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Right Reverend Monsignor John Tracy Ellis (1905-)

IN HIS RECENT VOLUME OF MEMOIRS, Portraits from Memory, Bertrand Russell has a brief chapter which he calls "How I Write." Granted that many readers may find a number of opinions in his book with which they will disagree, Russell has some sensible things to say on the subject of writing. He remarks, for example, that in his young years he would fret himself into a nervous state for fear that a given Piece of writing might never come right but, he adds ''very gradually I have discovered ways of writing with a minimum of worry and anxiety." It is a familiar experience, of course, for new writers, although there are those to whom writing has apparently always been a rather effortless task. The late Theodore Maynard, it seemed to me, was one of those fortunate people. But most of us, alas, have not escaped the period of fret and frenzy that accompanied our first literary efforts. I certainly did not, and only recollections of the earliest manifestation of this "fretting" process are related to the preparation of themes for a college English class where the professor was noted for his severe scrutiny and his close marking of student papers. We knew that what we did would be critically read and corrected, and that in itself was a challenge, to say nothing of trying to earn a high mark from one who was notoriously stingy in that regard. It was in the English class of this professor that I first learned the necessity of repeated rewriting of awkward passages, of the value of a unified paragraph, of the search for more refined expression, and in a general way many of the hazards of authorship which remain with a man to the end of his life.

After being awarded a Knights of Columbus scholarship in June 1927, I enrolled for graduate studies at the Catholic University of America and began my formal training in history under the direction of Monsignor Peter Guilday. During the next three years about the only writing I did was for my master's thesis and my doctoral dissertation, neither of which was ever the source of any special pride, for although the research they embodied was, perhaps, respectable enough, the style in which they were written never rose above the pedestrian standards customary in these academic exercises. After receiving my doctor's degree in 1930, I did very little writing during the next decade, aside from one or two brief articles in The Commonweal and The Catholic World, since my time was devoted principally to the preparation of the courses I was teaching and to my theological training for the priesthood. It was only in 1941 that I decided to write another book. The underlying motive behind Cardinal Consalvi and Anglo-Papal Relations, 1814-1825 (Catholic University Press, 1942) was two-fold: a conviction that the English aspects of the diplomacy of Pope Pius VII's great Secretary of State deserved more attention than they had up to that time received, and a desire to win an academic promotion.

A year before the volume on Consalvi appeared, however, a change in my courses from teaching the history of modern Europe to that of the Catholic Church in the United States altered radically my perspective about historical writing in general. I now found myself suddenly catapulted into a field that was teeming with subjects calling for treatment and, too, with an abundance of unpublished materials such as many historians may only dream of. It was in July, 1941, that the Rector of the Catholic University asked me to take over the courses in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Monsignor Guilday, whose health had begun to break and who was to be moved to the School of Sacred Theology where the burden would not be so heavy for him to bear. It was not long before I sensed the opportunities for writing which this new field had opened up. In the University I had fallen heir to Guilday's splendid tradition in productive scholarship, in the city the untold resources of the Division of Manuscripts of the Library of Congress and the National Archives were only twenty minutes removed by bus and trolley, and in the neighboring city of Baltimore the archives of the premier see of the United States, the richest single collection of manuscript sources on American Catholicism, were only forty minutes away by train. In other words, the situation was ideal for one who felt the urge to bring to light some of the hidden phases of the Church's history in this country.

Nor was I long in discovering an attractive subject. The more I read about John Lancaster Spalding (1840-1916), first Bishop of Peoria, the more did I come to admire him and the more did I feel a desire to probe more deeply into the life of one whose name had been a household word in the diocese where I was born and raised. I started out, therefore, with a vague idea of a biography of Spalding, but I became so engrossed in the leading role he played in the founding of the University that I ended up by publishing in 1946 a volume called The Formative Years of the Catholic University of America, the heart of which was in good measure Spalding's long, difficult, and inspiring struggle to found an institution for the higher education of the American clergy that would be worthy of the name.

In history, as in so many other fields of writing, one investigation suggests another, and so it was with the volume on the University. My research in the archives at Baltimore put me in close touch with the man who had become the University's first chancellor, and the longer I browsed among the papers of James Cardinal Gibbons the more was the idea borne in upon me that here was the subject for a biography in American Catholic history. After four years of teaching postgraduate courses in that field I was fully aware-and not a little awed-by the vast scope of Gibbons' life and activities, and it was only after a considerable period of thought, and consultation with a number of advisers, that I embarked upon what proved to be the most ambitious piece of writing that I have ever done, or ever will do. I had, I suppose, passed through what Bertrand Russell calls "a period of subconscious incubation which cannot be hurried" before the Gibbons biography became a fixed idea in my mind. But once there, it could not be dislodged. What I hardly dared to express openly at first was suggested to me by two wise and discerning friends when Monsignor John K. Cartwright, Rector of St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, and Monsignor Robert Howard Lord, late professor of church history in St. John's Seminary, Boston, urged me to proceed without further delay. Encouraged by their judgment in the matter, I sought the permission of Gibbons' successor in the See of Baltimore, Archbishop Michael J. Curley, a permission that was granted immediately and without qualification through the kindly offices of his chancellor, Monsignor Joseph M. Nelligan.

With this permission secured, there remained only the stamina and bravery to begin ! Little did I know that on July 5, 1945, when I left Washington for Baltimore to make my preliminary investigations in the thousands of Gibbons Papers (filling more than 100 file boxes) the proportions of the task I was tackling! For the next seven years I lived, studied, dreamed, imagined and talked about largely one subject - James Gibbons. The volume on the University had brought promotion to the rank of full professor in the spring of 1947, so that motive no longer entered into my calculations in undertaking the cardinal's life. In fact, it became almost from the outset a labor of love, but labor it was - to the extent of 1442 printed pages in the two fat volumes which were issued by Bruce in November, 1952.

After the life of Cardinal Gibbons, every other subject seemed for a time to be almost trivial and anti-climactic by comparison. But my experiences in the classroom and in the direction of graduate students prompted two other writing projects which might best be described as providing 'tools of the trade.' One was A Select Bibliography of the History of the Catholic Church in the United States (McMullen, 1947), the material for which I had begun to gather in a serious way during the academic year 1941 - 1942 when I had a sabbatical leave, a good portion of which I spent at Harvard University auditing courses in American social history and making the best of the opportunities awrded for reading and taking notes in the magnificent collections of the Widener Library and the fine collections of St. John's Seminary, Boston. The other project, to which I was goaded by one of my most resourceful and able priest graduate students, appeared in November, 1956, under the title Documents of American Catholic History (Bruce). Neither of these books, to be sure, represents authorship in the strict sense of the word, since the first is only a bibliography with notes on the books listed and the second is an edition of key documents in the history of the Church in this country from 1493 to 1939.

While editing the volume of documents, in which I received valuable aid from the students in my seminar, I received an invitation to deliver four lectures on the Charles R. Walgreen Foundation at the University of Chicago with the understanding that the University of Chicago Press wished to have the manuscript of these lectures for publication in book form. How I came to write American Catholicism is, therefore, self-evident, and if the reception accorded the little volume continues to be as favorable as it has been since it first appeared in September, 1956, I shall have no cause for regret. At this writing, the first printing of 3,000 copies has been sold out and I have been informed that a second printing of 5,000 copies is now underway.

Along with my duties as professor of church history in the University, as secretary of the American Catholic Historical Association, and as managing editor of The Catholic Historical Review, time has been found now and then to write a number of articles for scholarly and popular journals. There is space here for mention of only one of these articles. For a long time I had been convinced that American Catholics had not attained the distinction in scholarship and the prominence in influential posts of national leadership that their numbers, resources, and educational efforts would seem to warrant. When I was asked, therefore, early in 1955 by the executive secretary of the Catholic Commission for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs to prepare a paper for their annual meeting on this very subject I decided to embody all the evidence I had been accumulating for some time on this puzzling problem. The paper was delivered at Maryville College in St. Louis on May 14, 1955, and I then worked it over and submitted it the following summer to the editor of Thought. It appeared under the title "American Catholics and the Intellectual Life" in the autumn, 1955, issue of Fordham University's quarterly. If I had little comprehension of what was awaiting me in the Gibbons biography when I undertook the task in the summer of 1945,I had less intimation of the hub-bub this article was to cause ten years later. In fact, the seven years of labor and the 1442 pages of the final product in the life of the cardinal received nowhere near the attention that was directed to the thirty-seven pages in Thought.

It is now well over a year since the article was published and the letters-to the number of about 250-have not yet ceased. It is apparent that what was said had been on the minds of a great many persons interested in getting at the root causes for the poor showing made by Catholics in this country in scholarship and national leadership. Needless to say, the reactions were not by any means uniformly favorable, but I cannot help believing that the very vehemence of the discussion in some circles will in the end redound to the benefit of all concerned. For as Father Henri de Lubac, S.J., says in his book, The Splendor of the Church (Sheed, 1956), the self-criticism that strives for realism in action is a good thing. If, as he maintains, it be carried out in humility, give proper recognition to the good achieved, and take its rise from an essentially apostolic discontent, "how very much better it all is . . . than the naive self-complacency which admits of no reform and no healthy transformation."

In conclusion, I should like to express the wish that Father de Lubac's wonderful book be regarded as compulsory reading by every Catholic writer. It offers sterling advice and many sound correctives for the besetting sins that so frequently characterize those whose principal preoccupation is the intellectual life, a fact that is especially true of the chapter "Our Temptations Concerning the Church." Books like that of de Lubac and The Intellectual Life by Father A. D. Sertillanges, O.P. (Newman, 1952) help the Catholic writer to keep his work in proper focus. The pursuit of truth-in whatever form it takes through writing-can be an immensely thrilling and rewarding experience. Personally, I find the discovery of new truths in the history of American Catholicism through the medium of original research an experience of this kind, and for that reason I feel the impulse to share these truths with others by writing them down in a permanent form. And there is no better way, it seems to me, for a person who has the aptitude, taste and training for the intellectual life to further the advancement of the Church than through this means. He need not-and he should not-think of what he writes as an apologetic, for as Cardinal Suhard said in his famous pastoral of February, 1947, when he counseled scholars to integrate the conclusions of their several fields of specialization in order to try to form a cosmic vision of the universe, "in this effort you must not involve any consideration of interest be it even apologetical; you must seek only what is." But the writer who sincerely and conscientiously seeks "only what is" in theology, philosophy, history, literature, or science will be at the same time doing an inestimable service to the Church in enabling her to hold higher her venerable head amid the confused and whirling intellectual currents of our time.

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