Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Letter of '71 (part III)

For the first post of this series please scroll down.

Christopher Dawson, a Catholic historian, once said that if people are religious for social reasons, they will quit religion for the same reasons. During the decades which led up to the 1960’s the life of the Church, no doubt, possessed good qualities. After the Great Depression and World War II- as with any crisis –the sense of mortality and the need for God was reawakened among the West. As such, the Catholic Church enjoyed higher Mass attendance and high priestly and religious vocations. The icing on the cake was that in the early 1950’s, a weekly prime time television program called Life is Worth Living was hosted by a Catholic bishop whose name was Fulton Sheen. Surprisingly, it not only had high ratings but Bishop Sheen won an Emmy Award in 1952; an impossible feat in today’s entertainment industry. Hence, from the adversity of the 1930’s to the 1960’s the Church was riding a wave which favored her growth and mission.

During this time period, however, there was a growing reliance on the formal and institutional aspects of Catholicism among Catholics. Parents relied almost exclusively on the parochial schools for their children’s religious education, the personal study of Scripture was left to the parish priest, a great emphasis was placed on the memorization of formal prayers not infrequently at the expense of personal prayer, and the Sacred Liturgy, for many, became an automated worship service for the simple reason that the rank-n-file didn’t understand the Latin language. To be sure, Catholic spirituality became perfunctory for far too many Catholics before the great change that was about to occur; namely, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s. And as I said, the institutional Church was shaken to the core with this unfortunate result: The individual believer was left standing naked without a personal committment to Christ. Indeed, when the parish priest, the Catholic school and even the Mass could no longer be counted on as sound or 100 percent Catholic, the individual- whose religiosity was more formal than personal and more of a by-product of family tradition than a personal choice –went with the flow by conforming to worldly standards. As Dawson indicated, if a person is Catholic for any reason other than to follow Christ then if those reasons cease to endure, his house, which is built on sand, will collapse.

This finally brings us to the historic and spiritual importance of Sister Lucia’s letter to her nephew, Fr. Valinho.

She begins the letter by writing the following: “I see from your letter that you are worried about the turmoil and the disorientation of our times. It is indeed sad that so many are allowing themselves to be dominated by the diabolical wave that is enveloping the world, and they are so blind that they cannot see their error. But the principal error is that they have abandoned prayer.”

The “diabolical wave” that Sister Lucia had referred to was occasioned by the drought of personal prayer, spiritual reading and meditation. By the end of the 1960’s going into the 1970’s the fabric of Catholic life in Western Civilization had gone dry and brittle. When the spark of the Sexual Revolution and the Culture of Death was ignited, much of this fabric burned up. This is why the Peshtigo fire of 1871 and the miraculous intervention of God to save the faithful of Our Lady of Good Help seems so applicable to our era. (More on that in the last blog of this series)

Sister Lucia then goes on to encourage her nephew to draw close to the Tabernacle. “In fervent prayer,” she continues, “you will receive the light, strength, and grace that you need to sustain you, and to share with others.” Prayer, if seen as the daily food we need to carry out our day will bring about these advantages. However, if it is used like medicine, that is, if it us practiced only when something goes wrong, then I am afraid we will be devoid of this “light, strength and grace." Indeed, going through the motions and saying formal or liturgical prayers without attentiveness, interest and passion is antithetical to the kind of fervor Sr. Lucia is referring to.

Sister Lucia also reminded Father Valinho, her nephew, that in fervent prayer “you will find more science, more light, more strength, more grace and virtue than you could ever achieve by reading many books, or by great studies.” To be sure, holiness is the principal cause of knowing God and understanding the mystery of life. It is my fear, however, that many programs, ministries and apostolates in the Church put an exclusive emphasis on college degrees and book knowledge. Take for instance St. John Vianney: He is a Patron of Priests but if he were alive today he would be unqualified to teach at any seminary. His most important qualification, namely, his holiness, which was a great font of knowledge for him, would most likely be overlooked. No doubt, holiness is difficult to measure or quantify and learnedness is important. Nevertheless, quite often the requirement to be holy isn’t front and center in most “job” descriptions for positions in the Church. As long as intellectual credentials are esteemed over and above holiness and spirituality, the “principal error” will continue and the “diabolical wave” will be unabated. It is principally through a fervent love of Christ and a penitential spirituality which will extinguish this wave. As St. Paul said, we are "always carrying about in the body the dying of Christ...so that death is at work in us, but life in you."

The conclusion- next blog