The Catholic Historical Review 89.3 (2003) 537-538
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Gottes Spurensucher. Zwanzig christliche Profile der Neuzeit. By Victor Conzemius. (Freiburg: Herder. 2002. Pp. 327. € 29.90.)
Students of nineteenth- and twentieth-century church history are heavily indebted to the Luxembourg priest, long resident in Luzern, Victor Conzemius. The editor of four volumes of the correspondence of Ignaz von Döllinger, Conzemius, writing elegantly in both French and German, has compiled, over four decades, an impressive bibliography. His scholarly ventures into the minefield of the Catholic Church's role in World War II and the Holocaust are exemplary for their avoidance of strident apologetic on the one hand and ahistorical polemic on the other.
The present work contains portraits, all but one previously published but here reworked, of seventeen men and three women from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. The emphasis throughout is less on biographical detail than on the impact of the subjects on the times in which they lived. His choice of subjects, Conzemius writes, "reflects the dominance of the masculine element in church and society in recent centuries, at least among church officeholders and laity with church interests." The collection starts with the Swiss layman Nikolaus von Flüe (1417-1487; canonized in 1947), illiterate and thus wholly dependent on "hearing and seeing," who abandoned his large family to become a hermit and mystic. It ends with Hans Urs von Balthasar, who originally thought of becoming a musician. A lifelong maverick and outsider, Balthasar died in 1988 at age 87, just two days before he was to receive the red hat of a cardinal, having "written one of the greatest theological symphonies of the century."
Common to all his subjects, Conzemius writes, was the search for God. "This led most of them in directions they originally did not want to go. They remained faithful to this leading, however, even when it took them 'under the cloud.' The cloud took various forms. For some it was the heart's dullness or lethargy, for others difficulties in their own families or faith communities."
Family difficulties were prominent in the lives of Nikolaus von Flüe and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, spurned and disinherited by her respectable Episcopalian relatives and friends for casting her lot with "the dregs of the immigrants, most of them Irish."
Difficulties with fellow believers were experienced by the Spanish Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566), zealous defender of the natives in [End Page 537] Latin America against colonial exploitation; by the Italian priest Antonio Rosmini (1797-1855), whose exposure of the Church's "five wounds" was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books shortly after publication and remained condemned until Rosmini's rehabilitation by Cardinal Ratzinger in 2001; by the Munich priest and church historian Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1890) and his English lay friend John Lord Acton (1834-1902); by Döllinger's German pupil, married by him to an English husband, Charlotte Lady Blenherhasset (1843-1917), the first female recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of Munich; by "the modern church father" John Henry Newman (1801-1890), who "preserved the church from suffocation in an intellectual ghetto, even if the seed he sowed came to fruition only decades after his death"; by the Italian priest, social and political reformer Luigi Sturzo (1871-1959), a man before his time if there ever was one; by Pope John XXIII; by the German-born priest and theologian Otto Karrer (1888-1976), like Conzemius himself a long-term exile in Switzerland; and by von Balthasar, like Karrer a onetime Jesuit priest and one of the book's three native Swiss.
The book's longest chapter, and among the best, is devoted to the "obstinate saint" and sole non-Catholic, William Booth (1829-1912), founder of the Salvation Army. Reproached by Rudyard Kipling for undignified public behavior unbecoming in a respected religious leader, Booth defended himself by saying: "Young man, if I could win one more soul for God by standing on my hands and beating a tambourine with my teeth, I would...