RORATE CÆLI: Sermon for 4th Sunday after Pentecost
Those words of Jesus to Peter and his companions are his exhortation to these to embark on a life that they little dreamed of, far from their fishing boats an the land and family they knew. Set out into the deep water, the deep water far away from the safety of the land, the deep water of the sea where storms arise suddenly, but also the deep water in which an abundance of fish live, ready to be caught. The fishermen had tried to catch fish all night long, but to no avail. Nothing. Nothing because this life of theirs was over. So Jesus tells them to go into the deep water, and it is here that they catch so many fish that the boats are nearly sinking with the catch. It is at this point that Simon Peter realizes, however inchoately, however unclearly, that this is a sign that points to him and his future and his role as a disciple of Jesus, and in that wonderful and touching and dramatic scene, he kneels at Jesus' feet: Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man. What a wonderful and real reaction to Peter's understanding of the miracle of the catch of fish: to declare himself unworthy for any task that Jesus had in mind for him. A future as a follower of Jesus in the deepest sense was, in Peter's mind, impossible. For he was a sinful man. But the response is quite clear: Fear not. From henceforth you will be catching men.
It will be to the high seas of a world that Peter the fisherman did not even know existed: the world of imperial Rome, the Roman empire, and finally to the heart of the world of that time, Rome itself, where Peter would meet his death by martyrdom. No longer would Peter be trying to catch fish. As Jesus' disciple and the Prince of the Apostles, he would preach and teach the Gospel, he would baptize, he would offer sacrifice in the Breaking of Bread, the Eucharist, he would bring the saving grace of Christ to a world desperately in need of that grace.
But what defines Peter's ministry is true of the priesthood in general. One of the cardinal sins for a Catholic priest is to forget, to refuse to remember who he is, and to become just a part of a clerical scene in a secular society that has forgotten where it came from, that has forgotten its roots, roots that cannot be uprooted and thrown onto a pile of dirt to be thrown away, because these roots are divine. Hey, son! Why do you want to become a priest? Well, sir, I want to help people, I want to help them to deepen their faith, I want to help them as a friend, I want to engage them, especially young people to bring them to Jesus Christ. And I would say this to this young men: then be a Protestant minister. I know some fine ministers who do exactly what you want to do. Do you know this, young man? You have not once mentioned the Mass, you have not once mentioned the Holy Sacrifice that defines what a priest is. A priest can be good or bad, a priest can care for people or not, a priest can wear lace, cufflinks and cassock and biretta and yet not identify with the basest part of his flock, which identification is the heart of the matter. Go do something else. Be a man and build stone walls. That will increase your chance of getting into heaven.
The past fifty years in the Catholic Church has been the half-century of the lobotomization not only of the clergy but also of the people. Notice how I distinguish between clergy and people. Those in charge of the Church in the past fifty years have succumbed to the terrible vortex of black hole historicism that is the mark of the present age, which mark has been ingested and digested by the clergy of the Catholic Church, especially those who have been entrusted with the precious Tradition of the Apostles, a Tradition that is grounded in the Truth of Jesus Christ but is not static but grows organically in the power of the Holy Spirit. To believe that the past has no fundamental relationship to the present, which belief is the mark of the world of today, contradicts in the most fundamental way both the Incarnation and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. And that terrible discontinuity has been passed down by the clergy to the people.
There is a notion among traditional Catholics that all that has to be done to assure the vitality and validity of the Catholic faith and practice in the future is to celebrate the Traditional Roman Mass and to preach sermons whose content confirms to the Baltimore Catechism. Wrong. On of the great errors of the past was to ignore the explosion in scientific knowledge that occurred at the end of the 19thcentury and the first quarter of the twentieth century and to retreat into the warm haven of Thomism and scholasticism. Of course, St.Thomas Aquinas is an antidote to the miasma of the secular culture in which we live. But one cannot base our faith on a return to Thomism or to traditional philosophy without paying attention and grappling with and arriving at some real answer of faith to the explosion in scientific and technological advance of the past seventy-five years. What this means is that we have to have priests and bishops who are intellectually capable of addressing not only our secular culture and the explosion of technology but also of understanding in the first place what the bases are of this secular and technological culture in which we live. The scientific enterprise has substance. And it is from that substance comes the world in which we live. But the very basis of the secular culture in which we live, and that is so dismissive of our Catholic faith, is insubstantial, it lacks substance. But when the Church affirms that insubstantiality in the name of inculturation, of affirming the very culture that despises what the Church has taught in the name of Jesus Christ for two millennia, and all of this in the name of diversity and mercy, then we know that we face a crisis equal to the Arian heresy crisis of the first six centuries of the Church.
Duc in altum Indeed. But this is difficult in a time within the Church when the altum is denied, when the real depth of the sea that threatens us with extinction but at the same time offers us the primeval beginning of life—this altum is denied in favor of the puddle of the culture of self fulfillment and self actualization that contradicts in the deepest way the very words and teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. What cleric dares to preach any longer on the many hard sayings of Jesus? Those words: unless you eat my flesh, I am the Truth, no one comes to the Father except through me, you brood of hypocrites, it is easier for a camel?
The liturgical life of the Church after the Second Vatican Council has been one of vapidity and great loss of faith, or rather the shrugging off by two generations of a faith perceived as not worth thinking about. Ask young Catholics, both those who go to Mass and those who do not what it means that the Mass is a sacrifice. They will have no answer, for they have no idea of the very concept of sacrifice in the context of the worship of the Church. They are the product of the emotional jags that are the basis of quasi -Protestant youth rallies that imagine they are Catholic because they have Adoration as part of the fill-'em-up-with Jesus weekends. Where is Flannery O'Connor when we need her to unmask this pale imitation of Protestantism? Where are there bishops and priests who will counter this superficiality masking as evangelization and who will urge us to duc in altum, to go into the deep and take the risk of drowning, that act of drowning which may be the source of eternal life? Where are the young men who will take the risk of faith in a faithless age and who will do so knowing the depths of the clericalism in the priesthood that masks itself with talk of mercy? Where are the young women and young men who have the courage to plunge into the altum of the religious life, that place in which alone in these times can help the Church regain her memory and her knowledge and therefore her courage to fulfill her mission?
These men and women are in this young congregation. I know that. And it is because not only they but each one of us here has set out for the deep water every Sunday in the solemn celebration of this Mass. This is indeed the altum, the depth, the depth that feeds us body and soul, the depth that puts us into contact with those who have plunged into the deep, those we call saints, the depth of the music of the Church that resonates with her own sacred history, the depth, the infinite depth of the Cross of Jesus Christ. Vos et ego. Ducamus in altum.