Today we are joined by Stephen Hand, a writer, researcher and Traditional Catholic [though, as Stephen says, some hold this last part in doubt], for a wide ranging conversation of his view of the collapse of society from his youth to when he came into the Church, as well as the early American Traditional Catholic movement. Stephen will also discuss events involving the Remnant, which will be of great interest to many; as well as topics such as criticism of the Pope, the New World Order , the war on terror and Dorothy Day in a lengthy, though endlessly fascinating interview which will surprise many who have preconceived notions of Mr. Hand’s positions. Continue reading
There are a lot of comments going about the internet attacking Cardinal Burke for his criticism of Pope Francis. Now in reality, Cardinal Burke’s criticisms have been mild, always minimizing Francis’ damage. Some have gone so far as to call Cardinal Burke Schismatic.
I wonder what they would have said about St. Robert Bellarmine, saint and Doctor of the Church, who said the following (to my knowledge, this has never been rendered into English before.
St. Robert Bellarmine makes an interesting comment in the famous chapter of De Romano Pontifice where he discusses the question of the loss of Papal office. It is in the article immediately before the one sedevacantists frequently use, namely in De Romano Pontifice, Bk II, Chapter 30:
“The third opinion is on another extreme, certainly, that a Pope cannot be deposed either through secret heresy, or through manifest heresy. This recalls and refutes Bishop Turrecremata (loc cit) [Bellarmine is noting in the previous point, citing this Bishop, where he rejects that a secret heretic can be judged] and certainly is an improbable opinion. Firstly, that a heretical Pope can be judged, is expressly held in Can. Si Papa dist. 40, and with Innocent III (serm. 2 de consec. pontif.) And what is more, in the 8th Council, (act. 7) the acts of the Roman Council under Pope Hadrian are recited, and therein contained, that Pope Honorius appears to be justly anathematized, because he had been convicted of heresy, which is the only reason permitted for inferiors to judge superiors. It must be noted, that although it is probable that Honorius was not a heretic, and that Pope Hadrian II was deceived from corrupt examples of the VI Council, and Honorius was reckoned falsely to be a heretic, nevertheless we cannot deny, in fact Hadrian with the Roman Council, nay more the whole 8th general council had sensed, in the case of heresy a Roman Pontiff can be judged. Add, what would be the most miserable condition of the Church, if she would be compelled to acknowledge a manifestly prowling wolf for a shepherd.”
There is a fascinating development last week in the ever unfolding saga of the Society of St. Pius X. Firstly, however, in the name of full disclosure, I need to point out that I worked in a Society school for 4 years, and I am well disposed towards them, albeit I do not agree with all of their positions. So whether you love the SSPX or hate them, at least appreciate the value of their position in the continuing crisis in the Church. People of good faith can disagree about them, and I do not agree with all of their theological positions, but that is another matter.
Now, we are often told that the SSPX is schismatic, disobedient, that they are not in communion, and one priest even argued they are worse than the satanists who offered a black mass in Oklahoma City [!]. I really wish I was making the last one up, but, alas. It is one of those curious things, even if we were to grant that the SSPX priests commit a sin when they say Mass (which I don’t), we need to ask how is a sin which the priest incurs personally, worse than the sacrilegious action that desecrates the host to offer it to the devil and curse everyone publicly? There is simply no comparison. Obviously, the Vatican does not see it that way, or else they would not have invited Fellay for another round of talks. It has long been patently obvious that the Holy See does not consider the Society “schismatic”, but merely disobedient, which in the post-Vatican II world, is nothing new.
Nevertheless, this interesting detail came out of Rome last week. Bishop Fellay met with Cardinal Müller, the prefect of the Congregation on Doctrine and the Faith, and moreover, with several other prelates. That a meeting happened doesn’t surprise me, but what was said on Rome’s side was quite surprising. The Communque from the Vatican Press Office said: “The SSPX are in a state of imperfect reconciliation.” The language has shifted from 2011. Then it was imperfect communion. Now its imperfect reconciliation, which implies they are in full communion (though in fairness the Vatican press release did not say that). I’m not sure what “imperfect reconciliation” is meant to mean exactly, though seemingly it would suggest a lack of formal faculties. On the, frankly, amazing website Rorate Caeli, there is an article where a French commentator opined:
“The canonical recognition of the SSPX, in case it took place in the times ahead, would not have anymore the appearance and interest of an earthquake that it would have had within the Church at the end of the Benedict XVI pontificate. On the other hand, it has paradoxically become much easier to accomplish, from the moment the current pope – it’s the least we can say – does not have the reputation of traditionalism that his predecessor did.” (Source).
It is a fascinating irony, that Francis, being more progressive to say the least, might be better able to reconcile the Society than Benedict was. It has also been suggested that Müller is trying to find common cause with his erstwhile opponents and seek aid in the clear division with Cardinal Kasper on marriage questions. It is amusing, that when Müller was chosen to be the new prefect of the CDF, there was widespread outcry amongst Trads and conservatives that he was a big liberal, that he had denied our Lady’s perpetual Virginity, and that he was another Tubingen modernist. Now, however, Francis has shifted the paradigm so far to the left, that Muller is the new conservative. The irony. Is Müller looking for friends amongst the SSPX? Is Francis more likely to reconcile the Society than Benedict? It is an interesting argument, but I find it lacking in a number of areas.
The last round of SSPX-Rome talks occurred while I was out of the Catholic internet world. I will say now what I would have said then: I’ll believe it when I see it. In the year 2000, being largely new to the Traditional movement and unaware of a lot of the wider history, there was talk of an SSPX reconciliation by Easter. The SSPX superiors were buzzing about it (particularly Fr. Schmidberger), insiders in Rome were talking about it, then it fell apart, entirely on Rome’s side. Then it was talked about heavily under Benedict’s reign, in 2006, 2009, and fatefully 2011. This last time was not just on Rome’s side, though there were clear machinations in that direction, rather on the Society’s side it provoked a small breakaway group which still operates today. Apart from those particular dates, there was constant buzzing on the subject about the SSPX making an agreement with Rome. It never came to pass.
Frankly, I do not believe it will come to pass under Francis either, for many reasons. Firstly, although Francis has left Summorum Pontificum largely intact (except for the FIs), he is obviously opposed to the restoration of traditionalism. When I was in Rome recently a priest told me that Francis was leaving Traditionalism alone because he feared giving a new impetus to it by attacking it outright. Whatever the truth of that, he has attacked traditional spirituality as “Pelagian”, “backward”, and a number of other things that I find personally offensive. If, in fact, I were to say that those who attend the Novus Ordo were “Pelagian” or modernist, or whatever demeaning name for their particular spirituality, there would be a chorus (of the handful who actually read me!) decrying the judgmentalism and arrogance of such a thing. We might say to Pope Francis “Who are you to judge”, but as we know that is a one way street. Not only will Francis not be very keen on “reconciling” a group he considers to be Pelagian, for the crime of offering a spiritual gift of rosaries, but even more, he would find serious opposition from his friends and advisers.
Moreover, Müller has been strongly opposed to the Society in the past, and there is no evidence that he has shifted his position. In fact, as Fellay noted in an interview following the meeting, “There is nothing new, in the sense that both our interlocutors and ourselves, we realize that doctrinal differences still exist—which had been made quite clear during the theological discussions in 2009-2011—and that because of this we were unable to sign the Doctrinal Preamble that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has proposed to us since 2011.” (Source) So, really nothing has changed. Like in past meetings, they still want to ring from the Society a positive confirmation of Vatican II, which is not going to happen. Even if Fellay were inclined to do so (I don’t think he really is) the Society would fall apart.
This brings us to our next point. A serious discussion of “fully reconciling” with Rome provoked such an outcry in the Society in 2011, that several priests broke away and tried to form their own “traditional SSPX”, or “resistance” or whatever they call it. Generally it goes by the latter name. They did this before Fellay actually signed anything, and before there was any real talk about accepting the doctrinal preamble. In some countries there was a very marked anger toward it, such as in France, but also in Asia. The resistance is interesting, having left their local SSPX churches, they meet in basements and community centers, and celebrate the exact same 1962 Missal that is celebrated in SSPX Churches (alas! if only they’d go back to the ’44), the preaching is more or less the same, there is no discernible difference from the SSPX. The Society didn’t even sign anything! There were rumors in that process that the main movers of the resistance in this country, Fr. Pfeiffer, would start a new society with Bishop Williamson as its head. The problem there, of course, was most did not know that Fr. Pfeiffer and Bishop Williamson do not get along. And I predicted that Williamson would just go to quiet retirement, which at the present he has done. Whether the resistance will fizzle out or not I don’t know, but a new round of discussions over the doctrinal preamble will open up the old wounds, and Fellay knows, better than anyone I think, that such a move would threaten the unity of the Society. That is largely the reasoning behind his clear statement that “we cannot sign”. So in the end it will not happen, at least under present conditions.
Don’t believe the media hype if anything should be suggested. We just need to pray that in God’s time, this all gets sorted out.
Correction: Above I had originally said: “The Holy See Press Office said the SSPX are in full communion but imperfect reconciliation.” That was the gloss from a priest in one of my sources, it was not what the Holy See Press office had in fact said. I corrected the paragraph above to reflect this.
Pope Pius XI
Meeting and meal with assortment of Protestant ministers
Of all the silly things Pope Francis has said in his pontificate, this one really takes the cake. Principally, in the realm of prudence, but also because it raises questions about what he believes. In terms of magisterial teaching, it is null, so we don’t need to worry about that.
The greatest difficulty is in this: if you are an apologist, if you are laboring amongst evangelicals, or, whatever you like, working to convince them to return to the Catholic faith, whether you are a priest or a laymen, you may now be greeted with this: “But the Pope said we did not need to convert!” and “Who are you to judge!”
There are many reasons why this statement is fraught with all sorts of problems, but the biggest is that it is contrary to what the Church has always and everywhere believed. It also evinces a lack of the virtue of hope, and a lack of the virtue of charity.
There is a lack of hope, in as much as the Pope has already written off the work of the Holy Ghost, “We’ll never agree anyway.” No, never? What was St. Peter Canisius doing laboring away in Germany and Switzerland? Oh, they’ll never believe anyway, why bother. What was St. Francis de Sales doing, writing tracts and sticking them under doors, and fasting and praying for the conversion of the Calvinists? Oh, we’ll never agree anyway! Not at all. There is another matter, which is the virtue of charity. If the Catholic Church is the true Church, and, at least with respect to the ordinary means of salvation that we can see and know from revelation, there is no salvation outside the Church, then how is it charitable to say “I don’t want to convert you.” That’s like saying “I don’t love you.” It is a false charity to withhold from a man his salvation.
But is this some random statement from the Pope, off the cuff and without notes? Actually no, this is precisely what he believes. In 2010, a dialogue was published between then Cardinal Bergolio and Jewish Rabbi Abraham Skorka, titled On heaven and earth, on a wide range of issues. In that, Francis said the following [My emphasis in bold]:
“When I speak with atheists, I will sometimes discuss social concerns, but I do not propose the problem of God as a starting point, except in the case that they propose it to me. If this occurs, I tell them why I believe. But that which is human is so rich to share and to work at that very easily we can mutually complement our richness. As I am a believer, I know that these riches are a gift from God. I also know that the other person, the atheist, does not know that. I do not approach the relationship in order to proselytize, or convert the atheist; [!] I respect him and I show myself as I am… I do not have any type of reluctance, nor would I say that his life is condemned, because I am convinced that I do not have the right to make a judgment about the honesty of that person; even less, if he shows me those human virtues that exalt others and do me good.” (Pgs. 12-13).
Hence the Scalfari interviews. The curious thing about those, of course, is the Vatican Press office is more or less claiming that Scalfari is changing the Pope’s words, yet the Pope goes to Scalfari again and the Vatican website still promotes the interview. But the Pope’s words are being changed.
More problematic is the unqualified way he speaks of these things. It strikes your feelings, yeah we want to treat people with respect, which then eviscerates truth from your dealings. It is one thing to respect the people in your society, and treat them courteously. It is another, to be entirely unconcerned with their eternal salvation, as though God blesses unbelief. What is the Vatican II mantra, always going back to Scripture? That is largely just a vehicle to discard the Tradition. Congar’s argument is that all Tradition is contained in Scripture, so therefore Scripture has the sufficiency and the Tradition is at best an appendage which we don’t need to worry about, because its all in Scripture. It is also a good argument for discarding the Tradition, once one has judged that it is not in Scripture. But then Scripture itself is cast aside when it doesn’t fit in with the Vatican II meta-narrative, or the religion of feelings and good intentions. What does it say in Scripture?
“Si autem tu annuntiaveris impio, et ille non fuerit conversus ab impietate sua, et a via sua impia, ipse quidem in iniquitate sua morietur: tu autem animam tuam liberasti.
Sed et si conversus justus a justitia sua fuerit, et fecerit iniquitatem, ponam offendiculum coram eo: ipse morietur quia non annuntiasti ei: in peccato suo morietur, et non erunt in memoria justitiae ejus quas fecit, sanguinem vero ejus de manu tua requiram.”
If, however, you will have declared to the impious, and he will not have converted from his iniquity, and his impious life, truly he will die in his iniquity, and you however acquitted your soul.
But even if the just man will have been turned from justice, and committed evil, I will place a stumbling block in his presence, he will die because you will not have preached unto him, and he will die in his sin, and the just things which he did will be forgotten, but I will require his blood at your hand. EzechielIII: 19-20 (All translations from the Vulgate are mine)
Et accedens Jesus locutus est eis, dicens: Data est mihi omnis potestas in caelo et in terra:
Euntes ergo docete omnes gentes: baptizantes eos in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti:
Docentes eos servare omnia quaecumque mandavi vobis: et ecce ego vobiscum sum omnibus diebus, usque ad consummationem saeculi.
And coming, Jesus spoke to them, saying: “All power in heaven and earth has been given to me; going therefore, teach all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; Teaching them to keep all things whichever I commanded you, and behold, I am with you all days, even to the end of the age.”
Matthew XXVIII: 18-20(My emphasis)
Et dixit eis: Euntes in mundum universum praedicate Evangelium omni creaturae.
Qui crediderit, et baptizatus fuerit, salvus erit: qui vero non crediderit, condemnabitur.
And he said to them: Going into the whole world, preach the Gospel to every creature. Whoever will have believed and been baptized, he will be saved, but whoever will not have believed, he will be condemned.
Mark XVI: 16 (My emphasis)
These scriptural references should be clear, even if you are using a “Good News Bible” or whatever edition you can pick up at Barnes and Noble. Even absent the Tradition, where copious resources could be produced from every Church Father, and every Scholastic, every theologian, and every Doctor of the Church on the necessity for membership in the Church, the necessity of Faith for salvation and so many other doctrines implicitly defied by the Pope’s behavior toward atheists, the scripture clearly shows his behavior is contrary to Christ’s commands. So the Pope, is saying he is not at all concerned that the Atheist doesn’t believe, in spite of Our Lord’s very clear and grave words. Now obviously there is prudence, and many times I’ve been at that point, where you know if you push any harder you’ll lose the person, but you did try, and resort to prayer where argument fails. Francis wasn’t even talking about that, he’s talking about shirking the whole question altogether. “Who am I to judge?” Unfortunately there is the dread verse in Ezechiel: “I will require his blood at your hand.” It get’s even worse:
“God makes Himself felt in the heart of each person. He also respects the culture of all people. Each nation picks up that vision of God and translates it in accordance with the culture, and elaborates, purifies and gives it a system. Some cultures are primitive in their explanations, but God is open to all people. He calls everyone. He moves everyone to seek Him and to discover Him through creation. In our case, that of Judaism and Christianity, we have a personal revelation. God Himself encounters us; He reveals Himself to us, He shows us the way and He accompanies us; He tells us His name, He guides us through the prophets. Christians believe, ultimately, that He manifested Himself to us and gave Himself to us through Jesus Christ. Moreover, throughout history, there have existed circumstances that created schisms and constructed diverse communities that have different ways of living Christianity, like the Reformation. We lived through a thirty year war and it shaped different faiths. It is very hard to accept and it was a disgraceful time, but that is the reality. God is patient, He waits, and God does not kill. It is man that wants to do so on God’s behalf. To kill in the name of God is blasphemy.” (On heaven and earth, pg. 19; my emphasis.)
Well, where do I start? This simply cannot be read as anything but modernism. For instance, it is one thing to say God uses all cultures to reveal his glory. This is true, and when Catholic missionaries brought the faith, for example, to Native Americans, or into the far East, they preserved the local populations’ culture and tradition, which worked in harmony with the Traditional Latin Mass that they also established. When, however, he says: “each nation picks up that vision of God and translates it in accordance with their culture”, this is, or at least appears to be, rooted in the modernist opinion that all religions are essentially different visions of God, and we’re all fellow travelers and that sort of nonsense. Yet, that pesky Bible again, says: “Quoniam omnes dii gentium daemonia; Dominus autem caelos fecit.” For all the gods of the nations are demons, but the Lord made the heavens. -Psalm 95 (96): 5.
Where we circle to the relevance with respect to the Pope’s statement to the Protestant ministers, is in the latter part of this quote. It really expresses the metaphysics of Francis’ philosophy of religion. “diverse communities that have different ways of living Christianity.” Well, what are we to make of this? In proper Catholic ecclesiology, there is no way of living Christianity, except by being Catholic, in the Latin right, or in one of the Eastern rites. There is only one Church, as is clear in the scriptures. To say that other communities have another way of living Christianity, is to hold that there is an anomalous Christianity, that can be done entirely differently by different groups, who only agree on essentials. What the Church has historically called the essentials is, well, a bit different from that. It might have benefitted the then Cardinal Bergolio to examine what his fellow Jesuit, St. Robert Bellarmine, doctor of the Church had said on that subject:
“There is only one Church, not two, that body, both one and true is of men of the same Christian faith with respect to profession, and gathered in the communion of the same sacraments, under the rule of the legitimate shepherds, and especially of the one vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman Pontiff. It can easily be collected from such a definition, which men pertain to the Church, and those who doe not pertain to her. There are three parts of this definition. The Profession of the true faith, the communion of the sacraments, and the subjection to the legitimate pastor, the Roman Pontiff. By reason of the first part all unbelievers are excluded, as well as those who never were in the Church, such as Jews, Turks and Pagans; and also those who were in and left, as heretics and apostates. By reason of the second, catechumens and the excommunicate are excluded, because these are not admitted to the communion of the sacraments, as these are dismissed. By reason of the third, schismatics are excluded, who have both the faith and the sacraments, but are not subjected to the legitimate pastor, and therefore profess the faith and carry out the sacraments on the outside. All others however are included, even those who might be reprobate, criminal or impious.”1 (De Ecclesia Militante, bk III ch. 2, my emphasis)
Similar statements could be collected from every Theologian until the 1960’s. But no, this was not the religion of Cardinal Bergolio, and it would appear his doctrine has not changed.
Throughout this interview, Francis confesses he is “naive”. This is certainly clear with his historical analysis of the Thirty Years War. This war, from 1618-1648, is often described in popular history as a war between Catholics and Protestants in Germany. This is false, like other pop-history dates, such as assigning 1054 as the date of the Great schism between East and West, even though the Eastern Churches were all reconciled in 1099, and remained so until 1204, and came in and out of union until the 1300’s when the politics in the West caused various worldly Popes from continuing the effort of full reunion. Either way, the Thirty Years war saw Catholics and Protestants fighting on both sides of the conflict. When it broke out, it was when the Elector of the Palatinate, Frederick, was invited by the Bohemians (Czechs) who had revolted from the Emperor to become their king. This occurred after the famous “De-fenestration of Prague”. So, Frederick came, and became king, but was put under the Reichs’ ban, which essentially a deposition, that declared all his subjects freed from obedience to him, and made him an outlaw within the Holy Roman Empire. Frederick expected all the Protestant lords and elector’s to come to his aid, but instead they sided with the Emperor, mostly because they wanted to grab some of his land. He also alienated his subjects by his strict Calvinism, which the Lutherans and Hussites did not accept. Later the conflict widened, with Catholics and Protestants on the emperor’s side, and Protestants on the other side. Then the French entered the conflict, and what’s more, induced Gustavus Adolphus, the Swedish king, to enter the war on the Protestant side. The French, though Catholic, assisted the Protestants in every way, just as they assisted the Lutherans in 1548 against Charles V, so now they assisted the Dutch against the Spanish, fought the Spanish, and sent troops to fight for Adolphus. Although my expertise in this conflict is more on the military side than the political side, it should be clear to anyone who studies it, that while religious considerations were important, politics and military glory were equally apart of this conflict. The security of states, the prominence of royal houses, these were all considerations at work in this conflict. It was not so much killing in the name of God, but in the name of kings, for worldly glory, and power.
The result, was an agreement for toleration in order to avoid more conflict, and was fully in accord with Catholic principles. It was devastating, it was a scandal, but it did not create “new religions”, or “new ways of being Christian”, it solidified those who had left the Church politically.
Ultimately, then, when the Pope told those Protestants that he didn’t want to convert them, and later, apologized to Pentecostals for the Church preventing their growth, this is not some off the cuff comment that he later regrets to make them feel good, this is really what he believes!
The conclusion, then, is that whenever Francis speaks, it is probably best to run to older works of theology approved by the Church at that time, or to read the Fathers of the Church. Pray, but don’t become despondent over it. Francis cannot change what the Church formally teaches, it isn’t possible. God will judge him, as He promised to judge Ezechiel, and it is our job to pray and refer back to the Church’s perennial teaching as the antidote to all the nonsense.1 “Ecclesiam unam tantum esse, non duas, et illam unam et veram esse coetum hominum ejusdem christianae fidei professione et eorundem sacramentorum communione colligatum, sub regimine legitimorum pastorum, ac praecipue unius Christi in terris vicarii romani pontificis. Ex qua definitione facile colligi potest, qui homines ad Ecclesiam pertineant, qui vero ad eam non pertineant. Tres enim sunt partes hujus definitionis. Professio verae fidei, sacramentorum communio, et subjectio ad legitimum pastorem romanum pontificem. Ratione primae partis excluduntur omnes infideles tam qui numquam fuerunt in Ecclesia, ut Judaei, Turcae, Pagani; tam qui fuerunt et recesserunt, ut haeretici et apostatae. Ratione secundae, excluduntur catechumeni et excommunicati, quoniam illi non sunt admissi ad sacramentorum communionem, isti sunt dimissi. Ratione tertiae, excluduntur schismatici, qui habent fidem et sacramenta, sed non subduntur legitimo pastori, et ideo foris profitentur fidem, et sacramenta percipiunt. Includuntur autem omnes alii, etiamsi reprobro, scelesti et impii sint.”
Originally Published 18 February, 2010ο χρυσαμοιβος δ’ Αρης ςωματων
και ταλαντουχος εν μαχα δορος πυρωθεν εξ Ιλιου
φιλοισι πεμπει βαρου ψηγμα δυσδακρυτον αντηνορος
σποδου γεμιζων λεβητας ευθετους.
Ares, the money changer of bodies, holding his scales in the battle of the spears, sends back from Ilium (Troy) to their dear ones, heavy dust that has been through the fire, to be sadly wept over, filling easily stowed urns with ash given in exchange for men.
-Aeschylus; Αγαμεμνον, 440-445
The Church gives us a most marvelous celebration with a most marvelous symbol, that of ash. Prior to the fall of man the meaning of this would have been far less significant, because God had bestowed upon Adam and Eve the gift of immortality, something they did not have by divine right, but by divine gift. When nature was disfigured through the fall, man lost this gift, and as such became subject to natural corruption, as God confirmed in His solemn admonition to them in Genesis which the Church repeats for us each Ash Wednesday: Memento homo quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.
Man was made from the mud, that is the dirt which had been moistened. Without water, the element which brings life, the dirt is little more than dust (pulvis). Dust is little different from ash, and often times in comparison they are made the same. When that which is not proper to corporeal matter, namely the soul, exits the body, the body returns to this form after death. Thus the Church gives us this most excellent symbol of the ultimate end of our earthly existence, which ties in perfectly with the season. The traditional law in practice, before this lax stage of the Church, required Catholics to fast each and every day of the Lenten season. There is a good and salutary reason for this, namely that in the moral tradition, it takes about 3 weeks to corrupt a vice, and 3 weeks to develop a virtue, which is 6 weeks, just short of the normal run of Lent. Thus the Church’s traditional practice fulfills the natural law with respect to the virtue of fasting more perfectly than the current discipline of only fasting two days of the year. This should also be a sombre warning to Traditionalists, that if they are going to adopt the Church’s perennial tradition, they also must adopt the traditional practice during Lent of daily fasting.
Fasting takes us away from the things we like in this world. The hunger we experience in denying ourselves food, leads us readily into other virtues by which we lose a love for created things. When we love the things of the world, we love things that cannot give us life, and as such we create attachments that lead us to sin and death. Those who go to hell get exactly what they deserve, because in choosing created things, they have chosen things that cannot give life, and as such they will not have it. They will have ash, which is all the things of the world really are, ash is the remnant of something which has had all life, all properties and minerals burned out of it, and what remains is nothing, just a speck of dust. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Aeschylus, in the lines from his play Agamemnon which lead this writing, encapsulate perfectly the endeavors of man without a redeemer. He writes that Ares (who is also the god of war) exchanges urns filled with ash for men, to be wept over by their loved ones, thus it is heavy dust because of the grief which it effects. In his beautiful Greek poetry he expresses a central truth, that the endeavors of men come to nothing, that an event so seemingly noble as the war on Troy should reduce stout men to mere ash.
It is thus that the Church opens up a season of fasting with the image of the ultimate parting of man from worldly goods, marked upon his forehead in the shape of the cross, a symbol of death as well as life, of the death that must be made first in this world to rejoice in life in the next. The mark of ash is a reminder to man that death is the end of all things, and what is left in this world is mere dust, while what we take with us, are the virtues of fasting and supernatural fortitude which we habituate our souls to by the activity of this season.
What’s more, every man understands this, even the delusional. This is why so many who are normally absent on holy days of obligation, who sometimes don’t show up every Sunday, will go to Ash Wednesday Mass. Non-Catholics will come to Ash Wednesday Masses in order to get ashes, not just because it is cool to do it (if it were they might do so at home), but also because at some level they understand that they are dust, and the symbol resonates with them although they don’t know why. For us who do know why, how much more a sign these ashes are of our ultimate end, and what the pleasures of this life will bring us. Lastly, where do these ashes come from? They are burned from the Palm Branches with which we formerly bid our Lord entrance into Jerusalem (mystically at the Palm Sunday liturgy of the previous year), and these testaments to our unbelief, and betrayal marked in every sin are burned, because in the act of our Blessed Lord’s redemption, our sins become just as all the things in this world… ash. Ad pulverem reverteris.