Rorate Caeli

The Church in Self-Imposed Exile: Where is Ezra?

The second reading for the Mass of Ember Wednesday in September:  “And the people wept when they heard Ezra reading the Law”.

Ember Wednesday.  Most Catholics have never heard of an Ember Day, this despite the fact that the Ember Days, the Quattuor Tempora in Latin, the four seasons, are among the oldest of liturgical celebrations, at least back to Leo the Great in the fifth century.  They have their roots in the four seasons of the year, and hence before each season of the year—Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer—the liturgy provides three days, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday that are a call to prayer in anticipation of the seasons and what they mean for man in nature, but more deeply each Ember Day calls us to fasting and prayer to remind ourselves of the goodness of the Lord in all aspects of our life, especially our Catholic faith.  Ordinations became associated with these days, and one can understand why, for these days in a sense join the natural and supernatural in a liturgical way.

The Ember Wednesday in September has the wonderful reading from Ezra describing him reading the Law to the people of Israel.  Ezra the scribe and priest, joined by Nehemiah, have returned from exile in Babylon, that exile bereft of the sacrifices of the Temple, that exile in which there was a forgetting by the Jews of what it meant to be a Jew in the religious sense.  When the exiles returned the Jerusalem, the wall around Jerusalem was rebuilt, the first step in re-understanding the city of Jerusalem as the center of their homeland and faith.  In the reading for this Ember Day, Ezra calls an assembly of all the Jews who had returned from exile. And he does so with one purpose:  to read to them the Law, the Law given by God to the Jewish people that was not only central to their identity as a people but also the source of what it meant to live as a Chosen People.

So Ezra stands on a podium and reads (chants?) the Law to the assembly of people. He does so from sunrise to noon.  And the people weep. They weep.  For they realize how far they have strayed from the mark of the great Covenant between God and his Chosen People.  They weep.  But Ezra tells them not to weep, for this day is a day of great rejoicing.  The exile is over and they now know again who they are and how they are to live.  Ezra tells them to rejoice, to go home and eat fine food, drink fine wine, for they have regained their identity, they know again who they are in the deepest sense.

When I read this passage every September Ember Wednesday I cannot help but relate this to the current state of the Catholic Church.  The past fifty years in many ways has been a time of exile, but this time no potentate from afar came and subjected the Catholic people.  This exile was a self-imposed exile brought about by those within who with itching ears and glib tongues, who lusted after the Hanging Gardens of Secular Modernity, and as a product of that lust, like all lust that obliterates the reality of humanity, they forgot who they were.

What is going on with the Amazon Synod, the German bishops hell bent to form their own synodal government, the fact that so few Catholics go to Mass regularly on Sunday, the continuous decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life: these are symptoms of people in exile. But again, this is a self-imposed exile.

And so there is no generous foreign king to allow the Church to return to rebuild the sacred walls, walls that keep no one out, but walls that protect the people from attacks of the wolves from without and within.  There is no one, with a very few exceptions, who will stand on a podium and read to the people the Tradition of the Church, the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church of almost two thousand years.  This tragedy is most clearly seen in the liturgical life of the Church.  Despite the enthusiastic discovery of the Traditional Mass by many young priests and seminarians—the Master is not asleep in the boat--the folly of the imposition of the Novus Ordo Mass on the Church fifty years ago is still supported by those who are empowered to lead the Church.

Just recently, a woman who came to a Missa Cantata in a “normal” parish church that celebrates the Novus Ordo regularly but occasionally celebrates the Traditional Roman Mass, walked out during the Traditional Mass.  When asked why she did so, she said that this was completely foreign to her. It had nothing to do with what she understood the Mass to be.  She at least is honest.  She sees quite clearly the discontinuity between the Traditional Roman Mass and the Novus Ordo Mass. And it is this discontinuity and the refusal of those who lead the Church to admit this discontinuity that is the heart of the self-imposed exile of the Church.

We must hope that there will come a time in the future when there will arise a Catholic Ezra who will stand on a gradual step and tell the people that God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten-Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.  And that He is the only hope for the salvation of all mankind.  And then he will begin to sing the Ordinary of the Mass and teach the people how to sing this music that is at the very heart of the Traditional worship of the Catholic Church. And the people will weep, for they will recognize the music of the Liturgy of Sacred Tradition and will put away the childish and banal ditties of their exile.  But we need someone who can preach and who can sing.  For that someone or someones we must pray.

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
    required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?
 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy!

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla