29th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached October 20, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
In today’s Gospel Jesus gives us a lesson about the need to pray always without becoming weary. At the end of the lesson he puts a question to his disciples: When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?
By teaching about prayer and then asking about faith, Jesus connects the two. Prayer is itself an act of faith; perhaps the most fundamental practical expression of faith; prayer is the breathing of faith; one who does not believe, does not pray; the faith of one who does not pray will wither and die.
Prayer means standing before God as a beggar, just as the widow in the parable must beg the judge to render a decision in her favor. Prayer means acknowledging our own weakness and powerlessness and turning to God who is all powerful. Prayer means trusting in God.
Clearly, we are not talking about any sort of prayer. We are not talking about pagan prayer; we are not talking about Hindu prayer; we are not talking about Muslim prayer; we are not even talking about Jewish prayer; we are talking about Christian prayer, prayer in the name of Jesus that pierces the heavens and reaches the throne of the Father, prayer that conforms, we could say, to the law of the “Our Father”, the prayer that Jesus himself taught to us. That means that if we are talking about Christian prayer, we are talking about Christian faith, we are talking about Catholic faith.
All this presupposes faith, but faith is precisely what is lacking in our world today. Often the language of faith and prayer is still used but emptied of its real meaning. When faith is emptied of its meaning prayer is reduced to little more than a psychological exercise. We pray in order to ‘feel good’. It becomes the practice of ‘positive thought’. Or is it ‘wishful thinking’?
When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth? Faith, real faith, true faith, living faith seems to be very rare these days.
A friend of mine, who lives in another city, recently told me that she stopped sending her children to the Catholic school in her town, because she heard the other mothers, influential in the school community, say quite openly, “We don’t believe any of this stuff; we are ‘cultural Catholics’.” So my friend started sending her children to a classical Christian school, where the climate of the community, so to speak, is a readiness to die for what they believe. What a shame that she has to do that. Alas, I have travelled around enough to know that her experience is not uncommon these days.
Why is that? Well, I think it is time to start speaking about heresy again. “Heresy” is a forgotten word and a forgotten concept, but just because we have stopped talking about it does not mean that it does not exist. Quite the contrary, heresy, which is the leprosy of faith itself, is no longer noticed precisely because it is so prevalent.
In order to address heresy, it is necessary to say something more precisely about faith.
Both the First Vatican Council, in the 19th century and the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s taught that faith involves the submission of intellect and will to God who reveals. It relies not on human reason or judgement, but on the authority of God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. (Cf. Dei Filius, Dei Verbum)
Since faith rests on the authority of God, if faith be true, it must accept without qualification everything that God reveals, because he reveals it.
The only place where human judgment can enter the picture here is in judging, before believing, the credibility of the proposed revelation. Catholic faith, then, believes everything that the teaching authority of the Catholic Church sets forth as being revealed by God. Because God does not change, what the Church proposes to believe always and everywhere does not change.
Our understanding may grow and develop, but we must always maintain “the same dogma, with the same meaning and the same understanding.” (St. Vincent of Lerins, d. 5th Century, Commonitorium, 23,3 cited in Vatican I, Dei Filius) Not even the Pope can change what the Church has taught always and everywhere. If, for example, tomorrow the Pope were to declare that Jesus Christ were not God, nobody would be obliged to believe him.
Faith cannot pick and choose. Human judgment has no place in saying, “Well, I think this teaching is credible, but not that one.” If I do that, then I am no longer simply accepting what God reveals, but choosing out opinions that fit with my pre-conceived world view.
The word ‘heresy’ derives from the Greek word for ‘choice’ and refers to choosing, among the whole body of revealed doctrine, what pleases the particular heretic.
So the Arian heresy of the 4th century, which was condemned by the Council of Nicaea, from which we get the creed we recite at Mass, declared, “I believe everything in the Creed, except ‘before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.’” Of course, the Arians defended their belief by appealing to Sacred Scripture, but so also did the Catholics.
That, however, is past history. The question for today is what is the great heresy that has come to pervade the life of the Church, has already been condemned as a heresy, but is no longer even noticed?
It is the heresy that was condemned by Pope St. Pius X at the beginning of the 20th century under the name of “modernism”. St. Pius wrote at great length about the heresy, but I will give you a very simple summary.
It begins with this: “This is the 20th century (or now the 21st century). We are now living in the age of science (or the age of cell phones). You can’t really expect us to believe all that medieval stuff.” Actually, that is pretty much the argument for atheism; all ancient religion is dismissed as a product of ignorance.
But what does that have to do with the Catholic Church. Precisely because we are Catholics, we still believe in God, right?
Well, around the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century there began to be groups of Catholics who, in effect, accepted the argument of atheism, accepted that either God did not exist, or if he did we could not know anything about him, but thought that religion, including their own Catholic religion, was still a good and useful thing. Other heresies rejected one particular doctrine or another, but modernism strikes right at the root of faith; it actually rejects the very possibility of God revealing to us anything determinate and knowable. That is why St. Pius X referred to it as “the synthesis of all heresies”. (Pascendi Dominici Gregis, 39)
Nevertheless, the modernists thought that the vast institutions of the Catholic Church were capable of offering a great service to humanity. For that reason, rather than leaving the Church, they wanted to change the Church, to ‘update’ her, to make her more serviceable to human need as they saw it, to transform her into one vast institution dedicated not to the salvation of souls and eternal life, but for building a better world, a more just world, a world of peace rather than war.
There was a certain nobility to their aspirations, but the one thing they didn’t have was the Catholic faith. Consequently, in order to change the Church they had to work to undermine the faith of those who still did believe in God. The great disasters of World War I and World War II, facilitated their project.
Notice, however, that in order to work to change the Church, the modernists had to live a sort of false, double life, professing in so many ways to believe everything the Catholic Church holds and teaches, presenting themselves outwardly as ‘good Catholics’, while believing in their heart of hearts that much of what the Church had always taught was all a bunch of nonsense. Indeed, if they were priests, religious superiors, or seminary professors, they were required until 1967 to take the oath against modernism, and they swore falsely.
Now Cardinal Sarah writes: “It must not be forgotten that dogmatic definitions are a service rendered to the ‘little ones’ of the Church, and not a way of lording it over others. In formulating the faith by means if words, the Magisterium allows everyone to share in the light Christ left to us.” (The Day is Now Far Spent, Pg. 97) By their rejection of dogma and their false face, the modernists were lording it over those whom Cardinal Sarah refers to as the ‘little ones’ of the Church.
This ‘spirit’ of modernism has been with us, undermining faith, for more than a hundred years now. It has produced the ‘cultural Catholic’, the ‘cafeteria Catholic’, and a many other varieties of ‘Catholic’, who for various personal reasons, identify themselves as Catholic, but actually have little idea any more of what the Catholic faith really involves.
Nowadays there is not usually much malice involved; it is the way people have been taught and formed; but without a strong Catholic formation, they easily pick up their ideas and attitudes from a world that is increasingly at odds with the Catholic faith; they are easily swept along with the current of the times; they are hardly likely to lay down their life for Jesus Christ.
Now we all like to think we are smart and modernism, like atheism, appeals to our desire to be thought ‘smart’. Further, the founders of modernism really were very smart and well educated people.
So, I am going to give you a very simple answer to modernism. Jesus, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit, said: I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. (Lk 10:21)
Now there are some among the wise and learned, who are also childlike. One of these, the recently canonized St. John Henry Newman, a 19th century English convert from Anglicanism, famously wrote, almost by way of anticipation of the modernist heresy, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” (Apologia, Ch. 5)
To doubt the faith is to think, willingly, “Well, maybe it isn’t true after all.” Once we have believed in God, there is never any valid reason to doubt. Our minds might be overwhelmed with all sorts of questions and difficulties, but our minds are weak, fallible, and easily deceived. God is true. God is sure. So, when overwhelmed by difficulties we must simply repeat, like a little child, “I believe.”
The Lord told us to pray always without growing weary, but as little children we are weak and need a mother. So when we find that our faith is assailed, let us turn as little children to our Mother, the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima, and pray:
O Mary, you were a bright and shining lamp of faith in the darkness of Good Friday.
You have now come from heaven, a Lady resplendent with the light of God, to light up our faith in the middle of a faithless and darkened world.
With your rosary teach us to pray and help us to believe.
I believe and I know you exist.
Therefore, I believe and I know your Son, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, exists.
Therefore, I believe and I know God exists.
In this faith, may I believe and firmly hold all that the Catholic Church holds and teaches and has always and everywhere held and taught.
Whatever doubts and questions may assail me, help me to hold fast to this precious gift of faith.
In this faith help me to abandon myself with complete trust into the hands of Jesus and do whatever he tells me.