Rorate Caeli

“If the officials do not give sound advice, and if priests live without fear of the Lord, it is no wonder that the entire community can become immoderate and coarse”: Counter-Reformation preaching

In keeping with recent developments in the ongoing attack on the Traditional Latin Mass and its adherents, it seems fitting to mention a new book just released by the admirable Arouca Press: The Christian Year, volume 1: Sermons for Advent, Christmas, & Epiphany, by Joseph Rivius, O.Praem., in a translation by Fr. Martin Roestenburg, O.Praem.

Who is Fr. Joseph Rivius? Well might you ask! Not a household name, Fr. Rivius was an admirable priest and a compelling preacher whose work deserves renewed attention in our day, for reasons that will become apparent. Born in 1607 during the final years of the Reformation, he entered the Norbertine abbey of Tongerlo abbey in Flanders. After his death in 1660, his bundle of sermons came to be published posthumously in 1668.

Rivius had been appointed pastor of several parishes along the border between the Protestant Netherlands and Catholic Flanders (at one time a single country), so he knew well the importance of keeping his flock “Catholic” in the face of adversity. He had first-hand experience of the horrors and divisions caused by the heresies of Lutheranism and Calvinism that had swept across the Netherlands. In that country just across the border, Catholics were persecuted, the Catholic Mass and the sacraments had been banned, and the use of Latin and Gregorian chant were outlawed.

Priests had been forced out of their parishes, and the torture and execution of the nineteen priests and religious rounded up and hanged at the town of Den Briel (the “Martyrs of Gorcum,” feast day July 9) was fresh in people’s minds. Churches were shuttered or re-purposed for the new religion, Catholic schools were closed and the children forced to attend Protestant schools; monasteries and convents were suppressed and the religious dispersed. Families and communities were torn apart as members apostatised to the new religion.

Outward expressions of Catholic devotion were illegal, and those Catholics who could do so fled south into Flanders, where it was still safe to be a Catholic. Makeshift churches were erected in barns and sheds across the border where Catholics from the north could cross into Flanders to fulfil their Sunday obligation and receive the sacraments, and many priests would endanger their lives by secretly travelling north to minister to their scattered flocks.

It was against this background that these sermons were written—a giant series on all the Gospels of the traditional lectionary for all the Sundays and Feast Days of the year (all of which Fr. Roestenburg has translated; they will appear volume by volume as time goes on). Rivius himself was a zealous and erudite pastor and a model religious. But he had no time for the Protestant “wolves” who were lurking nearby to destroy the traditional Faith that was handed down from the Apostles and who lay in wait to snatch the souls of his faithful. To him, there was no salvation outside the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. His words will sound harsh in these days of sanitized ecumenism; what a beneficial reminder of what virile and truthful preaching sounds like!

Hear what he says about the Holy Name in his sermon for New Year’s Day:

The ancient Jews wrote the name of God, Jehovah, with four letters. So great was their reverence for the Holy Name that they did not even dare pronounce it. The High Priest wore on his forehead a golden headband on which was engraved the Holy Name. Only he was allowed to utter the Name, and then only at certain times and hours of the day. If this was so for the ancients, then what great reverence and honour should we Christians bestow on the Holy Name of Jesus? Saint Paul the Apostle says that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in Heaven and on earth and under the earth. Your name, O Jesus! is both holy and terrifying; it stirs up in our hearts both love and fear. It is a Name full of honour and reverence. It is a Name invented by the Blessed Trinity, announced by an angel and given to Joseph and Mary. It is a Name of salvation and grace. There is no Name higher than this blessed Name by which man can obtain salvation. In your Name, O Jesus! did the wondrous exchange occur between humanity and divinity, by which we were saved. In your Name, O Jesus! are contained wisdom and power, goodness, love and all the other divine properties [...]
          And yet, notwithstanding the sweetness of this holy, blessed Name, the Reformed Brethren, like birds of prey circling dead, stinking corpses, cannot abide the sweetness of the Name of Jesus, for they find pleasure in the stench of error and the filth of sin. Woe to these pathetic people who say evil is good, and good is evil! How they labour to cure their ailing bodies! They are not in the least concerned for their immortal souls, even though a powerful and effective medicine can easily be found. For as Saint Bernard tells us, calling to mind the Name of Jesus softens the impetuosity of anger, it quenches the fire of concupiscence, it conquers pride and overcomes the thirst of avarice.

He continues to rail against false prophets in his sermon on the Passion (Second Part):

O gentle Jesus! How many false witnesses later rose up against you? The Jews unjustly condemned you, but more than a thousand times have the heretics tried to overcome you with false testimonials. The heretic Arius claimed you were not God but only a man; Nestorius claimed you were made up of two separate persons; Eutyches said that you only had one single nature; Manes said you did not have a real body. All these were false witnesses whose testimonials did not match.
          In the end, two more false witnesses have arisen, namely, Calvin and Luther, the former a Frenchman, the latter a High-German. Both have poured out terrible blasphemies against you. One says you are not truly present in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, but only figuratively. The other says you are truly present, but together with the bread. In their belief they give false witness to your own words and they claim this Most Holy Sacrament to be a superstition, an impiety, sorcery and idolatry. These are without a doubt horrendous blasphemies.

He continues this theme in his sermon for Easter Monday:

So then, after Our Saviour had asked Cleophas what had happened during these past days in the city of Jerusalem, Cleophas began telling Him the story “about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a man powerful in word and deed. We had hoped that He was the one who was going to redeem Israel and all of us from the Romans, just as Moses redeemed our forefathers from slavery in Egypt. But it is now the third day since these things took place, and yet we have seen nothing happening and we are starting to lose hope.” O you foolish disciples! The time has not yet come, nor yet has the hour passed, so take courage.
          In a way, these two disciples resembled those other two strange pilgrims, Luther and Calvin, who, while walking away from the Jerusalem of the Catholic Church towards the Emmaus of Wittenberg and Geneva, so often said among themselves, “we had hoped, we had hoped.” What had they hoped for? They had hoped that after they had fought with the Pope of Rome, who is the Vicar of Christ on earth, about their accursed teachings on the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, and other Catholic doctrines, they would subjugate the entire Catholic Church. But this hope quickly dissipated after the Church rose up against them.
          In the second year of his apostasy, Luther boasted that if he were to have still two or three years of life left in him, he would be able to destroy the entire papacy. Alas! This proved to be a proud, presumptuous hope seeing that he was not able to accomplish much to that end during the twenty-four years he persisted in his wickedness. “O fools, and slow of heart to believe!” What foolishness for these Reformed Apostles! Do they really want to bash their heads against the rock upon which the holy Catholic Church is built? They will do so in vain, and must heed Our Saviour’s promise, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).

Rivius also shares a word of hope for those Catholics who feel persecuted and oppressed. In the sermon for the feast of St Peter’s Chair we read:

Now then, just as a man goes through a door or a gate to enter into a house, so too does a person go through sin, heresies, and bad people to reach hell and the kingdom of the devil. What do you think? Did not the tyrants and persecutors in the early Catholic Church serve as an open door through which thousands of people, some because of fear, others because of money, goods, status and honour, have been dragged to idolatry and superstition? And in our own times, have not Calvin and Luther been wide-open gates through whose teachings thousands of souls, even to this day, have fallen into the eternal abyss? Finally, are not public sinners wide-open gates through whom others can be influenced by their sins and wickedness, thereby also risking eternal damnation?
          Our Saviour reinforced and strengthened His holy Catholic Church against all of this, when He said to the Apostle Peter, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). “O Apostle Peter! I shall build upon you such a strong and steadfast Church that neither the tyrants with their followers, nor the heretics with their errors, nor the sinners with their sins, will be able to overcome or subdue her,” writes Saint Cyril. After the Lord’s promise, the Apostolic Church of Peter remained untainted from any seductions and trickery of the heretics; it is true that at times she appeared to be oppressed and trampled upon because of tyranny, persecution, and battles with the heretics. Nonetheless, she has always remained ostensibly triumphant and unconquerable, as when she flies to Heaven with thirty, even forty thousand martyrs who had received their martyrs’ crowns.
          Therefore, we must not be down-cast, Catholic Listeners, we must not be filled with a sense of dread foreboding and doubts about her power and steadfastness, when in our days she is still persecuted and oppressed; even less should we give ear to our Reformed Brethren when they arrogantly say, “See how our religion is the pure religion, for as we extend our boundaries we can daily count on victory.” On no account should we ever doubt the truth of Our Saviour’s words, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The barque of Saint Peter the Apostle might have to endure storms, and can be shaken and tossed about, but it shall never sink. “For the word of the Lord shall endure forever.”
          If it were the case that the True Faith could be measured by setting boundaries, then the heathen ancient Romans would have had the best religion, for their dominion extended almost throughout the entire world, and in these days the Turks must have the best religion, seeing that they possess more land and sand than the whole of Christendom. Nevertheless, not only did Our Saviour make the promise to Saint Peter the Apostle that the gates of hell, or the power of the devil, shall not prevail against His Church, but furthermore, “I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 16:19). Peter thus received the keys of Heaven, he was made Prince of the Catholic Church, and he was given authority to govern and rule over her, and the power to forgive sins or to bind them [...] And in Saint John’s Gospel we read, “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (Jn 20:23).
          People therefore can no longer make excuses or plead innocence for not being able to reach Heaven. For in order to obtain forgiveness of our sins He did not send us to the angels or to some other pure creatures which had never sinned, and who, in their purity and innocence can reproach us, but instead He sent us to Peter the Apostle, and to His servants and the priests, who, being sinners themselves, can take pity on other sinners, yet who were given divine authority and the power of God to forgive sins.


Frontispiece of the 1668 edition

Rivius directed his focus not only on obstinate Catholics and sinners who refused to repent, or on the Reformers who were leading his flock astray; priests, too, sometimes had to hear uncomfortable truths about their behavior and way of life—words that are relevant also in our own time:

So then, if the officials do not give sound advice, and if priests live without fear of the Lord, it is no wonder that the entire community can become immoderate and coarse [...] These are the kinds of things that made Christ our Saviour weep bitter tears, even though in His omnipotence He had already foreseen them.

A reminder to those priests who have a taste for wealth:

The clergy should therefore take note not to hoard the income Almighty God has provided for them, nor to store up treasures, but they should generously distribute what they earn to the poor.... Therefore, the clergy should learn from this that the Church’s income is the price of the Son of God’s Precious Blood, and consequently it should not be locked away in chests but liberally distributed to the poor and needy through acts of charity and mercy. 

But do not think the author is all “fire and brimstone.” He could also show tenderness, as we read in his First Sermon for the Feast of the Annunciation:

Catholic Listeners, we should not be downcast during this time of the divine wedding, but we must open our eyes to the rising Sun of Righteousness. I can imagine some people thinking to themselves, “may God grant me a deep humility so that I might love Him! May God grant me perfect purity, so that I may receive Him with cleanliness of heart! Perhaps I will hear my Guardian Angel say to me, ‘Hail soul, full of grace, the Lord is with you.’ Oh, what a great honour this would be for me! Perhaps God might kiss me with a kiss from His mouth; what sweetness this would give my soul! Perhaps He might take my soul as His bride; how happy I would be.”
          Whatever one wishes is permitted; whatever one desires can come about. For does not the Divine Bridegroom love our souls? Listen, we were all once lost and damned for all eternity through the sin of our first father Adam, and we were redeemed. We were infected with the leprosy of sin, and He washed us clean in His Precious Blood and healed us through His death. We came into the world naked and poor, yet, more than merely life, He gives us health and strength, food and sustenance, and anything else for our daily needs and desires. These are the physical benefits He gives us for our bodies.
          Furthermore, whenever we receive the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar with a pure soul and conscience, He descends into our mouths and bodies, giving us, as it were, a kiss from His divine mouth. Finally, He sends into our hearts many holy warnings and divine inspirations, with which He seeks out our hearts as His Bride, His ambassadors, and His envoys. What else is there for us to do, Catholic Listeners, than to submit to Him and hand over our souls with humble wills and pure hearts, saying together with the Blessed Virgin Mary: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word!” Let this, then, be our response, so that, enjoying an overabundance of divine grace in this world, we may attain heavenly glory in the life to come.

Some may question the good sense of translating and publishing sermons written by an unknown seventeenth-century Flemish priest. Yet a glimpse into the past can act as a mirror for our own oft-tarnished faith. In these days when many Traditional Catholics may feel confused, despondent and angry, it becomes important for them to remain united and to deepen their Faith in the face of persecution. Our times can be the occasion for stepping back and re-examining the Catholic Faith to understand what we believe, and why.

These sermons can help us in our quest. Written at a time when the Catholic Faith was threatened by formidable enemies, they are a source of inspiration and meditation for both clerics and lay faithful, especially those who worship using the usus antiquior, or Tridentine Rite of Mass, which now, as then, is again under threat. These sermons display the author’s vast knowledge of Scripture and Tradition; they are didactic and apologetic and, above all, profoundly spiritual. They are also eminently readable and they will be a great asset to furthering the spiritual life of the faithful. Through Rivius’s sermons, the reader comes to realise that the Faith of the past is our Faith too: one and the same. As Pope Benedict XVI put it in his Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too.”

The translation of these Norbertine’s sermons on the liturgical Gospels will be published in five volumes: Volume I: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany; Volume II: Septuagesima, Lent, Eastertide; Volume III: Pentecost and Time after Pentecost; Volume IV: Sanctoral Cycle I; Volume V: Sanctoral Cycle II.

Volume I is now available from the publisher or from Amazon and affiliates.

The Christian Year: A Book of 17th Century Sermons
by Joseph Rivius, O.Praem.
Translated from the Dutch by Martin Roestenburg, O.Praem.
Size: 6 x 9
302 pages
ISBN: 978-1-989905-94-4 | $22.95 USD | paperback
ISBN: 978-1-989905-95-1 | $29.95 USD | hardcover