Rorate Caeli

SERMON for the Feast of Saint Pius V, the Great Reformer - Fr. Cipolla

Sermon for the Feast of St. Pius V

Preached at the Lepanto Youth Rally
Waterbury, Connecticut
5 May, 2018

There is a church in Rome not too far from the train station, Termini. Its exterior looks like many churches in Rome, white marble, baroque style.  The fame of this church is not because of its rather over the top late baroque interior that leaves nothing to the imagination.  It is famous because of the statue in one of its side chapels of St Teresa of Avila sculpted by the amazing baroque sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.  The title of the sculpture is St Teresa in Ecstasy, a mind-blowing piece of reality sculpted in marble that catches the moment in which St Teresa is seized by the love of God and pierced by the arrow of the infinite love of God. Once you see this amazing work you never forget it.

But what interests us here on this particular day is the painting above the altar rail in this church.  The church is called Santa Maria della Vittoria, Our Lady of Victory. The painting depicts the battle of Lepanto.  This youth conference is called Lepanto.  I suspect that many of you hear have never heard of the battle of Lepanto.  You have not heard of it for two reasons:  you know generation knows little history, especially of the West, and you are mostly products of a 1970s vapid Catholicism that in its own way denies the central role of history in the Catholic faith.  The youth rallies of post-Vatican II Catholicism are either pale imitations of Protestant “pump them full of Jesus” emotionalism or the product of a New Church, a Church lacking any real connection to the history of the Church of 2000 years and wedded to an ahistorical and sentimental and deliberate forgetfulness of the essence of the Catholic faith.

But back to Lepanto.  The Ottoman Turks, the inheritors of a great Muslim empire, were, like their founder, Mohammed, conquerors, conquerors in the name of Allah.  And in the latter part of the 16th century they were preparing for the final assault on the Christian West.  They had amassed a huge navy and were preparing to advance to a point where they would be able to conquer Rome herself.  And so they gathered an immense fleet and were sailing westward to conquer the West once and for all.  There was a Pope in Rome at this very time, whose feast day we celebrate today, who played a central role in the near miraculous defeat of the Ottoman fleet off the coast of Greece in the Ionian sea, a place called Lepanto.

This Pope became a Dominican at an early age.  This Pope took his faith seriously. He walked the talk.  The Council of Trent was called in the mid 16th century not only to counter the Protestant Revolt called the Reformation.  It was to address the serious corruption in the Church especially among the clergy.  He took seriously his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and lived a life that mirrored that of St Dominic. His reformist zeal made him unpopular with many contemporaries, but he was called to Rome and was eventually made a Cardinal by Pope Pius IV and named inquisitor general for the whole Church.  His office was to combat heresy in the Church.  As the inquisitor general, the man who was to become Pius V, whose birth name, by the way, was Antonio Ghislieri, defended the Archbishop of Toledo, who had been suspected of heresy by the Spanish Inquisition.  This honest defense of a man wrongly accused earned him the rebuke of the Pope.  But he soldiered on and with unflinching zeal carried out his office in Rome while a bishop in Piedmont in Italy.  He fought vigorously for the reform of the clergy and for the reform of the governance of the Church.  

And he showed no favorites.  When the Pope wished to admit Ferdinand de’Medici, then only thirteen years old, into the Sacred College of Cardinals, he opposed the Pope openly.  And for this the Pope banished him from Rome and took away his authority as inquisitor.  He had not even got back to his diocese, when Paul IV died, and with the support of St Charles Borromeo, he was elected pope and took the name Paul V, the name Paul, the apostle without whose courage and faith Christianity would not exist today.

Pius V set about to reform the clergy and to enforce the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent.  In this he was only partially successful.  The clergy have always been resistant to real reform.  This pope saw clearly the disaster that ensued from the Protestant reformation.  He opposed vigorously the Protestant Huguenots in France and issued the bull of excommunication against Queen Elizabeth, who had declared herself head of the Church in England.  Pius V saw what was at stake:  the truth and the unity of the Church, and he acted with a clarity unencumbered by a false ecumenism that denies truth itself in the name of openness and liberality.

It was Pius V who understood the tremendous importance of resisting the aggression of the Turks.  He understood that the battle being fought was spiritual, and that the stakes were the very existence of the Christian West.  So to combat this aggression by the Turks, Pius V formed what was known as The Holy League, consisting of most of Europe except for France.  And so under the command of Don John of Austria, this somewhat rag-taggled fleet sailed to meet the Turks in battle.  The ships of the Holy League were severely out numbered by the Sultan’s fleet.  The Pope ordered Rosary processions in the streets of Roman to pray for the success of the Holy League.  And against all odds, the Holy League destroyed the Sultan’s fleet. It is said that the Pope during prayer one day knew that the Christians had won the battle against great odds and that was the fact.  It was not the end of the Ottoman attempts to conquer Europe, but the battle of Lepanto ended the real threat that Christian Europe would be subjects of the Muslim Ottoman empire.  And in thanksgiving for the successful outcome of the battle of Lepanto Pius V instituted the feast of our Lady of Victories, under whose banner and intercession that victory was achieved.  That feast eventually became know as our Lady of the Rosary.

Too much history, you say.  I thought this was a sermon about Christian faith.  Yes, but  the Christian faith cannot be separated from history, for that is how God acts. He acts through human history, and your generation so often is clueless about history, especially church history.  And that is why so many of those in power in the Church have been able to invent a new Church that came into being after the Second Vatican Council, a Church with no expressed continuity with the Church of Jesus Christ in the time and space of two thousand years.  You are the product of a terrible fracture in the history of the Church, where those in power have assumed Jesus’ words,  “See, I make all things new”, have taken these words for themselves to declare, frighteningly similar to the Protestant reformers of the 16th century, that we now live in a “new” Church, a Church unencumbered with the noxious accumulation of the past, that encumbrance of Tradition  that kept us in bondage: and now we are truly free.  And the sign of that freedom, that false freedom, is the terrible break, the terrible discontinuity that was inflicted on the Church by the despotic imposition of the Novus Ordo Mass and the suppression of the Traditional Roman Rite of the Mass that was and is the living memory of the Church and the living remembering of the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross to the Father:  the act of redemption.

It was Pius V who standardized the Holy Mass by promulgating the 1570 edition of the Roman Missal and who made this Missal mandatory throughout the Latin rite of the Catholic Church, for he understood so deeply that this Mass, that had organically developed for 1500 years, is the sacred memory of the Church, is the bearer of the Apostolic Tradition, and is central to the very life of the Church founded by Jesus Christ.  And the good news is that, thanks to Pope Benedict XVI, in an act of great courage, gave this Mass back to the Church as one of the forms of the Roman Rite. And this is the Mass that we celebrate here today, in all of its power and beauty, in all of its authenticity.  This is the Mass that is ever ancient, ever new, the Mass that is clearly the re-presentation of Jesus’ offering of himself to the Father on the Cross, this, the unbloody Sacrifice that make forgiveness of sins possible and eternal life a real hope for you and me.  From this point on, I as the priest will vanish, I will enter the holy of holies for you and with you to offer the Supreme Sacrifice.  This is no Sunday School lesson, this is no didactic school lesson to learn about God. This is worship, worship in Spirit and Truth.  And this all in a language that is no longer spoken but yet is the language of the Church, a language that transcends all language barriers in this world and therefore makes worship in spirit and in truth possible in a world that is obsessed with words and deaf to meaning.

It is your generation that will bring about the true renewal of the Church by your acceptance of your role in the battle that must be fought, the battle this is being fought.  Lepanto is in the past and yet a part of the glorious history of the Church.  And it makes no difference whether you fight the battle as a priest or religious or married man or woman. The battle being fought now is for the very soul of the Church:  whether the Catholic Church will succumb to the temptation to morph into a form of Protestantism that denies the intractable fact of the person of Jesus Christ as THE way, THE truth and THE life, and in so doing embraces a faith that is both sentimental and cynical, a false faith that denies the terrible Difficulty, the holy Difficulty, the joyful Difficulty of the person of Jesus Christ and his Cross, that intractable Difficulty that alone can save. Martin Mosebach, the German novelist, recently said this:  “Every Mass celebrated in the traditional spirit is immeasurably more important than every word of every pope.”  For here words ultimately do not matter and become just pointers to that intersection of earth and heaven that takes place here on this altar, here in this place.

We ask the intercession of Saint Pius V that he pray that each of will have the strength and faith to do battle with those who would have us turn away from the Tradition of the Apostles and that we will do this with great joy, that joy that can come only from the deepest encounter with our Lord and Savior.  There are those in high places who would label us as rigid traditionalists, closed off from the love of God.  When I look at you who come to worship God in this Mass that is the Tradition of the Church, I see no rigidity, I see no hankering after the good old days, I see no fear of the future:  I see young men and women who have discovered the Pearl of Great Price and whose hearts burst with joy because of that discovery.  You and I are the antidote to the eminence grise of the old men who tried and are still trying in Rome and in other places of ecclesiastical power to impose the tired silliness of the 1960s on the whole Church with such disastrous results for the Church.  May the intercession of St. Pius V give us the strength and the joy to carry out our task, a task just as important as the battle of Lepanto.