I wish to address today on the subject:
(1) of the present position, and
(2) of the prospects of the Church. Let us begin by invoking the aid of the Holy Ghost.
1. In my last sermon I showed you how the Catholic Church adheres with inviolable fidelity to her Divinely taught doctrines regarding faith and morals, not allowing them to suffer the smallest modification. In this way she is the sole teacher of truth, the sole source of salvation, and the firmest anchorage of hope, and she will continue to be such, even if everything else crumbles into ruin.
This loyal adherence to the deposit of truth that she preserves is the most certain token of her Divine origin, but at the same time it gives rise to many attacks on the part of those outside the Church, and even on that of her own children, so that her position is rendered very perilous.
(a) Heresy is the first antagonist assailing the Church on account of her loyalty; and heresy assumes so many forms that it is impossible to enumerate them. However widely these forms may differ from one another, and however bitterly they may be opposed, they all agree in hatred of the Catholic Church. Most teachers of heresy at the present day refuse to acknowledge any God, any truth and any religion that is not the outcome of their own intellect, and whatever stands as an obstacle in the way of their arrogance, incurs their hatred and hostility. As they cannot actually attack Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of God, His heavenly Father, they do their utmost to undermine all faith in His Divinity and in the redemption that He accomplished, and they reject His promises, His teaching and His Sacraments. Above all do they direct their fury against the Church that He founded, because she preserves and proclaims the faith, and administers the means of salvation.
I need hardly remind you of the efforts that are being made to injure, and if possible to annihilate, the Church. No method is too foul for the various heretical teachers to employ in order to attain their base and godless aims. Sometimes they represent the Church as an obsolete institution, that has lost all efficiency with lapse of time; sometimes they accuse her of shrouding men in darkness and of tyrannizing over conscience; and they never weary of trying to injure her by means of lies, calumnies, ridicule and all sorts of diabolical devices. Go where one will, everywhere one encounters these lying slanders and suspicions of the Church; they meet us in the streets and highways, in books and newspapers, and it is hardly possible to join in any conversation or to take up a paper without having cause to remember our Saviour's warning to beware of false prophets. But this is not all. These enemies of the Church are not content with attacking the Church herself, but they assail her members individually, and try in every way to make them turn against her, or at least become indifferent to her teaching. They assign to her children inferior positions in civil life and undermine their reputation and fortune, whilst those who are lukewarm or apostates are loaded with favors and honors. In order to insure the success of their plans, our enemies ally themselves with men of every class, high and low, rich and poor, learned and simple, and often with the secular government.
Sometimes, however, they do not appear as ravening wolves, nor do they assail us openly, but they put on sheep's clothing and look like innocent lambs and then they are still more dangerous to the Church and her children. They know how to disguise their false doctrines under a semblance of Christian charity, and pretend to have at heart nothing but the welfare of mankind and the good of the whole human race. Hence they profess to believe in Jesus Christ and to desire to uproot unbelief; they say that they have no wish to limit the work of Christ, but only to purify it from human principles and additions; they maintain that it is their intention to reform, but not to destroy, the Church. They make these and many similar assertions, hoping thus to lure the unsuspicious into their snares and bring about their ruin. You must all know by experience that my account is not exaggerated, and you will agree with me in thinking that all this constitutes a grave danger to the Church at the present time. The socialists are now among the worst and most dangerous enemies that she has to encounter; Their first article of faith is: "There is no God;" the second is; ''There is no future life," and the third makes pleasure the supreme law. Hence all their efforts are directed primarily at robbing men of faith in God and Christ and in all that the Catholic Church requires us to believe. When faith is gone, the ten Commandments must also cease to be the rule governing the thoughts and actions of men, and in their place is propounded to us as the one supreme law: "Enjoy all sensual pleasures to their fullest extent, since everything ends at death."
If the leaders, who have been initiated into the secrets of socialism were to state this rule; and others derived from it, in plain unmistakable terms to those whom they wish to win over to their party, all who still have in their hearts even a spark of Christian feeling would turn away from them in horror. So they begin by destroying the faith of Christians and by making them indifferent to religion; they speak of all kinds of advantages and enjoyments to be derived from socialism, and unhappily they find among ignorant and credulous people only too many who follow their leaders like a flock of sheep.
(b) In addition to the heresies assailing the Church from without, there is another no less deadly foe, that carries on his evil work within her very bosom. This is the spirit of worldliness, whichever since the time of St John has been like a venomous serpent trying to undo the work of God. This spirit is one of pride, avarice, and sensuality, and many Catholics who have become infected with it grow indifferent to the doctrines, commandments and practice of our holy religion. Their hearts, contaminated with this worldly spirit, seem almost incapable of aiming at anything higher thaik the gratification of their own selfishness and sensual desires. They look upon life as an amusement, and think of nothing but how to derive the most enjoyment from it; fancies, and on the other hand, they fear and depreciate all that runs counter to these faincies.
Can we wonder that such people care very little about the Church, which incessantly impresses upon the minds of her children the fact that life is a serious matter and that death and immortality are inevitable? The Church insists upon humble faith and apposes private judgment; by her strict moral teaching she condemns lives of sinful frivolity, and puts definite restraints upon the audacity of men's minds, the insolence of their hearts and the corruption of their morals, saying sternly! "Thus far and no further." With aching heart she calls upon her unruly children and implores God; but only too often they are deaf to her entreaties, and openly go over to the camp of the enemies, with whom they unite in assailing their Mother the Church. Is not this literally true? Are there not many who have given up going to church, and who for years have not received the Sacraments? Are there not many in public life who are ashamed of their religion, and if they do not actually join in ridiculing it, at least utter no word in its defense? Are there not many whose evil, godless mode of life brings shame and dishonor upon the Church? Are there not many who have publicly renounced her and joined the ranks of her enemies?
It is true that at the present time the Church is in a precarious position; as in the past she is still misjudged, calumniated, falsely accused and persecuted. The Bride of Christ encounters opposition on all sides, and the Cross which she sets up above each of her buildings is still to the Jews a stumbling-block, to the heathen folly, and to unbelievers an object of ridicule and scorn. Her members still experience the lot foretold by our Saviour to His disciples when He said: "Behold, I send you as lambs among wolves." "You shall be hated by all nations for My Name's sake." "They will put you out of the synagogues: yea, the hour cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doth a service to God." It is no longer with fire and sword that men attack the Church; no longer do hordes of barbarians threaten to overwhelm her; no longer are schisms the only evil devastating Christianity; the standard of Antichrist has been raised and acclaimed in our day, and there is a countless host of men, calling themselves Christians, who rally round this standard in order to oppose their own mother. There are deadly weapons employed to spread abroad indifference, worldliness, unbelief and godlessness. We have indeed great reason for anxiety, and it is a disgrace when the Church is in peril for any Christian to look on with indifference, and not lift a hand to defend her. We may well fear for ourselves; for our intellect, that it may not be led astray; for our heart, that it may not be deceived; for our courage, that it may not fail; for our constancy, that it may not waver; and for our crown, that it be not lost. But for the Church we have no right to fear. In spite of all perils we must not feel alarm on her account, but cherish the fairest hopes, as I am about to show you.
2. Although, as I have said, the Church is at the present day in a dangerous position; we need not fear for her, but we ought to look forward with hope and confidence to her increasing growth and prosperity. We are justified in so doing because hitherto she has invariably come forth triumphant from the worst persecutions and struggles, and so the most violent attacks upon her have only served to multiply her victories. The position in which she now stands is nothing new to her; she was in worse plight when pagans raged against her children with fire and sword, inflicting indescribable tortures and slaying thousands for their faith. She was in worse plight when heretics, in league with the secular power, tried by violence to rob her of her members. She was in worse plight in the 16th century, when millions fell away and rebelled against her, causing a terrible war that raged for thirty years, and brought unspeakable misery upon Europe. The Church was founded at the foot of the Cross, persecutions could not check her growth or dim her glory, and the holy age when the martyrs shed their blood and the Church groaned under the oppression of cruel tyrants, was nevertheless the period of her greatness and triumph. The blood of martyrs was the seed whence fresh converts sprang, and persecutions aroused the sluggish and indifferent from their inactivity, steeled their courage and kindled the sacred fire of zeal for and loyalty to the faith. If the Church is robbed of many of her children in one country, others are born to her elsewhere, who console her for the losses she has suffered. In spite of incessant persecutions the Church of Christ, so small at the first Pentecost that one room in Jerusalem contained all her members, now numbers about 300,000,000, spread over the whole world. How, then, is it possible to be anxious as to her future? Although, as the prophet says (Ps. ii, 2) : "The kings of the earth stood up and the princess met together, against the Lord and against his Christ," He frustrates all their plans. A host of enemies may assail the Church, but she will never perish, for with her is He to whom all power is given in heaven and on earth. The devils in hell may employ all their cunning and all their weapons against her, but she will not be overthrown, because "she is built upon a rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her." Christ founded her at a time when everything was against her; He caused her to grow and increase, when circumstances seemed utterly opposed to her progress; He has preserved her for nineteen centuries, and whilst empires and kingdoms have risen and fallen, she has remained unchanged; surely He will keep her safe and protect her from the dangers now threatening her. He is bound to do so, for He said: "Behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world." Heaven and earth may pass away, but His Word will not pass away.
The coming of the happy time when, in accordance with our Saviour's promise, there shall be one fold and one shepherd, is continually drawing nearer, so many are the converts to Catholicism in all countries. And who are these converts? Are they people devoid of faith, intelligence, fear of God and virtue, as are most of those, who in the last few years have left the Church? No, they are the best and noblest of the nation, men who, after spending years in study, have arrived at the conviction that the Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ. And why have they forsaken the Church to which they belonged? Many who leave the Catholic Church do so in order to be free from restraints upon their passions, or to draw attention to themselves and gain credit for being men of intellect. Is this the case with converts to the Church? Or do they expect to derive any prestige from joining her? No, indeed; they are well aware that the laws of the Catholic Church are far stricter than those of any other religious body, and they know that their conversion will bring upon them hatred, ridicule and contempt, and, if they have hitherto been ministers or teachers, they have to sacrifice their position and income. Nevertheless they come into the Church, renouncing all that the world can offer them, impelled of course primarily by God's grace, but also by their love of truth, the force of their conviction and desire to save their souls. They prefer to lose wealth and honor rather than to imperil their salvation; they choose to be objects of contempt and ridicule to men rather than to be abandoned by God; they think it better to reduce themselves and their families to poverty, than to live in luxury and suffer the loss of their souls.
When men such as I have described, occupying prominent positions, are received into the Catholic Church, she feels such intense joy that it consoles her in her sorrow over the apostasy and indifference of others, and justifies her hope that their example may induce many more to follow them.
During the last few years a new and vigorous spirit has pervaded the Church, heralding the coming of a second spring. The attacks Upon the Church have certainly caused some unworthy sheep to quit the fold, but they have also aroused many who were indifferent, and recalled to their allegiance many who were wayward. Many waverers have been confirmed in their faith and many lifeless members have been quickened to that fresh life, which makes itself felt in the Church and gives rise to fair hopes for the future. Moreover, many associations have recently been formed, having as their aim the religious education of children, the promotion of religion among girls and boys, men and women, the publication and circulation of good books, the support of missions, the erection of churches and the maintenance of priests and teachers in districts where Catholics are few, and without priest, church or school. The existence of such associations augurs well for the future.
Another circumstance that may well make us hopeful for the Church and very thankful to God, is that the Holy Ghost has given the Church, in the person of Benedict XV, a sovereign pontiff uniting in himself many most excellent qualities, and capable of coping with all the demands made upon him. Let us offer our homage to him, the supreme ruler and head of the Church! May God destroy his enemies and crown with success his noble efforts for the welfare of the nations and of holy Church! May He hear the prayer that rises daily from the hearts of millions of Catholics all over the world, imploring God to grant happiness to the Pope and growth and prosperity to the Church!
There is then good reason even at the present time for being hopeful, and our hopes will not be shattered, if only we stand firm with unwavering faith, and in loyal obedience to God and His Church, and if we persevere in earnest, fervent prayer.
Let us with heart and voice echo the following beautiful words, uttered by a great man (Ventura) in his enthusiasm for the faith: "O holy Roman Church, Mother of Churches and of all the faithful, and chosen by God to unite all His children in the same faith and the same charity; we will ever maintain thy unity from the very depths of our souls. If ever I forget thee, O holy Roman Church, may I forget myself, may my tongue wither and cleave to my mouth, if I think not first of thee, exult not in thee, and regard it not as my chief glory to be thy child. Hail, holy Church, great mother of us all! At our entrance into the world thou welcomest us, thou upholdest us in this vale of tears, where we are exiles from our true home, and thou keepest us in safety. May none of us ever be so unhappy as to forsake or scorn thee, espedaily at this time when many of our brethren, once cut off by heresy from thee and us, are stretching out their hands to the see of Peter, and coming to thee, who wast of old their mother, and who, despite their errors, hast not ceased to call them back. O tender mother, open thine arms and receive thy wayward children, returning from the paths of error to cast themselves at thy feet, may thy prayers, thy power and thy strength hasten the ardently desired moment, when for all Christians there shall be but one fold and one Shepherd!" ,
May that happy day soon dawn which shall bring back faith, peace and religious and political unity to all the world. We can hasten its coming, by the steadfastness of our faith, by our spirit of union and obedience, by the fervor of our prayers and the purity of our lives, so that at last we may see the fulfilment of our Saviour's promise: "Other sheep I have, that are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one fold and one Shepherd" (John x, 16). Amen.