Three Insights of Pope Leo XIII That Diagnose Our Cultural Malaise

Pope Leo XIII penned an insightful analysis of three trends that both alarmed him and pointed to future problems. He wrote of these three concerns in 1893 in the Encyclical on the Holy Rosary entitled Laetitiae Sanctae (Of Holy Joy). The Pope laid out these three areas of concern and then offered the Mysteries of the Rosary as a remedy. Let’s look at how he described the problems and then consider what he proposed as a solution. His teaching is presented in bold, black italics. My remarks are shown in plain, red text.

There are three influences which appear to us to have the chief place in effecting this downgrade movement of society. These are—first, the distaste for a simple and laborious life; secondly, repugnance to suffering of any kind; thirdly, the forgetfulness of the future life (# 4).

Problem 1: The distaste for a simple and laborious lifeWe deplore … the growing contempt of those homely duties and virtues which make up the beauty of humble life. To this cause we may trace in the home, the readiness of children to withdraw themselves from the natural obligation of obedience to the parents, and their impatience of any form of treatment which is not of the indulgent and effeminate kind. In the workman, it evinces itself in a tendency to desert his trade, to shrink from toil, to become discontented with his lot, to fix his gaze on things that are above him, and to look forward with unthinking hopefulness to some future equalization of property. We may observe the same temper permeating the masses in the eagerness to exchange the life of the rural districts for the excitements and pleasures of the town … (#5).

One of the truths that set us free is that life is hard. Along with the progress we can and do experience come trials, arduous work, and setbacks. Few things of true value come to us without significant cost. Coming to realize and accept that life is hard is freeing, for it minimizes or even removes many of our resentments. Many today expect that life should be peachy all the time and when it is not become angry and resentful; some even threaten lawsuits. It is common today to think of happiness as a God-given right. Our Founding Fathers recognized the pursuit of happiness as a right, but many think happiness itself is a right. When they are not happy, the system has somehow failed them. Many today expect to live lives in which there is little risk and things come easily. This has been one of the factors influencing the growth of government. As insistence on a comfortable life grows and hard work begins to seem an unreasonable demand, we expect government to ease our burdens and provide comfort and happiness; we are less willing to work hard for these things. Rather, we see happiness and comfort as things to which we are entitled.

Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments. With unrealistic expectations, people quickly grow resentful. Our ancestors of a mere 150 years ago had different notions. They looked for happiness, too, but largely expected to find that in Heaven. Many of the old Catholic prayers bespeak a vision that this world was a place of travail and exile, a valley of tears where we sighed and longed to be with God. Many Catholics of those earlier times lived lives that were both difficult and short; they lived with far fewer creature comforts than we do today. There was no electricity or running water; medicines were few and far less effective. Entertainment was limited, houses were smaller, and transportation was far more restricted.

We live so well in comparison, yet despite being more comfortable, there is little evidence that we are happier. Indeed, we seem more resentful, probably because we expect more—a lot more. As Pope Leo noted, young people resent discipline and seem to expect to be spoiled. Most parents seem more than willing to indulge them while shirking their duty to correct, as that would bring tension and difficulty.

The value of hard work and the satisfaction that comes from it seem lost on many today. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick used to counsel us priests that if we did not go to bed tired, something was wrong. All of us need some rest and relaxation, but hard work actually brings greater satisfaction to times of rest.

The high expectations we have today breed discontent. We really insist on living in a fantasy that this world is, or can be, paradise; it cannot. A better strategy is to accept that life is at times difficult and to meet its difficulties with courage. Though this is a hard truth, accepting it brings peace.

In response to this first error, Pope Leo commended to our attention the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary and in particular a meditation on the implicit lessons of the home at Nazareth:

Let us take our stand in front of that earthly and divine home of holiness, the House of Nazareth. How much we have to learn from the daily life which was led within its walls! What an all-perfect model of domestic society! Here we behold simplicity and purity of conduct, perfect agreement and unbroken harmony, mutual respect and love … devotedness of service. Here is the patient industry which provides what is required for food and raiment; which does so “in the sweat of the brow,” which is contented with little …. These are precious examples of goodness, of modesty, of humility, of hard-working endurance, of kindness to others, of diligence in the small duties of daily life, and of other virtues …. Then will each one begin to feel his work to be no longer lowly and irksome, but grateful and lightsome, and clothed with a certain joyousness by his sense of duty in discharging it conscientiously … home-life … loved and esteemed … (# 6).

Problem 2: Repugnance to suffering of any kindA second evil … is to be found in repugnance to suffering and eagerness to escape whatever is hard or painful to endure. The greater number are thus robbed of that peace and freedom of mind which remains the reward of those who do what is right undismayed by the perils or troubles to be met with in doing so …. By this passionate and unbridled desire of living a life of pleasure, the minds of men are weakened, and if they do not entirely succumb, they become demoralized and miserably cower and sink under the hardships of the battle of life (# 7).

Today more than ever there is almost a complete intolerance of any sort of suffering. This has been fueled by the fact that we have been successful in eliminating much suffering from daily life.

We are largely protected from the elements, medicines alleviate much of our pain and bodily discomfort, appliances and advanced technology provide unprecedented convenience and make most routine manual labor all but unnecessary.

This leads to the unrealistic expectation that all suffering should be eliminated. There is almost an indignity expressed when one suggests that perhaps some things should be endured or that it is unreasonable to expect government, or science, or “someone” to eliminate every evil or all forms of suffering.

Further, we seem unwilling to accept that accidents happen, and unfortunate circumstances occur. Instead we demand more and more laws, some of which are intrusive and oppressive; we undertake lawsuits that discourage the very risk-taking that makes new inventions, medical breakthroughs, and scientific techniques possible.

We often hold people responsible for things over which they have little to no control. Economies have cycles as do climates. Governments and politicians cannot be expected to solve every problem or alleviate every burden. Sometimes things just happen and there’s no one to blame and no one that can fix it.

Life is not a cushioned room. While we can and should try to fix unnecessary hazards and seek to ease one another’s burdens, suffering, sorrows, accidents, and difficulties are all part of life in this valley of tears. Acceptance of this truth leads to a kind of paradoxical serenity. Rejection of it and indulgence in the unrealistic notion that all suffering is unreasonable leads to resentment and further unhappiness.

In response to this second error, Pope Leo commended to our attention the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary.

If from our earliest years our minds have been trained to dwell upon the sorrowful mysteries of Our Lord’s life … we [may] see written in His example all the lessons that He Himself had taught us for the bearing of our burden of labor– and sorrow, and mark how the sufferings…He embraced with the greatest measure of generosity and good will. We behold Him overwhelmed with sadness, so that drops of blood ooze like sweat from His veins. We see Him bound like a malefactor, subjected to the judgment of the unrighteous, laden with insults, covered with shame, assailed with false accusations, torn with scourges, crowned with thorns, nailed to the cross, accounted unworthy to live …. Here, too, we contemplate the grief of the most Holy Mother … “pierced” by the sword of sorrow … (# 8).

Then, be it that the “earth is accursed” and brings forth “thistles and thorns,”—be it that the soul is saddened with grief and the body with sickness; even so, there will be no evil which the envy of man or the rage of devils can invent, nor calamity which can fall upon the individual or the community, over which we shall not triumph by the patience of suffering …. But by this patience, we do not mean that empty stoicism in the enduring of pain which was the ideal of some of the philosophers of old, but rather …. It is the patience which is obtained by the help of His grace; which shirks not a trial because it is painful, but which accepts it and esteems it as a gain, however hard it may be to undergo. [Men and women of faith] re-echo, not with their lips, but with their life, the words of [the Apostle] St. Thomas: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John xi., 16) (# 9).

The cross is part of this life, but Christ has made it clear that it yields ultimately to glory if we carry it willingly and with faith.

Problem 3: Forgetfulness of the future lifeThe third evil for which a remedy is needed is one which is chiefly characteristic of the times in which we live. Men in former ages, although they loved the world, and loved it far too well, did not usually aggravate their sinful attachment to the things of earth by a contempt of the things of heaven. Even the right-thinking portion of the pagan world recognized that this life was not a home but a dwelling-place, not our destination, but a stage in the journey. But men of our day, albeit they have had the advantages of Christian instruction, pursue the false goods of this world in such wise that the thought of their true Fatherland of enduring happiness is not only set aside, but, to their shame be it said, banished and entirely erased from their memory, notwithstanding the warning of St. Paul, “We have not here a lasting city, but we seek one which is to come” (Heb. xiii., 4) (# 11).

I am increasingly amazed at how infrequently most people think of Heaven. Even Churchgoing believers talk little of it; priests rarely preach on it. Our main preoccupation seems to be making this world a more comfortable and pleasant place. Even in our so-called spiritual life, our prayers bespeak a worldly preoccupation: Lord, fix my money problems; improve my heath; get me a better job. It is almost as though we are saying, “Make this world pleasant enough and I’ll just stay here.” It is not wrong to pray for these things, nor is it wrong to work to make this world a better place, but our true home is in Heaven and we ought to seek its shores eagerly. We should meditate on Heaven frequently and the deepest longing of our soul should be to be with God forever. Instead we fear getting older; our culture tries to keep death hidden away. It ought to be that we can’t wait to see God. Sure, it would be nice to finish a few things we’ve started, but as Heaven and being with God draw closer, we should be happy that the years are flying by faster. Each day means we are one day closer to God!

Our prosperity has misled us into having an unhealthy love of this world. A friend of the world is an enemy to God (James 4:4). We are distracted and too easily forget that this world is passing away; we are all going to die. Only a proper longing for Heaven can correct the absurdity that an obsessive love for this world establishes in our soul.

Meditate on Heaven frequently! Read the scriptures, such as Revelation 1, & 4-5, 20-21. Ask for a deeper longing from God.

In response to this third error, Pope Leo commended to our attention the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary as a medicine for both our absurd attachment to this passing world and our forgetfulness of Heaven:

These mysteries are the means by which, in the soul of a Christian, a most clear light is shed upon the good things, hidden to sense, but visible to faith, “which God has prepared for those who love Him.” From them we learn that death is not an annihilation which ends all things, but merely a migration and passage from life to life. By them we are taught that the path to Heaven lies open to all men, and as we behold Christ ascending thither, we recall the sweet words of His promise, “I go to prepare a place for you.” By them we are reminded that a time will come when “God will wipe away every tear from our eyes,” and that “neither mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow, shall be any more,” and that “We shall be always with the Lord,” and “like to the Lord, for we shall see Him as He is,” and “drink of the torrent of His delight,” as “fellow-citizens of the saints,” in the blessed companionship of our glorious Queen and Mother. Dwelling upon such a prospect, our hearts are kindled with desire, and we exclaim, in the words of a great saint, “How vile grows the earth when I look up to heaven!” Then, too, shall we feel the solace of the assurance “that this momentary and light affliction produces for us an eternal weight of glory beyond measure, exceedingly” (2 Cor. iv., 17).

Here, then, are three diagnoses and three remedies. It is interesting that the roots of these problems were already evident in 1893. How much more they press upon us over a century later! It is helpful to have a doctor of souls to help us name the demons that afflict us. Having named a demon, we have more power over it and can learn its moves more easily.

  • Demon, your name is “laziness” and “distaste for hard work.” By the joyful mysteries of the Lord’s life, be gone.
  • Demon, your name is “refusal of any suffering” and “resentment at the cross.” By the sorrowful mysteries of the Lord’s life, be gone.
  • Demon, your name is “forgetfulness of Heaven” and “obsession with the passing world.” By the glorious mysteries of the Lord’s life (and our Lady’s, too), be gone.

6 Replies to “Three Insights of Pope Leo XIII That Diagnose Our Cultural Malaise”

  1. Loved this! I’ll especially look at the Joyful Mysteries more deeply now.

  2. Thank you, Father, for reminding us of the wise Popes and timeless teachings of our Church. We did have a Church and a Faith before Vatican II – but don’t hear much about them these days. Nothing positive, that is.

  3. Thank you for this! My parish priest – a young man from Cuba – is an avid reader and admirer of Leo XIII – I will send this article to him.

  4. Thank you, Monsignor. This is excellent. We lived overseas for a number of years. The beginning reminds me that the more difficult the place, the nicer expats were to each other, while the more comfortable the duty station, the more disagreeable people were.
    I have only recently realized how people hate even minor inconveniences.
    I had no idea people don’t look forward to Heaven and fear he’ll.
    Thank you.

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