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We are all going to die – that’s why we are Catholic

Liturgy must draw us towards the world beyond, says Fr John Zuhlsdorf. That’s how we can wake up our faith

By on Thursday, 6 January 2011

Pope Benedict XVI bows towards the Eucharist (Photo: CNS)

Pope Benedict XVI bows towards the Eucharist (Photo: CNS)

There is a great deal of confusion in the Church today. We have in large part forgotten who we are as Catholics and why we belong to the Church.

We don’t belong to the Catholic Church first and foremost for earthly motives. Bettering the world, improving the lot of others … these flow from our love for God and our desire to be with Him in heaven.

Try as I might, with the possible exception of the fact that Jesus founded her, I cannot think of a more important reason to be a member of Holy Catholic Church than the certainty that one day I will die. I will die and I will be judged. You will too.

Why are we Catholic? Why bother with Mass? With the Church’s teachings about moral issues? Why stand against the wind in the public square and twist in it, just to lose friends, status, and comfort?

Why? Our Saviour established the Catholic Church as our way to salvation. No matter how bad some fellow members of the Church may be, or how alluring the world surely is, or how tough we think we have had it, we are going to die one day, some of us pretty soon. That’s why we are Catholic. Trump that.

I hope by grace and elbow grease to do His will and to serve and worship Him fittingly in His Church. I try to love God. I want to please God. I believe He will help me, a sinner, in my weakness and forgive me when I fail. I strive to make changes when I am doing something that isn’t working. Why? Because I’m going to die, that’s why. I want to go to heaven.

If we love God, we will try to help other people get to heaven too.

We have some problems with that part right now, my friends, because Catholic identity is weary and weak where once it was strong and everything.

We are all men and women of our age. To one degree or other we are subject to prevailing trends and world-views. Also, we are wounded from sin and death is scary. Death yawns before us as that door we must go through to come before the great mystery which is both fearsome and alluring. We are, to our peril, quite willing to avert our eyes from this fearful prospect, death, through innumerable distractions which fog our inner compass. We easily forget the one transcendent source of our being, our origin and goal.

We have problems in Holy Church as well. Many people working in the Church today have an immanentist mentality. Immanence, from the Latin “to remain within”, refers to a notion that divinity permeates the material universe. A radical immanentist would be something like a pantheist. Such a one would say that God is not transcendent, but is rather in everything that is.

As Christians we affirm that God alone is holy, almighty, omnipresent and transcendent. God entirely transcends the natural order. We also affirm God’s immanence, especially in the Second Person of the Trinity, God incarnate, Christ Jesus. Church immanentists don’t deny the transcendence of God, at least as a proposition. But it just isn’t that important. They will even affirm God’s transcendence if it occurs to them or when they are pushed. Call their position “Immanentism Lite”.

Immanentism corrodes our view of who God is and who we are. We glide into neglect of the supernatural. We become less and less concerned with guilt for sin, even with the idea of sin as anything beyond transgressions of what we ourselves determine is right for ourselves at this time (read: passing trends). We lose sight of our absolute dependence on God for help through grace, our need for a Saviour, and our impending judgment. We forsake clarity in doctrine and the obligations which come from the profession of the Christian Faith, including submission to the Church’s authority given her by Christ. The suggestion that something we might do could offend God and endanger our salvation sounds increasingly foreign. We get the idea that we are self-sufficient. We forget the real reason why Jesus died for us and why we are Catholic.

I propose that, to get at the root of our problems, we need encounters with the transcendent, with mystery. The regular way for this is through participation in true worship, Holy Church’s sacred liturgical worship.

This is not without its own set of problems. Much of what passes as liturgy today is unworthy of the name, our forebears, and us. Fr Aidan Nichols, in his Looking at the Liturgy, warns of the danger of “cultic immanentism”, “the danger, namely, of a congregation’s covert self-reference in a horizontal, humanistic world”. In many places we find self-centred liturgies with little or no thought given to the God who is wholly other, mysterious, transcendent. Such worship is really idolatry.

Joseph Ratzinger noted in The Spirit of the Liturgy that as the Hebrews danced around their golden calf they knew the calf was not God: they simply wanted a god less remote and less challenging.

Can we at long last admit it? Under the incessant erosion from a modernist, immanentist mentality, especially in our worship, many of our brothers and sisters in the Church no longer even notice the calf, much less realise they made it in their own image. Self-reference is no longer “covert”, it’s in your face. Quite often, it’s all there is.

Already in 1995 Ratzinger observed in A New Song For The Lord that young people were reacting to the loss of mystery, rejecting the “banality and the childish rationalism of the pathetic homemade liturgies with their artificial theatrics”. Young people don’t want frauds. They want what Ratzinger calls the “true presence of redemption”. This search might lead the more secularly inclined to the euphoria of rock concerts, alcohol and drugs, faux neo-gnostic “spirituality”, anything out of the ordinary, anything to distract. Sound familiar? Look around.

Ratzinger counters, “new places for faith emerge again where liturgy is lit up by mystery”. For Ratzinger, mystery has “authority”.

Participation in worthy liturgical worship leads us beyond the didactic, the interesting, the entertaining, even the individualist experience into an encounter with mystery. This encounter draws us back to recognition of the gift of life, the fact of our coming death, back towards fearful, loving awe for God. True worship is the remedy for the self-centred, self-enclosed, self-sufficient self-obsession of modern times.
Our worship must focus on the one who is Other.

Is this what your regular experience of Mass offers you? If it doesn’t, it has quite simply failed.

Dear Fathers, Most Reverend Bishops, if any alarm has sounded in your hearts and minds of late as you survey the portion entrusted to you, rethink your approach to liturgy. Is what we have been doing for the last few decades really working?

For the love of God and neighbour, and with an eye on your judgment, rethink your approach to Holy Church’s proper public worship. Do everything in your power to foster liturgical worship of God which conforms not to worldly goals but rather to the real point of religion and of being Catholic: getting ready to die.

If you do this, you will be challenged and blocked and attacked. Forewarned is forearmed. We must do this.

On 20 December, Pope Benedict met with members of the Roman Curia to exchange Christmas greetings. His Holiness used this annual event in 2005 to deliver one of the most important messages of his pontificate, the speech about the “hermeneutic of continuity”. This year, Benedict delivered a grim “state of the Church” address. At one point he actually said: “The very future of the world is at stake.”

Benedict had the Church throughout the world in mind for his speech, but a large portion of it was about his state visit to Scotland and England, probably the most important trip of his pontificate, and on the beatification of John Henry Newman. The Vicar of Christ reminded the whole Church, but in my opinion, the people of Great Britain in particular,

“When [Christ’s] powerful word had calmed the storm, he rebuked the disciples for their little faith (cf. Mt 8:26 et par). He wanted to say: it was your faith that was sleeping. He will say the same thing to us. Our faith too is often asleep. Let us ask him, then, to wake us from the sleep of a faith grown tired, and to restore to that faith the power to move mountains – that is, to order justly the affairs of the world.”

To wake up our faith and even to save our world we must save our liturgy. Pope Benedict XVI has explicitly called for a new liturgical movement.

Shall we embark on a “New Evangelisation” where Catholic identity has become weary and weak? Let us renew Holy Church’s liturgy. Worthy, vertical, transcendentally-oriented liturgy slaps us awake, tears us out of the ephemeral and worldly, and gives us space to pause in awe and in longing for what we cannot understand and yet know to be true and necessary. The older, Extraordinary Form of Mass of the Roman Rite explicitly asks for surrender to the supernatural, and strips us of our power to control. The newer, Ordinary Form – especially where Pope Benedict’s influence is being felt – also can achieve this when offered in continuity with the Church’s Tradition.

Some will object that elements of Extraordinary Form worship are too hard for us now. The difficult elements of worthy worship, especially in the traditional form of Holy Mass, create in the soul the tensions which are essential for an encounter with mystery, our way out of the trap of being self-absorbed.

We cannot easily argue ourselves or others away from this prevailing, modernist mentality or out of incessant distraction, though we must certainly try. The more people encounter mystery through liturgy, the more hollow will clang the world’s passing distractions and the proposals of those who have strayed from the good path.

A reform of our liturgical worship along the lines Pope Benedict proposes is our most charitable and effective plan of action. Summorum Pontificum is a valuable tool. The new English translation, though not perfect, will be of great help. This time of transition is a precious opportunity.

Fr Zuhlsdorf is a columnist for the American weekly newspaper The Wanderer and blogs at

  • Toby

    The more I know the more I realise that mystery is crucial.

    I have probably learnt more about faith and reason in the past year (studying philosophy at Maryvale) and have become increasingly convinced that we discard the mysterious at our peril. Mystery is part of humility, part of realising that we cannot fully know the mind of God.

  • Anthony

    Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Fr. Zuhlsdorf is right on every count. As a teenager in the ’70s, I was dismayed by what any reasonably intelligent young Catholic could see was a dumbing-down of Holy Mass to suit the woefully misguided notions of some presumably middle-aged bishops’ and right-on ‘young’ priests’ ideas of what was ‘relevant’ to ‘modern’ society. Even worse were the increasingly banal (musically and lyrically) ditties we were expected to suffer in place of dignified sacred music and hymns. Folkies with guitars are fine on retreat, but nuns with guitars… wasn’t even good folk music!

    The whole ‘trendy’ project (which history shows is not justified by Vatican II) was guaranteed to diminish the standing of the Church in these islands, being as it was already way behind the pop-cultural times it was floundering to emulate right from the start.

    Under the auspices of the English and Welsh hierarchy, each subsequent decade saw further heaps of liturgical crime upon liturgical crime, until we arrived at the dismal spectacle of what passes for the experience of Mass endured by so many congregations today, where the proceedings are often so trite that one sometimes dreads the invitation to offer the sign of peace because of the massed frenzy of self-indulgent handshaking(?) that ensues, possibly as a relief from the mundane level to which what passes for worship has descended, and which effectively upstages, of all things, the Agnus Dei!

    Here’s what I really find hard to accept, though: none of these travesties (and many more besides) are permissible in the newer Ordinary Form according to Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani. This renewed instruction was declared “effective immediately” according to the Decree of Publication of the ‘General Instruction of the Roman Missal’, canonically approved in 2002 by the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales (and published under its authority, following the Decree of Confirmation approving the English translation of Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2004). The Foreword to the English edition, written by then-Archbishop Murphy-O’connor, states: “This Instruction is the Church’s official guide to how Mass should be celebrated. It is a document which everyone responsible for the celebration of the liturgy should be familiar with.”

    What more needs to be said?

  • Jack Regan

    This is a fascinating article, but I would offer (politely, and in the spirit of discussion) two thoughts.

    Firstly, I may be reading Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s comments wrongly here, but I would query the idea that the Pope’s words on ‘faith being asleep’ were aimed at Britain in particular. There is nothing in the text which indicates that he was referencing his recent visit in order to draw an example of a place where faith is asleep. Rather – as in so many of his recent speeches – I suspect that he was drawing on the many positives of the visit as a suggestion for alleviating that sleep.

    Despite the predictions of many (e.g. the speech to the Bishops at Oscott), the Holy Father has had nothing but kind words to say about Britain and his trip.

    Secondly, there was a dutch theologian in the last century (I know, I know – but hear me out!) who talked about evangelisation. I can’t for the life of me remember his name. He said that the purpose of evangelisation (and therefore perhaps being Catholic) wasn’t salvation. Neither was it propaganda, education or any of the many other things we often peg it to. Rather, the purpose of evangelisation was simply that Christ be lifted up – and for no other reason than that he is the Christ. He is the perfection of creation and the sole desire of our hearts.

    I am a Catholic because I was born to be. I don’t mean in the sense of cradles and infant baptisms, but rather because I recognise in it the answers to our deepest longings. I am a Catholic because I know that God loves me and because, unless my own self gets in the way, I cannot stop myself from feeling that love and from letting it flow me. “Love one another, as I have loved you” isn’t a deal, an exchange, or even a command, as much as it is something that we do to give a work-out to the very essence of who we are.

    I am a Catholic because it is the what I was created to be. Salvation and service and all those others things are important, but they flow out of the transformation in Christ’s love. I believe that when approached correctly, Catholicism doesn’t offer those things first as a sweetener, or a fire escape, but later as a welling up of our being transformed into who we were meant to be. People who come to faith looking for a particular thing to belong to or for something to satisfy a certain need, often make the very worst Christians.

    Can’t stick around for discussion, I’m afraid, as I have a mountain of work to do. Hopefully some interesting thoughts there. Maybe completely incomprehensible? That happens too. Feel free to rip them apart :)

  • Angela

    Though I agree with you on the need for Catholics to seek more of an encounter with God which would give life to supernatural mystery of Him as well as the reality of our fallen state and absolute need for salvation and redemption through Christ, I think my reason for being Catholic is because I have been completely captivated by God’s beauty, love, power, justice, grace, and glory through Jesus Christ. It makes one anticipate death rather than fear it.

  • Jerry

    I appreciate the reminder of the Four Last things, (though I wouldn’t express my reasons for membership of the Church as does Fr Z has done)… but I am disquieted after reading this article, as it seems to be rather largely an “us and them” piece, with a lot of criticism of the “them” who don’t have it as right as “us”.

  • Anonymous

    Angela, being “captivated by God’s beauty, love, power, grace, and glory through Jesus Christ.” doesn’t guarantee you a spot in Heaven. Fr. Z means that we must live life aware of the fact that when we die, there occur two abominations: a corpse and a ghost–that death is our annihilation first as punishment for original sin, and then, after that, we will be judged by our entire life. So, we should not assume that our faith and strong feelings right now will ensure that the Judge will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Also, in the hour of our death, remember in the Hail Mary we pray remembering that we are sinners and ask for help and grace now and for a holy death.)

    A friend of mine wrote a post on Catholic Phoenix which you might want to read. He was inspired by the class he was teaching at the time called the Theology of Death. I think my friend’s post is another way of putting what Fr. Z is trying to get across to us all in his article. Here’s a quote from the post:

    “What you must recapture is the frightening reality that your death is your annihilation. It is your end. It is your abject anonymity. It is to hear the words, “I do not know you.” It is to be forsaken.

    Your death is the end of your life, the tearing of the fabric of your being, the ripping apart of your soul and body.

    Death leaves behind only two abominations: a corpse and a ghost.

    And your death is imminent and it is everything you deserve. Your death is ever on the horizon and it brings with it no hope. In your death you are defenseless for it is the suicide of a prideful will parading as liberation. Death is the existential claim of one’s right to one’s self.

    You die because you hate God.”

    Go to here to read the entire post:

  • JK

    Thank you Father Z. This is beautiful. The Liturgy experienced and lived as mystery is so essential to who we become as we go to meet our God.

  • Beverly Desoto

    To every Catholic who has not yet attended a Latin Mass — you NEED to experience this. Every single parish in America that offers the Latin Mass is full to the brim — full of devout young people, old people, families — and YES, VOCATIONS.

  • Anonymous

    I would add to your comment that the words of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and the notes on the liturgy in the margins of the ’62 missal can be the real impetus for deeper contemplation of Novus Ordo liturgy.

  • guest

    This was a very good article, hitting the nail on the head. I found it very depressing. I am 46 and don’t even know the difference between the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Mass. I have been through Catholic school, all the sacraments and all I am aware of is what I have encountered in my local Parish. I go to Mass on Sunday and if we’re lucky we get a 5 minute homily read off a bit of paper by a poor priest who makes no disguise of the fact that he’s on automatic pilot to retirement. The new charisms in the Church aren’t much encouraged, and compared to what we’re used to (not very much) are so exotically O.T.T that they can be a bit scary to your average shy British Catholic. My point? I can’t find much uplifting on offer in the Church today; perhaps the whole issue of the formation of priests in this country needs to be examined. If God calls someone to be a priest, the Catholic Church has to ensure he is equipped and supported in his mission, otherwise he’s destined to become a sad bloke alone in a big house and responsible for several parishes, while his parishoners are destined to go home feeling a bit disappointed.

  • Dom

    “Our Saviour established the Catholic Church” says your article. Come on, get a grip, no-one in the RC church claims that – they claim that Peter did, which is just as daft, but vaguely arguable.