Spiritual Insights Into A Holy War

Fr. George Rutler’s book, Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 is an unconventional and gripping excursion through the pivotal two years of World War II

Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (St. Augustine’s Press, 2013) is an unconventional approach to the Second World War by an exceptionally gifted and fascinating man, Rev. George William Rutler, for whom writing is one of several avocations—or, as he prefers to describe them, intensities: “I prefer ‘intensities’ because doing something for diversion, increases concentration and actually makes one more productive, as with all-important prayer.” Other intensities include painting (still lifes and landscapes, mainly, and worth an internet search), music (playing piano and harpsichord and composing arrangements), and boxing: all of them reinforcing, in roundabout or direct fashion, his vocation as a Catholic priest.

Consider his penchant for regulated pummeling. “It’s very cerebral, really intellectual,” he once told the alumni magazine of Dartmouth, where he got the heavy glossing of a classical education, brought to a brilliant sheen through subsequent study at Oxford and Rome and boundless curiosity. A polyglot and multi-linguist, “dead” languages are quick to his lips; and if his visage were chiseled in marble, the resulting bust could, appropriately enough, pass for an ancient Roman’s.

“It’s great,” said the baby of the class of ’65 about boxing. (He matriculated at sixteen.) “You get to punch people—and the exigencies of my profession normally prevent me from punching people. It gives me an excuse, but it doesn’t let me punch the people I would like to. Our Lord said we have to turn the other cheek. That was before the Marquess of Queensberry. I’m quite certain St. Paul was a boxer.”

I know one of his sparring partners, a tough and lithe fellow half his age, who winces when he says the priest pulls no punches: out of the ring as well as within. If it came to blows, which it nearly did, when a typically intoxicated Christopher Hitchens walked into the audience and accosted Fr. Rutler in 2007—Hitchens had just scourged Mother Teresa in a keynote speech at New York’s Union League Club, prompting the priest to pipe up that she “is in the heaven that you don’t believe in, but she’s praying for you”—the priest might have knocked holy sense into the recalcitrant atheist.

A Priest in Full

This preface is not meant to be a priestly panegyric, or a reviewer’s lazy digression from the main task. Rather, it is to give a savor of the man who wrote it and hopefully serve as further enticement to read this, his sixteenth book. And if this preface is personal, it is only right and just, because this reviewer knows the author, albeit more keenly through mutual friends. Indeed, friendship is decisive here. Both the writing of Principalities and Powers and its deliverance into my hands bear testimony to the joy and efficacy of friendship.

A New Jersey native of English ancestry—his English grandmother’s brothers died days apart in the Ypres Salient—Fr. Rutler early on knew that his calling was to be a man of the cloth. At 26 he became the youngest Episcopal rector in the United States. After nine years he followed John Henry Newman’s suit, giving the Branch Theory the axe and taking the well-beaten path from Albion to Rome. If he had not, I would not have met him in May 2009 at the ordination of my college classmate Vincent Druding, who said his first Mass at Fr. Rutler’s former parish, the Church of Our Savior on Park Avenue.

It was my first time inside an already familiar church. From its Byzantine interior Fr. Rutler had hosted “Christ in the City,” his long-running show on the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), one of cable television’s saving graces. My friend had known him since earlier that decade while interning at First Things. Fr. Rutler encouraged and strengthened his vocation by presenting the model of a priest in full, combining loftiness of mind and spirit with dedication to the down-to-earth, literally Ground Zero, demands of his calling: After hearing the thud of the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center, Fr. Rutler ran three miles to the scene of the disaster to give general absolution to first responders and Last Rites to many of the victims, including Fr. Mychal Judge, the New York Fire Department chaplain whose crushed corpse had been laid at the altar of Old St. Peter’s.

Fr. Rutler and I would meet again in 2010 at the annual summit of Legatus, the organization of Catholic CEOs and professional leaders for whom he was the longtime national chaplain. And I would come to know him better through my spiritual director, Fr. C. John McCloskey, a Chronicles contributor who has known Fr. Rutler since their seminary days in Rome and considers him not only one of his dearest friends, but the most brilliant man he knows—no small praise given the pantheon of personages in Fr. McCloskey’s orb, and definitely no cause for personal pique.

Our first two encounters prefaced a proper meeting through the intercession of my friend James O’Neill, a Manhattan anaesthesiologist and most gracious conversationalist, who only puts people to sleep in the line of duty. Jim was in Chicago for a conference last summer. Over dinner I learned that he was a friend and parishioner of Fr. Rutler. He told me about his new book, and soon after returning home, sent me a signed copy.

After devouring the book for reasons soon to follow, I especially looked forward to meeting the author in more than fleeting fashion. That happened this past October when I was in New York for the City’s debut screening of “Messenger of the Truth,” my friend Paul Hensler’s documentary about the martyred Polish priest Jerzy Popiełuszko, the spiritual guide of the Solidarity movement. The next day I attended Sunday Mass at Fr. Rutler’s new parish, St. Michael’s, a celestial citadel in Hell’s Kitchen. There had been talk of closing the church because the neighborhood, once teeming with immigrants whose descendants long ago shipped out to Long Island and other points further from Ellis, had depopulated. But all the new residential construction promises a repopulation, albeit more hip and well-heeled than the Irish faithful who built St. Michael’s.

The Mass, Novus Ordo in Latin, exemplified evangelization through the way of beauty: the reverence of the liturgy, the ethereal choir, the incense wafting amidst the sacred art in this gem of a church. Said from a pulpit with a commanding view of the congregants, many of whom followed him from his previous parish, Fr. Rutler gave a pithy sermon on the Parable of the Unjust Judge and Persistent Widow, reprised in his new EWTN series, “Parables of Christ.”

After Mass, Jim and I followed Fr. Rutler through the door in the adoration chapel that leads to his residence, an Edwardian mansion of a rectory containing some thirty rooms and spiral staircase. Built for a bevy of priests, it now houses one. But it bustled with activity that morning. In the antechamber leading off the chapel, a young man played piano as a couple with their two children listened. A friend of Fr. Rutler’s from England was also visiting: a London banker dressed for the board room, in town to visit his own son, plying his father’s trade in Manhattan. The group of us chatted over cups of coffee brewed in the tiny drab kitchen, a Seventies rehab and the only evidence from within this vintage, turn-of-the-century residence that the outside world had passed—and taken a turn for the bad.

Conversation flowed easily and went many ways as Fr. Rutler discussed this and that. Of course he knew the heroic story of the martyred Polish priest, having been a big supporter of the Polish freedom movement. And underlying everything he said was an aura of avuncular good humor. I wished I had had a recorder with me, or at least took Boswellian notes.

Before taking our leave, Fr. Rutler took me up the spiral staircase to his study, resplendent with curios and tastefully understated furniture, like a fine English suit, whose virtue lies in not drawing attention to itself. One could imagine his hero John Henry Newman taking tea there in that civilizational setting suffused with grace and good humor; or Teddy Roosevelt, whose photograph hung on a wall along with the mounted heads of wild game. Since Fr. Rutler had only recently moved in, I asked whether the heads came with the house. “No. I shot them,” he replied, then moved on to the next subject.

As I got up to leave, he asked me if I ever read about coincidences. Not sure what he meant, he pulled out and signed a copy of his 2006 book Coincidentally. It’s a fascinating account of historical coincidences linking the most seemingly disparate people and times: bathroom reading of the highest order. But this is not the book under consideration.

A New Look at an Old War

The inspiration for Principalities and Powers came from a disintegrating pile of newspapers, journals, and radio transcripts from World War II, including German and Italian sources, both Nazi and Fascist as well as ecclesiastical. They were left to Fr. Rutler by a friend and historian, Monsignor Florian Cohalan. The resulting book focuses on those pivotal two years upon which the war turned, and, as the title suggests, is concerned not with military battles but the spiritual moorings of the war—specifically the demonic forces that animated the conflict. They did not unconditionally surrender in 1945, but make our own time a playground in which devils make merry through the perversion of human personhood. Euthanasia, abortion, the sex revolution, the state-manipulation of marriage and the family, eviction of Christianity from the public square—all were in play seven decades ago, and, ironically, viciously plague the victor nations of the “Good War,” prompting one to ask who really won. As Fr. Rutler writes in the preface:

[T]he Second World War can rightly be understood and probably only appreciated as a holy war fought for multiple and mixed motives, but in its deepest meaning as a campaign against evil by defenders, consciously or obliviously, of the good. If anything is to be learned from reading old journals, it is how the same moral dilemmas of an old war, in their display of human dignity and the anatomy of cruelty, are background for the same realities in our own day. If a war covers the whole earth, its stratagems are the measureless size of each human soul.

Arranged more or less chronologically, the thematically composed chapters artfully stitch together reports from the source material that give the reader a “you are there” feel. They form an intricate tapestry that unravels in the form of a quick read that compelled a dutiful re-reading and the taking of some ten pages of notes and quotes.

Many characters are encountered, great and small, long-remembered (for good or ill), once well-known and now forgotten, or never known aside from a newspaper blurb and now rightly remembered: from war heroes to war criminals, courageous commoners to cartoonish absurdities such as the Italian Fascist propagandist Roberto Farinacci, who considered himself more Catholic than the pope and condemned Pius XII for not “concern[ing] [him]self with temporal matters” alone.

Pope Pius XII rightly emerges as a heroic figure who acted with extraordinary grace under circumstances demanding not only courage in defending the Faith and rescuing Jews, but extreme prudence in public declarations: Outright Church condemnations of Hitler and Nazism resulted in horrific reprisals, such as the round-up of baptized Jews in Holland that occurred after the Dutch bishops issued a scathing letter against the Third Reich. The charge that he was “Hitler’s Pope”—a postwar Communist calumny taken up by Catholic baiters and Christ haters—would have been news to the Führer as well as Pius’ many Jewish admirers, including the Chief Rabbi of Rome, who was so impressed with the Church and her pontiff’s wartime witness that he converted to Catholicism, taking Pius’ baptismal name, Eugenio, for his own.

Indeed, Hitler hated Pius, as a creature living in pitch darkness despises the light. Pius believed Hitler (as well as Stalin) was possessed, and even attempted a long-distance exorcism on him. Even so, he keenly followed attempts on Hitler’s life, considering death the just reward of a murderous tyrant. As so often in this book, Fr. Rutler fleshes out the source material with background information that forms a fuller appreciation of the scenarios and characters encountered; and so we are treated to Pius’ unequivocal defense of capital punishment per se. “As an incarnation of the tradition of immutable natural law,” writes Fr. Rutler, Pius “concisely explained capital punishment: ‘Even in the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather, public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his own guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.’”

Principalities and Powers is an engrossing and edifying read, but hard to review in length at the risk of giving too much away. The author wisely guides the reader through the rush and swirl of humanity during a dark period in history, illumined by holy and courageous defenders of truth in word and deed, from the battlefields where bullets flew and men fell to those in which wicked spirits preyed, seeking souls for Hell.

The last chapter is entitled “Life Worthy of Living,” a play off the Nazi inversion of the phrase, Lebensunwertes Leben (“Life unworthy of life”). (The cruel irony is lost in post-Christian Europe: After contracepting and aborting itself into post-war demographic decline, euthanasia is now the not-so-new rage, with recent Belgian legislation giving even children the right to decide when to be killed by their doctors.) It ends on a note playing pleasingly throughout the previous 165 pages: that of the eternal seen in the particular.

“In the spiritual combat of World War II, the fighters had to be fed and sheltered as Jesus did when he fed the multitudes before he preached. He spoke in every wartime appeal for assistance to those who were fight. Christ, engaged on the palisades and frontiers of each battle, would have understood, and perhaps inspired, advertisements in the daily papers such as this one in London: ‘The word “retreat” is not one with acceptable associations for soldiers, but nearly 1,000 of them, British, American and Dominion, have attended the week-end retreats for Service men that are held at Campion House, Osterley, and they are wearing out the house’s limited supply of sheets. Despite careful patching, the preset stock is in urgent need of replenishment. Any number of sheets of any size or color or kind (but preferably stout and of single size) will be gratefully received.’ Sheets were sent and the war was won, but there is no end to such a war, for it began in Eden and will contend until the world itself returns to the eternity from which it was made.”

Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943
George William Rutler
St. Augustine’s Press, 2013
Hardcover, 166 pages

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About Matthew A. Rarey 10 Articles
Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.