Postcard From Austria & Switzerland
Hello from Lustenau, an Austrian town on the Rhine river, in Voralberg. I’m here to speak on September 2 at a week-long lecture series at the Erlöserpfarre, a Catholic parish. Also here this week is the young man in the photo above, Kevin Becker. He has an amazing story to tell.
In August 2011, Kevin fell from the second story of a house he shared with other guys. An athletic young man, Kevin fractured his skull, and injured every lobe in his brain. He was in a coma near death. Doctors didn’t think he would live, and if he did, he would be severely and permanently brain-injured.
He was in the coma for nine days. During this time, he dreamed that he was living alone in his old house with a new roommate named Giorgio; all the other roommates were gone. Giorgio wouldn’t let him leave the house, telling him simply to be patient, that he wasn’t ready to go out yet. After Kevin emerged from his coma, he told his parents about the “angel” who had been with him in his coma dreams.
Finally Kevin’s mother showed him an image of the Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, a 20th century Italian who died in 1925. Frassati was an avid mountaineer and devout Catholic living in Turin. Though he was from a well-to-do family, Frassati was passionately devoted to the poor of his city, and immersed himself in work for them through the St. Vincent de Paul Society. He also advocated for social reform. When he died from a sudden onset of polio at the age of 24 — it is believed he caught the disease visiting the slums of Turin — Frassati’s parents were shocked to see throngs of Turin’s poor turning out on the street to tell him goodbye. They were rich people who had had no idea that their son was spending so much time and money on helping the poor of their city.
When Frassati’s coffin was opened in 1981, his remains were found to be incorrupt. Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1990, following the verification of a miraculous healing attributed to his intercession. If the Vatican can confirm a second miraculous healing attributed to Frassati’s intercession in heaven, he will be canonized as a saint.
Which brings us to Kevin. When his mother showed him the image of Pier Giorgio Frassati — a man Kevin had never heard of — Kevin said that was his angel, the man in his dream.
Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati is not well known in the US. A family member had sent the prayer card image to Kevin’s family in the hospital, urging them to ask Blessed Pier Giorgio to pray for Kevin’s healing. The day after they placed the image at Kevin’s bedside, he awoke from his coma. A few days later, the college kid who wasn’t supposed to live, and if he lived, was supposed to be severely and permanently disabled, walked out of the hospital under his own power, and stood in the hospital parking lot tossing a football with his brother. Later, doctors were stunned by how rapid and complete his recovery was. Medical science can’t explain it.
Seriously, this happened. You can see it all in this video made to tell Kevin’s story:
Kevin travels from time to time to tell the story. That’s what he’s doing in Lustenau this week. He’s a really nice, ordinary American guy … who just happens to have been visited by a saint while he was in a coma, and miraculously healed.
Alert readers of The Benedict Option will remember that Bl. Pier Giorgio was the inspiration for Marco Sermarini and the Tipi Loschi of San Benedetto del Tronto. It was Pier Giorgio who first coined the jokey term “tipi loschi” (“the usual suspects”) to describe the small society of fellow young Catholics — men and women both — he founded. He wanted them to be united in prayer and a spiritual support to each other throughout their lives.
The leader of this annual parish conference on spirituality and ideas is Father Thomas Sauter, the parish’s pastor. He invited me to come present on the Benedict Option. My daughter Nora, who loves to bake, sent Father Thomas a tin of her chocolate chip cookies, along with the recipe. Here we are with the cookies shortly after I arrived last night:
Last night, after Father Thomas went home, I talked with some of the young adult Catholics who had been having dinner with him when I arrived at the gasthaus. Today, after the midday mass, I met others in the parish hall, at a luncheon. Over and over I heard the same thing: Without Father Thomas and this parish, I don’t know what we would do.
People told me that the faith is in grave trouble in this region, and that so many of the priests are quite liberal. They preside over dying parishes. But Father Thomas, they said to me, is a man who really lives his faith in a dynamic, orthodox way. Young people described him to me as a real spiritual father to them. I haven’t had a chance to talk to him much — his English is spotty, and my German is non-existent — but he is a jolly man with a warm presence. One young woman told me that Father Thomas’s parish is like an oasis in the Rhine River valley.
Two of Father Thomas’s young parishioners are Gabi Stadelmann and her boyfriend Philip, whose last name I can’t remember. Gabi is Swiss, and comes from the village of Tübach, just across the border. She told me that she grew up on a small farm next to the Kloster St. Scholastika, a Capuchin women’s monastery that closed this past spring after 400 years. The Stadelmanns are a big Catholic farm family. At least two of their six adult children — Gabi’s brothers — still work on the farm. They have dairy cows, and grow apples on the hillsides overlooking Lake Constance.
When Gabi told me about her family last night, I asked if I could go meet them. This afternoon, Philip drove me across the Rhine to do so; Gabi joined us shortly. Here we are enjoying some late summer sun at the farm. From left to right, Niklaus, Rita, Oma (Rita’s mom), Gabi, and Philip.
The Stadelmanns were so kind and hospitable. We drank seltzer with some sweet syrup they made from herbs grown on their farm. They talked about how much they love Father Thomas, but how lonely it is to be a practicing Christian in their part of the world these days. So many people are losing their faith entirely, and the institutional church is going ultra-progressive. Said Niklaus, “It feels like the fall of the Roman Empire.”
Hey, I said, do I have a book for you to read! I told them about The Benedict Option, and invited them to hear my lecture on Monday night. I tried to offer them some hope by showing them photos of the Benda family in Prague, and telling stories about how Czech dissidents would gather at their apartment for encouragement as the dissidents were going and returning from police interrogation. Whether or not these victims of communism were Christians, they knew that the Bendas were faithful Catholics, and would receive them with compassion — and offer them strength.
Maybe that’s what God will call you to do in this present and coming darkness, I suggested to the Stadelmanns.
Gabi and Philip walked me next door to the St. Scholastika cloister, to see the beautiful chapel. She told me that she and her siblings had grown up worshiping there, and playing in it. In March, the few remaining nuns left after four centuries of a continuous women’s monastic presence on the hillside. That cloister had women religious living in it over a century before America was founded. Now it is empty. Heartbreaking hardly begins to describe it.
But there, across the Rhine, is Father Thomas and the Erlöser parish. I began to see why the faithful treasure him.
I took some photos of the Stadelmann farm, including their beautiful wooden barns and cattle, but I didn’t realize until I got back to the gasthaus in Austria that something had gone wrong with my camera. Most of the photos were blurry. But here are a couple that survived:
And this one of a house for wild bees:
Honeybees don’t live in houses like that. The Stadelmanns do keep honeybees, though, and sent me away with a jar of their very own family honey:
If only they knew how much a foodie like me cherishes gifts like this! Danke schön, Stadelmanns!
Back in Lustenau, I went to the parish to hear a talk about Frassati given by Christine Wohar, the founder of FrassatiUSA. Then they had Eucharistic adoration, and mass. I wanted to stay to hear Kevin give his testimony, but my back pain started acting up — it has been a tough past couple of weeks on that front — so I walked back to the gasthaus to get meds and lie down flat. Just before I left, I took this shot of Kevin standing at the back of the church during mass:
That quote from Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati are words to live by:
“To live without a faith, without a patrimony to defend, without a steady struggle for the Truth, is not living but existing.”
The people I am meeting in this little parish on the Rhine, and on the hillside overlooking Lake Constance, are what’s left of a civilization — Christendom — that is dying and nearly dead. But they are trying to find a way not merely to exist, but to defend their patrimony, to struggle steadily for the Truth, and to live. They could use you Christians standing with them in union of prayers. For me, simply to be with them and to hear their stories gives me strength. And to know from Kevin and his near-death encounter with a saint reminds me that miracles really do happen.
If you are a Christian reader — Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox — in the region around Lustenau, why not come out on the evening of September 2 and hear me talk at the Erlöser parish? Details are here. Lecture begins at 7:15, with Q&A to follow. If you are reading this blog, you probably already know the Benedict Option idea. But this would be a great chance to meet more Benedict Option people. We need to know each other, and form networks and bonds.