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Few things are more distasteful to me than the prospect of watching well-fed, healthy, comfortable people who sleep well under the blanket of the rule of law, clapping and rocking while singing the hymn (ditty?), “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” Worship is a bit too facile and a lot less urgent and compelling when it takes place in the comfortable arms of the world’s embrace.
Thus I find the photo above so irresistible. It is a photo of a Solemn Mass offered in one of the great cathedrals of Europe, St. Paulus-Dom, in Munster, Germany, shortly after World War II. The photo shows the devastation of the cathedral and the rubble of its surroundings. Somehow (miraculously?) an altar and tabernacle survived. Somehow (perhaps even more miraculously?) faithful laity and clergy desired to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The ruined cathedral and the wreckage of the world around it could scarcely be less consonant with the sentiment, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” Surely, the smell of gunpowder and the stench of death were familiar to the laity and clergy at that Mass; likely those odors permeated the air around them before, during and after the Mass. In the presence of such darkness and death, how could the inclination to worship survive?
The photo illustrates that worthy worship can endure if one understands worship in terms of obedience, defiance, prophecy and hope. If we reclaim and reassert these motives for worship in our time, we are more likely to remain faithful during our present and coming trials.
How is worship a matter of obedience? We are bound by the first three of the Ten Commandments to offer God the worship that is His due. It is a privilege to offer God thanks and praise, and as we say at Mass, “it is right and just” that we do so.
How very different is the attitude towards worship that is found among those who think that the good of worship is something to be sold (“Let’s have a satisfaction survey about our worship so that we can be more relevant!”) or something to be obtained (“I want to get something out of going to church!”). To the former, I offer the wise words of Jonathan R. Wilson’s “Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World”:
…the mission of the church must be disciplined by the gospel and firmly grounded in the conviction that "relevance" is an intrinsic characteristic of the gospel, not a demand of the culture. Otherwise, the quest for relevance becomes a quest for acceptance. As Julian Hartt reminds us, there is a great difference between the church asking the world, "Are you getting the message?" and asking the world, "Do you like the message?" or "Will you go on loving me even if you don’t like my message?”
To the latter (“I want to get something out of going to church!”), Wilson notes: “As the Westminster Catechism states, ‘the chief end of [humanity] is to glorify God and enjoy [God] forever.’ When this telos is lost and (pseudo)worship ensues, then our practice of worship may appear healthy while actually being ordered by the wrong end. …the proper end of worship is to confront us with the vision of God and reorient our lives to this vision. If our worship is ordered by this end, then we will not merely feel better, we will be blessed, and our perception of the world, not just our perception of ourselves, will be changed. This vision and reorientation will change the way that we live in the world.”
In other words, even in the wreckage of a shattered cathedral, with ruin as far as the eye can see, it is right and just to offer worship, simply because God is God, and that reason alone is sufficient.
Worship in a time of war and ruin is also an act of defiance. In Josef Pieper’s book on worship, “In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity,” he insists that worship is rooted in a radical affirmation that to be is good and that creation itself, as God says in Genesis 1:31, is very good:
…at bottom everything that is, is good, and it is good to exist… Our tribute always contains a smattering of affirmation of the world, as a whole…Need we bother to say how little such affirmation has to do with
shallow optimism, let alone with the smug approval of that which is? Such affirmation is not won by deliberately shutting one’s eyes to the horrors of this world. Rather, it proves its seriousness by its confrontation with historical evil. The quality of this assent is such that we must attribute it even to the martyrs, at the very moment, perhaps, that they perish under brutal assault.”
It was defiance before an unbelieving mob, a stubborn affirmation of the goodness of God and creation that was seen on the day when the 16 Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne began to chant the “Veni Sancte Spiritus” as they went to their deaths at the guillotine, one by one, starting with the youngest, during the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror.
Worship is an act of prophecy. It is a heralding of the triumph of the Word of God (Revelation 19: 11-16). Scripture scholar William Barclay, in his commentary on the Book of Revelation, concludes, “Whatever the terror to come, God will not be false to his promises.”
How shall we know that God will not be false to His promises? At the altar. During the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we see made present again Calvary, where Jesus, Who is the Word Incarnate, takes on the full burden of sin and evil, including death—and because of that sacrifice, Jesus the God-Man is proven by the Father to be triumphant over the powers of darkness. This is the prophecy proclaimed at authentic Eucharistic worship: Jesus, the Sacrificial Victim of the Mass, Who is the Christ of God, is vindicated by God and will return in glory to rescue His people and to defeat the enemies of God.
Worship is an act of hope—in response to prophecy. The Church in every age, place and circumstance has worshipped God. In times of trial and of triumph, the Church lives the virtue of hope—an active trust in the goodness and final victory of God, because of the promises of God.
In 1938, Hilaire Belloc wrote the prescient book The Great Heresies. I believe he foresaw the crossroads we now face:
The modern attack on the Faith (the latest and most formidable of all) has advanced so far that we can already affirm one all-important point quite clearly: of two things one must happen, one of two results must become definite throughout the modern world. Either the Catholic Church (now rapidly becoming the only place wherein the traditions of civilization are understood and defended) will be reduced by her modern enemies to political impotence, to numerical insignificance, and, so far as public appreciation goes, to silence; or the Catholic Church will, in this case as throughout the past, react more strongly against her enemies than her enemies have been able to react against her; she will recover and extend her authority, and will rise once more to the leadership of civilization which she made, and thus recover and restore the world. In a word, either we of the Faith shall become a small persecuted neglected island amid mankind, or we shall be able to lift at the end of the struggle the old battle-cry, Christus Imperat!”
Belloc is referring to the phrase “Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat; ab omni malo plenem suam defendat” ("Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ commands; from all evil defend your people"), which was ordered by Pope Sixtus V carved into the base of the
obelisk in Saint Peter’s Square. (Please read Saint Peter Julian Eymard’s
meditation on these words.) The phrase declare a truth entrusted to the Church for all time, even though its fulfillment in my lifetime I do not expect to see. I am more sympathetic to Tolkien’s observation: “Actually, I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.” (
Letters of Tolkien, #195) Hope is the choice to make oneself available to and to work towards the final good, even in the face of apparent defeat.
I am a Jesuit and a Catholic priest. I pray that I have already been sufficiently formed by the Gospel and the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, so that, if need be—God forbid—I may follow the example of Pedro Arrupe, who before becoming 28th Superior General of the Society of Jesus, with his Jesuit companions, worshipped the living God at Hiroshima, hours after an atomic bomb exploded over the city. He
wrote: “We did the only thing that could be done in the presence of such mass slaughter; we fell on our knees and prayed for guidance, as we were destitute of all human help … In spite of the urgency of our work, we had first stopped to celebrate our Masses. Assuredly, it is in such moments of tragedy that we felt God most near to us.”
At every moment, and especially now in our time, the only time we have, it is indeed, “right and just”—in fact most urgent—that we live for and from worthy worship of the living God. Please God, may our conduct at our altars and our conduct in the world be explainable only because we give the best of all we are and all we have, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, even as we worship in a time of war, even if we must worship amidst a world in ruins, while awaiting the return of the Lord in His Glory.
When I write next, I will offer some reflections on living a Christian community life that extends beyond the four walls of the parish church. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, S.J.is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Fla., and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and in medical ethics.