Volume > Issue > A Clerical Life in Overdrive

A Clerical Life in Overdrive

Paul Stenhouse MSC: A Life of Rare Wisdom, Compassion and Inspiration

By Wanda Skowronska

Publisher: Connor Court Publishing

Pages: 307

Price: AUD$39.95

Review Author: Edwin Dyga

Edwin Dyga, K.H.S., is Managing Director of Sidestream Press, Editor of The Observer & Review, and an occasional contributor to Quadrant magazine.

There are people one encounters in life whose memory lingers pleasantly long after their passing, whose formative influence may be intellectually challenging but also reminds us that there is strength in humility. Fr. Paul Stenhouse was such a person. Wanda Skowronska has written a wonderful and touching biography of this remarkable priest of the Marist Brothers in Sydney, Australia, based on her own experiences, extensive interviews, and access to Fr. Paul’s personal papers. This short volume is a record of a life lived seemingly in overdrive by a man who aged in body but not in intellect or spirit; his life is rightly described in the subtitle as one of rare inspiration.

I first met Fr. Paul via email when I was recommended Annals Australasia, a Catholic monthly he edited. At the time, I was studying law and was politically active in conservative circles on various university campuses in the Sydney region. Since my politics have always been informed by Catholic social teaching, the discovery of Annals was like finding a diamond in a gravel pit. Its editor and contributors never shied away from tackling the controversies of the day. As I do now with the NOR, each month I would impatiently await the arrival of this journal and treat it as an important corrective to the cultural commentary found in the secular mainstream press.

Skowronska’s biography is broadly chronological. Reading about Paul’s early life gives the sensation of meeting him again for the first time. Homeschooled from an early age due to illness, young Paul was first exposed to learning and the Catholic faith at the tutelage of his mother, who had a huge influence on her son’s spiritual and intellectual life. The family home in Matavai, a rural town now on the outskirts of the greater Sydney region, was open to a variety of personalities: “distinguished scholars, soldiers, shopkeepers, students, wandering salesmen and homeless people,” all of whom had an impact on Paul’s moral and intellectual development and would shape his ability to relate to others later in life.

Skowronska notes a number of personalities Fr. Paul encountered as a priest and academic, including Judge Roderick Meagher of the New South Wales Supreme Court; Paddy McGuinness, editor of Quadrant magazine and an atheist who habitually wore black to mock what he understood as dogmatic clericalism but who nevertheless remained a fair-minded social and political commentator on the cultural Right; Rupert Lockwood, a former communist who turned against the utopian creed after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; John Antill, an Australian composer; and sinologist Pierre Ryckmans.

The stories of other individuals Fr. Paul encountered provide a testament to the extent of his spiritual influence. Julian Leow, an architecture student at the University of New South Wales whose friendship with Fr. Paul led him to enter the seminary, would later become archbishop of Malaysia. Chai Chang-Ning, the flautist who performed for the films The Last Emperor (1987) and Mao’s Last Dancer (2009), reconnected with his family’s nearly forgotten Catholic heritage as a consequence of Fr. Paul’s encouragement.

There are moments in Skowronska’s work in which the reader is reminded of the extent of Catholic involvement in the arts, and how those involved did not hide their Catholic identity in the public square. Given the current ideological climate in the entertainment industry, it is surprising to learn that the iconic Australian critic and cinephile Bill Collins, another friend of Fr. Paul’s, “had taught Latin at Sydney University and was ‘pre-Vatican II.’” Also mentioned are Prof. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz of the Institute of World Politics, whom I met when researching the history of the Intermarium, and Fr. Paul Glynn, former missionary for the Marist Brothers in post-war Japan who pioneered that nation’s reconciliation with Australia. Fr. Paul was the fulcrum of many a network of artists, academics, jurists, politicians, and men and women of letters, locally and across the globe.

Fr. Paul would find his calling to the priesthood in the pages of what was then still known as Annals Australia, through the medium of an advertisement placed therein by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. While in seminary, he preferred to labor in the garden or engage in beekeeping rather than participate in more athletic pastimes. This allowed him those extended moments of repose necessary for contemplation, signaling a future life dominated by the mind. Indeed, it was then that his interest in languages and linguistics began to flourish. Skowronska writes:

During this time, the young Paul’s liking for words and their etymology manifested themselves. One of his fellow MSCs told me that one day during a break, the novice Paul explained the origin of the word “window” to a group of them, saying something along the lines of its coming from the Old Norse “vindauga,” from “vindr,” meaning “wind,” and “agua,” meaning “eye,” thus “wind eye” and “window.” Again one might say — so Stenhousian! Whatever the effect on the listeners, this revealed a mind which delved ceaselessly into words, their meanings, into the meanings of their meanings, and all else in a very precise way.

Another close acquaintance recalls how the seminarian Paul would hold conversations on topics ranging from “Middle Eastern politics to Jungian psychology,” and should anyone mention something as obscure as Antarctica, “no doubt he would have been able to discuss its flora, fauna, and the history of Catholic chaplains there.”

Fittingly, logos animated the life of the future priest who would speak 13 languages and was learning Mandarin at the time of his passing. (Once, when I declared to him my intention to learn Japanese, his response was, “Oh, that’s a simple language!”) Fr. Paul was fluent in Arabic — reportedly in several of its dialects — and committed to studying Aramaic and other local languages so as to understand the historical contexts in which Christianity and Islam developed. As Skowronska notes, the voracious curiosity that defined his life would lead to “studying in Topkapi Palace in Turkey or climbing mountains in Kashmir.”

At the University of Sydney, Fr. Paul read ancient history and Hebrew at the Department of Semitic Studies, laboring against the deconstructivist theories and revolutionary spirit of the 1960s and 1970s by “look[ing] to the past to understand the present.” While the works of Antonio Gramsci and Herbert Marcuse bewitched the nascent contemporary intelligentsia on campus, Fr. Paul’s presence and engagement with them constituted, in Skowronska’s words, “an antidote in human form to post-modernism and cultural Marxism.” While the radicals had their techniques for effecting revolutionary change in society, he focused on a “well informed, strong faith” that could “influence, indeed transform, the development of a country in the long term.”

This invariably came in the form of stressing the importance of Catholic identity in its various cultural manifestations. Fr. Paul sought to counteract the West’s “cultural amnesia” by drawing on Pope Benedict XVI’s warnings that loss of memory leads to loss of identity. As this loss is the first existential step to the elimination of the individual as made in the image of God, rendering him unable to relate to his neighbor as a moral agent and, therefore, resulting in the effective annihilation of community as understood in Western ethical terms, this problem is perhaps the most pressing controversy of our times. Fr. Paul addressed it through a persistent and systematic re-presentation of historical facts that revived and highlighted aspects of Catholic civilization.

The present times being hostile to any such project, Fr. Paul would find himself frequently on the receiving end of retaliation, often toxic and malicious. Skowronska writes that “some vented their anti-Catholic spleen on him in poison pen letters which he read in an unfazed way and responded to in a welter of facts.” Fr. Paul “had the gift of drawing people into the ambience of a serious, cordial discussion and commonly perceived humanity.” Whether it was a controversy embroiling the Church or heated discussions between diametrically opposed perspectives, Fr. Paul “would demolish views, not people.” He “did not respond in anger, but affirmed his readers in a more serene consideration of the facts” that generated “light, not heat.” Fr. Paul would enter any breach in good faith, without attempting to alienate his interlocutor but with a confidence seldom displayed by apologists for Catholic historical truth today. As Skowronska explains, “There was no point scoring, no put down, simply an invitation to clarity…. There were not many who can engage in debate with a person expressing a conflicting view and enjoy the conversation…. He could disagree with a point of view in a consummately agreeable way.”

While at university, Fr. Paul’s study of Abu’l-Fath’s medieval Arabic text History of the Samaritans was upgraded to a doctoral thesis focusing on 30 as-yet untranslated manuscripts. Research would take him to Venice and Trieste and led to his acquiring manuscripts from the Russia State Library in Moscow. “Exactly how Fr. Stenhouse obtained those manuscripts is unclear,” writes Skowronska. No minor physical discomfort or other inconvenience would discourage Fr. Paul’s academic drive. He labored “in the roof cavity above a church close to the sea” in Dubrovnik, and his translation included a substantial dictionary of key terms to assist his thesis markers. After completion, he remained at Sydney University for a decade and became a founding member of the Société d’Études Samaritaines at the Collège de France. He later lectured in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Oxford, Venice, Helsinki, Budapest, Zürich, and Tartu. He also wrote an entry for “Samaritans” in the Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān (2002).

Skowronska records the extent of these international voyages, which Fr. Paul pursued for academic as well as caritative purposes. His Aeroflot flight from Rome to Lviv, and travels through Ukraine to meet local Catholics (including a trip to Chernobyl), and deeper still, beyond the Urals through Ekaterinburg, Novo Tischinski, Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Tagil, and Simferopol are recounted in colorful detail. Skowronska notes Fr. Paul’s work with Aid to the Church in Need, for whom he delivered medicines by chartering a boat from Cyprus to Lebanon in 1987 after procuring them by donations from Australian pharmaceutical companies. Never to be concerned with such trifles as personal security when greater matters were at stake, I recall his disappointment, mentioned to me only in passing, at failing to gain access to Syria during a period of regional turbulence (Skowronska describes a similar event, though a date is not given).

Fr. Paul did not hesitate to visit war zones, notably Lebanon, where no part of society was spared the brutalities of militarism, forcing some of the youngest and most vulnerable to take up arms. “The country seems to be defended by children,” he wrote in his notes, some of which Skowronska reproduces in this volume. In Lebanon Fr. Paul interviewed the Phalangist chief Gabriel Sayegh, Maronite politician Elie Karami, and ex-President Suleiman Franjieh. Skowronska writes, “Knowledge of the language, politics, history, his resourcefulness, diplomatic skills, and the fact he was a priest, all clearly helped Fr. Stenhouse reach places not easy to access, to read between the lines, to be a peace maker.” A meeting with Prime Minister Michel Aoun, then exiled after the Syrian invasion of Lebanon, resulted in a lengthy, exclusive interview for Annals in 1993. Of her discussions with the late George Cardinal Pell, Skowronska writes:

Another thing Cardinal Pell noted was that Fr. Stenhouse “participated in high level official dialogue in Iran…. I know that for an absolute fact,” adding, “I don’t know how long he lasted as his views were perhaps not to the liking of the Iranian leadership.” His attempts to communicate with Shiite Muslims did not endear Fr. Stenhouse to the Americans either. Both the Cardinal and Fr. Stenhouse yearned for peace in the Middle East, the Cardinal noting that the “Sunnis and Shiites killed more of each other than they killed of us.” He had no doubt that Fr. Stenhouse’s involvement was nothing other than that — trying to help attain peace.

Fr. Paul’s life story invariably circles back to the journal he edited. Most of the public would have known him through the commentary he published in its pages. He was appointed as its business manager in 1964 and editor in 1966. Circulation increased from 25,000 to 58,000 under his editorship, with some months exceeding 70,000 issues sold. Annals was “the longest lasting journal in Australian history,” but it ceased publication after 131 years with its November 2019 issue, upon Fr. Paul’s passing. No doubt, after 53 years of editorial stewardship, Annals became synonymous with Fr. Paul himself, and its continued existence under a different administration may have been inconceivable to its publisher, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. Whatever the reason for its discontinuance, the absence of Annals from my list of subscriptions was, and remains, a lamentable loss. The final yearly volume, CXXX, which sits on my shelf with a eulogistic spine mark of “2019 to End,” signals the closing of an era in Australian Catholic publishing.

Skowronska notes some of the monthly’s past contributors: Hilaire Belloc, C.C. Martindale, Mary Gilmore, Frank Sheed, Samir Khalil Samir, John Pontifex, Walter Brandmüller, Robert Spencer, Andrew Bostom, Nina Shea, Jude Dougherty, John Newton, and the aforementioned Jan Chodakiewicz. Skowronska modestly omits her own name, but her regular contributions likewise defined Annals as a journal of criticism and commentary that spoke to a readership far beyond the confines of any Catholic “echo chamber.” (She now writes for Quadrant under the editorship of historian and essayist Keith Windschuttle.) Its contributors, like its readership, were global and genuinely diverse. The journal was acknowledged by Pope St. John Paul II in a letter to its editor. Its trenchant critique of cultural Marxism after the demise of the Soviet Union reflected its prior aggressive stance against Bolshevism in the leadup to and during the Cold War.

Under Fr. Paul’s stewardship, Annals was characterized by a spirit of voracious intellectual curiosity and a genuinely fearless desire to question the conceits of secular modernity. Some within the Catholic community saw it as “divisive” simply due to the honesty of its contributors and the integrity of its editor. There were churches where it would be regularly on display, and others where its very existence was denied and those who asked for it regarded with suspicion. Annals provided intellectual leadership in an age desperately in need of it, and this could often be an affront to the treacle-laden soppiness or the endemically compromising nature of its more liberal critics. It is, therefore, no wonder that the journal suffered from a kind of Totschweigetaktik (silent treatment) from those who preferred to harmonize with the world instead of shining a light on it.

Fr. Paul was the kind of person one struggles to imagine ever being consumed by a fit of anger. He always vented his frustrations with a bemused smirk and a whispered cry of “Mother Machree!” I recall once being held up at work and over 20 minutes late for a meeting at an Italian café he frequented in the heart of Sydney. He greeted me with a smile that radiates to this day in my memories of him.

Paul Stenhouse was received by the Lord on November 19, 2019. Skowronska’s biography of this remarkable priest of the Sacred Heart is a worthy testament to a man whose influence continues in the lives of those who knew him, even if for only a brief moment.

 

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