I’m going with a group on a cruise of the Rhine River leaving Wednesday. Here are a few notes about the trip for those on the cruise and those who may wish to follow us.
The Rhine River is a living history book as it winds its way 820 miles from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea.
Look for signs of Roman forts along the way. The ancient Romans tried to make the Rhine a kind of “Iron Curtain” to contain the barbarian tribes that wanted to enter the empire. They also found the fertile lands near the river good for growing grapes and other crops, so some of the forts became centers of trade, like Mainz.
After the Peace of Constantine (312 AD), Christianity brought the gospel to the lands along the Rhine. St. Boniface is an important figure. (c. 675 – 5 June 754 AD) A missionary from England he preached to the various Germanic tribes, became bishop of Mainz, and established monastic settlements along the river to fulfill his mission.
Should he be our patron for the trip? “In her voyage across the ocean of this world the church is like a ship pounded by the waves of life’s different stresses. Our duty is not to abandon ship, but to keep her on course…Let us stand fast for what is right and prepare our souls for trial…Let us be neither like dogs that do not bark nor silent onlookers nor servants who run away before the wolf.”
In the 12th century with the growth of cities majestic cathedrals, like those in Strasbourg and Cologne, were built. Castles and buildings of local rulers line the river’s banks as defenses against invaders and symbols of power.
In the 14th century, the shrines and churches of the Franciscans and the mendicant orders appear. The 16th century brought the Reformation. We hope to sample some cathedrals and churches along the river.
The Rhine was a battleground through the centuries; the last two world wars have left their mark on the lands along the river.
We land in Basel, where John Calvin wrote his “Institutes” in 1536, a defense of Protestantism which he sent to Francis 1 of France. Francis kept France Catholic, however, and Calvin fled to Geneva and made it into a key Protestant center that had influence worldwide.
I hope to reflect particularly during our trip on the Reformation and the relationship of Protestants and Catholics today. Much has changed since the stormy beginnings in the 16th century. Pope Francis recently remarked to a group of European bishops that “Speaking about God has become more and more marginal” in Europe. The pope, a strong advocate of ecumenism, hopes all Christians will come together to face the challenge.
We will see many churches and signs of its Christian past on our trip down the Rhine from Basel to Amsterdam, but I don’t think we’ll hear much about God or see many signs of Christian practice. Europe is increasingly secularized.
Some books that I’ll bring along on the trip.
“A Brief History of Spirituality” by Philip Sheldrake, Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Sheldrake has a wonderful gift for summarizing spiritual movements like monasticism and relating them to the world in which they take place.
“The World of Catholic Renewal 1540-1770” by R. Po-Chia Hsia, Cambridge University Press. The Catholic Church responds to the Reformation. A good study in social history.
“Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church” E.A. Livingstone, Oxford 1977 Just what it says: a lot of concise information about the Christian Church.
I also mentioned the Rhine trip in a previous blog: