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A Book Review . . . Learning The Little-Known Life Story Of Bishop Schneider

January 19, 2020 Featured Today No Comments

By JAMES BARESEL

Christus Vincit: Christ’s Triumph Over the Darkness of the Age by Bishop Athanasius Schneider and Diane Montagna, Angelico Press, 2019. Available at amazon.com.

It would be all too easy for a reviewer of Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s Christus Vincit: Christ’s Triumph Over the Darkness of the Age to limit himself to predictable reflections on some of the most high-profile, controversial, and pressing issues of the day. These are, after all, the topics with which much of Christus Vincit is concerned, often making points with which I could not agree more, now and then making ones which I would dispute.
But while a 300-page volume can address such topics either with some originality or some comprehensiveness, a book review cannot. What a review can do without repetitiveness is call attention to the book’s first major segment, that which concerns the little-known life story of the well-known prelate who authored it.
That he began life in the former Soviet Union and is from a German family which suffered at the hands of the Communist regime are among the few aspects of Bishop Schneider’s biography with which faithful Catholics in our country tend to be familiar. The details of them are in some ways more interesting, in some ways more complex.
Bishop Schneider’s family did not arrive in Russia as a consequence of World War II, but had, instead, lived there since the early nineteenth century as part of a colony-sized ethnically German community which had fled the secular liberalism imposed on their homeland by French armies and immigrated to the Black Sea region under the patronage of Tsar Alexander I during the Napoleonic Wars.
During World War II, 300,000 of these “Russian Germans,” including the bishop’s immediate ancestors, were first shipped to Germany by Hitler’s armies and then back to Russia by those of Stalin.
Bishop Schneider was born the year after his parents were released from a Gulag logging camp in the Ural Mountains where they had not only been imprisoned since the end of the war but met, married, and had their first children.
He was baptized by his mother, who, together with her husband and relatives from both their families, were among those who kept the faith for years despite the absence of clergy, forcing them to go months at a time without Mass, the sacraments, and pastoral guidance. One of the priests whom they came to know well as he had sneaked into and out of the Gulag to provide such clerical ministrations was Blessed Oleksa Zaryckyj, who attained some fame among Russian Catholics as a hero of the underground Church.
Even outside the Gulag the practice of the faith had to be kept secret, with it often being necessary for the Schneider family to travel considerable distances to attend Mass and receive the sacraments, which remained periodically unavailable.
In 1973 the family was able to permanently escape Communist oppression when it moved to West Germany, where they could openly practice the faith but where the condition of the Catholic Church there appalled them — with widespread dissent from Church teaching among both clergy and laity, abusive and irreverent liturgical practices, and general disregard for the supernatural.
In Russia the persecution of the Church had assured that it was abandoned by all who were not committed to doctrinal orthodoxy and moral living. The Traditional Latin Mass had remained in widespread use, not on the basis of legal technicalities (and certainly not out of a spirit of disobedience) but because no other liturgical books were available. Fortunately, however, the future bishop encountered the Canons Regular of the Holy Cross of Coimbra, a solidly orthodox order which maintained strict monastic observance with a traditional horarium, a full life of prayer, wearing of the habit and exemplary celebration of the reformed liturgy of Pope Paul VI.

The Front Lines In Brazil

What I found the most unexpected aspects of Bishop Schneider’s life story concerned his formation and his early priestly ministry. I had, wrongly, assumed that he had always lived either in Europe or in those parts of Asia which are either within or bordering on Russia. In fact much of his formation and his early priestly ministry took place in Brazil, quite literally on the front lines in the battle to defend the faith and protect souls against Liberation Theology.
Two years after Bishop Schneider entered his order, Bishop Manuel Pestana asked the canons to open a seminary in Brazil’s Diocese of Anapolis, which Pestana was trying to reform after theologically modernist and political leftist clergymen had reduced it to, in Schneider’s words, “a complete spiritual ruin.” Due to the shortage of vocations inevitably consequent upon such a situation, the canons sent some of their own seminarians there to form the nucleus of a new student body, one of whom was Athanasius Schneider.
In Christus Vincit, Bishop Schneider tells how he and the other members of his order would travel to destitute regions of rural Brazil on footpaths and horseback due to the lack of roads, to celebrate Mass, hear Confessions, provide catechism lessons, teach the people to pray, and bring the sacraments to the sick and dying.
Of course the canons also assisted people in their material needs but, as Bishop Schneider stresses, the poor with whom he worked loved the priority that the canons gave to the supernatural. They saw the focus that the canons gave to such symbols of the supernatural as the wearing of cassocks and religious habits.
One would have a hard time finding a better example of the way in which the corporal works of mercy can be pursued in the most dire circumstances while still giving worship, the sacraments, and doctrine their rightful preeminence, and can only hope that a full book will someday be written about the canons’ work in Latin America.

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