Roots of 19th Century religious decline ran deep

Stephen Enzweiler, Cathedral Historian 

Part 2 in a series

The first Eucharistic Congress of the United States, held in 1895 on the campus of Catholic University in Washington, D.C., brought together clergy and bishops from across the nation in a first-of-its-kind assembly to do just one thing: proclaim the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. 

“Our main object,” the official report stated, was to “call the attention of the priests of the East to the Eucharistic movement and to awaken the interest of the laity in it.” The congress — organized under the auspices of the Priests’ Eucharistic League of America, with the blessing of Pope Leo XIII and presided over by the Diocese of Covington’s Bishop Camillus Maes — was a resounding success. So much so, that at least five more national congresses would come to be held in the United States alone before Bishop Maes’ death in 1915. 

But it started with this first one, memorialized for posterity in the stained-glass window we see today in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of Covington’s Cathedral Basilica. The scene shows the Eucharistic procession at the conclusion of the Congress moving toward an altar erected beneath the portico arches of Catholic University’s newly dedicated McMahon Hall. Bishop Maes, vested in a golden cope, carries the ostensorium containing the Holy Eucharist amid a throng of bishops, priests and faithful. Though not historically accurate in some of its details, the scene is undoubtedly meant to evoke the joy and accomplishment of that First National Eucharistic Congress. 

But the window is more than this. It seems to have been Bishop Maes’s intention not simply to illustrate the American Church’s accomplishment, nor even to emphasize the necessity for belief and veneration of the real presence, but also to challenge us to look deeper into the broader story of why Eucharistic Congresses were necessary in the first place. By the 1880’s, the slow decline of religion in general had become a concern to the Church in both Europe and in America. More worrisome was the steep decline among both clergy and lay faithful of belief in the “real presence” itself. 

It may be said that the roots of this decline in religion can be traced back to the Enlightenment, an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its central doctrines were opposed to the rule of monarchy and the power and influence of the Catholic Church in society. It focused on a range of ideas including individual liberty, natural rights, human happiness, the value of reason, scientific evidence, and ideals such as progress, constitutional government, and the separation of church and state. 

Where monarchs and ruling nobility had once been viewed as an earthly representation of an eternal order modeled on the City of God, Enlightenment thought was seen as a mutually beneficial social contract among the citizenry with the aim of protecting their natural rights and self-interests at all costs. Religion came to be viewed as a threat to individualism, and religious beliefs and practices were cast aside in lieu of secular alternatives. What is clear from history, however, is that the Catholic Church became one of the main targets of Enlightenment intellectuals who systematically questioned every aspect of society and government. 

The effects of Enlightenment thinking first manifested in 1776 with the outbreak of the American Revolution. The colonies rejected the rule of King George III in favor of self-government and the natural rights of man. Centuries of religious persecution in England had fostered the independent growth of religion in the American colonies. It was a powerful, cultural synthesis of Evangelical Protestantism, republicanism, and reason that provided a moral sanction for opposition to British rule, an assurance to every American that revolution was justified in the sight of God. Religion became a major contributor to winning the Revolutionary War and it helped in shaping the new Republic. Yet, the founding fathers retained the basic Enlightenment principles when crafting a new Constitution, declaring “We the People” while simultaneously separating Church and state and omitting any thought or dependence on Divine institution. 

Enlightenment thinking took a decidedly more tragic turn in 1789 with the French Revolution that followed. With nearly all of France’s 28 million citizens as Roman Catholics, and with the Church second in power only to the monarchy itself, the new revolutionary government’s first action was to declare the Catholic Church an enemy of the state. It cancelled the taxing power of the Church and confiscated all its property. Clergy were hunted down and persecuted with ferocious and dogged tenacity. Unknown thousands of priests, bishops and nuns were massacred. Churches and sanctuaries were destroyed, convents and monasteries pillaged and sacked, the Holy Eucharist desecrated. 

In September 1792, three Church bishops and hundreds of priests were brutally murdered by angry mobs in what became known as the September Massacres. An entire convent of Carmelite nuns were guillotined in Compiegne for refusing to deny their faith. The Archbishop of Paris was forced to resign his duties and march through the streets of Paris wearing a red “Cap of Liberty” instead of his mitre. 

Catholic religious holidays were outlawed and replaced with festivals to celebrate the harvest and other non-religious symbols. One of the most notorious was the cult known as the Fête de la Raison or “Festival of Reason.” It was first celebrated in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, where the high altar had been torn down and an altar to Liberty erected with the inscription “To Philosophy.” Festive maidens in Roman dresses and colored sashes danced around a costumed Goddess of Reason who represented Liberty. 

But the turbulent effects of the French Revolution were a fate not confined only to France. It’s widespread dechristianization spread to other countries like Italy and Belgium. In 1796, the French army under the command of a young Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy and conquered the Italian states. French troops marched on Rome, attempted to force a renunciation of temporal authority from Pope Pius VI and, when he refused, took the pontiff prisoner, effectively ending all authority of the Papal Government. Pius VI died in 1799 while still a prisoner of the French. 

Belgium, then part of the Austrian Netherlands, had been invaded and annexed in 1795, resulting in the rapid implementation of the same reforms which had been passed in post-Revolution France. Like a leviathan’s hungry tenacles, death and destruction at the hands of the French reached across Belgium, closing churches, seminaries, and religious houses. Clergy were forbidden to wear ecclesiastical garb and were forced to publish a declaration recognizing France as the sovereign authority. The University of Louvain — long an institution for the education of seminarians and clergy — was closed for not providing “the kind of public instruction conformable to Republican principles.” 

More than 7,500 Belgian priests were illegally condemned and either deported or executed. One of those who narrowly escaped with his life was Rev. Charles Nerinckx (1761-1824). Ordained in 1785, the Flemish-born Nerinckx refused to comply with the French reforms. With a warrant out for his arrest, he went into hiding and evaded his would-be captors for four years, finally fleeing in disguise to the United States. He eventually made his way to Kentucky, where he became one of its most renowned Catholic missionary priests. 

Another was Father Benedict Joseph Flaget (1763-1850). He was a young priest teaching theology at the University of Nantes when it was closed by the Revolutionary Council in 1791. Fleeing with fellow priest, Rev. John Mary David and seminarian Stephen Badin, Flaget sailed from Bordeaux to Philadelphia in January 1792. Like Nerinckx, Flaget and Badin would find their way to Kentucky, Father Badin becoming a missionary in the footsteps of Nerinckx and Flaget the first Bishop of Bardstown in 1808. 

While the French Revolution nearly destroyed Catholicism in much of Europe, the first few decades of the 19th century witnessed a decline in Enlightenment influences. The Concordat of 1801 reconciled revolutionaries and Catholics and solidified the Roman Catholic Church as the majority church of France, and in 1826, the Confraternity of Penitents reestablished Eucharistic devotion to the French people. This movement also produced a similar reconciliation in Belgium where, on March 13, 1846, Camillus Paul Maes would be born into a devout Catholic family in the old Flemish city of Courtrai. 

But this isn’t the end of this story. The specter of the Enlightenment would linger for years to come, until one day the same Camillus Maes, now the Bishop of Covington and a ranking member of the American episcopate, would find it necessary to confront a new threat of religious decline in America and reawaken in priests and lay faithful a new reverence and devotion for his beloved Holy Eucharist. 

Coming up next: Part 3 —Pioneer priests brought the Eucharistic tradition to Kentucky.

Image: Period woodcut of Bishops and clergy forced to swear an oath to the regime.


Cathedral’s Chapel window recalls the First Eucharistic Congress in the U.S.

Stephen Enzweiler, Cathedral Historian

Part 1 in a series

Sunny afternoons in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel are quiet times of whispering candles, prayerful pilgrims and streaming sunlight. Frank Duveneck’s murals gaze down through the silence as colored light splashes across the warm marble and stone columns. Five stained-glass windows in the chapel all tell stories along the theme of the Holy Eucharist — of offerings and prefigurement, celebrations and ritual set in glass upon which the faithful can contemplate and pray. Two windows tell stories from scripture, two contrast the Jewish seder meal and the first Corpus Christi feast celebrated in 1247. But one stained-glass window is different from all the rest.

On the western wall of the chapel is a window that depicts a procession of people with a priest in golden vestments carrying a monstrance. They all move in unison toward an elevated altar upon which an open Eucharistic throne of exposition awaits. At first glance, one might think the scene is a typical Corpus Christi procession such as parishes conduct each June. But this window isn’t about a Corpus Christi procession — it’s about a more profound event.

The window is titled the “First Eucharistic Congress in the United States of America” and it commemorates the first gathering of clergy in the United States who met in 1895 at Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. to bear witness to the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Bishop Camillus P. Maes, third Bishop of Covington, played a leading role in organizing the Congress and served as its Secretary and presiding officer. The gathering was seen by the American prelature as essential to spreading the devotion of the real presence in the Eucharist, and it had the personal blessing of Pope Leo XIII. It was attended by more than 250 priests, bishops and archbishops, including the Vatican’s Francesco Cardinal Satolli and His Excellency James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore.

The window measures 21-feet high at its apex and 9-feet across at its base. In the scene, we see the priest in golden vestments processing amid a large crowd of faithful moving toward an altar beneath stone arches. Servers carry a large processional baldacchino above the priest as crowds of faithful follow behind. In the crowd is a cardinal and several bishops. Behind the baldacchino, a banner of the Virgin Mary can be seen. Three solitary figures in floral garments appear in the lower left corner of the window. One wears spectacles and bows reverently to the passing Eucharist; the other two, of distinctly Germanic appearance, gaze devoutly upon the holy Eucharist. High above, amid floral motifs of fig leaves are the armorial bearings of Pope St. Leo XIII.

The window scene was composed by Bishop Maes himself. In a Dec. 10, 1909 letter to Mayer & Company, the Munich firm that produced the window, he instructed, “The priests carrying the Baldachino as well as those walking in the procession are to be in cassock and surplices; the cardinal in rochet and cape; the Bishops in rochet and mantellata … a temporary altar for benediction to be shown on the porch of McMahon Hall.” In reply to Mayer’s query about whether the Bishop wished to be featured in the window, his reply was simple: “No, I do not want any portraits.”

Yet, Franz Borgia Mayer, the owner and director of Mayer & Company, had his sketch artist, George Daniels, render the Bishop’s face as the priest carrying the monstrance. Mayer and Bishop Maes were close, personal friends, and the window maker was often the recipient of his Apostolic blessings. Franz Mayer knew well of Maes’ deep humility, and he likely took the liberty to include his likeness as a way of honoring his friend for his great accomplishment of the Congress. He also had Daniels sketch in his own likeness and those of two other Mayer directors. Thus, in the window’s lower left-hand corner are these three additional figures (from top to bottom): Director Adolph Rau; Franz Borgia Mayer (owner of Mayer & Company); and Director Wilhelm Werberger as the bowing man wearing glasses.

Despite his earlier instructions, Bishop Maes did not seem to mind the changes. “The design … is original and unique,” he wrote in a letter to Mayer. “It is very acceptable.” History records that none of the Mayer directors attended the actual Congress, and Bishop Maes didn’t carry the monstrance in the actual procession. But for the Bishop, historical accuracy was less important than the deeper catechesis behind the window itself. In his heart, he wished the window might serve future generations in “recalling that the Eucharist is our heavenly food and our spiritual nourishment during our earthly pilgrimage.”

For anyone who knew him in life, to think of Bishop Maes was to think of the Holy Eucharist itself, for it was the treasure of his life, and the spread of its devotion became his lifelong ambition. It is said that to watch his reverence for the Sacrament at Mass had a profound effect on those in attendance. So devoted was he to the Blessed Sacrament that he became widely known among his fellow prelates as the “Bishop of the Blessed Sacrament,” just as Pius X was later called the “Pope of the Blessed Sacrament.”

This devotion to the Holy Eucharist began as a very young boy growing up in Belgium. It was instilled in him by his parents and reinforced by his aunt, a Carmelite nun, and two uncles who were priests. During his seminary years, he learned of the great figures of the Eucharist, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, “the poet of the Eucharist,” and St. Peter Julian Eymard (1811-1868), the Marist priest who founded the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament and later the Priest’s Eucharistic League in France. “The Eucharist is everything,” Eymard wrote, “because from the Eucharist, everything is.” Notably, Eymard’s later life was dedicated to renewing Eucharistic devotion in 19th-century Europe at a time when religion was declining precipitously in the wake of the French Revolution. It was a decline that spread as a materialistic secularism decorated with non-religious alternatives.

American historian Henry Adams witnessed a similar pattern of decline in the United States. In 1860, he recorded the profound cultural, social and intellectual shifts that had taken place since the time of the American Revolution, most notably the “disappearance of religion.” This decline was recorded in many other histories of the period as a time of growing secularization and deep, materialistic orientation. It is a period we have come to know as the Gilded Age.

One of Europe’s responses to the religious decline came in June 1881 with the first International Eucharistic Congress, held in Lille, France with the theme, “The Eucharist Saves the World.” The initial inspiration behind the idea came from a laywoman — Marie Marthe Baptisine Tamisier (1834–1910) who lobbied the clergy for more than a decade. More Congresses were held regularly throughout Europe, with attendance growing each year to more than 150,000 by 1888.

In the United States, devotion to the Blessed Sacrament was seen by clergy as the key to reviving religious devotion. By 1890, the effort to hold a Eucharistic Congress in the United States had been bantered about, but without any action. The “Associato Adoratorium,” under the leadership of Father Bede Maler, O.S.B. of Indianapolis had made little headway among clergy. Realizing something more was needed, Maler turned to his friend, the Bishop of Covington.

On the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, March 7, 1894, Bishop Maes met with five priests in his house on Eighth Street in Covington, one of whom was Father Maler. In the Bishop’s front parlor, the “Priests Eucharistic League of America” was formally founded. The following year, Maes was named “Protector of the Priests’ Eucharistic League” for life. The formation of the League accelerated interest among clergy nationwide, generating a greater reverence toward the Holy Eucharist. Within the year, Maes and his fellow bishops began making plans to hold the First Eucharistic Congress in the United States.

Bishop Maes knew from the start the effect such a congress would have, and we can see its effects in the historical record. In 1884, the Catholic population in the Diocese of Covington was about 40,000 with 52 parishes and roughly 800 children enrolled in schools. By 1903, it had grown to over 54,000 Catholics and 78 parishes with 7,137 children enrolled. New churches and schools were being constructed along with the establishment of seven new academies and the formation of new Catholic societies. More broadly, during this period Americans erected most of the country’s largest churches and religious monuments during a growing Gothic Revival movement, producing a vast wealth of religious paintings, sculptures and works of religious art.

Bishop Maes didn’t even begin thinking about creating the Eucharistic Congress window until late in 1908. Perhaps it was because he began feeling his years advancing and wished to leave his flock something of lasting importance. The window we see today is not as much a record of an event that happened on an eastern campus in some distant autumn as it is a message for our present age. It is a window that reaches out to us across time and speaks of a Eucharistic revival that began long ago as the American Church’s response to what was then considered a religious decline in America. Now a century later, another Eucharistic revival is underway with similar purpose, and we can thank our third bishop for showing us the way.

Coming up next: Part 2 — “Roots of 19th Century religious decline ran deep.”

Image: Original George Daniels sketch of the First Eucharistic Congress window. (Copyright Mayer’sche Hofkunstanstalt GmbH/Mayer of Munich) The completed window, which features the likeness of Bishop Camillus Paul Maes, third bishop of the Diocese of Covington, and depicts the first Eucharistic Congress, is visible within the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Ky.