Confronting Aggressive Secularism
One of Pope Benedict’s greatest priorities has been to respond to the worsening secularism in western culture that is attempting to rebuild society on atheistic foundations. He has been confronting the efforts of those elites seeking to ban God and religion from public life, repeatedly reminded the world that when we forget God we not only lose touch with who we are but we also undermine the ground for inalienable human rights. He has also been addressing the far more common and problematic issue of practical atheism among Christians, when those who profess themselves to be believers live as if God does not exist. This divorce between faith and life, between private belief and public action, between religion and reason, in western societies is what is making possible the advent of an aggressive secularism that seeks to codify in politics, education and culture this practical atheism in day-to-day existence.
Many Catholics are aware of Benedict’s diagnosis of the problem of the dictatorship of relativism to which many in society have surrendered their freedom, but few have noticed the remedy he has prescribed and even fewer have been following it. As we prepare for the celebration of Corpus Christi this Sunday, it’s important that all of us reflect anew on this antidote for these secularist social ills: true adoration of God.
The Practice of Adoration Liberates and Restores
When Pope Benedict was in Cologne in 2005 for World Youth Day, he spoke to the German bishop about how important it is for the Church to recover the practice of adoration in order to help the world rediscover the face and love of God. “In our new context in which worship, and thus also the face of human dignity, has been lost, it is once again up to us to understand the priority of worship. We must make the young, ourselves and our communities, aware of the fact that adoration is not a luxury of our confused epoch that we cannot permit ourselves but a priority. Whenever worship is no longer done, wherever it is not a priority to pay honor to God, human realities can make no headway.”
Adoration, he stresses, is not a luxury but a priority, because when people cease to adore God, they begin to worship themselves through exalting pleasure, power, and material goods. Failing to adore God, they begin to serve mammon (Mt 6:24) — and once they begin to serve mammon, they forget who they are. “Without the Creator, the creature disappears,” as Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes emphasizes. The rise of practical atheism and the decrease of adoration go hand-and-hand. Once Christians began to behave as if the presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist was tangential to their lives, once they no longer allowed Jesus’ Eucharistic presence to influence their daily priorities — through for example daily Mass and adoration, not to mention, obviously, the Sunday Eucharist — then it’s easy to see how they could take the small step to structuring their life as if God did not exist and begin to place their faith, hope and love in the things of this world. It’s also one of the reasons that, for the new evangelization to succeed, we need to rediscover and help others to rediscover the importance of adoration of God.
The feast of Corpus Christi is an opportunity for us to reorient our priorities and the way we relate practically to the real presence of the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist. If someone believes that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist and loves Jesus, then that love ought naturally to show itself in Eucharistic desires and deeds. Corpus Christi provides three opportunities, as Pope Benedict mentioned in a 2008 Corpus Christi Homily. The first is to gather together to celebrate with joy the Holy Mass. The second is to accompany Jesus into the streets in a Corpus Christi procession. The third is, on which we will focus, is to kneel before the Lord in adoration.
In the craziness that reigned in some places after the Second Vatican Council, there were many who mocked what they impiously called “cookie worship,” meaning Eucharistic adoration. In Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict’s 2007 Apostolic Exhortation on the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Father responded to this widespread theological darnel that “the eucharistic bread was given to us not to be looked at, but to be eaten.” He called it a “false dichotomy” and quoting St. Augustine, commented, “no one eats that flesh without first adoring it; we should sin were we not to adore it.” Eucharistic adoration, he continued, “is simply the natural consequence of the Eucharistic celebration, which is itself the Church’s supreme act of adoration. Receiving the Eucharist means adoring him whom we receive. Only in this way do we become one with him. … The act of adoration outside Mass prolongs and intensifies all that takes place during the liturgical celebration itself.”
It’s not enough, in other words, for us merely to receive the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist in the state of grace. We also must adoringly receive him, because adoration forms and increases our receptivity and prolongs and intensifies our holy communion. When we adore Jesus, we remind ourselves that the one we receive is in fact the Lord. “Adoration,” Pope Benedict said in a 2006 question-and-answer session with first communicants, “is recognizing that Jesus is my Lord, that Jesus shows me the way to take, and that I will live well only if I know the road that Jesus points out and follow the path he shows me. Therefore, adoration means saying: ‘Jesus, I am yours. I will follow you in my life; I never want to lose this friendship, this communion with you.’” That attitude of adoration impacts everything we are and do, including how we receive him in holy communion.
At World Youth Day in Cologne, Pope Benedict elaborated on how the “inner journey of adoration” of God transforms us by highlighting the etymology of the word for adoration in Greek and Latin: “The Greek word is proskynesis,” the Pope says. “It refers to the gesture of submission, the recognition of God as our true measure, supplying the norm that we choose to follow. It means that freedom is not simply about enjoying life in total autonomy, but rather about living by the measure of truth and goodness, so that we ourselves can become true and good. This gesture is necessary even if initially our yearning for freedom makes us inclined to resist it.” Proskynesis brings us to our knees, which is the first moment of adoration. “The Latin word for adoration,” the Pope continues, “is ad-oratio — mouth to mouth contact, a kiss, an embrace, and hence, ultimately love.” This is the second moment. “Submission becomes union, because he to whom we submit is Love. In this way submission acquires a meaning, because it does not impose anything on us from the outside, but liberates us deep within.”
In his 2008 Corpus Christi homily, Pope Benedict talked about how this loving union through adoring reception restores us to our true dignity. “Adoring the God of Jesus Christ, who out of love made himself bread broken, is the most effective and radical remedy against the idolatry of the past and of the present. Kneeling before the Eucharist is a profession of freedom: those who bow to Jesus cannot and must not prostrate themselves before any earthly authority, however powerful. We Christians kneel only before God or before the Most Blessed Sacrament because we know and believe that the one true God is present in it, the God who created the world and so loved it that he gave his Only Begotten Son (cf. Jn 3: 16). We prostrate ourselves before a God who first bent over man like the Good Samaritan to assist him and restore his life, and who knelt before us to wash our dirty feet. Adoring the Body of Christ, means believing that there, in that piece of Bread [with a capital-B], Christ is really there, and gives true sense to life, to the immense universe as to the smallest creature, to the whole of human history as to the most brief existence.”
Against the secularism that wants to force us to bow down before earthly realities, adoration of God liberates and restores us to our true dignity. Adoration helps us to recognize that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son not only to take on our human nature and be born in a Bethlehem manger but that he allowed that same Son to humble himself even further, remaining under the appearances of bread and wine – and in tabernacles and in monstrances so that he can be with us, and we with him, until the end of time. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Pope Benedict in Sacramentum Caritatis strongly encouraged the practice of Eucharistic adoration, both individually and in community, and asked that churches or oratories be set up wherever possible for perpetual adoration. Not only will this revivify individual believers and communities, but it will also begin to provide spiritual chemotherapy to one of society’s greatest cancers.
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