Spiritual combat

With the overthrow of Roe v Wade, the battle for the unborn has taken a new turn. Despite its political and cultural dominance, the pro-abortion lobby in the UK and other western countries is determined to double down on the legality of pre-born infanticide. In the USA itself, there is now a state-by-state battle to eliminate or to maintain abortion. For all the euphoria that accompanied the Dobbs decision, the reality is that SCOTUS nominations and appointments are behind the sociological curve and the pro-life majority of the Supreme Court reflects the strength of Christian allegiance in the USA a generation ago and not today. The battle has now moved to the ballot box — a plane on which the pro-life movement may, paradoxically, be weaker today.  

Far from being able to rest on our laurels, the struggle is now more pivotal and more desperate than it was before 24 June 2022. One of the most troubling developments in recent years has been the weakening of the Catholic Church’s witness to the dignity of the unborn. Key institutional planks of the pro-life edifice erected by John Paul II have been dislodged. Senior clerical friends of this world can now get away with phrases such as “the sanctity of all human life at every stage of development from birth until natural death”.

Elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of the visible structure of the Church, not because the evil one wants more people to be saved, but because he needs to lend plausibility to the siren voices luring souls onto the rocks. As one American bishop once said of the truth and goodness present in false religions, “all the best rat poison is ninety percent wholesome food”. As the false shepherds within the true Church recede from the truth, the pastors of the various conventicles which impersonate her feel less and less the need to approximate her teaching.

All this to say that, if the Catholics do not step up their warfare at this of all moments, then the battle will be lost.

Leo XIII is the father of modern Catholic social teaching. He took the social and political doctrine of scripture, the fathers and the scholastics and he synthesised it in nine titanic social encyclicals which constitute an unparalleled resource for the restoration of Christendom. But he did not think that knowledge alone could win the war. Side by side with his social magisterium stand his thirteen encyclicals on the Rosary.

It is said that, in his old age, St Pio of Pietrelcina, needing assistance in rising, was helped to dress by another friar. The last items he would attach to his habit were his rosary beads. He would say to his confrère “pass me my weapon!”. In her dramatic apparitions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Blessed Virgin has placed particular emphasis on the Rosary.

According to tradition, the Rosary was first communicated to the faithful by St Dominic in the midst of the existential struggle to prevent the overthrow of Christ’s social kingship, known as the Albigensian Crusade. St Dominic’s last known disciple, Brother Romeo, died counting his Aves on a knotted cord while meditating on the mysteries of the Child Jesus and the Lady Mary, His Mother. The Rosary, however, is not intended primarily for clergy or religious but for the laity. That is why it is composed of one hundred and fifty Hail Marys. It is intended to parallel the Psalter which is prayed each week by clerics and religious in the Divine Office but which laypersons have not always had the time, opportunity or literacy to observe. According to the biographer of St Catherine of Sienna, Bl Raymond of Capua, the Third Order of St Dominic was originally a military lay order fighting against the heretics in Southern France called the Militia of Jesus Christ, which precisely substituted the canonical hours with the recitation of Paters and Aves.

When we are about to hear the Holy Gospel at Mass we make the sign of the cross over our head, our lips and our heart. These are the three loci to which the Holy Rosary also attends. We pronounce the Paters, Aves and Gloria Patris with our lips while meditating upon the mysteries of the Lord’s life, death and resurrection with our minds, allowing the mysteries of salvation to sink into and permeate our hearts. The Rosary is a form of perpetual catechesis that accompanies the believer throughout the spiritual life.

In his 1893 encyclical, Laetitiae sanctae, Leo teaches that: “The Rosary, if devoutly used, is bound to benefit not only the individual but society at large.” Specifically, Leo teaches that the Rosary is a powerful remedy against three plagues which are eating away at Western society and weakening the Church’s foothold within it: “first, the distaste for a simple and laborious life; secondly, repugnance to suffering of any kind; thirdly, the forgetfulness of the future life.”

In the ancient world the life of the philosopher statesman was the acme of what a human being might aspire to in this world. To be born into landed wealth (there was no other kind), to be immersed in the culture of Attic Greece and late Republican Rome, to adorn one’s native city with amenities and games and temples, serving upon its councils and then leaving in one’s wake tasteful literary monuments of one’s own — this was to have lived well. Virtue was the key to happiness but a decent portion of blessing from the gods would be necessary to enable, sustain and complete the happy life.

Our Lord was not a philosopher statesman. He was a carpenter. He lived in obscurity, in a despised corner of the Roman Empire; and in a despised corner of a despised corner at that. And yet, He is the King of Kings and the Uncreated Wisdom of the Eternal Father. His City is alone worthy of the name, and alone abides unto eternity. The goods of the earthly city are true goods but they fall infinitely short of the goods of His city; the city to which we give our temporal allegiance on this earth is a city indeed, but it falls infinitely short of the true civitas humana, “the Holy Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ” as Vatican II teaches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum §2).

This is what the Joyful Mysteries train our souls to recognise, according to Leo XIII in Laetitiae sanctae: “the House of Nazareth … [the] all-perfect model of domestic society! Here we behold simplicity and purity of conduct, perfect agreement and unbroken harmony, mutual respect and love — not of the false and fleeting kind but that which finds both its life and its charm in devotedness of service”. To do little things with great love is to do the work of God: λειτουργία (leitourgía, meaning “public service”, whence the word “liturgy”) of the Jerusalem above.

Christ came that we may have life and have it abundantly. He came to bring us heavenly happiness and He came bestow it upon us not only hereafter but also here below. The violation of the natural law is its own punishment. Happiness is “the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue” as Aristotle insists and therefore vice not only yields but is itself misery. Nevertheless, virtue, while natural to us, must be attained through struggle, and that struggle is all the more arduous because we have set it aside, both in Adam and in our ourselves, and because the happiness that is our goal is not merely the natural perfection of the philosopher statesman but the vision of God as He is in Himself. The agony through which we must go to attain our destiny is not merely the training and military service of a good Roman or Athenian citizen, but the crucifixion, humiliation, rejection and shameful death that our Divine King endured in order to share His eternal Sonship with us.

Our godless contemporaries, Leo XIII writes in the same encyclical, “dream of a chimeric civilisation in which all that is unpleasant shall be removed, and all that is pleasant shall be supplied. By this passionate and unbridled desire of living a life of pleasure, the minds of men are weakened, and if they do not entirely succumb, they become demoralised and miserably cower and sink under the hardships of the battle of life.” This is no life for the Christian who is “born for combat” and who should turn with revulsion from the paradise of modern hedonists.

“Be it then that the ‘earth is accursed’ and brings forth ‘thistles and thorns’; be it that the soul is saddened with grief and the body with sickness — even so, there will be no evil which the envy of man or the rage of devils can invent, nor calamity which can fall upon the individual or the community, over which we shall not triumph by the patience of suffering. For this reason it has been truly said that ‘it belongs to the Christian to do and to endure great things,’ for he who deserves to be called a Christian must not shrink from following in the footsteps of Christ. But by this patience we do not mean that empty stoicism in the endurance of pain which was the ideal of some of the philosophers of old, but rather do We mean that patience which is learned from the example of Him, who ‘having joy set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame’ (Hebrews 16: 2). It is the patience which is obtained by the help of His grace; which shirks not a trial because it is painful, but which accepts it and esteems it as a gain, however hard it may be to undergo.”

The readiness for this greatest of struggles, for this supreme spiritual combat, is daily inculcated by the recitation of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary.

When Our Lord and Saviour bade farewell to His disciples on the night before His Passion, He promised that He went to prepare a place for them. He won those many mansions upon the Cross, but it is not the Cross alone which we must remember when we set His joy before us, but the crown and the glory also. “We may doubt if God could inflict upon man a more terrible punishment than to allow him to waste his whole life in the pursuit of earthly pleasures, and in forgetfulness of the happiness which alone lasts for ever.” The Glorious Mysteries remind us that we are God’s children now and that it has not yet appeared what we shall be, but we know that we shall be like Him because we shall see Him as He Is.

The Holy Rosary therefore is not merely a pious devotion for those who lack the inclination, time or duty to pray the Divine Office; it is a sovereign remedy against the noon-day devil — against the acedia which is the destroyer of souls. It fixes our attention on the end and goal of the Mass and the Office, and is — as Padre Pio perceived — the greatest weapon in the spiritual combat, whose objective is the subjection of the Kingdom of this world and of the world to come to Christ Our Saviour.