A Pilgrimage to Bethlehem
by Br. Alexis Bugnolo
Last fall, I had the blessed experience of spending three months in rural Italy, attending the Traditional Latin Mass daily. What I found there was something beyond my human expectation, which was, in fact, the realization of my most profound Catholic expectations. I found a people imbued with the spirit of Bethlehem.
During these weeks following Epiphany, up until the Feast of the Presentation of the Child Jesus, on February 2nd, we Catholics celebrate the season of Epiphany in the Traditional Roman Calendar. During this season, the Ancient Roman Liturgy echoes the wonderment and joy of the Three Kings who, by a miraculous sign of a star, found the Savior of the World in the Cradle of Bethlehem.
Today, if you make a pilgrimage to Europe, you can venerate the relics of the Three Kings at Cologne, Germany, and the relics of the Lord Jesus' Crib at the Basilica of Saint Mary Major's, in Rome. But the unity of Kings and Crib and Child is for all of us to enjoy and relish each year during this holy season of Epiphany.
Epiphany is a time of the greatest gladness mankind can know in this world - the finding of God, of the Child of Bethlehem - of the Infinite Majesty of God wrapped in the most profound and limited humility of human poverty and weakness.
Ante luciferum genitus, et ante saecula Dominus Salvator noster hodie mundo apparuit!1
If during this season of wonderment, you have the added blessing of attending the Divine Office in the ancient Roman Rite, you have the added opportunity of tasting a draught from the ages of Catholic Devotion. The whole Office, seven times a day, sings with the Magi of their newfound treasure of magnificence.
If you ever are in Rome, you must make a pilgrimage to the Catacombs of Priscilla. There is conserved one of the oldest Catholic frescoes in the history of art, and its subject matter is not surprising to a devout Catholic; for it depicts that joy which was so warmly and fervently cherished by our first forefathers in the Faith - the advent of the Three Magi to Bethlehem.
That first Pilgrimage to Bethlehem we have all heard about - how three wise men, Magi, came from the East in search for the newborn King of Israel. According to tradition, their names were Balthasar, Kaspar, and Melchior. In modern Catholic art, and in nativity scenes that follow the Catholic tradition, we see them, each from a different race and people, bringing their gifts to the Child of Bethlehem: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The Catacombs of Priscilla confirm this ancient ecclesiastical tradition. The fresco, which dates from the second century Anno Domini is a simple wall painting depicting three men, one with a Mediterranean complexion, one with a sub-Saharan complexion, and one with an Asian complexion, each holding a gift and marching toward an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, enthroned as a Queen, holding the Divine Babe in Her lap. What a poignant and remarkable monument to the Catholicity of the salvation offered to the world at Bethlehem!
The Mystery and Truth revealed at Bethlehem is the triumph of Divine Mercy over Divine Justice and mankind's corresponding fidelity in humble adoration of He who is the Most Holy One of Israel.
While it is true that the Mercy of God is never separated from the Justice of God (for God Himself is Infinite Mercy and Justice), it is also true that inasmuch as creation is limited, it is necessary for the salvation and edification of men that, at times, God manifest the stupendous goodness of His Mercy, and at other times the tremendous severity of His Justice.
Bethlehem, for our sake, became a stage for the Divine Mercy, but no mere stage for town, country or world - a home of sincerity and truth and salvation. For although mankind in the sin of Adam and by an innumerable multitude of personal sins thereafter had more than merited eternal damnation in Hell, with unspeakable torments and the permanent exclusion from the Divine Presence, Divine Mercy decreed that in the hour of Bethlehem, guilty sinful and wicked mankind should be approached by the Infinite Majesty of His Redeemer. The Word of God who, unlike Himself, when He sent His destroying Angel to slay the first born of Egypt long ago, descending this time at the Midnight of world history to proclaim mercy and redemption.
Venit lumen tuum, Jerusalem, et gloria Domini super te orta est, et ambulabunt Gentes in lumine tuo, alleluia!2
And this spirit of humility and charity, this profound Catholic sense of unity and family, of the triumph of mercy over the rigors of justice accompanied by the triumph of human devotion and faith over the world, the flesh and the devil; this I found among the simple folk of rural Italy - a nation imbued with the Faith of our Forefathers throughout two millennia of Christianity. And what I found so wonderful and bewildering was that it was very much unlike the Catholicism in which I had lived for 39 years here in the United States of America.
Reflecting more and more upon the differences, I found myself stupefied to see for the first time, how much the errors of the world and of our nation have transmogrified modern Catholicism into something very cold and very lifeless.
Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that Europe or Italy today does not suffer from the same ecclesial meltdown that Vatican II engendered through the world, by means of the modernists who have been elected to hold the highest offices in the Church. What I am saying is that residually, there still remains in rural Italy something which I have never found in Catholicism in the United States, the home of my birth. And what I have not found, or rather, what I now realize does not exist at the foundation of our Catholic life in the USA - if you grant that we Catholics have a distinctive way of life or culture in the USA - is, simply put, a certain fundamental transformation of spirit and mindset which I call the Grace of Bethlehem.
And for this reason I think one of the greatest needs today for the Catholic Church in the United States is to meditate on the mystery of Epiphany and to pray for the grace to live more according to Christ. And we all need this grace - the laity, we religious, and most of all the clergy.
First of all, the Grace of Bethlehem is the grace to see that God is wholly unlike anything in this world. For that reason, we Americans must renounce and work actively to refuse to accept the notion that "money is what makes the world go around." Those in American society (including most Catholics) are driven mad with an excessive concern for money. Avarice is a national vice of unlimited aspirations. Even in the Church, there is readily accepted the logic of the secular culture - that money equals rights, and that to violate a right is to owe a monetary debt; that success and careers and the truth of things are all proven by how much money is thus obtained.
For this reason, our society is demented by a terrible cynicism, wherein it is all too popular to analyze everything and intend everything on the basis of "what's in it for me," the answer to which is nearly always "money." Where is God in all of this? Where is the Child of Bethlehem in all of this? He Who is priceless and Who is the Author of all blessings, in Whom are the reality of all goods and treasures? Where is He?
I see that in rural Italy, there is a madness for the love of the Child of Bethlehem. In nearly every church, they spend hours and hours constructing intricate countryside scenes in which the Manger is preeminent. And they do it with glee and the knowledge, shown in their expressions, of having the greatest honor to serve this Child and adore this Child in the remembrance of His First Advent among us.
Second, the Grace of Bethlehem is the grace to see that for this reason (that there is nothing like unto God in this world), there is no limit mankind should place on the worship and honor due the Divine Majesty.
It is rote to hear today that there has been a loss of the sense of the sacred. And if you study the problem, it is tied directly to Sacrosanctum Concilium and the New Mass. But if anyone has lost the sense of the sacred, it is first of all the clergy. I will pass over in shame the abominations which certain most-wicked men in the cloth have worked upon children, mostly boys. I will pass over the even greater malice of the Bishops and Cardinals who have sheltered and protected the predators. And it is not necessary to mention the blindness of those who won't admit the problem and cause - homosexuality in the priesthood - because they are part of the problem.
I wish only to recall the loss of the sense of the sacred in regard to the things deputed to Divine Worship, and first of all God's churches. I ask openly of all - why is it that nearly every Bishop in this country acts as if the churches do not belong to the Child of Bethlehem? Why is it that it is becoming more and more common to see a church as a piece of real estate ripe for picking, so that when some monetary settlement comes down the pike, it is the "duty" of the laity to accept the selling of their churches to pay for the crimes of men who never should have been protected in the first place?
Just the other day, the metropolitan, the Archbishop of Boston, wrote a letter to the priests of Christ's Archdiocese of Boston, encouraging them to "accept the challenge to make great sacrifices to achieve an even greater good." It is ironic that if you didn't know anything about the history of the Archdiocese of Boston in the last 2 years, that you would expect this letter of the Archbishop, who is a son of St. Francis, being a member of the same Order of Friars Minor Capuchines as Padre Pio (may he be blessed forever), would be an exhortation for penance in preparation for Lent or something spiritual of that kind. The sad reality is that this letter is asking the faithful to accept the wholesale sale and demolition of Christ's churches in the Archdiocese - and not just ones which are abandoned, and "not merely those parishes unable to pay their bills!"
I admit, that being desensitized a bit to the malice of such an endeavor in that the Archbishop is my former Bishop and I am familiar with his conception of "pastoral reconfiguration," that the letter does not surprise me. But I would be a liar if I did not say the truth. This endeavor is evil, a sacrilege, and a slap in the face of Jesus Christ and St. Francis. (St. Francis, you will recall, was called by Christ Himself, during a miraculous vision, "to repair My Church," not tear it down and sell it off for money!) Nowhere today has the sense of the sacred and of the respect due the sacred been so lost than in his eminence Archbishop Sean Patrick O'Malley, OFM Cap. D.D. of Boston.
In stark contrast with this spiritual vacuity, is what a local pastor on the mountain in Italy where I was visiting said to me. He had just asked me what the situation in the Church in the United States was, and I answered, shamefacedly, truthfully. He and his visitor, a priest from central Africa, just stared at me in silence in disbelief and shock at the proportion and malignity of the problems here. "But what are the Bishops doing about it?" he asked me - and I said, "paying settlements and selling off churches." To which he responded, "You do not have Christians as Bishops; you do not even have humans as Bishops; you have devils as Bishops!" (mind you, this pastor is not a traditionalist, in that he says the Novus Ordo daily). And this is no personal sui generis comment. Through the countryside, there are dozens of ancient churches, conserved from time immemorial, because they are held to be sacred and invaluable. The mere thought of selling one, fills these people with revulsion.
Third, the Grace of Bethlehem is the grace to see that all things must be subordinated to the Love of God, and to the love of neighbor in God. One of the rules of concrete charity that is still observed in rural Italy is hospitality. Such is their love for neighbor and especially for clergy and religious, that they expect you to visit unannounced for lunch and dinner. And if you stop by to ask a question within an hour of the meal, and do not also stay to chat and eat something, they take it more as an offense than an inconvenience to themselves.
Such is their love for their priests, that in practice, a faithful pastor seems more like everyone's grandfather than their clergyman. I can honestly admit that I have never met priests with such charity for their flock as I did on that mountain. They love their people with as much sincerity and affection and emotion as any loving father does his sons and daughters.
But it is a Love of God and a love in God. For they have the habit of never shying away from speaking uprightly about the Gospel and the duty of their people to believe and live it in truth, and of the dire consequences of hell if they do not. And such are the laity, that I have seen old women with more fear of going to purgatory, than I have seen clergy in the United States with fear of Hell - well, of course I am speaking of those clergy who still believe in Hell in this country. The ancient custom is to pray a novena for the Faithfully Departed, which begins nine days before All Souls Day. They rise and attend Mass early in the morning - a full two hours before their normal hour of awaking - and pray and sing songs of supplication to Christ to have mercy on their souls.
Finally, the Grace of Bethlehem - which is certainly not exhausted in my enumeration here - is the grace to subordinate all ideals to the Faith, all hopes and desires to the Hope we have in Christ, and all endeavors to the Charity which we are obligated to show one another. The Grace of Bethlehem obliges Catholics in the USA to reject utterly the contemporary culture, with its "values" proclaimed from the pulpits of the mass media, and pray and work to reform themselves in the Image of Christ and this nation in the image of Bethlehem.
The times are dark indeed, and there is a growing realization that the Church in the United States has lost its way. One seminarian from Boston told me the other day, "It just terrible what is going on. All that the clergy care about any more is having 'permission' to do this and 'permission' to do that. No one ever asks if the Faith obliges us to do it anyway!" We Catholics in the United States need the grace of Bethlehem; for the lights have gone out in the American Church, and only the Child Jesus can restore it.
Let us go to Bethlehem. Let us make a pilgrimage in faith and prayer and meditation. Let us return to our traditional Catholic Faith and live it. Let us put Jesus Christ first, and stop paying attention to the nonsense of our courts and political parties, which are lost; to the nonsense coming out of the chanceries, which are lost; to the nonsense coming out of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is lost.
We need the spirit of Bethlehem to reform ourselves, to found new civil and cultural institutions, and to reform those ecclesiastical. And the Child Jesus, as much as He desires this, cannot do it without you; for this is our duty and mission as Catholics and Americans.
1 "Before the birth of the morning star, and before the ages the Lord, our Savior, has this day appeared in the world!" Breviarium Romanum, Lauds for Epiphany, First Antiphon.
2 "Thy Light has come, Jerusalem, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon Thee, and the Gentiles shall walk in Thy light, alleluia", Breviarium Romanum, Lauds for Epiphany, Second Antiphon.