center of existence is the Christian altar and its psalmody, and the only second language taught to all its students (and not as “foreign”) is Latin. For this we can thank the Georgetown Jesuits’ forebears, the philo-Masonic emperor’s mandate, the efforts of more than one inept pontiff, and the providence of God. It has been said that His favorite argument is the reductio ad absurdum, which is another way of saying that He confounds our little systems by using them to accomplish His purposes. If “history is the great teacher,” as John XXIII said in his denunciation of the rerum adversarum vacinatores, the conservative “prophets of doom” in his opening allocution at the Second Vatican Council, may not we who have long shared their perceptions be permitted our own measure of historical hope? Could it be that someday “the O.C.” will remind the world of chants, of high theology, of well-turned phrases, of good fathers and fruitful mothers, of happy children and the blessed life? Well, if the name of Rockford in the Land of Lincoln rings similar bells in the minds of a fortunate few even now, what can we not prophesy of Orange County’s abbey and boarding school?