The National Catholic Review

In April of 1912, America had just celebrated its third year of publication.  Today we have reposted the editorial that appeared in our issue of April 27, 1912, entitled "The Titanic Disaster," which may prove a moving entree into those days, as well as a surprise to readers today.  (That image of the great ship, by the way, was taken by Frank Browne, SJ, who left the boat midway through its maiden voyage.)

The editorial's opening lines would probably be at home (with the exception of the use of "man" for "humanity") in most journals of opinion and newspapers (and blogs) today: "The total loss of the greatest ship that man has built with its burden of 1,500 lives has appalled and saddened the world.  The Titanic represented the acme of human foresight and scientific accomplishment."  And the observation "Most of the victims were men; they died like men" also will not astonish, given most people's understandings of the era's sensibilities.  Neither will archaic words or phrases like the "lightnings of heaven" or God's "argosies." 

Two things, however, may be of surprise to current-day readers.  First is the placement of the article.  Given the magnitude of the tragedy, one would expect it to be the lead editorial.  Rather, it comes after a lighthearted congratulatory announcement of the 70th birthday of Cardinal John Farley, the archbishop of New York.  (To put that in perspective, imagine if our editorial commenting on the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 had followed our congratulating Cardinal Edward Egan on his jubilee.) 

Readers will also note the distinctive Catholic spirituality of the time.  Not surprisingly, the article in "America: A Catholic Review of the Week" focuses on the "Catholic angle," including the presence of two priests aboard "to absolve and bless."  But the editors also note that for some on board the disaster would have been "a blessing."  Why?  "The crash of instant overwhelming peril often shocks the dormant, sin-sodden faculties of the soul into a vivid sense of its duties and its danger, opening it to grace and faith, and compelling the cry that bringeth mercy.  Many of the Titanic's victims probably went down to death with a faith and penitence that the uneventful routine of life would never invoke, and for such the disaster was a blessing." 

It is always dangerous to judge the spiritual perspectives of those in the past, where as the saying goes, it is different country.  And who knows how our editorials will read in another century?  (For the record, though, I would have struck that last line.)  We join America's editorial board of 1912 in their prayer for those lost on the R.M.S. Titanic that, as the editorial of April 27, 1912 concluded, they may have already entered into the fullness of God's presence, and that they may await the resurrection, "when the sea shall give up its dead."

James Martin, SJ

Comments

JANICE JOHNSON | 4/14/2012 - 10:21pm
Another Titanic story.....this one taken from "The Little White Book:  Six Minute Reflections on the Sunday Gospels of Easter".

A young seminarian from Youngstown, Ohio named Ralph Kotheimer, was sent by his bishop to study theology in Mainz, Germany.  He was ordained after completing his studies on March 4, 1912 and he had booked passage on the Titanic for his return home.  Before boarding he checked to see if he could celebrate Mass privately each day of the voyage.  Permission was denied.  Although Fr. Kotheimer had looked forward to sailing on the maiden voyage of this magnificent new ship, he gave up his place and booked passage on the Rhyndam.

It was only when he landed in the U.S. that he learned of the Titanic disaster.  He went directly to St. Patrick's Cathedral to celebrate Mass...his first on U.S. soil....and to ask God's blessings for those who lost their lives aboard the ship he was supposed to be on.
Crystal Watson | 4/14/2012 - 3:44am
Thanks for the link to the editorial.  I'm almost at the end o a novel that has a lot of information about the Titanic - Passage by Connie Willis.  Strange to know odd details now like that there was an exercise room/gym onboard or that the closest other ship that could rescue them was 58 miles away, too far.  The whole thing seems so terrible and sad.
Bill Collier | 4/13/2012 - 3:14pm
“Nothing was omitted in her construction and equipment that engineering skill and attainable knowledge could provide for power and resistance, for conquest of obstacles and avoidance of danger….’With her various watertight compartments she is absolutely unsinkable, no matter what she hits.’" 
Thanks, Fr. Martin, for this post and for linking the “America” editorial from 1912. Though not known or at least suspected at the time of the disaster, we now know that the Titanic’s construction had fatal flaws. The steel used in her hull had substantial impurities and it was not of the finest grade. As a result, the lower quality steel buckled much more easily than better forged steel would have when the ship hit the iceberg. But even more tragic is that the vertical compartments that divided the ship into sections were not watertight. They were open at the top, allowing water to flow into the breach at the bow and overflow compartments in succession until the weight of the increasing volume of water dragged the ship under and sealed the remaining passengers’ doom.      
Though I had heard about the heroism of a number of the passengers and crew on the ill-fated ship, I had never heard about Fr. Thomas Byles until I read the linked editorial. A quick google search revealed that the story of Father Byles’ heroism and final ministry became well-known over the years as survivors related his courage and steadfastness in carrying out his priestly duties. He is still remembered, in ways that he could not have be fathomed in 1912-i.e., with his own Wikipedia entry and with websites that provide details of his life and his activities on the fateful night of April 15, 1912, See, for example, http://www.fatherbyles.com/
Helen Mc Devitt-Smith | 4/14/2012 - 8:42pm
With all due respect, Fr. Martin:

"(To put that in perspective, imagine if our editorial commenting on the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2011 had followed our congratulating Cardinal Edward Egan on his jubilee.)"

You meant, of course, Sept. 11, 2001.