Do you know that, as a Catholic, you are a member of a cult? No worry, everyone is. By “cult” we mean “cultic activity” – the repetition of ritual, the repetition of a ritual that forms individuals and a civilization. Even atheists are cultists in their own way. But cults come and go. Only one remains.
The Letter to the Hebrews – maybe written by Saint Paul – refers to the priesthood, and how the cult of the priesthood is ineffective in taking away sins: “Every priest stands daily at his ministry, offering frequently those same sacrifices that can never take away sins.” (Heb. 10:11) This passage may, initially, be distracting to Catholics. But Saint Paul is not referring to the priesthood of Jesus Christ; he is referring to the Old Testament priesthood and its sacrificial cults.
The priesthood in the Old Testament was a bloody business. On the eve of the Exodus, God commands the Israelites to slaughter lambs and paint the doorposts with blood in preparation for the Angel-of-Death Passover. The sacrificial rituals by Old Testament priests included the butchering of lambs and goats.
In the Book of Leviticus we see the priests slaughtering a goat for purposes of atonement and, after the laying of hands, the release or escape of a companion goat into the desert, carrying with him the sins of the people. This is where the word “scapegoat” came from. (In response to the Protestant denial of the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the Church inserted the “laying on of hands” gesture over the bread and wine before the Consecration to remind us that Christ is the sacrificial “scapegoat” of our sins.)
A significant teaching of the Book of Hebrews is that, in Christ, the old priesthood has come to an end. It is no longer necessary for priests to enter into the Temple again and again to offer their bloody sacrifices in atonement for the sins of the people. Why? Because Christ – the Lamb of God – suffered and died, once and for all, for our redemption and salvation. Thus there is no need for repetition of the bloody sacrifices of old.
But why then do we offer the Sacrifice of the Mass every day, throughout the world and throughout history? At first glance, it seems to be a violation of the teachings of the Book of Hebrews. But remember, the Mass is an unbloody sacrifice. Through the Mass we participate here and now in that single bloody sacrifice of Christ – and we also mystically participate in His glorious Resurrection. The key word is “participation” not “repetition.” We do not repeat the Sacrifice. We enter into the one Sacrifice during Mass. It is as if we reach into the heavens (Pope Benedict uses the term “celestial liturgy”) and find ourselves at the foot of the Cross in history – then, finally, encountering the risen Christ.
This is why the Mass as a ritual cult is so essential. We truly, mysteriously and mystically enter into the sacred events of our salvation. In Communion with Christ, we are transformed and sent forth into the world. And through us our culture is transformed because of our participation in the cult of the Mass.
The cult or ritual of the Mass helps us understand the Catholic response in times of horror such as the horrors that took place in Paris and San Bernardino – and a horror that threatens to continue in the weeks, months, and years ahead. In the days after such events, you will see people gather and sing songs, stacking bouquets against embassy railings, and looking around for some Elton John to play “Candle in the Wind” on a piano – and other such frankly useless and trivializing expressions of sentimentality.
In the meantime teenagers looking rather for firm certainties to give meaning to their lives will continue to fly out to join the ISIS terror group because it’s the coolest gang on the planet, and takes its faith seriously.
In contrast, we as Catholics gather and worship God begging Him to show us the way of wisdom and courage through the difficult times in this valley of tears. The ritual of the Mass is called a “cult.” The repeated celebration of the Mass over the centuries formed Western Culture – and introduced a Christian culture to the world. Bubbling up through the peoples was a reverence for God, a love for the beautiful and an understanding of the good. The cult of the Mass – with its actions reinforced by the prayers of the liturgy — ensures that we dare not ourselves define the meaning of “good.” Our worship turns us to God Who reveals the true and the good that resonates in every heart.
This is why it is so important for us as Catholics to reject the sentimentality of secular cultic behavior, the ritual of a pagan and godless culture. Such a culture cannot save, cannot transform. It can only cheapen and degrade and distort – and drive young people further from the truth. But we as Catholics must and will return to the cult of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass renewing our devotion to Christ as the way, the truth and the life.
As a priest of Jesus Christ who offers the one sacrifice of Christ every day in participation with the saving Cross and Resurrection, here is my advice: Say your prayers, renew your devotion to the Mass, and live a life of virtue worthy of a Christian. And I would add one more thing to young married couples. Go home and have babies and bring them up to love Jesus. In short, live the new and everlasting Covenant. It is the only way to restore our culture and defeat ideologies like ISIS – and secular atheism. We have, after all, this firm certainty from Christ Himself: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Matthew 24:35)