Back in 1966, in the heady days following the Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI altered the Church’s ancient discipline of abstinence from meat on Fridays, leaving it up to bishops’ conferences how this particular discipline should be observed in their own countries. A year later, here in England, the bishops abolished this compulsory abstinence.
The American bishops did the same thing, but they urged American Catholics to continue this practice as a gesture of solidarity and thanksgiving for the Passion of Christ, faithful to Christian tradition, and to help preserve “a saving and necessary difference from the spirit of the world”.
The strange contrast is that the English bishops wanted exactly the opposite. They didn’t want a difference – not saving, and not necessary – from the spirit of the world. Most bizarrely, they enumerated the problems and inconveniences of abstaining from meat on Friday. Abstinence, they said, put Catholics in a socially awkward position, a position of embarrassment. “While an alternative dish is often available, it is questioned whether it is advisable in our mixed society for a Catholic to appear singular in this matter. Non-Catholics know and accept that we do not eat meat on Fridays, but often they do not understand why we do not, and in consequence regard us as odd.” God forbid that we Catholics should be socially odd!
Here the English bishops missed a great opportunity for catechesis, for reinforcing this wonderful and ancient practice, and providing a stronger theological undergirding for what was feared to be turning into a routine, mindless act for many.
But more than that, they seriously misunderstood the power of religious symbols and gestures. The whole point of such gestures is that they disrupt and disturb our comfortable secular order. Of course religion should intrude into our lives. Of course religion should disrupt the dinner table, re-order our daily priorities, interfere with – in the sense of ordering correctly – the marital bed. That’s what the Gospel of Jesus does!
Perhaps the focus on social acceptability is a particularly English disease. Recently the relics of St Therese made a visit to this island. The idea had first been mooted in 1997, but had to wait 12 years because the then archbishop of Westminster, the late Cardinal Basil Hume, vetoed this proposal, allegedly because it might revive the image of English Catholics as medieval, superstitious and a group apart – an image he had worked so hard, and so successfully to dispel.
In this fear, the late Cardinal was correct. The visit of St Therese’s relics has shown that Catholicism is not mainstream English, nor will it ever be, until the English return to Catholicism. The Church is the leaven that must transform the dough of the world, not the other way round. In strikes us today as excruciatingly naive that at the time of the Second Vatican Council, many of the conciliar documents adopt an uncritically optimistic view of the secular realm, its gifts and its talents. The world is not a graced gift as such to the Church. Instead the world is that which needs redemption, through the power of Christ’s cross alone.
Left to its own ungraced devises, the history of the world is not of progress as such. Technologically, yes, the world progresses. But as a whole, what the world is building – without grace – is the kingdom of the antichrist, with many antichrists along the way, awaiting the full manifestation of the son of perdition himself, standing in the holy place where he should not. Make no mistake. That is where nature without grace will lead.
That is why it is so important that we Christians should not be naive about the world, or blind to our own weaknesses. The Gospel must intrude into our lives, into the fabric of our lives, and order everything according to this one only standard of Christ. Then, by the small sacrifices we must make for our faith, however socially inconvenient they may be, we will be formed in the image of Christ – Christ who made the good confession before Pilate (cf. 1 Timothy 6:13-14). The Church is called to carry her cross after her Lord, that is, we are first of all a Church of martyrs –witnesses to Christ.
St Ignatius, called the God-bearer, the saint whose memorial we keep today, was the third bishop of Antioch – the place where Christians were first called Christians, and he is the earliest known person to use the word ‘Catholic’ to describe the Church. As he was dragged off to his martyrdom in Rome, he wrote, “I am dying willingly for God’s sake. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ.” We may not all die for our Faith, but we must all be martyrs spiritually, confessing Christ boldly before all men, so that He may acknowledge us before the Father.
Romans 4.13, 16-18
The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants — not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations” — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations; as he had been told, “So shall your descendants be.”
And I tell you, every one who acknowledges me before men, the Son of man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but he who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. And every one who speaks a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.
Scripture passage from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright 1989, 1993, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.