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Overcoming the secular malaise that distorts our supernatural vision

By demanding that this world be the measure of all things, secularism forces the infinite, the supernatural, and the mysterious into the box of quantifiable measurement.

(Image: Chris Reyem/Unsplash.com)

“The sky did not fall when we didn’t attend weekly Mass,” commented someone to me about the suspension of the sacraments in the spring of 2020. We could still pray, follow the commandments, and love our neighbor, he continued. Not attending Mass did not change us for the worse.

So what is the big deal about attending at all?

This perspective betrays the damage that secularism has done to religious believers. By demanding that this world be the measure of all things, secularism forces the infinite, the supernatural, and the mysterious into the box of quantifiable measurement. Since we cannot assess directly the financial or societal impact of the Mass, this thinking goes, it has no impact. Moral Christianity—the commandments and the love of neighbor—can be quantified, so we can keep that around, just as the Enlightenment philosophes had desired in their war on faith. But the spiritual side of religion? We, and society, can function just fine without it, so let us leave it.

For decades Catholics have aggressively reacted against this secular worldview because of its deleterious effects on faith, particularly that of the young. And we must continue to fight it. As I detail in Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism, faith, like a flower, grows healthy and strong in the proper environment: a religion-friendly culture where the majority go to church is the proper temperature; the sacraments are the food; convincing religious instruction is the water; and God’s grace is the sunlight.

So for faith, so for flowers: when one or more of these elements is lacking, the likelihood of healthy growth dramatically decreases. The precipitous slide in Catholic religious practice—to say nothing of moral lapses such as societal acceptance of fornication and cohabitation—is sobering proof of how secularity can choke faith like weeds surrounding a singular lily.

When we reduce the Mass, the greatest celebration this side of eternity, to a commodity that is supposed to have calculable value, we have lost our supernatural sight. How can we worship the invisible God and trust that His grace is working in our souls if our chief concern is “what do we get out of Mass?” In saying this, we put ourselves on the other side of St. Paul, who rightly ordered the supernatural before the natural: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:2-3). Only with this perspective can we see the infinite value of the Mass—and what we were missing without it.

If we are honest, for many of us there likely was no substantive difference in our lives, practically speaking, during the suspension of sacraments and then after it. We still tended to the normal features of human living—cooking, cleaning, working, parenting—and we likely did not feel any different doing those things without receiving the Eucharist than if we had. This is not because Mass and the Eucharist do not work. It is because they operate on a plane above the secular world.

Yet, at the same time, many of us also experienced a profound hunger, a longing to participate in Christ’s eternal sacrifice and then to unite with Him in holy communion. Upon our spiritual lives, our souls, our longings, the sky fell without Mass.

Though distinct from the secular world below, the spiritual plane above is not aloof: through the Mass, God’s grace swoops down to transform us from within. Only then, typically at a glacial pace, do we begin to perform our quotidian tasks with more charity, with more holiness, with more patience than we would have without God’s help. There is no formula to compute supernatural grace into natural output, but we know in faith that grace, in fact, perfects nature. Those whom we call saints are living testaments of this reality. But, devoid of faith, we may see the impressive deeds that saints perform without realizing the power source from which they spring.

Our reaction to the months without Mass is also a temperature gauge of our own faith. When St. Francesco Marto, one of the three children to whom the Blessed Mother appeared at Fatima, was confined to bed in illness, he told his cousin that not being able to visit the Blessed Sacrament was his greatest pain.

When St. Philip Neri was confined to bed, he waited impatiently for holy communion to be brought to him: “I have such a desire to see Jesus that I cannot have peace while I wait.”

When St. Catherine of Genoa’s diocese was placed under interdict, depriving her of access to the sacraments, she exclaimed, “If I had to go miles and miles over burning coals in order to receive Jesus, I would say the way was easy, as if I were walking on a carpet of roses.”

We must not evaluate our spiritual lives by secular standards of material production. The goal of our lives is divine intimacy, which is spiritual bliss of an infinite magnitude. The fervor with which we desire this goal indicates how much the secular malaise distorts our vision of the things above.


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About David G. Bonagura, Jr. 9 Articles
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism. and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.

8 Comments

  1. We read from “someone”: “not attending Mass did not change us for the worse.” But, to not be able to detect the “change” is the worst change of all…

    The lost ability to tell the difference between a virtual mass via electrons splattered on a computer monitor (not only commodified, but digitized) and actual sacramental incorporation into the Mystical Body of Christ.

    And, as for secularism, as the saying goes, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it;” and the techy/globalist secular malignancy is all about total management. Back in 1985, in his “Ratzinger Report,” the future Pole Benedict XVI taught clearly that what the world needs now is not better management, but saints.

  2. Well those two priests about a year ago who realized they hadn’t been validly baptized, and thus weren’t actually priests at the time, didn’t suspect anything was wrong in their lives nor in their priesthood until they saw video evidence of an invalid baptism. Nobody they ministered to suspected anything was amiss either. If you can’t detect any different effect between a valid and an invalid sacrament, between an invalid and a valid Mass, then what does that say about sacraments and about Mass?

    Bishops and priests are going to have a very difficult time convincing people to return to Mass when 1) Mass didn’t seem important to the bishops when they locked everything down for months and months, and 2) people, as the author stated, have concluded that Mass doesn’t do anything for them because having gone without Mass and without communion for so long, they don’t notice any deficiencies in their lives. Many will conclude that Mass and communion are like placebos, to put it nicely. Maybe they shouldn’t think that, but that’s what many will think.

  3. Ven. Fulton Sheen’s theory (God and Intelligence, 1925, Religion Without God, 1928) was not that the modern world is attempting to make the material world the measure (although that’s how it ends up), but that the natural order and the supernatural order have been inverted. With this “Great Inversion” — that began with the “New Things” over 200 years ago (a.k.a., socialism, modernism, and the New Age — natural law is abolished, private ideas of God take over, and man becomes “God makers instead of God made.”

  4. Well done, David G. Bonagura, Jr.

    Words have meaning. What would your reaction be if in place of “Mass” , the words “the Holy Sacrifice of Jesus” were used?

    1- Since we cannot assess directly the financial or societal impact of the Mass, this thinking goes, it has no impact.
    2-When we reduce the Mass, the greatest celebration this side of eternity, to a commodity that is supposed to have calculable value, we have lost our supernatural sight.
    3-How can we worship the invisible God and trust that His grace is working in our souls if our chief concern is “what do we get out of Mass?”
    4-This is not because Mass and the Eucharist do not work. It is because they operate on a plane above the secular
    5-Though distinct from the secular world below, the spiritual plane above is not aloof: through the Mass, God’s grace swoops down to transform us from within.
    6-Our reaction to the months without Mass is also a temperature gauge of our own faith

  5. I am almost ninety years old and I miss mass terribly. Getting ready to go to mass, was like preparing to visit a friend, being at mass along with all the congregation, no matter in which country you may be visiting, was always like being among friends.
    I miss going to communion and I miss offering my communion up for the repose of the souls of my wife and all our departed relatives and friends.
    I miss that great feeling you get when you leave the Church after mass, that feeling of renewal.
    I am grateful for the Sunday masses from Denver on the internet, I thank the diocese and the priests and the people who make it all possible…God Bless you all.

  6. “The precipitous slide in Catholic religious practice—to say nothing of moral lapses such as societal acceptance of fornication and cohabitation—is sobering proof of how secularity can choke faith….”

    Faith is also sorely tested when Catholic leaders say more about social than supernatural life, denigrate its traditional practice (praying the rosary is ‘counting beads,’ attending TLM is ‘divisive,’ etc.). Faith undergoes stress-tests. One begins to question faith and to doubt goodness. Temptations to discouragement and self-pity interfere with peaceful recollection in prayer.

    Then the faithful shall recall that Jesus said to knock; he’ll answer. In patience and humility, we await reply as we recall, “Blessed are they who….”

  7. Following a personal tragedy some years ago, I left church going behind me. Going to church took emotional energy I did not have. I never stopped believing in Jesus however. Some 17 years later a close priest friend who was unaware I had left, made a chance remark which brought me back. I did a complete 180 degree turn around and became a daily Mass goer. So, I’ve been away, and I’ve come back.I can say from personal experience that being back is better. It gives me peace and clarity, it makes me feel not so alone when life hits bumps , which it ALWAYS does. It makes me appreciate what God has given me much more.It makes me a better and more thoughtful person. The Bishops made a colossal and unfortunately precedent-setting mistake in allowing the churches to be shut. EASTER CANCELLED???? Really??? This was wrong and the impact remains significant even though most churches have reopened. Many people have NOT come back. Some of this can be laid at the door of the clergy not stressing enough about the sacredness of the Mass, or Communion, of what it is and what it does and how we should prepare to be worthy of it. The BASE was not there, except among some churchgoers.Then the doors were shut and that tenuous connection was broken. The hierarchy was too busy trying to make everyone feel happy and loved and accepted, and they refused to teach the basics in case they were too hard for some to accept. The pandemic was NEVER as bad as advertised. The media continues to spread unwarranted hysteria about it. Any death is sad but it was never the Bubonic Plague. However politicians on the left and the teachers unions continue to wield power they should not have over others, using the disease as a club. If church fathers had not reacted with secular panic, eschewing the health of the soul in favor of health of the body, maybe the damage to the church and society at large would have been less. I was upset at being deprived of Mass and Communion all of those months.I was fortunate to be in a parish where thankfully the pastor did not lock the church. I am aware that happened to Catholics elsewhere….a total disgrace to those Bishops. Therefore I was still able to pray before the Blessed sacrament. That at least was something. Even now I see our priests STILL wearing masks, while almost all the congregation has shed them. What is this saying? It prolongs the panic, unless you have a genuine medical condition which puts you at risk. Our diocese returns to the Sunday Obligation in about 2 1/2 weeks. It will be interesting to see if it makes a difference. Unless some of our Bishops and clergy start telling people WHY attendance is important, I would not bet on a change in attendance. The damage done here in an attempt to placate secular authorities may not be reversible.

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