Here is the text of the conference that I gave to the Legion of Mary Catholic Young Adult Conference at the Catholic Chaplaincy of Queens University in Belfast on Saturday, 12 March 2016.
Winning Souls for Christ
When I was at university, back in the dark mists of the last century, there was in America a thriving Christian student movement that worked mightily at winning souls for Christ. The zeal of the young people involved in this movement was remarkable. Their approach, nonetheless, was marked by three things that were not without posing certain problems: first of all, its appeal was primarily emotional, that is to say, subjective and defined in terms of one’s personal experience. Second, it referred to the Sacred Scriptures outside of their native context, that is the Church and her liturgy. And third, it did not bring souls to the sacraments.
The Word of God
Once the initial emotional buzz wore off, there was little to sustain an abiding relationship with Christ. Left alone with the Sacred Scriptures, souls quickly found themselves in the situation of the Ethiopian eunuch reading the prophet Isaias while traveling his chariot.
And Philip running thither, heard him reading the prophet Isaias. And he said: Thinkest thou that thou understandest what thou readest? Who said: And how can I, unless some man shew me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:30–31)
Philip here, of course, represents the Church, the communion of saints quickened by the Holy Ghost acting in the liturgy of the Church, and illumined by the praises and preaching of the Fathers and Doctors raised up by the same Holy Ghost. Only in the Church does the Word of God attain its fullest resonance, rich in complex harmonies, and simple in the communication of a living truth. Outside of the Church, the individual reads the Bible in a kind of soundproof private cabin. The Word of God requires the vast, virginal space of the Church — of which the Immaculate Heart of Mary is the perfect image —if it is to strike the ear of our hearts with the symphonic beauty that reveals its divine authorship.
The Word of God, thus heard, points to the sacraments; the Word of God prepares us for the sacraments; the Word of God moves us towards the sacraments with a kind of irresistible momentum. Saint Ambrose, writing in the fourth century, expresses where and how he met Christ, and where and how we can meet him today: «Thou hast shown Thyself to me, O Christ, face to face; I have found Thee in Thy sacraments». Saint Leo the Great, preaching in Rome in the fifth century for the feast of the Ascension of the Lord, told his hearers that, «That which was visible in our Redeemer has passed over now into sacred signs». These «sacred signs» are, of course, the seven sacraments and the glorious complex of actions, words, and holy things that surround them and prolong their action.
Every hearing of the Word, every preaching of the Word, every pondering of the Word, every praying of the Word converges in the sacraments, and the sacraments themselves converge in what Saint Thomas calls the sacramentum sacramentorum, the Most Holy Eucharist, the sacrament of sacraments.
I am reminded of the haunting question of the book of Job:
But where is wisdom to be found, and where is the place of understanding?
Man knoweth not the price thereof, neither is it found in the land of them that live in delights.
The depth saith: It is not in me: and the sea saith: It is not with me.
The finest gold shall not purchase it, neither shall silver be weighed in exchange for it.
It shall not be compared with the dyed colours of India, or with the most precious stone sardonyx, or the sapphire.
Gold or crystal cannot equal it, neither shall any vessels of gold be changed for it.
High and eminent things shall not be mentioned in comparison of it: but wisdom is drawn out of secret places.
The topaz of Ethiopia shall not be equal to it, neither shall it be compared to the cleanest dyeing.
Whence then cometh wisdom? and where is the place of understanding? (Job 28:12–20)
Wisdom’s home is every Catholic altar. The place of understanding is every Catholic church in which the Word is preached and the Holy Mysteries, the sacraments, celebrated. We Catholics do not seek first to understand, and then to do. We do first, and the doing becomes the wellspring of our understanding. This, of course, is why in the ancient post–baptismal catecheses of the Fathers of the Church, the full articulation of what happened in the sacraments came after the doing of the sacraments, rather than before.
For Christians in the age of the Fathers of the Church, the sacraments were treated with the utmost reverence. Certain things were kept veiled, held secret from the uninitiated, lest the Church’s shining precious pearls — her sacraments — be cast before swine. Catechumens were prepared for the sacraments, but they were not told everything. The full revelation of what happened in the baptistry, in the chrismatory (chapel for the sacrament of Confirmation), and at the altar was kept from them until after they had gone down into the water, been anointed with seal of the Holy Ghost, and tasted the sweetness of the Lord in Holy Communion.
Only in Heaven
A lifetime is not long enough to grasp all that sacramental grace effects in one’s life. Only in heaven, in the light of glory, we will see what really happened at our baptism, at our confirmation, in every confession and in every Holy Communion. Saint Thomas tells just a little of what we have and experience in the Most Holy Eucharist, and even his words, though they be sublime and luminous and exact, fall short of the mystery:
O sacred banquet in which Christ is received, the memory of His passion is renewed, the soul is filled with grace, and the pledge of future glory is given to us.
For us, Catholics, the sacraments are where we encounter Christ: the living Christ, the acting Christ, the Christ who touches us, who washes us clean, who us anoints with the Holy Ghost, and gives us His Sacred Body to eat and His Precious Blood to drink.
The apostolic works of the Legion of Mary have but one goal: to bring souls to the sacraments. To bring one soul to the sacraments is to bring that soul to Christ, the way, the truth, and the life. It is to bring that soul not merely to think about Christ, but to encounter Him, to fall in adoration before Him, to partake of His true Body and Blood, and to pass through Him, with Him, and in Him to the Father.
The Sacred Liturgy
How are you, young Catholics, to be effective apostles in the world? How are you to bring souls to the sacraments? What have you to do? Where does your apostolate begin? It begins where it ends: in the sacraments or, if you will, in the sacred liturgy of the Church, for the liturgy is the «the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows».
Three years ago, in a memorable farewell address to the clergy of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI recalled that the Second Vatican Council’s first teaching was about the sacred liturgy. God first. Not man. Not the world. Not society. Not the economy. Not the environment. Not even war, injustice, and poverty, but God. God first. Pope Benedict XVI said:
Looking back, I find that it was a very good idea to begin with the liturgy, because in this way the primacy of God could appear, the primacy of adoration. Operi Dei nihil praeponatur «Let nothing be put before the Work of God»: this phrase from the Rule of Saint Benedict (cf. 43:3) thus emerges as the supreme rule of the Council. Some have made the criticism that the Council spoke of many things, but not of God. It did speak of God! And this was the first thing that it did.
In the opening sentence of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council quote the very ancient Secret of the Mass of the 9th Sunday after Pentecost — today (in the usus recentior) it is called the Prayer Over the Offerings and occurs on the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time — to express what the Church believes the liturgy is and does.
Grant us, O Lord, we pray, that we may participate worthily in these mysteries, for whenever the memorial of this sacrifice is celebrated the work of our redemption is accomplished.
A more literal translation has:
Grant us, we beseech Thee, O Lord, worthily to frequent these mysteries; since as often as the remembrance of this Victim is celebrated, so often is the work of our Redemption carried on.
This means that so often as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered the immolation of Christ, the spotless Lamb, is made present in our here and now. It means that all the grace and mercy that flow from the pierced side of the crucified Jesus are made available to us in a way that is real and efficacious. Once this has been said, there is no work more urgent than that of bringing souls to the sacraments, and to the sacrament of sacraments that is the the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
The Joy and Youth of the Church
Every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is like a rebirth of the Church. It is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that makes the Church. No Mass, no Church. Saint John Paul II put it this way: «The Church draws her life from the Eucharist». Wherever and whenever the enemies of Christ seek to inhibit or suppress the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Church suffers from a life–threatening insufficiency. On the other hand, wherever there is a priest, wherever there is an altar, wherever bread and wine are set aside to be consecrated in the Holy Sacrifice, there the Church lives, there the Church is youthful, and capable of being an inextinguishable light in the darkness of the age.
What characterises the Church born and reborn of the side of Christ in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? What is the real nature of the true Church? Again, we can turn to the Council Fathers for an answer:
It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped, eager to act and yet intent on contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it; and she is all these things in such wise that in her the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek.
What is said of the Church can be said of every part of the Church. What is said of the Mother can be said of her children. Every young Catholic, every member of the Legion of Mary should be able to hear or read these words and in them recognise, even obscurely, the features of his own life: human but divinised by grace; visible, yet invisibly equipped by the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost; eager to act, yes, but intent upon contemplation; present in this world, surely, but not at home in it. This means that in your life and mine the human is directed and subordinated to the divine; the visible likewise to the invisible; action to contemplation; and the day–to–day world that we see around us to that city yet to come, which we seek, that is, heaven.
The Work of God
These are the features of a full sacramental life. These are the distinctive traits by which one can recognise a son or daughter of the Catholic Church, graced with divine adoption in Baptism, mightily sealed unto God by the Holy Ghost in Confirmation, nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion. And yet, none of these things are our doing. They are the doing of Christ the Priest acting in the power of the Holy Ghost. They are, to use again the Benedictine expression dear to pope Benedict XVI, the Work of God. «To accomplish so great a work», say the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, «Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations».
This is why that great Pope of the beginning of the last century, Saint Pius X, was able to say with complete assurance:
Filled as We are with a most ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit flourish in every respect and be preserved by all the faithful, We deem it necessary to provide before anything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for no other object than that of acquiring this spirit from its foremost and indispensable font, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church.
Foremost and Indispensable
Saint Pius X burned with a passion to see all things restored to Christ. He made Saint Paul’s words, Instaurare omnia in Christo, «To restore all things in Christ» (Ephesians 1:10) the driving force of his pontificate. You, young Catholics and members of the Legion of Mary are engaged in the same mission: to restore all things in Christ, to restore Ireland to Christ, one soul at a time, by bringing souls to the sacraments. Saint Pius X calls the sacred liturgy «the foremost and indispensable font» of the true Christian spirit. This means, concretely, that the liturgy and the full sacramental life come first. It means that without the liturgy and the full sacramental life, Christianity is a dead letter.
In the year 304, one of the Christian martyrs of Abitina, named Emeritus, expressed precisely this. The Roman magistrate, charged with interrogating him, wanted to know why the Christians persisted in defying the emperor’s decree by meeting together [for the Holy Sacrifice] in the house of Emeritus. Emeritus gave this answer: Sine dominico non possumus, that is, «Without this thing that is the Lord’s [the Most Holy Eucharist], we cannot go on».
Pope Pius XII: Mediator Dei
One of the finest Church teachings on the sacraments is found in Pope Pius XII’s 1947 encyclical on the sacred liturgy, Mediator Dei. I always tell people that this particular encyclical is a «must–read» for anyone who wants to understand what the liturgical reforms set in motion by the Second Vatican Council were really about, and what they were supposed to achieve. Listen to Pope Pius XII:
The priesthood of Jesus Christ is a living and continuous reality through all the ages to the end of time, since the liturgy is nothing more nor less than the exercise of this priestly function. Like her divine Head, the Church is forever present in the midst of her children. She aids and exhorts them to holiness, so that they may one day return to the Father in heaven clothed in that beauteous raiment of the supernatural.
To all who are born to life on earth she gives a second, supernatural kind of birth. She arms them with the Holy Ghost for the struggle against the implacable enemy. She gathers all Christians about her altars, inviting and urging them repeatedly to take part in the celebration of the Mass, feeding them with the Bread of angels to make them ever stronger. She purifies and consoles the hearts that sin has wounded and soiled. Solemnly she consecrates those whom God has called to the priestly ministry. She fortifies with new gifts of grace the chaste nuptials of those who are destined to found and bring up a Christian family. When as last she has soothed and refreshed the closing hours of this earthly life by holy Viaticum and extreme unction, with the utmost affection she accompanies the mortal remains of her children to the grave, lays them reverently to rest, and confides them to the protection of the cross, against the day when they will triumph over death and rise again. She has a further solemn blessing and invocation for those of her children who dedicate themselves to the service of God in the life of religious perfection. Finally, she extends to the souls in purgatory, who implore her intercession and her prayers, the helping hand which may lead them happily at last to eternal blessedness in heaven.
If you would have Christ work in you, go to the sacraments, become men and women of the liturgy, sons and daughters of the Church–in–Prayer. If you would have Christ work through you, go to the sacraments, become men and women of the liturgy, sons and daughters of the Church–at–Prayer. This, of course, is a very risky thing. There is nothing innocuous about engaging fully, consciously, and actually in the liturgy of the Church, in her sacramental life. «It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God . . . for our God is a consuming fire» (Hebrews 10:31; 12:29). One who approaches the sacraments, approaches fire, like Moses drawing near to the burning bush on Mount Horeb.
And the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he saw that the bush was on fire and was not burnt. And Moses said: I will go and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Lord saw that he went forward to see, he called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said: Moses, Moses. And he answered: Here I am. And he said: Come not nigh hither, put off the shoes from thy feet: for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. And he said: I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Moses hid his face: for he durst not look at God. (Exodus 3:2–6)
In (1) Baptism, the fire illuminates; (2) in Confirmation, the fire seals; (3) in Penance, the fire purifies; (4) in the Most Holy Eucharist, the fire sets ablaze and forges the incandescent unity of the Mystical Body; (5) in Holy Matrimony, the fire unites a man and a woman in love; (6) in Holy Orders, the fire burns into a man’s soul an indelible configuration to Christ the Priest; (7) in the Anointing of the Sick, the fire heals.
Origen, a third century Father of the Church, in one of his homilies on the prophet Jeremiah, reports a saying attributed to Jesus. It is this: «Whoever is near me, is near the fire». The saying is apocryphal, but Origen considers it authentic for it resonates with that other word of Jesus in Luke 12: 49: «I am come to cast fire on the earth: and what will I, but that it be kindled?», and again with the words of Simon and Cleophas, the disciples on the road to Emmaus: «Was not our heart burning within us, whilst he spoke in the way, and opened to us the scriptures?» (Luke 24: 32).
Fire changes whatever it touches. When one makes oneself over to God, with Christ, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; when one begins to live the rhythm of the sacramental life, of the liturgical year, and even of the liturgical day, all sorts of things begin to change. The sacraments are fire.
There is a old monastic story about Abba Joseph and Abba Lot.
Abba Joseph said to Abba Lot: «You cannot be a monk unless you become like a consuming fire». To this, Abba Lot responded, describing the measure of his surrender to the flames: «Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?» Abba Joseph stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, «If you will, you can become all flame».
The apostolate of the Legion of Mary has, from the beginning, been about bringing souls to this, the «foremost and indispensable font of the true Christian spirit», that is, to the full sacramental life, the complete liturgical life of the Church. It has been about bringing souls to the fire, and bringing the fire to souls. And so, I say to you, my friends, «If you will, you can become all flame».