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Lent, The Holy Cross, And The Current Crisis In The Church

March 17, 2023 Frontpage No Comments


The arrival of Lent each year always sets before our eyes in the Gospel of its first Sunday the three futile attempts of Satan to tempt our Lord. It is in the third of these that Satan makes his ultimate offer:
“. . . the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to Him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Begone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve”” (Mt 4:8-10).
The devil’s insane project to tempt the Son of God ended in a totally humiliating defeat, but it has not deterred him from making the same wicked offer to every one of our Lord’s disciples down through the centuries. And he has not hesitated to make this offer even to the Church herself. It comes in the guise of a plan to make the Church harmonize her message, her teachings, with the spirit of the world: that the vast media-dispensed treasures of the world’s admiration and applause will be emptied at the Church’s feet if she would only bring her message into alignment with what contemporary secular culture craves.
The Devil has even found some priests and prelates to make the pitch for this conformity to the world, cleverly couched in the vocabulary of “Church reform.” The Bride of Christ would thus be reduced to being the toiling slave of the world’s mediocrity.
In his 2019 book Roman Encounters, His Eminence Gerhard Cardinal Muller astutely identifies this counterfeit “reform” of the Church for what it really is, stating:
“What is currently understood by reforms that are held to be necessary is much more a secularization of the Church…. The Church no longer serves the world on its journey to God but rather offers Her services to it so as to make Herself useful as one of many social initiatives” (Roman Encounters: The Unity of the Faith and the Holy See’s Responsibility for the Universal Church, Irondale, AL, EWTN Publishing, 2019, p. 165).
Nearly a half-century earlier, the illustrious philosopher and champion of Catholic orthodoxy Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) warned of the grave danger from those wanting the Church to imbibe the spirit of the world:
“Hand in hand with the illusion of progress goes the most fatal disease ravaging the Church: this-worldliness. By this-worldliness I mean the emphasis on the amelioration of this world and the earthly welfare of man in contradistinction to the glorification of God and the eternal welfare of man. According to this deplorable error, the Church should now concern herself above all with the social order, with social justice, peace among nations and ecumenism, instead of the sanctification of the individual soul and the glorification of God through the conversion of all men to Christ and His holy Church.… No, the real mission of the Church is not to strive for an earthly paradise, not to humanize the world together with atheists and communists, but to establish the reign of Christ in every individual soul” (“The Illusion of Progress,” in The Charitable Anathema, Ridgefield, CT, Roman Catholic Books, 1993, pp. 127-128).
If the Church is to remain totally faithful to the Gospel message entrusted to her by Christ, then conflict with a world addicted to pleasure and self-gratification is inevitable. Our Lord foretold this at the Last Supper when He declared, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).
The liturgical season of Lent affords us a prime opportunity to renew our personal commitment in this battle to uphold the immutable truths of Christ. It is a battle to stand fast beneath the Cross of Christ, the trophy of victory that will defeat the spirit of the world, the spirit of the Antichrist. In a treatise on the Antichrist written about 200 AD, the Church Father and priest St. Hippolytus of Rome (+c. 236) describes in vivid symbolic detail the Church in her battle against the Antichrist as a ship in stormy seas, assured of ultimate victory by her Captain, her crew, and the mast that towers over her deck:
“But we who hope for the Son of God are persecuted and trodden down by those unbelievers…the sea is the world, in which the Church is set, like a ship tossed in the deep, but not destroyed; for she has with her the skilled Pilot, Christ. And she bears in her midst also the trophy (which is erected) over death; for she carries with her the Cross of the Lord. For her prow is the east, and her stem is the west, and her hold is the south, and her tillers are the two Testaments; and the ropes that stretch around her are the love of Christ, which binds the Church; and the net which she bears with her is the laver of the regeneration which renews the believing, whence too are these glories. As the wind the Sprit from heaven is present, by whom those who believe are sealed: she has also anchors of iron accompanying her, viz., the holy commandments of Christ Himself which are strong as iron. She has also mariners on the right and on the left, assessors like the holy angels, by whom the Church is always governed and defended. The ladder in her leading up to the sailyard is an emblem of the passion of Christ, which brings the faithful to the ascent of heaven. And the top-sails aloft upon the yard are the company of prophets, martyrs, and apostles, who have entered into their rest in the kingdom of Christ” (St. Hippolytus of Rome, Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, n. 59, in The Anti-Nicene Fathers: Volume V: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, Appendix, ed. A. Cleveland Coxe, New York, Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886, pp. 216-217).
This imagery of the Church as a ship, first found in the writings of the Church Fathers, flourished in late medieval art, with the image of the Cross as the ship’s mast fully developed into a depiction of the mast as a crucifix, the “antenna crucifixi” as the art history scholar Achim Timmermann identifies it in his comprehensive recent study of this naval imagery of the Church. Describing the underlying message of these ship images, Timmermann concludes, “. . . centered as they are by the victorious crucifix mast, these vessels sail straight through the whirlpools of moral contamination to eventually arrive at the Port of Salvation” (“Cathedrals and Castles of the Sea: Ships, Allegory and Technological Change in Pre-Reformation Northern Europe,” Baltic Journal of Art History, volume 18, Autumn 2019, pp. 7-74; quotation on 72-73).

The Heroism Of St. Ursula And Her Companions

A significant number of the examples of this ecclesial ship imagery cited by Timmermann are portrayals of a maritime scene from the life of the virgin martyr St. Ursula and her companions; thus the ship in these pictures represents both the vessel in Ursula’s own story and Holy Mother Church as a ship. What is of particular interest here is how the theme of martyrdom represented by Ursula relates to our reflection upon Lent and the battle against the spirit of the world. In a Dresden altarpiece painting of the 1520s entitled The Ship of Saint Ursula, the German artist Jorg Breu the Elder (+1537) depicts the arrival of Ursula and her virgin companions in fourth-century Cologne, where their persecutors immediately wreak their bloody vengeance upon them.
Much has been written to discredit the story of Ursula and her companions as nothing more than a pious myth, yet harsh critics of this and other early accounts of the Christian martyrs have often enough overplayed their hand. Fantastic elements and embellishments in the written Acts of the Martyrs don’t mean that there isn’t a basic historical reality underlying the exaggerations and accretions. The 2004 Roman Martyrology, the latest official edition of the Church’s book of recognized saints and martyrs, still commemorates Ursula and her companions on their traditional feast day of October 21 as real martyrs, stating:
“At Cologne in Germany, the commemoration of the holy virgins, who consummated their lives in martyrdom for Christ where afterward a basilica of the city was constructed in honor of the hallowed maiden Ursula, an innocent virgin, considered as their leader” (Martyrologium Romanum, Vatican City, Typis Vaticanis, 2004, p. 582 — Latin text, ©2004 Libreria Editrice Vaticana; the English translation is my own).
So as far as Holy Mother Church is concerned, there was a real young woman of the fourth century named Ursula who together with her companions died as virgin martyrs for their faith. In his altarpiece panel painting Jorg Breu captures the utter pathos of what this means. As the maidens disembark from a ship at the center of the picture, a band of armed men butchers them to death, one of the soldiers ruthlessly thrusting his lance down into his victim as another throws down a young woman he is about to slay with his sword. One of the virgins covers her face as a soldier pulls her by the hair.
On the ship’s deck can be seen Ursula seated at the foot of the ship’s mast, already stricken with an arrow through her throat yet calm in the face of death. Immediately beside her a young girl in a white dress strives to comfort a terrified companion as the two of them are about to be pierced by the arrows flying toward them.
It is the ship’s mast that testifies as to how Ursula and her companions are finding the courage to suffer this very cruel fate. For the mast is the Cross of Calvary in all its stark reality, with Christ hanging in death from its arms. An iridescent corona surrounding our Lord gives visual expression to the invisible strength that He is imparting by His own sacrificial death upon the women dying below.
With the noxious din of those who want to give the Church a radical makeover growing ever louder, let us steel our own resolve to stay the course with Christ Crucified through our Lenten prayers and sacrifices, finding in the Cross the strength to believe as strongly as the martyrs believed, and to love as deeply as the martyrs did, with a love strong as death.

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