Love and Lament Alike – A Brief Reflection for All Who Care About the Church

As a priest and pastor I work very closely with others: clergy, religious, laity who work for the Church, and laity who volunteer. We all work for the Church because we love her and her people.

At times, though, there is disappointment, hurt, or even disillusionment. Perhaps these feelings result from issues in the wider Church: sexual abuse by clergy, the lack of courage and leadership from some bishops and priests, the scandal of dissent at the highest levels, questionable partnerships with anti-life and anti-Catholic organizations, the breakdown of discipline, and the strange severity of response to some infractions contrasted with the almost total laxity in the face of others. Perhaps they are the result of local problems found in any group of human beings: gossip, hurtful actions, hypocrisy, power struggles, misplaced priorities, favoritism, and injustice.

While these things happen everywhere, many hope that there will be fewer occurrences in the Church. Some who come to work for the Church begin by thinking, How wonderful it will be to work for the Church instead of out in the cutthroat business world! Maybe they envision a place where people pray together and support each other more. Perhaps they think the Church will be a place with less competition and strife.

Alas, such hopes are usually dashed quickly. We are, after all, running a hospital of sorts; and just as hospitals tend to attract the sick, so the Church attracts sinners and those who struggle. Jesus was often found in strange company, so much so that the Pharisees were scandalized. He rebuked them by saying, People who are well do not need a doctor, sick people do. I have come to call sinners, not the righteous (Mk 2:17).

Idealistic notions of working in and for the Church evaporate quickly when the phone rings with an impatient parishioner on the line, or when two group leaders argue over who gets to use the parish hall, or when the pastor is irritable and disorganized, or when the maintenance engineer is found to be drinking on the job, or when certain members of the choir are making anything but harmony, or when some favored parishioners get attention from and access to the old guard leaders while newcomers are resisted.

For all these sorts of situations that engender irritation, disappointment, or disillusionment, I keep a little prayer card near my desk. Sometimes I read it for my own benefit and sometimes I share it with those who feel discouraged at what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the Church. It is a beautiful mediation; it recalls that although great love often generates the deep disappointment, in the end love still abides.

Consider, then, the following words. They are perhaps over-the-top in places, but love has its excesses. Take these words as a kind of elixir that speaks to the pain that love can cause.

How baffling you are, Oh Church,
and yet how I love you!
How you have made me suffer,
and yet how much I owe you!
I would like to see you destroyed,
and yet I need your presence.

You have given me so much scandal
and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is.
I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity,
more compromised, more false,
and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful.
How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face,
and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you,
because I am you, though not completely.
And besides, where would I go?

Would I establish another?
I would not be able to establish it without the same faults,
for they are the same faults I carry in me.
And if I did establish another,
it would be my Church,
not the Church of Christ.

(from The God Who Comes, by Carlo Carretto)

Yes, where else would I go?

 

Your Life is Not About You, As Illustrated in a Biblical Story

In Wednesday’s reading, the Acts of the Apostles sets forth an event that amounts to a tale of one Church in two cities or regions. It illustrates well a couple of points: that the Church is always in need of reform and that our lives are not merely about us and what we want. Let’s look at the event in two scenes.

Scene 1: The Church in Jerusalem –

There broke out a severe persecution of the Church in Jerusalem, and all were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, except the Apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made a loud lament over him.
Saul, meanwhile, was trying to destroy the Church; entering house after house and dragging out men and women, he handed them over for imprisonment
. (Acts 8:1-4)

Up until now the Church in Jerusalem has experienced steady growth. To be sure there has been some persecution, but mainly of Peter, John and the other apostles. A passage from earlier in Acts describes a kind of springtime for the Church in Jerusalem following Pentecost: 

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. A sense of awe came over everyone, and the apostles performed many wonders and signs. …With one accord they continued to meet daily in the temple courts…sharing their meals with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

And yet, just at this moment of growth the Lord permits a persecution that, in many ways devastates the young community. There is the first martyrdom, a widespread arrest of Christians (led by Saul) and a scattering of “all” the community.  A worldly perspective may ask, “Why O Lord?! This is bad timing. The Church was just getting her feet on the ground in Jerusalem and you have permitted her to be all but destroyed!”

Yes, the Lord had summoned the Church to the cross. And why? God alone knows the full reason, but we can speculate as to some reasons.

In the first place, the idyllic picture of Acts 2 has already been marred by squabbles and injustice of ethnic origin. The Greek-speaking widows were being neglected, it would seem (Acts 6:1). This may also point to other internal struggles that give the impression that the Church may be losing focus on essentials and that the outward priority of evangelizing is giving way to inward squabbles.

Further, there is the emerging picture of a Church rather settled in Jerusalem. But had the Lord not summoned them to go into all the world teaching, evangelizing, saving and drawing people to the sacraments? (see Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 24:47). There is no mention to this point of that taking place, or of any plans for it. So, perhaps the Lord permits this persecution to give the Church a nudge out of the nest. In saying they were scattered, we get the image of seed being sown. The blood of martyrs is seed for the Church and persecution fires up the faithful and distinguishes them from the merely fair-weather friends of the Lord. Ecclesia semper reformanda (the Church is always in need of reform).

The upshot of the whole episode is evangelical, for the faith now spreads north to Samaria and into Judah.

Scene 2:  The Church in Samaria (The Church and Mission are Bigger than Us) –

Now those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.
Thus Philip went down to the city of Samaria
and proclaimed the Christ to them.
With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip
when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing.
For unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice,
came out of many possessed people,
and many paralyzed and crippled people were cured.
There was great joy in that city
. (Acts 8:4-8)

Here is a very different picture! Having been prodded by the Lord through a permitted persecution, the tears and suffering in one city, in one part of the Church, benefit others in a new and different part of the Church. Demons are being cast out, healings are taking place, the lame are walking, and there is great joy!

The seeds of faith are being sown by the suffering of some and watered by their tears that others be saved and come to joy. A psalm comes to mind: He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. (Psalm 126:6)

So, the Lord had to prod the early Church to get moving. But this is only so that the work may become more fruitful and many more be saved. 

And this points to two hard truths that, if accepted, are liberating:

  1. Your life is not (only) about you.
  2. You are not THAT important.

If we are not careful, we are very prone to become self-absorbed and think that our situation is the only thing on God’s radar. But the truth is, God has everyone’s needs in mind. My life is not simply about me and what I want and need and think and see. My life is also about what others need, and what others see and can contribute. I am not so important that God will sacrifice everything and everyone else just to answer my needs. God might actually ask me to suffer and sacrifice so that others may thrive. Our lives are intertwined with the lives of others. I have surely benefited from the sacrifices others have made, and I am called at times to sacrifice that others may come to know God and thrive. Thus, the Church at Jerusalem was permitted by God a persecution and a suffering so that others in Samaria and throughout the world would come to hear the Gospel and be saved. Scripture says elsewhere:

He who has an ear, let him hear.  “If anyone is destined for captivity, into captivity he will go; If anyone is to die by the sword, by the sword he must be killed.” Here is a call for the perseverance and faith of the saints. (Rev 13:9-11)

In our times of self-esteem, we can go too far and presume that my life is all about me and nothing and no one is more important that me and I what I and my family need. Or we can become very focused on the issues that preoccupy us in the Church in America or think that everyone sees what we see, or experiences what we do. This is myopic. The Church is bigger than me or my parish or my country. The Church is in every land, speaks every language and extends back in time and forward as well. God has a little more on his radar than “me” or our small and temporary group.  

This small story from Acts reminds us that the Church is always in need of reform. It also reminds us that the Church is more than me or us. Here is one Church with two scenes. In Jerusalem there is weeping, but in Samaria there is joy. My life is not about me alone. I both benefit from the sacrifices of others and am called to make sacrifices for others. The blood of martyrs is seed for the Church, the tears of the persecuted will often water those seeds. It is a hard but a freeing truth. In heaven we will see what our sufferings accomplished. For now, we must accept whatever the Lord decides, be it suffering or joy, or some combination of both. My life isn’t just about me or what I want. It’s also about you and what you need. 

Two Kinds of Love to Celebrate on St Valentine’s Day

St. Valentine’s Day is a day that celebrates romantic love. This sort of love, to be sure, is noble and to be encouraged. The Church has sometimes been accused of being suspicious of romantic love. It is true that certain heretical groups such as the Cathari and the Jansenist’s have frowned on sexual love in marriage. But they were considered heretics for their views. A true Catholic view celebrates romantic love  (eros in Greek).  As a Catholic Pastor I like others want to encourage romantic love and ultimately marriage. And within marriage to encourage on-going romantic love. I tell my younger parishioners, get married (first!) have lots of babies and raise them Catholic! You may recall the old Rhyme: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.”

A Great Love – Romantic love is good and it brings blessings! But romantic love (eros) has a place a purpose and in God’s plan. Fundamentally eros is meant to draw a man and a woman to each other and ultimately to marriage. And within marriage their romantic love is to be fruitful and multiplying. Yet too many today just play around with and dabble in eros. They vent its power through premarital sex and do not  follow it’s intended course which is to draw to people together in deep desire and love. Eros is about drawing and man and woman into deep interpersonal union it is not merely about bringing two bodies together.  Too many rush to eros’ physical urge and disclose the deepest mysteries about themselves inappropriately. The great dance of courtship and marriage is thus short-circuited and eros looses both it’s dignity and its goal. Marriage rates have plummeted and so have birthrates.

Pope Benedict had this to say on eros:

That love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings, was called “eros” by the ancient Greeks….The Greeks—not unlike other cultures—considered eros principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a “divine madness” which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness…..Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet [in] the contemporary [scene] eros, is reduced to pure “sex”….Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: … no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. [But] true, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves….Two aspects of this are important. First, eros is somehow rooted in man’s very nature; Adam is a seeker, who “abandons his mother and father” in order to find woman; only together do the two represent complete humanity and become “one flesh”. The second aspect is equally important….eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfil its deepest purpose….[And in Scripture Marriage] becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. (Deus Caritas est 3-11 selected)

So romantic love (eros) has a dignity but it also has a purpose. It’s purpose is to draw man and woman toward marriage, family and ultimately toward God. The deep desire that man and woman have for each other is a sign of the ultimate desire of the human heart for deep union with God.

An even greater love – But there is a second love to be celebrated on St. Valentines Day and that is Agape love.  Agape love is the love whereby we love God above ourselves, above all things and above all people. There is perhaps no greater example of this sort of love than that of the martyrs. They were willing to forsake everything for Christ. They excepted the supreme price of this love, the gift of their very own life. Every martyr can truly say, “Lord, I love you more than my self, my life, my things and more than any other person in my life.  The world hates me for this and will kill me for it, but I willing pay the price that this love demands.”

St. Valentine was a martyr. Christian tradition recognizes two saints from the early Church as “Valentine.” The first is the Roman priest Valentine. He was decapitated in 268 AD  for the crime of trying to convert a member of Emperor Claudius the Goth’s household. He also a renowned healer. The second Valentine is Bishop Valentine who was also a renowned healer and was also turned it for converting people to Christianity. He was imprisoned and the attempt was made to force him to sacrifice to pagan gods. When he refused an attempt was made to club him to death. When that failed he was beheaded in 273 AD.

The red of St. Valentine’s Day signals not only the warm blood of romance, but also the red hot blood of martyrs. Eros is surely noble and necessary. It is rightly celebrated. But no great love (agape) exists than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend. Thus today the red blood of martyrs too is celebrated and proclaimed.

A blessed St. Valentine’s Day to one and all.

Being in Church is Essential, Governor. Virtual is Not the Same as Real.

Many of us have heard expressed the formulaic regret by someone declining to attend an event: “Though I can’t be there, I’ll be there with you in spirit!” Two reactions usually occur to us who receive such a reply:

1 That’s unfortunate.

2 Whatever the phrase “there in spirit” means, they probably won’t be present in spirit either.

We human beings are body and soul. It is our dignity to combine the two orders of creation: matter and spirit. Angels are pure spirit, animals are matter, but the human person gloriously unites both orders in our one person.

For the human person, physical presence is important because we are not disembodied energy and while absences are sometimes necessary, it is usually thought of as less than ideal when we “phone it in” or go virtual.

Many people forget that the word “virtual” originally meant, “sort of like, but not really.” So, we might say, “He’s virtually a genius.” This is a form of hyperbole where we speak of his qualities that are like a genius though he’s not actually one in the full sense of the word. Lately “virtual” has simply come to mean “electronic” or “online” communication. But we ought not lose the original insight that computer (“zoom”) meetings are sort of like meetings but not really. They lack important aspects and subtleties when people share a room together and are physically present. There’s usually more buy-in in actual meetings. Interaction is livelier and people can’t get away with some of the multitasking going on in the background of virtual meetings. There is also something about being away from your usual desk or location with all its distractions and being in a room that is both neutral and designed for meetings.

To be sure, some meetings work well online, especially those that are brief and to the point. Travel time is often saved as well. Zoom and other platforms have been a great help in this time of plague. But recent studies have shown that online classes are terrible for students, especially the younger ones. Others too are wearied by all the online time that has been asked of us. And while I have given many online talks in recent pandemic months, I miss the dynamic of being in the room with people where I draw energy and get subtle feedback by their postures and expressions. Obviously masks also hinder this feedback greatly.

But of all meetings where physical presence is most required, the Sacred Liturgy is most important. One cannot receive sacraments virtually. You simply have to be there. How discouraging it was to hear the Governor of Virginia seek to school religious leaders and their congregants recently on where and how they should experience God:

Worship outside or worship online is still worship….  You don’t have to sit in the church pew for God to hear your prayers,” ….Is it the worship or the building? For me, God is wherever you are. [*]

It is more than annoying for this radical pro-choice governor to play theologian and liturgist. He certainly shows little knowledge when it comes to Catholic Sacraments, all of which require physical presence to be conferred. You can’t get baptized online, receive Holy Communion online, or even absolution. Physical presence is required. All the sacraments touch the body in some way, whether through the laying on of hands, pouring of water, anointing with oil, or reception of Communion. The Christian faith is incarnational. Christ did not come among us as a ghost, a meme, or a Zoom host. He does not simply livestream and is not merely an idea. The Catholic Mass and Sacraments touch and interact with the body. Presence is crucial.

Even for most Protestants whose belief in sacraments is minimal and whose services are more apt for livestreaming, they still see fellowship as important. You can’t get real fellowship online, you just have to be there for one another.

Christ has a mystical body and it is essential that the members of his Body gather every Sunday: Christ the head, and his members together. In the Catholic Liturgy we experience the presence of Christ in the faithful gathered, and in the priest through whom Christ ministers. We hear his voice in the Word proclaimed and are fed by his Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist.

I do not expect the Governor to know all this. But, all the more reason for him to act with care and not speak so publicly of things he knows not. Catholics and other Christians are not frivolous in our need to gather. Our souls are just as important, if not more so, than our bodies. Sacraments and Sacred worship ARE essential in our lives, despite what some other governors and mayors have asserted. We should be expected to engage in prudent precautions like anyone who goes anywhere else. But government officials should not under-estimate our need to assemble for Sacred Worship even if they do not personally understand or share our beliefs. Our beliefs and practices far outdate this pandemic, this Country, and this culture. We will be here when all these things pass, as worldly things do. But the Word of the Lord remains forever.

Five Advent Reflections

The Following are “Five Advent Reflections”  I have prepared. If these interest you I have prepared them also in PDF format which you can get by clicking here: The Season of Advent

1. Advent is Witnessed by Creation  – Autumn and early winter are times of great seasonal change. The leaves turn brilliant colors then fade and fall. The shadows lengthen as the days grow shorter and colder. The warmth of summer and vacations seem distant memories and we are reminded once again that the things of this world last but a moment and pass away. Even so, we look forward as well. Christmas can be a wonderful time of year. Likewise, the winter ahead has delights. Few can deny the mesmerizing beauty of falling snow and the child-like excitement a winter storm can cause. Advent draws us spiritually into this season of change, of longing and of expectation. As the days grow shorter and the darkness increases we light candles on our Advent wreathes and remember that Jesus is the true light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness. These lit candles also symbolize our on-going commitment to come out of darkness into God’s own marvelous light. (cf 1 Peter 2:9). A Gospel Song says:  Walk in the light, beautiful light, come where the dew-drops of mercy shine bright.

2. Longing for Salvation – Advent also draws us back to our Old Testament roots. Israel was taught by God through the prophets to expect a Messiah from God who would set them free from sin and injustice. Across many centuries there arose a longing and a yearning for this messiah. Sin and injustice had taken a terrible toll and so the cry from Israel went up:

O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil…We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities. Yet, O LORD, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity for ever. Behold, consider, we are all thy people. (Is 64:1-7)

In Advent we recall these cries of ancient Israel and make them our own. Surely Christ has already come yet we know that sin and injustice still have their terrible effects in our lives and in our communities. We very much need Jesus to be our Savior and to daily set us free. Advent is a time to acknowledge our need for the saving work of God and to long for the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that God has already begun this saving work in us, now we long for him to bring it to completion. We also await the full manifestation of his glory and this brings us to the second important meaning of Advent. .

3. Waiting  for His Second Coming – Advent is also a time to prepare for the second coming of the Lord. We say in the Creed, He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. This truth flows directly from Scripture which teaches clearly two things on which we must reflect. First, He will come again in glory. Second we cannot know the day or the hour that he will return. In fact, though some signs will precede his coming, the emphasis of Scripture falls upon the suddenness of the event:

  1. He will appear like lightning (Mt 24:27),
  2. with the suddenness of the pangs of child birth (1 Th. 5:3)
  3. in the twinkling of an eye and the sound of a trumpet (1 Cor 15:52).
  4. It will take place when we least expect (Mt 24:44),
  5. Just when everyone is saying, “There is peace and security!” (1 Th. 5:3).

Since this is to be the case we must live lives of readiness for that day. Advent is a time when we especially reflect of the necessity of our readiness. Here too an Old Gospel Song sasy, Ready!? Are you ready? For the coming of the Lord? Likewise, a spiritual counsels, Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. The time is drawing nigh!

4. The Fire Next Time! – Some of the images of the last day, images of judgement and destruction, can seem very frightening indeed. Consider for example this passage from the Second Letter of Peter:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Pt. 3:10-14).

Some of the imagery used here reminds us of the even more fearsome images of the Book of Revelation! But notice the complete message of this passage and others like it. The heavens and the earth as we know it will pass away but we who are ready look forward with joy to a “new heavens and a new earth” where the justice of God will reside in all its fullness. An African-American Spiritual summarized the teachings of the Second Letter of Peter by these classic lines, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time. Here too, our first reaction to such phrases might be fear. But in the tradition of the spirituals, this fire was a fire of justice and truth that destroyed the power of injustice and oppression. Another spiritual expresses this, God’s gonna set this world on fire, one of these days Alleluia! [and] I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days Alleluia! For the slaves, the Day of God’s visitation could only be a day of jubilee, a day of vindication and deliverance. And so it will be for us if we are ready. But what does it mean to be ready? To be ready is be living faithfully, holding to God’s unchanging hand in the obedience of faith and trust. To be ready is to be living a holy life and a life of repentance. If we do this we have not only have nothing to fear about the Last Day, we eagerly anticipate it and cry out, “Amen, Come Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).

5. Remember, Repent, Rehearse – All these reflections help to place Advent in proper perspective for us. We are called to remember, repent and rehearse. We remember that Christ has already come and that he has called us to the obedience of faith and promised he will return in glory. We repent of whatever hinders our readiness for that day. And we rehearse for his second coming in glory by anticipating its demands and celebrating the glory that comes to those whom he finds watchful and ready. In a sense every Mass is a dress rehearsal for the glory of the kingdom. At every mass the following prayer is said, Deliver us Lord from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ. This beautiful prayer recalls that it is entirely God’s work that we be ready for his glorious return. Only he can deliver us, free us from our sin and remove anxiety about that day. Only he can give us joy and make us holy. We have but to yield to his saving work.

And this brings us back to where we started, longing and yearning for our savior. To yearn for him is to know how much we need him. To long for him is to constantly seek his face and call upon his name.  Therefore cry out with the Church, “Come Lord Jesus!” For it is written, The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price… He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:17, 20)

The Need for God’s Fire and Water in Our Lives

A few weeks ago we considered the words of Gaudentius of Brescia, who pondered the image of bread as a symbol for the Church (The Bread and the Wine and the Power of the Cross to Transform Them). Like individual grains of wheat, we are brought together by water (baptism), but flour and water are not truly bread until they are baked in fire (the Holy Spirit).

Last week in the Breviary, another Church Father, Didymus of Alexandria, combined the images of fire and water, comparing the Church to a vessel of clay:

Speaking quite literally, and also in harmony with the words of water and the Spirit, John the Baptist says of Christ: He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Since we are only vessels of clay, we must first be cleansed in water and then hardened by spiritual fire—for God is a consuming fire. We need the Holy Spirit to perfect and renew us, for spiritual water can cleanse us, and spiritual fire can recast us as in a furnace and make us into new men(from the treatise “On the Trinity,” by Didymus of Alexandria (Lib. 2, 12: p. 39, 667-674)).

We can ponder this image both individually and collectively (or ecclesially).

Individually, we are like hardened clay to which the potter (God) adds water (baptism) to purify us and make us pliable. By His grace, the Lord molds us and fashions us to perfection. We might say that He causes us to be in good shape. The vessel is hardened and forever perfected by the fire of the Holy Spirit.

As an image for the Church, we, who are but individual specks of clay dust, are joined together by water (baptism) to become a single lump of clay. The Lord fashions and perfects the Church into the shape she should be. Once molded, the clay is placed in the kiln and subjected to the fire (the Holy Spirit) so that her perfection is forever fixed.

While the image of a pottery vessel takes place in two distinct phases, with us and the Church, both phases are occurring simultaneously. We need the purification of baptism and the hardening power of the Holy Spirit to fix us forever in the love and Kingdom of God.

Just a brief meditation on water and fire as we prepare for Pentecost

Did You Help the Saints of Old to Become Holy?

There is a remarkable statement at the end of the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. It speaks to the unity of the mystical Body of Christ and to the treasury of merit, which extends both backward and forward in time. Hebrews 11 is devoted to reciting the glory of many Old Testament saints. That litany concludes with the following verses:

These were all commended for their faith, yet they did not receive what was promised. Since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect (Heb 11:39-40).

It is astonishing to think that we who live now might have had anything to do with the sanctity and heroism of the saints who came before us, but the text says that without us they would not have been perfected.

How can this be? Simply put, it is because we are all members of the Body of Christ, and Christ transcends time. What we do today touches both the past and the future, for to Christ all things are present in the “eternal now.”

Therefore, consider well that whenever you offer your sufferings or prayers or good works, you are contributing to the treasury of merit from which people of all time may draw. Whatever we do to contribute to this treasury of merit has always been known to the Lord and is always present to Him.

Of this treasury, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,

The ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy.

This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God.

In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission the Father entrusted to them. In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body [CCC 1476-1477].

Is it possible that I, even if in a tiny way, contributed to the holiness of my patron, St. Charles Borromeo, or of my heroine, St. Catherine of Sienna? Yes, albeit in a small way. My contribution to the treasury of merit is but a drop in the ocean compared to what Christ has provided and the saints have deposited. Yet without us and our contributions they would not be perfect. We all contribute, by the grace of Jesus, to one another’s sanctification.

Ponder, then, the sweeping effect of your contributions to the treasury of merit! Whenever you offer your sufferings to the Lord, whenever you pray, whenever you perform good works, you make available to Christians of every age an additional store of grace on which they have drawn or may draw. All of this is solely by the grace of God, and because of that grace it is a reality.

St. Paul also speaks to this:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you (Col 1:24-25).

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically lacking in the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice of Christ. It is only imperfect (or incomplete) from our perspective in time, in which each of us, as a member of the Body of Christ, “waits” to bear our sliver of the passion and cross. The Lord, however, isn’t waiting for anything. What we have done, are doing now, or will do in the future has always been present to Him. While our contributions extend forward in our chronological time, they also go backward and are part of the perfect and full treasure of merit on which the members of the Body of Christ have always drawn.

It is awe-inspiring to ponder how we all affect one another over time!

All this said, we ought also to be aware that if we can contribute to one another’s growth in holiness, we can also detract from it and harm others through our sins. It matters whether or not we pray, whether or not we offer our sufferings to the Lord, whether or not we strive for holiness.

We are one Body in Christ. Consider well your role in helping others to be holy. Did your contributions to the treasury of merit help the saints of old to become saints? Even if in a small way and only by the grace of God, the answer is yes, for apart from us they should not be made perfect.

In the video below, one woman’s laughter is infectious, affecting everyone around her. Let’s pray the same for holiness.

The Decline of the Church in Europe

In yesterday’s post we pondered the decline of the Catholic faith in the United States. For us, the exodus began in the late 1960s. In Europe it had begun long before. Hard figures are difficult to come by, but in most Western European countries today, it is estimated that less than 10 percent of Catholics attend Mass weekly. C.S. Lewis lamented the great collapse of the faith in Europe in writings going back to the late 1940s.

Of all C.S. Lewis’ works, a collection known as The Latin Letters, is one of the least well known. They are his correspondence, in Latin, with Rev. Fr. Don Giovanni Calabria. Part of the reason for their relative obscurity is that they were not translated into English until 1998. The full collection of these letter can be found here: The Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis.

The letters covered a variety of topics over the years, among them the decline of faith and the erosion of moral life in Europe. This was linked to the horrifying experience of two world wars, which seem to have both resulted from and further exacerbated the decline of faith there.

At Fatima in 1917, Our Lady warned,

The war [World War I] is going to end, but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pope Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father (Second Secret of Fatima).

Of course, we know what happened: the repentance did not take place. Following one of the most vivid displays of the Northern lights ever recorded (Jan 25, 1938), Germany annexed Austria in March of 1938 and invaded Poland in 1939; World War II was engaged.

Most Americans today do not fully appreciate the horrifying blood bath that was the 20th century. Conservative estimates are that 200 million people died in wars or were exterminated for ideological purposes. Loss of faith was a lasting effect of a century marked by amazing invention but at the same time an almost unimaginable body count.

These letters of C.S. Lewis open a window to that mid-century period of European history. Indeed, I would call his insights stunning in many ways. Lewis argued that Europe was in a far worse state in 1950 than she was under paganism. Would that she were even pagan, for at least the pagans accepted Natural Law. Europe, having cast off the faith, was and is in a state far worse than before she had ever heard of Christ.

In the excerpts that follow, Lewis makes the case and then proffers a solution we may wish to consider in these times that are even darker. The following passages are from the English translation by Martin Moynihan. The text is shown in black, bold italics, while my comments are in plain red text.

Let’s begin with Lewis’ assessment as to how and by what stages Europe lost the faith:

But (this) did not happen without sins on our part: for that justice and that care for the poor which (most mendaciously) the Communists advertise, we in reality ought to have brought about ages ago. But far from it: we Westerners preached Christ with our lips, with our actions we brought the slavery of Mammon. We are more guilty than the infidels: for to those that know the will of God and do not do it, the greater the punishment. Now the only refuge lies in contrition and prayer. Long have we erred. In reading the history of Europe, its destructive succession of wars, of avarice, or fratricidal persecutions of Christians by Christians, of luxury, of gluttony, of pride, who could detect any but the rarest traces of the Holy Spirit? (Letter 20, Jan 7, 1953).

This is a remarkable, sobering description. In effect there grew an appalling lack of love for God, for the poor, and for one another. Greed and sloth also took their toll. To some, even Communism seemed more virtuous than this “lip-service” faith.

The wars of which Lewis writes include not only those of the 20th century but throughout the Christian era. Consider this shockingly long list of wars, most of which involved Christians killing other Christians: European Wars of the Christian Era.

To be sure, the 20th century dealt a mortal blow to Europe. These terrible things happened on the Christian watch. However, good, even wonderful, things happened during that time as well: the building of universities and hospitals, the great flowering of much that is best in Western culture. It can be argued that the faith also prevented things from being far worse. A gradual internecine lack of love also took its toll and after the bloodiest century the world has ever known, Europe woke up to a largely faithless landscape.

Next, Lewis describes the depth of our fall:

What you say about the present state of mankind is true: indeed it is even worse than you say. For they neglect not only the Law of Christ, but even the Law of Nature as known by the Pagans. For now they do not blush at adultery, treachery perjury, theft and other crimes, which I will not say Christian doctors, but the Pagans and Barbarians have themselves denounced. They err who say: “The world is turning pagan again.” Would that it were! The truth is, we are falling into a much worse state. Post-Christian man is not the same as pre-Christian man. He is as far removed as a virgin from a widow … there is a great difference between a spouse-to-come and a spouse sent away (Letter 23, March 17, 1953).

Powerful analysis indeed! The modern European (and I would argue the modern American) is in a state below paganism. At least the pagans believed in the supernatural, had some respect for Natural Law, and accepted what reality plainly teaches.

The pagan world was a virgin waiting for her groom; the modern West is an angry divorcée: cynical, angry and “so through” with Jesus. What will be the fate of the secular West? Will she die in her sins or will the miracle of a broken, humbled heart emerge? Pray! Fast!

Lewis reiterates and adds a stunning, biblically based insight:

I certainly feel that very grave dangers hang over us. This results from the great apostasy of the great part of Europe from the Christian faith. Hence, a worse state than the one we were in before we received the faith. For no one returns from Christianity to the same state he was in before Christianity, but into a worse state: the difference between a pagan and an apostate is the difference between an unmarried woman and an adulteress …. Therefore many men of our time have lost not only the supernatural light, but also the natural light which the pagans possessed (Letter 26, Sept 15, 1953).

This is a powerful reminder that leaving the faith does not simply put one back to where he was.

Jesus made a similar warning: When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. (Luke 11:24-25). Having found the house bereft of the Holy Spirit, quite empty of true faith, Satan returns with seven more demons.

St. Peter makes the same point: For if, after they have escaped the defilement of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first (2 Peter 2:20).

Calling for hope, Lewis considers a way back:

But God who is the God of mercies, even now has not altogether cast off the human race. We must not despair. And among us are not an inconsiderable number now returning to the faith. For my part, I believe we ought to work not only at spreading the Gospel (that certainly) but also to a certain preparation for the Gospel. It is necessary to recall many to the law of nature before we talk about God. For Christ promises forgiveness of sins, but what is that to those who, since they do not know the law of nature, do not know that they have sinned? Who will take medicine unless he knows he is in the grip of a disease? Moral relativity is the enemy we have to overcome before we tackle atheism. I would almost dare to say, “First let us make the younger generation good pagans, and afterwards let us make them Christians.” (Letter 26, Sept 15, 1953).

To some extent, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have said the same: we have to begin all over again. Lewis’ point goes even further by pointing out that at least the apostles found a Europe where people accepted the testimony of reality as a reliable guide, where people respected the spiritual realm.

We in the post-Cartesian and existentialist West have retreated from reality and into our minds. Reality and Natural Law are no longer common ground on which to meet. There is no accepted reality, only thoughts, opinions, views. Existentialism is everywhere! There is no objective meaning outside ourselves to which we owe allegiance. No, we live not in reality but in a world of thoughts and abstractions.

Think I’m exaggerating? Try telling a “transgender” person that sex is an unalterable reality, that the body manifests our sex. “What’s my body got to do with it? It’s what I feel that matters.” Apparently, our bodies have nothing to say to us (nor does anything else in the real world).

Our task in reintroducing the West to reality, to Natural Law, will not be easy, but C.S. Lewis thinks we need to begin there.

Lewis’ insights are powerful and thought provoking; please use the comment box to let me know what you think.

There were some in America who wondered why the Second Vatican Council was called, believing that there was no crisis that needed to be addressed. That was a uniquely American view, however, flowing from the fact that our churches, schools, seminaries, and convents were filled to overflowing. Not so in Europe, where a crisis of faith was underway, as C.S. Lewis described.

Clearly this condition has reached the Church in the U.S. At some point we could have reached over and drawn our European brethren back to the faith, but instead we chose to imitate them; now we are suffering the same consequences. Perhaps the Church in Africa can help reground us.

Meanwhile, I await a day of redemption from the Lord, when He will, perhaps miraculously, buy us back from the slavery to which we have consigned ourselves. I know only one path to follow: Preach the gospel, celebrate the sacraments with devotion, and wait for the Lord until this storm passes. With the disciples, who in fear woke the Lord during a storm, I cry out, “Save us, Lord. We are perishing!” (Matt 8:25)

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Decline of the Church in Europe