Rorate Caeli

Fontgombault Sermon for the Ascension: "We feel a deep sorrow when we read that the experience of virtual Masses seems to satisfy a not inconsiderable number of Christians."

Ascension of the Lord

Sermon of the Right Reverend Dom Jean Pateau
Abbot of Our Lady of Fontgombault
Fontgombault, May 21, 2020

Eritis mihi testes... usque ad ultimum terræ.
You shall be witnesses unto Me... even to the uttermost part of the earth.
(Acts 1:8)

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
My dearly beloved Sons,

The event of the Ascension comes and closes the time when the Lord was present with His disciples. After His resurrection, Christ had appeared again many times to His friends. But contrary to the three years of His public life, already He was no longer with them in a way that could be felt and seen. Now, the Ascension deprives them even of this presence.

The time is now come for the last words, the ultimate sending on mission. Three of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke, will remember that. As to St. John, he doesn’t evoke the moment of the Ascension, since the others had already told it before him, but he concludes his Gospel with the episode of the miraculous catch of fish, near the shore of the Sea of Tiberias.

Whereas the night had already elapsed, and they still had caught nothing, the Apostles see a man on the shore. They don’t recognize him. He invites them to cast again their nets, which get full of fish. “It is the Lord!” (Jn 21:7) exclaims St. John. After a meal of bread and fish taken around a fire of coals, Jesus asks Peter three times this question, “Lovest thou me?” Then He adds, “Feed my lambs... Look after my sheep... Feed my sheep.” (Jn 21:15-18)

The theme of Christ’s last words is the mission: “You shall be witnesses unto me ... even to the uttermost part of the earth”, according to St. Luke; or again, in the Gospel of St. Mark, “Go ye into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” (Mk 16:15)

The echo of these words has crossed the centuries. We are still hearing them amidst the hubbub of today’s news. Have we been consistent with our name of Christians? Have we been, and are we still, witnesses of Christ? But what should we do to be witnesses? Being a witness takes its roots in Christ’s will, as we have just heard. It is Christ Who takes the initiative to send on a mission. What is clear for the Apostles stands analogically for all the disciples, for all the Christians.

In the case of the Apostles, St. Mark even writes, “He made twelve” (Mk 3:14). The verb he uses is the same one the book of Genesis uses to evoke the creation of the universe (Gn 1:1), as well as the book of Isaiah (Is 43:1) for the creation of the people of Israel. This new creation is the fruit of Christ’s prayer (Lk 6:12-13). It is from Christ’s will and prayer that stems our right to bear witness, as well as the strength we need to do it. To be witnesses, we need to have encountered Christ.

When they are going to replace Judas, Peter addresses the brothers in this way:

Wherefore of these men who have companied with us, all the time that the Lord Jesus came in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, until the day wherein He was taken up from us, one of these must be made a witness with us of His resurrection. (Acts 1:21-22)

Most of us were marked by the sign of the Cross a long time ago, on the day of our baptism. What is left of this first encounter? Wouldn’t the situation of the Church in our countries of ancient Christendom be a reflection of what our spiritual lives are in reality, deeply depressed?

Being a witness of Christ means not only having someday encountered Christ’s flesh and blood in the sacraments, it means above all living in an authentic communion with the Lord, drawing from His flesh and blood the strength to pursue our way.

From this communion stems a true testimony, which during persecutions is ultimately expressed through martyrdom.

Today, we feel a deep sorrow when we read that the experience of virtual Masses seems to satisfy a not inconsiderable number of Christians. For some, this manner of attending Mass would be a means to make up for the lack of priestly vocations. More deeply, the fact that some are content with a “virtual” contact reveals the state of dehumanization of post-modern mankind. Individualism, the new idol, leads me to ignore the other’s humanity as long as he is not useful for me; and even if he should be useful, he will be considered merely from a functional point of view. Abortion, considered from the point of view of the victims — the child always, the woman and the doctors who carry it out, sometimes — euthanasia; peoples, men and women bending beneath the yoke of the god of money; families crushed by the internecine wars of divorces and abuses; all of these are examples of this individualism. Before all that, the epidemic we are currently going through is nothing. And the world keeps silent, with as accomplices the States, which often abet and promote these situations.

Was Jesus wrong on the evening of Maundy Thursday? Did he do too much, say too much? Why wasn’t He content with asserting a vague and remote love of God for men? No indeed, the disciples did hear this:

“This is My body, which is given for you. [...] This is the chalice, the new testament in My blood, which shall be shed for you.” (Lk 22:19-20)

Did you, through radio, television, or internet, receive communion, receive the flesh and blood of Christ? These means of attending Mass can be acceptable only when faced with a true inability, or an insuperable hindrance. That has been the case for many weeks now. Many Christians have lived what has been the daily lot of several monasteries of cloistered sisters, deprived of the daily Eucharist by the lack of priests. May all of them feel the sorrow of these nuns, and may they not get accustomed to virtual Masses!

Let us answer the gift of divine love. The decrease in priestly and religious vocations, and the decline in Mass attendance, are but the consequence of the cooling off of human hearts.

Christ invites every man to encounter Him in the communion with His flesh and blood. May we receive communion tomorrow more fervently than we did yesterday, as we remember the Lord’s words. Let us fervently pray to beg for vocations.

In the image of Mary, “the handmaid of the Lord” (Lk 1:38), strengthened by the presence inside us of the Lord and His Spirit, let us take hold of the pilgrim of charity’s staff to go and encounter every man and woman, beginning with the nearest ones.

The feast of Pentecost promises to give to each of us a renewed outpouring of this Spirit. Let us prepare for His coming by reciting the sequence of this feast’s Mass:

Veni, Sancte Spiritus!

Amen, Alleluia.