Venerable Fulton J. Sheen once wrote, “The Church knows after 1900 years’ experience that any institution which suits the spirit of any age will be a widow in the next one” (War and Guilt, OSV Press, 1941, pp. 138-139).
This is a clear admonition to the many who demand that the Church update her teachings, particularly (1) her moral doctrines, and (2) the dogma that salvation is exclusively through Jesus Christ. Some say that the Catholic Church is hopelessly out-of-date and irrelevant. Some point out that even her own members disagree with a large number of her teachings. But the role of the Church is not to reflect the age or even the views of her members; it is to represent the teachings of her head and founder, Jesus Christ. The Church cannot love or admire the world if she is to remain the Bride of Christ. Scripture says,
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4).
Much is made of the declining numbers in the Catholic Church. The loss over the past fifty years has been staggering. Today, fewer than one fourth of Catholics attend Mass each week. But if the Church were to become the world, the number of Catholics would go to zero. Mainline Protestant denominations have tried just this method—giving the world what it wants—and their services are far emptier than our Masses. Some of them are in so steep a decline that it is hard to imagine them even existing in twenty years except on paper or in tiny pockets.
As Sheen notes, the Catholic Church brings two millennia of experience to this modern problem. That experience says, in effect, “This too shall pass.” In the age of the Church, empires have risen and fallen, nations come and gone, heresies have flourished then decayed, enemies have advanced and then retreated; but we are still here preaching the same gospel. Where is Caesar now? Where is Napoleon now? Where is the Soviet Union now? They are all gone. So shall it be with the scoffers and deceivers of this age. When this present foolishness has passed, the Church will still be here, preaching, teaching, and celebrating the sacraments.
The teachings of Scripture stretch back some 5,000 years to the earliest writings. They have perdured for a reason: they are true, and they work to bring us the greatest fulfillment possible in this world. These time-tested truths wait patiently while trends and popular notions pass away like mist at dawn.
In Sheen’s time he spoke of the Church knowing this truth, which implies that this was widely understood by Catholics of his era. Sadly, that is less true today, when many in the Church—right up to the highest levels in the hierarchy—have tried to adapt, compromise, and even discard ancient, tested doctrines in favor of worldly preferences, errors, and trendy notions. Many people today, even within the Church, need to rediscover Sheen’s maxim.
Numerous surveys have documented the steady decline of religious belief in the U.S. and the rest of the Western world. The category of people known as “nones” consists of atheists, agnostics, and those who state that they are not affiliated with any particular religious denomination. There is little that unites them other than this lack of belief. In trying to bring others to the Catholic faith, we are not facing people with a single mindset but rather a bewildering and complex hodgepodge of stances and ideas; the “nones” disagree with one another as much as they do with us Catholics.
There is a simplistic perception that believers are losing ground to a united group of non-believers; this is not the case. We are losing ground, but to a host of disconnected groups/trends: atheists, agnostics, and the “spiritual but not religious,” as well as those who embrace Eastern religions, yoga, reiki, Wicca, Santeria, Wicca, Santa Muerte, and Satanism. There are also people who follow a syncretic religion, incorporating aspects of two or more different religions into a unique new one. The people we are trying to convert represent a mishmash of confusing and self-referential “movements,” some of which have a single member! Some who abandoned the Catholic faith did so in anger over a specific issue or teaching; others just drifted. Some oppose us intensely while others are merely indifferent. Almost nothing unites these groups except that none of them accept our faith.
This can be consoling, but it can also make our task more difficult. The consolation comes from the fact that is this not some strong, united force arrayed against us. If anyone in this non-believing “group” boasts, “We now outnumber you,” I would point out that there isn’t a lot of “we” going on in their supposed movement! Little if anything unites them besides unbelief.
Melanie McDonagh, writing in the Catholic Herald, describes a recent secular movement in England centered around the “Sunday Assembly.” In many ways this assembly mimics Sunday religious services: people sing songs, listen to a secular talk, and share coffee and fellowship afterwards. It turns out, though, that even this group is seeing a substantial decline in attendance. McDonagh writes,
Yet now, it would seem, the difficulties in maintaining attendance turn out to be common to believers and unbelievers alike. According to Faith Hill, writing in The Atlantic, “Sunday Assembly has reported a significant loss in total attendees over the past few years—from about 5,000 monthly attendees in 2016 to about 3,500 in 2018. … After a promising start, attendance declined, and nearly half the chapters have fizzled out ….” If it’s hard getting people to come to Mass when there’s the Body and Blood of Christ on offer, it must be far harder when you’ve got an unanchored community with nearly nothing in common. In fact, some Assembly members are agnostics and others are atheists, so even the absence of religion doesn’t mean unity.
So, it is not really a case of “us versus them.” Rather, it is more that we are against something no more cohesive than a morning mist as the sun rises.
While this may be consoling it also illustrates the difficulty of our response or strategy. Apologetics has always been multi-faceted: Catholic vs. Atheist, Catholic vs. Agnostic, Catholic vs. Mainline Protestant, Catholic vs. Evangelical, and so on. In the current quagmire of highly subjective denominations, the decline in belief resembles more a death by a thousand cuts. While certain commonalities may exist among the myriad varieties of unbelief and designer deities, it has become clear to me that the best thing we can do in response is to be the Church, clearly and unambiguously; we must be clear in our doctrine and identify ourselves as Catholics to others. St. Paul says,
We do not lose heart …. We do not practice deceit, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by open proclamation of the truth, we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor 4:1-2).
What we certainly do not want to do is to follow the example of the mainline Protestant denominations, who have comprised nearly every doctrine and moral teaching to please the world rather than God. In the same article, Ms. McDonagh memorably describes some Protestant sects
… [they] slid from non-conformity to Unitarianism and eventually to mere political activism. Unitarianism, in fact, strikes me as the American way of doing agnosticism, or at least deism—a way of being religiously observant without having anything in particular to observe.
What could be more useless than to become the very thing we set out to convert? How can we convert the world by becoming the world? What distinguishes the Protestant denominations and their teachings on moral issues like sexuality, marriage, and the value of life? One might argue that they stand against greed and for social justice. Those are not controversial stands in the liberal West, which loves to trot out such things as a form of virtue signaling.
No, I think that the best and only way forward is being fully, faithfully, and joyfully Catholic. There is still a place for arguments and apologetics, but in the era of competitive atheism and consumerized belief, being “happy customers” of the Lord Jesus and insisting on no cheap substitutes or imitation brands is our best way forward. This may seem bold or hard in an age of never-ending scandal and disappointment with our leaders. However, those are examples of not being Catholic enough or of living in outright contradiction to the Catholic faith. Be Catholic, joyfully. St. Teresa of Calcutta is purported to have said, “Joy is a net of love in which you can catch souls.”
In my thirty years of priesthood I have come to see the genius in the fact that every Catholic diocese is divided into parishes with definitive geographical boundaries; the strongest parishes seem to be those that assume primary care for those in their territory. (See the territory of my parish in the diagram on the right.)
Prior to about 1980, parish boundaries were fairly strictly enforced, and in the absence of extenuating circumstances, Catholics were expected to attend Mass in the parish of their residence. Since that time, however, not only are they seldom enforced, they are rarely even known about by Catholics. Except in certain arcane matters of canon law and jurisdiction for the sacraments, they rarely come into play. Catholics thus often “shop around,” looking for a parish whose liturgical style, preaching, music, or Mass schedule most suit them. There are also parishes that seek to address a particular niche market, extending their outreach to particular ethnic or racial groups or by offering Mass in different languages.
I have come to believe that this trend is fatally flawed. A parish may successfully cater to a certain liturgical niche or ethnic tradition for a while – even for many years – but unless it focuses on its geographic neighborhood, it becomes, in effect, a “commuter parish,” with people driving past numerous other parishes to be able to partake of what they offer. Often, though, the appeal does not extend to the next generation. For example, parents who have moved to another part of town may still drive back and attend their parish, but experience tells me that this enthusiasm and dedication doesn’t transfer to their children and certainly not to their grandchildren. Hence, parishes that are living on a past legacy and not reaching out to their current residents become isolated and start to empty as the commuters age and eventually die.
Permit me to use the example of a parish within my own diocese. For the purpose of discretion, I will refer to it as “St. Wow,” but the story is a fairly common one.
St Wow’s Parish was once huge. The church building seated more than 1,000 people and in the halcyon days of the 1950s and early 1960s it was largely filled for ten Masses every Sunday. The school had 1,500 students and a long waiting list. It was located in a working-class suburb of second-generation Italians and Irish, who had moved there as the inner city became increasingly populated by African-Americans.
The neighborhood was established just after the Second World War and by the 1960s was heavily populated by Catholics. The Monsignor who oversaw the construction of the church was a legend and a king in his own right. He sat atop a miniature city of Catholics and was both respected and feared by local politicians. He and his parish were a beacon and destination for Catholics in a very tight knit community. There were dinners, bingo nights, school plays, carnivals, movie nights, sports leagues, men’s and women’s groups, a credit union, and even a bowling alley and pool in the Knights of Columbus hall. St Wow’s covered the equivalent of a city block and was the hub of the community; its vast parking lot was full most days until late in the evening.
By the late 1970s, the Black community began to spread to the closest suburbs. Racial dynamics sadly being what they were, many of St. Wow’s parishioners moved further south. Yet St. Wow was still their parish and the grizzled Monsignor had their loyalty. Numbers remained fairly strong through the 1980s.
The problem was that St. Wow’s now looked nothing like the residents in its neighborhood. The parish was 90 percent White while the area was 90 percent African-American. The parish had become insular and was not evangelizing within its boundaries; the writing was on the wall. The commuters aged, and then the famous Monsignor died. Numbers started slipping; parents couldn’t understand why their adult children weren’t as interested as they were in such a great parish. Today the commuters are largely gone; the folk group gave way to a gospel choir, and what is left is now is a smaller but viable group of African-American parishioners who live in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, the parish school couldn’t be saved and closed some years ago. One wonders if this could have been avoided if the parish had vigorously evangelized its new residents beginning in the 1970s.
Several factors, on both sides of the Atlantic, combined to erode those classic, urban Catholic neighborhoods That’s a very big part of the book’s argument: i.e., that the “social architecture” that had sustained and strengthened Catholic life and identity was well on the road to passing away by the time the Council came along.
The full story is too big to précis in any detail here, but consider just one U.S. case. Suppose you were brought up in an inner-city Polish or Italian neighborhood in the 20s or 30s in somewhere like Chicago or Milwaukee, where the parish was the center of social and cultural and educational and (quite probably) sporting life just as much as it was of your religious life. Then you go off to war, meet—and live and serve alongside—non-Catholics for the first time. Maybe you meet a girl while stationed somewhere—the first romantic interest you’ve ever properly spoken to not from your or a neighboring parish. Anyway, you come back from war with much wider horizons than you left with, and—thanks to the GI Bill—the prospect of going off to college. When you do get married, you’re a) significantly more likely, on average, to be marrying a non-Catholic than in your parents’ generation; and b) unlikely to be moving back to your home neighborhood. You’re a graduate now, remember, and hey—don’t those new suburban communities look just a swell place to raise Junior? When they do get ’round to building a proper Catholic church in Levittown—a Catholic school was the main priority—it’s a good couple of miles away. And while you have got a shiny new car to get to Sunday Mass, there’s plenty more exciting places you can drive to in it than just the round of parish rosary, sodalities, and fish fries that your parents still frequent back home.
I could go on, but you get the picture: Junior is brought up in a very, very different world than you were, and even if you’re still faithful Mass-goers, it’s a far less close-knit parish than your parents’ was. (Their parish, incidentally, ends up being merged with several others in the 1980s, before being sold off as luxury condos—as, I might add, was the Chicago church (St Boniface) that adorns the front cover of Mass Exodus.)
In examples like this, we see that a parish can ill afford to depend on parishioners who move away to keep commuting back. A Polish or Italian parish cannot long remain that if the Poles and Italians have moved away! It is essential to retool and gracefully adapt to welcome new people. It is certainly important to maintain traditions that still sustain the parish and make sense, but it is also time to adapt to the needs of the current population as well.
Parishes that do not prioritize reaching out to and evangelizing the residents of their neighborhood but instead remain focused on ethnic or racial groups that have moved away, or rely on the charisma of their pastor, or depend on the loyalty of former residents, can survive for a while—perhaps even ten or twenty years—but not forever. After all, charismatic pastors can be moved or die, and loyalty can fade.
There is no substitute for working with the residents within a parish’s boundaries. The genius of the Catholic Church is that we have divided the entire world up into parishes defined by geographical boundaries. The pastor and the parish together are responsible for the evangelization and salvation of every man, woman, and child within those boundaries. Parish boundaries used to tell Catholics where they were supposed to belong and attend Mass. Nowadays parish boundaries tell the parish where it is supposed to go to gather parishioners: here are the people for whom we are responsible even if they don’t look like us or speak our language or have our exact liturgical sensibilities. They are ours; we exist for them and to bring them to the Lord.
Given our brief sampling of the Book of Ruth in daily Mass, perhaps a reflection is in order.
The detailed background to the text is too lengthy to go into here, but a few points will help. The story features three main characters: Boaz, Ruth, and Naomi. Boaz is clearly a picture (or “type”) of Christ. He was born and lives in Bethlehem; he ultimately acts as Ruth’s “kinsman-redeemer” by rescuing her from poverty and paying the price so as to cancel her debt. This, of course, is just what Christ does for us: He redeems us by His blood, canceling our poverty and debt. Ruth is a picture of the individual soul in need of Christ’s redemption and mercy. Naomi plays several roles in the book, but in the passage we will consider here she is a picture of the Church; she advises Ruth in what to do and draws her to Boaz, her redeemer.
Consider the following text and then let us see how Naomi symbolizes the Church.
Naomi said to Ruth, “Is not Boaz … a kinsman of ours? Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Wash and perfume yourself, and put on your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.” “I will do whatever you say,” Ruth answered (Ruth 3:2-5).
The advice that Naomi gives to Ruth is very much in line with the instruction that our Mother the Church gives us. In our poverty and under the debt of our sin, we are exhorted by the Church to seek our “Boaz,” who is Christ. (I am indebted to Rev. Adrian Rogers for supplying the alliterative headings below. They are his; the rest of the text is mine).
Be Firmly Convinced – Naomi says, Is not Boaz … a kinsman of ours? Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Ruth knows her poverty, her pain, and her debt; so does Naomi. She exhorts Ruth to seek Boaz because he is near and can help. Boaz is wealthy and thus has the power to save Ruth, to draw her out of her overwhelming poverty; he has the capacity to cancel Ruth’s debt. She is to seek him at the threshing floor, where he is preparing and providing the bread that will sustain her. She must go, firmly convinced that Boaz will love her and save her.
So, too, does the Church exhort us: Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near (Is. 55:6). Yes, there is one among us, a near kinsman, who is not ashamed to call us his brethren (Heb 2:11); His name is Jesus. As God, He has the power to save us and to cancel our debt. Cast your cares on him, for he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7). Jesus is at the threshing floor of His Church, preparing a banquet for you in the sight of your foe (Psalm 23:5). The grain He is winnowing is the Eucharistic Bread of His own flesh. Yes, says the Church, come to Jesus, firmly convinced of His love and His power to save.
Be Freshly Cleansed – Next, Naomi simply says, “Wash.” In other words, the first step in finding help from Boaz is to be freshly cleansed.
So, too, does the Church draw us to Christ with the exhortation to wash. Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Yes, the love of God will be poured forth on us and the cancellation of our debt will take place as we are cleansed of our sins.
Here are some other texts in which the Church—our Naomi, our Mother—exhorts us to be washed:
● Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded (James 4:8). ● Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God (2 Cor 7:1). ● Wash and make yourselves clean (Is 1:15). ● Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing! Come out from it and be pure, you who carry the vessels of the LORD (Is 52:11). ● And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name (Acts 22:16). ● Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water (Heb 10:22).
Be Fragrantly Consecrated – Naomi says to Ruth, “and perfume yourself.” In other words, make yourself nice to be near; Come with an aroma that is sweet and pure.
So, too, does the Church, our Naomi, exhort us to be fragrantly consecrated. The fragrance we are called to is that of a holy life, which we receive in baptism. Our life in God should be like a sweet incense or perfume. Consider some of the following texts that the Church gives us:
● Live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Eph 5:2). ● For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing (2 Cor 2:15). ● [The groom (Christ) speaks to his beloved:] You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain. Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits, with henna and nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with every kind of incense tree, with myrrh and aloes and all the finest spices (Song 4:12). ● Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps (Ex 30:7).
Be Fitly Clothed – Naomi says to Ruth, “and put on your best clothes.”
Our Mother the Church also advises us to be fitly clothed. For a Christian, this means to be adorned in the righteousness that comes to us in Christ by baptism. In the baptismal liturgy, the Church says to the newly baptized of the white garment that he or she wears, You have become a new creation and have clothed yourself in Christ. Receive this baptismal garment, and bring it unstained to the Judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you may have everlasting life.
In other words, be fitly clothed. Wear well the garment of righteousness that Christ died to give you. Scripture, too, speaks of the garment in which we are to be fitly clothed:
● I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels (Is 61:10). ● Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints (Rev 19:7).
Be Fully Committed – Naomi continues, Then go down to the threshing floor, … until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down.
In other words, she is telling Ruth to place herself at the feet of her redeemer. This action of Ruth’s was a way of saying to Boaz, I put myself under your protection; I am fully committed to you.
The Church bids us to do the same: go to the threshing floor, to that place where the threshed and winnowed bread becomes the Eucharist.
Beneath or near every Catholic altar is the cross; on that cross are the uncovered feet of Jesus Christ.
The most sacred place on earth is at the feet of Jesus Christ. The Church, our Naomi, bids us to gather each Sunday at the altar, beneath the uncovered feet of Christ. The Church says to us just what Naomi said to Ruth: Place yourself at the feet of your Redeemer.
Be Faithfully Compliant – Naomi says to Ruth, confidently and succinctly, He will tell you what to do.
Here, too, the voice of the Church echoes what Mother Mary said long ago regarding her Son: Do whatever he tells you (Jn 2:5). How can our Naomi, the Church, say anything less or anything else? The Church has one message: Do whatever Christ, your redeemer, tells you.
So Naomi is a picture of the Church, Boaz a picture of Christ, and Ruth a picture of the soul in need of salvation.
How does the story end? I’m tempted to tell you to read it for yourself, but since Boaz is a picture of Christ you already know the ending. Ruth, firmly convinced, freshly cleansed, fragrantly consecrated, and fitly clothed, fully commits herself to Boaz and is at his feet. Boaz, who saw and loved Ruth before she ever saw or loved him (cf Ruth 2:5), arises and takes her as his bride, paying off all her debt and giving her a new life. Sound familiar? It is the story of salvation, if we but have eyes to see it.
Many of you have likely read the classic description of the Church from the 1951 novel Dan England and the Noonday Devil, by Myles Connolly. It is a wonderful reminder that the Church is not an institution, but a Body, made up of members who, each in his own unique way, give witness to the one Body, which is Christ. Here is an excerpt from the book:
The Church to me is all important things everywhere. It is authority and guidance. It is love and inspiration. It is hope and assurance. It is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It is our Lady and St. Joseph. It is St. Peter and Pius XII. It is the bishop and the pastor. It is the catechism and it is our mother leaning over the crib teaching us our evening prayers. It is the cathedral at Chartres and the cross-tipped hut on Ulithi. It is the martyrs in the Colosseum and the martyrs in Uganda, the martyrs at Tyburn and the martyrs at Nagasaki. It is the wrinkled old nun and the eager-eyed postulant. It is the radiant face of the young priest saying his first Mass, and the sleepy boy acolyte with his soiled white sneakers showing under his black cassock….
It is the spire glimpsed from a train window and the cruciform miniature of a church seen far below on the earth from an airplane. It is six o’clock Mass with its handful of unknown saints at the communion rail in the gray dark and it is pontifical High Mass with its crowds and glowing grandeur in St. Peter’s….It is the Sistine Choir and it is the May procession of Chinese children singing the Regina Coeli in Peking.
It is the Carthusian at prime on Monte Allegro and the Jesuit teaching epistemology in Tokyo. It is the Scheutveld Father fighting sleeping sickness in the Congo and the Redemptorist fighting prejudice in Vermont. It is the Benedictine, the Augustinian, the Passionist, the Dominican, the Franciscan. It is all religious and especially the great unnamed Order of the Parish Priest.
It is the Carmelite Sister lighting the tapers for vespers in the drear cold of Iceland and the Sister of Notre Dame de Namur making veils for First Communion in Kwango. It is the Vincentian Sister nursing a Negro Baptist dying of cancer in Alabama and the Maryknoll Sister facing a Communist commissar in Manchuria. It is the White Sister teaching the Arabs carpetmaking in the Sahara and the Good Shepherd Sister in St. Louis giving sanctuary to a derelict child, a home to a lamb who was lost. It is the Little Sister of the Poor salving the sores of a forgotten old man in Marseilles, the Grey Sister serving the destitute in Haiti, the Blessed Sacrament Sister helping a young Negro write poetry in New Orleans. It is the Sister of Charity… It is all the Sisters everywhere.
It is the crippled woman who keeps fresh flowers before our Lady’s altar and the young woman catechist who teaches the barefooted neophytes in the distant hills. It is the girl who gives up her bridge game to drive the Sisters to the prisons and the homes of the poor, and it is the woman who goes from door to door begging for help for the orphanage. It is the proud mother of the priest and the heartbroken mother of the criminal. It is all mothers and sisters everywhere who weep and suffer and pray that sons and brothers may keep the Faith.
….It is the bad sermon and the good, the false vocation and the true. It is the tall young man who says the Stations of the Cross every evening and it is the father of ten who wheels the sick to Mass every Sunday morning at the County Hospital.
It is St. Martin and Martin de Porres, St. Augustine and St. Phocas, Gregory the Great and Gregory Thaumaturgus, St. Ambrose and Charles de Foucauld, St. Ignatius and Ignatius the Martyr, St. Thomas More and St. Barnabas. It is St. Teresa and St. Philomena, Joan of Arc and St. Winefride, St. Agnes and St. Mary Euphrasia. It is all the saints, ancient and new, named and unnamed, and all the sinners.
It is the bursting out of the Gloria on Holy Saturday and the dim crib at dawn Mass on Christmas. It is the rose vestments on Laetare Sunday and the blue overalls of the priest working with the laborers in a mine in the Ruhr.
It is the shiny, new shoes and reverent faces of the June bride and groom kneeling before the white-flowered altar at nuptial Mass, and it is the pale, troubled young mother at the baptismal font, her joy mingled with distress as she watches her first-born wail its protest against the sacramental water. It is the long, shadowy, uneven line of penitents waiting outside the confessional in the dusk of a wintry afternoon, each separate and solemnly alone with his sins, and it is the stooped figure of a priest, silhouetted against the headlights of a police car in the darkness of the highway as he says the last prayers over a broken body lying on the pavement beside a shattered automobile.
It is the Magnificat and it is grace before meals. It is the worn missal and the chipped statue of St. Anthony, the poor box and the cracked church bell. It is peace and truth and salvation. It is the Door through which I entered into the Faith and the Door through which I shall leave, please God, for eternity.
So there it is: The Church. Somewhere in this picture is you, sharing your gift and serving in your role. The Church is Christ. And all of us who are baptized are baptized into Christ, members of His Body.
Somehow I sense the rhythm of a Bach fugue as I read the description above. You probably think I’m stretching things, but consider this:
In the video below, an organist plays Bach’s Fugue in C Major. As with any musical fugue, the organist begins by announcing the theme, playing it with his right hand. Soon enough the left hand answers and eventually the feet play the theme in the pedal. The fugue then takes the theme through a series of mathematical progressions. Eighth notes become 16th notes and then even 32nd notes, but the basic theme is always being developed.
Now think of the organist as Christ, the Head of the Body, and the organ as the Body of Christ. The organ, like any body, has many parts. Because the purpose of an organ is to make sounds, the different pipes are used to make different sounds. There are diapasons, the reeds, the flutes, and the string pipes. The reeds are made up of various sounds like the trumpet, oboe, and vox humana. The string pipes make different sounds as well, such as viola, salicional, and dulciana. The flutes also come in many varieties as do the diapasons. There are wonderful mixtures that give brightness. The deep, low notes of the pedal, sometimes as low as the 32′ contra Bombarde, make the whole building shake. This, too, is an image of the Church. Christ is able to make beautiful music with this wonderful variety.
How does Jesus make this music? Like an organist playing a fugue, Jesus announces the basic theme that underlies every other aspect of the song. This theme is the truth of the Gospel. Every voice of the Church takes up that theme and sings it out in its own sound, using its own gift—but it is Christ who plays. Jesus expands and enriches the theme in a kind of development of doctrine that He leads the Church to proclaim. Rich diverse sounds develop and build thematically, but there is always the basic theme, the fundamental truth.
Yes, here is an image of the Church in a Bach fugue and in a virtuoso organist making beautiful music through unity with a wondrous instrument.
Many Catholics are unaware that our traditional church buildings are based on designs given by God Himself. It goes all the way back to Mount Sinai, when God set forth the design for the sanctuary in the desert and for the tent of meeting. Many of the fundamental aspects of our layouts still follow that plan (and the stone version of it that became the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem). Traditional church buildings also have numerous references to the Book of Revelation and the Book of Hebrews, both of which describe the heavenly liturgy and Heaven itself.
The compelling effect of a traditional church is to say to the believer, you are in Heaven now.
In my own parish church (take a virtual tour here), the floors are the color of green jasper and the clerestory walls are red, symbolizing the fiery Love of the Holy Spirit. On the clerestory are painted the saints, gathered like a cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1; Rev. 7:9). In the apse is the throne-like altar with Jesus at the center (Rev 5:6); the seven lamp stands are surrounding Him with seven candles (Rev 4:5). In the stained glass of the transept are the 12 Apostles joined with the 12 patriarchs (symbolized by 12 wooden pillars). Together they form the 24 elders who surround the throne in Heaven (Rev 4:4). Above the high altar, in the clerestory windows, are the four living creatures also said to surround the throne (Rev 4:6-7). Additionally, on the floor of the sanctuary (see photo above) is a symbolic representation of the of the exterior of the ancient Jewish Temple. There is the flaming altar and, on either side, the eight tables where the animals were sacrificed. (I have written about these in more detail here: On The Biblical Roots of Church Design).
Sadly, in churches built after the 1950s, these biblical roots were often cast aside in favor of a “meeting house” design. No longer was the thinking that our churches should reflect heavenly realities, teach the faith, and follow biblical plans. Rather, it was that the church simply provided a space for people to meet and conduct various liturgies.
In some cases, the liturgical space came to be considered fungible in that it could be reconfigured to suit various needs: Mass today, concert tomorrow, spaghetti dinner next Wednesday. This idea began to appear as early as the 1950s. Pews were often replaced by chairs, which could easily be moved to suit various functions. Even in parishes that did not go so far as to allow spaghetti dinners in the nave (mine did in the 1970s), the notion of the church as essentially a meeting space still prevailed.
Thus, churches began to look less like churches and more like meeting halls. The bare essentials such as an altar, pews or chairs, a pulpit, and very minimal statuary were still there, but the main point was simply to provide a place for people to come together. There was very little sense that the structure itself was to reflect Heaven or even remind us of it.
That is beginning to change as newer architects are returning more and more to sacred and biblical principles in church design. Further, many Catholics are becoming more educated on the function of church art to impart meaning rather than just to look pretty. They are coming to understand the rich symbolism of the art and architecture, which reveal the faith and express heavenly realities.
Take stained glass, for instance. Stained glass art is more than just pretty colors, pictures, and symbols. Stained glass was used for centuries to teach the faith through pictures and symbols. Until about 200 years ago, most people—even among the upper classes—could not read well if at all. How does the Church teach the faith in such a setting? Through preaching, art, passion plays, statues, and stained glass.
Stained glass in churches depicted biblical stories, saints, sacraments, and glimpses of Heaven. Over the centuries a rich shorthand of symbols also developed: crossed keys = St. Peter, a sword = St. Paul, a large boat = the Church, a shell = baptism, and so forth. Thus, the Church taught the faith through the exquisite art of stained glass.
Stained glass also served another purpose: to act as an image of the foundational walls of Heaven. Recall that traditional church architecture saw the church as an image of Heaven. Hence a church’s design was based on the descriptions of Heaven found in the Scriptures. In the Book of Revelation, Heaven is described as having high walls with rows of jewels embedded in their foundations:
One of the seven angels … showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates … The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst ... (Revelation 21:varia).
Thus, because Heaven had great, high walls, older churches almost always had a lot of verticality. The lower foundational walls gave way to the higher clerestory and above the clerestory the vaults of the ceiling rose even higher. In the lower sections of the walls, extending even as high as the clerestory, the jewel-like stained glass recalled the precious gemstones described in the lower walls of Heaven.
Yes, it is amazing! I stand in my church and hear its message: you are in Heaven when you enter here and celebrate the sacred mysteries. Sursum corda! (Hearts aloft!)
Here is a video I put together on stained glass. Enjoy these jewels of light that recall the lower walls of Heaven as you listen to the choir sing “Christe Lux mundi” (O Christ, you are the Light of the world).
There are certain feasts so important that the Church celebrates them with an Octave. Currently we only have two: Christmas and Easter. Strangely, in 1970, the Octave of Pentecost was dropped. Not only was it dropped, but the very way of enumerating the year was altered as well: the weeks were no longer expressed in relation to Pentecost (e.g., “The Third Sunday After Pentecost”).
To me this is a sad loss because the Church really began her public mission to the nations on Pentecost. This was the date of her commission, her sending forth by the Lord. Renaming the time after Pentecost as “Ordinary Time” comes across poorly in English. Even pointing out that in this usage the word “ordinary” comes from “ordinal” (relating to the position of an item in a series (e.g., first, second, third)) doesn’t fully counteract the notion of ordinary as “nothing special.”
Pentecost was a pivotal event. Indeed, the Church’s entire history pivots here. She goes from discipleship (student) status to apostolic status. Having been formed and quickened by the Spirit, she is sent forth to make disciples of the nations and to baptize them. It makes perfect sense to enumerate the Church year in reference to this critical moment.
As for the Octave, if Christmas and Easter are foundational, certainly Pentecost is no less so. Restoring the Octave will give us the time to reflect more deeply on the meaning of that profound event. It will also allow us to draw more deeply from the Acts of the Apostles; currently we end our study of Acts too abruptly, speaking too little of St. Paul’s journey to Rome, a profoundly symbolic journey for him, the Church, and the Gospel.
For priests celebrating the Ordinary Form, it is often an option to celebrate votive Masses of the Holy Spirit in the week after Pentecost, as long as there are no obligatory memorials. But Pope Francis last year limited the Pentecost options even further when he instituted a new obligatory memorial: Mary Mother of the Church on the Monday following Pentecost. I love this title of Mary and the Mass for her under that title is good. But it has completely removed the possibility that a priest in the Ordinary form could ever celebrate an uninterrupted octave of Pentecost and that is unfortunate.
The celebration of the Extraordinary Form still includes a formal celebration of the Octave. Further the Sundays of the year are enumerated as Sundays after Pentecost.
I encourage my brother priests to consider celebrating as many votive Masses to the Holy Spirit that the calendar will allow in the week after Pentecost. This might mean, for those who are able to do it, celebrating in the Extraordinary Form during the whole week. Pentecost is just too important to be relegated to a one-day observation. Pentecost is pivotal; it is the prime feast of the Church’s mission to the world. An Octave is called for and the Sundays of the year should be restored in reference to Pentecost IMHO.
There are many ongoing attempts to erode religious liberty in the United States. In California, a bill has been introduced that would, in certain situations, compel priests to break the confessional seal (I would go to jail before I’d do that). The “Equality Act” (passed by the House of Representatives earlier this month and currently before the Senate) would add sexual orientation and the fanciful notion of “gender identity” to the set of characteristics currently protected by the Civil Rights Act (race, color, religion, sex, and national origin). In April, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the City of Philadelphia’s right to cease placing children into foster care through the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Catholic Social Services because the agency will not place children with same-sex couples.
With these and other similar situations in mind, we do well to review the stages of persecution. The term “stages” is particularly important in the U.S. because it is rare for a previously respected segment of the population to become reviled overnight. The typical process is that the descent progresses in stages that grow in intensity. In this way, the Catholic Church, once an esteemed institution in America (along with other Christian denominations), has become increasingly marginalized and now even hated by many. It may help us to consider the five stages of persecution because it seems that things are going to get more difficult for the Church in the years ahead.
I. Stereotyping the targeted group – To stereotype means to apply an overly simplistic belief about a group of people to each individual person in that class.
As the 1960s and 1970s progressed, Christians were often caricatured as Bible-thumpers, simpletons, haters of science, and hypocrites; they were frequently labeled self-righteous, old-fashioned, and backwards.
Catholics in particular were also accused of having neurotic feelings of guilt and a hatred of or aversion to sexuality. We were denounced as a sexist institution and called authoritarian, stuck in the past, and hung up on restrictive rules.
According to the stereotype, Catholics and Bible-believing Christians are a sad, angry, boring, backward, repressed lot. To many who accept the stereotype, we are a laughable—even tragic—group caught in a superstitious past, incapable of throwing off the “shackles” of faith.
As with any large group, individual Christians and Catholics may manifest some negative traits, but indiscriminately presuming the characteristics of a few to be common to all is unjust.
To be sure, not everyone engages in this stereotyping, and even among those who do the degree varies, but the climate created by its presence sets the foundation for the next stage of persecution.
II. Vilifying the targeted group for alleged crimes or misconduct
As the stereotyping grew in intensity, Catholics and Christians who did not go along with the cultural revolution were described as closed-minded, harmful to human dignity and freedom, intolerant, hateful, bigoted, unfair, homophobic, and/or reactionary—basically, bad people.
The history of the Church is also described myopically as little more than a litany of bad and repressive behavior: going on crusades, conducting inquisitions, and hating Galileo and all science. Never mind that there might be a little more to our history: founding universities and hospitals, patronizing the arts, and preaching a gospel that brought order and civilization to the divided and barbaric times that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Our critics won’t hear any of that, or if they do will give the credit to anyone or anything except the Church and our faith.
All of this has the effect of creating a self-righteous indignation toward believers and of making anti-Catholic and anti-Christian attitudes a permissible bigotry.
III. Marginalizing the targeted group’s role in society
Having established the (false) premise that the Church and the faith are bad—even harmful to human dignity and freedom—the next stage is to relegate the role of the Church in society to the periphery.
To many in our secularized culture, religion is seen as something that must go. Perhaps we will be allowed to sing our hymns and preach our sermons within the four walls of our churches, but the faith must be banished from the public square.
It has become increasingly unacceptable and intolerable that anyone should mention God, pray in public, or in any way bring the Christian faith to bear on matters of public policy. Nativity sets must go; out with Christmas trees. There have even been some public schools that forbade the use of the colors red and green during the “Holiday Season”!
Do not even think about mentioning Jesus or thanking Him in your graduation speech; you may be forbidden to do so under penalty of law. You may talk about Madonna the singer but not the Madonna.
In contrast, the Gay-Straight Alliance club at the local high school is welcome to pass out rainbow-colored condoms to the students. Muslims strangely get a pass but not Christians. No Bibles or Christian-themed pamphlets had better see the light of day anywhere in the school building—separation of Church and State, you know.
IV. Criminalizing the targeted group or its works
Recent attempts to compel us to violate our teachings and consciences are noted above, but there have been many other times we have had to go to court to fight for our right to practice our faith openly. An increasing amount of litigation is being directed against the Church and other Christians for daring to live out our faith.
Some jurisdictions have sought to compel Catholic hospitals and pro-life clinics to provide information about and/or referrals to abortion clinics or to supply “emergency contraception” (i.e., the abortifacient known as the morning-after pill). In 2009, the State of Connecticut sought to regulate the structure, organization, and administration of Catholic parishes. A number of Christian students in various states have suffered legal injunctions when it was discovered that they planned to mention God and/or Jesus in their graduation addresses. (More details can be found here.)
A good number of those involved in these clashes feel quite righteous and justified in their efforts to remove the practice of the faith from the public square.
Many of these attempts to criminalize the faith have been successfully rebuffed in the courts, but the number and frequency of the lawsuits and the time and cost involved in fighting them impose a huge burden. It is clear that attempts to criminalize Christian behavior pose a growing threat to religious liberty.
V. Persecuting the targeted group outright
If current trends continue, Christians, especially religious leaders, may face fines and/or incarceration.
In Canada and in parts of Europe, Catholic clergy have been arrested and charged with “hate crimes” for preaching Catholic doctrine on homosexual activity.
In our country there are greater protections for free speech, but there has been a steady erosion of religious freedom; some have had to spend long periods in court defending basic religious liberty. The trajectory points to suffering, lawsuits, fines, and ultimately prison.
Unlikely, you say? Alarmist? Well, stages one through four seem to be firmly in place. One may wish to “whistle past the graveyard,” but it looks to me as if we’re headed for stage five.
Maybe a heavy post could use the accompaniment of a lighthearted video. This animated retelling of Acts 16 is so bad it’s good!