We are a remnant people

Those who speak the strange language of Eucharistic love have always been and always will be a remnant – the “little flock” of the Good Shepherd – which is all the more reason for Christians to return home to the Holy Mass.

In a letter to the world’s bishops dated August 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, and approved for publication by Pope Francis on Sept. 3, Robert Cardinal Sarah, who is the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in the Vatican, invited the Catholic world to return to Mass. The sentence you have just read would have seemed ridiculous just nine months ago. The Sunday Mass “obligation” is a unique facet of Catholic culture of which even many outside the Church are aware. It rankles those who deny the Church’s claims and is demonstrative of her divine authority for those who love her. And while there has been a precipitous decline since the mid-20th century in the percentage of Catholics who report that they have been to Mass in the last week (from about 75% to 39%), those who love her, really love her, normally go every week, without fail.   

Of course, the Pew Center and Gallup don’t measure the love of those they poll. It’s just “those identifying as Catholic” or “cultural Catholics” or even “ex-Catholics,” or “Catholics from 21-29” or “from 60-65” who are asked about their Catholic practice. The pollsters don’t ask, “Do you believe in one God, the Father Almighty…?” or “Do you believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church?” These are not poll questions, but oaths unto death for those of us who regularly read the Denver Catholic, for those of us for whom the Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tm 3:15), “the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27), even “Mount Zion…city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb 12:22-23).

The Church is not a party, an ideological faction, an identity group whose numbers can be totaled to calculate her political clout.  She is the mystical Bride of Christ who lives from day to day on the invisible Flesh and Blood of her Groom, made visible in the forms of bread and wine through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The pollsters won’t ask, “Do you stand at the foot of the Savior’s Cross between His Blessed Mother and His Beloved Disciple?” (Jn 19:26-27) “Do you feed on the Hidden Manna?” (Rev 2:17) “Have you been given to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God?” (Rev 2:7). 

Those who speak this strange language of Eucharistic love have always been and always will be a remnant, will always be the “little flock” of the Good Shepherd. As Noah and his family were the remnant, as Israel was herself a remnant, as the hardy survivors of the 40 years in the desert were a remnant, so are the Catholic faithful always a remnant. The pollster will want to ask, “Exactly what percentage of the population is included in this remnant?” The answer to that question will never be published; it is known, of course, as the number of the hairs on your head is known, but only in the pierced Heart of Jesus, our High Priest and universal King. 

Like those remnants of the past we have suffered a deluge of sin, we have seen that we must leave the house of our fathers and go to a strange land, and we have been tested by a Eucharistic famine and the death-dealing serpents of this world. In an August 24 article in First Things which anticipated Cardinal Sarah’s call for a return to Mass in many ways, Archbishop Aquila described the cause of the aridity of the desert landscape in which we find ourselves: “By removing God from the center, our culture has come to the point of societal dissolution.” 

Truer words have never been spoken; in some measure they have always been true – of the world. St. James in his epistle tells the Church of his day (and ours!), “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (Jas 4:4). St. Augustine described the world – what he called the earthly city – as made up of those who love themselves unto hatred of God. Archbishop Aquila surveys the same city and observes a “myopic focus on the temporal over the eternal, the horizontal over the vertical.” The harsh light of the desert always sharpens the vision of the remnant. That is what the desert is for; it helps us see clearly what all our Christian forbearers saw, that the whole world is a desert, a time of testing. Many of us – and I fully include myself in this – had begun to think of this 21st century version of the world as our home. 

To see the world so, is to be lost, to be part of the “societal dissolution” of the age. To recognize the world for what it is, is to be a normal Christian, a member of the universal remnant. Our true home is not the world, but the City of God, that place where God is loved more than self, where the horizontal is always read by gazing up, or as the Latin phrase has it, sub specie aeternitatis

What Cardinal Sarah calls for is a return to Christian normalcy: “This Congregation is deeply grateful to the Bishops for their commitment and effort in trying to respond in the best possible way to an unforeseen and complex situation…As soon as circumstances permit, however, it is necessary and urgent to return to the normality of Christian life, which has the church building as its home and the celebration of the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, as ‘the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed, at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10).”

Archbishop Aquila, too, calls us to return home, to take the proper lesson from this desert sojourn: “Our happiness, temporal and eternal, depends on turning somewhere else for a vaccine to inoculate ourselves from the spiritual virus that wreaks much more damage than anything COVID-19 can inflict.” And, like Cardinal Sarah, he invites us to the “summit,” and to the only real antidote to the sting of the seraph serpents that infest the desert floor:

“Our physical health is indeed a great dignity that we should protect, but our spiritual health is what determines our eternal destination. To let the physical eclipse the spiritual is to surrender to the devil and his empty promises…This time of worldwide pandemic provides new ways for each of us to offer our daily sacrifices for the sanctification of the world. Today there is no shortage of ways we must all sacrifice…We must also make certain the Mass remains the source and summit of our Christian life. The one, true sacrifice of Christ is the sacrifice that all other sacrifices should be grafted into.”

Both Cardinal Sarah and Archbishop Aquila are speaking remnant language, the language of Eucharistic love. If you have, in these last desert months, come to think of the desert as your proper home, then think about returning to the summit, to your true home, “to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a God who is judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12;22-24). Consider returning home, to Christian normalcy, to the Holy Mass. 

Dr. Sean Innerst is an Associate Professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.