I had a long late breakfast this morning with a Catholic friend, a native of Baton Rouge who now lives in New England, but is in town visiting his family. When we sat down at the restaurant, I mentioned to him that I had seen this tweet from a very solid Catholic priest friend:
Gospel today: can we please stop talking about sharing the loaves? Instead: mountains and theophanies, new Moses, Passover meal, new Exodus, anticipation of eschatological banquet, sacrifice of the lamb, kingship of Jesus, miracle vs sign, all acceptable alternatives.
— Fr. Matt Fish (@matthewjfish) July 29, 2018
To which I had responded (on Twitter) by quoting part of Blaise Pascal’s note at the end of a late-night mystical vision in 1654. Here is the entire quote from Pascal, for whom this vision occasioned a deeper conversion:
GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have departed from him:
They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.
My God, will you leave me?
Let me not be separated from him forever.
This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ.
I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified.
Let me never be separated from him.
He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel:
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth.
May I not forget your words. Amen.
My friend shook his head, smiling sardonically. “I had the ‘miracle of sharing’ homily at mass this morning!” he said. He was angry about it.
This is a sad old joke for Catholics. When the Gospel reading is the story of Christ feeding the multitude with just a few loaves and fishes, some Catholic priests (like, um, this guy) are in the habit of downplaying the supernatural core of the event, and saying that the real miracle here was the “miracle of sharing” — the idea that the generosity Christ inspired in people’s hearts is what that story is about. The Catholic blogger Amy Welborn once wrote about this phenomenon (which some Protestants have had to endure too); the unnamed acquaintance in her story is me. I was still Catholic then, and had been at mass that day in St. Francisville, when I heard the priest give that lame homily. When I politely confronted him about it after mass, he pulled me out of his way.
The “Miracle Of Sharing” is shorthand among certain orthodox Catholics as a symbol for the desacralization of the faith by priests who don’t really believe in it, not as Pascal’s fire. My friend this morning said that listening to that lazy homily this morning at mass, with the meaning of the Cardinal McCarrick scandal weighing heavily on his mind, infuriated him. I blog here about our ensuing conversation with his permission, though I’m not going to name him.
“You remember how you had on your blog a couple of weeks ago that stuff about the final pagan generation?” he said.
He was referring to this post about how pagan Roman elites in the fourth century complacently believed that the old religion was going to endure. Even though the ground itself had shifted under their feet throughout the century, as Christian conversions continued throughout the Empire, they didn’t see what was happening around them. All the outward forms of pagan religion — the temples, the shrines, the public celebrations — were still more or less in place, even though the inner light of pagan belief was fast dimming. Then suddenly, paganism was gone. Historian Edward Watts, author of 2015’s The Final Pagan Generation, writes about how these elites turned out to have been the last people educated and formed intellectually in classical pagan culture. They did not recognize what was happening to their civilization. It had always been pagan, and always would be, they thought … until suddenly, it wasn’t anymore, and never was again.
Anyway, my friend said this morning that he agrees with me that Christians today — he was talking about his fellow Catholics in particular, but nodded when I said this is true of all Christians in the West — are like the Final Pagan Generation.
“It takes eight minutes for light to reach earth from the sun,” he said. “If the sun stopped exploding, if it went dark, it would be eight minutes before we knew it. I feel like we’re living in that eight minutes now, about the faith.”
He explained that from what he sees around him, the Catholic faith is pretty much a dead letter. My friend is a deeply convinced believer, but the corruption in the clergy and in the episcopate has left him reeling. We’ve been friends for a while, and I know that he’s been undeceived for years about the real state of things in the Church. But the Cardinal McCarrick thing seems to have been a breaking point for him. He’s filled with disgust and anger at the Catholic bishops, doubting now how many of them have faith at all. How can you believe in Jesus Christ but facilitate so much corruption, sexual and otherwise? he said.
My friend is no Puritan. But he has hit a wall, and he has hit it hard. The “miracle of sharing” sermon stood out to him as a symbol of the total spiritual mediocrity of the Church in our time and place. The house is burning down around them, and sentimental priests can’t stop talking about that warm feeling in their hearts.
“They think they’re giving us mercy, but they’re not,” said my friend, who has suffered some serious setbacks in his own life in the past couple of years. “I’m desperate for mercy. I need it so much in my life. The hard truths that the Church teaches, that’s real mercy, not this fake stuff. Those truths give me what I need to bear up to all these trials. To live sacrificially when the world says the easy thing would be to give up.”
“To be honest, I don’t know if I’ve ever looked up to a priest as a spiritual father,” he continued. “I guess I had to learn a long time ago not to expect anything from them other than giving out the Sacrament.”
“Where I live, the Church is over. It’s done,” he said. “I was at mass a few weeks ago, and looked around, and my family were the only people there under 70. Nobody else is coming.”
It’s true that New England used to be the most Catholic part of the United States. Now it is one of the most secular. My friend says that when the grey hairs start to die off, very few believers will be around to replace them. And yet, there’s little sense of urgency in the Church there, he says — at least not the kind of urgency inspiring the clergy and the laity to search for Pascal’s Fire. They’re just content to fade into the mist.
It’s different in south Louisiana, he said — but this is little consolation. He grew up in this place, immersed in Catholic culture. “I feel like living in New England puts me ten to fifteen years ahead of y’all down here,” he said. “What we’re living through up north is coming here, but nobody seems to understand that.”
Far too many people in the South take comfort in the generally Christian culture here, said my friend. He wants me to understand that he’d take that over the spiritual desolation he’s living and raising his Catholic family in now, but it’s still a very serious problem, because it breeds complacency. Everybody’s happy sending their kids to Catholic school, going to mass on Sunday, hearing about the Miracle of Sharing, and consoling themselves that it’s all going pretty well now, and always will.
Meanwhile, he said, the faith is dying in the hearts of the middle-aged and the young.
“I don’t think it’s going to be the kind of thing where it just gradually declines,” he said. “I think it’s going to be more like one of these things where people just stop showing up. It’s going to be abrupt. Nobody’s going to see it coming, but when it happens, they’re not going to be surprised, either.”
Of course I told him that this is not just a Catholic experience, but a general Christian experience today. It plays out differently among Evangelicals, for example, but it’s there. If it weren’t, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism wouldn’t be the true American religion. An Evangelical pastor friend told me recently over the desperation among so many Evangelicals, always looking for the Next Big Thing — praise bands! smoke machines! — to keep emotions high and the troops rallied, and to keep people from noticing that the churches have been hollowed out from within.
None of this is new with me, of course. My Catholic breakfast friend and I talk about this kind of thing whenever we see each other. What made today’s conversation stand out to me was the power of his “eight minutes to darkness” metaphor — that, and his visceral post-McCarrick anger at the hierarchy and clergy of his own Church. To emphasize: it’s not only about toleration, even encouragement, of sexual sin and corruption, but satisfaction with spiritual “mediocrity” (his word) general in the Catholic Church today. That last one is an accusation that could accurately and justly be leveled at nearly all of us Christians, Catholic and otherwise.
We Christians are living out the Eight Minutes Till Darkness. If we are going to have the ability to see clearly when the lights go out, we are going to have to start tending Pascal’s fire in our own hearts, our own families, our own Christian schools, and our own religious communities. This is what the Benedict Option is about. This, I think, is why people like my older Millennial friend visiting from New England, as well as young Catholics in Europe, are so enthusiastic about the Benedict Option: because they already live in once-Christian lands across which the shadow of night has fallen.
For American Catholics, the McCarrick affair is an apocalypse in the strict sense of the word — that is, an unveiling. Believe it or not, this can be a blessing. It’s better to know the truth, and to go forward undeceived, than to operate under false pretenses. As angry as my Catholic friend is about this corruption, and as little confidence as he has in the bishops and the clergy, he is still committed to the Catholic faith. Now he has to figure out where to go from here, as a husband and a father and a soldier who salutes the uniform of the officer class, but has little to no faith in their ability to lead.
I don’t want to leave you on an anti-clerical note. It’s understandable, given all the news about clerical corruption, and besides, nobody wants to be taken advantage of by bishops who say “we are one body, one body in Christ” as a way of leaning on the laity to pay off the debts the clergy have incurred for molesting children and (in the case of bishops) tolerating it for decades. However, it would be self-serving for the laity to blame the clergy entirely. I’m thinking as I write this of a very fine young Orthodox priest I know who is in a difficult position. He did not tell me this, but someone who knows him passed on to me that no matter what he has done to try to engage his fairly large congregation with actual Orthodoxy (as distinct from ethnic-festival Orthodoxy), they resist and try to shut him down. They don’t want to be bothered with it. They’re fine with Miracle Of Sharing™ Christianity.
A Mainline Protestant friend of mine’s father got mad at his pastor once, for what I was told was good reason. After that, though, the man fell into the habit of finding fault with every pastor the church had. It wasn’t that the old man was always wrong, I was given to understand, but that the old man (who wasn’t old at all when this started) did not compensate for the clergy’s failing by either finding another church, or redoubling his own spiritual disciplines. Instead, he griped about church, and stopped going; his wife went along with it. He told himself and his family that he didn’t need to go to a church building and listen to boring sermons to find God. So he quit going to church, though he told himself that if the clergy would ever get its act together, he might start coming again.
For decades this went on. The old man finally died. I’m told that today, you will find none of that old man’s descendants in that church. Would things have been different for that family had the old man and his wife met the crisis of clerical mediocrity differently, instead of lazily blaming the institution for all their own failings? Maybe, maybe not. But at least their kids and grandkids would have had a better shot at holding onto the faith. In that family, the eight minutes till darkness passed a while back. In my friend’s late father, I very much see the attitude that my own late, Christian but non-churchgoing father had: believing that the faith would always be here because it always had been here, and that the church was like a public utility: always there to make sure that the lights would come on.
He was wrong. It’s going to be like that for all of us, if we don’t kindle Pascal’s fire, and seek the face of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
UPDATE: Well, whaddaya know, here’s what Pope Francis said today about the Loaves & Fishes reading Gospel reading:
Then, at the end of the account, when all were satiated, Jesus asked His disciples to gather the pieces left over, so that nothing would be wasted. And I would like to propose to you this phrase of Jesus: “Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost” (v. 12). I think of people who are hungry and how much leftover food we throw away . . . Let each one of us think: the food that’s left over at lunch, at dinner, where does it go? In my home, what’s done with this leftover food? Is it thrown out? No. If you have this habit, I give you advice: talk with your grandparents who lived after the War and ask them what they did with leftover food. Never throw away leftover food. It’s re-heated or given to someone who can eat it, who is in need. Never throw away leftover food. This is advice but also an examination of conscience: what is done at home with leftover food?
Let us pray to the Virgin Mary, so that in the world programs dedicated to development, to supplies, to solidarity prevail and not those of hatred, of armaments and of war.
That’s the end of his six-minute homily, but it gives you the gist. If you want to listen to the whole thing, it starts shortly after the 3:00 mark, and the concluding passage above begins about 8:30: