Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

Christian Militancy in the Prayer of the Church

The following talk was given at a Call to Holiness event at Assumption Grotto in Detroit on Sunday, March 6, 2022. Please note that the sound quality in the video improves at the 2’15” mark, at which time the lapel mic begins working.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, at an event called the Republican National Convention, a religious sister named Deirdre Byrne gave a rousing pro-life speech that concluded with a promise of prayers for then-President Trump: “You’ll find us here with our weapon of choice, the Rosary.” The liberal Franciscan theologian Fr. Daniel P. Horán reacted with what a celebrity blogger would call a spittle-flecked nutty: “Weapons are, by definition, instruments of violence. Prayer is NOT a weapon, sacramentals for prayer like rosaries are not weapons. Christ preached and lived a message of nonviolence, and prayer is always about love—God’s love! Weaponizing faith is disgusting and idolatrous.”

Here Dede and Daniel offer us a perfect contrast: you might even call them “Sr. Rambo and Br. Bambi.” Which one has the right perspective on Christianity? It seems pretty clear, whatever else may be the case, that Fr. Daniel hasn’t cracked open the letters of St. Paul in a good long while, for he might have stumbled across some verses in 2 Corinthians that could have put ideas into Sr. Deirde’s head: “As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities…with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left” (that’s from chapter 6); and again, “the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (that’s from chapter 10).[1] One is reminded of how the pope said this past Epiphany that “faith is not a suit of armor,” seeming to forget that St. Paul in Ephesians tells Christians to “take up the full armor of God” and to use the “shield of faith.” One would think scriptural literacy is a job requirement for the papacy, but I guess there are exceptions to every rule…

“The life of man upon earth is a warfare” (Job 7:1). These words from the Book of Job express a fundamental truth of the Christian life. We are born into enemy territory: the world is in the grip of the Evil One, to whom our first parents gave the keys to the city. Scripture really leaves no doubt about it. The Apostle John writes: “We know that whosoever is born of God does not sin, but the generation of God preserves him and the wicked one does not touch him. We know that we are of God and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one [mundus totus in maligno positus est]” (1 Jn 5:18–19).

Within this world Christ has established a fortress, a beachhead, a kingdom that is at the same time not of this world, but of the enduring world of heaven, where the Evil One has already decisively lost. The fury with which he campaigns on earth is an expression of his despair at having been driven forth from heaven into hell. Either from malice or from ignorance and foolishness, many men end up enlisting in Satan’s army, and we are engaged with them in a struggle not only to repel their attacks but to capture them, if possible, and bring them over to our side.

The life of man is a battle in another and more distressing way: we have enemies within us, too, that we can never fully escape from—disordered concupiscence, bad habits, the memories of our past sins—although we can bring them into subjection. That, indeed, is what the season of Lent is supposed to help us to do. To paraphrase St. Benedict, our whole life should be salted with a Lenten spirit, but the Church wisely asks us to set apart a segment of time each year when we can hit the spiritual “restart” button.

We are not alone in the fight: we have many allies, many powerful friends. The most powerful weapons in our arsenal are the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the other sacraments, the Divine Office, and the sacramentals (especially the Rosary), which Christ and the Church provide for our sanctification, the strengthening of the inner man, the conquest of enemy territory within and without. These things are not just individual actions we perform; they are acts of the Mystical Body that carry the full weight of its indestructible essence. I came across a stirring passage in a book by an obscure French author, an old-school Jesuit writing before the Council, by the name of Taymans d’Eypernon. He says:

This, then, is the reason why God in His love has stooped so low to us. It is in a material universe that our destiny is shaped and shattered and remade. The material world is a vast plain of battle, scarred with the marks of our defeat, or resplendent with the trophies of victory. Matter is man’s strength and his weakness, for it is by his life amid material things and by his use of them that man rises above himself; and on the other hand, it is the material part of our nature that bleeds and is broken in the press of life. It was divinely fitting that God should come and apply His saving Omnipotence to this essential part of His creation, the most vulnerable of all. He does this by the sacraments. They not only are signs of His coming, they actually contain the divine healing power and apply it to our souls. In them, matter is elevated to the rank of a bond between God and man, and a symbol of the infinite mystery of God’s love. Raised to sacramental dignity, matter is not only the channel by which the thought and prayer of the creature rise to the Uncreated, but the channel by which God Himself really comes to His creatures to dwell in them forever. Et mansionem apud eum faciemus: And we will make our abode with him (Jn 14:23).[2]

Without this help from God throughout our lives, above all in the Most Holy Eucharist, the vast plain of battle will be scarred with the marks of our defeat, rather than resplendent with the trophies of victory. By God’s grace, given to us under material forms (even as the Son of God was “given to us” in the man Jesus of Nazareth), we can find healing, rise above ourselves, and join Christ our victorious King.

Fr. Christopher Smith has these rousing words for us:

As Christians we know that peace comes from the social reign of Christ as King over all peoples, and to establish that peace we engage first of all in a spiritual battle within ourselves. We absolutely must not be afraid to declare total war on the world, the flesh, and the Devil, which seek to carry our souls away from peace, away from the Prince of Peace. But that spiritual battle also means that we must learn how to defend our Faith and engage others for our freedom to practice what we know is the true religion. Now of course every age has its own particular fight for right. The spiritual battle takes on a different quality in different times and places but there is a very particular quality to what that looks like today.

Part of this “very particular quality” is surely fighting for the Church’s traditional rites of divine worship, which candidly acknowledge and boldly assist us in the spiritual battle we are facing. In my talk today, I want to show some of the many ways that the traditional Roman liturgy recognizes, with realism and supernatural hope, the true state of affairs in which we are involved. Roberto de Mattei notes that “the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ: a reality that transcends history, but in history lives and battles and hence is called the Church Militant.”[3] “The Church here on earth is not simply ‘on the pilgrim’s way,’ but it is rather a militant Church (ecclesia militans). Her ranks are called to battle.”[4]

Battles for Christendom

First, let’s look at the traditional liturgical calendar. Every year, Holy Mother Church reminds us again and again of battles fought by Christians to preserve the true Faith on earth. For the Kingdom of God is not far removed from us, in a heaven that cannot be reached, but is a reality present also on earth, albeit in the form of sacramental signs administered and received by imperfect men, and in the form of a hierarchical social body that coexists with the cities and nations of men. Wherever Christ is present, His kingdom is present; we are living at the fringes of His realm, with access to the King Himself. We do not pray “Thy Kingdom stay away,” but “Thy kingdom come.” We do not pray: “Thy will be done only in heaven, and as for earth, forget about it, it’s a hopeless disaster.” We pray: “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” In Our Lord’s parable of the mustard seed, we should not overlook the fact that a seed must be planted in the earth, where it germinates and puts down its roots in order to grow into the heavens.

Christians are called first and foremost to beg the Lord for deliverance, but we are also called to make a good use of the natural gifts and abilities He has given us for living with dignity here below. That is the reason why, when the blossoming of the human-divine civilization known as Christendom was attacked by its enemies, Christians reasonably and rightfully took up arms to defend themselves, their families and peoples, their holy religion. We may find ourselves in the future needing our weapons to defend the most fundamental human and Christian rights against totalitarian progressivism in the State and Modernism in the Church. None of us can know exactly what this will look like, but it is important to see that we are not wrong to be thinking along these lines. The traditional Roman Martyrology, which is read as part of the office of Prime, puts us in mind of this fact over and over again. Some examples: on the 12th of September, we read about “The Feast of the Most Holy Name of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which Pope Innocent XI commanded should be celebrated by reason of the famous victory obtained over the Turks at Vienna in Austria by the help of the Blessed Virgin,” and on the 16th of the same month, “At Monte Cassino, blessed Pope Victor III, who … shed a fresh lustre on the Apostolic See, and with God’s help gained a famous victory over the Saracens.” On May 1st, we hear of St. Pius V that “he battled against the enemies of the Christian name.” On October 7th, we hear of “the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Rosary and the commemoration of St Mary of Victory, which Pope St Pius V instituted to be kept yearly in memory of the glorious victory obtained on this same day in a naval battle by the Christians against the Turks [at Lepanto in 1571], by the help of the same Mother of God.” (And, in fact, it was a second victory over the Turks in Hungary in 1716 that prompted Pope Clement XI to extend the feast to the entire Catholic world.[5] Can you imagine what these popes would think about Abu Dhabi and Fratelli Tutti?) In his 1937 encyclical on the Rosary, Ingravescentibus Malis, Pope Pius XI expressly recalled Lepanto:

When the impious Mohammedan power, trusting in its powerful fleet and war-hardened armies, threatened the peoples of Europe with ruin and slavery, then—upon the suggestion of the Sovereign Pontiff—the protection of the heavenly Mother was fervently implored and the enemy was defeated and his ships sunk. Thus the Faithful of every age, both in public misfortune and in private need, turn in supplication to Mary, the benignant, so that she may come to their aid and grant help and remedy against sorrows of body and soul. And never was her most powerful aid hoped for in vain by those who besought it with pious and trustful prayer.[6]

On October 23, we read about “the birthday of St John of Capistrano, Priest of the Order of Friars Minor, Confessor, a man illustrious for holiness of life and zeal for the spreading of the Catholic faith. He by his prayers and miracles delivered from siege the town of Tornau, which was wasted by a powerful Turkish army.”[7] In the entry for “St Stephen, King of Hungary, Confessor, who was adorned with divine virtues,” we learn that “his feast is especially kept, by decision of Pope Innocent XI, on September 2, on which day the strong fortress of Buda, by the aid of the holy king, was valiantly recovered by the Christian army.”[8]

The traditional Martyrology mentions over 360 martyrs to Islam on over 30 separate dates in the year, with no month skipped. The Church does not want us to forget the memory of these heroes of the Faith who surrendered their lives for the love of Christ and the love of His truth. They were not combatants, but neither were they milquetoast Christians who apologized for offending people with the Gospel or who preached human fraternity and boundless tolerance of error. One of my favorite entries in the Martyrology appears on February 21st: “At Damascus, St Peter Mavimenus, who said to certain Arabs who came to him in his sickness: ‘Every man who does not embrace the Catholic Christian faith is damned as Mohammed, your false prophet, was,’ and was slain by them.” Not a surprising conclusion to that “interreligious dialogue.”

Soldiers for Christ

Then there are the soldiers: the ancient Roman calendar is full of soldier-saints. In ancient times Christianity struggled with the issue of whether believers ought to enlist (or remain in) the imperial army. The liturgy answered the question with a paradox: yes, there were many just men who fought for the emperor, but their righteousness was displayed above all when they refused to worship the emperor’s idols and, throwing down their arms, embraced martyrdom for the heavenly King, which is the ultimate act of fortitude or courage. In this way we see that being a soldier is not, in itself, incompatible with professing the Christian Faith—but also that our ultimate allegiance cannot be to any earthly ruler or his campaigns. As I said, the old calendar is full of these soldier-saints. Just to limit ourselves to the sanctoral cycle in the Roman Missal: St. Sebastian (January 20), the Forty Holy Martyrs of the garrison of Sebaste (March 10), St. George (April 23), Sts. Nereus and Achilleus (May 12), Sts. Basilides, Cyrinus, Nabor, and Nazarius (June 12), Sts. John and Paul (June 26), Sts. Processus and Martinian (July 2), St. Romanus (August 9), St. Hippolytus (August 13), St. Gorgonius (September 9), St. Eustace and Companions (September 20), St. Mauríce and Companions (September 22), St. Theodore (November 9), St. Martin of Tours (November 11), and St. Mennas (also November 11). That’s over 60 soldiers commemorated at Mass each year! While it is true that these soldiers are celebrated by us at Mass because they are martyrs for the Faith, not because they fought for the Roman Empire, they are not condemned for having been in the imperial army, even when it was a pagan army—and subsequent devotion to them has emphasized their military attire, virtues, and patronage, seeing in them models of Christian warfare.

The reason I make a point of mentioning Christian soldiers is that the Church today has been corrupted by the error of pacifism in various forms. We are not sure anymore if we are allowed to fight about anything. Isn’t it mean and nasty to speak against someone’s lifestyle choices, their opinions and views, their “orientation,” or whatever? Isn’t it lacking in meekness to resist attacks against our persons or our property? Shouldn’t we always “turn the other cheek” and let God alone defend us? This mentality was already influential during the Second Vatican Council, when memories of the horrors of World War II, together with a secular humanistic optimism about the potential of democratic government and the peacekeeping role of the United Nations, led all too many churchmen into believing that humanity had somehow “come of age” and could now deal with evils not by warring against them, or even condemning them, but rather by the gentle touch of negotiation and the warmth of universal benevolence. This attitude, alas, is reflected in certain texts drawn up for the Novus Ordo, which are notable for their naïveté and chumminess. And nearly all the soldier saints were removed from Paul VI’s calendar.

Catholics have never thought or acted this way until quite recently. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, some souls are called to a meekness that is supererogatory (that is, above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty), even as some souls are called to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It would not be edifying to see a Dominican friar wielding an AK-47. Yet Aquinas also notes that the structure of justice inherent to God’s creation is not suppressed or contradicted by divine revelation, but rather reinforced by it. This is why at least we the laity are allowed to defend ourselves, our families, our communities, our nation, our Church—with violence if necessary. One can put it this way: just as the advent of the more perfect way of the religious life does not cancel out the natural and supernatural goodness of marriage and family, so too the choice of some to allow themselves to be tortured and killed does not cancel out the natural and supernatural goodness of proportionate resistance to evil. While normally our fight against evil will take place in the spiritual domain and in the political arena, there is no reason to exclude the possibility that it may sometimes rightly take place on the physical level too.

Roberto de Mattei has spoken frequently of the danger of what he calls “catacombism.” Here is how he explains it:

Catacombism is the attitude of those who retreat from the battlefield and hide themselves in the illusion of being able to survive without fighting. Catacombism is the denial of the militant conception of Christianity. The catacombist does not wish to fight, because he is convinced of having already lost the battle; he accepts the situation of the inferiority of Catholics in the culture as a given, without going back to the causes that have determined it. But if Catholics today are in the minority, it is because they have lost a series of battles; they have lost these battles because they have not fought them; they have not fought them because they have removed the very idea of the “enemy,” turning their backs on the Augustinian concept of the two cities fighting each other in history, the only concept that can offer us an explanation of what is happening, and what has happened. If one rejects this militant concept, one accepts the principle of the irreversibility of the historic process, and from catacombism one inevitably passes to progressivism and modernism….

Wishing to portray that valorous Church [of ancient times], always ready to live on the forefront, as a community of draft dodgers, hiding themselves for embarrassment or cowardice, would be an insult to their virtues. They were fully aware of their duty of conquering the world for Christ, to transform private and public life according to the doctrine and law of the Divine Savior, out of which a new civilization could be born—another Rome, springing forth from the tombs of the two Princes of the Apostles. And they reached their goal. Rome and the Roman Empire became Christian.

In times past it was said that the Sacrament of Confirmation made us “soldiers of Christ,” and Pius XII, addressing the bishops of the United States, said: “The Christian, if he does honor to the name he bears, is always an apostle; it is not permitted to the Soldier of Christ that he quit the battlefield, because only death puts an end to his military service.” We need to recover this militant conception of the Christian life.[9]

A favorite hymn, “For All the Saints,” delivers this message loud and clear in one of its verses: “O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold, / Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, / And win with them the victor’s crown of gold. / Alleluia, alleluia!”

The Prayers of the Missal

More important than the mere presence of saints in the calendar are the prayers we use at Mass for their feasts and commemorations. Among the most important public prayers of the Church are those we call Orations—namely, the Collects, Secrets, and Postcommunions of the Mass. The Collect itself is of special importance because it recurs throughout the Divine Office as well. If we want to understand how the Catholic Church prays—and therefore, what we should believe and how we should live—we must look carefully at some examples of these Orations.

“The prayers [of the old missal] identify those enemies and adversaries that the Church militant must continually encounter in the temporal as well as the spiritual life.”[10] Let’s have a look at some contrasts. The Collect on the optional memorial of St John of Capistrano, who spurred the Christian army to victory in 1456 at Belgrade, goes like this in the Novus Ordo:

O God, who raised up Saint John of Capistrano to comfort your faithful people in tribulation, place us, we pray, under your safe protection and keep your Church in everlasting peace.

By contrast, here’s the prayer found in the traditional missal for the obligatory feast of the same saint:

O God, Who through blessed John didst enable Thy faithful people to triumph over the enemies of the Cross by the power of the Most Holy Name of Jesus: grant, we beseech Thee, that by his intercession we may overcome the snares of our spiritual enemies and be found worthy to receive from Thee the crown of justice.

The traditional Collect for St. Patrick notes that he brought the Gospel not only to the Irish people (as it says in the Novus Ordo prayer), but to the heathens, whom we know fiercely resisted him. The Collect for St Augustine of Canterbury praises him not only for leading the English peoples to the Gospel (as the Novus Ordo says), but also for “shedding upon the English people the light of the true faith,” that is, casting out the darkness of pagan error. For St Irenaeus of Lyons, the great second-century opponent of the heresy of Gnosticism, the Novus Ordo Collect says:

O God, who called the Bishop Saint Irenaeus to confirm true doctrine and the peace of the Church, grant, we pray, through his intercession, that, being renewed in faith and charity, we may always be intent on fostering unity and concord.

The Latin Mass, on the other hand, uses this Collect:

O God, who didst vouchsafe unto blessed Irenaeus, Thy martyr and bishop, by his strenuous teaching of the truth, utterly to confute heresies, and happily to establish peace in Thy Church: grant unto us Thy people, we beseech Thee, to be steadfast in the practice of our holy religion, and in all our days to enjoy that peace which is from Thee.

The entire tone and much of the content of these prayers is so different! Thus, for St Robert Bellarmine, the old Collect pulls no punches:

O God, who didst adorn blessed Robert Thy Bishop and Doctor with wondrous learning and virtue that he might lay bare the snares of error and maintain the rights of the Apostolic See: grant by his merits and intercession that we may grow in love of the truth, and that the hearts of the wayward may return to the unity of Thy Church.

In contrast, the new Collect says nothing about the snares of error, maintaining the rights of the Apostolic See, love of the truth, or wayward hearts returning to the Church. Its Catholic content has been sucked out of it. Michael Fiedrowicz argues:

This [older version of the] prayer does not lessen the charism of this saint, but rather increases it. It was precisely his astute refutation of the Protestant errors that made Cardinal Bellarmine the Catholic theological controversialist most feared by the Protestant Reformers, and to whose refutation several “cathedrae anti-Bellarminianae” were established. Furthermore, it is only the traditional prayer that speaks of the necessity of a return of heretics to the true religion of the Catholic Faith. The classical missal opposes an abandonment of the so-called ecumenism of return, the conviction of the Church of all ages that all confessions are in no way equally on the path to truth. The traditional orations recall in an uncomfortable way that in questions of faith there are not only various opinions, but also errors that must be overcome, or at least fought against. An abandonment of this battle would amount to a victory of relativism.[11]

One of the votive Masses in the back of the Missale Romanum is the “Mass for the defense of the Church,” also known as the “Mass against the heathen”—something that would never have been allowed to exist in the Novus Ordo, and in fact does not exist. The Collect reads:

Almighty, everlasting God, in whose hand are the power and the government of every nation: look to the help of the Christian people, that the heathen nations, who trust in their own fierceness, may be crushed by the power of Thy right arm. Through Our Lord Jesus Christ…

The Gradual prays: “O my God, make them like a wheel and as stubble before the face of the wind.” The Alleluia verse adds: “Stir up Thy might, O Lord, and come: that Thou mayest save us.” The Secret prays: “Look, O Lord, upon the sacrifice which we immolate, that Thou wouldst deliver Thy champions [propugnatores tuos] from all wickedness of the heathen, and keep them secure in Thy protection.” This virile spirit of the traditional prayers is found throughout the Missale Romanum handed down to us by our forefathers.

The Virile Spirit Illustrated

As a more complete illustration, let’s take a look at the Mass of July 28th, the feast of the martyrs Nazarius, Celsus, and Pope Victor I, and the confessor Pope Innocent I—four saints who were given the axe in 1969, in spite of being called upon by the Church for a good 800 years.[12] The Introit is taken from Psalm 78: “Let the sighing of the prisoners come in before Thee, O Lord; render to our neighbours sevenfold in their bosom; revenge the blood of Thy saints, which hath been shed. Ps. O God, the heathens are come into Thy inheritance: they have defiled Thy holy temple: they have made Jerusalem as a place to keep fruit. Glory be to the Father… Let the sighing…” One of these verses was stigmatized as a “cursing” verse and therefore removed entirely from both the postconciliar Lectionary and the Liturgy of the Hours, as were 121 other psalm verses that are nowhere prayed in the Novus Ordo. In general, the more “spirited” or “militant” psalms have been minimized or excised, which corresponds to the generally effeminate presentation of Christianity in recent times. Think of the doe-eyed Sacred Heart images from the 19th and 20th centuries, where Our Lord is depicted as a saccharine, fragile, androgynous figure, as if He would flinch at a passing softball, or deflate when poked with a needle.

The Collect of the Mass is muscular: “May the confession of Thy saints Nazarius, Celsus, Victor, and Innocent fortify us, O Lord, and may it graciously win for us reinforcement in our weakness. Through Our Lord Jesus Christ…” The Lesson is from the Book of Wisdom (10:17–20):

God rendered to the just the wages of their labours, and conducted them in a wonderful way; and He was to them for a covert by day, and for the light of stars by night; and He brought them through the Red Sea, and carried them over through a great water. But their enemies He drowned in the sea… Therefore the just took the spoils of the wicked. And they sang to Thy holy name, O Lord, and they praised with one accord Thy victorious hand, O Lord, our God.

The Gradual and Alleluia verses are taken from the Book of Exodus (15:11, 6; 44:14).

God is glorious in His Saints, wonderful in majesty, doing wonders. Thy right hand, O Lord, is glorified in strength; Thy right hand hath broken the enemies. Alleluia, alleluia. The bodies of Thy Saints are buried in peace, and their name liveth unto generation and generation. Alleluia.

The Gospel is taken from Luke chapter 21 (9–19):

At that time, Jesus said to His disciples: When you shall hear of wars and seditions, be not terrified: these things must first come to pass, but the end is not yet presently. Then He said to them: Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there shall be great earthquakes in divers places, and pestilences, and famines and terrors from Heaven, and there shall be great signs. But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and into prisons, dragging you before kings and governors for My name’s sake; and it shall happen unto you for a testimony…. And you shall be betrayed by your parents and brethren and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death: and you shall be hated by all men for My name’s sake; but a hair of your head shall not perish. In your patience you shall possess your souls.

Let us pause for a moment on this potent Gospel, so utterly relevant to our postmodern, post-Christian age of intensifying persecution. It is a Gospel read four times each year in the traditional Latin Mass (unless one of these dates happens to fall on a Sunday): on June 2, for Sts. Marcellinus, Peter, and Erasmus; on July 28, for Sts. Nazarius, Celsus, Victor, and Innocent; on September 16 for Sts. Cornelius, Cyprian, Euphemia, Lucy, and Geminian; and on January 22 for Sts. Vincent and Anastasius. In the postconciliar Lectionary, this Gospel is read on the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time every third year, and part of it is read on Wednesday of the 34th week (Years I & II). I leave you to draw your own conclusions.[13]

This proper Mass for July 28th—and it is only one of so many that we could choose from the Church’s year—has a spiritedness, a realism, a strength of character in it, massive and fortified as a Romanesque church, tall and straight as a Gothic column, orderly and graceful as a Renaissance façade, well-worn and rugged as a pilgrimage route, with a note of subdued triumph, as of soldiers assured of victory but prepared for hardship. We encounter in the traditional liturgy what we heard De Mattei calling the “militant conception of Christianity.” We are engaged in battle against our spiritual enemies: the seething world of unbelief, the flesh or disordered concupiscence, the devil and his minions. The old liturgy does not run away from this reality but confronts it head on. As the mainstream Church slides further into self-referential effeminacy and comfort-seeking compromises with the world, does it not become ever more apparent that what we need to hear—and once again, strive to live—is the truth embedded in the great ancient rite of the Church of Rome?

The Holy Angels

It’s highly appropriate to recall at the start of Lent the classic saying that we battle against three enemies: the visible enemy around us, “the world,” meaning fallen humanity insofar as it has turned against God by sin; the enemy within us, “the flesh,” which refers to the ravages of sin in our nature; and the invisible enemy above us in stature, namely, the devil and his fallen angels. Against these enemies we have the help of the saints of the Church Triumphant, among whom stand the mighty armies of holy angels. Let me share with you a story from the Desert Fathers.

While still a neophyte in monastic life, Moses the Black was warring against carnal desire. So he went, in a state of turbulence, to confess to Abba Isidoros. The elder listened to him sympathetically and, when he had given him words of appropriate counsel, told him to return to his cell. However, inasmuch as Abba Moses was still hesitant, for fear of the flame of evil desires rekindling during his return, Abba Isidoros took him by the hand and led him to a small roof atop his cell. “Look here,” he told him, directing him towards the West. Thereupon Moses saw an entire army of wicked spirits with drawn bows, ready for warfare, and was terrified. “Look towards the East now,” the elder told him once more. Myriads of angels in military formation were standing ready to confront the enemy. “All of these,” Abba Isidoros told him, “are assigned by God to help the struggler. Do you see how our defenders are many more and incomparably stronger than our enemies?” Moses thanked God with his heart for this revelation and, taking courage, returned to his cell to continue his struggle.[14]

It is not difficult to see that the angels are much frequently acknowledged in the traditional Mass and sacramental rites. The prayer at the end of the Asperges asks the Lord to “vouchsafe to send Thy holy angel from heaven, to guard, cherish, protect, visit and defend all that are assembled in this place.” The centuries-old version of the Confiteor expressly calls twice upon St. Michael the Archangel, prince of the heavenly host and the weigher of souls at the divine judgment, and does so three times each Mass. St. Michael is also called upon during the Offertory incensation of the gifts at High Mass, or in the Leonine Prayers at the end of Low Mass. That means he will be invoked a total of seven times each Mass. Shortly after the consecration, the priest whispers this mysterious prayer: “Most humbly we implore Thee, Almighty God, bid these offerings to be brought by the hands of Thy Holy Angel to Thine altar on high, before the face of Thy Divine Majesty.”

The traditional calendar generously makes room for five feasts in honor of the angels: St. Michael on September 29 and again on May 8, St. Gabriel on March 24th, St. Raphael on October 24th, and the Guardian Angels on October 2nd. The Novus Ordo collapsed all these feasts into only two, namely, September 29 and October 2, and abolished nearly all of the mentions of the angels in the Mass. That was a mistake. It’s rather obvious that in this period of ever-heightening spiritual warfare, we need to cultivate a strong devotion to the angels, and the traditional liturgy helps us to do exactly that.

Asceticism and Mortification

What is our help against the waywardness of the flesh? The answer is more complex, because human nature is complicated. We can boil it down to a via negativa and a via positiva, or a way of negation and a way of affirmation. The way of affirmation is the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, in which we give ourselves worthwhile activities, involving alike the body and the soul, done for love of God and neighbor. The way of negation, on the other hand, is to embrace asceticism, mortification, and penance. This was the original meaning and spirit of the season of Lent, which has now almost entirely disappeared from the consciousness of Catholics (and that’s no exaggeration).

Now, no one really wants to hear that we need to remove pleasure or add suffering to our lives. But the Church understands that we must do so. As even the pagan philosophers Plato and Aristotle saw, human beings are prone to excess in their appetites, and they need to “bend the stick in the opposite direction” by choosing to deny themselves legitimate goods in order to gain self-mastery and grow in strength for endurance. Beyond that, we are sinners in need of repentance, and we have debts of punishment to pay. Moreover, because of the solidarity of the Mystical Body, we can make reparation for the sins of others, which is pleasing to the Lord and meritorious for eternal life.

The traditional Mass itself places ascetical demands on us. The faithful are typically kneeling for long stretches, from the prayers at the foot of the altar to the Gospel, and from the Sanctus to the last Gospel. This demanding discipline keeps us mindful that we are in a special sacred place, taking part in a sacrifice to which we must unite ourselves, giving a small sacrifice of our own. At a High Mass, there will be a combination of standing, genuflecting, kneeling, and sitting, which, together with the signs of the cross, the beating of the breast, the bowing of the head, and the chanting of responses, immerses us in the act of worship, so that the Faith can enter into our bones, our muscles, our knees, our hands, as well as our ears, eyes, and noses. Catholic worship is physical through and through. Tragically, the Novus Ordo dropped a lot of these “muscular” and “sensuous” elements in favor of verbal comprehension and response, which, by themselves, constitute a fairly impoverished form of participation, in one ear and out the other.

If “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” then our effort must be to strengthen the flesh to support the spirit. This is perhaps the greatest gap or oversight in modern Christianity, which has become altogether too “spiritualized,” too abstract, conceptual, “in the head.” If we want to be soldiers for Christ, we should be thinking as much of an army bootcamp as we do of getting more education. Obviously asceticism and learning belong together and we need both, but our knowledge will benefit us the most when we confirm it and support it with a regimen of prudent physical asceticism.

There is a lot we can start doing immediately, instead of putting it off for a future month or year when we are “more holy.” We will not become holy until we embrace discipline. So, for example, I mentioned fasting and abstinence. A fast is traditionally understood to be not eating until the evening of the day, when we take one meal. However, for those who are not ready to try that (or whose close relatives will not allow them to), an effective and more manageable fast is to refrain from eating until noon, and then to eat nothing after 8pm. The 16 hours of not eating, between 8pm and 12pm, will still be penitential, but you will probably not be as much of a burden to the people around you, and in any case, you’ll be asleep for half of the time. It is a good “middle option” for the season of Lent, for Ember and Rogation Days, and for Vigils of great feasts. As those who fast regularly have experienced, after initial difficulties we arrive at a better place, where we are not so dependent on our bodily urges and acquire better mental clarity and spiritual alertness.

I have noticed that young people struggle a lot with going to bed on time and getting up at a reasonable hour; I used to struggle with this challenge myself. If we do not pray first thing in the morning, our day will never go well. A major form of asceticism for the young is forcing themselves to go to bed at an hour that makes possible a consistent early rising for a morning prayer routine, which might, for example, take the form of reciting the Office of Prime and spending 15 minutes in quiet prayer, with or without a Bible. St. Alphonsus Liguori famously said: “He who prays is saved; he who does not pray is lost.” If we want to pray, we need to get up; if we want to get up, we need to go to bed; if we want to be strong and not sluggish, we should adopt some fasting and abstinence. This advice is common to all of the saints who talk about the spiritual life. I’m not saying anything that hasn’t already been known for over 1,700 years, ever since Christians first started heading out into the Egyptian wilderness to learn the secrets of sanctity.

A last thought about mortification: not everyone can do everything recommended by the saints, and some people are in a situation where they cannot handle any more challenges than life has already given them. For example, a mother with a nursing baby should not even dream about fasting. What God is asking of us is to take whatever steps we can, when and as we can, to pray more, to deny ourselves in little ways, and to order our lives more fully to the Lord, who deserves all our love. The traditional liturgy gives us tools for this lifelong work because its calendar, prayers, and customs continually remind us of the spirit of detachment and self-abnegation preached and practiced by Christ our King and His servants—always for the sake of more perfect love.

The Book of Psalms

As a Benedictine oblate, I pray the little hours of the Divine Office throughout the week. The one portion I always pray, come what may, is the Office of Prime, which is the shorter of the two morning hours, and which has been dubbed “the office of fighters and workers.” In the monastic use, Psalm 17 is divided between Friday and Saturday mornings. This Psalm is one of the most vigorous expressions in the Bible of the militant spirituality of the sons of God living in this land of exile and tribulation. I would like to quote some verses from it, to show how profoundly this message permeates the revealed Word of God. In the Psalter He is teaching us what to pray for and how to pray for it. We must take Him at His word; we must make His words our own, week after week.

The title of the psalm is: “Unto the end, for David the servant of the Lord, who spoke to the Lord the words of this canticle, in the day that the Lord delivered him from the hands of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.” King David begins:

I will love thee, O Lord, my strength: the Lord is my firmament, my refuge, and my deliverer. My God is my helper, and in him will I put my trust. My protector and the horn of my salvation, and my support.

Then come the words spoken at every Mass by the priest as he takes up the chalice, ready to drink the Precious Blood of His Lord and God: Laudans invocabo Dominum: et ab inimicis meis salvus ero. “Praising I will call upon the Lord: and I shall be saved from my enemies.” Skipping some verses, we come back to our theme:

He delivered me from my strongest enemies,
and from them that hated me:
for they were too strong for me….
For who is God but the Lord?
or who is God but our God?
God who hath girt me with strength;
and made my way blameless.
Who hath made my feet like the feet of harts:
and who setteth me upon high places.
Who traineth my hands to battle:
and thou hast made my arms like a brazen bow.
And thou hast given me the protection of thy salvation:
and thy right hand hath held me up:
And thy discipline hath corrected me unto the end:
and thy discipline, the same shall teach me….
I will pursue after my enemies, and overtake them:
and I will not turn again till they are consumed.
I will break them, and they shall not be able to stand:
they shall fall under my feet.
And thou hast girded me with strength unto battle;
and hast subdued under me them that rose up against me.
And thou hast made my enemies turn their back upon me,
and hast destroyed them that hated me….
And I shall beat them as small as the dust before the wind;
I shall bring them to nought, like the dirt in the streets….
The Lord liveth, and blessed be my God,
and let the God of my salvation be exalted:
O God, who avengest me, and subduest the people under me,
my deliverer from my enemies.
And thou wilt lift me up above them that rise up against me:
from the unjust man thou wilt deliver me.
Therefore will I give glory to thee, O Lord, among the nations,
and I will sing a psalm to thy name.
Giving great deliverance to his king,
and shewing mercy to David his anointed:
and to his seed for ever.

The enemies against whom we are praying in this psalm are not, let’s say, the people we happen to dislike or despise. The enemies are, first and foremost, our own evil passions and vicious habits, since we carry around inside us a certain degree of enmity with God; the primary battlefield is our own soul. Second, these enemies are the demons who truly hate God and hate us, and who therefore seek our ruination. Against them we are to wage an implacable war, never showing mercy. Third, the enemies of Psalm 17 are the sworn human adversaries of the Church, not insofar as they are persons, but insofar as they are adversaries—such as Communists, Freemasons, BLM, Planned Parenthood, and, sad to say, many bishops in the episcopacy. What’s more, the “I” in this psalm—the one who is saying “I will break them, I shall beat them, I shall bring them to nought”—is Christ our King, the Head of the Church, for He alone has the authority to speak this way and to use us as His instruments. If we want Him to be the one who fights in us and through us so that we may share His triumph, we must remain united to Him in faith, strong in hope, ardent in charity, as living members of His Body. Only He can successfully defeat our enemies within and without; and He will defeat them for those who stay close to Him. He will defeat them for His Bride, the Church, immaculate in her heavenly glory. We have every reason to be confident and not to lose heart. For was it not our blessed Lord who said:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (Jn 10:27–29)

In the traditional Latin Mass, God is called “omnipotent” sixteen times. He is all-mighty, having power to do all things… and He is at work in you and in me. Deus Pater Omnipotens. That is why St. Paul can exclaim to the Ephesians:

Now to Him who is able to do all things more abundantly than we desire or understand, according to the power that worketh in us—to Him be glory in the Church, and in Christ Jesus, unto all generations, world without end. Amen. (Eph 3:20–21)


[1] 2 Cor 6:4, 7b; 2 Cor 10:4 (RSV). On Sr. Deirdre and Fr. Daniel, see Matthew MacDonald, “A Tale of Two Religious,” Crisis, September 16, 2020.

[2] Taymans d’Eypernon, S.J., The Blessed Trinity and the Sacraments (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1961), 15.

[3] Roberto De Mattei, Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope in the History of the Church (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2019), 180.

[4] Michael Fiedrowicz, The Traditional Mass: History, Form, and Theology of the Classical Roman Rite (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2020), 244.

[5] St Andrew’s Daily Missal (1945), p. 1491.

[6] We are reminded by this simple historical fact that Christianity, although supernatural in origin and oriented to the life to come, is nevertheless realistic in its willingness to confront and defeat evils in this world that would threaten the good of souls delivered by Our Lord’s precious Blood. The Rosary is indeed a weapon by which spiritual and temporal victories are won.

[7] His actual feast is celebrated on March 28th.

[8] One might also recall the entry in the Martyrology for August 18th, which speaks of “that most religious Emperor Constantine the Great, who was the first to show to other princes an example of the manner in which the Church should be protected and enriched.” For it was the appearance of the Chi-Rho in the heavens with the words En touto nika, “in this sign conquer,” that brought the persecution of Christians to an end, and laid the first foundations of Christendom.

[9] De Mattei, Love for the Papacy, 149–50.

[10] Fiedrowicz, Traditional Mass, 244.

[11] Fiedrowicz, Traditional Mass, 245–46.

[12] The revisers of the calendar say that Nazarius and Celsus came into the Roman Rite in the 12th century, Victor and Innocent in the 13th. In Van Dijk’s edition of the ordinal of Pope Innocent III, which is the first ancestor of the Missal of St Pius V, they are present on the calendar as a group from ca. 1200. In the Ordo Officiorum Ecclesiae Lateranensis, which was written by a guy named Bernard who died in 1176, they are celebrated without St Innocent.

[13] The Communion verse from the Book of Wisdom (3:4–6) is also striking, inasmuch as it reminds us that the true holocaust, the “whole burnt offering” that is pleasing to God, is Christ Jesus in His Passion on the Cross, and His saints who have emulated Him in their own passions and their unswerving fidelity to mission. “And though in the sight of men they suffered torments, God hath tried them; as gold in the furnace He hath proved them, and as a victim of a holocaust He hath received them.”

[14] Translated by the V. Rev. Chrysostomos.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...