This past week saw the anniversary of the death of the Venerable Servant of God, Pope Pius XII. His extraordinary pontificate, from 1939 to 1958, was a time of great renewal in the Church. In 1950, he defined the dogma of the Assumption of Our Lady, and in under twenty years he produced some forty encyclical letters, amongst them the towering Mystici corporis, on the nature of the Church, and Mediator Dei, on the Sacred Liturgy, both of which contributed in a truly significant way to the documents of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. These great achievements, however, were made in the context of great social upheaval. During his pontificate, Pius XII saw the rise of National Socialism and Fascism, the Second World War, and the rise of Communism. Yet despite this he remained unswerving in carrying out the mission of the Church entrusted to him, in fidelity to Christ, in fidelity to the truth, and with the true Christian charity that flows from the Heart of Christ alone.
In sociological terms, we of course live in a very different time. The wars being fought around us, and there are many, do not simply involve the violent shedding of blood. The political movements which constrict the Church in the twenty-first century are subtle and beguiling. And yet in our own time we are called to that same heroic fidelity shown us by Pope Pius XII; a fidelity which is the charism of the Church in every age, and particularly of the Successors of Saint Peter, who stand in the shoes of the Fisherman, and in the blood of their predecessors who gave their lives for Christ and his Holy Church.
This is a fact readily acknowledged by our present Holy Father. At the opening Mass of the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops last Sunday, he explained the means by which the Church is called to proclaim the gospel concerning the family. His words might very well form a broader basis for the Church’s contemporary mission. First, this is to be carried out “in fidelity to her Master as a voice crying out in the desert”; secondly, “in truth, which is not changed by passing fads or popular opinions”; thirdly, “in charity, not pointing a finger in judgement of others, but—faithful to her nature as a mother—conscious of her duty to seek out and care for [the] hurting”.
This striking triptych of self-abasing obeisance requires of us a response marked by supernatural courage; laying aside our own thoughts and opinions, even our own will and instincts, in conformity with the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, found perfected in the person of Christ. The Church, and by extension the Plebs Sancta Dei—the Holy People of God who are mystically united to the Church through baptism, is called to a radical “incarnation” of the kingdom of heaven, here and now in the kingdoms of this world. We are called to plant the roots of the gospel firmly in the soil of the earth, not because the Tree of Life needs food, but because the earth has no purpose without it. The Church of the saints, which is triumphant in the fullness of the presence of God in heaven, is one and the same with the Church of those who, in the words of Peter Abelard, are “seeking Jerusalem, dear native land, through our long exile on Babylon’s strand” (cf. Offertory). As with the incarnation itself, heaven kisses and sanctifies the earth; not vice versa.
All of this is the context for our reading from the epistle to the Ephesians. Here Saint Paul exhorts the Church in Ephesus, and us also, to be wise to the signs of the times, not in order to subject the message of the gospel to the quasi-political machinations of our day, but so that we might redeem the time by being drunk, not with wine (that is, not with the spirit of the age), but with the Holy Spirit, “making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord” (Eph. 5: 19-20).
That intoxicating gift of the Holy Spirit, which causes us to take leave of ourselves and to surrender our will freely to the Lord, is the fuel of the Church’s mission in the world and, indeed, of our own sanctification and preparation for the life of the world to come. In his commentary on this text, Dom Prosper Guéranger enforces the point, saying: “Others may have recourse to human and accommodating combinations, fitted to please all parties; they may put forward dubious compromises, which (so their suggesters think) will keep back, for some weeks or some months perhaps, the fierce tide of revolution; but those who have God’s spirit in them will put a very different construction on the admonition given us by the apostle in today’s epistle, where he tells us to redeem the time”.
In this offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice may we once again see in earth the glories of the worship of heaven. May our communion with the Lord in the sacrifice he makes for us, draw us into a more profound relationship of grace. And, by that bond of immeasurable love which is the gift of Christ himself, may we become more closely conformed to his image, and to his will; that united to him in this life and proclaiming him in this world, we might be made fit to be partakers in his life and in the life of the world to come.