P. Elmar Busse •
If one approaches the publications about Father Joseph Kentenich with the methods of qualitative content analysis from communication science or keyword research from marketing, then one finds the snow-white beard of Kentenich as a figurative mark or logo, as keywords: “soon to be canonized”, “always”, and since 2020: “abuse”. In the following series of articles, we would like to take a different look at Kentenich – neither the bearded St. Nicholas, nor the candidate for canonization, nor the one suspected of abuse of power or spiritual abuse. —
These texts were written about 30 years ago. The long breath of the Church, which breathes through the centuries, allows us to put these texts up for discussion again, with slight updates. We hope to offer a new, lively view of the multi-faceted figure of the Founder, beyond the usual attributions, and thus to arouse curiosity to engage more intensively with him. We think it is worth it!
The Panama Channel and Malaria
When the French, led by engineer Lesseps, tried to build the Panama Canal in the 1880s, forty to fifty workers died every day from epidemics, especially malaria and yellow fever. When bad speculation and fraud were added to the mix, the French had to abandon the canal and sold the rights to build the canal to the USA for a song.
The U.S. hired military doctor William Crawford Gorgas to fight the epidemics in the area. He knew about the dangers of the Egyptian tiger mosquito (yellow fever) and the Anopheles mosquito (malaria) from the research of the Italian Grassi on malaria and his own research in 1898 during the yellow fever epidemic in Cuba.
In 1904, when he was assigned to control the two epidemics in the Panama Canal Zone, he had all standing water, from inconspicuous pools and ditches to swamps, the mosquitoes’ favorite breeding grounds, sprayed with a mixture of petroleum, asphalt oil, and carbolic acid, which killed the mosquito larvae after they hatched. The canal workers were only allowed to draw drinking water from hastily laid water pipes. Gorgas also lobbied the American government to build a sewage system. Finally, Gorgas had the cities of Colon and Ciudad de Panama, at the beginning and end of the canal, thoroughly cleaned, the muddy streets paved or filled in, the foul-smelling, rotting piles of garbage removed, the hospitals and public buildings fitted with mosquito nets, and the flat windows and doors in the entire canal area fitted with thin-meshed wire gauze. After sunset, when the mosquitoes began to bite, everyone had to go into their wire cage, where they were in fresh air but still safe from the mosquitoes. Dr. Gorgas’ efforts were successful. Within a year, malaria and yellow fever in the canal zone had been eradicated to the point that construction of the waterway could begin again.
Looking at the history of the Panama Canal, it is clear that the main problem was not the technical difficulties of construction, but the murderous climate, or more precisely, the pathogens that could thrive in this climate. Once this problem was solved, it was possible to return to the old plans.
The Diagnosis of the Soul Doctor Kentenich
We can also call Father Kentenich a researcher and fighter against a disease bacillus. Again and again he was confronted with believers who, despite their extensive religious knowledge, seemed strangely clumsy and powerless in their religious life, that is, in their ability to believe, to trust, to love. These same people often had great difficulty in finding a personal approach to Mary. They could venerate her and accept her as a model, but to pray to her, to ask her, to give her contributions to the capital of grace – they were afraid that Christ might come short.
For a mentally healthy person who has grown up in a network of warm personal relationships, this question is incomprehensible. Christ himself says: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me. (Mt 25:40) This means that Christ considers any love we give to a person, including Mary, as if it were given to Him. If Christ Himself does not see a problem in this, on the contrary, He almost invites us to love people and thereby show our love to Him, why then do the faithful, often priests and religious teachers, make a problem out of it?
Having become aware of this problem at an early age, Fr. Kentenich often spoke about how knowledge can become love, how the long road from the head to the heart can be traveled. It was only during his travels around the world after World War II that he was able to define the bacillus of spiritual disease more precisely by comparing it with other cultures, and since then he has spoken of “mechanistic thinking”.
In a letter to the German bishops in 1949, he used a drastic comparison: he wrote of the “atomic bomb in the realm of spiritual-moral-religious life. What did he mean? Mechanistic thinking separates God from the world, God from science, Sunday faith from everyday life, thinking from feeling. It cannot grasp the processes of life in their wholeness and vitality.
Two Opposing Mentalities
The contrast between the theorists and ideologues, who were afflicted by mechanistic thinking, and Schoenstatt’s founder, who was concerned with the reverent observation and support of life processes, is as stark as the French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre (*1823, + 1915) once described himself to his colleagues. Armed with a knotted stick and a magnifying glass, he poked around in the countryside in the scorching heat, squatting in front of holes in the ground to observe the astonishing behaviors of the insect world with boundless patience. He judges his colleagues and their methods in the laboratories: “You disembowel the animal, I study it alive; you make it a thing of horror and pity, I make it a thing to be loved; I work outdoors, to the song of the cicadas; you subject the cell and the protoplasm to reagents; you study death, I study life.
These two fundamentally different mentalities and thought structures find it difficult to come together. Father observed that mechanistic thinking was on the way to becoming the dominant attitude to life in Germany and Europe. At the same time, he had to realize that the official Church did not see the extent of these problems, nor did it take them sufficiently into account in its pastoral work. Father Kentenich’s warning did not bring about a turnaround in pastoral care. In the fourteen years that followed, the situation in Germany developed as Father Kentenich had feared. In 1961, he wrote in a study:
“Anyone who has had to endure much lack of love and hunger for love in his or her life, especially during childhood and the time of growth, will usually remain sick in the ability to love throughout his or her life. It is not without reason that people everywhere today speak of the lack of contact, the weakness of contact, or the inability of modern man to make contact. It is not just a contagious disease of the ordinary kind, it must be branded as a terrible pestilence, which nests itself not only in the intercourse of men, but also in the sacred bosom of the family, and wreaks havoc everywhere. How often do we have to admit that today’s parents are already the children of love-disturbed parents. One need not be surprised when one’s own children are no longer able to love in the depths of their being, but often only attempt the most touchingly clumsy gestures of love. … Surely there are still numerous islands of marriage and family where conditions are more favorable.”
The Therapy of the Soul Doctor Kentenich
Kentenich did not stop at diagnosis. As a young man, he had suffered from his need for contact and from the addiction to dissect and doubt everything. But he had also experienced in himself the healing of the bond with the Blessed Mother, the completely healed person. Consecration to her was the way out of the dead end of doubt and brooding.
He passed on what he had experienced as healing when, in 1912, he took responsibility for the spiritual development of the seminarians in Schoenstatt. In the spiritual growth of the seminarians, he could see that his personal destiny was no exception. He was also able to observe in the students a close connection between the growth of Marian devotion and the positive development of their personality.
When Joseph Engling, one of these students, died as a soldier in France on October 4, 1918, hit by a grenade, it was like a divine confirmation for Father Kentenich of his new old way: attachment to the Blessed Mother makes one whole and leads to holiness. This proof of the quality of the new way of following Christ was a support for Father Kentenich in the following years and decades in the face of the many doubts and suspicions that his new way received, especially from traditional Church circles.
He found the profound reason why Mary can have such a beneficial effect in the creed: Mary was conceived without original sin. She is the only pre-redeemed and fully redeemed, and therefore completely whole person. That is why she has no need of contact with her own inner being, with her fellow human beings, or with God.
The covenant of love with her and the daily living out of this covenant of love make us like her. On the basis of the Covenant of Love, Father Kentenich developed in the following years a spirituality that emphasizes the entire human capacity for attachment and relationship: The sanctity of the workday is the God-pleasing harmony between integral attachment to God, work, and people in all situations of life.
That is why it is important to him that people can attach themselves to the small chapel, that it becomes a home for them. He is open so that people can attach themselves to him personally, down to the little ones in their hearts.
On the one hand, he is a man of great plans, of bold dreams, of wide horizons, but he knows and feels that realization consists of many small steps. That is why he pays so much attention to the little things, without becoming a trifler. In this way, on the interpersonal level, he creates the conditions for overcoming the lack of contact, the inability to love, the mental handicap of not being able to sufficiently engage with others, the lack of trust, in a word, the disease bacillus of mechanistic thinking. If a person is mentally healthy, then he is also open to God, then he can commit himself to the Kingdom of God, then he is also resilient.
Let us return to our original image: the merit of the doctor William Crawford Gorgas was not that he built the Panama Canal, but that he correctly diagnosed the causes of the murderous climate and created living conditions under which the great dream of the canal between the oceans could be realized. Americans revere him as “the greatest practitioner of tropical medicine”.
There have been enough grandiose plans for the renewal of the Church and for the animation and humanization of the world by the Church in recent decades. They often failed because they were too much for the mechanistically afflicted human being. Joseph Kentenich, who was not a doctor of tropical medicine, but a disciple of Christ, gave birth to a movement that can free us from mechanistic thinking in a Marian climate.
Original: German. Translation: Maria Fischer @schoenstatt.org