July 2017 Print

Religious Ignorance

A Lenten sermon by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre

“The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there be any that understand and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are become unprofitable together…” These words of the psalmist are echoed by St. Paul: “…they are inexcusable, because that, when they knew God, they have not glorified Him as God or given thanks; but became vain in their thoughts; and their foolish heart was darkened.”

Giant Scientists and Spiritual Dwarfs

How relevant these passages still are! How many people there are in our own day who care nothing for God or the things of Heaven, or who know nothing of the Christian religion and the mysteries of Christ! Worse yet, many baptized Christians still know little or nothing of their religion, and cannot even recite the most basic prayers. How many there are, some even university graduates, who are unable to distinguish between the true religion into which they were baptized and heresies and cults invented by men.

This ignorance may be excusable in those who have been brought up in a pagan environment and who are making praiseworthy efforts to escape from it, but there is no excuse for those who live in a Christian milieu and who, along with a certain degree of education, have everything which makes of man a creature truly made in the image of God.

Our Holy Father Pope Pius X said: “Those who are still zealous for the glory of God seek to know why things divine are being held in less esteem. Some give one reason, some another, and according to his opinion each proposes a different means for the defense or the reestablishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. For Ourself, without wishing to disparage the opinions of others, we concur wholeheartedly with the judgment of those who attribute today’s spiritual laxity and weakness and their attendant grave ills, mainly to ignorance of the things of God. This is precisely what God spoke through the mouth of the Prophet Osee, saying: ‘Cursing and lying and killing and theft and adultery have overflowed: and blood hath touched blood. Therefore shall the land mourn, and every one that dwelleth in it shall languish.’”

How many there are who think they can make do with a religious education received before they were eleven years old, an age when one is nowhere near capable of mastering a secular science. It may be true that religion comes naturally to man, and that at an age when passions have not yet overshadowed intelligence the raising up of the heart and mind to God is easy and spontaneous, but at that stage of a human life, the true knowledge upon which conviction is based, and which will make it possible to resist the internal and external assaults of the devil and the world cannot be and have not been acquired.

What a crime is committed, albeit unknowingly, by those parents who can see no point in continuing their children’s religious education, once they have made their Profession of Faith [Editor’s note: at age 12 in France]. And how wrong are those folk who think religious knowledge is only good for children, that the adolescent and the adult should not be expected to learn anymore, and that a minimal religious observance—a late Sunday Mass and annual Easter Communion—is sufficient for living a good Christian life!

The Dazzling Lights of the City

Small wonder if in the future we find Christians fulfilling only the strict minimum of obligations imposed by the Church, and otherwise living in the world like everyone else, without faith or morals. To quote Pius X again: “Human will, led astray and blinded as it is by wicked passions, has need of a guide to show it the way and to bring it back into the paths of righteousness whence it has mistakenly wandered. We do not have to seek this guide outside ourselves, for it is given to us by nature, it is our own intelligence. If that is not truly enlightened, that is, if it lacks the knowledge of the things of God, then we shall be back to the situation of the blind leading the blind: they will both fall into the ditch.”

Worse yet, more often than not, an adolescent will give up the practice of his or her religion entirely and will soon abandon all moral standards, much to the distress of the priests and nuns who have tried everything to keep such young souls on the path of duty and eternal salvation. Alas, if it is true that adults are more than ever fascinated and captivated by all those inventions of modern science which are drawing the world into such a state of feverish activity; if it is true that the human spirit is ever more attracted by all that enslaves the senses, then how are the young to resist if there is not deep in their hearts and minds a still more powerful attraction towards God?

And such an attraction requires a more prefect knowledge of the unfathomable riches of God’s mercy, of His omnipotence, and the infinite love He has shown for us by making His Divine Son both our brother and our food. For does not Our Lord teach that “this is eternal life: that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, Whom Thou hast sent?” Are we going to cast away eternal life through ignorance of things divine just so that we may follow the attractions of this decaying and transitory life?

Modern man is displaying an almost pathological agitation, brought on by a sensual activity out of all proportions to the physical strength which God has given him. Radio, the cinema and a whole host of modern inventions are largely to blame for this, but these things would do less damage if people knew how to use them with moderation. This is not the case, however, and wherever we turn, we are faced with the spectacle of humanity rushing avidly in pursuit of intense sensual experiences. The effect upon the intelligence, whose activity depends so largely upon the nervous system, is all too evident. Children and young people have great difficulty concentrating at school, and adults find it hard to sustain any intellectual effort, or to give their minds to any one thing for long.

What are we to expect, then, when it comes to religious matters, where the senses have only a very small role to play, and where one has to rise above their limited perceptions if one is to grasp spiritual realities?

Nonetheless, there is no denying, as our Holy Father Pope Pius XI put it, “that man created in the image and likeness of God has his destiny in Him Who is Infinite Perfection and, although modern material progress has brought with it an abundance of worldly goods, he is today more than ever aware of their inadequacy to bring true happiness to individuals and to nations. Thus, he feels more insistently within himself that aspiration towards a higher state of perfection which the Creator has implanted in the heart of rational nature.”

The Ordinary Channels of Wisdom

How, then, are we to overcome the ignorance of God and of the divine mysteries which prevent the realization of this noble aspiration to which Pope Pius refers?

First, we have to desire true wisdom, that is to say, understanding of the things of God.

Next, we must seek this knowledge at its authentic source, and that is the Church.

Finally, and above all, we must give ourselves over to prayer.

It is not enough for the priest to speak and write: the faithful must also attend to him with a genuine desire to learn.

“My son,” says the prophet, “lean not upon thine own prudence…seek wisdom…take hold on instruction, leave it not: keep it, because it is thy life…O men, it is to you that I say; hearken to me, for I have wondrous things to tell.” Thus he exhorts the faithful to pay heed to his words and gives himself as an example: “I desired wisdom and it was given to me; I have loved it and sought it from my youth.”

Let us beware of stifling in ourselves, and especially in the souls of our children, this desire to know and love God which is within every human being. As St. Augustine puts it, “Thou, O Lord, hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee.” “As the heart panteth after the fountains of water” where it may slake its thirst, let us go, thirsting to the fount of wisdom.

All knowledge and all wisdom come from Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Splendor of the Eternal Father. It is of Him that the Old Testament speaks when it says: “Come over to me, all ye that desire me, and be filled with my fruits; he that harkeneth to me shall not be confounded…” and He Himself has said: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them life everlasting…He that receiveth Me receiveth Him that sent Me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me…” The college of Apostles, with St. Peter at its head, is the Church, and the Church continues to speak by the mouths of its bishops and its priests. So he who would come to the knowledge of God must heed the priest, who teaches in the name of the Church.

Now, the priest teaches in many ways. On Sundays and Holy days, he preaches; in Lent he gives special courses of instruction, and in his conversation and when making pastoral visits he gives advice, refutes errors, and points out the way of truth. It is to be deplored that some of the faithful have, without reasonable cause, got into the habit of fulfilling their Sunday obligation by attending a Mass at which there is no sermon.

A priest also teaches by catechizing both children and adults. In this connection, parents must be mindful of their grave obligation to send their children to catechism, even in addition to their secular studies. Religious instruction is no less essential for children in state schools than for those attending Catholic establishments. It is one of the most vital of parental duties to do everything possible to supply whatever may be lacking in one’s children’s schooling.

It has been a source of great joy to see the dedicated laity offering to assist the Fathers in teaching catechism. I can assure them that their zeal is most pleasing to God and the Church, and that heaven will bless them for that.

Another way in which the Church teaches is through the printed word, whether in books, magazines, newspapers or other publications designed to nourish and enlighten the intellect and to inform it regarding the things of God.

The book par excellence for anyone wishing to know about God is, of course, the Holy Bible. His Holiness Pope Pius XII has written: “Let the bishops lend their support to every initiative undertaken by zealous apostles with the laudable aim of promoting and nurturing among the faithful the knowledge and love the Holy Books. Let them therefore support and smooth the way for those pious associations whose purpose is to disseminate among the faithful copies of the Sacred Scriptures, especially the Gospels, and which encourage the devout reading of them each day in Christian families…as St. Jerome says, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,” and “if there be one thing in this life which keeps a man virtuous, and convinces him to maintain the equanimity of his soul amid all the sufferings and torments of this world, I believe that thing to be the meditation and the knowledge of the Scriptures.”

With all my heart, I encourage you, the faithful, to adopt this excellent practice, recommended by Our Holy Father the Pope, of reading together as a family each day some passage from these inspired books.

Concluding Exhortation

Dearly beloved brethren, neglect nothing which can bring you to a greater knowledge of our holy religion, and of the Giver of all graces, Our Lord Jesus Christ.

What strength and consolation, what hope in trials and tribulations is this Christian faith of ours, which transports us to the realities of eternity even while we are yet here on earth! But our desire for the knowledge of God, our longing to draw from the wellsprings of Truth, must be accompanied by prayer, the prayer of the blind man on the road to Jericho. When Jesus asked him what he wanted he replied, “Lord, that I may see.” Imagine how that poor blind man must have uttered those words: “That I may see” even though he was asking only for the sight of transitory things. May we take up these words with a persistence and a longing which will touch the merciful heart of God. Let us make an effort to pray with greater humility, with greater contrition. A humbled and contrite heart God will not despise, and so the light of wisdom and knowledge will rise upon our souls, a dawning of peace and benediction, until the full day of the Lord shall shine on them forever in the eternity of the Blessed.