I received a phone call late last night from someone I hadn’t heard from for almost thirty years. I was quite sure he was dead after so many years without the slightest trace anywhere. Some years ago, there was a story about a young German who arrived in England and who had forgotten who he was through some mental or emotional problem. He was taken into care, and played the piano in the establishment. They called him the Piano Man (story in English), but it was not Michael Bartling. In the 1980’s, Michael and I were students together at Fribourg University. I lived in a couple of religious houses for a reasonable rent and then had a room in an old lady’s house in the Rue Marcello very near the library. Michael had a less usual arrangement for a university student, living in a small hamlet outside Fribourg in the German-speaking part of the Canton, in a small farm at Maria Hilf. I still have vague memories of the Brülhardt family and that farmhouse straight out of the nineteenth century!
Michael came from Wolfsburg near Hanover, the industrial town in northern Germany where Hitler established the first Volkswagen factory. The factory is still there and producing vast numbers of road vehicles of that brand. I think his family background was very unhappy, but I shouldn’t be talking about that here in public. When he was in Fribourg, he always dressed in black and his hair was unevenly and badly cut – he cut it himself. We both attended Mass in the “Schülerkapelle“, a former warehouse and workshop being used as a traditionalist chapel, and served by a former SSPX priest by the name of Fr Aurèle Maillard. Norbert Schüler ran the chapel at the time, and it was attended by perhaps thirty or forty regular faithful. The ideology was sedevacantist. Germans are radical people, and you can hardly call them luke-warm! When they believe in something, or when they are convinced by someone like Hitler… I say this as a Germanophile, fond as I am of German music and the language (I’m not very good at it), and their Romantic philosophy. It is a paradox how such a cultured European country could fall into such barbarity from the 1930’s until the utter ruin of that country in 1945.
Fribourg is full of Germans. Both French and German are spoken at the University, and most of my friends were Germans. In particular, there was a little community of a priest and two seminarians trying to set up something based on the Oratorian idea. The priest was Fr Martin Reinecke, formerly SSPX and incardinated in an Austrian diocese and doing his Licentiate in liturgy with the same professor as myself, Fr Jakob Baumgartner. The two students, Markus and Andreas, were also studying liturgical history in the wake of Msgr Klaus Gamber’s vast academic output. The three had also studied at Paderborn and Regensburg. This is Ratzinger country, whilst the former Archbishop of Münich was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. John Paul II was still Pope then. I was in the French-speaking section of the theological faculty, but some of the German-speaking professors, including Fr Christoph von Schönborn (now Archbishop of Vienna) also taught in the French section. It was quite fluid according to what we could understand of either French or German. The odd young man in black came to many of the French lectures and seminars since the doctrine was somewhat more orthodox and in accord with traditional Church teachings.
Michael tended to follow me about, and both of us owe many things to Herr Schüler in the way of finding cheap accommodation. Michael and I had a room each for a time at the Salvatorkolleg in Schönberg, the German-speaking side of the river in Fribourg. It was cheaper than the room I rented from the Conventual Franciscans. The Salvatorians had a 1950’s chapel with a reasonable little organ, which both Michael and I played in our spare time. From about summer 1988, Michael moved back out to Maria Hilf and I found my digs in the Rue Marcello. It was also during my time at the Salvatorkolleg that I met a friend by the name of Roman Zajaczek, a Pole whose family lived in Mainz (Germany) and had been educated in England. He and I went to climb mountains and spend enormous amounts of time together. Last night, Michael reminded me of Roman’s surname, which enabled me to find him working as a parish pastoral assistant in the Appenzell canton. Still in Swazzyland as we called it! I hope he will answer my e-mail!
All the memories came flooding back as Michael remembered every detail. He must be an aspie or a savant autist! He rattled on and on, but it was all fascinating. After university, Michael outstayed his welcome in Switzerland and got into trouble with the law for illegal immigration. He is now living in Münich, in his own country, but in Catholic Bavaria. I have really enjoyed Bavaria and a visit to Münich and Altötting back in 1999 together with a trip over the Austrian frontier to Salzsburg. I still have the little bust of Mozart I bought there. One reason for this visit was the radical traditionalist community down there, with such names as the late Bishop Günther Storck, Sister Gertrude, Dr Eberhard Heller and the periodical Einsicht. There was a Spanish bishop there by the name of Rafael Cloquell, who has since completely disappeared from circulation. From many of the things I have been hearing last night, the German sedevacantist scene makes Continuing Anglicanism in the late 1990’s look like the epitome of peace! I have never known such sectarianism based on raw ideology, who can shout the loudest and the idea of an ultra-pure Church (Donatism – the validity of the Sacraments is denied when the accompanying faith is not entirely orthodox or a bishop or priest has in some way betrayed the Church). It is a truly nasty world. This whole mentality was not invented – it came from late nineteenth-century Roman Catholicism.
Michael got me to look at a website of a bishop in Münich who was trained for the priesthood in the USA in a sedevacantist seminary and was ordained. There was some kind of scandal, and he was no longer allowed to stay in America. He returned to Germany, and now gives speeches in the streets for an anti-Muslim organisation. Some other character, a failed art student, loved ranting in Münich in about 1923, that city where they have the Oktoberfest involving the consumption of vast quantities of beer and the less refined gentlemen pissing under the tables, sometimes without even opening their fly! Michael was not enamoured by this raucous prelate, and is seeking another bishop for his little community. He had read on the internet that I was in correspondence with a Bishop Franco Munari, but I had to tell him that this is not true. I have never met the Italian traditionalist bishop in question. Having returned to Anglicanism, I could be of no help to Michael, but I pray that he will find peace and his vocation somehow.
Michael reminds me of the young Trappist novice in Cosmas or the Love of God by Pierre de Calan, a book that has haunted me over the years. There are some vocations that just don’t fit into the usual channels of churches, communities and seminaries. I fitted in a little better than Michael, making it to the diaconate and then to the priesthood through less “kosher” channels. Michael could never fit in anywhere, but the fire never went out. In the book, the young novice found dead in the woods was described thus: “The fact that our Brother Cosmas died when he did reveals the Lord’s infinite mercy. . . . He died when he was on his way to La Trappe yet again, and thus gave further proof of his fidelity; but he died before he had to face his weakness yet again“. Perhaps he has found his way in Münich, even if he is never ordained. This is the way of the fool for Christ, my own way as a broken vessel. Some lived their vocation that much more radically like St Seraphim of Zarov or St Benedict Joseph Labre in the streets of Rome.
Evelyn Waugh understood this notion of holiness in the most unlikely of souls, in his best known novel Brideshead Revisited in which Cordelia describes her brother Sebastian:
Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he’ll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere flicker of the eyelid that he is conscious when they give him the last sacraments. It’s not such a bad way of getting through one’s life.
I thought of the youth with the teddy-bear under the flowering chestnuts. “It’s not what one would have foretold,” I said. “I suppose he doesn’t suffer?”Oh, yes, I think he does. One can have no idea what the suffering may be, to be maimed as he is – no dignity, no power of will. No one is ever holy without suffering. It’s taken that form with him…I’ve seen so much suffering in the last few years; there’s so much coming for everybody soon. It’s the spring of love…”’
I saw the same suffering in Michael Bartling. It was easy to make fun of him, but less easy to have a Christlike understanding of humanity at this level. I am unable myself to be a part of the mainstream, and I will probably meet many wandering souls in the future. You will find them just as much around boats as churches, or any common interest that confers a sense of identity and being to a soul.
Like Cosmas, I thought Michael was certainly dead or perhaps interned in a mental hospital somewhere. After thirty years, friendship is reignited, and I left the phone conversation completely bowled over. Was this the judgement of my life? A call not to conform but to find my innermost being and God’s transcendence? Perhaps this is where we will meet Christ in those precious moments of reading the Gospel narrative, and also a Christ who lives in each one of us and the Eternal Church.