To My fellow Cultists

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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.

Agnus Dei by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1639 [Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando]
Agnus Dei by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1639 [Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando]

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)

Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky

Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.

  • BFB

    There is a sense of profound blessing when one brings up children in the faith who stay in the faith as passed on from generations past who passed it down in their turn. That this happens in a time in western civilisation when it becomes ever more difficult to achieve is an outworking of the Holy Spirit

    Constant concious example of perseverance in truth works.

  • DeaconEdPeitler

    And because everything rises and falls with our cultic celebration, let’s end it’s trivialization by irreverence at Mass and not treating it as we ought – as the most consequential act in which we participate.

  • Michael Dowd

    Thanks Fr. Pokorsky. We need to learn more about what the Mass is all about and what it’s symbolism means in order to deeper our understanding and participation. A yearly talk at Sunday Mass would be a good idea, i think. After all, Mass is the most important element of the Catholic cult. It needs to be proclaimed and, as they say today, marketed.

  • TBill

    Amen! What a great article. Thank you Father.

  • Alicia

    Thank you Father for deepening my undestanding of the Mass. God bless you.

  • Brian Seibert

    I just found this article on Dec.15 ,15. All i can say is it never fails to amaze me, how the Holy Spirit. works. On Dec.14,out of boredom, I was watching old videos on YouTube of the late Walter Martin. I remember how He also called the Holy Mother church a cult. I remember how offended I was and thinking why wasn’t the Magisterium defending us! Two things come to mind about those days of thunder and blust, Jesus said “We all must be priests in the order of Melchizedek…Simple, unadulterated, Faith. and the second ” On this Rock I will build my church, and the Gates of hell shall not prevail against her”…Petra or Peter, the Rock.

  • Howard Kainz

    I think “cult” is not the best word to use for what you are describing. The Oxford English Dictionary describes your meaning as “rare,” and the most common meaning now is “A relatively small group of people having (esp.
    religious) beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or
    sinister, or as exercising excessive control over members.”

    • Michael DeLorme

      Rare, amongst whom? I’m no scholar but in my own readings have fairly frequently come across ‘cultus’ in its meaning as a “the formal means of expressing reverence; religious ceremony and ritual.”

      Let the world co-opt the usage as it may; nevertheless “The Catholic Encyclopedia” has the following entry:

      CULT. A definite form of worship or of religious observance, sometimes rendered “cultus,” especially when referring to the worship of the saints…(Etym. Latin cultus, care, adoration; from colere, to cultivate.)

      • Alicia

        Michael, in Spanish the word -culto- is used and understood by everyone to refer to ” the formal means of expressing reverence; religious ceremony and ritual ” just as your post says. It’s a common, everyday word widely used and the Mass is the most important means of culto.
        However, in English, at least for me, it has a negative connotation and I don’t feel confortable using it, and would never use it when referring to the Catholic Church or the Mass.
        Go figure ! A sociologist or psychologist would love to explain it.

      • Alicia

        Sorry, in my post below, I forgot to explain that in Spanish, -culto/culta , masc./fem – as an adjective describes a person who is knowledgable, is very well educated and has excellent manners.
        The noun – culto – is for the religious cermonies.

      • Howard Kainz

        Among what are called modern “cults” are the Branch Davidians, Jonestown, Manson. They’ve given the word a pejorative connotation.

      • kelso

        Very good, Michael. Very helpful and concise.

  • Evangeline1031

    Very well written. I don’t feel comfortable with the word cult, since cult has such a negative connotation and that can’t be changed. No one wants to belong to a cult. Catholicism seems too large and long-lasting to be a cult. But I agree with your thoughts here.
    Thank you Father, and Merry Christmas!

  • Brad Miner

    As an adult convert (I was 25, so I’ve now been Catholic longer than ever I was anything else), I think I sense the problem here: Catholics no longer know Latin. The woman I married in the Church is not Catholic, so we had to obtain dispensation for “disparity of cult,” and that’s just one example of many in the lexicon of the Church in which the word “cult” comes up.

  • Michael DeLorme

    Fathers Rumble and Carty did have that booklet, decades ago, “Confusion of the Cults.” in which they used the word in it’s newer sense in reference to Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, etc. In this case, cult is used to distinguish these groups from, say Baptists or Presbyterians and other traditional Protestant groups; the difference being that traditional Protestant religions have an historical link to the Catholic Church which goes back to the Apostles while the “cults” do not.

    If Father Pokorsky had used the word in this sense, I would agree with Mr. Kainz. But in reading his article, I didn’t sense at all that Father was using the word that way; rather he was referring to the Mass as cultus in the ecclesial sense.

  • ColdStanding

    Ask, “Is it tradition?” If yes, then say no more.

    I find this quibbling over the authorship of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews offensive to pious ears. As if the Church doesn’t know the works of Her Divine Spouse!

    St. Paul wrote it. St. Jerome said so. End of discussion.

  • kelso

    Tremendous lessons here, Father. Thank you so much for so thoughtful a post.

  • olhg1

    Among Roman Catholic theologians accustomed to reading theology (Dogmatic/Moral) in Latin, the use of the word “cultus” is inoffensive because in English, it’s translated “Worship” “Reverence” and “Religion” as in “Roman Catholic Religion” not “Roman Catholic Cult.” All the Roman Catholics I know would object to the use of “cult” in describing anything to do with their Faith, because the word (cult) has come to mean something sinister and demonic, as in “The Cult of the Devil” and other a-typical religious groups. When denominating the ritual of the Mass and the Sacraments, the term used is “Liturgy.” Fr. Joseph A. Jungmann, S.J. titled his great work “The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development (Missarum Sollemnia). Being German, he could have used “Kult” but didn’t.

  • St JD George

    Beautifully said Father. As a recent and late convert I have a passion for learning as much as I can about our church. Some day’s it causes me despair because I realize I have no hope of ever satisfying my appetite. I’ve slowly come to accept that one does not have to be a theologian to of course be devout or even defend our faith on what we do know, it is important to live our faith boldly, proudly and joyfully to be a beacon to others. That includes the acknowledgement of our sins and the need to seek grace in the only one who can forgive us and help us in healing too, and helping others in their healing as well.