In the early ’90s, on my way to work with some Jesuits in Lithuania, I spent a couple of days with the Jesuit community in Vienna. I love old books, and I kept walking past a locked door that guarded a treasury of them. One day at dinner I asked Father Jan Wrba, the province archivist there, if I could see them.
He led me to the locked room, opened the door and switched on the lights. Hundreds of ancient volumes, venerable and dusty, lined the walls and filled the center of the room. Father Wrba admitted that there were so many books because he hoped to have a copy of each book that a member of the Austrian Province wrote.
He edged a volume from its shelf and opened it reverently. It was handwritten. “Here is the diary from the beginning of this house in the late 1500s. Look, you can read that the scholastics were complaining about lice and bats and about the food. Hah! In the late 1500s!”
Libraries, rare book rooms, archives—they preserve what has been and make it accessible.
He darted over to another shelf and lifted out another very old tome. “Here is a text written by Christopher Clavius!” I knew of this Jesuit mathematician, who had spent most of his life at the Roman College, where he taught young Jesuits and headed the commission that reformed the Julian calendar for Pope Gregory XIII, coming up with the Gregorian calendar that was introduced in 1582. I regarded this text with respect.
We browsed around some more, carefully handling a lot of other volumes. I wanted to stay for hours. But suddenly he broke in, “Come, come with me! I have something interesting to show you!” We went into his office, and he said something to his assistant, who left and quickly returned with a little wooden chest. He handed it to me. Inside was a pistol, old, of black steel, and a plastic bag with some bullets.
Much of life, though, is our small, everyday interactions.
“That is it!” Father Wrba cried. “That is the pistol!”
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were shot by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, while riding in a limousine through Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Anton Puntigam, S.J., a family friend, gave the last anointing to the royal couple. He was entrusted with the pistol and planned to start a museum to honor the archduke; this never materialized. The pistol sat mostly forgotten in a Jesuit community in Austria until its discovery around the 90th anniversary of the shooting in 2004.
I had to be sure and asked Father Wrba once again: “This pistol, which I am now holding, is the very one that fired the shot that killed the archduke and set off the First World War?”
“Ja, ja, that is it!”
I tugged on the hammer a couple of times more, and then the reality slammed home. “Oh my God! Now it’s got my fingerprints all over it!”
Libraries, rare book rooms, archives—they preserve what has been and make it accessible. They challenge us to remember what we and others have done and to reflect on what we are doing today.
I have never assassinated an archduke, and in fact I have fired a gun only once. My grandfather in Florida handed me a rifle and told me to shoot an orange hanging from a tree. I aimed and fired, missed the orange, but shot through the stem that held it to its branch. It plopped to the ground, ripe and ready to eat. Another deeply impressed memory!
Much of life, though, is our small, everyday interactions. Do we build up our community with these, make our country more fair, more caring? Do we make our world better for our passing through it? That is a triumph.
(Note: Since 2004 the pistol has been on display at the Military Museum in Vienna. This September it will go to London for a display commemorating the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, that ended World War I.)