1st Sunday of Advent
As we begin a new liturgical year, the words of the apostle are once again brought before us. It is time for us to rise from sleep, for our salvation is closer now than it was when we first came to the faith. St Paul already had noticed that the faith of the members of the Church needs to be stirred up. Fickle, weak-minded creatures that we are, we easily drift from initial enthusiasm to indifference, even to the most important truths, and that is precisely why the Church’s role is to stir up our faith. In days of old, she did this by certain periods of penance and fasting, by the particular solemnity and length of her liturgical ceremonies. She did it through what were known as parish missions, and which are very similar to what we monks call retreats.
And yet, there are periods in which the Church herself seems to sleep, and in which the call to conversion is rarely heard. The period that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire until what is known as the Iron Century was one of those. The faith was not handed down, or when it was, it was mixed with so many political intrigues that the papacy itself, not to mention the local bishops, became little more than playthings, subservient creatures to more powerful monarchs. At one end of that period, our holy father St Benedict was raised up by God to be a major actor in the building of Christendom and at the other end, the great Benedictine Pope St Gregory VII was called by God from what began as a small, apparently insignificant monastery in a lone place called Cluny, to wake the Church up and lead her, through the Gregorian reforme to which he gave his name, into the glory of the high Middle Ages.
With the Renaissance, however, the Church once again fell into a deep sleep, with Popes and bishops imitating the luxurious and lascivious life of temporal princes, which finally led to the disaster of the Reformation, whole countries revolting against a corrupt papal court and separating themselves from their legitimate Mother Church. Among the many souls raised by God to wake the Church up during what is known as the Catholic Counter-Reformation, pride of place goes to St Ignatius of Loyola whose spiritual sons, the Jesuits, were a major force, the Church’s own militia, in waging war with error and sin. They were formed to holiness by the Spiritual Exercises and well trained in philosophy and theology in order to counter any and all arguments of the innovators. Only a couple decades later at least two of the most brilliant theologians at the Council of Trent would be Jesuits. The Jesuits were certainly not alone – many others joined them, but they led the Church into the prosperous era which is now called, often with disdain, post-Tridentine.
In our day too the Church has fallen into a deep sleep. This has come about because the spiritual combat of personal holiness, the hard and demanding task of challenging the world to change its ways and of demonstrating its errors that poison the lives of souls and take them away from God, has been officially set aside in favour of a misguided desire to walk in step with the world, to pretend that everyone is OK. It is not pleasant task to have to wake up someone who is immersed in deep sleep. Someone recently told me of a young, decently-formed priest who, arriving in his new parish and noticing that there were few confessions, made bold to encourage the sacrament of penance from the pulpit. He was promptly informed by at least one parishioner that if ever he did that again, he would leave the parish. At the same parish, a carpenter taking measures for needed repairs to the confessional was scoffed at by an elderly lady who informed him: “Don’t bother. That hasn’t been used for fifty years!”.
The sad reality is that a false spirit of conciliation with the world, of wanting to be seen as favouring its projects, and above all, cowardice in failing to denounce sin and evil in all its forms, has led us to this impasse where even a good priest is silenced by members of the Church who have been completely disconnected from the true faith. In name they are Catholic, but they have hardly a clue as to what it means to be one.
But all this of course was made possible only because nearly everyone in the Church fell for the great lie, propagated by well-known theologians in the post-World War II era, who assured us that they, of all the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, had finally discovered that there is nothing to worry about Jesus did not really mean what He said. He couldn’t have, of course, because God is all-merciful and in the end, regardless of how people live, they all go to Heaven. This is one of the most insidious lies that has ever been told, one that flatly contradicts numerous statements of Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and His holy apostles, and which tragically takes the cripples and even paralyses the Church’s call to repentance. It is also one which the great reformers we have mentioned, the Benedictines and the Jesuits, did not have to fight, for in their day no one who called himself a Christian would have had the gall to insinuate that Jesus did not really know what He was talking about. Nevertheless, the great means they gave us, namely the holy life lived according the Rule of St Benedict, and the Spiritual Exercises are without a doubt among the most powerful means the Lord has given to His Church for arousing souls from their spiritual torpor. We are blessed to have both these tools at our disposal, and may the Lord give us the grace to use them well for the salvation of our own souls and those of many others. It is not the only recipe for the upcoming restoration – I mean the inspired union of Benedictine life and the preaching of the Spiritual Exercises, but it is a very good one; it is one that has produced much fruit, and will continue to do so. Do not be surprised, however, if the Enemy seeks to destroy it and to disrupt it by mixing in his own lies and illusions. Just as in wartime one always seeks to neutralise or eliminate the stronghold of the enemy.
So, my dear Friends, once again, let us rise to the task. We have so many great saints and Fathers to look up to and imitate. When it comes to spreading the truth and fighting error, there is no place for expressions like “put that in the too hard basket”. There is no “too hard basket” for one who has fallen in love with Our Lord Jesus Christ and whose greatest desire is the greater glory of God. Nor can we fall back on sayings such as “she’ll be right”. No, “she” – let’s understand here the Church – won’t be right unless there are souls who strenuously fight to make her right again, to make her great again. Rather, we should remind ourselves of another expression I learned in my youth, and which in spite of its somewhat whimsical form, says everything about the spiritual combat: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”. Yes, we need tough souls today, tough, not in the sense of rough or uncouth or uncharitable, but tough in the sense of solid, trained to serious self-discipline as the Rule of St Benedict and the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius teach us; tough, as in intellectually outstanding and motivated with a burning zeal for the salvation of souls, many of whom are lost forever because there is no one to teach them the saving truth, to pray for them, to make sacrifice for them. The French say: “Impossible n’est pas Français”. We could say – “Impossible n’est pas Catholique” – “Impossible” is not a Catholic word, it is certainly not a monastic word. For all is possible for the one who believes (cf. Mk 9:22).
One of my daily memories from childhood was my mother’s kind but firm hand waking me from sleep in the morning to go to school – there was no way to avoid the unpleasant reality: it was time to get out of bed. It occurred to me as I was preparing this homily that, thank God, we have our heavenly Mother to wake us up spiritually, to get us off to the school of the divine service, as St Benedict calls the monastery. Today, 27 November, is the feast of the Miraculous Medal, for it was on this day in 1830 that Our Lady appeared to St Catherine Laboure and asked her to have the medal, that we know well, minted, with the image of herself and the prayer: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee”. This medal has wrought so many miracles, whence its name, but it would have wrought many more if there had not been so much resistance from Church authorities in the early years. It was revealed to a holy soul that Lourdes came about only because in Paris there was too much resistance to the graces Our Lady wanted to give. Furthermore, on the statue you can see when you go the Chapel of the Rue du Bac in Paris, depicting the vision of St Catherine, there are rays coming out of Our Lady’s hands, symbolising the graces she obtains for the world. Some of the rays do not shine. When asked why that was, Our Lady said those were the graces which God wants to give, but for which we fail to ask, and consequently are not given.
So my dear friends, as we commence this coming Wednesday on the feast of St Andrew, 30 November, the novena to the Immaculate Conception (patronal feast of this church), let us be mindful to ask Our Lady for many graces. Let us ask her for the grace of real, true deep conversion for ourselves, for full and irrevocable dedication to the cause of the glory of her Divine Son Jesus Christ, for generous, magnanimous and indomitable zeal for the salvation of souls. Let us spare no effort in reaching out to souls. And finally, let us ask her with fervour to wake up the Church, to wake up our shepherds, our Holy Father the Pope, our cardinals and bishops, our priests and religious. To wake up and see, to have the humility to admit that many of the pastoral approaches of the past 60 years have been disastrous and the cause of the loss of many souls, but that it is never too late to reset the course, to come back to the Catholic way of challenging the world, condemning its evil ways, and teaching it the truth, which alone can save. Let us ask her to wake up the minds and hearts of many young people, drawing them to take up the challenge of holiness in the religious life. Just as in the days of St Benedict and St Ignatius, the reform, true reform began with souls set out on a path of true conversion and sanctity, which produced abundant fruit decades and even centuries later, so in the darkness of this era, as we enter into a new Dark Age, let us be certain that by living our life of total consecration, we are working for the future triumph of God’s truth. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but His words, His truth shall never pass away. All for the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls, through Mary Immaculate. Amen.