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Daniel-Rops and the Holiness of History

by Justine Krug Buisson


This is the account of the career of historian Henri Daniel-Rops, an extraordinary writer and publisher who focused on the action of the Divine in history, and presented Christ as a living historical person. He published seventy books in thirty years.

Larger Work

The Catholic World

Publisher & Date

The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, December, 1957

Like Mauriac and Bernanos, he can make Catholic thought penetrate modern life.

by Justine Krug Buisson

DANIEL ROPS is a phenomenon of contemporary Catholic France. Like Mauriac in the field of the novel, he has brought religion into the market place of twentieth-century life with his best-selling religious histories. Sacred History, an account of the Jewish people prior to the coming of Christ, appeared in 1943, followed in 1945 by Jesus and His Times, the life of Our Lord which broke all sales records in France before or since and has been translated into fifteen languages. These two books along with their sequels, The Church of Apostles and Martyrs and History of the Church of Christ, have done much to situate Judaeo-Christian history and that of the Church in the current of universal history. They have reached not only a Catholic audience, but many outside the Church as well.

Their author is a man of extraordinary energy, whose output includes journalism, lecturing and the management of a publishing house, a popular religious digest, four book collections and a new Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism. A member of the French Academy, he has also been honored by Pius XII by the bestowal of the Cross of the Order of St. Gregory the Great. Everything he touches seems to be successful, perhaps due to that keen administrative sense which over ten years ago permitted him to abandon the teaching career to which his precocious intellect had apparently destined him.

He came to Paris to teach history in secondary schools in his early twenties, a frail young man named Henri Petiot. Impelled by great intellectual vigor and curiosity, he soon began to make another name for himself in literary circles. His first book was a collection of sociological essays, entitled Notre Inquietude (Our Anxiety). It appeared in 1926, and from then on the public has known him as Daniel-Rops.

The "anxiety" expressed here is that same concern which was to determine the direction of his work —the destiny of man. In an increasingly industrialized and mechanized society, man seemed to have lost his true meaning. Young Daniel-Rops, agnostic and deeply sensitive, blamed the Church for "abandoning" her charge. Was Christianity any longer a living force in the world? He questioned this when he considered the misery and social injustice around him, and the apparent indifference of Christians to those they called their brothers.

Daniel-Rops saw even then that man's inner needs must be taken into account before he could be helped in other ways. His spiritual requirements must be satisfied, as well as his material well-being. Who or what was capable of doing this?

For ten years the young history teacher studied his way to an answer, writing numerous sociological essays which won him a solid reputation in intellectual groups. By the 1930's he had begun to find his way, and it led back to the Roman Catholic Church. In spite of the shortcomings of Christians, he saw that Christianity alone offered the means of man's deliverance. Only in Jesus Christ could the technological age be reconciled with the spiritual needs of man.

Daniel-Rops' return to the Church coincided with the movement of spiritual revival in twentieth-century France. All around him, in the minds and work of Peguy, Maritain, Claudel, Mauriac and dozens of others, were germinating the seeds of a new approach to religion. Traditional attitudes had solidified; no new growth came from them. Millions of people had turned away from the Church because they believed it had abandoned them. Generations of Frenchmen had grown up without any real religious education. Conscientious Christians realized they must go out to others, make Christ a living presence in the world of their time.

Daniel-Rops felt this call in turn. In his way, he has tried to bridge the gap between Christ and the modern age. To the service of the Church he brought three gifts: a good journalistic style, an historian's training and a Christian view of the world. These combined to form a new, powerful medium—the popularized religious history.

Again the reception of his books happened to coincide with a current public interest—history. People with no scholarly pretensions were, nevertheless, curious to know how the ancient Egyptians, Chinese or Mayans lived. Their interest could likewise be awakened in the life of the ancient Hebrews and early Christians. They could be introduced to the presence of God in history.

So it was that Daniel-Rops, a history teacher with a flair for writing, was lucky and clever enough to capitalize on a combination of circumstances—the religious ignorance (and hunger) of his contemporaries and their curiosity about human beings of the past.

Fully converted and completely orthodox, he had the advantage of the convert—memory of the outside view. He approached those still outside the Church as a man who had shared their uncertainties and anguish. More important he knew that Christ must be presented to men of the twentieth century—or to those of any age—in their own language, not as a hallowed or stereotyped stranger but as a living presence. Incarnate once in Galilee and Judea, He must continue to be incarnate in every place and time in order to reach mankind.

The idea of the holiness of history made its first real impact with the publication of Sacred History in 1943. (An English translation of the book was published by Longmans in 1949.) In it Daniel-Rops tells the story of the divine calling of the Jews. Familiar as are many people of the Western world with their Greco-Roman cultural heritage, they may be less aware of their religious heritage in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Hebrews are presented to his readers as a people with a special vocation. They are in a very real sense related to God by His personal intervention throughout their history. Abraham, Moses, the prophets have all been meeting places between God and humanity. The Jews are literally His chosen people and yet imperfect, disobedient, rebellious—in a word, human. And so we see them in a double light: as part of the history of the world, and at the same time apart from it. In the same way God Himself is active in, and yet transcendent to, history as a whole. Daniel-Rops reveals the Old Testament as more than a historical document. It has more to offer than that, he would tell his readers—it is the witness of the Divine Presence at specific times in history.

Jesus And His Times (Image Books: Doubleday, 1958) presents the New Testament in the same light. In it the divine paradox appears in the extreme: God, not content to speak to men through His prophets, becomes one of them for thirty-three years in Palestine. We see Jesus the Man, walking the roads of Galilee, dressed as a peasant, eating the meager bread and fish of His contemporaries, living in an occupied country which was all He humanly knew of the world. Imposed limits, but limits, nevertheless, which made Him the man He was. But this man insisted that He was God, that He had been born to die for all men, and proved it by effecting a rebirth out of His death, a real resurrection in which we can all participate.

It is an overwhelming story, but Daniel-Rops tells it simply, directly and objectively. He indulges in no pseudo-religious sentimentality. The style is lively and colorful. For all his erudition, Daniel-Rops does not bore his readers with scholarly details. He does provide details which capture his readers' curiosity and attention: springtime in Palestine, the climate of Galilee and Judea, the kind of houses probably found in Nazareth in Jesus' time, the political scene in Palestine and Rome during His life, the Jewish laws concerning the blasphemy of which He was accused, the tortures to which He was subjected, His physical sufferings on the cross. Daniel-Rops even concludes his study with a brief appendix on the main lines of that critical writing which has attempted to give "rational explanations" of the story of Jesus for the past two thousand years. But he leaves his readers with an invitation to approach Jesus as a mystery, the only alternative attitude to that of refusal; for the mystery of God's presence in the world cannot be explained by reason. The phenomenon of Jesus is presented in a language modern men can understand. In an age quick to discredit "religious jargon," Daniel-Rops knows how to "talk Christian" to his readers. Like Mauriac and Bernanos, he can make Catholic thought penetrate modern life.

In thirty years he has published seventy books, most of them religious histories. Among them, his Sacred History and Jesus and His Times can be found on the bookshelves of many French families and most French priests. His monthly digest, Ecclesia, something like our Catholic Digest, has a large circulation and a high standard of quality. He writes articles for secular newspapers and lectures frequently, with charm and brilliance, before many types of audiences. There are pictorial leaflets and children's editions which correspond to his religious histories. The publishing house, Fayard, is completely under his direction.

His most recent venture is the 150-volume Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism which began appearing in France in the spring of 1956 and which is currently being translated into English (Hawthorn, 1958).

This activity is amazing in a man whose health has always been poor. But his vitality has another source. It is inspired by his conviction that there is a vast job to be done, that the harvest is great and the laborers few.

His success as a writer and intellectual was crowned by his election to the French Academy in 1955. It is the highest honor a Frenchman can hope to attain. The awarding of the cross of the Order of St. Gregory in 1956 was an official approval by Rome.

It is a fact that many scholars and theologians disapprove of Daniel-Rops. They allege certain historical and religious inaccuracies in his work. They say that his theories of Sacred Scripture are not up to date; that some details in his historical fresco are inexact. Specialists will, therefore, have nothing to do with him, and from their point of view they are probably justified. It is not for them that he writes. "Daniel-Rops," they say with a laugh, "Oh yes, he's very popular."

Has Daniel-Rops popularized religious history at the expense of the truth? No. But his intention is not works of scholarship, and his readers are of many shades of education and belief: He has put the Judaeo-Christian heritage at the disposal of ordinary men and women to whom it might otherwise have remained unknown.

The phenomenal success of his books proves that there is curiosity and interest on the part of his countrymen in Christ and the Church. He has given a contemporary, immediate expression to Catholic thought. As such he has made an outstanding contribution to modern Catholicism.

Justine Buisson has her doctorate from the University of Paris (Sorbonne, 1951) and has won several fellowships for study in France and written on Baudelaire, Verlaine and Apollinaire.

This article was taken from the February 1958 issue of "The Catholic World", published by The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York.


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