It is customary during Septuagesima-tide to prepare ourselves for Lent, deciding which spiritual disciplines we are going to be more serious about, which sins and vices we are going to work against, what things which are neutral or good in themselves we are going to renounce, which good works we are going to do. This Lenten discipline began in the early Church with the preparation of the catechumens for Baptism during the Paschal Vigil of Holy Saturday. We prepare ourselves to relive our Baptism through the liturgy and the renewal of our commitment.
Yesterday’s liturgy linked everything in my own mind, from my mother’s transitus to our own mortality and weakness. Lent is the time to reflect on our own mortality and the point at which wisdom begins – the fear of the Lord. In this context, fear would not be the emotion caused by danger, but our utmost respect of God as our love for our parents. After this, Lent is about illumination, having our blindness and ignorance healed so that we might find wisdom and knowledge.
One aspect of ignorance I particularly deplore is the hubbub going on around the abdication of the Pope. (By the way, see this lovely and uplifting article by Fr George Rutler). There are two centres of speculation – why he decided to abdicate other than the reasons of health he gave, and who will get to be the next Pope. Yesterday was the last public liturgy celebrated by this Pope, during which he put over some capital ideas, implying his unwillingness to be anything other than a man of total integrity and righteousness, or to collaborate in the intrigue and hypocrisy that have engulfed the Roman bureaucracy and many of the dioceses in the world.
Some very credible men of the Church have denounced not just weakness or sin in the institutional structures of the Church, but evil. How this evil manifests itself is nebulous and intangible. As the New Testament would say, its name is Legion. Exorcism is also a major theme of Lent as evidenced in the exorcisms during the traditional rite of baptism and the Gospel narratives of Christ chasing demons from the possessed.
The Vatican has been involved in geopolitics for centuries. When I was a student in the 1980′s, I found Malachi Martin’s novel Vatican in a bookshop and I have read it several times. Whatever one might say about this Irish Jesuit priest who left his community in the 1960′s but who did not marry or seek official laicisation, his massive parable of the Church since 1945 to the death of John Paul II (which hadn’t occurred when this book was written) is haunting. The story follows a young fictitious American prelate who works for the Vatican over the years from his arrival in 1945 and is finally elected Pope after the death of John Paul II. Intertwined with historical fact, we find fictional characters like the Della Valle dynasty of so-called Keepers of the Bond and the secret observation chamber at the Sistine Chapel called Il Tempio. The Bargain, in this book, is the agreement dating from 1870 between the Church and the Lodge. I would recommend reading this book, provided that you do so with a critical and detached mind. Fr Malachi Martin, who died in 1999, was an enigmatic character and was himself an exorcist. He wrote a very harrowing book under the title Hostage to the Devil. However, I would leave a word of caution: Fr Malachi Martin was an Irishman, and those people like a scrap and would talk the hind leg off a donkey!
Individual persons can suffer from diabolical possession and obsession, and sometimes the dividing line is very fine between mental illness that comes under natural science and this terrifying mystery of evil. Institutions too can be consumed by evil. A fictional example is the monastery in northern Italy in 1327 that features in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The rot is so much a part of the fabric of that monastery with its secret library that the only outcome was its total destruction. Was that novel a parable of something greater than a single monastic community? I am not saying that the Church is evil, but there are evil men and corrupt institutions. It happened to Judaism after the Second Exile and up to the final Diaspora after the Sack of Rome in AD 70.
And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.
As I mentioned Umberto Eco and his best known work, I also quote:
The Antichrist can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them.
How true, “conspiracy theory” psychology is also a terrifying phenomenon and works like an addition to chemical substances or various types of pleasure. Indeed, evil can come from excessive desire of good and truth. We have to be careful not to fall into those very traps.
I am not a prophet and cannot claim to know the future in any way, but I can’t avoid thinking it will probably be bleak here in Europe.
Let the priests and Levites, ministers of the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar, saying. Spare thy people, O Lord, spare them, and turn not away the faces of them that call upon thee, O Lord.
One thing is sure: this diabolical mess feeds from our ignorance, prejudice and speculation.