Tag Archives: C.S. Lewis

On Keeping Our Kids Catholic: The Indispensable Minimum

24 May

I’ve found that being a parent is about
learning to embrace your inner hypocrite.
~ Tom Kenny

The word is out from Rod Dreher that “Catholicism is failing in America.” Dreher looked at an interpretation of the recent Pew Research Center report on American religiosity, and he paints a pretty bleak picture. Roman Catholics are already falling behind Evangelicals in terms of conversion and member retention, and within a generation or two we’ll be a sorry minority. “If current trends continue,” Dreher writes, “Catholicism would come very close to collapsing in this country.”

young-adults-praying-montageWhat to do? To the ramparts! Look at the Evangelicals – they’re winning! So, we need more programs! More marketing! More jazzy youth meetings and young adult encounters. Guitar Masses and drums – or no-guitar, no-drum Masses, depending on focus group results. “Become all things to all men,” as Paul modeled, and then some! More internet! More streaming video! More tweets!

And Catholic families? All this hubbub is especially troubling to conscientious parents who strive to form their children in the Faith. Given the troubling stats and trends, it’s understandable that we’d be reduced to hand-wringing and agonizing. “My teens are bored,” we opine. “They want something…else,” followed by the kicker question: “How are we going to keep our kids in the Church?”

But that’s the wrong question.

This might sound callous, but I just don’t think it’s our job as parents to keep our kids in the Church, even in the short-term. That’s God’s job and, frankly, the job of our kids once they’re making decisions for themselves. Our job as parents is a lot more prosaic – and, consequently, a lot more challenging. “Parents have the most grave obligation,” reads the Code of Canon Law, “to do all in their power to ensure their children’s physical, social, cultural, moral and religious upbringing.” In other words, our grave obligation as far as the Faith is concerned is comparable to our obligations regarding food and shelter: Provide what is necessary for our children to thrive and flourish – to give them a good start on making it on their own. “Why?” Fr. John Hardon asks of this grave obligation to form our kids in the Faith. “In order to prepare them for eternal life in heaven. The only reason under God that parents even should bring children into the world is to prepare them for heaven.” Thus, it’s not my job to keep my children on the straight and narrow trajectory toward eternal life, but rather to prepare them for undertaking that task themselves.

For insight on how to carry out that grave duty, let’s turn to Dreher again. He writes that the average American Catholic worshiper “may find himself having to hold on to the truths of his faith by exercising his will and his imagination to an extraordinary degree, because lewis_pipewhat he sees happening around him does not convey what the Church proclaims to be true.” This might be news to Dreher and the folks at Pew Research; it ain’t news to the Church.

Indeed, it’s been that way from the beginning, starting with the Apostles themselves – including especially St. Peter, the first pope and betrayer-in-chief. There’s always been a disconnect between the visible Church – the one we ourselves inhabit in the here-and-now, the one with fallible, petty, sinful human beings in it like you and me – and the invisible Church “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners,” as C.S. Lewis described her. Using the voice of Screwtape, a senior demonic tempter, Lewis goes on to characterize the Christian’s experience of that disconnect in this way:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself…. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided…. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.

Sound familiar? Of course! It’s a great description of what the average Catholic has to go through every weekend, and it’s precisely why “exercising his imagination and will,” as Dreher puts it, is so crucially important. We’ll always come up against hypocrisy and dryness in the practice of the faith, regardless of location or epoch. Yet if, with God’s grace, we persevere – imagining that God might succeed in making even us saints and willing to seek after truth no matter the cost – then neither circumstances nor setbacks can ultimately deter us. “If once they get through this initial dryness successfully,” the more seasoned Screwtape warns his demon apprentice regarding a young Christian, “they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.”

A religious upbringing thus rooted in both a moral imagination that aspires to holiness and a will determined to affirm even unpopular truth becomes a lifeline of grace that keeps even the most wayward Catholic tethered to God – and can help him find his way home again. Chesterton’s Father Brown, relating his mediating role in helping restore a sinner to virtue, describes t220px-Gilbert_Keith_Chesterton2hat lifeline as a “thread:”

Father Brown looked him full in his frowning face. “Yes,” he said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

That thread, I think, should be our goal as parents: A thread of solid formation in morals and Church teaching that will keep even our most errant kids tethered to God – and which God himself can twitch to bring them back someday.

Let’s say I’m right, and the thread is the thing. Then the appropriate question to ask is not how to keep our kids in the Church, but rather this: How do we go about creating an ecclesial thread of imagination and will, and then getting our kids connected to it – particularly if, as sometimes happens, it might seem like our own thread is fraying. Speaking as a Catholic dad to other Catholic dads, let me cut to the bone with an answer: If nothing else, we need to daily attend to what the Catechism calls the “indispensable minimum” – otherwise known as the Precepts of the Church:

The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.

The precepts are certain obligatory behaviors and attitudes that our families, young and old, should take for granted because we ourselves, through our words and actions, take them for granted. They include the obligation to attend Mass on all Sundays and holy days (without exception and no excuses); to receive the Eucharist at Mass when properly disposed and at least annually, and to receive the sacrament of Penance at least once a year as well (just standing in line for confession is a public testimony that we take responsibility for our screw-ups, so the more frequent the better for our kids); to observe the laws of fasting and abstinence during Lent (again, this is priceless public testimony that we take the Faith seriously); and, finally, to provide “for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities” – that is, we tithe, even when the money is tight.

Even when we don’t feel like it. In fact, especially when we don’t feel like it. And that goes for all those precepts and duties.

Ought we do more than this indispensable minimum? No doubt! Certainly, vigorous and thorough catechetical instruction along with full sacramental initiation is also required for proper religious upbringing. Plus, daily prayer, even daily Mass; family Rosary and other devotions; the practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy – these are just a smattering of suggestions, but they all rely on the bedrock of those precepts and duties. When we enforce those, for ourselves and for our families, we silently, subtly, and powerfully shape the way our children navigate their worlds.

This was beautifully expressed by R&B singer Aaron Neville last week at Notre Dame. Neville was this year’s recipient of the University’s prestigious Laetare Medal that is bestowed on American Catholics who have made distinct and lasting contributions to the well-being of our society and the Church. “I hope I’m worthy of standing next to the people who have receivaaronneville110113wed it before me,” he said. “If it’s for me trying to get my life on the right track the way God wanted me too, then I am worthy, because I know, and God knows, that I’ve tried.” Neville went on:

My early life has been a preview of where I am now. It took who I was and where I came from to make me who I am. For that I have to thank my late parents, Arthur and Amelia Neville. They, along with the nuns at St. Monica’s Catholic School, especially Sister Damien, taught me morals and guidance. My Catholic upbringing helped me in some dark times.

Dark times? Yes, dark times that included drugs, larceny, and jail. Ah, but the thread was there, thanks to Sr. Damien and Neville’s parents – his parents who undoubtedly worried about their rebellious son and wondered how they could get him back to the Faith. It would probably come as a shock to them, but they had, in truth, already laid the necessary groundwork for that return years before simply by doing their job as Catholic parents: Teaching their son right from wrong, for instance, and, guiding him to respect the Church and Sr. Damien, not to mention the Blessed Mother and our Lord.

Then, in time, twitch! – and he was home.

Aside from continual and fervent prayer, I’m convinced that nurturing such an organic connection to the Church – however threadlike it might be, and no matter how threadbare our own connection may be – is the best gift we can give our kids. We hope and pray that they stay in the Church their whole lives, but if they stray? Let’s do everything we can now to ensure they can find their way home.


___________________________________

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Wheaton’s Catholic Speakeasy

13 Jul

You start reading C.S. Lewis, then you’re reading
G.K. Chesterton, then you’re a Catholic.
~ Ross Douthat

BEWARE!

That’s what it should say outside Wheaton College’s Marion E. Wade Center. If C.S. Lewis is a gateway drug to Catholicism, then the Wade Center’s promotion of Lewis and those who influenced him is equivalent to an evangelical opium den. At least it was for me.

Growing up in an evangelical milieu, I discovered C.S. Lewis early on by way of his Narnia tales. I can well remember the rush of wonder and delight that accompanied my exploration of that world of talking animals and moral nuance. Like so many, I ripped through all seven books one after another with hardly a pause in between, and then had to endure the vacuum created at the end when there was no more. Occasionally books will distress us because of how they end, but rarely because they end at all. The Narnia saga ranks in the latter category.cs_lewis_writing

After Narnia came Screwtape I think, and then The Great Divorce. I was in high school by the time I got around to reading the Space Trilogy, and somewhere along the way Mere Christianity. That whet my appetite for Lewis’ nonfiction, and I began dipping into more as I went off to college, particularly the wide ranging essays in God in the Dock.

What did Lewis teach me? First, a deep appreciation and anticipation of the supernatural – what Regis Martin calls the “numinous.” The numinous core of Lewis’ stories frequently even evoked a palpable response. Think of that tingly sensation you got as a kid when you faced the unknown – like when you went to summer camp for the first time, or your first mission trip overseas. It was a bit of fear, a bit of excitement, all tangled up with the sense that something important was at work. Moreover, encounters with the numinous in Lewis’ work are always mediated through encounters with things. The supernatural is never merely an abstraction in his stories – not just an idea or concept – but rather something incarnated and, consequently, something his characters bump into and trip over.

Lewis also introduced me to the idea of purgatory, and, through that, a much more profound desire for heaven. Through his stories and explanations, he showed me that Christianity went beyond avoiding sin and hell, and was ultimately about embracing a fullness of life, love, and joy. Lewis took the biblical Christianity that I’d been raised in and made it inhabitable – like that scene in the beginning of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where the children first gaze upon the painting of a wild sea, and then are actually drawn into it.

That was all harmless enough as far as it went. However, the more I read Lewis, the more I wanted to know about him, and by the time I got to Wheaton College, I marion-wade-center-sidewas primed for the kind of Catholic correlations that the Wade Center seems designed to elicit.

Back then, the Center was housed in an out-of-the-way corner of the library, and I recall some of that tingly sensation as I tracked it down one day. Among other things, I’d heard that they had various Lewis artifacts, including his Oxford desk and chair and the actual Lewis family wardrobe – the very furnishing that undoubtedly influenced the genesis of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. These were only “things,” to be sure, but they serve to connect the visitor with the author himself. And this, in turn, underscores the “thinginess” featured in Lewis’ writing – a sacramental vision of connecting with the unseen through the seen, with the ethereal by way of the concrete. For Lewis, ordinary things and events were never merely incidental. Instead, they were noble vehicles of grace and truth and revelation.

Even more significant for me, however, were the other six authors spotlighted by the Center: George Macdonald and Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers and Owen Barfield, J.R.R. Tolkien and, of course, G.K. Chesterton. The Wade Center’s main focus is unquestionably C.S. Lewis, but the others are featured as well because of their influence on or relationship to Lewis. They had their differences, but altogether they had a rich, incarnational vision of what the Christian life was about.

Thus, a visit to the Wade Center allows the seeker a chance to linger in the literary presence of all seven of these great British writers and thinkers. Just to be there – among their manuscripts and letters, portraits and paraphernalia – was to drink in, as it were, their grand vision of the Christian life and to become intoxicated with their convictions about faith as an adventure. These were heady influences for a young, impressionable undergraduate, and they were equally heady when I returned years later for a day trip from my new home at the Chicago Catholic Worker.

It was a confusing time for me, and my faith was in crisis. I had firsthand knowledge that my Catholic Worker friends were living the Gospel and clearly followers of Jesus. But they were…well, Catholic, and I couldn’t bring myself to seriously entertain formally joining their ranks, despite my inclinations. There were too many unanswered questions, too many practices that didn’t make sense, and lots of doctrine that didn’t seem to square with the Bible. What to do?

So, who better to turn to than my mentors at the Wade Center, and I took the train out to Wheaton for a draught or two of their inebriating influence.

While there, I was particularly drawn to the Chesterton collection. I’d read a few of his works – The Man Who Was Thursday, for instance, and Orthodoxy – and I knew that Chesteron’s apologetics were instrumental in Lewis’ own religious NPG P1318; Gilbert Keith ('G.K.') Chesterton by Herbert Lambertconversion. Plus, there was that curiosity that Chesterton himself had become a Catholic after having embraced Anglicanism for a time, so what was that about?

The librarian – the Wheaton librarian, mind you – directed me to Chesterton’s The Catholic Church and Conversion, in which the author humbly laid out a defense of his ecclesial switch. I couldn’t read it all that day, but I read enough to convince me that I needed to track down a copy when I got back to Chicago – which I did with no little difficulty (in the days before Amazon and the internet).

There’s no way I could adequately summarize Chesterton’s masterful arguments and magnificent illustrations here, but suffice it to say he had me hooked. He didn’t attempt to defend individual Catholic doctrines or practices, but instead defended the idea that they could indeed be defended. He insisted that being a Catholic was reasonable and good. He provided example after example of the Church’s internal consistency and lucidity, and challenged the reader to test them for himself. And, finally, in the end, Chesterton made it plain that he could see no other way forward.

But if a convert is to write of conversion he must try to retrace his steps out of that shrine back into that ultimate wilderness where he once really believed that this eternal youth was only the “Old Religion.”…The difficulty was expressed to me by another convert who said, “I cannot explain why I am a Catholic; because now that I am a Catholic I cannot imagine myself as anything else.”

G.K. Chesterton’s cause for canonization is now in process, and it may well be that the interest generated by the investigation could blow the cover off of Wheaton’s underground Catholic hideaway.

In any case, if all goes well, we’ll all be visiting the Wade Center as pilgrims someday – to gaze on Chesterton’s correspondence and possibly even venerate volumes from his personal library as so many relics. Wouldn’t that be ironic? Imagine it! Wheaton College, a Catholic pilgrimage destination! C.S. Lewis, I trust, would be pleased.
___________________________

A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Chaos, Ushers, and Handing Out God

12 Jan

Get rid of row by row Communion during Mass. Not much of a rant there, come to think of it.
~ Fr. John Zuhlsdorf,  Wherein Fr. Z rants about Communion

Holy Communion at St. Thomas was always an unholy mess, and I loved it.

Back then, it was a hodgepodge parish comprising every conceivable socioeconomic sector of Chicago. There was Mass in three languages (English, Spanish, Vietnamese) every weekend, plus an Eritrean priest would come by once a month to celebrate a Ge’ez liturgy for the Ethiopians. Sunday mornings were always chaotic, with kids in the aisles and people milling around here and there, the Korean grandmothers telling their beads all through Mass, and men occasionally ducking out for a smoke. It was like a big messy family reunion.

Then came Holy Communion. Unlike most American parishes, St. Thomas of Canterbury didn’t dismiss for Communion by rows. We had ushers, to be sure, but their main role was to take up and safeguardpews the collection, and then to intervene in case an inebriated or otherwise unruly worshiper got out of hand.

Instead of a nice, tidy, orderly march forward, the distribution of Communion at St. Thomas was more like a crush of surging humanity – like what you see on CNN after a natural disaster, and folks are crowding around those trucks handing out aid. The crowd is scared, they’re hungry and thirsty, and they’re not going to wait in a queue.

I get that. I’d be the same way.

There’s something seriously wrong with how we’ve applied principles of efficiency and uniformity to the Mass, especially when it comes to Communion. What is Holy Communion after all? Matthew Lickona plays it straight: “I have a secret. I eat God, and I have his life in me. It’s the best thing in the world.” Seriously, the Church is handing out God to anybody who shows up – for free! But we sit there, ho-hum, like we’re waiting for our number to be called at the BMV. “Free God, here!” we should be shouting from the street corners. “Come and get your free God!” If we did that, and folks could recognize their hunger for God, and they believed us, wouldn’t they come crowding the aisles to get some? And would we blame them?

That being the case, what’s our problem? Sedately we sit there in our pews until the ushers allow us to get in line – no cutting! Considering what’s up at the front of church, you’d think it would be more like midnight before Black Friday at Walmart – some urgency, possibly some anxiety that the priest might run out.

On the other hand, if we do happen to dillydally – maybe pause to pray a bit more than we should – what then? Nudges, nods, and then clumsy encounters as our neighbors dutifully follow the ushers’ directives, clambering over us non-conformists and troublemakers.

I can think of at least three reasons why the messiness of my old parish in Uptown was preferable to the standard orderly Communion seen in most churches today, and I discovered that the first two had already been adeptly delineated by one Rev. Paul F. Bosch, a retired Lutheran pastor and liturgy professor from Canada.

To begin with, dismissal for Communion by rows is a distraction – as Bosch writes:

It can shatter your revery. It can intrude on your meditation. Those hymns we sing in many churches as people commune: They’re intended to be aids to prayer.

The Mass is a prayer. Hence, those who participate in Mass ought to be invited to…well, pray! And what better time to be communing with God than immediately prior to receiving Him in Holy Communion. Again, Bosch:

Surely during the distribution of Bread and Cup it would be appropriate for worshippers to be encouraged to reflect, to meditate on the Day’s Prayers, on its Readings, on its Sermon, on its Hymn tunes and texts. And not dissuaded or violated in that attempt!

Perhaps some would protest that the confusion and disorder accompanying a random rush toward Communion would itself be a distraction, but consider that there is nothing in the rubrics themselves that justify the pew-by-pew approach. Nothing in the General Instruction, and certainly not in Canon Law. Not a peep, at least as far as I could find.

Instead, we have the Catechism instructing us this way:

To prepare for worthy reception of this sacrament, the faithful should observe the fast required in their Church. Bodily demeanor (gestures, clothing) ought to convey the respect, solemnity, and joy of this moment when Christ becomes our guest.

roman-catholic-mass-at-iwo-yima-1945-us-forcesOK, bodily demeanor conveying respect and solemnity, but at “this moment” – i.e., at the moment one actually receives Communion. And, lest we forget, the Catechism also advises “joy.” When I think of somebody joyfully anticipating an honored, looked-for guest, I think of my kids: Out in the front yard, craning their necks to watch for vehicles coming up or down the street in our direction, running around in excitement because they know the guest is almost here, almost here! But standing in a line and waiting their turn? Not a chance.

So, there’s distraction, but here’s a second objection to orderly Communion – again, in Bosch’s words:

Ushers at communion, escorting worshippers to the Table row by row, present an unnecessary and unseemly social pressure to worshippers sitting in those rows.

Dismissing the faithful in neat, tidy rows means that anybody who stays behind will be noticed! Thus, there’s a tremendous amount of incentive to go ahead and get in line with everybody else, regardless of ones disposition, preparedness, or even beliefs.

I remember this pressure myself back when I visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris as a Protestant teen. Now, the Europeans don’t normally dismiss for Communion in rows, but when everyone else went forward, I just got up with them – I thought it would be too awkward to be the only one left behind. When the priest handed me the Host, I took it back with me to my seat, heedless of the intense glares and raised eyebrows of surrounding clergy and congregants. Finally, my Catholic friends motioned to me to consume the Host – my controversial First Communion!  It was an innocent mistake that I’m sure is repeated often in this country, but it is one that could easily be avoided by adopting an unregimented Eucharistic distribution.

Distraction and social pressure – two good arguments in favor of chaotic Communion. And here’s a third: The Sacraments by their very nature are meant to be messy, all sensory and corporeal and bodily and all that – water splashing about, and flame and fragrant oils, and spit and salt, wine and bread, breath and utterance and God made present. It’s crazy stuff, like the Church herself, and family life, and marriage and sex and having babies, and birth and death. Nothing neat and tidy about any of that. And nothing neat and tidy about eating God’s Body and drinking His Blood, that’s for sure.

All this calls to mind those unnerving lines in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where Mr. Beaver describes the lion Aslan in this way:

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.

“He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion,” Mr. Beaver adds later on. Dangerous lions were also in the forefront of St. Ignatius’ mind when he wrote these words about martyrdom and the Eucharist: “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”

Ignatius_of_AntiochThis is the very One we receive in Holy Communion: Wild, not tame, not safe; dangerous, in other words. That being the case, there is something strange about approaching Him like we’d approach a teller at the bank. It seems more fitting that Holy Communion would resemble a riot rather than a rank.

So, away with orderly Communion! Bring on the chaos. Of course, lest there be any doubt, we’d still need the ushers! Somebody will still need to take up the collection and intervene when there are disorderlies. But instead of policing the Communion lines, I’d recommend that they stand at the exits and remind Communicants Whom they’re carrying when they leave. And what that means – namely, this:

As then in the sad and anxious times through which we are passing there are many who cling so firmly to Christ the Lord hidden beneath the Eucharistic veils that neither tribulation, nor distress, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor danger, nor persecution, nor the sword can separate them from His love, surely no doubt can remain that Holy Communion…may become a source of that fortitude which not infrequently makes Christians into heroes.

Christian heroes? Think: Ignatius of Antioch. Think: Martyrs. Really, maybe the ushers should be warning folks about the Communion line. It’s not only messy; it can cost you your life!

_____________________________________________________

Versions of this story appeared on Oblation and Catholic Exchange.

Antichrists I Have Known

5 Jan

Children, it is the last hour;
and just as you heard that the antichrist was coming,
so now many antichrists have appeared.
~ St. John

A generous friend that knows we have teenagers (four at last count; five later on this year) passed along his 20-year-old Toyota for 300 bucks – basically the price he would’ve gotten from the junk yard.

Toyotas are hardy vehicles, to be sure, but twenty years is twenty years, and the car is in pretty rough shape. It runs though, and has heat, so we gladly and gratefully accepted it in anticipation of yet another one of our teens taking to the roadways eventually.

Here’s the thing, though: My kids have taken to calling this new acquisition the ‘Chariot of Damnation’ – apparently an appellation borrowed from Greek mythology via the popular Percy Jackson series.

No offense to my generous friend, of course, nor to the aging Toyota – as I said, it runs, and that’s all we care about.

In fact, it’s understood around my house that a name like ‘Chariot of Damnation’ is a term of endearment. It’s a family tradition – like our decrepit Honda that went by the Star Wars moniker ‘Millennium Falcon,’ in honor of Han Solo’s cantankerous smuggling freighter. “She’s the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy!” in the words of Lando Calrissian. Well, maybe not our old Honda.

Anyway, then thereseriesi1954560cs.8449‘s the granddaddy of all car names: ‘The Antichrist,’ an epithet applied to the scurrilous Land Rover in that rich and quirky film, The Gods Must Be Crazy. We’ve never owned anything that exactly qualifies, but my brother adopted the name for a secondhand Land Rover he used to own. It was a pain to drive, but we sure got a lot of mileage out of the name: “Hey, can I borrow The Antichrist tonight?” and “I think The Antichrist needs an oil change.”

Aside from idiosyncratic automobiles, candidates for antichrist abound, with the biblical original being one of the Roman emperors – most likely Nero, who ruled in the years 54–68. Nero’s antichrist heirs are legion (no biblical pun intended), and it’s somewhat of a parlor game to take the obscure apocalyptic references in Daniel and Revelation, and see how they might apply to your foes.

These days, for instance, prominent antichrist candidates hail from boprince-william_1681222cth sides of the political aisle: Dick Cheney on the right, for example, and Obama on the left. George Soros, the progressive billionaire, is another popular target, as is Prince William apparently – that’s a new one that I just came across today. Fun!

And antichrist squabbling has been around for a long time, although the field of candidates used to be considerably narrower than it is today. An historical standout is Frederick II, the powerful Holy Roman Emperor of the 13th century. Proclaimed stupor mundi (the Wonder of the World in his lifetime, Frederick was a singular medieval monarch, enlightened in many respects, and even tolerant, relatively speaking. But his conflicts with the Church made him the source of intense speculation among the apocalyptic cognoscenti. Dante placed the Emperor on the third tier of Hell, for example, and the radical FrFrom a late 13th century manuscript in Biblioteca Vaticanaanciscan Joachimites openly declared him antichrist, as did Pope Gregory IX.

Speaking of popes: There is no antichrist field more ripe for the harvest than the papacy. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel! Go ahead, name a pope, and I’ll bet you can Google up loads of antichrist accusations in a matter of minutes. It’s almost a cottage industry among fundamentalist scaremongers, and it’s been going on since the Reformation. Popes were antichrists to virtually all the Reformers, including Martin Luther. “I feel much freer,” Luther wrote, “now that I am certain the pope is the Antichrist.”

Luther was misguided about the identity of the Antichrist, but he was spot on when it came to how we should battle him: Humor! C.S. Lewis quoted Luther in the first pages of The Screwtape Letters as saying, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

Of course, antichrists are no joke, but if Luther’s right, then a glib treatment of antichrists is just the ticket, including joking about the latest 666 conspiracy theories and taking advantage of amusing movie vehicle references. It’s like giving the devil the raspberry – pbbbbbbbbt!

Here’s the thing, though: Antichrist is an equal opportunity employer, and the really funny thing about antichrist handicapping is that we don’t have to search all the far to find him. “Whoever denies the Father and the Son, this is the antichrist,” according to St. John. In other words, the antichrist is me whenever I deny Christ through my words and actions.

Thus, when I give into anger on the road or at home, or when I slouch off and give full rein to sloth in my work or prayers, I’m the antichrist – I am, not George Soros or George Bush, but me! Such is the case when I deny Chrisprayert through my petty selfishness and envy, my barely disguised greed and wanton pride. Who needs emperors and presidents for antichrists? I fit the bill quite nicely, thank you.

Tonight I went to a late Mass by myself because I had stayed home earlier with a sick child when everyone else went to church. The severe weather and drifting snow meant that only a dozen folks showed up, and the priest congratulated us for making it despite the weather. “You’re all heroes and heroines,” he said, but I don’t think so, at least not in my case. I was there because I needed to be there, and I suspect that was true for everybody else. We craved the “comfort and joy,” as we sang in the closing hymn. We needed Jesus “to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.”

And that calls to mind something else Martin Luther said:

So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it?’

Yes, I deserve to go to hell. Yes, I’m the antichrist. What of it? Pbbbbbbbbbt! And here’s Luther’s own follow-up:

For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!

Tidings of comfort and joy indeed.

_____________________________________________________

A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

%d bloggers like this: