Thank you, Mother Angelica!
"For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion."
(Blessed John Henry Newman, "Biglietto Speech," 1879)
Twenty five years ago, the Lord Jesus changed my life, when He revealed Himself to me on Good Friday.
I started going to Mass every Sunday after that. I longed for the Eucharist. I remember trying to explain the Eucharist (and failing miserably) to my father, when he asked me why I needed to become Christian, "to join their club," when I could so easily just follow Jesus' teachings, and worship Him, as a Hindu.
A few weeks after that Good Friday, I knocked on the doors of the parish offices, and was ushered in to see the parish priest. He seemed rather flummoxed that a high-caste, upper class, Gujarati Hindu boy would want to become Christian. As reading, he handed me the first volume of "Sacramentum Mundi," a theological anthology by Karl Rahner! (Thankfully, I couldn't make head or tail of it.)
As I expressed my desire to become Christian, I was told that baptism was not necessary. That some lived as "Hindu Catholics." That evangelization meant that the Church wanted everyone to be better in their own religion, not that they become Catholic.
In a parish Scripture study class which I attended during what was (effectively. It didn't exist in actuality as an organized process) my catechumenate year, the Jesuit transitional deacon taught from the texts of the Jesus Seminar, demythologizing and deconstructing left, right and center. I saw the scandal on the face of the old ladies who attended. I remember thinking quite explicitly, "If this sh*t is true, why bother with the Scriptures? Why bother with the Church? With anything?"
After a parish youth meeting, another Jesuit transitional deacon explained that there were various interpretations of the priesthood: the traditional one focused only on cultic aspects; however, now more prophetic aspects were being emphasized. The implication was that the traditional perspective was outdated. Inadequate. Superseded. Jesus came to liberate the poor, and this meant denouncing structural sin, and criticizing capitalism and the West. This was all that morality was about. Structural sin. Personal sin was passé. Liberation theology was in.
Hanging out at the local Jesuit seminary, I recall a dinner conversation. One of the seminarians said, "The stuff we learn here, if we told the people back at home, we would get run out of town!" What was that stuff? The unreliability of the Scriptures. The denial of the reality of the supernatural. The relativizing, or outright rejection, of traditional doctrines such as the Virgin Birth and the historical, physical Resurrection. The flat out denial of the uniqueness of Christ, and the necessity of baptism for salvation. The reduction of Christianity to ethics, and of ethics almost exclusively to social justice, understood largely as Marxist political advocacy. Among other things ...
My best friend -- a devout, faithful Catholic, who was a huge influence on my life, and in my conversion -- gave me some books to read that his Jesuit mentors had given him. They were by Fr. Anthony De Mello SJ. One contained various parables and aphorisms, from a variety of religious backgrounds. The thrust of them was clear -- dogma and doctrine only confine, and distort. What is important is a true mystical experience of the Divine (however understood), and a transformation of consciousness. The Church had forgotten this, and only now (thanks of course to courageous prophets such as Fr. de Mello) was coming to realize her true mission. Furthermore, all religions were essentially the same, and lead to the same goal. Fr. de Mello, before his sudden death of a heart attack, seemed to suggest in his last book that he had embraced the Buddhist path of detachment.
I recall a conversation with a lovely religious sister, on a service day with the parish youth group. We were going to spend the day at a school for handicapped children. She said, flatly, that the Pope was wrong, that women would eventually be ordained, and his teaching was only his opinion.
During my catechumenate year, my catechism was the Dutch Catechism of the 1960s, along with Fr. Richard McBrien's "Catholicism." To his credit, the wonderful Dutch priest who catechized me, insisted that I read Humanae Vitae, a text which absolutely scandalized me. Family planning was presented to us as a national virtue! The overcrowding and overpopulation myth was still reigning. "Hum do, hamare do," proclaimed advertisements and billboards everywhere. "Us two, our two," referring to ideal family size.
At one Mass celebrated at my college, the priest wore a saffron shawl, like a Hindu Brahmin priest, instead of a chasuble. The Eucharistic prayer used texts from the Hindu Vedas, even using Vedic language to refer to God as "being-consciousness-bliss" (sat-chit-ananda), while women performed an aarti in front of the altar at the Offertory.
No one, in my entire time (four years) of getting to know the Church, and Catholic life, taught me how to pray.
No one, in my entire time of getting to know the Church, mentioned the call to holiness.
Few, truly mentioned, or focused on, the figure and person of Jesus Christ.
This was all in India. Prior to my baptism. This was the liberal church in India that I had encountered, that, paradoxically, in the Lord's mysterious ways, was also the instrument of the encounter with Him. I always say that I became a Christian despite the best efforts of the Jesuits. It is said jokingly, but only in part. Of course, it was not all heresy and dissent. There was much laughter, discovery, camaraderie, and true friendship. I am immensely grateful, because the Lord uses everything. Everything. But, especially clear in hindsight, it was truly only His mercy that preserved the tiny seed of faith from being completely choked by thorns in later years.
It was this flimsy foundation --- no real moral formation, no spiritual formation, terribly confused and dissent-filled doctrinal formation, with all the skepticism of my secular-humanist-liberal upbringing intact, overlain now by a hermeneutic of suspicion towards the tradition, and the teaching of the Church itself -- that encountered the liberal church in America, when I moved back to the US to pursue further studies soon after my baptism. The tale of the subsequent several years -- one of further intellectual confusion, this time embraced as a justification for moral laxity (three words: American college life. Or one word, hedonism), and of my eventual, joyful, soul-awakening discovery of Christian orthodoxy, and the life-altering call to holiness -- all because of the Lord's ever present grace, His tireless pursuit, His sweet mercy, and, oh yes, the tenderness of His Mother -- will have to await another day, or perhaps rather that Day, when all things will be revealed. (I do not want to present myself only as a hapless victim -- I have free will, and I am responsible for my own choices, my sins, my evil.)
A huge part of the tale of this movement to orthodoxy were the writings of Joseph Ratzinger. Another was John Paul II's Theology of the Body. One small, but significant part, was a bible study written by Dr. Scott Hahn. And several folks whom the Lord put in my path, who lived joyful, fully Catholic lives.
However, an indispensable part of this tale involves that little nun from Alabama, who returned to the Father's house on Easter Sunday this year. In the circles I first encountered in the Church in the United States, Mother Angelica was a hated name, one that I actually witnessed being spat out. (I also recall a priest wishing for the death of Pope John Paul II.)
Now the story isn't that I stumbled across EWTN and was converted. I cannot recall, actually, the first time that I saw a program on EWTN. It was more what Mother Angelica and this incredible, odds-defying network managed to do. It created a space within American Catholicism, for a vibrant and joyful orthodoxy to take root and blossom and flourish. People were no longer alone, no longer beholden to the tyranny of parish DREs and pastors, diocesan media, publications, and liturgy offices. And with the arrival of the Internet, EWTN's vast online archives -- of Church documents, teachings, homilies and forums -- offered an immediate resource, orthodox and faithful to the Magisterium, to an innumerable number of Catholics and those interested in Catholicism. The small but vibrant and dynamic revival of Catholic life that is underway in the United States -- and it most certainly is. For instance see, in no particular order, these amazing apostolates and groups: FOCUS. And The Nashville Dominicans. And Dirty Vagabond Ministries. And Juventetum. And A Simple House. There could be so many more! -- has so much do with this incredible, spunky, cloistered Franciscan nun. Eventually I discovered this revival, and first hesitatingly, and then joyfully, dove in.
With this autobiography as background and context, you can imagine how powerful it was to watch this video, which came across my Facebook newsfeed the day after Mother's death. It is from 1993, during Pope St. John Paul II's visit to World Youth Day in Denver. Mother is incensed that at a mimed Stations of the Cross, a woman played the part of Jesus. And what follows is this epic rant, this classic polemic.
It is well worth a watch. Her anger, her righteous indignation, her fire, her zeal, are so palpable. I had never seen it until today. I wish I had seen it earlier. I wish I had discovered the true faith earlier. I wish I had discovered orthodoxy earlier! But all things happen in the Lord's time, in His Providence.
She certainly received pushback for this speech. She didn't back down. (Her response to one Bishop is as memorable as it is characteristic of her grit, and her determination.) Her cry resounded and reverberated across the Church. A crusade for orthodoxy had been launched, within the heart of the Church in the United States.
Thank you Lord, for the gift to the Church that was the life of Mother Angelica! Always you raise up women and men, in ways most unexpected, from among the poor, the lowly, and not the mighty and lofty (indeed, from the peripheries!), in answer to the challenges of the age. Truly, you confound the wise of the world! We pray for her as she faces her particular judgment (a dreadful moment for all, which we must keep ever in front of our minds). We pray too that she might, in accordance with your will, be raised up to the altars, as a model for holiness for all the faithful.
And you, liberal church in America! Your heyday is over. Your stranglehold is, thankfully, broken. In the twenty-three years since Mother spoke these words, new life has sprung up across the Church. Despite your efforts. Despite your contempt. In the face of your clear bewilderment and fear, the young who stay with the Church, fall in love with her, her traditions, her teaching, her Lord, and embrace orthodoxy. There are still dying gasps from your aging, collapsing strongholds. There are still places where you cling to power and wield it in a most unyielding, authoritarian manner, all in the name of "compassion." Your attempt to claim our present Holy Father for your tired, decrepit agenda of "reform" is almost amusing, if it were not for the tragic and colossal amount of spiritual damage caused by your sterile, dry, barren vision of ecclesial life. Mother was tired of you then. Your own tiredness is evident now. An exhausted project, as a great son of the Church once put it. Pray, go out quietly. Leave those of us who want to live a truly Catholic life, in peace. You have had your day. You have sown devastation and destruction. You have reaped the whirlwind.
Rest in peace, Mother! May the angels lead you to paradise!