July 2018 Faith Community Reflection
Fr Alex Strachan
In May 1932, only days before my mother was born, the Holy Father published an encyclical letter on, ‘The Troubles of Our Time: A Call to Prayer and Penance.’
Before 1968, new encyclicals were keenly anticipated among the faithful. Catholic Truth Society publications made these popular in Britain. Contents would be summarised, in parish sermons, for the less-literate. In this instance, its Latin title, ‘Caritate Christi Compulsi,’ revealed Pope Pius XI’s motivation.
An unprecedented spiritual and material distress, on a Global scale, deeply troubled the Sovereign Pontiff, Ambrogio Ratti. ‘Urged by the charity of Christ,’ he made bold prophesy.
It had been he who restored the benediction, ‘Urbi et Orbi,’ to the city and to the world, as to underscore that Vatican City was a friend to all people of good will. He had established Vatican Radio, and been the first successor of Peter to speak on air.
But the Europe of May 1932 was witnessing evermore menacing problems; rejection of democracy, mutual distrust, hateful envy, and hysterical, irrational, attacks on social order, fostered by groups and governments hellbent on ‘struggle against religion and against God Himself.’
Unable to stay silent, in defence of ‘the downtrodden rights of God, and of the most sacred sentiments of the human heart that has an absolute need of God,’ Pius XI confronted the human race. Are you for God or against Him? In all walks of life, this deciding factor in ‘the destinies of all mankind,’ demanded an answer.
History records the subsequent rise of Hitler, and that of holy young people, in parallel. Carrying his cross, faithful to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Pope Pius XI died aged 81, months before World War again broke out. By then many had listened; most famously Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein, who, by the Holy Spirit, had been drawn ‘to the highest Christian ideals […] ready for every sacrifice, even the most heroic.’ But many had not. Spiritual conflict played out to death.
The greedy, egotistical, individualistic, deceitful, arrogant and proud – of that generation – had a choice to remain so, or become selfless, self-effacing, communitarian, honest, modest and humble saints, at least in God’s sight. Murderer could become martyr, or simply mirror of grace.
Social crisis and moral crisis, then as now, grew from many losing faith. Faith, once given, can be poisoned, perhaps extinguished altogether, by sin. Faith Movement teaches and lives to protect, develop, and encourage the belief given us by God. The Good News, that not bread alone, but every word of God, is necessary for us to live, calls to mind human dependence on Jesus, Word and sacrament. Surely, then, prayer must be my first priority? ‘To no other pious work,’ wrote the Holy Father, ‘have ever been attached such ample, such universal, such solemn promises as to prayer’ (quoting Matthew 7: 7, and John 16: 23).
What weapons does the Church provide for spiritual conflict? ‘Prayer and Penance.’ Pius XI recommended Confession as the primary source of personal purification. He dared to speak of ‘appeasing divine Justice with external works of penance as well.’ An idea suppressed is an idea forgotten. When did you last hear of appeasing divine Justice? Suggesting it risks mockery. But then, some people once amused themselves screaming, ‘”Hail, King of the Jews!”’ (Matthew 27: 29). In 1932 the Pope had already encountered ‘“the autonomous man”,’ the atheist intellectual, who disdained penance as if it were the mark of an idiot-slave.
Today the enemy, the Devil, tempts by suggesting prayer is unimportant and unnecessary. I know that from experience. As a 54-year-old, I have had the privilege of experiencing awesome good from God, where prayer has been involved, but not always occurring coincidentally. Outward acts of penance can be done, in discrete fashion, and to an appropriate degree, according to your state in life. Seek wise spiritual direction on this matter.
To what end should this effort and sacrifice be directed? Preservation on earth of faith in one God living and true. On that peace and civilisation thrive. As in 1932, is now, a battle played out to death.