Monday, November 20th, 2023

On the Church and Her Enemies

A Homily for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost

To me nothing is so consoling, so piercing, so thrilling, so overcoming, as the Mass, said as it is among us. I could attend Masses forever, and not be tired. It is not a mere form of words — it is a great action, the greatest action that can be on earth.

So said Cardinal Newman in his novel, Loss and Gain. And no one in this church this morning is so much as tempted to disagree. Of course, we hold this to be true in large measure because of what is in the Mass: this great liturgical action enshrines the deep mystery of transubstantiation. That ordinary bread and wine, under the action of the consecrating formula, become what a moment prior they were not–the true Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ. The Church receives this doctrine from Christ Himself, she hands it on, and she adores. That explains what you and I are about this morning.

However, there are of course other wonders contained in the Holy Mass. And that is my first point: each week, a new grace is also available to us. Yes, our contact with the Most Blessed Sacrament is reason enough to be here. But in this Sacrament, Our Blessed Lord comes to us with a specific grace, a definite word, a focused work to do in our souls. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to God Almighty, to try to catch this special grace, and we catch it by taking seriously the texts of each and every Mass.

As a way to be very specific, I want to zero in on the Gospel. Is there a parable more needed in our times than this, the story of the weeds and the wheat? It is a parable of the Church. The first thing we notice is that the man sowed good seed. It is not just any seed; its quality is not neutral: it is good seed. The deep-down character of the Church is fundamentally good. Where she is truly, good fruit is the inevitable result. No Catholic should tolerate the speech of anyone who says that the Church is corrupt. That is a blasphemy against the good seed of grace.

As any first-year student of metaphysics knows, it is necessary to discover and understand the constant, unchanging principles of reality before one can come to knowledge of changeable things. The rules have to be learned before the exceptions. To understand the Church, we must act in the same way. It is not enough to evince the bad actors in the Church and conclude that she is faulty. If we do this, it is because we have not yet read the second sentence of the parable.

“But while men were asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds.” We note two things. First, it was while men were sleeping that the enemy was able to do his work. A lack of a certain vigilance is at play here. “The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.”1 The sleep of the Apostles in Gethsemani is foreshadowed. But secondly, now we see that bad seed is introduced into the field. Only now can we speak of corruption and disorder. Weeds works against the nature of a well-tilled plot. They sap the soil, choke the growing stems, and spoil the intended fruits. The enemy is Satan, who works at cross-purposes against Christ in an effort to disrupt the harvest He intends to gather. And Satan’s primary object of opposition is the Church. It cannot be otherwise, since he cannot harm Christ Himself; he must strike at His body.

The servants are confused, but only for a moment. They do not doubt that good seed has been sown; they are not in doubt regarding the intentions of their master; they merely look for the missing information.2 It is given to them; it is given to us: “An enemy hath done this.” Inimicus homo hoc fecit. Therefore, just as the servants in the parable, you and I have no excuse to be confused. So we arrive at the second major point this morning: we do well to have serene minds in our troubled times. Our Lord offers us the gift of understanding in order to dispel the darkness of confusion. No thinking Catholic need be confused; no prayerful Catholic need be dismayed.

Of course, the servants ask the logical followup question: “Fine, then: if an enemy is to blame, would you have us do something about it?” The answer is direct and mysterious: “No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.” That qualification ought to give us pause. There is more here than is easy to say. Somehow it is the case that Our Lord’s custody of us can account for both the good and the bad in the Church. I wonder if we forget that sometimes. Yet moreover, somehow it’s the case that outright harm would come to the wheat if the weeds were everywhere and instantly eradicated. I do not pretend to know how that is, but it is clear that Our Lord is teaching it.

I have left out much; but we should conclude. Certainly a shrugging indifference is neither what Our Lord is teaching nor what I am suggesting. But at this Holy Mass, He is communicating the grace to see everything with a calm, supernatural eye. The Catholic public discourse today often lacks this quality. We can be at peace when we see the weeds growing freely, in the Church abroad and within our own hearts.

There are many souls who go the way of rejecting the Church because of scandal. But I say that every apostate has, in some way or another, failed to hear and to understand this parable–plain and simple. It is a certain immaturity of mind and hardness of will that leads to apostasy. And yet, not wanting to be unfair, perhaps we should say that it is a question of impatience and lack of courage. Perhaps the apostate is the one who refuses to wait; who refuses to be like the servants who suffer with the master’s delay until the harvest. Because that is another certainty taught by the parable: there will be a harvest. There will be a fire and a gathering into the divine storehouse. This may or may not occur in our times; but does that make it any less certain? We would be fools to think so.

To end where we began, Cardinal Newman is correct: there is no thrill and consolation like the Holy Mass. Here, we are consoled and thrilled if we learn the habit, not of wracking our brains with controversy, but of really taking seriously the difficult graces contained here. Everyone here is doing his or her level best to pass on and to keep the Catholic faith; keep at it. The Holy Mass will not hear your excuses or mine about how difficult this can be at times. For the Mass anticipates our complaint: or is today’s collect meaningless outside of these four walls? “Keep Your family, O Lord, within Your unending goodness: that we who lean solely upon Your hope may be defended by Your help.” The Holy Mass is a thrill and consolation because we only celebrate certainties here, not contingencies. Such certain graces are active to the extent we believe this. “Go, your faith has saved you,” Our Lord says many times in the Gospel. And our love of the Holy Mass is less than what it could be if it does not leave us with a certain, habitual peace and assurance.

The purity and goodness of the Church is here. Our Roman Mass is an exquisite work of grace, pouring out the Heart of Christ. One Mass is enough to place an everlasting seal of wonder and consolation on the Catholic soul. Please God someday we will understand it.

  1. Matthew 26, 41. ↩︎
  2. Much like Our Lady at her meeting with St Gabriel. It was not a matter of doubted intentions, but of the hope to know more. ↩︎

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