Sunday, July 7, 2013

The frequency and intensity of writings

August 24, 410. May 6, 1527. February 15, 1798. September 20, 1870.

The frequency and intensity of writings which predict the end of religion and specifically of the Catholic Church in the United States has escalated in recent years. Whether the cause is, more proximately, the HHS mandate which ignores freedom of conscience, or the US Supreme Court’s decision regarding the Defense of Marriage Act, or whether the cause is, more remotely, the court’s holding in Roe v. Wade or the sexual revolution on the 1960’s, predictions of the demise of religion abound.

Last week I had the thrill of celebrating Mass with a small group of pilgrims in the catacombs of Priscilla in Rome. There we huddled beneath a second-century painting of the same prayer, the Holy Mass, surrounded by the tombs of 40,000 fellow Believers. No, the Christians did not hide in the catacombs during times of persecutions. Everyone knew where the catacombs were, and so they afforded no clandestine refuge. They were places to bury the faithful dead, and to honor the martyrs. Some, like the catacombs of Priscilla, were places to gather to share the Word of God and break the bread — that is, to celebrate Holy Mass.

Pliny, 156. Decian, 249. Valerian, 257. Diocletian, 303.

As had Herod at its beginning, officials and Emperors throughout the Roman Empire found Christianity to be a troublesome religion. Its tenets and practices (charges of “cannibalism” for eating the Body of Christ at Mass, and an insistence on sexual chastity) made the powerful in society uncomfortable, and interfered in the prevailing moral debauchery. Martyrs fell, but the Church did not.

A walk through modern Rome brings one past the relics of the “ancien regime” and its antiquities, straight into the churches which proclaim eternal realities. Alaric in 210, Charles V in 1527, Napoleon Buonaparte in 1798, Victor Emmanuel in 1870 — with each fall of Rome the panic renewed that the Church would see its end. Caesars, Emperors, Kings, Premiers and Presidents have all come and gone, but one personage reigns through it all: an itinerant rabbi from Galilee has always had the last word.

The Pantheon of Roman gods is now the Church of All Saints. The chancery of Napoleon’s government now houses offices of the Vatican. Mussolini may no longer speak from the window of a palazzo in Piazza Venezia, but Catholic Mass is still offered every day in the church of that palazzo. The Mammertine prison which held Paul and Lawrence and many early Christian martyrs is now surrounded by a church. No period of persecution has ever been the final chapter in the history of Christian presence.

Today’s panicked prophets of doom seem to lack the perspective of history or the confidence of Divine Providence. Whether the year is 156, or 410, or 1527, or 2013, the promise of Jesus is undiminished that He will be with us until the end of time, and that the gates of Hell will not prevail.

Whether in the time of Caesars or Emperors, whether in the tenure of Kings or Presidents, the Church may have had its public influence curtailed for a time, but the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has never been suppressed. Jesus seems to have meant it when He gave His promises.

Every indication is that history is about to repeat itself in our own time. The Catholic voice in particular makes some people of power uncomfortable. Let’s face it, a religion that doesn’t make some people uncomfortable is probably not of God. A religion that determines its ideological tenets and moral borders by observing and following contemporary culture finds its idols on earth and not above.

The walls are already being built that will confine the practice of religion in contemporary culture. We will be free to sing hymns and fall to our knees in prayer within those walls, but the voice of Believers will be uninvited and unwelcome in larger society. This is already the growing definition of “freedom of religion” in our government: pray as you choose, but do so in private, and do not allow your beliefs and values to follow you into the streets – leave your prayers and beliefs inside the walls of your church, they are not welcome in public. Religion is increasingly seen as a purely private affair. Even nominally religious people profess to believe one thing in private but refuse to impose it on others in public.

And so I go back to the catacombs of Priscilla every time I am in Rome. Priscilla, a noble woman, opened her home for the celebration of the Mass in the early Second Century. This was not done in hiding, not in secret. It’s just that the Church was not allowed the privilege of open worship because it offended the values of others. When the earliest Christians in Rome gathered for the “fractio panis,” the breaking of the bread, they did so in private. Their influence in public policy was practically nil. Their voice was uninvited and unwelcome on the streets and in the marketplace of public opinion.

Those who prophesy the demise of Christianity have one thing right: we are seeing yet another period of diminished welcome for the Church and for religious values in general, just as we have repeatedly through history. The voice of the Church is voice of dissonance in the public chorus, and so it will be silenced for a time. It makes many uncomfortable and so it will be confined, taxed, regulated, and penalized. Whether this is done through administrative rulemaking, or Court decisions, or statutory provisions, or popular referenda matters little. But those who say that this is the end of Christianity are missing the larger picture.

Are you discouraged? Take a walk through the streets of Rome, past the relics of persecutions. Take a walk through Rome and look carefully at the reminders of the abiding presence and promise of Christ. They’re both there, side by side, but only one of them is still a living presence. Look for Caesar and you won't find him, but Jesus is everywhere there.
July3, 2013
Msgr. William J. King

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