The Day I Discovered the Greatest and Deepest Truth
For I have learnt for a fact that nothing so effectively obtains, retains and regains grace, as that we should always be found not high-minded before God, but filled with holy fear. –St. Bernard
It was on February 2, 1998, that I had the experience of a lifetime, in more ways than one. It was a Papal Mass with Pope John Paul II, on the Feast of the Presentation. I was studying in Rome for three months, at the time. The priests studying received a beautiful engraved invitation, and we were thrilled to be going. We were told that we should go two hours ahead of time, if we hoped for a good seat. I joked that I don’t go that early for anything, even for the pope.
We arrived about 30 minutes before Mass, and they were right … there was no hope for a seat, and we were destined to stand in the back. With five minutes to go, an usher looked over at me and a priest friend. Now realize, there were 100s of priests there. He signaled for us to come over to him. He proceeded to take us up the aisle. He kept going and going and going, until we got to the two front rows reserved for Bishops and Cardinals … the only rows with velvet kneelers. He motioned for us to sit there. To this day, I have no clue why he singled us out amongst the 100s of priests in attendance.
There we were in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (see photo above), about to pray with the Vicar of Christ. As Mass began, glorious “sacred” music filled the Basilica … and my soul. Of course, being a Papal Mass, there was great attention given to precision, which struck me as “beautiful order.” But, it was more than that. While I had always loved the Mass, I felt, maybe for the first time, that we were truly “glorifying” God. On that day, February 2, 1998, I was truly changed.
I began to ask myself, “What have I been doing?” I had spent the first ten years of my priesthood buying into the common notion that, if we create all kinds of trendy nuances to the Mass, while we kept the Mass as whimsical and entertaining as possible, people would hear about how “cool” and “fun” and “with the times” we were, and come running. We were treating the Mass as a commodity that we needed to somehow market to the world. Worse than anything, I realized we were all but throwing out any sense of divinity; any sense of the supernatural. Where, in all of this, was any sense of awe and wonder in God’s presence? Where was the sense of God’s majesty?
Saint Francis of Assisi said, “Man should tremble, the world should quake, all Heaven should be deeply moved when the Son of God appears on the altar in the hands of the priest.” Where was that in my “night club act” or “Broadway musical” Masses??
I’ve come to understand that we have (actually, I believe this is the work of the devil), by and large, removed the very gateway into the Divine Life. I happen to agree with Pope St. Gregory the Great who, wanting to capture the spiritual dynamism of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, posited the following order:
“Through the fear of the Lord, we rise to piety, from piety then to knowledge, from knowledge we derive strength, from strength counsel, with counsel we move toward understanding, and with intelligence toward wisdom and thus, by the sevenfold grace of the Spirit, there opens to us at the end of the ascent the entrance to the life of Heaven” (“Homiliae in Hiezechihelem Prophetam,” II 7,7).
As you can see, the entry point is “Fear of the Lord.”
What is Fear of the Lord? According to Fr. John Hardon, Fear of the Lord …
“… inspires a person with profound respect for the majesty of God. Its corresponding effects are protection from sin through dread of offending the Lord, and a strong confidence in the power of His help. The fear of the Lord is not servile but filial. It is based on the selfless love of God, whom it shrinks from offending. Whereas in servile fear the evil dreaded is punishment; in filial fear it is the fear of doing anything contrary to the will of God. The gift of fear comprises three principal elements: a vivid sense of God’s greatness, a lively sorrow for the least faults committed, and a vigilant care in avoiding occasions of sin. It is expressed in prayer of the Psalmist, ‘My whole being trembles before you, your ruling fills me with fear’” (Ps 119:120).
St. Francis de Sales said, “We must fear God out of love, not love him out of fear.” In other words, Fear of the Lord is a fear of ever offending the One we love so much; the One in which we have totally dedicated and devoted our lives; the One Who fills us with awe and wonder in His presence. Fear of the Lord is the entry point; this is the trigger that ignites all of the other gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Without this “trigger,” we are prone to reduce our faith/religion to merely another organization that has a sense of social responsibility. Jesus is then reduced to an historic figure to emulate. Mass is just a social gathering that many may say (without saying), “it had better have good entertainment if you are going to make me endure this for an hour.” Again, all of the supernatural is stripped out and the belief in miracles and the power of supernatural grace is mocked as the ignorance of our ancestors.
So, we can see why Satan is winning. He is in the supernatural realm using supernatural weapons, while we have surrendered ours.
Fr. John Hardon wrote:
“St. Thomas Aquinas believed that man is more than a composite of body and soul, that his is nothing less than elevated to a supernatural order which participates, as far as a creature can, in the very nature of God. Accordingly, a person in the state of grace, or divine friendship, possesses certain enduring powers, the infused virtues and gifts, that raise him to an orbit of existence as far above nature as heaven is above earth, and that give him abilities of thought and operation that are literally born, not of the will of flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
However, as I said, we have surrendered our supernatural strength and supernatural weapons. We seem to be choosing, instead, a secular (anti-supernatural) version of religion. Of course outsiders can then accuse us of having a man-made religion … because we are treating it as such.
I am *absolutely convinced* that admittance back to the Divine Life is a movement of monthly Holy Hours, with Confession.
Imagine a man going to church on Sunday in – what is very common – his jeans, tee shirt (recreation attire) and, at Communion, walks up and mindlessly grabs the Host like a potato chip, and then sits in his pew, looking at his watch, wondering if he will be back home for NFL kick-off.
Now, imagine that same man attending, for the first time, a Holy Hour with other men later that week. He sees a beautiful procession and swirls of incense and all around him are other men on their knees before a beautiful golden monstrance containing our Eucharistic Lord. Noble knights, kneeling before their king. And lines of men waiting to purify (detoxify) their soul in the Sacrament of Confession … given new life as they are filled with the supernatural grace – the power – of God.
How will that man approach Mass the following Sunday? He will have, very likely, received the “trigger gift” of the Holy Spirit … the gift of Fear of the Lord … awe and wonder and love and dedication and devotion … all “opening him” to all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
If my words are not convincing, watch this short video:
Here’s an interesting addendum. Last Fall, I was getting ready to speak to a men’s group. I planned to tell the story of my conversion at the Papal Mass on the Feast of the Presentation, February 2, 1998. I figured they were all Green Bay Packer fans, so I thought it would be fun to show them the Packer stock certificate I received that same year. It was then that I looked closely at the date on the stock certificate. Look for yourself. It wasn’t just the same year, but …. WOW!!!!