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

A Lament for the Diminishing Church

I suspect that experiencing the suffering and diminishing Church of today is more difficult for those of us who are older. There are two reasons for this: First, the scandals, decline, and disorder happened on our watch; we clergy especially have a lot of repenting to do over what we have done and what we have failed to do. Second, we remember a time when things seemed better, when the Church was strong and growing, when she was more certain of herself, more dignified. Obviously, it was not a sinless time, but things seemed more unified and orderly. This is not mere nostalgia; the numbers bear out the truth. By nearly every measure, Catholics were more cohesive and more loyal to the Church. Consider Thomas Reeves’ description of the Church in the 1940s in his 2002 book America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen  (a book well worth reading):

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Catholic Church in America blossomed. Traumatized by the blatant anti-Catholicism of the 1928 presidential election, Church members had responded by creating separate Catholic scholarly organizations, professional societies, book clubs, trade unions, even summer camps. … The hostility evidenced by Protestants stemmed partly from the fact that the Catholic Church was thriving.

In 1940, there were nearly twenty-three million Catholic communicants in America, almost three times as many as the Methodist Church could claim, and the Methodists were by far the largest Protestant denomination in the country. Catholics outnumbered any single protestant denomination in thirty-five of the forty-eight states.

Mass attendance was in the 75 percent range or better (in contrast to the flagging attendance in increasingly secular western Europe). In Philadelphia churches, for instance, especially those with second and third generation American families, attendance at Sunday mass hovered around 90 percent. Charles R. Morris, an able historian of American Catholicism, described the appeal of the Mass: “The total experience—the dim lights, the glint of the vestments, the glow of the stained-glass windows, the mantra like murmur of the Latin—was mind washing. It calmed the soul, opened the spirit to large, barely grasp Presences is and Purposes. For a trembling moment every week, or every day if they chose, ordinary people reached out and touched the divine.”

Latin liturgy, Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, meatless Fridays, fasting before Mass, the rosary, the Baltimore Catechism, retreats, the novena (in 1938, 70,000 people attended 38 novena services at our Lady of Sorrows in Chicago every week), kneelers, large families dressed in their Sunday best, mantillas, and chapel caps, religious in habits, statues, large gothic or baroque churches with dark, quiet places and side altars, elaborate priestly vestments, the smell of incense, the sound of bells at the Consecration, the feeling of awe at the miracle of Transubstantiation—these were all common features of the American Catholic world in the time of the Church’s fastest growth and greatest self-confidence.

Parochial education was booming; in 1943 there were over 2 million pupils in almost 8,000 schools, and 16,838 men in Catholic seminaries. Some nine million people subscribed to 333 Catholic newspapers in 1942. More than a hundred publishing houses were linked with the Catholic Press Association. There were 726 Catholic hospitals.

Protestant paranoia was in some sense justified by the strong spirit of evangelism reflected in the “Make America Catholic” movement. Catholics reported about 86,000 converts annually in the United States. A serious attempt to reach African-Americans was underway. Urban laborers were increasingly attracted to the pro-labor teachings of Leo XIII, the “Pope of the working man.”

Many liberal intellectuals were outraged by the Church’s prosperity during this period. … Attacks reached their crescendo in 1949 and Paul Blanchard’s best-selling book American Freedom and Catholic Power. Begun as a series of 12 articles in The Nation, Blanchard’s book called the Catholic hierarchy rigid, medieval, fascist, totalitarian, tyrannical, bigoted, un-American, arrogant, dishonest, and the enemy of science and objective learning. He said that Catholicism conditions people to accept censorship, thought control, and ultimately dictatorship. There is no doubt the parochial school, whatever may be its virtues, is the most important, decisive instrument in the life of American children. Blanchard called for a “resistance movement” to prevent the Church from taking over America and crushing “western democracy and American culture” (pp. 163-167).

Yes, those were, at least to an external observer, the halcyon days of the Church in the United States. Tomorrow’s post will center around the Church in Europe, where in this same period the situation was quite different: the two horrifying World Wars had severely shaken the faith of Catholics there, and the number of practicing Catholics was plummeting. In America, a similar decline would wait another twenty years.

Something must have been going on under the surface for the Church to have collapsed so quickly. As a Church we were certainly ill-prepared for the cultural tsunami that hit in the 1960s. Wave after wave rolled through, sweeping away all that was familiar. The waves of the sexual revolution, radical feminism, rebellion against authority and tradition, drug use, no-fault divorce, abortion on demand, the normalization of fornication and homosexual acts, cohabitation, and now the bizarre world of “transgenderism.” Yes, wave after wave; it was a rapid destruction.

The roots of modern ills stretch back philosophically to the close of the Middle Ages, as the rise of Nominalism spun an ugly, though intricate, web through Descartes, Locke, and Hume, and ultimately to Nietzsche and Nihilism or Sartre and Existentialism. In effect, we increasingly stepped back from reality, either in nihilistic madness declaring that nothing has meaning, or in existential hubris claiming that we make up our own meaning. Like a witch’s brew, this was bubbling in the background.

In the Church, we sought to resist this through the Counter-Reformation and later through resistance to Modernism, but during the bloody and revolutionary 20th century we lost ground and increasingly compromised with the world. We allowed our ancient, distinctive Catholic faith to slip through our fingers.

While the Second Vatican Council was surely a major battlefield, the war was bigger and older than that (for a thoughtful treatment of this period I recommend reading Roberto de Mattei’s book The Second Vatican Council, an Unwritten Story). For, truth be told, the ones sowing revolution inside the Church were raised in the “old system”: the Latin Mass, the old Catechism, regimented seminary formation (usually in Latin).

The college students sowing the cultural revolution were also raised in the old system: prayer and the pledge of allegiance in the schools, and for Catholics, the Latin Mass, parochial school with uniforms, and solid catechetical foundations.

So, even in those halcyon days, something was brewing. It seems that the external glory of the Church in America during the 1940s and 50s was three thousand miles wide but only two inches deep. When the earth shook with our indignation in the 1960s, things broke up quickly. Angry rebellion was everywhere; iconoclasm was widespread, and we congratulated ourselves as the wrecking balls hit just about everything.

Something came over us that was bigger and went further back than this four-year council. Some of us like to point to the vision of Pope Leo XIII in 1884 and the hundred years of trial that God permitted for the Church. As the years tick on well past one hundred, I wonder if the explanation isn’t more complicated and mysterious; God’s providence is often paradoxical. One thing is clear to me: we are under a period of pruning and punishment for our sins. Ten years ago, I had no idea the rot was so deep. It is so much worse than I ever thought then, and I am convinced we are going to see a lot more exposed in the next few years.

I sit before the cross in the rectory chapel frequently these days. Even as I type this, I am near it. Often, I just sigh. There are no words to express the grief I feel for the Church, the Lord’s Bride, and my Mother. How we, her children, have soiled her beautiful garments and torn at them! But she is always the Bride and never the widow; her Groom lives forever.

Here in this chapel, in the Eucharistic Presence of the Groom, I await the renewal He will surely bring. I am aware that more purification may be needed first, and so I wait, I sigh, and I accept my share in the purifications.

The following motet is by William Byrd:

Ne irascaris Domine, satis,  
et ne ultra memineris iniquitatis nostrae.
Ecce respice populus tuus omnes nos.

 Civitas sancti tui facta est deserta.
Sion deserta facta est,
Jerusalem desolata est.

Be not angry, O Lord; enough.
and remember our iniquity no more.
Behold, we are all your people.

Your holy city has become deserted.
Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem has been made desolate.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Lament for the Diminishing Church

What Can Remnant Theology Teach Us about the Church Today?

In the first reading for Wednesday of the 25th week of the Year, Ezra laments the sins of the people that led to their exile in Babylon, but he is also grateful that God has now opened a door to return to the Promised Land and left “a remnant” of the people to rebuild. There is something for us to learn in the biblical theology of the remnant.

As a Catholic and a priest, I am stunned at the decline in Mass attendance that has occurred during my lifetime. When I was a young child, I remember jam-packed Masses: if you didn’t get there early, you’d have to stand. In those days (the 1960s) if you put up four walls, Catholics would fill them. There were long waiting lists for parochial schools. There were lots of religious sisters. There was not just one associate pastor or curate; there were two or three or even four.

Those days are largely gone. While there are still some large parishes in suburban areas, some of them even growing, the number of Catholics who attend Mass weekly has dropped from about 75 percent to under 25 percent since the 1950s. And although vocations are beginning to rebound, today’s situation is one of largely empty convents and rectories. A parochial vicar is unknown in many parishes, and in some parts of the country there isn’t even a resident pastor in each parish.

There is no way to describe this decline other than stunning. I can hear all the usual arguments about why swimming around in my brain: we abandoned tradition; no, we’re not progressive enough; there are too many rules; no, our problem is that we abandoned all the rules. Everyone has an explanation, and there is a lot of disagreement.

What might God be doing? What might He be allowing? I know that I’m skating on thin ice in attempting to consider this question, but please be assured that I am merely pondering it, not proposing a definitive answer. I have often asked the Lord, “What’s up with the Church? What has happened?” I don’t claim that I received a bolt from Heaven in answer, rather I came to the gradual conclusion that what we are experiencing is really nothing new. There is a biblical precedent that God has frequently seen fit to thin His ranks, to prune and purify His people. Theologians call this “remnant theology.”

Remnant theology is seen in both the Old and New Testaments. During critical periods, many (if not most) followers of God fell away such that only a remnant remained to begin again. Here are just a few of the many examples that can be found in Scripture:

      • The tribes of Judah and Levi – There were twelve tribes in Israel, but ten of them (the Ten Lost Tribes) were lost in the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C. The prophets had warned the Northern Kingdom of its wickedness, but they refused to repent, and the foretold destruction came to pass. Those who did not die in the war were deported and assimilated into the peoples around them. Only a remnant, the tribes of Judah and Levi, survived in the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
      • A remnant of Judah – Judah also grew wicked and prophets warned of its destruction. The Babylonians then destroyed Judah, and Jerusalem with it, in 587 B.C. They deported the survivors to Babylon. Eighty years later, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jewish people to return to the Promised Land. Only a remnant went back, however; most chose to stay in the Diaspora, preferring Babylon to the land promised by God.
      • Gideon’s army – Gideon had an army of 30,000 and faced the Midianite army of 60,000, yet God told him that his army was too large, and he should send home any soldiers who were afraid. So, Gideon told the soldiers that if they didn’t think they were up for this battle they could leave; 20,000 left. With Gideon’s army down to only 10,000, God said to him that his army was still too big and that he should observe the men as they drank from a nearby stream. Three hundred of them lapped up the water with their tongues like dogs! God told Gideon let all the others go home. Gideon won that day with those 300 men whom the Lord had chosen. God thinned His ranks and chose only a remnant as His true soldiers (cf Judges 6 and 7).
      • Jesus and large crowds – Some of Jesus’ most difficult sayings came when there was a large crowd present: He taught against divorce (Matt 5 and 19, Mark 10); He declared that no one could be His disciple unless he renounced his possessions, took up his cross, and followed Him (e.g., Luke 14); He taught on the Eucharist, causing many to leave and no longer walk in His company (Jn 6).
      • The narrow road to salvation – Jesus lamented that the road to destruction is wide and many are on it, while the road to salvation is narrow and only a few find it (cf Mat 7:13-14). Yes, only a few, a remnant.

I would like to quote one last passage from Zechariah because it gets to the root of what God may be doing in our times, if my hunch is correct.

Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones. In the whole land,” declares the LORD, “two-thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one-third will be left in it. This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The LORD is our God’ (Zechariah 13:7-9).

It is a shocking passage to be sure, but it shows God’s purpose in thinning His ranks. Although we are always free to stay or go, there is something very mysterious about why God allows so many to stray. There seem to be times during which God allows many to depart, even “causes” them to depart, as this passage describes. It is a hard mystery to stomach, but I understand one aspect of it when I consider my rose bushes.

In November it is pruning time here in the Northeast. My mighty rose bushes, some of them eight feet tall, will be pruned back to just one foot off the ground—and I do it on purpose! If my roses are to thrive next year, the pruning must be done. The roses do not understand what I do, but I know why I do it. Although it is painful, it is necessary. God, too, knows what He is doing and why. We cannot fathom it any more than my rose bushes can understand why I prune them. In the passage above, the one-third who remain must also be purified, refined as in fire. When it is done, they will be pure gold. Those who remain and who accept purification will call on God’s name. They will be a people, a Church, after His own heart.

To me it seems clear that the Lord is pruning His Church. He is preparing us for spring. We are in fact enduring a difficult winter, but we’re being purified, cleansed. These are tough days for the Church, but I can already see signs of a great spring ahead. There are many wonderful lay movements and growth areas in the Church. I am very impressed with the caliber of men entering the priesthood; they love the Lord and His Church and deeply desire to speak the truth in love. In my own convent, we have more than 25 young sisters of the Servants of the Lord, a wonderful relatively new missionary order. They, too, love the Lord and His Church and want to spread His Gospel.

Though the number of practicing Catholics has diminished, I see greater fervency in those who remain. In my parish there are many who are devoted to prayer, bible study, and praise of God. Eucharistic piety is stronger in the Church today through Eucharistic adoration and daily Mass. On the Internet there are many signs of excitement and zeal for the faith. Many wonderful blogs and websites are emerging to strengthen Catholics. EWTN is doing wonderful work and many Catholic radio stations have also begun.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. God has pruned us and is purifying us. I have no doubt that there are still some difficult winter days ahead before a full spring sets in, but God never fails. He is renewing His Church and preparing us for what lies ahead.

It is going to take a stronger and purer Church to endure the cultural tsunami that has been rolling in. The first waves hit in the late 1960s and successive ones look to be even more destructive. Western culture as we have known it is gradually being swept away. The Church will have to be strong and pure in order to endure the days ahead, to rescue those we can, and to help rebuild after the terrible waves have done their damage.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Can Remnant Theology Teach Us about the Church Today?

Pondering a Surprising Restoration and Hoping for the Same!

At daily Mass during this 25th Week of the Year, we are reading from Nehemiah and Ezra, two books dealing with the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple. In an almost miraculous turn of events, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and then Persian rulers Cyrus and Darius not only permitted the Jews to return to their land, they even offered money to help rebuild the Temple! To fully appreciate this, we need to study the terrible demise of Jerusalem and the Temple.

The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. The Southern Kingdom of Judah, ignoring numerous warnings and calls to repentance, later experienced the same fate. The Babylonians laid siege and destroyed Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Just prior to this destruction, Jeremiah saw the glory of God lift from the Temple and move away to the east. The city and even the Temple now lay in ruins. The Ark of the Covenant was lost, and the survivors were deported to Babylon.

Yes, it was a terrible destruction, but one that could have been avoided if the Lord’s people had only heeded the warnings of the prophets and returned wholeheartedly to the Him and His commandments. With the Lord and within the safe walls of His commandments, there is strength and protection. Outside the walls and His presence, Judah was a sitting duck, easy prey.

Let’s consider what the Lord says through Jeremiah in the 30th Chapter and ponder how this historical event speaks to our times.

Ruin  Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Incurable is your wound, grievous your bruise.

Simple medicines or bandages are not sufficient. These wounds are deep, foul, and festering. Sin does this to us spiritually as its evils go deeper and deeper. A minor skin cancer, left untreated, can find its way into internal organs and even reach our bones. Similarly, sin, untreated by repentance, grows more serious. It renders us vulnerable to deeper and more serious sins that bring spiritual ruin, darkness, and a stubbornly unrepentant demeanor in which the cancer of pride is in its final stages. Judah has reached this stage and the only medicine that is left is for the people to experience the full ramifications of their rejection of God.

What of the once-Christian West? What of America? Can we possibly think that our cultural revolution, rooted in sinful rebellion against authority, sacred Tradition, the moral vision of the Scriptures, and the meaning of human sexuality and marriage, can yield anything but corruption? Can our greed, our insatiable desire for more no matter the human (or monetary) cost, forever mortgage our future? Have not our wounds multiplied and gone deeper? The blood of our aborted children cries out to Heaven. Our broken families multiply due to promiscuity and rampant divorce. Broken families yield a bumper crop of broken children, and the cycle continues. Are these wounds curable? Do we show any willingness to take the necessary medicines of self-control, fidelity, and obedience to God’s vision? It seems not. Midnight fast approaches. As Jeremiah once warned the people of his time, so must we in the Church send up the warning cry that our wounds are getting worse, the intellectual and moral darkness is growing ever deeper, and our time to repent is getting shorter. Soon enough, as with Ancient Israel and Judah, the full bill for our sin will come due.

Scripture says,

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (Gal 6:7-10).

Rejection  There is none to plead your cause, no remedy for your running sore, no healing for you. All your lovers have forgotten you; they do not seek you.

Among the things that the ancient Jews did was to run after “other lovers” and other remedies. They were entangled in foreign military alliances and became enamored of pagan culture and religion. God referred to their running after pagan gods as infidelity and adultery, for they were espoused to Him.

As for us in the formerly Christian West, while we are not espoused to God as a nation (though surely as members of the Bride of Christ), we too have often sought solutions far from God or even opposed to Him. We have cast aside His plan for our happiness and bought into the notion that worldly indulgence and sin will bring us happiness and health. In so doing we call God a liar and forsake our covenant with Him. We run after other lovers, trusting the world, the flesh, and the devil instead of our God, who made us and saved us. Secular mindsets and even outright atheism have made deep inroads into our culture. Mass attendance has plummeted while attention to the “bread and circuses” of the modern world continues to increase. We trust our affluence, power, medicine, and science (all themselves great gifts of God), but we do not trust the true Shepherd and Lord of our souls, the only one who can really save us.

What are these philosophers that pose as healers and lovers, who have ushered in this ruin, doing now? They are doubling down on their false prescriptions and going ever deeper into darkness, repeating the lies of these worldly philosophies, glorying in the flesh, and marginalizing the vision of God. Moderns cry out “Love!” and speak of compassion, but it is a false love and a false compassion.

The text essentially asks, where are these lovers now? Where is the happiness and fulfillment they promised with their false notions of freedom?

Reason  I struck you as an enemy would strike, punished you cruelly; Why cry out over your wound? your pain is without relief. Because of your great guilt, your numerous sins, I have done this to you.

The consequences of sin cannot forever be postponed. Even if God mercifully protects us from some of them, He will not do so forever. God’s patience is directed toward our salvation. He gives us time to repent, but at some point (known only to Him) our presumptiveness eclipses His patience. The boil must be lanced; gangrenous tissue must be cut away. Only strong— even desperate—measures will work. They may seem to us to be cruel, but to do nothing would be to lose all, and that is far more cruel. Our sins and lack of repentance “force” these strong measures, so that at least a few can be saved.

When does a person, a culture, or a nation reach such a point? Only God knows, but why test the situation? The Lord says,

“… O Israel, if you would but listen to Me! ‘You shall not have in your midst a foreign god; you shall not bow to an alien god. I am the LORD your God Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt’—open wide your mouth, and I will fill it.” But My people did not listen to My voice, Israel did not yield to Me; so I set him free with their stubborn heart, that they could follow their own counsels. O that My people would listen to Me, that Israel would follow My ways! At once I would subdue their enemies, against their foes bring back My hand. Those who hate the LORD shall cringe before Him; their doom will last forever. But He would [rather] feed him the finest wheat: and sate you with honey from the rock (Ps 81:9-17).

Restoration  Thus says the LORD: See! I will restore the tents of Jacob, his dwellings I will pity; City shall be rebuilt upon hill, and palace restored as it was. From them will resound songs of praise, the laughter of happy men. I will make them not few, but many; they will not be tiny, for I will glorify them. His sons shall be as of old, his assembly before me shall stand firm; I will punish all his oppressors.

God permits these terrible ills to befall His people so that He can save at least some, a faithful remnant.

The people of Israel had spent eighty years in Babylon, and then as if miraculously, God brought them back. Now He will begin again with this purified remnant, though future purifications will still be necessary.

What of us? In times of old, there was a faithful remnant that did not fully succumb to the darkness of the days, who did repent. It is for their sake that God acts to bring an end to widespread evil lest all His people be consumed. Though none of us has lived a perfect life, through repentance we should seek to be part of the faithful remnant God acts to save. We are likely going to see even darker days before the evil of our times plays out and is purged. The battle is the Lord’s. For our part, we should seek to stay faithful, repent when we fall, and look to the day when God will restore this world or come again in glory.

The Church has survived many ups and downs in this world. Empires have risen and fallen, nations and cultures have come and gone, but we are still here proclaiming the gospel, in season and out of season, until the Lord shall come.

What is your mission and mine? Be part of the remnant! Lord, do what you need to do, but please help us to stay faithful!

Reunion  His leader shall be one of his own, and his rulers shall come from his kin. When I summon him, he shall approach me; how else should one take the deadly risk of approaching me? says the LORD. You shall be my people, and I will be your God.

This is the endgame. The Lord’s ultimate work for each of us is to restore us to union with Him. Jesus came to give us access to the Father through the shedding of His Precious Blood. Jeremiah’s message to us is to stay faithful unto death, when we will be summoned to the Father and by the grace of our Lord Jesus approach Him with the confidence of holiness granted to us by that grace. The Book of Hebrews describes this, exhorting us and giving us hope.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the veil, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb 10:19-25).

And there we have a quick tour through a ruined land, but with our eyes set on a glorious reunion. As Tuesday’s readings demonstrate, God acts to restore His people, often in surprising and wondrous ways. Who would think that two Persian kings would fund the very rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple!

For now, be part of the remnant and stay faithful, by His grace. Let God do His work. Maranatha!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Pondering a Surprising Restoration and Hoping for the Same!

The Church Is a Bride, Not a Widow

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.

Yes, the Church is a bride, not a widow.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Church Is a Bride, Not a Widow

Being More Faithfully Catholic Is the Only Valid Response to Shrinking Numbers

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.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Being More Faithfully Catholic Is the Only Valid Response to Shrinking Numbers