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Barbarism Rising:  The Black Hole Where Piety Used to Be

Anthony Mazzone

(Posted 12/15/09 It is mid-Lent sometime in the 1950’s. Deep within a large Eastern city early morning Mass is about to begin. The sanctuary bell rings and the priest enters with two altar boys. He places the sacred vessels on the altar and gets right down to business. There is no greeting of the people, never any eye contact. His movements are practiced, precise and quick. Those in the front pews can hear the whispered Latin phrases.  The congregation consists largely of elderly women dressed in black who continuously tell their beads. Scattered about are a few school children who try to follow along in their missals. Once in a while a huge workman enters. He kneels heavily, rolls up his sleeves, and remains absolutely still for the duration of Mass. Less often another fellow, better tailored, comes in. He favors lighting candles and stuffing money into the poor box but never stays for Mass. 

Other scattered memories surface from around the same time: priests occasionally conversing in Latin, statues of saints carried in procession through the streets, every home having a crucifix on one of the walls and somewhere else a picture St Anthony. Once I was standing on some corner when the parish priest came hurrying by, black bag in hand. My friends and I weren’t accustomed to seeing Father outside of Church. We stared open-mouthed until a harsh whisper from a teenager startled us: “Inginocchiati, stronzo!” “Kneel down, idiot!”

Reciting the Angelus at noon, making the Sign of the Cross when passing a church, keeping silent between one and three on Good Friday, having Masses said for deceased family members, naming one’s children after favorite saints: such customs were innumerable and rather instinctual, little things that came naturally simply from being Catholic. They signified continuity and stability and among us constituted a kind of common patois. This is what our parents and grandparents did; it was what we should do in reverence of their memory.

I can admit that this is to some extent an idealized portrait of the past, and will acknowledge that there is little merit in merely following custom without understanding or devotion. We can all recognize and reprobate those elements of hypocrisy, or worse superstition, that often infected many of these customs. Nevertheless there is no question that, when well ordered, works of popular piety are indications of spiritual health and of a robust Catholic culture.

So it is disheartening to recognize that the time of universal Latin Masses in cold churches, of fervent street processions, of fidelity to long standing customs has long since passed. No longer do we dwell in a world that takes outward expressions of religious faith for granted. Instead, sincere displays of piety are increasingly unwelcome in public and tolerated only as vague invocations of the deity on national holidays or, at most, charming vestiges of ethnic culture. We are all to some extent intimidated, if not cowed. And what are the chances these days of a young man, hanging in front of the pool hall, taking anyone to task for not kneeling as a priest passes by carrying the Sanctissimum?

In fact the term has been so inverted that to call someone “pious” today is practically to insult him, to intimate that he is ipso facto a hypocrite, likely ignorant and intolerant also. This is truly an inversion, for Piety is one of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Aquinas tells us that it is the gift "whereby, at the Holy Spirit's instigation, we pay worship and duty to God as our Father." It corresponds to the Cardinal Virtue of Justice and along with Fortitude and Fear of the Lord, directs the will towards God.

But we are a modern people and in our hubris and luxury have emphatically rejected this gift. We do not prize it because it will make nobody any money, and is suitable only for duds and flunkies. Could anyone say that dutiful respect and docility of soul are admired today? Rather the stylish masses prefer to revel in gross confrontation and ugly “attitude.”  Lack of reverence toward the past, disrespect for what has been handed down, disdain for the virtue of humility, outright revulsion toward the compliant fulfillment of duties—simply a revolt from piety—is the acid bath of modernity.

We all experience the corrosive effects in our daily lives. The most noticeable symptom is that coarseness of language and rudeness of behavior are ubiquitous, and tolerated. Turn on the TV, listen to the radio and the crassness seems to get worse every day. Not even the most insular among us can escape the relentless onslaught of advertising: the primary outlet for creativity in our time. It is literally borne on the air, thrust into our faces, rammed into our ears. It aims not at enlightenment or elevation of mind but instead suborns the artistic talents for the purposes of manipulation. In the world of marketing value is not measured by intrinsic worth but by the possibility of profit; absolutely nothing is sacred or beyond exploitation. Advertising touches everything and trivializes everything it touches.

How is it possible then for modern man to sustain a healthy spiritual balance, a personal decorum, when his senses are constantly under assault, when the means of modern communication exist not to inform but to propagandize? How does he maintain emotional equilibrium when his appetites are artificially stimulated or his moral composure when his culture has proudly moved beyond the very concept of good and evil? Why should he value the continuity when all about him novelty trumps experience and new sensations are eagerly substituted for wisdom? It’s no wonder that mental illnesses and social pathologies of all kinds have reached unprecedented levels.

But it is this same frazzled modern man—partitioned from his past, morally undisciplined, infantilized by Big Brother—who now constitutes the basic unit of society. Cascading political and social revolutions have stripped from him the protection of mediating institutions such as family, clan, guild, or church. He stands, very much by design, defenseless against the naked power of a secular and increasingly oppressive state. As he represents no family or people but himself, his power is limited to a single expression of opinion among millions of others, all of equal weight and value. In a world where statistical equality is more sacred than merit, even the most accomplished will often find themselves on the wrong end of the equation.

Having effectively corralled the individual, impiety sets out on its Gramscian march through the culture. Secondary schools, which should transmit and reinforce traditional values, now take it as their primary duty to question and destroy them. Our once great universities have long since divorced themselves from the wisdom of the Faith; any confession of objective truth is deemed prejudicial and exclusionary. They celebrate doubt as a virtue and foster a narrow rationalism that serves to cheapen rather than to edify the life of the mind. A few hours spent on almost any campus will show that there is no institutional acknowledgement of moral value, or any expectation that students will observe standards of virtuous excellence in personal behavior. What a student must do is express the prevailing political and social opinions and jump through the various administrative loops. Finally and briefly the modern arts, again to the extent that they are divorced from objective standards of beauty and truth and freed from the restraint imposed by virtue, do not serve to ennoble, enlighten and please, but to manipulate the emotions and corrupt the imagination.

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Great read,,,Thanks for posting

so true.  even being a catholic, in some circles, you have to be a BAD GIRRRL to be cool. ???
so anti what Our Lord and Lady represent.
Great read.
How about...Piety where a black hole used to be?

Plenty of that around!!
Huzzah and Amen!
this deserves a kick back to the top, before it disappears onto page 2 and into oblivion.  it's worth a read for all.
uh huh...riiigghhhtt
that was a great read
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