At present I subscribe to only 3 YouTube Channels: one is the Vatican and another is that of “Word on Fire” by Father Robert Barron. Recently, I took a book recommendation from Father Barron and I am glad I did: “The Rage against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith” by Peter Hitchens.
The other day Father Barron used the judgment scene from the prophet Ezekiel and the figure of the heavenly scribe marking with a cross the foreheads of those to be spared to talk about the role of the baptized in the present crisis facing the Church. Father synthesized the crisis brilliantly and spoke about “unprecedented corruption in the Church”. His overall message was masterful and I will not fault him either for his assessment or for his exhortation.
The passage from the Office of Readings for this morning (Saturday of the 27th Week in Ordinary Time) and my own knowledge of history give me pause however to urge caution to the baptized who would take up Father’s exhortation and to invite Father to go back to his own book recommendation and look at Peter Hitchens’ analysis of the parallels between past forms of atheism and present anti-theistic campaigns by people like his brother Christopher or the infamous Professor Dawkins and ask himself whether “unprecedented corruption” might not be a rhetorical flourish good for fireworks but not for sharpshooting.
If you don’t have a full breviary, let me share this familiar passage from St. Gregory the Great as a means for setting the scene.
The performance of our ministry
A homily of Pope St Gregory the Great
“Let us listen to what the Lord says as he sends the preachers forth: ‘The harvest is great but the laborers are few. Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest.’ We can speak only with a heavy heart of so few laborers for such a great harvest, for although there are many to hear the good news there are only a few to preach it. Look about you and see how full the world is of priests, yet in God’s harvest a laborer is rarely to be found; for although we have accepted the priestly office, we do not fulfill its demands.
Beloved brothers, consider what has been said: ‘Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest.’ Pray for us so that we may have the strength to work on your behalf, that our tongue may not grow weary of exhortation, and that after we have accepted the office of preaching, our silence may not condemn us before the just judge. For frequently the preacher’s tongue is bound fast on account of his own wickedness; while on the other hand it sometimes happens that because of the people’s sins, the word of preaching is withdrawn from those who preside over the assembly.
With reference to the wickedness of the preacher, the psalmist says: ‘But God asks the sinner: Why do you recite my commandments?’ And with reference to the latter, the Lord tells Ezekiel: ‘I will make your tongue cleave to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be dumb and unable to reprove them, for they are a rebellious house.’ He clearly means this: the word of preaching will be taken away from you because as long as this people irritates me by their deeds, they are unworthy to hear the exhortation of truth. It is not easy to know for whose sinfulness the preacher’s word is withheld, but it is indisputable that the shepherd’s silence while often injurious to himself will always harm his flock.
There is something else about the life of the shepherds, dearest brothers, which discourages me greatly. But lest what I claim should seem unjust to anyone, I accuse myself of the very same thing, although I fall into it unwillingly – compelled by the urgency of these barbarous times. I speak of our absorption in external affairs; we accept the duties of office, but by our actions we show that we are attentive to other things. We abandon the ministry of preaching and, in my opinion, are called bishops to our detriment, for we retain the honorable office but fail to practice the virtues proper to it. Those who have been entrusted to us abandon God, and we are silent. They fall into sin, and we do not extend a hand of rebuke.
But how can we who neglect ourselves be able to correct someone else? We are wrapped up in worldly concerns, and the more we devote ourselves to external things, the more insensitive we become in spirit.
For this reason the Church rightfully says about her own feeble members: ‘They made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept.’ We are set to guard the vineyards but do not guard our own, for we get involved in irrelevant pursuits and neglect the performance of our ministry.”
I start here because here and elsewhere Gregory assumes full responsibility as a shepherd, as the Bishop of Rome and, as he called himself, Servus Servorum Dei – The Servant of the Servants of God, for failing to be vigilant with all the tragic consequences that had for those entrusted to his shepherding care. He does not take the legitimate excuse that the absence of civil authority has called him to civil service; first things first for Gregory, and to his mind, the office of bishop has been neglected.
My point is that it is not only in our day and time that members of the Church’s hierarchy have fallen “asleep at the tiller”, to use a euphemism. We can speak of shortcomings and failings even back when the Successor of Peter was one of the all-time “greats”. Gregory deserved his “Great” because he was great and did marvels, which have benefitted the Church of all times (think Gregorian chant), bequeathing her in writing not only the life of St. Benedict but a book which has been the manual for pastors, especially for bishops, over the centuries: “The Book of Pastoral Rule”. Repenting of our shortcomings and failings, admonishing sinners whether of lowly or higher station, is only one piece in the puzzle.
I say it is only one piece in the puzzle with an eye to the tragic situation which presently has a strangle-hold on the Church in Ireland, where the mantra “unprecedented corruption” has blinded people to the fact that on lots of fronts the Church, yes in Ireland, is fighting for its life not only against the hirelings who have betrayed the flock, but perhaps more so against those who would replace God and Sunday Mass with a heroic sort of materialism which typically demonstrates its heroism as it crawls out of bed at noon or later on a Sunday after a whole night of dancing, drinking and perhaps doing designer drugs, having squandered on new clothes and a day spa what’s left after a world economic crisis which ignored God’s laws and decrees managed to cripple the “Celtic Tiger”.
Lenin and Stalin, with Trotsky and whomever, vilified the Church in Russia, and as Hitchens points out Khrushchev continued to rage against the Orthodoxy which had been the backbone of Mother Russia ever since the Baptism of the Rus over a millennium ago. Hitchens points out the devastation is so great, even yet today 20 years (that is, almost a generation) after the collapse of the Soviet Union that faith still flags and too few children are learning their prayers. Lenin’s mummy still hasn’t been buried. Obviously, Our Lady of Fatima’s plea to pray for the conversion of Russia has lost none of its poignancy.
Without taking the slightest away from the Western world’s shock and shame over child abuse and the objective wrong involved in the sacred trust betrayed, Hitchens points out that the bulk of what goes on in the Church is no more than what he experienced as a boy at an Anglican school in England over 40 years ago, namely homosexual teachers preying on their young male students. Hitchens warns that the anti-theists of England and other Western Countries, including the United States and Canada, feign horror over these crimes and use this situation to achieve their real end, the destruction of all religion. They have no substitute; they wish only to destroy. They are motivated not by reason but by sentiments spewing out of the depths of Hell.
Hitchens means well also in matters of faith. The faith to which atheism led him back is a sort of cultural Anglicanism. I think he is open to more, but perhaps short on spiritual nourishment. In any case, the merit of Peter Hitchens’ book and of his cause on behalf of his brother Christopher whom he wishes to save from the ignorance of his rage against God is that he casts light on the darkness of the anti-theist agenda which seeks to compromise the truth with multiculturalism, comparative religious studies that lead nowhere, and ultimately with banning God not only from the public square but from the hearts and minds of children.
Father Barron, go back to Hitchens for the other component of the equation and look to Gregory for the reasons why the “unprecedented” might just be an exaggeration. The exaggeration would be documented not so much by downplaying the heinousness of the crimes and corruption which may be found in some corners of the Church today, but by recognizing that God’s and our enemies use our failings not only to destroy the Church but to pervert Western Civilization and banish God from our lands.
We pray they will not succeed, but the devastation along the southern and eastern rim of the Mediterranean has been all too lasting and complete. Just this week the news comes out of Saudi Arabia of the arrest of some Filipino Catholics and a French priest who attempted to celebrate Mass privately in a hotel in the Kingdom. Hitchens would claim that Orthodoxy has little more than a niche existence in Russia yet today. It would seem that our struggle is not only against mortals but against principalities and powers.
Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, pray for us!