Rorate Caeli

LEPANTO III: Don John of Austria has set his people free!

“ Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them….. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mt.28-18-20)

In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.

Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.

Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria has set his people free!

Those lines are from the near end of the poem called Lepanto, written by G.K. Chesterton for the 340th anniversary of the battle of Lepanto, the sea battle in 1571 that stopped the Ottoman Empire from conquering Europe, the fight for Europe finally completed over a century later by the great Polish hero, John Sobieski at the gates of Vienna.  Chesterton published Lepanto on October 7, 1911, at which point he had not yet become a Catholic.  The poem is not read much today. It has too much going against it in the present age.  It has meter, it has rhyme, it uses alliteration for effect, and above all what offends this present age characterized as post-modern is that it is a celebration of chivalry, of courage, a celebration of Christian civilization embodied in Europe, a celebration of the hero in war, with echoes of Aeneas who endured so much to found Rome and the civilization that was the precursor of the Christian civilization that defined the culture of the West for two millenia.  One need not spell out how all of this is deeply offensive to our post-Christian age in which the self and the desires of the self are at the center of a distorted view of reality.

The text for my sermon is the basis of Christian mission.  These words are the words of our Lord to the Apostles before his Ascension as recorded by St. Matthew in his Gospel.  This is the Great Commission.  This is the basis of the missionary effort of the Church, which base is not the imposition of a particular culture nor the imposition of a religious system but rather to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ and to baptize all men and women to free them from that primordial sin that ends in eternal death and to put them into contact so to speak with the saving Grace of God in Jesus Christ.   This is what the Church must do in every time and place. But mission is not the Church, the Church is not mission, pace those who say so today.  The Catholic Church is the Body of Christ in the world, the place where the Incarnation is extended in space and time. She is the Church militant, militant not in the sense of the common understanding of military, but militant in her God-given task to proclaim the Truth of Jesus Christ to the whole world.  Jesus Christ as the Head and Lord of the Church demands that the Catholic Church preach and teach the Truth of Jesus Christ as the author of salvation not only to her own flock but to the whole world, especially to those who do not believe but also to those who assume that they  believe but have forgotten the crux of the matter which is the Cross of Jesus Christ.

To deny that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life in a totally unique sense and the Savior of the whole world, and at the same time call oneself Christian, has a long history in Protestantism, but is a very recent development among Catholics.   When one looks at Western history of the past 2000 years with as much objectivity as possible, one cannot fail to admit that the Catholic Church is at the very heart of that history.  But this objectivity is difficult at a time that is content to project everything into the future and that revels in a break with the past, the past that is seen as a burden to be jettisoned in order that the future be not tainted by a past that shackles the breakthrough to a glorious future for mankind. To deny the validity of history is to deny the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. The origin of Christianity certainly is in what we call the Western world. And the history of the West, whatever the historical situation of any given period in the history of the world, is as well the history of the Catholic Church in the world.  We can broaden that statement by saying that the history of the West coincides with the history of Christianity itself. 

Last Sunday’s New York Times featured an essay by Ross Douthat titled “The Age of Decadence”.  It is a very fine piece indeed and should be of interest to all Catholics who care about the present state of the Western culture and thought.  But he leaves out one very important contribution to this state of decadence--which is the dissolution of the Christian faith as an integral part of the fabric of Western culture.  The historical situation at the time of the battle of Lepanto was marked by strife between the Catholic powers of Spain, France, and Venice.  In addition the Protestant Reformation had rent Europe apart, religiously and politically.  But even in this messy and depressing situation the great Pope Saint Pius V was able to form the Holy League among these warring partners of Catholic Europe and to, under the banner of the Blessed Virgin Mary, inspire them to battle for the life of Christian civilization.  And he was able to do so not so much because of his strong and somewhat severe personality, not a happy- clappy sort of a man, but because, unlike a long string of Renaissance popes whose worldliness paved the way for the tragedy of Luther,  Pius V, the Dominican Pope believed totally in the Christian faith as the cement of Western culture, the cement of Truth. His image is depicted  in the lovely Rosary chapel of this church, below the reredos.  He is shown blessing the fleet before the battle of Lepanto. How wonderful it is and how blessed we are to celebrate this Mass in the presence of this image of this remarkable Dominican saint and to be blessed by his relic at the end of this Mass!

To comment on the current decadence of the Western world seems futile, for it is so apparent to anyone who knows the Gospel and who knows history. It is painfully obvious to those who see-- on what is almost a daily basis-- the deliberate ignoring of the Great Commission by some of those who have been entrusted with the Gospel and its promulgation to the world.   The post-modern age is among other things an age of deliberate forgetting and of deliberate manipulation of language.  To deny the Christian roots of the West that include its understanding of who man is and the moral imperatives that flow from that understanding one must deliberately forget the past by erasing or changing history itself, denying that certain events happened or claiming that what happened was really its opposite. These deniers have deliberately forgotten the Cross of Jesus Christ that is both the condemnation of the world of sin and the only hope for salvation. But the Cross must be forgotten if one is remaking the world so that the self becomes the center of this brave new world and selfishness becomes a virtue in the name of freedom.  And all of this continuing to use words like hope and love but changing their very meaning, so that hope now means looking forward to a world with no restrictions on who I want to be and how I want to live.  And love becomes a sentiment that denies the innate link between love and sacrifice.  

The Church today is certainly not immune to this attempt to destroy the foundations of Western culture.  The failure of the Church to evangelize today has in some places become a badge of honor, not, we must say in Africa and other parts of the non-Western world.  When the word “mercy” becomes a mantra for the essence of the Church’s preaching and mission, with the deliberate omission of that which makes mercy possible, namely, justice and repentance, we know that the world, the world as understood in St John’s gospel, has infected the Church militant.  And when then mercy is replaced by ecology, an ecology that is dressed up in a romantic view of nature and what it means to be natural that would give pause to even Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we know that there is something here much worse than the corona virus, for the Christian faith is grounded in reality, and the heart of that reality is the person of Jesus Christ, true God and true man. 

For too many Catholics today, the crucifix is just part of the furniture of the parish church. When the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ true God and true man, no longer is the center of the worship of the Catholic Church, when it is no longer the center of how one lives in the world as a Catholic, then the invocation in the Roman Canon of the apostles and martyrs—Peter, Paul, Andrew…Felicity, Perpetua, Agnes--is mere religion, a text to get through.  We can be sure that the Cardinal who is celebrating this Mass today, whose life is a witness to the Truth of Jesus Christ, who refuses to make Catholicism just one more religion and who refuses to deny the freedom that is at the heart of the Catholic faith, which is the freedom bought on the Cross by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we can be sure he understands that what he is doing at the altar is not mere religion, but rather it is the irruption of heaven into this time and space. And we can be sure that present at this Mass are those saints known and unknown for whom this Mass was the center of their lives as Catholic Christians, who  understood this Mass as the center and womb of Western culture, for this is the Mass of St. Gregory the Great, of St. Benedict, of St. Dominic, of St Francis, of St Catherine of Siena, of St. Charles Borromeo, of St Teresa of Avila,  of St. Martin de Porres, of St John Henry Newman, as well as the Mass of St John XXIII, this Mass celebrated here in this magnificent church that is a glorious embodiment of the faith not only of the saints but also those myriad of Catholics for whom this Mass was the center of their lives, who understood this Mass as the glorious and life-giving re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the Cross of Jesus Christ for the living—for you and me- and for the dead—that is, for the whole Church.

St. Pius V, pray for us.