Titanic 1912: Hubris versus Faith

Author: Grzegorz Kucharczyk

Apart from being a tragic symbol of humanity’s excessive trust in reason and an illustration of man’s blithe indifference to impending catastrophe—as most vividly dramatized by the ship’s orchestra playing up to the very moment the vessel sank— Titanic’s fate was also a powerful tribute to the Christian faith and heroism of the churchmen found aboard her.

The locomotive and the Pope

The “long nineteenth century” ended in the hecatomb of the First World War (known until 1939 as the Great War). So ended la belle époque, an age of extraordinary growth in material civilization. Not without reason was the nineteenth century called the age of iron and steam. It was an era of feverish industrialization and a whole series of great technical inventions. To many it seemed human intelligence was capable of surmounting all barriers; that man, having invented the photograph, the telegraph, the phonograph, the light bulb, and the internal combustion engine, was selfsufficient and stood on the verge of realizing his dream of building paradise on earth.

Such a temptation was not strange to the human experience. Scripture tells of man’s efforts at the dawn of history to build the Tower of Babel; we all know what became of that pipe dream characterized by a mixture of pride and naiveté.

A glance at the press of the day shows the extent to which the new technical improvements of the nineteenth century seized the public imagination. A veritable cult arose about them. For whole decades, the steam locomotive stood as a symbol of a new and better age to come. In 1840, one of the most popular German magazines crowed: “On iron tracks our century hurtles onward to resplendent, shining destinations.” The liberal European press (especially in Germany and Italy) frequently used the motif of the hurtling locomotive as a symbol of man’s unstoppable progress—often in the same breath as it waged its anti-Catholic “culture wars.” Nothing, least of all the Church as personified by a caricature of Pope Pius IX, would hold back the advance of the “new and better era,” which the railroad heralded.

The “unsinkable” Tower of Babel

As we know, the dream of the “end of history” (i.e. the idea of a single model of human development based on technical progress) evaporated in 1914 with the outbreak of the sanguinary world war. But just two years earlier there had occurred an event that from the perspective of a hundred years can be seen as a warning to us all.

In April of 1912, a passenger ship, which the press touted as unsinkable thanks to the many technical innovations going into her construction, made her maiden voyage from England to America. That ship was called Titanic; and her sinking can be regarded as a grim warning to all of humanity. There are no unsinkable ships and there can be no permanent civilization based on human effort alone. But quite apart from being a tragic symbol of humanity’s excessive trust in reason and an illustration of man’s blithe indifference to impending catastrophe— as most vividly dramatized by the ship’s orchestra playing up to the very moment the vessel sank—Titanic’s fate was also a powerful tribute to the Christian faith and heroism of the churchmen found aboard her.

As the ocean waves flooded the ship’s decks and it became clear that all the available lifeboats were filled, the orchestra is reported to have struck up the Protestant hymn “Nearer my God to Thee.” The scene was immortalized in James Cameron’s Oscar-winning motion picture Titanic. The film also portrays a Catholic priest declaiming verses from the Book of Revelations before a terrified flock of the faithful. But the Hollywood production is short on details concerning the Catholic priests on board Titanic.

“You could hear the sounds of the rosary to the very end”

In fact, there were three Catholic priests as well as an Irish seminarian on board the ship. Only the latter survived the disaster. The three priests were among the 1500 victims of that tragic collision between the ocean liner and the iceberg. But unlike the portrayal in Cameron’s film, they did not behave like Bible-thumping Protestant preachers proclaiming the “day of the Lord.” Rather, they behaved like Catholic priests. They remained with their spiritual charges to the very end, imparting consolation that comes from prayer and the sacraments.

One of these was twenty-seven-yearold Father Jouzas Montvila, who had been active in the Lithuanian national rebirth movement. On board Titanic he had with him manuscripts of some six hundred Lithuanian folksongs, which he hoped to have published in America. Fr. Montvila was not found in any of the lifeboats after the disaster; his body and the manuscripts he was bringing with him were never recovered. He remained on the stricken ship granting absolutions in articulo mortis to those who had been denied places in the lifeboats. One of the survivors who witnessed those moments recounted later that Fr. Montvila had been “true to his vocation to the very end.” He refused to get on the lifeboat even though they had given him the chance to save his life. Forty-one-yearold Father Joseph Peruschitz, a German Benedictine, acted likewise. To the very end he granted absolutions and led the faithful in the recitation of the rosary.

Sailing also to New York, where he was to preside over his younger brother William’s wedding, was Father Thomas Byles (b. 1870). Fr. Byles’ biography is a tribute to the strength of British Catholicism at the turn of the twentieth century. Given the name Roussel, Titanic’s future hero was born into a Protestant family (his father Alfred Byles being a well-known Congregationalist pastor). Roussel’s journey to Rome began during the period of his studies at Oxford in the late 1880s. He converted to Catholicism in 1894. On being received into the Church, he took the Christian name Thomas in honor of the author of the Summa. Having completed his theological studies at Rome (1899- 1902), he was ordained to the priesthood in the Eternal City on June 15, 1902. In 1905 he began his ministry as curate of St. Helen’s parish in Ongar, Essex, England. From there, on April 10 1912, Fr. Byles set out for Southampton where the world’s largest ocean liner lay berthed. He had booked a second- class ticket—second and third class being the way most of the passengers requiring the spiritual care of a Catholic priest traveled. They were predominantly Irish and Italians (and Irish and Italian Americans).

Sunday of April 14, 1912 was the first Sunday after Easter. Today we know it as the Feast of the Divine Mercy. That day, along with the two other priests, Fr. Byles celebrated the last Holy Mass of his life. Witnesses remembered well the homilist’s words. He spoke of the danger of becoming a “spiritual wreck in times of temptation,” and he urged the faithful to “make use of the lifeboats of prayer and the sacraments.”

When, on the night of April 14-15, 1912, the drama of Titanic’s passengers began, Fr. Byles calmed the panicking passengers and helped them to get into the lifeboats. But mostly he heard confessions (later he granted absolutions in articulo mortis) and led the recitation of the rosary on board the ship. Twice he refused to take advantage of a seat offered to him in the lifeboat.

A rescued third-class passenger, Helen Mary Mocklare, who witnessed both of Fr. Byles’ refusals to desert his stranded spiritual charges, would later remark: “As I got into the last lifeboat and we were slowly pulling away, I could clearly hear the voice of the priest leading the prayer and the responses of the faithful. They became increasingly fainter until at last I could only make out the sounds of the hymn ‘Nearer my God to Thee’ and the cries of those remaining on the ship.”

The heroism of faith & the scoffers

The body of Fr. Thomas Byles was never found. Two months after the Titanic tragedy, while visiting Rome on their honeymoon, his brother William and new bride had an audience with Pope St. Pius X. The Holy Father spoke of the dead priest as a “martyr of the Church.”

Perhaps the Pope was referring to the Lord’s words, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). It may also be that he had in mind the horror of those last moments before Titanic’s sinking. And I don’t mean just the inexorably rising waters and the listing of the ship. The accounts of many witnesses of Titanic’s final moments mention those who, still believing the ship to be unsinkable, scoffed at their fellow passengers joined in prayer with a Catholic priest. According to the accounts, a crowd of hecklers jeered at the sight of the faithful praying on their knees. Meanwhile the waters surged over the next bulkhead… Does this have a familiar ring, friends?

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