In Canto XXVII of Dante’s Inferno, we meet Guido da Montefeltro, a soul damned for giving fraudulent counsel to Pope Boniface VIII. In his lifetime, this lost soul spoke only when he had the promise of impunity, and now, even from the abyss of hell, his reticence to speak his mind consumes him.
He tells Dante that he will respond only if his remarks remain eternally “off the record”:
If I believed that my reply were made
to one who to the world would e’er return,
this flame would stay without another quiver;
but inasmuch as, if I hear the truth,
none e’er returned alive from this abyss,
fearless of infamy I answer thee.
T.S. Eliot uses Guido’s confession as the epigraph to his “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Prufrock being a man likewise consumed by a paralyzing obsession with the opinion of others. From his own self-imposed hell of insecurity Prufrock admits:
Though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker. . .
And in short, I was afraid.
In the troubled days, our Churchmen, à la Prufrock, through their silence, seem to make the same lament: I would speak my mind, but for “fear of infamy.” I would defend the Church, but “I was afraid.” They risk not only refusal of greatness, but far graver consequences.
Great civilizations are maintained, in their hour of crisis, by those willing to pay the price. As Winston Churchill and King George VI faced the threat of Nazi invasion and the collapse of Western Civilization, they preferred to risk everything, in action, rather than go out with a whimper. As the Revolutionary militia stood firm on Lexington Common, they risked their fortunes, their sacred honor, and their very lives.
Both, on the brink – outnumbered, outflanked, and overwhelmed — held their ground and were willing to fight to the death. Being willing to lose everything is often the prerequisite to preserving and defending anything.
Some years ago in Rome, I found myself walking alongside the majestic walls of the Vatican. I looked up at the papal crests along the battlements, appreciating the profundity of the patrimony contained therein, and asked the Lord, “Why are You giving me all of this?”
“So you can remember,” was the clear and distinct answer.
Only something that might be forgotten needs to be remembered. Is it possible that the Church, in all the splendor of Her Tradition, Her teaching, vibrant sacramental life, and discipline could pass out of memory? “Walk through Zion,” says the Psalmist, “walk all round it; count the number of its towers, review all its ramparts, examine its castles, that you may tell the next generation that such is our God.” (Psalm 48)
In a compelling lecture given just this August at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Robert Royal warned of the profoundly worrisome phenomenon of amnesia, which is threatening our world and the Church:
Both the Church and the world at present, are suffering from a kind of civilizational amnesia and we can’t expect to get well unless we reconnect with the large swaths of our own past that have either been overlooked or forgotten. . . .Not to know our past is to be ignorant of God’s saving work in history.
Cardinals Brandmüller and Burke in their recent letters to the College of Cardinals, address the destructive potential of simply choosing to wait the crisis out: “We must face serious challenges to the integrity of the Deposit of the Faith, the sacramental and hierarchical structure of the Church and its Apostolic Tradition,” Brandmüller wrote. “With all this has been created a situation never before seen in the Church’s history, not even during the Arian crisis of the fourth and fifth century.”
Burke boldly stated: “The disturbing propositions of the Instrumentum laboris [of the Amazon Synod], portend an apostasy from the Catholic faith.”
In the face of such crippling amnesia, we will be called upon, soon and unequivocally, to remember. We will need to remember that Christianity is rooted in the Incarnation. We will need to remember the sacramental nature of Marriage, Holy Orders, and the Holy Eucharist. We will need to remember the tenets of the Creed of the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church. We will need to remember the Deposit of the Faith, and to teach that Faith with clarity and conviction.
And our faithful Cardinals, in particular, will be called upon to protect the patrimony of the Church, even to the point of martyrdom, the reason for which they so prominently wear red.
In their recently published “Clarification About the Meaning of Fidelity to the Supreme Pontiff,” Cardinal Burke and Bishop Athanasius Schneider declare: “With the grace of God, we are ready to give our lives for the truth of the Catholic faith about the Primacy of Saint Peter and his successors, should persecutors of the Church ask us to deny this truth. We look to the great examples of fidelity to the Catholic truth of Petrine Primacy, such as St. John Fisher, a bishop and cardinal of the Church, and St. Thomas More, a layman, and many other Saints and Confessors, and we invoke their intercession.”
He will use our hearts to remember “God’s saving work in history.” He will use our courageous witness to tell the next generation that such is Our God, “Our God forever and always. . . .It is He who leads us.” (Psalm 48)
*Image: The Crusaders Reach Jerusalem designed by Domenico Paradisi, c. 1700 [The MET, New York]