I was in Rome once at the time of the election of a new pope, I heard a story that went like this: When a new pope is elected, the sacristans at St. Peter’s Basilica polish all the candlesticks and altarware of brass, bronze, silver, and gold. They then do not polish them again throughout the Holy Father’s Pontificate. As the story goes, this is because when the man is elected as pope, he is radiant and new, shiny and bright. As he continues in his tenure as pope, they say, he will fade and grow dull. According to the story, like the altar candles, the zeal and holiness of the Holy Father is likely to tarnish and deteriorate.
I don’t know if the story about the sacristans is true. We can see how the power of the papacy would be a temptation and a heavy burden to any person, though it need not be true that the Popes’ love for God fades. We have had some saintly Popes whose life and work suggest otherwise.
The point here, though, is not about the Pope. It is about you and me. Does our faith, which at certain times in our life might be strong and radiant, have a tendency to grow dull and lackluster?
The Book of Revelation warns us about this: “To the … Church in Ephesus: … ‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles… ‘But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. ‘Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first’” (Rev 2:1-4).
The question for us is, have we lost the brightness and enthusiasm of our first love? Have we abandoned and neglected that fervor we once had for the Faith?
In the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews we hear a similar encouragement: “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day. … For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end” (Heb 3:12-14).
In the early centuries of the Church there was widespread persecution. There were many martyrs, particularly under the emperors of Rome. With the Edict of Constantine in the early 300’s, the Church began to live with the official approval of the State. The persecutions diminished greatly. It was less perilous to be a Christian. As a result, some of the early Christians, perhaps fearful that their love for the Faith would grow cold, went to the desert. They chose a life of asceticism and prayer so that their holiness would not so readily become tarnished. These early “Desert Fathers,” (St. Anthony of the Desert, Pachomius, Athanasius, and many others) responded to a call from God to live, often as hermits, sometimes in small clusters of monks.
Not many of us are called to this type of life as hermits or monks. Most of us live in the world. Our goal is not to be so completely “of the world,” such that our vigor and enthusiasm for our Catholic Faith grows cold, or lukewarm (Cf Rev 3:16).
Persevering in the spiritual life is our guard against the complacency that causes the fire of our faith to grow cold. Helpful practices could include: the Morning Offering; Holy Mass not only on Sundays and Holy Days, but on other days when we are able; some period of time each day in mental prayer with God; reading of the Sacred Scriptures and some worthy spiritual book; Holy Rosary; and examination of conscience and act of contrition each night. We should try to make a good Confession every month or so. These pillars of the spiritual life help fortify us in our Catholic Faith.
We must also work to preserve the luster of the love of our vocation; in our marriage, by attentiveness and prayer with and for our spouse and children, many little acts of love and thoughtfulness, making time to be with our family.
Our “natural” families also deserve our attention: reaching out to our parents and our siblings, reconciling quickly when we have had disagreements.
In our work we can renew our efforts to carry out tasks, large and small, with conscientious effort and attentiveness to details.
St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy, urging him to guard and nurture the gift the young bishop had received through ordination: “Hence I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Tim 1:6). Priests and Religious must always seek to deepen the commitment to their vocation by a rededication to prayer and study, and constant spiritual renewal.
All of us have received a grace of holiness, first in our Baptism. We must not only preserve it, but through an active and conscious love of God and neighbor, rekindle it into flame.
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St. Paul, Excerpts on … Our Renewal in Christ
“Therefore since you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.”
“But now … put aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him.”
“So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Col 3:1-3; 8-10; 12-17).
“But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, … that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Eph 4:20-24).
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2).