Editor’s note: The following homily preached on January 16, 2023 for the day of recollection for the faculty of the Donahue Academy at Ave Maria University.
In our opening session this morning, I suggested considering the socio-cultural environment in which we are called to make saints for the Kingdom of God. Let me tease out some of the implications of that point, calling to my side none other than St. John Henry Cardinal Newman.
On October 2, 1873, the future cardinal was invited to preach on what should have been a joyous occasion – the opening of the first seminary in England since the Reformation. The title of his sermon was “The Infidelity of the Future”;1 to say that the future Cardinal rained on the parade would be an understatement. After tipping his biretta in the direction of the momentous nature of the happy event, Newman used the rest of his time proffering a series of dizzying predictions about what those seminarians would face in the coming years of their priestly ministry. I suspect not a few priests present made a mental note: “Don’t ask Newman to preach for your silver or golden jubilee!”
Let me share with you some of the more salient passages from that sermon.
Referring to the “perilous times” which he saw on the horizon, St. John Henry noted:
I know that all times are perilous, and that in every time serious and anxious minds, alive to the honour of God and the needs of man, are apt to consider no times so perilous as their own. At all times the enemy of souls assaults with fury the Church which is their true Mother, and at least threatens and frightens when he fails in doing mischief. And all times have their special trials which others have not. And so far I will admit that there were certain specific dangers to Christians at certain other times, which do not exist in this time. Doubtless, but still admitting this, still I think that the trials which lie before us are such as would appal and make dizzy even such courageous hearts as St. Athanasius, St. Gregory I, or St. Gregory VII. And they would confess that dark as the prospect of their own day was to them severally, ours has a darkness different in kind from any that has been before it.
So, what was so bad about the age he envisioned?
The special peril of the time before us is the spread of that plague of infidelity, that the Apostles and our Lord Himself have predicted as the worst calamity of the last times of the Church. And at least a shadow, a typical image of the last times is coming over the world. I do not mean to presume to say that this is the last time, but that it has had the evil prerogative of being like that more terrible season, when it is said that the elect themselves will be in danger of falling away. This applies to all Christians in the world, but it concerns me at this moment, speaking to you, my dear Brethren, who are being educated for our own priesthood, to see how it is likely to be fulfilled in this country.
What was unique about that coming age?
The elementary proposition of this new philosophy which is now so threatening is this – that in all things we must go by reason, in nothing by faith, that things are known and are to be received so far as they can be proved. Its advocates say, all other knowledge has proof – why should religion be an exception? . . . There is no revelation from above. There is no exercise of faith. Seeing and proving is the only ground for believing. They go on to say, that since proof admits of degrees, a demonstration can hardly be had except in mathematics; we never can have simple knowledge; truths are only probably such. So that faith is a mistake in two ways. First, because it usurps the place of reason, and secondly because it implies an absolute assent to doctrines, and is dogmatic, which absolute assent is irrational. Accordingly you will find, certainly in the future, nay more, even now, even now, that the writers and thinkers of the day do not even believe there is a God. They do not believe either the object – a God personal, a Providence and a moral Governor; and secondly, what they do believe, viz., that there is some first cause or other, they do not believe with faith, absolutely, but as a probability.
Wasn’t there always unbelief in one form or another throughout history, one may ask. Well, not really, as Newman explains:
Christianity has never yet had experience of a world simply irreligious. Perhaps China may be an exception. We do not know enough about it to speak, but consider what the Roman and Greek world was when Christianity appeared. It was full of superstition, not of infidelity. There was much unbelief in all as regards their mythology, and in every educated man, as to eternal punishment. But there was no casting off the idea of religion, and of unseen powers who governed the world. When they spoke of Fate, even here they considered that there was a great moral governance of the world carried on by fated laws. Their first principles were the same as ours. Even among the sceptics of Athens, St. Paul could appeal to the Unknown God. Even to the ignorant populace of Lystra he could speak of the living God who did them good from heaven. And so when the northern barbarians came down at a later age, they, amid all their superstitions, were believers in an unseen Providence and in the moral law. But we are now coming to a time when the world does not acknowledge our first principles.
Then addressing the seminarians directly, he warns:
My Brethren, you are coming into a world, if present appearances do not deceive, such as priests never came into before, that is, so far forth as you do go into it, so far as you go beyond your flocks, and so far as those flocks may be in great danger as under the influence of the prevailing epidemic.
I would be remiss were I to pass over one other prognostication of the great churchman:
No large body can be free from scandals from the misconduct of its members. In medieval times the Church had its courts in which it investigated and set right what was wrong, and that without the world knowing much about it. Now the state of things is the very reverse. With a whole population able to read, with cheap newspapers day by day conveying the news of every court, great and small to every home or even cottage, it is plain that we are at the mercy of even one unworthy member or false brother. It is true that the laws of libel are a great protection to us as to others. But the last few years have shown us what harm can be done us by the mere infirmities, not so much as the sins, of one or two weak minds. There is an immense store of curiosity directed upon us in this country, and in great measure an unkind, a malicious curiosity. If there ever was a time when one priest will be a spectacle to men and angels it is in the age now opening upon us.
If I had not identified the time and author of these remarks, I wager that most of you would have supposed they were made in reference to our present experience, no? I would submit, however, that even the ever-prescient Newman would be astonished at the contemporary social and ecclesial landscape.
Let’s turn our attention, firstly, to the societal reality in which we find ourselves. Lest we become irremediably depressed, let us resort to prayer, as Our Lord in today’s Gospel bids us do in dire circumstances. Perhaps some congregational participation might be of some value here. So, if you feel so moved, respond to each situation with the ancient invocation: “Deliver us, O Lord!”
Attacks on the sanctity of human life abound: abortion, artificial contraception, physician-assisted suicide, surrogate parenthood. “Deliver us, O Lord!”
Materialism and consumerism have become the modern false gods, displacing the one true God, so that modern man in the so-called “developed” countries lives, in St. John Paul II’s apt description, “as if God does not exist. “Deliver us, O Lord!”
Fornication, adultery, same-sex activity, polyamory and every other kind of sexual perversion that have brought down every other civilization in history not only occur but are celebrated by the media elite and served up to one and all through the all-powerful means of pornography. All this destroys young people, from the tenderest age, and makes marriage – true marriage – well-nigh impossible. “Deliver us, O Lord!”
Our culture is characterized by self-absorption, with especially our youth controlled by their phones and computers, so that real communication with another is rendered difficult, if not impossible. Indeed, “the other” is often perceived as a threat. A generation of “entitlement” demands that all desires be treated as genuine needs, all the while eschewing any notion of self-sacrifice. “Deliver us, O Lord!”
The family, the foundation of every society in history, has been systematically dismantled and reinterpreted, with more children being born out of wedlock than within the bonds of matrimony and even more children being raised in single-parent homes. “Deliver us, O Lord!”
The primary purveyor of distorted views of the human person, marriage and family is none other than the godless, pagan so-called “public” school system, where “tolerance” demands that every point of view be represented – except the truth. “Deliver us, O Lord!”
We now inhabit a civilization without civility: coarse language, anger, rage, violence are commonplace responses to disappointment or disagreement. This phenomenon is in high relief in academia, politics, sports and the world of entertainment. “Deliver us, O Lord!”
Regrettably, the ecclesial environment is equally wounded. Indeed, one must ask where to begin – and where to end – the laundry list of failures within the Catholic community.
Liturgical abuses continue unabated in parish after parish. In truth, many real abuses have become institutionalized and are now deemed normal and even normative. “Deliver us, O Lord!”
Bishops and other would-be leaders express shock and dismay that the vast majority of regular Sunday-Mass goers do not believe what the Church teaches about the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, when every visible sign of basic respect (let alone adoration) has been removed from our rites in all too many places. “Deliver us, O Lord!”
Doctrinal and moral confusion is the order of the day, emanating from Rome herself, thus eviscerating the restoration brought about in the two previous pontificates. “Deliver us, O Lord!”
It is not only demographic shifts that endanger our Catholic schools but the gutlessness of bishops and priests who are afraid to tell their people that subjecting their children to the government schools is endangering the souls of their children. “Deliver us, O Lord!”
Clergy regularly complain about financial difficulties, suggesting that they are the root of the Church’s problems. They seem to be ignorant of the fact that near-penniless immigrants built our institutions, while the most affluent Catholic population in the history of the Church cannot – no, will not – maintain them. The problem, of course, is not money but faith, and the lack thereof. Priests and bishops are loathe to challenge the priorities of the “faithful” who worship at the same altars of materialism and consumerism as their pagan neighbors. “Deliver us, O Lord!”
Would Cardinal Newman be surprised by what I have just related? Or, would he not say that this is all the logical conclusion to what he sketched out a century-and-a-half earlier? As for us, with such a depressing rehearsal of societal and ecclesial melt-down, might many not be tempted to despair? That, however, would be a most inappropriate response – unworthy of a committed believer. The solution comes from St. Teresa of Àvila. She notes, “The world is in flames,” but then asks, “Do you wish to put them out?”
Demons such as I have delineated can only be cast out by prayer and fasting, we are counseled by our Divine Master (see Mk 9:29). Bemoaning the status quo does nothing; engagement is required. Thus, to prayer and fasting one must add as an essential element the bold and joyful witness of the Christian life, contributing to what John Paul II called “the new evangelization,” that is, the re-preaching and re-presentation of Catholic truth to a people who have lost their way. In fact, it can best be accomplished by adopting something so simple as “the Little Way” of the Little Flower, doing the ordinary things of our vocation extraordinarily well – doing them with great love.
In the prayer vigil in London’s Hyde Park for the beatification of Cardinal Newman in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI delivered another one of his barn-burning homilies, offering the life of the Cardinal as a worthy example for the emulation of all, but particularly the young. He “piggy-backed” on Newman’s famous meditation, which I shared with your earlier this morning: “God has created me to do Him some definite service. . . .”
The Holy Father then suggested some concrete ways the flames of the world could be put out:
Dear young friends: only Jesus knows what “definite service” He has in mind for you. Be open to His voice resounding in the depths of your heart: even now His heart is speaking to your heart. Christ has need of families to remind the world of the dignity of human love and the beauty of family life. He needs men and women who devote their lives to the noble task of education, tending the young and forming them in the ways of the Gospel. He needs those who will consecrate their lives to the pursuit of perfect charity, following Him in chastity, poverty and obedience, and serving Him in the least of our brothers and sisters. He needs the powerful love of contemplative religious, who sustain the Church’s witness and activity through their constant prayer. And He needs priests, good and holy priests, men who are willing to lay down their lives for their sheep. Ask our Lord what he has in mind for you! Ask Him for the generosity to say “yes!” Do not be afraid to give yourself totally to Jesus. He will give you the grace you need to fulfil your vocation.
Pope Benedict concluded his reflection by placing our entire Christian endeavor just where it belongs, with Christ on the altar:
And now, dear friends, let us continue our vigil of prayer by preparing to encounter Christ, present among us in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. Together, in the silence of our common adoration, let us open our minds and hearts to His presence, His love, and the convincing power of His truth. In a special way, let us thank Him for the enduring witness to that truth offered by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Trusting in his prayers, let us ask the Lord to illumine our path, and the path of all British society, with the kindly light of His truth, His love and His peace. Amen.
I wish to make those stirring words of his my own and suggest that they constitute your personal program of Catholic education. Amen.
1 By “infidelity,” Newman meant “a lack of faith,” rather than the more common understanding of the word today as “being unfaithful” to someone, especially a spouse.
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