In dark days we all need saints and heroes to inspire us. There is no doubt that we live in very dark days, and there is equally no doubt that Anthony Esolen is a great inspiration. It is not for any of us to canonize him, claiming that he is a saint, but anyone who knows the trials and tribulations that he has been through in the past year and the way that he has responded to the witch hunt that was unleashed upon him will have no hesitation in hailing him as a hero.
For those who might not know anything about Anthony Esolen, a little background information will be needed. As a literary scholar he is rightly lauded internationally for his masterful translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, published by Modern Library. Robert Royal, of the Washington-based Faith and Reason Institute, declared that “if there is any justice in the world of books, [Esolen’s translation] will be the standard Dante… for some time to come.” Many would consider that the translation of Dante’s monumental literary edifice to widespread critical acclaim would be enough of a feather in anyone’s cap to warrant a life thereafter of resting on one’s laurels. Not so for Dr. Esolen, who has also translated the Roman epic On the Nature of Things by Lucretius and the Crusader tale Jerusalem Delivered by Torquato Tasso.
As if this were not enough, Dr. Esolen writes his own poetry as well as numerous books, the latest of which, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery 2017), was praised by Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, as “an astonishing combination of energy, humor, insight, and exceptional erudition, topped off by a vivid personal style and a special gift for tweaking the nose of secularist nonsense-peddlers.” Archbishop Chaput added that “reading Anthony Esolen is a bit like a ride on your favorite roller coaster.”
And all of the above is what Dr. Esolen does in his spare time. As a day job he is Professor of English Renaissance and Classical Literature at Providence College, or rather this was his day job from 1990 until the end of this school year. As of Fall 2017 he will join the faculty of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts as a fellow and writer-in-residence. The change of job is a matter of choice but it brings to a conclusion a period of persecution and intimidation at Providence College of this internationally esteemed scholar at the hands of radical relativist students who refuse to tolerate any position but their own. Such students, aided and abetted by some relativists on the faculty, will not tolerate freedom of expression in the academy, nor the existence of any believing Catholic if he has the temerity to publish anything informed by his Catholicism. Most shameful of all is the cowardly collusion of the President of the College, Fr. Brian Shanley, a Dominican friar, to the totalitarian demands of the radical relativists. It was the shameful betrayal by President Shanley of the Catholic faculty members at Providence College, kowtowing no doubt to the threat of violence by radical students, which finally caused Dr. Esolen to seek for fresher and healthier pastures. “The turning point came when the president refused to meet with a small group of Catholic professors,” Dr. Esolen said, “and persuaded the Dominican provincial not to meet with us either.”
What makes Dr. Esolen a hero is not that he has been persecuted by the enemies of the Church with the collusion of those members of the Church who choose the cowardly path of least resistance to the Cross of Christ; it is the manner in which he has responded to the persecution. In an essay he wrote in the very heat of the fray, when students were marching on the president’s office baying for his blood, he asked the all-important question: What will you do when the persecution comes? Some, he wrote, will be cowards; some traitors; some will even become persecutors themselves; but a few, a happy few, will become soldiers for Christ. This, when the persecution comes, wrote Dr. Esolen, is what all good Christians must become. And this is how he describes the soldier of Christ, the miles Christi:
He knows that war is hell, but that he and the Church have not sought the war. The war and the demons who lead it have sought the Church, to adulterate her or to kill her. The Soldier would prefer peace: he would prefer that his country might return to at least a worldly sanity, and grant the Church the liberty that she is owed and that redounds to the great benefit of the state itself…. The Soldier does not make light of the desperate situation. His name is not Pollyanna. But he remembers the words of Jesus: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” He brings both men and women into the Church without that being his principal aim, because it is sweeter to spend one day in the field with the Soldier than a thousand in the halls of the wealthy, the powerful, the timid, the faithless, and the mad.
What makes Anthony Esolen a hero is that he is himself a soldier of Christ. It is not that he’s suffered persecution; it’s what he did when the persecution came.
We can’t help being reminded of Thomas More, that other great layman who also knew what to do when the persecution came. Thomas More’s brother-in-arms among the clergy was Bishop John Fisher. Sadly Bishop Fisher was almost Thomas More’s only brother-in-arms among the clerical hierarchy, much as Archbishop Chaput, is one of those few, those happy few—and oh those all too few!—who have served as Dr. Esolen’s brothers-in-arms in his time of trial.
In the midst of all this we can’t help but see the hand of Providence (the real Providence, not the travesty of a college bearing its name) in the fact that Dr. Esolen is joining Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, a courageous soldier of Christ joining forces with a courageous college that is serving as a training ground for future generations of Christian soldiers. May they prosper!
As for Thomas More, after whom the college is named, he and John Fisher are saints. They are in heaven. We hesitate to call Dr. Esolen a saint but at least he knows what it takes to become one. As for those who have betrayed him, those who have chosen treachery over brotherhood, we hesitate to pass judgment on where their cowardice might lead. We can say, however, that we’d rather be in Dr. Esolen’s shoes than theirs when facing the judgment seat of Christ.
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