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Letting the Secular In

In the modern high-pressure world, part of the act of faith involves avoiding secular intrusions into our daily life of faith. We should learn this kind of resistance for many reasons: because the meaning of words, events, and cultural markers should be coming from what we place our faith in and not from secular events.

Let’s take something simple, such as when do I depart from the celebration of the Mass? If I am genuinely participating in the Mass, then I would only leave after I had joined in the recessional hymn. Then, after a short thanksgiving, I could leave knowing that I had completely and reverently participated in the high point of my week.

If, on the other hand, getting out of the parking lot or getting to the supermarket have a higher priority than my faith, then of course I would be hustling to get out earlier and miss out praying and singing with the community. And I might gain – if that is even the right word – a few minutes. Of course, just to notice this fact should lead us to ask: a few minutes of what?

The intrusion of the secular can look innocent, so very innocent, but in fact it may be depriving me of something that is irretrievable, once it passes.

Just a little reflection poses the question for us: when we do something, are we valuing it according to our faith or according to what the world around us tells us is the value of that thing? And conscientiously pursued, this carries us into a realm with literally endless aspects.

Look at a Catholic Marriage. If a man and a woman were to commit themselves to checking everything that they do, individually and as a couple, against the benchmarks of the faith, I can say with certainty that they would discover a depth to their marriage and to the role of their marriage in the local church (and even in the secular community) that would absolutely surprise them.

Archdiocese of St. Louis celebrates 25 yearsof the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (Traditional Latin) Mass.

A good place to start would be Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, particularly Chapter 1 in Part Two, the chapter on marriage. People who feel that they have their marriage under control or perhaps even feel that their marriage is getting “boring“ would find inestimable treasures in seeking to absorb and live out the lessons the Church teaches there.

The secret is recognizing the importance of working outwards from the truths of the faith, rather than working from ideas and practices presented by the culture. The latter, we know quite well, may sometimes be helpful, but more often these days carry a significance that runs directly contrary to the Christian life. In a time like ours, we’re blind if we don’t recognize this in the world around us – and that means what is presented by our neighbors, the people we meet in the supermarket, even in ideas of what “fun” is supposed to be.

John Paul II had to explain to people who play and watch sports that “the importance of sports today invites those who participate in them to take this opportunity for an examination of conscience. It is important to identify and promote the many positive aspects of sport, but it is only right also to recognize the various transgressions to which it can succumb.” He went out of his way to talk about this – a large part of many people’s lives today – in an address he gave as part of the celebrations for the 2000 Jubilee Year. So even relatively neutral “fun” involves one’s conscience. In a Catholic perspective, which means you are working towards authentic humanity, fun takes on a whole new meaning.

With his usual clarity, the canon lawyer Ed Peters recently stated: “conscience is used largely to assess whether one’s concrete action in a given situation accords with Church teaching – not to determine whether one agrees with or accepts Church teaching in the first place.” Note that, because deciding whether one agrees with Church teaching is a massive secular (and false) intrusion into the life of the faithful, simply Enlightenment thinking. And the Enlightenment attacked the Church with a vengeance.

Pope Francis has offered at least three lessons that have gone largely unappreciated and unlearned. He does not live in a palace, counter to the ages-long practice of the higher clergy; he wrote on the environment, putting the Christian heart back into concern for Creation (which had become a virtual secular religion for many); and he called the Holy Year of Mercy, wisely choosing the virtue hardest to fake in the modern world. “Love” has already had its meaning largely washed out by secular behavior – and as a result can mean almost anything anyone imagines.

Examples are easy to multiply, but the central point is simple: unless we are living a reflective life of faith, we will simply end up living a life dictated by the secular culture and having little or nothing to do with the presence of Christ in the world.

Bevil Bramwell, OMI

Bevil Bramwell, OMI

Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI, PhD is the former Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. His books are: Laity: Beautiful, Good and True; The World of the Sacraments; and, most recently, Catholics Read the Scriptures: Commentary on Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini.

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  • Michael Dowd

    Thanks Fr. Bramwell. Most beneficial. My tendency is to anticipate and not reflect. It is always the next step: what to do, when to do it and how to do it, rather than why do it and what does it mean. Our lives are lived on automatic. Getting off Fred Allen’s “treadmill to oblivion” is difficult. Your article was a good reminder to stop, look and listen to God. We are all cooped up inside ourselves way too much and strictly on auto-pilot.

  • Sheila

    I plan to slowly reread and meditate on this article and use it as a tool for an examination of conscience . As I read “bells and whistles” were going off. Thank you.

  • sg4402

    To me, this post makes a good deal of sense. Its value, however, in my opinion, is diminished by reference to Pope Francis’ current priorities, which may suit the secular needs of our time—but, certainly, not the spiritual, which is kinda what the post is ultimately about!

    • Fr. Bramwell

      Ah yes, the illuminati-like knowledge – the knowing more than a man with a long history as a bishop and cardinal spreading the Gospel. He also has the grace of the papacy.

      • sg4402

        He also has the agenda of the United Nations—hardly a spiritual institution. The environmental light show was magnificent!

        The “grace of the papacy” certainly didn’t interfere with his many predecessors ‘living arrangements’ at the Vatican. Is this feigned ‘humility’?

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Now that you attack someone who may not know illuminati from cognoscenti [you apparently perceive yourself as cognoscenti] and especially with your credentials I detest your arrogance. There are many including myself who have strong reservations about Pope Francis. The grace of Papacy. That’s absurd. We have had heretics Honorius I being one. Christ never guaranteed the spiritual integrity of Pontiffs. Rather He promised integrity of dogmatic truth. No pontiff has ever or can deform Apostolic Tradition. This Pontiff Francis suggests deformation of truth. For you to attempt to humiliate an honest respondent because he disagrees with your views is an indication of where you stand.

      • lwhite

        But whose gospel is he spreading?

      • MSDOTT

        Fr. Bramwell, I am truly struggling with this papacy. My formative years as a cradle catholic were post Vatican II – and so I can hardly be considered Traditionalist. Regarding his “long history as a bishop and cardinal spreading the Gospel” that you allude to, on the day of his election, the Rorate Caeli blog sounded the alarm, having correspondents in Argentina, who knew the state of the Church there under the then Bishop/Cardinal. I thought they were over the top with what they said – but subsequent events over the almost three years in Pope Francis’ pontificate have convinced me that their take on him was pretty accurate.

        Our Holy Father continues to scandalizes me. In his latest video, he does not talk about the cross – upon which Our Lord died to redeem mankind, and the need for baptism into the Catholic faith. …I honestly did not see anything Catholic in that video. No where was the cross displayed, not even on the person of our Holy Father.

        The “I believe in love” theme of the video, is welcomed by my friends and colleagues who are co-habiting, or divorced and remarried without a declaration of nullity, some of who think nothing of getting an abortion, if the partner “they love” decides for it, … after all, “they believe in love” … and our Holy Father has strengthened that belief by his latest video. What am I to say to them? That they have misunderstood the video?

        It has come to the point whenever the Holy Father speaks in an orthodox way, I feel he is throwing us Catholics a bone, to keep us “quiet” so he can continue with his heterodoxical agenda.

        Finally, I too believe in the grace of state. And I believe that the grace of the papacy is to available to Pope Francis. Yet just because it is there, does not mean we avail ourselves of it. All parents have the grace of state for their role, so do husbands and wives. Yet the divorce rate, even among Catholics is high…why…if they have the grace of state? It seems to me that the key is to all is avail ourselves of that grace so generously offered by Our Lord.

        Having said all the above, I really enjoyed reading your post. Thank you – especially for the quote by Canonist Ed Peters: “conscience is used largely to assess whether one’s concrete action in a given situation accords with Church teaching – not to determine whether one agrees with or accepts Church teaching in the first place.” …. now my challenge is to figure out how to square that with my colleagues, and friends, when they think the teaching of the Church has changed – thanks to Pope Francis who told the Lutheran woman she should listen to her conscience as to whether she should partake of the Eucharist (in a Catholic Church). …

  • Stanley Anderson

    I bet you knew your opening example would focus many reader’s attention, eh? Well, just to follow through with that guess on my part, I’ll focus a bit on it

    I would say that for us getting out of the parking lot or shopping afterwards has zero effect. Rather it is like a version of that Dos Equis meme that begins “I don’t always [whatever], but when I do…[punchline]”. My variation on that meme might be “I don’t often leave Mass early, but when I do, it is for two reasons: Hymn selection, and Applause” — and both of those reasons, ironically, are to me nearly perfect examples of your column’s topic of secular invasion into the Faith. In fact, I might be tempted to refer to them, in parody of the meme name (especially the self-indulgent latter), as the “Dos Ickys, me-mmm”.

    But be assured that like the first line says, we don’t very often “leave early” anyway — mind you, not out of a sense of duty or for good charitable reasons (I’ll try to remember that come next confession), but typically for perfectly physical reasons. The modern practice of singing a single verse (two at the most) means that the pop-hymn is over before the Cross and priest even get halfway back down the aisle during the recessional. If we ran out of the church, I doubt we’d make it in time to miss that typically execrable verse or melody. I suppose that is a blessing of sorts, given the icky factor of most of the selected hymns, but definitely singing all the verses of the good hymns are something I dearly miss. And that one-or-two-verse-max aspect, I guess, is one more of those secular invasions. Sigh.

    • Kmbold

      You must live in my parish.

  • Oscar Pierce

    Yes indeed. Do I view my actions through the lens of faith; or, do I subject my faith to the, “dictatorship of relativism,” (Cardinal Sarah “God or Nothing”)? As I have read recently, ” too many of us win the battle(s) with our conscience”. Thank you for your straight forward commentary.

  • Florian

    Jan. 17th…I used to love getting to Mass early, even daily Mass, and staying on after Mass in Thanksgiving but the loud chatter before and immediately after the Priest leaves the altar after Mass is just too disquieting so I leave and go to a quiet place. I’m not talking about people whispering in their pews, but people standing and loudly talking across the aisle about their latest parties or vacations, etc. We should be patient with others, I know, but the struggle to be patient while trying to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament, trying to tune out all the noise is just too much so going off to a quiet place is more beneficial in many ways.

    • Diane

      That should not be allowed in your church. There should be silent prayer before Mass. In our Church we pray the Rosary before every daily Mass and before the evening Saturday Mass of anticipation. We also have Benediction after this Mass and the Eucharist is out for adoration until the 7:00 a.m. Mass on Sunday. You need to tell your pastor that it is very irreverent and disturbing. I am sure you are not alone.

  • Diane

    It seems that every day there is more and more a loss of faith amongst everyone. There is so much materialism that you can hardly see where God comes into the picture. People are becoming more and more self-centered and thetr is no room for God. The fast pace of life does not allow people to meditate about Jesus. The liberal politicians are causing more and more strife and sinfulness to abound when it comes to homosexuality, abortion and contraception. Less and less people seem to think there is sin anymore. Our Priests do not preach against sin from the pulpit and everything is under the name of tolerance. To me what tolerance means to people is, NO GOD AND NO SIN. So, the Pope must be careful on how he frames things. I don’t think that he knows how people think of mercy. Just do what you want to do with no ramifications. If there is a God, he doesn’t care because you are being merciful if you just respect everyone’s right to do what they want, even though it was always considered sin at one time. The worry I have is that the year of mercy, that the Pope is advocating, means to people, don’t judge, even rightful judgment, because that shows the mercy of God, even though God is also just and Jesus said, go and sin no more. That part has been lost.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    All your points are valid and necessary for self reflective assessment. I absolutely agree with your critique of parishioners leaving Mass early. I’m an avid sports fan [but working on ‘reasonable’ detachment] mainly football and John Paul II is correct on sports. For example cheerleaders. Do we men watch the game to also take pleasure in that? It may seem prudish but if we find it pleasurable it can’t be denied we are drawn into secular values or worse. Many wives have to tolerate husbands and their friends spending the weekend guzzling beer cans watching sports. I need to question some of my own waste of time, although recreation is important for many of us it should be within limits. You give us a good reminder. Also some of us will not give Pope Francis any credit whatsoever for good counsel. I am not at all a fan of Francis but we have to acknowledge he is capable of good where it is evident.

    • Rosemary58

      Try getting some dads and young men of your parish to play touch football or softball. Better to get out and play sports than to always sit and watch it.

      Who knows? You might even get in some catechesis and spirituality, too.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Your right Rosemary if I sill had a parish I would do that.

  • Cheryl Jefferies

    I had to smile when I read your point about leaving Mass early. Some years ago, my husband and I were music ministers in our parish and “did” the Saturday evening Mass at our church. And yes, it did bother us when folks tripped out early before the the last hymn was done. After one business trip, my husband related what had happened when he went to Mass at his travel site. The problem of the “early-out” was occurring there, too, and that priest had some interesting words on that matter for his parishioners. He made three points: 1. He reminded them that the Mass was not fully and completely ended until the very last word of the last hymn had been sung. 2. He noted that some folks were taking the last hymn as a chance to “get out while the gettin’ was ‘good’.” 3. He reminded them that the Last Supper, which was the first “Mass,” so to speak, only one person left early. And, we all know who that person was. Well, that day, in that parish, no one made a move to leave until the last word of the last hymn had stopped echoing. No one wanted to be like “that person” who, 2000 years ago, had left the presence of our Lord early.

    • Florian

      However, if chaos breaks out after the last word the Priest speaks, it’s best to leave early in my opinion. We have just received the Lord in the Eucharist and we need time and quiet to reverence this moment, to listen to the voice of the One who is fully alive within us….I too have heard the Priest talk about those who leave early but I have never, ever heard a Priest speak about being respectful to those who wish to pray, to reflect after receiving Christ in the Eucharist…well, once a Priest did and it worked. This has nothing to do with a person who left the presence of Our Lord early 2000 years ago. This is about those who deeply desire to remain quietly and reverently in the Presence of the Lord within…there is a great difference.

    • SJ Man

      That happened in our church a number of years ago when our Pastor gave everyone the lecture about who left early at the first Mass. No one left early that Sunday. The next week, everyone was back to their “leaving-early” ways. Shows what respect people have these days for Pastors’ words when they go contrary to their comforts of getting out of the parking lot easier.

  • lwhite

    Why do authors of articles on this and other websites only refer to Vatican II or Vatican II popes (where orthodoxy is never clear) when the history of the Church has a plethora of unquestionably orthodox writings by previous Councils, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, Saints, and Holy popes available to all through the Internet on everything Catholic?

    It is as though to them nothing the Church taught prior to Vatican II has any value or pertains to us today.

    Personally, I depend upon the past popes and councils to teach me the true Catholic faith where there is no ambiguity and confusion and thus I can depend upon not having to read endless explanations from various sources as to what the current pope means when he speaks or writes something or what the meaning of some Vatican II Council document actually meant.
    Christ told us that the truth would set us free. Truth. Clarity. Not ambiguity or confusion.

    When I attended the Novus Ordo, (in several different places), it was commonplace for people to enter Mass late and leave early. Also common was sloppy and immodest dress one would wear to the beach or sporting event, constant chattering, no place in the sanctuary to pray without interruption, and pop tunes that gave me headaches. None of this is commonplace in the church where the Traditional Mass is said. An entirely different “culture” to say the least.

  • Jill

    Fr. Bramwell, my husband and I are converts from Protestantism and were used to ‘services’ in which many songs were sung. That was what was called ‘worship’, as you probably know. At Mass now, we always stay until the final hymn is sung, unless it’s horrid, which some are from time to time. But my question to you is this: Why does the priest leave the altar so early? If you want the people to stay and sing the entire hymn, then you ought to remain on the altar until the last verse is almost over. Be a good example. If you think we should stay, shouldn’t you stay, too? Forgive me if that seems impertinent, but Protestant pastors always stayed until the end – and sang with gusto!

    • Diane

      No, because just like a bride and groom leave the Church first, the priest leaves first with the Cross in front of him so that we praise Jesus one more time when they are leaving. Also, the priest should welcome the flock outside of the Church, so he needs to get there first.

      • Jill

        That’s why I suggested that he leave just before the hymn is over so that he can be outside before everyone else, but only just. I’ll bet if you ask people, they’ll say they see his leaving the church as the sign for their leaving the church, too. And I don’t ever recall singing a closing hymn at a wedding. Not really a fair comparison.

        • Diane

          There is always a closing hymn at a wedding Mass. Actually, the priest in my parish usually waits to the second verse before he starts leaving and if everyone wants to follow him after that, then, it is OK.

  • Dave Fladlien

    I guess I really “missed the boat” on the singing thing: I thought the concluding song was a recessional hymn, to be sung *while* leaving, just as the processional song was to be sung while coming in to Mass.

    Frankly, though, most “religious” music (there are some profound exceptions which many traditional Catholics would despise), bores me to tears, and makes a constant distraction from Mass. I battled that problem just this evening at Sunday Mass. I’m a high-energy person, and any music that isn’t simply starts my mind wandering off onto something else. I didn’t have anything like that problem with the old Mass where we actually followed along with words of the Mass, the words the Priest was saying.

    Maybe the best argument would be in favor of the old Masses we used to have which had *no* singing!

    • James Stagg

      Nope. There is hope! Read the new issue of Homiletic and Pastoral Review article on Church music.

      Besides, the recessional hymn is not a part of the Mass (it is not in the GIRM). When the deacon (or priest) says “Go!”, go. They have the last word, “the Mass is ended!” We say “Thanks be to G-d”, and leave. No insane rendition of “Let There be Peace of Earth” is required.