INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOK

 

         This book features forty famous Catholic individuals of diverse talents and vocations who lived and breathed their Catholic faith while impacting the world during the 2,000 years since Christ walked the Earth. Their contributions gushed forth, having been incubated in the intellectually and spiritually nurturing environment supplied by the Church. This project devotes attention to the faith, love, prayer, devotional practices, and hope for eternal life that influenced the work and vision of these innovators, whether their achievements were in physics, biology, astronomy, art, music, navigation, world politics, or theology. 

 

 

            Former president of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino, restored democracy to her nation after peacefully ousting dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Her rise to power came after thousands of supporters staged the “Rosary Revolution” (or “People Power Revolution”). As the faithful prayed on their knees in the street, the advancing tanks stopped in their tracks instead of rolling over the crowds. Aquino, a devotee of the rosary, credited God and the Blessed Mother for her ability to finish her six-year term in the face of mounting political obstacles.

 

 

            Another hero of democracy, Violeta Chamorro, established democratic principles in Nicaragua, relying on prayers to God, the Virgin Mary, and her late husband. As Nicaragua’s president for nine years, she was able to guide her country out of chaos and into a state of peace and reconciliation.

 

            In the field of education, Maria Montessori devised an innovative method of teaching has been used in schools around the world. She developed her methods in part by studying the beauty of the Mass and other Catholic devotions.

 

            The scientific field of genetics emerged from the work of a Catholic monk and priest who recorded data on pea plants. For Gregor Mendel, the garden outside his Augustinian monastery provided a tranquil laboratory for studying the laws of inheritance governing the traits of living things.

 

            The art of navigation was populated by sailors determined to fulfill the Biblical mandate to bring Christ to the four corners of the world. Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, Samuel Champlain explored Canada, and Balboa traversed the Isthmus of Panama, becoming the first European to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean. These rugged sailors busily docked boats, fought the elements, interacted with Native Americans, dodged tomahawks, and prepared meals from corn. But these facts reveal only half the story. Desiring to bring the holy Catholic faith to another part of the world, these explorers also planted crosses, taught natives to pray the Our Father, burned idols, erected altars for Mass, and stood in line for Confession side by side with newly Christianized natives. They named rivers and towns after Jesus, Mary, and the saints. They insisted that priests accompany them on their transatlantic voyages.

 

            Magellan, who set out to circumnavigate the globe, participated in Brazil’s first Mass and named his newly discovered waterway “All Saints’ Channel” (known today as the Strait of Magellan). Sensing a divine calling to bring the Catholic faith overseas, Columbus named his flagship after the Blessed Mother, and fasted like a monk. While exploring Canadian territory, Champlain sent for a group of Franciscan friars to help him plant the faith in Quebec, where he constructed a chapel in honor of the Blessed Mother. When Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean, he marched into the water and raised a banner with an image of the Virgin and Child.

 

            Throughout the centuries, the Catholic Church has always embraced advancement and learning in the myriad fields of academia affecting humanity and has not hesitated to avail Herself of cutting-edge technologies in agriculture and medicine to feed and heal the afflicted of the world; during the Age of Exploration, the Church utilized the most modern navigation methods to discover and evangelize new lands in the 15th and 16th century. In the realm of art, music and architecture, the Church has likewise aimed for excellence in its pursuit of sounds and images sublime enough to glorify God. When Pope Julius II and other popes set out to decorate the Vatican during the High Renaissance, they hired only the most brilliant artists of the era – Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, and other master painters and sculptors. When Guido of Arezzo, in the early 11th century, developed the musical staff notation that continues to be used today, an enthused Pope John XIX summoned the monk to Rome to explain and teach his new system.

 

            The Catholic Church has long assumed a deep responsibility for the educational formation of citizens, going so far as to develop the university system that we know today. It was in Europe during the Middle Ages that the first Catholic universities began organizing. Early ones include the University of Bologna (1088), the University of Salamanca (1218), the University of Padua (1222), the University of Paris (1096), and the University of Oxford (1167).[1] In the Church’s quest to accumulate and synthesize knowledge, Pope Clement IV commissioned the most knowledgeable living man of the 13th century – a Franciscan friar named Roger Bacon – to write a treatise compiling the most current discoveries in all major academic fields of learning. The Catholic Church was “the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge,” writes historian Lowrie Daly. [2]

 

            The field of astronomy has been especially esteemed by the Catholic Church, which designed many old cathedrals across Europe to serve as observatories where astronomers could use the latest tools to study the night skies. By pursuing accurate measurements of the motions of the heavenly bodies, the Church in the 16th century determined correct dates for the celebration of Easter, usually scheduled for the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring after the vernal equinox. Copernicus, a former church canon in a Polish diocese, dedicated his scientific masterpiece to the pope, who himself was an astronomer, using breakthrough arguments that the sun and not the Earth was the center of the universe. Today, Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit astronomer and curator of the Vatican Meteorite collection, says he relishes his work because it helps him better understand the personality of God.

 

            Historically interested in the study of stars, the Catholic Church has given “more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions," writes science historian J.L. Heilbron in his book The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories (1999).

 

            Having grown to 1.2 billion members since its founding by Jesus, the Catholic Church is the world’s largest Christian church and the world’s oldest institution of any kind. It was also the most prominent influence in the formation of Western civilization, art, and culture. To heal and serve humanity, the Church has also served as the world’s largest charitable organization, founding and running vast systems of hospitals, schools, food banks, shelters, orphanages and hospice sites around the globe. Its thousands of agencies include Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, Food for the Poor, and St. Jude's Children’s Research Hospital.

 

            Today, a Catholic flavor continues to permeate our culture. Our calendar counts the years back to the birth of our Savior, while marking feasts to celebrate Catholic saints such as St. Patrick, St. Valentine, and St. Nicholas, and sacred days such as Easter and Christmas. The world’s most admired art portrays the holy mysteries of our Church as depicted by Catholic masters of painting and sculpture. Our Bible’s contents were selected and assembled by ancient Catholic Church councils, and, today, we can afford to buy copies of this Bible (and books, in general), because a 15th century Catholic inventor – Johann Gutenberg – developed the printing press.

 

            Readers may just walk away surprised by the sheer number of legendary figures who were products of the Church and whose lasting influence on humanity was deeply inspired by the guiding principles of the Catholic faith. As you read on, expect to be moved by the genius, the sacrifices, and the drama of each of these lives.

 

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[1] Oxford is no longer Catholic.

[2] Daly was quoted on p. 47 of Thomas E. Woods’s book, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Wash., D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2005).