If you know anything about me or have followed my journey of faith and walk with Jesus, you will know some of the story of me coming to faith in Jesus, going to seminary, being a Protestant pastor and eventually converting to the Catholic Church.
One of the first things I did on this journey, in a desire to understand what the early Christians thought about Jesus and how they interpreted Holy Scripture and lived out the faith, was to read the earliest Christian sources, other than the Bible, I could find. Those were the extant writings of the men we call the Church Fathers.
There are different eras and groups of the Fathers and I don’t want to get too much into that. But two of the earliest Fathers I spent time with were St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom, along with some random writings of some of the Desert Fathers. St. Athanasius was one of the greatest Fathers and Doctors of the Eastern Church. He was Egyptian, born in Alexandria. His work, On the Incarnation, was my introduction to the Fathers and just completely blew my mind. He is one of my heroes of the faith. He stood for the faith at a time when most of the bishops of the Church had strayed into heresy. St. Athanasius stood firm on the deposit of the faith and on who Christ was. He is, in fact, my confirmation saint.
St. John Chrysostom was another one of the early Fathers I was introduced to; again, one of the Eastern Fathers and perhaps the greatest preacher that has ever lived. He was born in Antioch, Syria and was eventually named as the Archbishop of Constantinople. His preaching was heavily influential in my life and journey into the Catholic Church.
What’s the point, you may ask?
My introduction to Catholicism began in the East. Most of the Fathers I read and studied were Eastern. By the East, I mean primarily the Greek, Antiochan, Alexandrian and Syrian Fathers; St. Irenaeus, St. Polycarp, Origen, St. Basil, St. Hippolytus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Melito and others were among my earliest exposures to the Fathers. I have always had a love for the Eastern Fathers. Early on, I considered the Orthodox Church. Frankly, I ended up not joining them because of their separation from Rome. I wanted to be in communion with the Roman Church.
So, I “swam the Tiber” and joined the Latin Rite Western Church. Early on, I knew that I wanted to be part of the oldest practice of the faith I could find. The Novus Ordo, in my mind, has significant problems and I wanted no part of that. So, I gravitated toward the Latin Mass. It is, after all, THE traditional worship and liturgy of the Western Church. I have written about my experience in the Latin Mass and so won’t belabor the point here. I have fully immersed myself in the Latin Rite, learning Latin and teaching myself to pray in Latin. The experience of stepping into the deep stream of the historic worship of the Latin Church has been very rewarding and deeply humbling.
And yet, I have always been attracted to the East. I lean toward them theologically as well. While I love the deep, contemplative rigor of the Latin Rite, it has always felt…what’s the word…sterile. By that I mean it is very organized and structured and rigid. I’m not saying that is wrong. I love the rigidity of it, actually. By nature and practice I tend to be very disciplined and rigid in my own life so the unchanging nature of the Latin Mass is appealing to me.
I say all of this because I experienced something yesterday that I want to talk a bit about. I was finally able, at the invitation of a dear friend, to attend a Byzantine Catholic Church. For the record, I didn’t know until fairly recently that such a thing existed. I assumed that all the churches in the East were either Orthodox or Roman Catholic. What do they say about assuming….?
Anyways, my buddy and I attended St. Athanasius Byzantine Catholic Church for Divine Liturgy yesterday. How ironic, that the church is named after my confirmation saint…We walked into the church and I knew instantly that this would be unlike anything I had ever experienced. The priest and cantor were praying Matins. Well, I say praying. They were chanting the prayers.
The whole setting literally felt like I had just stepped out of our world and into another realm, another time and place (think about the wardrobe in Narnia). There were dozens upon dozens of beautiful and serene icons all over the church. At the “front” was an iconostasis, a wall with three gates. It was bedecked with icons. The center gate was golden and flowery, with a red curtain drawn behind it. I could hear someone (the priest) behind the wall chanting and singing and I heard bells constantly ringing. Not loud and clanging, but tingling bells almost like sleigh bells constantly ringing. I wondered what was making that noise and didn’t have long to guess. The priest came out from the left side gate and was swinging a censer that was billowing incense. The bells were attached to the censer. It was a melodious and intriguing sound.
A deacon, noticing that we looked a little lost, came over and introduced himself to us. He was most kind and engaging and helpful in explaining some things. He informed us also on the symbolism of all that we were seeing. The icons were representative of the saints and great cloud of witnesses. The iconostasis and the sanctuary behind it symbolically represented heaven and the nave represented earth. Other than that, he said, “I wouldn’t necessarily try to keep up. Just observe. You are all free to receive the Eucharist so long as you are in good standing with the Church, as we are in communion with Rome.”
As the Divine Liturgy began, it was a sensory overload. The icons, the incense, the processions, the chanting and singing back and forth between priest, deacon, cantor and congregation, the bowing, the gates of the sanctuary being opened and closed; it was an entirely immersive experience. It was truly wonderful to be there. It felt exactly as I would imagine it would feel to be immersed in the worship scene around the throne of God in St. John’s Apocalypse. We stood almost the entire liturgy. The priest’s homily was powerful and timely.
It was at once ethereal yet earthly, transcendent yet palpable, symbolically rich yet easily accessible. It really was precisely the opposite experience of a Roman Mass and a remarkable experience of joining with the saints in glory in worship. Where the Roman Mass feels austere and severe (I don’t say that to be critical), the Byzantine Liturgy was rich and stunningly sensory. I found myself, after receiving the Eucharist, to be very emotional.
After the Liturgy, we were invited by the small congregation to have lunch with them. The people were so warm and friendly and welcoming. We will definitely return to that parish soon. I learned something yesterday.
The Church needs the East. She needs the East for the rich diversity and splendor of her Liturgy. She needs the West for the structure and discipline that so characterizes it. The Church, the Body of Christ, needs to breathe with both lungs, East and West.
Let us embrace one another and not be afraid of our differences. They make the Body of Christ rich and deep! Thanks be to God for His grace to us in our diversity!
So as I said in the introductory post, we’re going to be taking a look at some of the pre-conciliar papal encylicals. I won’t be able to really cover these in the way that I would like. One could write tomes on these and probably should. I’ll do my best to keep it to around 2k words or so.
First up (in no real order) is Pascendi Dominici Gregis, promulgated on September 8, 1907 by Pope St. Pius X. Why did the sainted Pope write this? He was specifically refuting the doctrines of the Modernists. He tells us, in the opening paragraph why. It is worth quoting.
“The office divinely committed to Us of feeding the Lord’s flock has especially this duty assigned to it by Christ, namely to guard with the greatest vigilance the deposit of the faith delivered to the saints, rejecting the profane novelties of words and oppositions of knowledge so falsely called. There has never been a time when this watchfulness of the supreme pastor was not necessary to the Catholic body; for, owing to the efforts of the enemy of the human race, there has never been lacking “men speaking perverse things” (Acts xx. 30), “vain talkers and seducers” (Titus i. 10), “erring and driving into error” (2 Tim. iii. 13). Still it must be confessed that the number of the enemies of the cross of Christ has in these last days increased exceedingly, who are striving, by arts, entirely new and full of subtlety, to destroy the vital energy of the Church, and, if they can, to overthrow utterly Christ’s kingdom itself. Wherefore We may no longer be silent, lest We should seem to fail in Our most sacred duty, and lest the kindness that, in the hope of wiser counsels, We have hitherto shown them, should be attributed to the forgetfulness of Our office.”
Right out of the gate, the Pope tells us the job of the Pope; feeding the flock of the Lord, guarding the deposit of the faith and rejecting profane novelties. The job of the Pope is this, not posing for photo opportunities or cozy up to the powers that be in the world. In fact, I would say that, if the Pope is popular in the eyes of the world, he’s probably not doing his job very well because the Church and the world should look very different from one another and probably will not get along well. So, if the Pope is getting along well with the world, that seems like a bit of a problem.
The Pope goes on in the next paragraph to call out those who “belong to the Catholic laity, nay, and this is far more lamentable, to the ranks of the priesthood itself, who, feigning a love for the Church, lacking a firm protection of philosophy and theology, nay more, thoroughly imbued with the poisonous doctrines taught by the enemies of the Church, and lost to all sense of modesty, vaunt themselves as reformers of the Church…” Does this sound like anyone we know or have known in the last, oh I don’t know, 50-60 years? The so-called reformers are, in the words of the Pope, enemies of the Church. On a practical note, priests should be saying pretty much the same thing today that priests have always been saying. I would dare say that, if a priest (or bishop or Pope) is saying things that do not align with what the Church has always said, you need to be careful about listening to that guy.
When I was preaching full time (as a Protestant pastor), I would often say that I have nothing new to say. I’m going to keep repeating what has been said by pastors for the better part of 2000 years. Now, we can apply it in different ways to our modern life, but the Faith has not changed. Neither should how the priests tell us to live or how they interpret Holy Scripture.
He goes on to tell us, in paragraph 3, that (basically) the goal of the enemy is to take down the Catholic Church. She is the bride of Christ. She is the visible body of Christ on earth, the Kingdom come. The world hates Her. The enemy will stop at nothing to destroy her…even infiltrating the clergy (this is my commentary).
In paragraph 6, the Pope tells us about the root of the Modernist problem: agnosticism. The agnostic says it cannot be “reasonable” if it cannot be perceived by the human senses. How arrogant of us to assume that we are the arbiters of what is true, that we are the measuring stick. This very notion is a slap in the face of objective Truth. This is really at the heart of Modernism; that your personal experience of religion is what matters most. If something cannot be proven empirically (by evidence) then it must not exist. The problem with that is that feelings cannot be proven one way or the other, which then leads to all things being true if you experienced them in a certain way. That then obliterates objective Truth and makes all “truth” entirely subjective according to your own perspective, feelings and experiences. This inevitably leads to what’s next.
He also addresses (paragraph 8) the folly of the Modernists, which is the notion that every religion, no matter what it is, must be “considered as both natural and supernatural.” In other words, all religions are equal. This is called ecumenism and it is evil and ultimately unloving. If indeed Christ formed a Church on earth (and He did) and intended that it be passed on (and He did), then it stands that there can be only One True Church. To say otherwise is to deny what Jesus came to do and is ultimately unloving of us. Ecumenism is the direct product of what was discussed in the last paragraph. If all you need is your experience and “your truth”, then ecumenism makes perfect sense. If, however, there is objective Truth, as the Catholic Church teaches, ecumenism cannot exist.
In section/paragraph 13, Pope St Pius X gets to a very real and current problem. He talks about what he calls “religious sentiment” and says that it can possess an infinite variety of aspects. He goes on to say,
“Consequently, the formulae too, which we call dogmas, must be subject to these vicissitudes, and are, therefore, liable to change. Thus the way is open to the intrinsic evolution of dogma…Dogma is not only able, but ought to evolve and to be changed. This is strongly affirmed by the Modernists, and as clearly flows from their principles.”
Does that sound like almost all our Church leaders over the last fifty or so years or what? We keep hearing about a more modern faith, that the Church needs to “get with the times” or some other such drivvle and nonsense. That’s called Modernism. And it is false and against the teachings of the Church. Dogma, by its very definition, cannot change. To say or even hint otherwise should be anathema.
See, the Modernist says that how you feel about something is what is true. To the Modernist, how you feel about something is what matters. It is entirely subjective and there is no fixed truth, no objective standard. Sound familiar? If this is true, then, as the Modernists proclaim, all religions are true.
But no, says the sainted Pope. He says (via Pius IX),
“In matters of religion it is the duty of philosophy not to command but to serve, but not to prescribe what is to be believed but to embrace what is to be believed with reasonable obedience, not to scrutinise the depths of the mysteries of God but to venerate them devoutly and humbly.”
This, then, is Catholic doctrine. The submission of our will to what Christ has given us through the Church. It is not our place to prescribe what is to be believed but to embrace what is to be believed with obedience, devotion and humility.
The Pope also speaks of the relationship between Church and State. The outplaying of the Modernist is that the Church comes completely under the dominion of the State. He says,
“If the Modernists have not yet reached this point, they do ask the Church in the meanwhile to be good enough to follow spontaneously where they lead her and adapt herself to the civil forms in vogue.”
I think we can all see this in the middle of this so-called Covid-19 pandemic. The Church has bowed to the State. She has not stood up but rather cowered in fear like the rest of the world. Hmmm, from whence did that come?
A final thing I want to engage with in this encyclical is universal worship and Tradition. One of the biggest problems, in my opinion, that came from Vatican II was the ripping up and throwing away of centuries-old worship in the Church. Since the 3rd century, the Church had worshipped in one way (with very few exceptions) and in one language. This gives a true universality to the worship of the Church. You would never have had to wonder or guess what the Mass was going to be like from one church to another, from one country to another or one age to another. The Church’s worship was, indeed, universal. There was a universal language, Latin. The reason for the use of Latin, even today, is quite simple. First and foremost, it is the language of the Church. Second, because it is a “dead” language, it is not subject to the whims of culture. In other words, the Latin words the priest says in the Mass don’t change their meaning based on the epoch of history.
Allow me an example. In 16th century England, you could say that you went to a party and had a “gay time.” That meant it was fun and merry. That word, “gay”, has a very different meaning today. However, the Latin language as used by the Church has not changed the meanings of the words. In point of fact, the meanings cannot change. It is necessary for the Church to use unchanging language in the face of an ever-changing world.
Pope St. Pius X also deals with this when he says, in the eyes of the Modernist,
“The chief stimulus of evolution in the domain of worship consists in the need of adapting itself to the uses and customs of peoples, as well as the need of availing itself of the value which certain acts have acquired by long usage.”
Thus, the death of universal worship in the Church. If the Church must conform to the customs of the people, and not the other way around, there can be no universal Church. That becomes abundantly clear when we see the effects of the liturgical tinkering and innovations that came post Vatican II. Worship is now vastly different from one parish to another. My brethren, this should not be so. That is a direct result of Modernism.
How do we combat this spirit and effect of Modernism? The Pope answers: Tradition.
“The conserving force in the Church is tradition, and tradition represented by religious authority, and this both by right and in fact, for by right it is the very nature of authority to protect tradition, and, in fact, for authority, raised as it is above the contingencies of life, feels hardly, or not at all, the spurs of progress.”
Tradition protects. Tradition feels no need for so-called “progress.” Tradition cannot progress in the Modernist sense, precisely because it is objective Truth. There is much more that could be gleaned from the timeless words of the sainted Pope.
I will close with one final word from the Pope.
The doctrine of the Faith is not ours to change. It is ours to guard and pass on,
“The doctrine of the faith which God has revealed has not been proposed to human intelligences to be perfected by them as if it were a philosophical system, but as a divine deposit entrusted to the Spouse of Christ to be faithfully guarded and infallibly interpreted.”