The question is again and again asked with more than monotonous regularity why have so many priests and religious left their vocations in the last 45 years or so? I suspect that there are almost as many answers as there are questions, and many of the answers are very good. “They stopped praying.” or “They should never have gone into religious life in the first place”, and “it was the whole problem of the 60’s”. I think we can safely say that the sheer changes of the 60’s, and the cult of youth rebellion and the euphoria that it produced, must have pulled the ascetic carpet from under the religious feet. Now there was the increasing sense that sin was simply a psychological problem to be solved, and that there was no hell, and if there was a hell, no-one would be there, except Satan and his army of devils, but that would be highly unlikely because of course, as the most erudite of scripture scholars would tell you, angels and devils were simply Babylonian legendary creatures, and so Hell was discarded by the myopic world of scriptural Accademia. If you were to tell a possessed person this, I think, and that would have to be between the bouts of possession, they would be reduced to paroxysms of laughter. Yes, the disbelief in Hell and the light hearted attitude to sin is very serious, and a product of a modern world born from the coupling of the Pagan Enlightenment and revolutionary politics as seen in the United States Constitution, The French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution, and its replicas. The latter finds its origins in specifically Jewish history, and culture, whereas the former really is pagan, and it is the Marxist programme that leads us back to materialism at its most potent, namely that extraordinary scene in Exodus; the worship of the Golden Calf. There we find the mystery unveiled.
We see in Exodus Moses ascending Mount Sinai, and on its summit he is enveloped in smoke and fire, and the deafening sound of a trumpet. Scripture scholars in trying to make sense of a passage that is certainly marked by certain inconsistencies, will tell us that Sinai is a volcano. It does not look like an extinct volcano; after all there are inconsistencies in the Resurrection narratives, that makes it even more believable. So Moses disappears up into the terrifying cloud and lightening to speak with God. The people remain alone at the bottom in fear and trembling. You would think that after all the drama of the fire and smoke, the blasting of trumpets and the warnings from God that if they touched the bottom of the mountain they would die. You would also think that the length of Moses’ stay on the mountain might have left them anxious or worried. You would even reflect that they might have been besides themselves with grief, for their saviour who had brought them out of Egypt with miracles, plagues, and prodigies, the greatest being the parting of the Red Sea, was perhaps dead. He who had fed them with manna and quails, and given them water, has been taken from them; but there is no weeping, no sadness. Instead there is that depressing instinct of fallen human nature, forgetfulness of good things received and a desire for fun and pleasure. And if this is not depressing enough, the High priest elect goes along with their wishes.
The Bolshevik myth that the power belongs to the soviets i.e. people, which they never believed in anyway, is utterly true of this thankless and graceless people standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, magnificent, ominous, and shrouded in smoke and fire. If anything portrays the long suffering quality of Divine Mercy, which is certainly anything, but strained, it is this; Man wants God on his own terms. He wants God to care for him to make him happy, and to love him, and Man then wants to do his own thing, whatever the consequences. By the time Moses goes up to the summit of Mount Sinai, the people of Israel have been away from Egypt about three months, and it is just under six months, as far as one can make out, before they lapse into idolatry.
It is worth reading the whole passage where we see the fickleness of the Israelites, the craven attitude of Aaron, the wrath of God and the prayer of Moses that God might spare the people.
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves to Aaron, and said to him, “Up make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” And Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made a molten calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built and altar before it; and Aaron make a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.” And they rose early in the morning and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.
And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down; for your people, whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves; they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said ‘These are your god, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.”
But Moses besought the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does thy wrath burn hot against thy people, whom thou hast brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people.
Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou didst swear by thine own self, and didst say to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people. (Exodus 32: 1-14)
Moses descends from the mountain, breaks the tablets of stone on which are written the Ten Commandments, burns the golden calf, grinds it into powder and forces people to eat it. Then Moses turns to Aaron and rightly asks him:
“What did this people do to you that you have brought a great sin upon them?” And Aaron said, “Let not the anger of my Lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him’ And I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and there came out this calf”
Moses, who is a type of Christ, is certainly a prophet, almost the prophet par excellence, but he is also a layman. He is not the High priest nor even an ordianry priest or a Levite, and yet it is he who consecrates Aaron. In this he pre figures Christ, as Aaron prefigures Peter; both men show a certain weakness in the face of opposition. Aaron is frightened of the people, and Peter denies Christ, because a small crowd of people accuse him of being one of Christ’s disciples.
So we should not be too scandalized by the failure of priests and religious, which in the Old Testament is a failure of the priests, and some of the prophets, and one immediately thinks of the four hundred prophets who prophesy victory for Ahab against the Syrian army, only Micaiah prophesies the truth. However rather more telling is the account in Numbers 16, where Korah and 250 Levites rebel against the recently established priesthood and proclaim that the whole congregation is holy; that the priests are no different. Here we see Moses really very angry, and he is not a priest. “You have gone too far sons of Levi”, which is something of an understatement, as what the Levites wanted to be was priests, and it is a moot point whether they really wanted all the people to be priests. Given the appalling performance of the people demanding something to worship one would be within one’s rights to question whether this people was holy. All holiness springs from God, and it would not be until the coming of Christ that the Church would be born from his pierced side on the Cross, and burgeon at Pentecost. Fire from heaven sweeps the rebels away.
Too often priests and religious because they are given respect, and are often feted by devout Catholics, especially the middle classes, the wealthy and the aristocratic, can become beguiled by the compliments and esteem. This sadly does them no good. Bishops are in an even more parlous position and have the greatest difficulties in managing to not let their office turn their heads. They must remember what St. John Chrysostom says “Most bishops go to hell”. This was reiterated by none other than the very gentle St. Robert Bellarmine. For the clergy especially the adage must constantly ring in their ears, “Pride comes before the fall.”
From the fifties onwards many of the middle class laity especially in Britain and the United States because of their new found wealth began to ape the Protestant, atheistic and agnostic middle classes. They wanted to use contraception and engage with the new ideas, especially in politics, and sad to say it would seem that the Kennedy family fell into this category, but they were not the only ones. The rebellion of the youth in the 60’s could not have happened if their upper and middle class parents had not begun to gradually lose the faith. And so the modest liturgical changes advocated at Vatican II, like all minor liberalizing experiments, exploded into some mad Dionysian frenzy. The Mass, like the Passover of the Old Testament was subjected to such a battering, that it is amazing that with the destruction of altars, the tearing down of reredoses, the smashing of statues, and the Pop and Rock music t which invaded the Liturgy that these rebels did not erect a “Golden Calf” in the sanctuary, but perhaps symbolically they did. If Robespierre could worship the Goddess Reason, did not these revolutionary Catholics, be they liberal theologians, or liberation theologians, worship man in much the same way that the French revolutionaries did, or the Communists worship the worker, if one could imagine such a thing? What we must never forget it is in the very essence of Man to worship, and when he does not worship God, he will as Chesterton said “worship almost anything”.
In making the Mass as accessible as possible to the people, who never asked for it in the first place, the priests and people unwittingly began to celebrate the community, which has a dull and unexciting resonance. The priest faces the people and both are distracted by each other. No self-respecting pagan would make such a stupid mistake; it takes an over-educated Catholic to do that.
God will hopefully give us two precious gifts namely a truly humble priesthood, and truly humble religious; until that happens the Church will be tossed about on the shoals of secularism, materialism, and neo-paganism. What we need is the spirit of Moses and the prophets, and the ever present vision of Christ crucified before our eyes to know what it really means to be a Christian.