Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King 2016: We are being purified

Father Richard G. Cipolla
Parish of Saint Mary
Norwalk, Connecticut

From the gospel of John:  “Jesus responded to Pilate: ‘My kingdom is not of this world’”

I hadn’t heard about it.  A friend sent me an email last week and asked if I knew anything about the latest earthquake in Italy in the same region as the earthquake a few weeks ago that destroyed towns and killed people. I said , No, I did not know.  And so I went to a news website and I found out that there indeed was a strong earthquake in the same region between Assisi and the Adriatic, but there was little detail.  Not big news this time.  Last time at least the media could talk about the destruction of the little town of Amatrice, and they talked about it not because of the destruction but because a pasta sauce called Amatriciana that originated in that town.  My thoughts immediately turned to the monastery in Norcia that had undergone significant damage in the last earthquake.  Not much on the internet. So I sent an email to Fr. Benedict, one of my spiritual sons whom I brought to Norcia years ago and watched him being tonsured and went to his ordination where the whole town came out and ate and drank in celebration.  “Is there damage? What is going on?”  His reply: ”Yes, damage much worse. But we are ok. Much to tell you but just pray. I am well and God continues to purify us and bring very good things.”

The basilica that was the monastery church, the church built over the home where St Benedict was born, damaged in the first earthquake, now has been leveled.  Only the façade remains. The whole monastery in town in now uninhabitable and the monks are all on the mountain above the town in heated pods.  And the latest photo shows Cardinal Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for the Faith, with the monks after the quake. He came up from Rome, a visit planned before the first earthquake, and this is what he said. 

Thank you for this welcome, for the prayer this morning, and for me to bless this house, which reminds me of Bethlehem, where it all began. Salvation began in Bethlehem, in absolute poverty, and I think that we should follow Christ in this, in His poverty, which is also the humility of God. God is humble, God is poor, but He is rich in love. To live here means that your heart is full of the love of God, for you cannot live with God without loving him. Love is at the center of all of our work. This is why the revelation that Jesus gives us says that the Lord, our Father, is love, and that everything we do comes from love, above all. I ask that this be a place of love for the Lord. I am certain that the future of the Church is in the monasteries, because where prayer is, there is the future. Where there is no prayer, there is disaster, division, war. Perhaps I am not an optimist, but I see that a church that doesn’t pray is a disastrous church. Since you are a church that prays, the whole of the Church is here.
He said this before the second earthquake, before the taking away from the monks the little they had to hold onto practically.  But the response, the response is so important for us to hear on the feast of Christ the King:  God continues to purify us.  Remember that St. Benedict fled the corrupt and dying Roman civilization that surrounded him, a great civilization that was collapsing morally, spiritually and practically.  And he lived in a cave for two years and then founded that order of monks that is one of foundations not only of Catholic culture but also of Western culture. And in those monasteries Chrstian civilization was built, and what was good, true and beautiful in Graeco- Roman civilization was preserved to be passed on.  For traditionally minded Catholics the monastery in Norcia was an ideal place:  American monks who revivified the monastery built over St. Benedict’s birthplace, the last monks cast out in the tumults of the 18th century. These monks restored buildings, the monastery, the refectory, the church, they decided with a vote to celebrate the Mass and Office in the Extraordinary Form, the place where many of the seminarians from the North American College came on retreat, they understood the role of beauty in liturgy and life, they began a successful beer enterprise and recently met with Mario Batali and company in New York who agreed to sell their beer in his posh restaurants.  I have taken many people to Norcia and they have profoundly moved.  And then this.  Two earthquakes, awful damage, town empty and despondent, and yet the message:  God continues to purify us and bring us very good things. 

From the viewpoint of the traditional Catholic these monks were ideal, did all the right things, the right Mass, restoring the monastery in a beautiful and tasteful way, understanding the role of St Benedict in the Church, making good beer to support what they were doing.  All that taken away by what some would call lawyers call “an act of God”.  An act of God.  What does this have to do with the feast of Christ the King?  This feast was instituted by Pius XI to remind the Catholic faithful of the reality and centrality of Jesus Christ in their faith against the secularism and nationalism growing at that time between the two World Wars.  It was Pope Paul VI who changed the name and date of the feast.  He moved it in the Novus Ordo calendar to the last Sunday of the Year before Advent, to emphasize the relationship with the end of time when all will be all in Christ, and he renamed it Christ the King of the Universe.  Both Popes understood this feast as a counterthrust to the strong forces of secularism that threatened to destroy that civilization which we call Western civilization and which was shot through and through with the Christian faith. It was a Christian culture, not perfect by any means, but nevertheless a Christian culture.

The gesture of both Popes, while noble, did not recognize the reality of the situation.  The reality of the situation, and this is much more clear today than in 1925 or in 1972:  Christian civilization in the West is in fact dead. There are cultural and religious vestiges of this civilization still extant:  but the center is dead.  Much could be said about the wonderful aspects and content of that past civilization and the darkness of that same civilization.  But that is all commentary on the past because that civilization does not exist any longer.  The failure of the traditional movement in the Catholic Church for the past half century has been precisely to refuse to acknowledge this death and instead to work to restore certain elements in that culture: faith, morality, liturgy, family and so forth.  That is energy badly spent.  Those Catholics who love the Tradition of the Church, the truth of the Gospel, must finally abandon the past, must finally reject circling the wagons, and look forward to and participate in the rebirth of Catholic tradition and culture.  Someone said to me after a Solemn Traditional Mass I celebrated in New York two evenings ago:  “It’s time to circle the wagons”.  I said quite quickly and sharply:  “Absolutely not.  Be open, be joyful in your faith and let the dead bury the dead!” 

Part of this looking back and holding on to the past is that strand of Puritanism that infects those who profess to love the Catholic tradition. This Puritanism is deadly to the re-flourishing of Catholic culture.  The Church Father Tertullian, although not without his problems, said that the Christian should walk on the streets looking like everyone else, modest of course, but not distinctive, for the distinctiveness is in the heart, not in the dress.  The beauty of the body and of human sexuality are gifts from God.  They must never be suppressed by a pseudo traditionalism that denies both gifts. 

Traditionally minded Catholics must face the fact that Christianity has nothing to do with the present political situation in this country.  In fact, it has had nothing to do with Christianity for a long time, if ever.  When one is faced with a presidential election  where both candidates are radically post-Christian, to say the least, then one must face the reality of the situation.  But Father, but Father, you say, what about the Supreme Court?  Can you imagine any of the saints putting their trust in appointments to the Supreme Court of the United States, especially when it was a practicing Catholic who wrote the majority opinion that made abortion legal in this country?  The Christian culture in this country is dead, and what we have to do is to figure out not only how to survive in this situation, how to pass on our faith to our children, how to make them as wise as serpents and gentle as doves in the lives that they will lead—but ultimately how to make sense of the feast of Christ the King of the Universe in which the universe itself has been evacuated of ultimate meaning by the all demanding self-centeredness of a culture that makes Jerry Seinfeld look altruistic and thoughtful? 

And how can we make sense of Christ the King in a Church whose strength has been sucked out by her own hierarchy and priests who are all too happy to live in a post-Christian world that is unhampered by both truth and personal sacrifice? We here make sense of Christ the King in this celebration of the Mass in the rite whose roots are in the Catholic Tradition, roots in Christ. What we do here together, priest and people is one of the antidotes and answers to the crisis in the Church and the world. And the re-formation of Catholic culture will happen quietly wherever the family says the Rosary not as an act of penance and discipline but as an act of love, wherever Lauds and Vespers are sung in this church not because of a schedule but because of an act of love, whenever men meet before dawn to adore Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, whenever people gather for prayer quietly and hopefully, wherever acts of kindness are truly spontaneous, when Classical education is not a slogan but rather a joyful attempt to restore all things in Christ, wherever the great monuments of art, music and literature of Christian culture are preserved, not as in a museum, but for the love of God-- and this parish, Deo volente, will be one of those places.  And all of this with no Traddie angst or fear or hardness of heart.  At this point you think that I am going to tell you, amidst all of this, how to make sense of the feast of Christ the King today?  No.  I just once again quote Fr. Benedict’s email.  There is more damage, but we are safe.  We are being purified.