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A great Catholic novel that will inspire us to heroic fidelity during this corona crisis

Stephana Schwertner is a most Catholic depiction of an Austrian town under siege by a mayor who uses a plague to suppress the Church.
Mon May 25, 2020 - 3:15 pm EST
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A woman prays in front of a closed Westminster Cathedral on April 12, 2020 in London, England. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

May 25, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – The recent May 7 Appeal written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and signed, among others, by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and Bishop Athanasius Schneider, insisted upon the rights of the Church and that the state has no right to intrude into her decisions concerning her public worship and the Sacraments. 

Just recently, and in a similar vein, Catholic commentator and book author Phil Lawler wrote an article arguing that there comes a point where a bishop needs to insist upon the rights of the Church and the importance of her spiritual work, against the state regulations with regard to health matters. He stated

When civil officials issue orders about what is good for public health, Catholic bishops should listen, because civil officials have the proper authority to enforce public-health rules. Indeed a prudent bishop would ordinarily heed those rules even if he personally believes they are misguided, because the bishop is not an expert in the field of public health. But if and when the rules infringe on the prerogatives of the Church — if they compromise the evangelical mission — then the bishop must demur, and protest, and if necessary defy the civil authority. And so must we.

At some point, these words imply, we might all be faced with the decision to defy civil authorities in order to defend the Catholic Faith and its practice.

In light of these debates about the closing of churches and the suppression of the Sacraments due to the corona crisis – and statements such as this one by Phil Lawler –  I have been lately thinking about an Austrian novel that was written at the beginning of the 20th century by Enrica von Handel-Mazzeti. Handel-Mazzetti was a famous Austrian writer in the first half of the 20th century, having written several very powerful and impressive historical novels. She always was especially attentive to the religious struggles between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th century.

Stephana Schwertner is the title of an as-yet-untranslated historical trilogy which is so fitting for our time. It was written under the influence of the anti-Modernist work of Pope Pius X, in 1912/1913.

The novel is a most Catholic depiction of a town in Austria under the siege of a new Protestant mayor who uses the plague as a pretext in order to close churches and suppress the public activities of the Catholic Church.

This Austrian town is Steyr to the northeast of Salzburg in Upper Austria on the Enns River not far from the Danube River at Linz; and the action takes place in the beginning part of the 17th century, the time of the Counter-Reformation after the Protestant Reformation and just before the outbreak of the gravely destructive Thirty-Years' War (1618-1648). This historical novel was published within a similar historical context, that is, just before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

The novelist sets the scene of the story in such a way that the Catholics of the time are generally shown to be a weak and spiritually listless and also a materially impoverished group of people who are losing ground, strength, and influence day by day. They have little resistance against the machinations of the Protestant mayor, Joachim Händel. 

In the year 1613, most of the local clerics, and also the nearby monastery, sought a faint-hearted accommodation with the growing Protestant power in the town. They send a sign of peace to the newly elected Mayor Händel, who draws his own wealth from his prosperous steel-and- armaments industry and whose hatred of the Catholic Church is only further fueled and fostered by her provocative weakness and her softness and decadence. The mayor is set to reduce the number of Catholics in the town since he received – after generous donations of armaments – from the Austrian Emperor Matthias the promise that the Protestants may receive more privileges should they come to be in the majority within the next three years. 

The sudden appearance of the pestilence in a nearby region gives Händel a good pretext to start repressing the Catholics. For supposed health reasons, he unjustly closes the Catholic churches and forbids any kind of public religious devotion such as processions. The Catholics of Steyr are being overwhelmed.

A young woman, Stephana Schwertner, along with the help of Father Albert Grünwald, her monastic confessor, both of whom are saintly and inspiring, will play the role of the Catholic leaders of a sustained resistance. Both can also be of great help to the increase of our own fitting responses and Catholic Faith.

Stephana, when we first meet her in this three-volume and more than 1,500-page-long novel, is an 18-year-old girl who has just moved to Steyr with her widowed mother and her three younger brothers and sisters, in order to open a restaurant at the outskirts of the town.

We are told that, at the age of thirteen, on the very day of her First Holy Communion, Stephana – whose name is a female variant of the name of the first martyr, Saint Stephen – had vowed to give herself completely to Our Lord; and thus she is already generously filled with a deep love for Our Savior. It becomes clear that this love of Our Lord is at the root of her moral and spiritual resistance against the conduct of the unjust mayor. In Stephana's case, her Faith helps her to have no debilitating nor compromising inclination to mere human respect. She would rather defend God and His Church, even if she thereby loses the respect and the praise of others, or even if her witness damages the commercial business of the family restaurant – and, as we shall see, even if it puts her own life at risk.

Her strong faith makes her promptly do the right thing at the right moment – and for the right reasons. 

Father Albert himself – a missionary priest who was specifically called to Steyr by the dying Abbot Wilhelm Heller of the Benedictine Monastery of Garsten to help him fight against the growing power of the Protestants, to preach against Mayor Händel, and thereby to reawaken the slothful and intimidated Catholics – soon tests the sincerity and character of Stephana when she comes to his Confessional for the first time.

Father Albert, a 30-year-old, stern and energetic man, asks Stephana, after her sacramental confession and absolution, whether her family still has holy images displayed in their family restaurant, in spite of the order of the unjust mayor to remove all holy images from public houses and places. When Stephana responds with a “Yes,” Father Albert urges her to remove them all, so as not to get into trouble with the civil authorities of the town. She first answers him with astonishment – for she had heard Father Albert's strong homilies and had therefore felt drawn to have him as her priestly confessor – and she thus promptly says that she has to obey God more than man and that the holy pictures will stay where they are. Although Father Albert threatens her then and says that she should henceforth not come to him to confession, Stephana stays strong and is even about to leave the confessional when the priest joyfully calls her back and reveals to her that he had only wanted to test her faith. His heart is leaping, because in her he finds the first Catholic in town with still such a pure heart and a strong faith!

At the end of this first confession – which took place significantly on the Feast of the Protomartyr St. Stephen, on 26 December – Father Albert leaves Stephana with the clear instruction to keep the holy images where they are and, additionally, to light a candle in the restaurant window in front of the image of the Blessed Mother on Saturdays, so that even passengers could see it from the outside!

In Father Albert, Stephana finds her guide whom she needed. He himself is ascetical, strict and filled with Holy Love and well-disciplined Holy Anger. He himself will thus soon also come to the test when his own very lax Prior Karl gives him instructions to stop preaching so strongly against Mayor Händel. Father Albert reflects upon this order in his little cell. Just when he himself has a moment of weakness, the local chronicler, a layman, comes into the room to tell him about the wondrous work of Stephana in her village and how people, through her example of purity and firmness, turn back to the Faith. Encouraged himself by her witness, Father Albert recovers his deeper fidelity and concludes: “I would rather be disobedient than a Judas!” With this renewed grace-filled fire in his heart, he preaches on the following Sunday an even stronger and holier sermon than he had before (while tactically leaving out the personal name of Händel), with the result that the faithful are moved to tears.

Father Albert and Stephana are two Catholic witnesses who will come to save Steyr from heresy and apostasy. They will now form the larger resistance against Händel and his evil pretenses to suffocate every single practice and devotion of the Catholic Faith in Steyr.

The Catholic churches are about to be closed upon order by the mayor, due to the threat of the spreading plague (but which had not yet reached Steyr). Shortly before the last Mass is offered prior to the closing of the churches for an uncertain period of time – in obedience to Händel's pestilence laws for the protection of public health – Stephana approaches Father Albert and proposes to organize a sacrificial pilgrimage to a famous pestilence-chapel (Pestkapelle) in Weng 75 miles away from Steyr which was known to be the place of prayers in times of the plague. Father Albert responds with all his might and calls everybody to join that pilgrimage. The faint-hearted Catholics receive encouragement by the calm witness of Stephana, who is the first to step up and to proclaim that she will go. Many women and men follow her example, and finally more than one hundred of the faithful promise to participate in the pilgrimage on the very next day, knowing well that this act of defiance might call down upon them the wrath and punishment of Händel. And indeed, Mayor Händel hears of the plan right away.

In order to forestall this pilgrimage, the mayor sends to the meeting place his own young son, Heinrich Händel, a very handsome, fiery, and dedicated 21-year-old man, but filled with an uninformed disgust for the Catholic Church and Her devotions and practices. 

The next day, surprised by the young Händel and his men – for, he is the valorous commander of the local militia – Father Albert and Stephana (who are at the head of the procession) refuse to give up their pilgrimage. Stephana, who holds one of the banners of the procession, is even able to swing it against the sword which the angry and prideful young Händel was trying to use so as to hit Father Albert on the head. Heinrich’s sword thus splits in two – indeed an embarrassing moment for a soldier to have been disarmed by a woman – and the life of the priest is thereby saved. A valorous woman, indeed, this Stephana Schwertner! (Schwertner in German contains the word “sword,” “Schwert.”)

Stephana and Father Albert are then arrested, and, while Father Albert as a priest is soon released and handed over to Catholic ecclesiastical authorities for his trial, in accord with the laws of the time, Stephana herself (as a laywoman) also has to pay the price for her disobedience against the pestilence and safety regulations of the town. Her attempt to solve the problem of the plague with supernatural means is now being thwarted by the laws of a man who would (and does) rather trust in his own temporal power and in the merely natural means of illness-prevention. 

The mayor, Joachim Händel, thus sentences Stephana to two hours of punitive exposure, while being chained in iron chains and standing at a pillar in a public place of penance. Masses of people crowd about her in her hour of suffering, and they insult her and demean her in the most unspeakable ways, just as the crowds of Jerusalem did with Our Lord. The iron of the chains cuts into Stephana's flesh, and she soon nearly faints and, rather, hangs at the pillar, instead of standing up erectly. The young Heinrich Händel, whose duty it is to execute his father's sentence, grows in pity for this beautiful young and innocent girl with golden hair whose only fault it was to turn to God for help. (While standing at the pillar, she prays the Rosary out loud, until someone rips it out of her hands.)

When, on top of it all, the crowds start accusing Stephana of having had a child out of wedlock – they claim that her youngest brother is really her own son – the young Händel goes into action and frees Stephana from her humiliating and disgraceful penance, in spite of the fact that he will now have to give an account and suffer grave punishment from his father for his disobedience toward his ruling by shortening Stephana's humiliating public penance.

 Later, Stephana is to confess to Father Albert that at the pillar she heard things that she had never heard before in her life and that she felt her soul was soiled thereby. That shows how deep her own purity was. Yet, “In the fire of suffering, her heroism matured,” as Handel-Mazzetti puts it beautifully.

In the wake of this incident, Stephana and her family have much to suffer. Their restaurant is less frequented, and they fall into poverty. While Stephana has to carry the burden of having caused this fate for her family, she does not shift or waver one inch concerning what she had done. She has no regrets, even though her mother, who is often too concerned with earthly matters, reminds her daily of how she had brought so much suffering into their family. Stephana does not regret her acts because she knows that they were acts of love for her One True Spouse to Whom she had given herself so completely at her First Holy Communion five years earlier. And her acts were also acts of love for the town of Steyr and its people, trying to prevent the pestilence from entering the city. She believed that only by turning to God in a penitential and reparatory pilgrimage could the pestilence be halted.

Soon, Stephana will turn this same ardent love into action again.

When four Catholic men of Steyr are condemned to death at the gibbet because they dared to oppose the mayor and his injustices, also toward Stephana, it is she who from within the crowd starts saying aloud prayers of repentance and of mercy, so that the condemned men standing on the public place of execution, and soon to be hanged, might still turn their own hearts to God and away from any vengeful hard anger and hatred of their Protestant enemy. At the moment when one of the men wants to cry out loud a curse against Händel, Stephana's beautiful angelic voice is heard, calling upon the name of Jesus.

The four convicted men, stirred by her prayers, fall on their knees and prepare their hearts for their moment of death. This is one of the most beautiful scenes of the novel. (We will notice that there was no priest then present – for fear of the mayor, who explicitly denied the visit of a priest.) As soon as the four men are hanged, and Stephana sees that she can do no more, she quietly slips out into a dark street and goes home. 

What is so striking in Stephana is that she is so steadfast and so little affected by human respect. Satan seems to have no access to the interior of her pure soul, though deviously perhaps is trying to grip it and torture it with remorse and self-doubts as to whether she should not have done what she did. She did not foresee nor wish the death of the four men, but indirectly she might have caused it. After all, these men had tried to defend her innocence. Yet, she walks the way God draws for her, not looking right or left. When any bad thought comes into her heart, she picks up a piece of unfinished work and goes about her dutiful chores. There is no time to squander. Stephana prays all fifteen decades of the Rosary every day while she does her needlework and other handwork. She is both a “Martha and a Mary in the same time,” as the author Handel-Mazzetti puts it.

Stephana's love does not stop at this one good deed of helping the four condemned men. Soon God calls her for more. She assists Father Albert, who is still imprisoned in a tower of his monastery outside of the city walls, when he detects from his tower the first wandering traveler infected with the dreaded pestilence. After Father Albert's having convinced his confessor, Father Ertelius, to let him secretly invite the sick man into his cell so that he can either cure or bury him, Stephana then provides food and medicine for the priest, who has put his own life at great risk for the greater common good of Steyr by taking care of the sick and infectious man and by preventing him from entering the town. Stephana and Father Albert now work together, in order to protect the weak and faint-hearted town, a town that has already shown so much cruelty, incomprehension, and injustice towards them.

But Father Albert and Stephana do even more. The saintly priest is able to reach the heart of the dying mercenary soldier who had spent most of his own life amidst moral sewage. (At the beginning, that man had come into the cell of the monk to only see whether he could steal money or food!) After a good confession, however, the sinner yearns to receive Holy Communion, and since Father Ertelius himself is too afraid to do it, it is Stephana who will carry Our Lord to him. She, too, puts her life at risk to bring consolation to a dying and highly infectious man. She will remember it as the most beautiful moment of her earthly life when she was given the privilege to carry Jesus on her heart, in a pyx on a chain hanging around her neck. Glowing with that gift of divine love in the Blessed Sacrament, she enters the room of the dying man who, at her sight, calls out the name “Maria!”

Stephana performs all these heroic acts of virtue with a calmness and with a natural self-forgetfulness that can only be explained with her growing holiness. She thereby becomes an effective channel of grace to many others and is the mediating instrument of God's own merciful love. She is a saint who becomes, as it were, a counterrevolutionary, at the moment when a paganized Christian – Mayor Joachim Händel – who is more interested in material wealth and power than in the meeker and weaker aspects, much less the suffering side, of Christianity – confronts the Catholics of Steyr with the demand that they completely apostatize from the Catholic Faith. 

Stephana steps up when God calls her.

Stephana's Catholic witness had darkly inflamed the elder Händel with a deep hatred. Thus, when he learns of the fact that she had been seen one night climbing into the tower of Father Albert (when carrying the Blessed Sacrament on her heart), he is considering to use this potentially scandalous conduct as a pretext in order to demand that she and her family move, at once, out of town. While still hesitating to act in such a harsh manner, the Mayor now realizes that his own son, Heinrich, has ardently fallen in love with Stephana.

Both Händels, father and son, are at an audience with Emperor Matthias when Heinrich declares to the Emperor his intention to marry Stephana, whereupon the Emperor promises him to be the godfather of Heinrich's first born son. (Little did Heinrich then know about Stephana's secret promises to God.) Joachim Händel is surprised by his son's open-hearted disclosure of his love in front of the Emperor. As soon as his son left town to ride back to his love, the father writes up the order to expel the Schwertner family from Steyr, secretly hoping thereby to be able to win back his son's heart. Händel sends a messenger with the new public decree to Steyr.

The son, Heinrich, having arrived in Steyr before the arrival of the unjust decree, visits Stephana and asks her for her hand, but she declines and remains distanced from him. Leaving her home with a broken heart, Heinrich meets the messenger and hears of the grave charges against Stephana of secretly meeting the priest at night. He is now inflamed with jealousy toward the suspect Father Albert. Heinrich earlier himself had been wondering with a heavy heart why Stephana herself had never responded to his sincere attempts to approach her kindly and affectionately (even in helping her to recover her Rosary that she had lost during her humiliating public penance at the pillar) and he now thinks that he had found the true and heart-breaking reason for her conduct. 

Heinrich Händel rides in haste back to Stephana's house, still secretly hoping to be able to disprove the false claims alleged against her, about her secret love affair and nocturnal liaison with Father Albert. Heinrich encounters Stephana alone in the restaurant, just as she is lighting an oil lamp in honor of Saint Joseph. When challenged about her purportedly impure affair, she refuses to render any explanation because she had promised Father Albert never to reveal to anyone what they had done together, out of fear that the dead man's grave would then be dug up and that with it the pestilence would spread in Steyr. Loyal to her promise, Stephana remains silent. Heinrich Händel, who regards her behavior as a confirmation of her guilt, but who, in his ardent love, still does not want to expose her to another public scene of shame and disgrace, then has a dark and sudden fit of jealous passion, and he stabs Stephana with his own knife and kills her instantly.

Stephana Schwertner is dead.

Stephana indirectly becomes a martyr in the face of the hatred that the Protestant Mayor Joachim Händel has for the Catholic Faith. Tragically, this mayor comes to use his own son as the executor – the instrument – of his own arguably demonic hate. But, as is so often the case in the history of the world – and as it was at the moment when Jesus Christ Himself had died at the Cross – just when the evil powers believe they have achieved their goal and thought to have conquered the Faith, they lose. (In the same manner today, just when Satan may well believe that he will have conquered the Church, she will spring up again, with the help of the Blessed Mother!)

The death of Stephana likewise calls down so many graces from heaven upon Steyr, and inspires so many people that the majority of the town now returns sincerely to the Catholic Faith, and this within hours of her martyrdom. Steyr is Catholic again. Händel the mayor has lost his battle. Moreover, he in his juridical function as the mayor must now administer justice and thus even condemn his own son to death – according to his own laws – and he has to admit that Stephana, after all, has won, and with her the Catholic Church. Not even two years after his election as mayor, the ugly face of his tyranny has shown itself fully and it thoroughly disgraced him.

When the son Heinrich Händel is later being led out of the courtroom into the yard to be executed in public, his own most loyal soldiers suddenly shoot him so as to spare him a shameful death in front of the retributive citizenry. While Heinrich then lies dying, he unexpectedly calls for a priest. Filled with sorrow and sincere contrition – for, in the courtroom, Father Albert had finally related the whole truth about Stephana's visit to him by night in his tower – Heinrich now yearns to become a Catholic like his beloved Stephana.

Father Albert who had rushed to him firmly demands from the dying young man a renunciation of Satan and of his Protestant beliefs; then he removes from him the ban of excommunication; and, before giving the dying man the Viaticum, he hears his confession. Questioned by Father Albert about his own personal carnal sins, Heinrich admits that it was Stephana's purity which had kept him from falling into any kind of such sin. Stephana's purity had kept him pure. Father Albert, moved by this open-hearted statement, realizes that God had even made use of the earthly love of this young man for a beautiful young virgin, in order to prepare his own heart for heaven.

Heinrich's father, the tyrant of Steyr, who had rushed into the room where his dying son was lying, now witnesses his son's conversion. His last hatred against the Church dies away when he realizes that she in her love for the sinner reaches out to a young man who is despised by all mankind. The supernatural charity of the Church shines brightly in the room. Joachim Händel thus witnesses the peace that enters his son's soul after having received the sacraments of the Church and after having heard, as well, the touching counsel of Father Albert himself that he, Heinrich, might also soon see Stephana again, but now as brother and sister in Christ, and in heaven. Heinrich then prays: “Saint Stephana, Bride of Christ, pray for me, a sinner!”

Thus Heinrich Händel dies with Stephana's name upon his lips while her body is being carried through town and then exposed for veneration in a coffin placed in front of one of the churches whose keys Mayor Händel was just about to give back to Father Albert for its renewed liturgical use by the Catholics. Heinrich Händel himself was to be buried in the same church where, at the beginning of the tragedy, the plan had been made by Father Albert and Stephana to make a pilgrimage to Weng, in order to save the town of Steyr from the pestilence. As it turns out, God's plans went even further and did not only save the town from the pestilence, but also from the danger of apostasy, and from many other lesser forms of infidelity and sin. On the last pages of this novel, Father Albert is shown to give a blessing to the people of Steyr with the Blessed Sacrament which he then is able to return to the tabernacle in the church.

With this most stirring scene, this long historical novel ends. 

This deeply Catholic and most beautiful novel by Handel-Mazzetti can give us an example of how we are all called to become saints and, thereby, also to become heroic, but humble, counterrevolutionaries, even at the time of the corona virus where, as it seems, different players try to abuse the illness for their own political, anti-Catholic, and globalist intentions. LifeSite just reported that South Australia, for example, left the Catholic churches closed, even though they had no more active cases of the coronavirus! And Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, just stated in an interview with EWTN's Raymond Arroyo that there is a danger of the virus being used in an anti-Catholic way by dictatorial states and “some other ideological groups.” “We have to speak against the instrumentalization of this virus, of this global crisis” by dictatorial states and “some other ideological groups” who wish to “suppress the Church” and promote the “break down of the sacramental life of the Church,” he said. He added that the state cannot forbid the Church to worship God.

May this book be soon translated into English and may it inspire many other readers, under grace, unto personal sanctity and unto counterrevolutionary action – and, if it be God's Will, even unto martyrdom.

 

--Postscript--

In the following, I would like to present some very beautiful quotes from this Austrian novel.

“Does he think that, because of my mother, I shall be silent? Truth it has to be, truth is truth!” (Stephana Schwertner's reflection about a comment by Father Albert)

***

“Where the distress is the greatest, the closest one to us is God.” (Stephana Schwertner)

***

“Blessed be those who believe and do not fear death.” (Stephana Schwertner)

***

“What is mother and father in comparison with God and His Will and His Kingdom? If God has been merciful with your mother, you will find her again in heaven, to which only the Catholic path leads, but if not, then you shan't wish to be re-united with her.” (Father Albert to Heinrich Händel who was then hesitating to reject the faith of his beloved deceased Protestant mother)

***

“Or was it the case also with the Church as it was with Stephana herself, whom [Joachim] Händel had once called a harlot, and who was actually a saint?” (The interior thoughts of Mayor Joachim Händel himself, as presented by the novel's narrator)

***

“And [Joachim] Händel still closed off his hard and frozen heart against the Divine Grace, and yet he saw growing in himself the insight that the Church which he had so much persecuted was, indeed, much more than a human being.” (Enrica von Handel-Mazzetti)

***

“He whom the devil insults is loved by God.” (Stephana Schwertner to her fretful mother)

***

“Yes, Steyr is heretical, unfortunately. But when no good Christians want to live among the heretics and the heathens here, how, then, can the word of Our Lord about the good leaven be fulfilled; if you, maiden, find it hard to live in Steyr, think also of how Corozaim and Bethsaida were not so sweet for Our Lord either; but through a good example you can work much good here.” (Father Albert to Stephana)

***

“Goodness does not consist in tolerating error, and to be silent toward sin is the greatest vice of the pulpit.” (Abbot Wilhelm Heller to the lax Prior Karl)

***

“Preserve your devout Catholic courage, which is not a sinful form of pride. I will pray for that.” (Father Albert to Stephana Schwertner)

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“If Steyr is evil, God helps us still so that we remain nevertheless good and faithful!” (Stephana Schwertner to her mother.)

***

“He is the greatest heretic in Steyr and the fiercest enemy of our Holy Church. Whoever wants to honor him, may well do so, but I shall not.” (Father Albert about Mayor Händel)

***

“'The most beautiful thing on this sinful earth is the Faith,' said the priest with a deep voice. 'Let us pray for such a Faith which even conquers God's omnipotence.'” (Father Albert to Stephana Schwertner)


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