Wednesday 16th October 2019

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A Book Review… Dare To Be Great: Warren Carroll

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One Man Perched On A Rock: A Biography of Dr. Warren H. Carroll by Laura S. Gossin (Christendom Press, 2017, 310 pages). Available at

In the eighth century AD, the Muslims invaded Spain. Within three years, they had conquered the Iberian Peninsula, sacking churches and cities, killing many people, and forcing Christian women into their harems.
One of these women was the beautiful, beloved sister of a Spaniard named Pelayo.
On learning his sister’s fate, Pelayo launched an insurrection against the newly instituted Muslim government. He founded a tiny principality in the Cantabrian Mountains, attracted a handful of men to his cause, and launched what would become the longest war in history: the 700-year attempt to make all of Spain Christian again.
At one point, when the Muslims were besieging Pelayo and his men, and were resisted so successfully that the followers of Muhammad withdrew, a Muslim chronicler wrote: “What are thirty barbarians perched on a rock? They must inevitably die.”
Pelayo served not only as an inspiration to Spaniards down through the ages, but also to Dr. Warren H. Carroll, founder of Christendom College in Front Royal, Va.
In One Man Perched On A Rock: A Biography of Dr. Warren H. Carroll, Laura S. Gossin writes: “So much was Warren drawn to this ideal which stands firm and unwavering in the face of overwhelming odds that the story of this man, known to history simply as Pelayo, would become one of his favorites and one that all of his future students would learn to recite almost by heart.”
Like Pelayo, Carroll often found himself perched on a rock surrounded by those hostile to his ideas. In graduate school at Columbia University in the mid-1950s, he was stunned to find so many students and professors proclaiming the unattainability of truth, and the triumph of relativism and socialism, a time of which he wrote, “I have met the enemy.”
Later, in the early 1960s, he worked briefly for the CIA and was again astonished to discover among his fellow employees some who were sympathetic toward Communism, with his female supervisor proclaiming during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Now we’ll know how they (the Russians) feel when we place missiles near their borders.”
Throughout his adult life, Carroll stood as a staunch and outspoken opponent of Communism. He worked in politics, and wrote books, articles, and speeches about the evils of the far left.
And in the late-1960s, Carroll converted to Catholicism. This transformation began when he attended a Christmas Mass with his wife Anne, a devout Catholic. Profoundly moved by the prayers and reverence of that Mass, he began reading apologetics, including the works of C.S. Lewis, and was further inspired in his quest by the example of California politician and Catholic John Schmitz, with whom Carroll worked.
On being received into the Church, he was soon writing Catholic history, working with Triumph magazine, teaching in Catholic summer institutes, and helping Anne establish the Seton School, a private Catholic academy in Manassas, Va.
Somewhere along that path of conversion Carroll decided to found a Catholic college.
In 1976, he issued his “Christendom College: A Prospectus.” It was his public call to build not only a college, but to take a hand in the revival of the Church and Catholic education as well. In that document, he wrote: “Most of the damage to Catholic higher education which could have been done, has been done. The ruins lie around us. But the destroyers do not know what to do with their victory, for all the roads away from the truth of Christ end only in darkness. It is time for the rebuilding to begin.”
In 1977, Christendom College opened its doors with 26 students and a staff of five in Triangle, Va. Two years later, it relocated to its present location on the banks of the Shenandoah River near Front Royal, where today it the college houses over 500 students. Ongoing building projects have brought to these grounds a gymnasium, the beautiful St. John the Evangelist Library, numerous dormitories, and the current construction of a new chapel.
Laura Gossin, a 1987 graduate of Christendom College and a history major who studied under Dr. Carroll, has in her biography done a great service for the college, the Catholic faith, and education. She lucidly enumerates the many changes in Carroll’s work and career, and shows us a devout son of the Church whose vision transformed the lives of hundreds of young people.
Even more, Gossin gives us insights into Carroll himself: his love of travel; the excitement he conveyed to his students and colleagues regarding philosophy, the Catholic faith, and history; his peculiar and sometimes unnerving habit of looking at the ground when he spoke with others; his constant reading; his love of song and singing, even though he was apparently close to tone deaf; the quiet affection he bestowed on the young people in his charge.
“He ate meals with the students,” Gossin writes, “he prayed with the students, and he stayed after class to answer any and all questions of the students.”
Mark McShurley, who worked in the early years in the admissions office, offers this observation in One Man Perched on a Rock, “He wouldn’t be called personable. But you saw that he was determined, and that he really did care for the students even though he wasn’t warm and fuzzy about it…the students loved and respected him even though they laughed at his foibles. He was goofy! And the students made fun of his goofiness, but with great respect.”
Dr. Warren H. Carroll died on July 17, 2011, and lies buried in a small plot of land on the Christendom campus. Gossin ends One Man Perched on a Rock with this sentence “Let us go forth from Warren’s story, then, in apostolic hope, with courage and determination, to become part of that army of saints he loved and admired so much and thereby to restore all things in Christ.”
“To restore all things in Christ,” or Instaurare Omnia in Christo, is the motto of Christendom College.
On these same last pages, Gossin points readers to two other important injunctions implicit in Warren’s story. “Dare to be great” is today’s challenge from Christendom College to its students, and one of Carroll’s favorite sayings was “One man can make a difference.”
Warren Carroll dared to be great, and Christendom College stands as testimony that “one man can make a difference.”
His was a life that poses questions for the rest of us: Will we dare to be great? And will we make a difference?
Highly recommended.

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