Defending St Alphonsus

It is interesting (and indeed welcome) to have some reaction to the prayer of St Alphonsus. "Anonymous sinner" struggles with the notion of a God who will damn people for an unrepented mortal sin, "Peter" thinks that recommending St Alphonsus is as loopy as promoting devotion to St Philomena, and an elderly priest questions the relevance of 18th century prayers for today.

Regular readers of the blog will not be surprised to find that I stick firmly to my guns on this one. Being thought "loopy" is certainly no deterrent. (St Philomena, pray for us.)

I do not find St Alphonsus' focus on the last things in any way gloomy or morbid. Hell is rarely mentioned nowadays except to try to explain why nobody is likely to go there; and yet it is a part of our faith expressed unambiguously in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For that matter, it would be difficult to read the gospels honestly without accusing Jesus Christ of having the same preoccupation as St Alphonsus.

The point of St Alphonsus' prayers is not to make us all live in a state of perpetual anxiety but to motivate us to love God. The horror of sin has largely disappeared from Catholic spirituality and therefore people routinely commit sins that are objectively grave matter without the least idea that there might be an eternal danger in such a way of life, or even that they might be a reason not to go to Holy Communion before confessing them.

More seriously still, we have lived through an era in the Church when priests have engaged in grossly immoral behaviour, even sexually abusing children and young people - yet carried on saying Mass and ministering the sacraments without any sense that their sacramental ministry was sacrilegious. The possibility of eternal damnation seems not to have occurred to anyone.

Father anonymous asks whether any priests nowadays say the preparatory and thanksgiving prayers before and after Mass. He is probably right that these are rare and that people are surprised (even upset) if Father asks them to be quiet in Church before and after Mass or if he is not available immediately to sign Mass cards or have a chat.

Where he is wrong in my opinion, is to say that these prayers and those of St Alphonsus are anachronisms and will not come back. Expressive as they are of the eternal truths of our faith, they speak to our fallen human nature in a way that can never become outdated. I rejoice in the Holy Father's Motu Proprio freeing the Classical Roman Rite. But I think this must be accompanied by classical roman priestly piety and asceticism if there is to be a real reform in the Church. It is quite possible for the priest to pray before and after Mass - if he does, he will find that the people also catch on and the Church becomes quieter and more prayerful. If he is clearly saying the vesting prayers while vesting, people will soon learn that he does not encourage conversation at that time. There are plenty of other times he can talk to people and show what a jolly chap he is.

Whichever period of history you choose, whichever style of spiritual writing, whichever favourite saint, the reform of the Church, and particularly of the clergy, has always begun with a focus on the eternal truths, our unworthiness to minister at the altar, the infinite mercy of God and the objectively real prospect of either eternal happiness in heaven or eternal torment in hell.

The particular genius of St Alphonsus was to blend meditations on hell with a heartfelt sense of the infinite love of God who will do anything in his power to keep us from such a fate. In recent years, "spirituality" has ignored the eternal truths in favour of "self-esteem", being "integral", excusing ourselves because of our "brokenness", being a "whole person" and generally making sure that we always feel comfortable with ourselves, never have any fear of the loss of grace - and never really change.

Yes, the eternal truths are scary. St John Chrysostom said that in the presence of the august sacrifice of Christ in the Mass, we should be in fear and trembling with our hair standing on end. The almost total loss of this sense of holy fear from Catholic spiritual teaching is an even greater mark of the hermeneutic of rupture than the abandonment of the traditional roman liturgy.

The second-hand bookshops mentioned by Father are changing. The unwanted books are more likely to be the stacks of yellowing paperbacks from the 1960s and 70s promoting a new and easier spirituality: "self-actualization" and the "search for intimacy" that proved the shipwreck of so many priestly and religious lives. The "stacks of old piety" are being eagerly bought up by the younger clergy because they offer a solid and practical rule of life for the priest.

St Francis Xavier on the missions, St Francis de Sales converting 70,000 calvinists, St Charles Borromeo visiting his mountain parishes, St Robert Bellarmine engaged on his voluminous writing, Blessed Damien Veuster caring for those with leprosy, St John Bosco doing his wonderful work for boys - all these and countless priests who followed their teaching and example said the pre-Pius X breviary, made a meditation or two each day, and spent time in preparation and thanksgiving for Mass. They fasted, did penance, worked hard, took little time off, feared hell, desired heaven, loved God, and gave their lives in the service of others. They were the most "rounded" of "fully human" characters. Their way of life and the prayers they said will never be anachronistic because they express the timeless bedrock of genuine priestly piety. We will never reform the Church or ourselves without it.

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