Even in this time of Lent in the Church, the world rolls on without any serious attention to God. Even within the Church, we often see more attention given to Fish Fry’s than we do Stations of the Cross. It’s a sad statement of our times that many appear to have chosen the wide path – the temporal “glory” before experiencing the cross. The supernatural is shunned, even ridiculed. Appearances can be deceiving, but the actions of the people in the world, and even in the Church lead one to wonder if God has been forgotten, and if people still realize that they are creatures with a primary responsibility to love God, even before loving neighbor.
This Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a terrible tragedy unfolded in Florida— with nearly 20 high school students shot down by a deranged former student. The reaction of the world was shock, horror, and compassion towards the victims and their families. Even the Holy Father commented from Rome that his thoughts and prayers were with this grieving community. As expected, some people responded with prayer while some people responded politically, calling for various restrictions on gun rights and a tighter enforcement of existing laws. Rumors were flying about the background and motivations of the shooter. Some reports were false, like his association with a radical white supremacist group. In general, we do know that the boy was mentally disturbed, taking prescription psychotropic drugs, ejected from school the year before, fatherless [adopted as an already troubled older child], reported to the FBI for his online hate speech, and in trouble with the police for disturbances at his home. The discussion in the media is swirling around the issues of gun control and mental health care.
What is not widely discussed is a report that the young man had apparently been hearing the voices of demons—telling him to kill these people. This, of course, is a symptom of mental illness, but it can also be a sign of a spiritually troubled, even possessed individual. I am not suggesting that this criminal isn’t culpable for his own actions, he most certainly is – even if mental illness were involved. I am merely observing that the spiritual is immediately dismissed by secular culture. Of the factors that contributed to this disaster, what failures in his spiritual education led to him becoming a mass murderer? What lessons can be learned so that other children never become a monster like this boy? Sadly, the discussion remains in the temporal – mainly elsewhere.
Begging the above question, of course, is the attitude of the general public towards religion in general. I was shocked to read in the press reports that people are now rejecting the notion that “thoughts and prayers” are helpful. Not only are people ambivalent, but openly hostile. Recently, Vice President Pence mentioned that Jesus speaks to him on certain matters of conscience. He did not stipulate as to whether this speaking was ordinary, within the confines of his conscience, or more like a locution. Some in the media, namely a prominent nominal Catholic talk show hostess whom I will not name here, openly ridiculed the Vice President on the air for a lengthy period to the delight and applause of the audience. In her opinion, its ok to talk to Jesus, but when Jesus speaks back that’s a sign of mental illness. Devout Catholics, especially those with a mystical background, would of course disagree.
Within the Church
By extension, is it any better within the Church? Recently it was reported that not only has the number of Americans whose religious affiliation is “none” has increased, but within the Catholic Church specifically only around 27% of people regularly attend Mass. Shockingly, upwards of 60% of people no longer believe Jesus is truly present to us in the Eucharist—the source and summit of our faith.
Why is this the case? I strongly assert that many have abandoned the faith because they were never taught the faith – or our faith was negligently preached from the pulpit. That’s a bold statement, but my experience tells me this is true. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I attended Catholic Schools. My parents sacrificed much that we should be educated in this way. I attended an expensive all-boys Jesuit prep school and a Jesuit University. Sadly, I must report that catechesis in these Catholic institutions of learning was virtually non-existent. Were “religion” classes available? Yes, of course. Did these courses teach that Jesus must be Lord of 100% of your life, the Catholic Church is the one true religion, and that some people do in fact go to Hell? No, in any substantial sense, they did not. In talking with others of my generation, I suspect this was largely the case. The statistic that 60% of Catholic College students leave the faith upon attending college suggests this is still the case.
As an adult, except in our present parish, I have *never* heard Hell mentioned from the pulpit. I have never heard a discussion of mortal sin and the importance of confession. I have mostly heard vague, non-offensive speeches about how God basically loves us the way we are and that we should be nice to other people. One occasion, I heard a priest speak out against the bishop. I am not sure what that means, but I have a pretty good idea. I have witnessed liturgical dancing, sloppy handling of the sacred vessels, lay people touching the vessels and entering the tabernacle, and people who never genuflect or bow. Poor liturgical practices and a loss of reverence have had a great deal to do with the loss of faith of at least some people. Robert Cardinal Sarah, prefect for the Congregation for Divine Liturgy, recognizing this crisis, recently called for a renewal of reverent liturgical practices including kneeling while receiving the Eucharist, and the use of the Ad Orientem (facing liturgical East) posture – with the priest and people facing God together for the Eucharistic prayer.
Cardinal Sarah’s recommendations were, of course, met with vehement resistance by those who are happy with things the way they are. Those people aren’t making the connection between the loss of faith, shrinking congregations, and declining vocations with weak catechesis and bad liturgy. The evidence is clear. In communities where the liturgy is much less centered on the congregation and liturgical “theatrics” and more on God – and which are celebrated reverently and in accordance with the Roman Missal and norms in the GIRM – the Church is more successful at retaining congregations and attracting vocations. In situations where the full and authentic Catholic faith is taught, as it is in Catholic home-schooling curricula, children are much less likely to leave the faith when they attend college.
The Origin of these Attitudes
Once upon a time, the whole Christian world was Catholic. People lived in a society built by the Church. The faith was taught from the pulpits. The Holy Mass was sacred and God-centered. Catholics were still imperfect sinners who made lots of mistakes, but the mystical Church was our light-house, our beacon of hope – and we could count on the Church teaching the truth. Christendom evangelized the world. So what happened? It has been suggested that things began to fall apart with the advent of the so-called “Enlightenment.” Philosophers like Immanuel Kant (with an ironic first name) began to re-assert the old question posed to Eve by Satan – “Did God Really Say that?” This time the question was posed as, “Does God really exist?” The supernatural was de-emphasized. Sociologists began to tell us that the writers of scripture were not inspired, but rather speaking from the context of “pre-rational” societies. These self-acclaimed scientists, basing their atheistic beliefs on mere assumption, tell us that miracles are allegories or simply made up by primitive irrational men to promote the idea of “Jesus” who, according to them, was more ordinary than divine. The truths of scripture became fairy tales. Jesus, of course, with his Divinity removed in the minds of men, as a first century Jew didn’t know anything about modern science or politics – so we should be free to “develop doctrine” as needed to address the needs of modern, “enlightened” men and women.
The Reformers, like scrupulous Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, who had no confidence in the Church or her sacraments, began to pick up on these themes – ultimately rejecting the Catholic Church and her authority to teach. Consequently, Christendom was splintered, distributing authority for interpreting scripture to the individual. Splintering and rebellion, has led to more rebellion and splintering. Millions were denied the truth and the grace of the sacraments, a terrible affront to the Risen Christ.
Darwin came along to suggest that no, we weren’t lovingly created with a soul, intellect and will in the image of our creator. Rather, we are glorified apes living in a world which happened by accident – with elements and proteins spontaneously combining to result in us and our planet. Politicians like Marx came along and built on those foundations suggesting that since we really weren’t individuals with God-given dignity, rather just a bunch of ignorant monkeys, that government could, in fact, become God and a utopia (recreation of Eden?) by forcing everyone to be “equal.” The Church was, of course, a threat to this, so it became enemy number one – and thousands upon thousands were killed for their beliefs (all in an effort to be fair and equal of course). Because being equal through any convenient means then became a value, and God was pushed more and more out of the picture, then, of course, the individual became “liberated” from institutions like monarchies and the Church. The French erected their goddess of reason in the Notre Dame Cathedral and executed priests and nuns, Henry VIII got his divorce, confiscated Church property and disemboweled as many priests as he could find, the Russians burned down churches and enslaved millions, and the Mexicans hung and shot priests in their sanctuaries, all the name of the “enlightened” people and “fairness.” So we should be free to “develop doctrine” as needed to address the needs of modern, “enlightened” men and women. Many of these facets are discussed in the new book by Monsignor John F. McCarthy, Catholic Biblical Scholarship for the Third Millennium, available at Amazon.
The Church, of course, stood strong like a rock during this strife and persecution, opposing many heresies, yet remained a target for Satan as it always has been. Then came modernism – a movement condemned by Pope St. Pius X and Pope Pius XII and others. Pope Leo XIII and Pius IX warned us it would happen. Then one day it did. Error began to slide into the temporal Church – resulting in the degradation of the Mass, false teachings such as “autonomy of conscience,” and indifferentism (all religions being equal). The most insidious part, of course, is that the error grew in between the Truth – much like the wheat and the tares so that many who were unable to discern between the two lost their faith. We are at the point now, where many laity openly dissent and rebel against established teachings, and insist upon what is perceived as their “rights” before the rights of God.
A Reflection For Lent
Am I a harbinger of modernism? Have I slowly been acclimated to believe that what has always been true is no longer true? Am I reverent in Mass, and truly adore the Risen Savior present in the Tabernacle? Do I believe that He alone is the key to my salvation and that the Church in her perennial teachings speaks for God in this world? Or am I a rebel, disrespecting the Church and dissenting from her teachings? Do I discredit her teachings and spread error? Am I indifferent towards the Eucharist? Have I given up going to Mass, and other precepts of the Church, despite the fact they place me in eternal peril? Do I have a mistaken notion that my conscience will lead me in contradiction to the Church? Am I irreverent in the Temple of God, and act above my station or vocation in life?
Prayer for Lent
God in this season of Lent, give me the wisdom to see myself as a creature to whom you owe nothing, but to whom you have given everything. Let me never be haughty, presumptuous or rebellious and place my will before God and his Church. Give me the grace to be humble and small, meek and humble of heart like Jesus. Guide me in a life of service, motivated not by temporal value, but because I see the bruised Christ in those I serve and because I am a messenger of the Gospel. I ask you for this conversion of heart this Lent, in your Son’s name. Amen.