by Fr Richard Heilman | October 23, 2016 9:19 PM
For I have learnt for a fact that nothing so effectively obtains, retains and regains grace, as that we should always be found not high-minded before God, but filled with holy fear. –St. Bernard of Clairveux
This past Easter Sunday, a future saint (hopefully) of our Church, Mother Angelica, passed to eternal life. Personally, I believe Mother Angelica, single-handedly, began to turn the Barque of St. Peter around during a time when the Church was moving at breakneck speed into a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Much like a loving parent watching her toddler wander out into a road with busy traffic, Mother Angelica was stern and disciplinary in her rebukes of this terribly dangerous trend. As many of her quotes have been shared in the days following Mother’s passing, I was especially struck by this one: “Those who tell the truth love you. Those who tell you what you want to hear love themselves.” In that spirit of honesty, I felt compelled to write the following.
I write as a parish priest in, what I like to refer as, “the trenches.” One could also call it the “front lines.” According to Fr. William Saunders, “The pastor, mindful that he is to exercise his authority as an extension of the bishop and in the example of Christ, the Good Shepherd, must care for the souls of the faithful entrusted to him.”
While pastors are allowed a certain amount of freedom, they remain an extension of the bishop. That means, among many other things, the pastor must remain in concert with the bishop and his desire to build up the body of Christ. Oftentimes, if the people are unhappy with the way in which their pastor is shepherding them, letters flow into the bishop’s office. Or, the people simply shop around for a nearby parish where the priest is “doing it” in the way they wish. For most priests, this can make them timid in speaking directly to atrocities of our times. Unfortunately, this has led to a “go along to get along” form of pastoring … a silence that appears to condone these atrocities.
Today’s Gospel sees Jesus challenging those who see themselves as “just fine” and, therefore, convinced of no need for further transformation.
Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity —
greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
Well, things are not “just fine.” Frankly, things are pretty bad today. Let’s just start with the fact that the majority – THE MAJORITY – of Catholics will be voting for the most anti-Catholic regime in the modern era. This while we have a mere handful of Bishops speaking on any of this.
Yes, I count myself among those, priests and lay faithful alike, who are exceedingly concerned with the trajectory of the Catholic Church in America – the actual loss of souls – in this post-Vatican II era.
According to the 2002 Index of Leading Catholic Indicators,
“In 1965, only one percent of U.S. parishes were without a priest. Today, there are 3,000 priestless parishes, 15 percent of all U.S. parishes. Between 1965 and 2002, the number of seminarians dropped from 49,000 to 4,700, a decline of over 90 percent. In 1965, there were 104,000 teaching nuns. Today, there are 8,200, a decline of 94 percent. A 1958 Gallup Poll reported that three in four Catholics attended church on Sundays. A recent study by the University of Notre Dame found that only one in four now attend. Only 10 percent of lay religious teachers now accept Church teaching on contraception. Fifty-three percent believe a Catholic can have an abortion and remain a good Catholic. Sixty-five percent believe that Catholics may divorce and remarry. Seventy-seven percent believe one can be a good Catholic without going to Mass on Sundays. By one New York Times poll, 70 percent of all Catholics in the age group 18 to 44 believe the Eucharist is merely a ‘symbolic reminder’ of Jesus.”
And, if we hoped things were getting any better since this 2002 study, a recent CARA study found that, just since AD 2000, 14 million more Catholics have left the faith, parish religious education of children has dropped by 24%, Catholic school attendance has dropped by 19%, infant baptism has dropped by 28%, adult baptism has dropped by 31%, and sacramental Catholic marriages have dropped by 41%.
Setting aside any debate on the value of the documents of Vatican II, it is clear to any reasonable person that a trend was set in motion, after the council, by so-called leading experts, to make drastic changes in the Church and, most especially, in the Mass. This trend is known by many as the “Spirit of Vatican II,” since these so-called experts could not point to actual writings from the council to justify their innovations and eradications, but simply proclaimed it was implied by a spirit of the documents.
For the most part, the post-Vatican II trend was one that sought to demythologize the faith; to root out any sense of the supernatural or the sacred (most especially, in the Mass). Many see the devastation of the past 50 years as the coup de grâce of a Deism that finds it’s roots in the period of the so-called Enlightenment (see here).
By the time I entered seminary in the 1980s, our training seemed to have an overriding theme: We were called to completely rethink former notions of Catholicism. We seemed to look at our ancestors’ way of believing and practicing their faith much like we would look back at those who believed the world was flat … they meant well, but they just didn’t know any better. This is why it is often referred to as the heresy of “Modernism,” as it looks to erase the old in favor of the new.
For example, we were not offered one minute of Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in all of my seminary training. Also, it was understood that if someone was seen with a rosary, they would need “extra” spiritual direction (or even psychological counseling), as the rosary raised a red flag of fanaticism. Scripture studies included “explaining away” such miracles as the multiplication of the loaves and fishes as the “miracle of sharing.” Our formation was almost entirely cerebral, with little or no attention to the spiritual or supernatural. Many of the theologians we focused upon during our studies have since been revealed to be heretical.
By the time I was ordained in 1988, my first parish had dropped the title, “Father,” so I was then referred to as “Rick.” It was considered “evolved” if the priests were never seen wearing a roman collar. I spent the first 10 years of my priesthood trying to be cool, and trying to make Catholicism and the Mass hip and “with it.” We would meet with a Liturgy Committee to see what new trendy thing we could insert into the Mass. The Mass was focused on entertainment, and it was focused on us or, worse yet, the priest. I can remember interjecting impromptu comments (ad-libbing) throughout the Mass in order to keep the “experience” casual and whimsical and fun. I used to sing the Eucharistic Prayer like I was Dean Martin. The Mass seemed to resemble a night club act or a Broadway musical. This wasn’t unique to me … it was the common practice of most priests during that era. And, from what I understand, it remains common in many parishes today.
The prevailing underlying thought was that Protestants (particularly, Evangelicals) had it right all along, and we had it wrong. So, our times were considered an era for “fixing that.” All the while, we continued to fall short, as the Evangelical Mega-Churches could do entertainment far better than any average Catholic Church. In attempting to replicate the “entertainment based” worship service of the Evangelicals, ours seemed kitschy, in comparison. As a result, many know that most of the Evangelical Mega-Churches are filled with “former Catholics” … because the entertainment is just “done better there,” so they would believe.
With the latest grim Pew Research findings released, Fr. Dwight Longenecker lets loose on the condition of the Church today in this monumental article: “Why Are The Nones Leaving Religion.” You can read the whole thing over there, but this is the heart of the article …
People are leaving religion in droves because it’s not religion anymore.
It’s become a charity with meetings on Sundays, and the problem is modernism. Modernism is the idea that the supernatural is out of date and unbelievable. The “de-mythologizers” tried to weed out all the miracles and supernatural elements from the gospels. For the last hundred years their influence has gained in seminaries and pulpits across the world.
Tales of the supernatural had to be removed. They didn’t fit with the modern world. Doctrines about devils and angels, heaven and hell had to be quietly excised from the faith because they were primitive and medieval and incredible to modern folk. Transubstantiation? A pious medieval philosophical explanation of what we all know is really symbolic. Supernatural revelation? No. Religion is all man made. Miracles? We know they don’t really happen.
Religious leaders–and I mean Catholics and Protestants alike–turned the Christian religion into an organization that does good works. Instead of the wondrous bread of heaven they were content to hand out Wonder Bread. Instead of the feeding of the five thousand they spoke about the “real miracle” being the fact that everyone shared their lunch.
All the religious talk stayed in place but it was re-interpreted. Father Wooly and Pastor Fuzzy proclaimed on Easter Day, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” but what they meant was “in some way the wonderful teachings of Jesus continued to be believed by his faithful followers. They said every Sunday that they believed in the Virgin Birth but what they meant was that “Mary was a very nice girl who was very courageous as she went through with her crisis pregnancy.” And so forth. And so on.
For Catholics? The necessity of the sacraments and a life of repentance and faith? Nah.
You only had to go to Mass if you really wanted to. Lay people who were married were just as able to be holy as priests and nuns. Confession? That’s only for people with low self esteem. Marriage? We can be flexible on that. It’s all about mercy after all.
Well, people aren’t dumb.
They concluded that if religion was really only about peace and justice and social work, then why did one have to get up early and go to church and sing dreary hymns and listen to a long, badly prepared homily by an uncomfortably over fed windbag? Why go to church anyway? If it was really only about social work, then why the early weekend pep talk with music? Why not sleep in?
The unfortunate reality is that the modern campaign of militant secular indoctrination (rejecting the supernatural) has been so severe that only a dwindling remnant remains who believes or trusts in God’s supernatural power. As a result, the spiritual hearts of many are reduced to the size of a thimble, only capable of receiving a few meager drops, if any, from the wellspring of God’s graces (Rev 22:1-2). In spiritual terms, this makes us puny and scrawny rather than strong and powerful mighty warriors ready to confront the powers of darkness in the heavenly realm. With so many modernized Christians ignoring the reality of grace, it is no wonder that evil is thriving in our day.
In speaking of the need for a New Evangelization, Pope Benedict XVI said, “the true problem of our times is the ‘Crisis of God,’ the absence of God, disguised by an empty religiosity” … a kind of lukewarm, going through the motions of one’s faith, which ends up collapsing completely. The terrible consequence of this war on the supernatural is seen in the epidemic of spiritual sloth in our times — hearts deadened to the Divine Life of God.
I recently wrote about an epiphany I experienced at a Papal Mass with Pope John Paul II in 1998, when I began to ask myself about what I (we) have been doing until then, “Where, in all of this, was any sense of awe and wonder before God’s supernatural power? Where was the sense of God’s majesty?” Saint Francis of Assisi said, “Man should tremble, the world should quake, all Heaven should be deeply moved when the Son of God appears on the altar in the hands of the priest.” Where was that any longer?
I’ve come to understand that we have, by and large, removed the very gateway into the Divine Life. I agree (and I pray you do too) with Pope St. Gregory the Great who, wanting to capture the spiritual dynamism of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, posited the following order:
“Through the fear of the Lord, we rise to piety, from piety then to knowledge, from knowledge we derive strength, from strength counsel, with counsel we move toward understanding, and with intelligence toward wisdom and thus, by the sevenfold grace of the Spirit, there opens to us at the end of the ascent the entrance to the life of Heaven” (“Homiliae in Hiezechihelem Prophetam,” II 7,7).
As you can see, the entry point into the Divine Life is “Fear of the Lord.” What is Fear of the Lord? According to Fr. John Hardon, Fear of the Lord …
“… inspires a person with profound respect for the majesty of God. Its corresponding effects are protection from sin through dread of offending the Lord, and a strong confidence in the power of His help. The fear of the Lord is not servile but filial. It is based on the selfless love of God, whom it shrinks from offending. Whereas in servile fear the evil dreaded is punishment; in filial fear it is the fear of doing anything contrary to the will of God. The gift of fear comprises three principal elements: a vivid sense of God’s greatness, a lively sorrow for the least faults committed, and a vigilant care in avoiding occasions of sin. It is expressed in prayer of the Psalmist, ‘My whole being trembles before you, your ruling fills me with fear’” (Ps 119:120).
Fear of the Lord, or awe and wonder, is the gateway; this is the trigger that ignites all of the other gifts of the Holy Spirit. This Gift of Awe and Wonder, very simply, transforms the unspiritual man into the spiritual man. This is what the tax collector was experiencing in today’s Gospel … He humbled himself before the majesty of God, and that would now open the door for him to receive *all* of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The proud Pharisee would remain stuck in his “organization” he thought was his religion.
Entering the Divine Life is EVERYTHING!
Surveys by Gallup, the National Opinion Research Center, and the Pew Organization conclude that spiritually committed people are twice as likely to report being “very happy” than the least religiously committed people. Secular analysts seem to be doing back flips trying to explain away the simple reality that there is no other authentic and fulfilling way to live other than a supernatural life; the Divine Life.
Without this initial “trigger” Gift of Awe and Wonder, we are prone to reduce our faith/religion to just another bland organization that has a sense of social responsibility. Jesus is then reduced to an historic figure to emulate. Mass is just a social gathering that many may say (without saying), “It had better have good entertainment if you are going to make me endure this for an hour.” Again, all of the supernatural is stripped out and the belief in miracles and the power of supernatural grace is dismissed as the ignorance of our ancestors (The “flat-earthers” of our faith). We end up with, what I call, a “Stealth Arianism.”
For I have learnt for a fact that nothing so effectively obtains, retains and regains grace, as that we should always be found not high-minded before God, but filled with holy fear. –St. Bernard
See, again, today’s Gospel ..
St. James wrote, “As the Scriptures say, God opposes the proud but favors the humble.” (James 4:6)
While the more secular version of Christianity in Western culture has experienced dramatic losses, Christianity in Africa is experiencing a boom. In 1900, there were about 9 million Christians in all of Africa, but today there are upwards of 500 million, accounting for roughly 45% of the total population of the continent. Why? Bishop Robert Barron points specifically to the fact that this is “because the version of Christianity on offer there is robustly supernatural … African Christianity puts a powerful stress on the miraculous, on eternal life, on the active providence of God, on healing grace, and on the divinity of Jesus.”
In America, we are seeing the same kind of increases in sacramental participation and vocations to the priesthood in those dioceses and parishes where they are bucking the trend of a profane and worldly modernism and embracing a traditionalism that fosters a sense of the supernatural; that sees all of the elements of the rich heritage of our Catholic faith as precious jewels to be cherished, rather than old shoes to be discarded.
Borrowing a theme from a recent Star Wars movie, “The Force of Supernatural Grace Must Awaken!” What is needed, first and foremost in our times, is to assist people in breaking through – awakening – to the trigger gift of Fear of the Lord (or Awe and Wonder in God’s Presence).
Before this destructive post-Vatican II trend of stripping out of all things sacred, Catholicism led the way in preparing the souls of the faithful to receive this first and most necessary “trigger” Gift of Awe and Wonder through sacred art, sacred architecture, sacred music and special attention to the sacred offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Why? Because, instead of the modern trend of making ourselves equal to God – He’s our buddy and pal – our ancestors saw themselves as small – like the tax collector in today’s Gospel – before the wonder and majesty of God. He is not a God that is “out to get us” (the wrong kind of fear), but a God that is big enough and powerful enough to heal us and to stand against evil forces trying to destroy us.
Many believe we simply need to teach more. Teaching is always good. But, as the old adage goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” In other words, if people are not spiritually inspired to seek such teaching, how can we “force-feed” it to the unspiritual hardened heart? We cannot.
We need to start here by restoring everything that aided the faithful to open themselves to Awe and Wonder before the Lord! We need to help our fellow man tear through the veil of the unspiritual man to the spiritual man, thus enabling him to receive *all* of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. We cannot even begin to consider a credible and authentic “New Evangelization” without, first, placing our primary focus upon this “gateway gift” of the Holy Spirit.
Sadly, this secular version of religion has become so prevalent that most people’s eyes begin to glaze over at the mere mention of God’s supernatural grace as a necessary source of power in our lives. St. Peter warns us to be fortes in fide, strong in faith, because the devil prowls around like a lion, looking for someone to devour (1 Pt 5:8-9). Lions size up a herd to find the weakest and easiest target. Once we are detached from God and His supernatural grace, we are powerless to defend ourselves from the tactics of the devil. Bad things happen to those who have removed themselves from the abode of God’s grace; God’s Divine Life.
Our ancestors and all of the saints knew all about this supernatural power and strength and that being in a state of grace was the armor of God that was to be treasured and protected at all cost. Sacred scripture sees this Divine Life in God (state of grace) as the “hidden treasure” and the “pearl of great price” (Mt 13:44-46).
In his Prayer of Surrender, St. Ignatius of Loyola identifies this as the only meaningful treasure: “Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.”
This is our first and most necessary priority. We simply must put all of our eggs in this basket of restoring a sense of the sacred; a sense of the supernatural. As Pope St. Gregory stated above, it is the first gift; the very “gateway gift” of the Holy Spirit; the Gift of Awe and Wonder.
Therefore, if we are truly serious about evangelization, our attention must be placed on restoring what the Catholic Church once, so beautifully possessed: sacred art, sacred architecture, sacred music and special attention to the sacred offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Everything else is just “spinning our wheels,” until we give this the primary attention it requires.
Pope Benedict XVI famously stated, “I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is, to a large extent, due to the disintegration of the liturgy.” Building on this, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf speaks often about, “Save the Liturgy, Save the World.” Nothing could be more true, when we consider the fact that the world needs saints, ignited by supernatural grace. And, that it is reverent and sacred Masses that assist the faithful in receiving this first and essential “trigger gift” of the Holy Spirit: The Gift of Awe and Wonder.
But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ (Luke 18:13)
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