It was on February 2, 1998, that I had the experience of a lifetime. It was my first ever Papal Mass, and this was with Pope John Paul II on the Feast of the Presentation. I went on sabbatical for two months with some priest friends to study in Rome. The priests studying received a beautiful, engraved invitation to the Papal Mass, and we were thrilled to be going.
There we were in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, about to pray with the Vicar of Christ. As Mass began, glorious sacred music filled the Basilica...and my soul. Since it was a Papal Mass there was great attention given to precision, which struck me as "beautiful order," much like is seen with a military honor guard granting the highest respect to a fallen soldier. But it was more than that. While I had always loved the Mass, I felt, maybe for the first time, that we were truly "glorifying" God. On that day, February 2, 1998, I was profoundly changed.
That amazing experience simultaneously left me filled with regret. I began to ask myself, "What have I been doing?" I had spent the first ten years of my priesthood buying into the common (at the time) notion that if we created all kinds of trendy nuances to the Mass, while keeping it as whimsical and entertaining as possible, people would hear about how "cool" and "fun" and "with the times" we were and come running. We were treating the Mass as a commodity that we needed to somehow market to the world. Worse than anything, I realized we were all but throwing out any sense of divinity, any sense of the supernatural. Where in all of this was any sense of awe and wonder in God's presence? Where was the sense of God's majesty? I realized, for the first time, we were gravely sinning in our irreverence before God.
Saint Francis of Assisi said, "Man should tremble, the world should quake, all Heaven should be deeply moved when the Son of God appears on the altar in the hands of the priest." Where was that in my "night club act" or "Broadway musical" entertainment-focused Masses? Irreverence!
I've come to understand that we have, throughout most of the Church, removed the very gateway into the Divine Life. I happen to agree with Pope St. Gregory the Great who, wanting to capture the spiritual dynamism of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, posited the following order: "Through the fear of the Lord, we rise to piety, from piety then to knowledge, from knowledge we derive strength, from strength counsel, with counsel we move toward understanding, and with intelligence toward wisdom and thus, by the sevenfold grace of the Spirit, there opens to us at the end of the ascent the entrance to the life of Heaven" ("Homiliae in Hiezechihelem Prophetam," II 7,7).
As you can see, the entry point to all the Gifts of the Holy Spirit is "Fear of the Lord." What is Fear of the Lord, also known as the Gift of Awe and Wonder? According to Fr. John Hardon, Fear of the Lord "... inspires a person with profound respect for the majesty of God. Its corresponding effects are protection from sin through dread of offending the Lord, and a strong confidence in the power of His help. The fear of the Lord is not servile but filial. It is based on the selfless love of God, whom it shrinks from offending. Whereas in servile fear the evil dreaded is punishment; in filial fear it is the fear of doing anything contrary to the will of God. The gift of fear comprises three principal elements: a vivid sense of God's greatness, a lively sorrow for the least faults committed, and a vigilant care in avoiding occasions of sin. It is expressed in prayer of the Psalmist, 'My whole being trembles before you, Your ruling fills me with fear'"(Psalm 119:120).
Fear of the Lord is the entry point; this is the "trigger" that ignites all the other gifts of the Holy Spirit. Without this trigger, we are prone to reduce our faith/religion to merely another organization that has a sense of social responsibility. Jesus is then reduced to a historic figure to emulate. Mass is just a social gathering that many may say (without saying), "it had better have good entertainment if You are going to make me endure this for an hour." So then, why not just throw on our worst recreational attire for Mass, and get in line to grab Jesus like we're reaching for a potato chip? Where is the desire to be filled with the supernatural power of grace?
St. Bernard said, "For I have learnt for a fact that nothing so effectively obtains, retains and regains grace, as that we should always be found not high-minded before God, but filled with holy fear."
Fr. John Hardon wrote: "St. Thomas Aquinas believed that man is more than a composite of body and soul, that his is nothing less than elevated to a supernatural order which participates, as far as a creature can, in the very nature of God. Accordingly, a person in the state of grace, or divine friendship, possesses certain enduring powers, the infused virtues and gifts, that raise him to an orbit of existence as far above nature as heaven is above earth, and that give him abilities of thought and operation that are literally born, not of the will of flesh nor of the will of man, but of God."
Do you see why Satan is winning?! He is in the supernatural realm using supernatural weapons, while we have surrendered ours. We seem to be choosing, instead, an irreverent, secular (anti-supernatural) version of religion. I honestly believe this goes to the very root of our problems. Unless, and until, we see a worldwide movement within our Church to restore reverence in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, that assists us in becoming predisposed to receive the gateway Holy Spirit Gift of Awe and Wonder, Satan will continue to have an easy-time with us. Until then, Satan is eating our lunch!
Battlefield's personal note:
irreverence = lack of reverence
synonyms are blasphemy, defilement, desecration, impiety, profanation or sacrilege