Perhaps you were startled to learn recently that Pope John Paul II regularly practiced the form of mortification called “taking the discipline,” that is to say, striking his body with a whip. Apparently he hung the disciplinary belt in his closet, along with his vestments, and never failed to take it with him, even when he went on vacation. He also, we learned, sometimes slept on the hardwood floor of his bedroom as an ascetic practice, purposely messing his sheets and blanket in the morning so as not to draw attention to what he had done. I realize that activities such as these can strike many contemporary people as bizarre, perhaps even as the fruit of psychological disorders, complexes, and repressions. Though the author who reported these things did so in order to convince us of John Paul’s sanctity, some today might, because of them, actually think less of the late Pope. I thought that these revelations might be a good occasion to reflect more deeply on the typically Lenten practices of mortification and asceticism.
Just a few weeks ago, Notre Dame theologian Fr. Richard McBrien delivered himself of a sharp critique of the practice of eucharistic adoration, the resurgence of which in the life of the church he bitterly laments. “It is,” he says, “difficult to speak favorably about the devotion today.” His principal argument against eucharistic adoration is that the practice is grounded in naïve and questionable theology which would divorce the eucharist from its proper context within the liturgy. Though adoration might have been understandable in a more primitive time, “now that Catholics are literate and even well-educated, the Mass is in the language of the people…and its rituals relatively easy to understand and follow, there is little or no need for extraneous eucharistic devotions.” McBrien concludes: “eucharistic adoration…is a doctrinal, theological and spiritual step backward.” In short, those who bother to adore the blessed sacrament are (poor things) just not that bright.
Recently I spent five wonderful days in the diocese of Leeds in the Yorkshire district of England. I was the guest of Bishop Arthur Roach, who had invited me to give a series of talks to his priests and lay leadership. While I was in the area, I was taken to see two of the greatest of the English cathedrals, Durham and York, and I was duly impressed by their stateliness and spiritual power. But the York and Durham Cathedrals were not the most beautiful things that I saw on my journey. Bishop Roach took me to the far more modest cathedral of Leeds, led me to the main altar and then invited me to examine a treasure.
These past several weeks, I’ve had to take a number of plane trips, and this meant I’ve had a fair amount of time for reading. I managed to get through a lengthy book that I had been eager to read: Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution by Alister McGrath. Dr. McGrath is a professor of theology at Oxford University and one of the most prolific authors on the religious scene today. His latest book is a very readable exploration of the history of the Protestant movement from its origins in the sixteenth century to the present day, as well as a study of the major themes of Protestant thought and practice. In the course of his text, we find rich discussions of Martin Luther’s master idea of justification by grace through faith, and of John Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination, and of the general Protestant option for the primacy of the Word of God. But the issue to which McGrath returns again and again, almost obsessively, is that of authority. Who, for Protestants, finally has the authority to offer the correct interpretation of the Bible?
A wise professor of mine, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, once commented that, with the rise of Protestantism and modernity, an integrated Catholicism blew up and its twisted pieces now litter the contemporary intellectual landscape. As I survey today’s cultural scene, I often think of Sokolowski’s observation: one can see Catholicism everywhere, but often in odd and distorted form. A very clear instantiation of this principle is Roland Emmerich’s new film “2012.” The movie’s premise is that massive sun bursts have led to the overheating of the earth’s core, resulting in major earthquakes, catastrophic eruptions, and continent-shifting tectonic shifts: in short, the end of civilization as we know it. A small group of scientists and politicians, who knew of the coming disaster, have organized a rescue operation—a flotilla of “arks”—so that a remnant of humanity, high culture, and the animal kingdom might be preserved. As the movie unfolds, we see the world implode, while a plucky family tries to make its way to the boats.