33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached November 17, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
As we draw near the end of the liturgical year things get serious. The end of the liturgical year directs our attention to the end of all things. We need to wake from our sleep and begin taking God seriously, truly setting him as the first priority in our life.
The most urgent problem facing humanity today is not climate change; the most urgent problem facing humanity today is God’s judgment; before anything else we must return to God. Unless we return to God, everything else will be vain and useless.
There was a 1928 silent movie, “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, based on the actual transcripts of her trial. There is one scene in which St. Joan had just been frightened into signing a piece of paper confessing herself to be a heretic. She is returned to prison to do her lifetime of penance. She is in agony interiorly because she thinks that, like St. Peter, she has denied her Lord. In the meantime, the movie flashes to scenes of a carnival. It seems completely incongruous. Yet, if we reflect on the matter it reveals the reality. Jesus Christ is crucified and the world does not even pay attention, it goes on seeking its own pleasure in odd and perverse amusements. The same story is repeated in the sufferings of the saints. The same reality is found today as the whole Church passes through what may well be the greatest crisis in her whole history, while few seem to be aware of what is happening and fewer even seem to care.
Now two things in today’s readings should help wake us up to reality.
First, we heard: The day is coming like a burning oven. This is day of judgment when the Lord returns.
We have become accustomed to think, after 2,000 years, that it must still be far off, but it may well be much nearer than we think.
In any case, it will come for each one of us, willy, nilly, when our soul is separated from our body and we depart from this world. Then we will each have to appear before the judgment seat of God to render account to him for what we have done with the life he gave to us. We can practice for that day by examining our conscience every night and by regular confession.
When that day does come, it will either mean being consumed eternally, root and branch, in the blazing oven of divine wrath, or eternal life and happiness that will be brought to us by Jesus Christ, the sun of justice.
Will we then be counted among the proud and the evildoers or among those who fear the Lord?
Before we are too quick to count ourselves among the just, let us ask ourselves, “Do I truly fear the Lord? I am like that tax-collector we recently heard about, who in his heart stands before the Lord and prays, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’?” If not the reason will be my own pride and resistance to God, my failure to take him seriously. Fear of the Lord takes God seriously.
Next, Jesus warns us against being deceived.
That is all too possible. Already in the 2nd century St. Irenaeus wrote: “Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than truth itself.” (Against Heresies, Book I, Preface 2)
Today, we are surrounded by webs of illusions, deceit, and lies. Our world today has mastered the ‘fake’. Fake news, fake hamburgers, fake marble, fake wood. The fake often offers real advantages; it can be cheaper, easier, and more efficient. It is rarely as beautiful as what is real and rarely is able to offer the same inner satisfaction. Isn’t that the case if we compare a fake wood floor and a real hardwood floor? For the real we need to take the time and the trouble. Only the real will make it into eternity.
Of course, now we also have the fakeness of virtual reality and artificial intelligence. The goal is to produce an android that will be so ‘life like’ that people will think they are dealing with a real person.
Should it, then, be a surprise to learn that there are fake prophets and fake Christs? Jesus warned us about them. He even said they would perform signs and wonders capable of deceiving, were it possible, even the elect. (cf. Mt 24:24) Have not the wonders of modern science and technology, interpreted by the false prophets, deceived many and led them to stop believing in God and in Jesus Christ?
So now let me return again to theme I have recently introduced, the heresy of modernism. Modernism tells us that now is the time. We live in a new age. We live in the age of “evolution”. Consequently, humanity itself has changed. It no longer makes sense to follow the old ways, the old traditions, the old beliefs. We must grow up, evolve, and even adopt an evolutionary way of thinking. We must sing a new Church into being.
Now it is necessary to address a very difficult matter. The Second Vatican Council, which was held from 1962-1965, sought to bring the unchangeable faith and teaching of the Catholic Church more effectively to men of the modern era by modifying and adapting the manner of expression and changeable discipline and practices. The idea was not to change anything essential, but only to adapt things so as better to reach men of the modern era with the saving grace and truth of Jesus Christ.
Nevertheless, in the end, hardly any aspect of Catholic life was left untouched. The visible change was so dramatic that people very often got the message that the ‘post-conciliar’ Church was really no longer the same Church as before the Council. The message has often been given and received that prior to Vatican II the Church had been on the wrong track and mistaken, and only with the Council has she finally discovered the truth.
The rampant confusion and the resulting loss of confidence in the Church, led Pope St. Paul VI, in 1972, to comment that it had seemed as though the smoke of Satan had entered the Church as through some fissure. (Homily, June 29, 1972) This also led Pope Benedict XVI to speak of two contrary interpretations of the Council: the modernist interpretation that declared a true rupture with the past and the proper Catholic interpretation which declared that the Council must be interpreted as a development in continuity with the unchanged Tradition of the Church.
The interpretation that proclaimed a true rupture with the Sacred Tradition of the Church was truly a modernist interpretation of the Council. It has also been a very widespread interpretation, promoted through the news media, but also by many bishops and priests, theologians and college professors, as well as religious sisters. The modernist interpretation has taken advantage of the dramatic visible changes to the Mass and other aspects of Church life, which modernists have even pushed well beyond what was prescribed and allowed, as well as by the traditional docility of the Catholic faithful to Church authority. It seems as though countless faithful blindly followed along with the attitude, “Well yesterday the Church said that white was white and now the Church says that white is black, so now white must be black.” Or as one well-known contemporary priest put the matter, in all seriousness, “In theology sometimes 2+2=5”.
We must ask if the well-meant idea of the Council did not perhaps backfire. Perhaps the Fathers of the Council failed to realize the extent to which theoretically changeable elements of teaching and practice were intertwined with the unchangeable. The end result, in any case, is that today there as a lot of fake Catholicism out there. Jesus warns us: Do not be deceived.
Despite all the signs and wonders of modern technology, human nature is still the same. I can bear witness to that simply from my experience of hearing confessions. Human nature is still the same and Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. (Heb 13:8) These words of the letter to the Hebrews, which are solemnly proclaimed at the beginning of every Easter Vigil in the blessing of the Paschal Candle, were also the motto for the Church’s celebration of the Great Jubilee of 2000.
Jesus warns us: Do not be deceived. If the Jesus we believe in today is different than the Jesus believed in by the saint through the course of the Church’s long history, then we have been deceived. We will have a hard time keeping from deception unless we know our faith and our tradition, not just what has been done here for the past 50 years, but what has been believed and practiced by Catholics always and everywhere. There may have been a time when a Catholic could pretty much go with the current of the Church and have a decent chance of making it to heaven. No more. We must be much more knowledgeable, intentional, and committed than in times past.
Now, let me close on a note that indicates what was perhaps the true significance of Vatican II and which ties back also to today’s Gospel. The Council Fathers did rightly recognize something distinct about the times in which we are now living.
During her pilgrimage in this world, the Church began in the midst of a pagan world, then the Church herself gave shape to a whole civilization, but now the Church has passed again into the midst of an unbelieving world.
The new unbelieving, secular, and even neo-pagan world is worse than the original world faced by the Apostles. The Apostles caught the world by surprise with the newness of the Gospel. Now, the world thinks it knows Christianity and has grown weary of Christianity. Indeed, it is characterized by apostasy, the positive rejection of Christ. Indeed, we could say it is a world that has been shaped and directed by the devil’s counterattack against the Gospel. Now we could even say that the devil caught the leadership of the Church by surprise with his counterattack.
In August 1976 the 41st International Eucharistic Congress was held In Philadelphia. A little-known Polish Cardinal stunned the assembly when he declared: “We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has gone through. … We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel versus the anti-Gospel, between Christ and the Antichrist. … We must be prepared to undergo great trials in the not-too-distant future; trials that will require us to be ready to give up even our lives, and a total gift of self to Christ and for Christ.” The Cardinal’s name was Karol Wojtyla, now known as St. John Paul II.
The Church has now been stripped of her worldly power and influence, whether political, economic, or cultural. We are no longer the mighty institution we once were, even within living memory. No one really pays attention to us anymore; no one really takes us seriously, they are too busy with the carnival.
Nevertheless, they hate us and want to remain silent; indeed, they are trying in many subtle and not so subtle ways to intimidate us so that we will be silent. If we begin to speak up bear witness to Jesus Christ, they will hate us even more. Our task, our mission, the mission of the new evangelization, the proclamation of the joy of the Gospel, is to bear witness in word and work to Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today, and forever, to the forgiveness of sins and the life of grace we have received in him, and to the hope of eternal life and the resurrection of the dead. It does not matter so much if anyone listens or pays attention. It does not matter if we are hated or persecuted. What matters is that we be faithful, bold, and confident. If we go forth in the boldness and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, then indeed we can rely on the promise of the Lord that not a hair of our head will be harmed. For those who fear the Lord, the sun of justice will rise with its healing rays.
If we wish to pass through these times unscathed and welcome the sun of justice when he comes, we will do well to stick close beneath the protective mantle of the Virgin Mary, who crushes the head of the serpent beneath her foot, who lights the way with her fidelity at the foot of the Cross, and who accompanies her children from her glorious throne in heaven.