What History Still Has to Teach Us

We live in the moment. We may dream of the future. But we can learn from the past. It is a grave mistake to look at the world today in isolation from the past. Such a viewpoint can be disheartening. Secularism is omnipresent. It engulfs us; it is the very substance of our day-to-day activities. The Covid-19 pandemic adds to our dismay. We wonder if God has abandoned us. The moment can be suffocating.

But this moment in time, like any other moment, is transitory. It does not possess the qualities of stability and permanence. Our nature as human beings, however, remains the same. When we read Dante’s Divine Comedy, we easily understand the moral categories of good and evil that he describes and how they apply to all men. The allusions he makes to the peculiarities of his own moment are the passages that are not so easy to grasp. Plato and Aristotle make perfect sense to us when they write about truth, goodness, and justice, though they wrote more than 2,000 years ago. Times change, but the human person endures.

If the problems of the day seem overwhelming, we should remember that the human soul that yearns for happier days, retains its underlying strength. Although it may be somewhat muted in today’s world, it will, as history has clearly shown, ultimately be revitalized and assert itself. We may say the same thing about the Catholic tradition. It has not disappeared, but will reassert herself in due time. As the great historian Christopher Dawson has noted, “Human nature always retains its spiritual character—its bond with the transcendent and the divine”. The concerted attempt by Communists to annihilate this character in Europe has failed miserably. Materialism in the secular world will inevitably, in time, also meet with failure. God has not turned Himself away from our current predicament and left us to grovel in spiritual darkness. We cannot abandon hope in His providential care.

The distinguished historian Arnold Toynbee has stated that the tension between the claims of individual souls and the universal society is an inescapable issue. As a society moves toward a socialist or totalitarian state, the individual becomes increasingly unimportant.

This is not so much the case with the Catholic Church. The Church, despite its hierarchical structure and the fact that its millions of adherents stretch across the globe, remains ever open to the nourishment that an individual person can provide. We think of St. Bernadette and how this uneducated peasant girl played an important part not only in reinvigorating the religious life in France, but of the entire Catholic world. Her privileged relationship with Mary the Mother of God brought the notion of the Immaculate Conception as an official dogma into the Church. We also think of the great contributions to Catholicism made by the children in Fatima or St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross. The Church does not lose sight over the infinite importance of the individual soul.

The Church produces saints because it is staunchly opposed to any kind of totalitarian regime. This, also, is a lesson from history. Who will be the saints of today that will once again, like St. Francis of Assisi, rebuild the Church? If we do not as yet know their names, we can trust that they will arrive (or have already arrived) and bring to the Church a new dawn. The folly of the present moment has neither the strength nor the imagination to sustain itself. The enduring realities will ultimately prevail.

Photo by Lino Yamin on Unsplash

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College. He is is the author of 42 books and a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on amazon.com. He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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