Weidenkopf wows with tour of church history
By Kyle Eller
The Northern Cross
Did you know that Marie Antoinette, the famous queen of France beheaded in the French Revolution, was a devout Catholic who helped the poor and never said the words famously attributed to her: “Let them eat cake!”?
That’s just one of a flurry of tidbits those attending the sixth annual diocesan Catechetical Assembly picked up Sept. 10 from speaker Steve Weidenkopf in a whirlwind tour of church history.
Kyle Eller / The Northern Cross
Speaker Steve Weidenkopf speaks at the Sept. 10 diocesan Catechetical Assembly in Duluth.
But the first-time visitor to Duluth began on an area of common ground besides the faith: hockey. Weidenkopf said he was glad to be in a state that appreciates hockey like his family, and happy to be in the home city of the national champion University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs.
“There’s a special place in heaven reserved for hockey moms,” he said.
Weidenkopf said church history “is our family history” as Catholics and that the proper way to approach it is through storytelling — narrative — not merely a series of names and dates. He said the purpose of studying church history and teaching it is to know Christ, the center of history, and to build Catholic identity and defend the faith.
He illustrated that narrative approach on a rapid tour of church history, divided into 12 periods beginning with the very earliest “mustard seed” of faith with Pentecost and Paul’s missionary journeys, moving through the persecutions, controversies, councils, crusades, the Catholic Reformation, world wars, the Second Vatican Council, the “Threshold of Hope,” and the papacies of Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
Weidenkopf told stories for most of the 12 periods of church history he identified — often stories at once familiar and alien because they are so often misrepresented in popular culture and even news reporting.
For instance, Weidenkopf said the story of the crusades is one that is often presented in a very negative light, including in a movie he described as “Osama bin Laden’s version of history,” but really, he said, there are many myths about them, and over the past 40 years there has been a flowering of new scholarship that has changed our understanding of them. “The downside of that is it’s only happening in academia,” he said.
He went on to argue that the crusades were not wars of unprovoked aggression waged for booty and plunder but defensive wars waged, the individual testimonies say, out of love for Christ and the church and concern for their salvation.
Some stories might be less familiar, such as the Christmas tree originating with St. Boniface and his miraculous felling of the “thunder oak of Thor” in what is now Germany, or the derivation of the word “diocese” from the name of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who organized the Roman Empire into regions named dioceses.
The day of lectures was punctuated with critiques of myths floated by authors like Dan Brown and suggestions for reading of Catholic writers like Hillaire Belloc.
Often the stories were also put in a modern context, as when Weidenkopf pointed out the philosophy of Roman persecutors that man is sufficient to himself and all belief is mere opinion — attitudes that are also very contemporary. “I think we can take solace in that because we can see the church has been dealing with this for a long time,” he said.
John “Teep” Schlachter, principal of Assumption School in Hibbing, said he was impressed with the presentation and that it is the sort of thing he and friends in Washington, D.C., where he lived prior to taking the job in Hibbing, used to talk about at dinner. “This is in my wheelhouse,” he said.
He compared the approach to the Catholic writer J.R.R. Tolkein. “That’s Tolkein’s view of history, that it’s a narrative, as [Weidenkopf] explained,” Schlachter said. He said about 80 percent of the faculty was at the assembly and that he thought the presentation was highly educational. Hoefferle also remarked on the importance of seeing church history as our own story.
She said she saw a lot of catechetical leaders in attendance and gave an estimated attendance of 140 to 150, comparable to last year’s event. “This is kind of our big event of the year,” she said.
Bishop Sirba had noted some were in attendance from outside the Duluth diocese as well.
Weidenkopf closed his presentation asking those in attendance to put their work at the service of the new evangelization initiated in that “Threshold of Hope” phase of church history we occupy. “The church needs great catechists,” he said. Northern Cross