A Church of Memory

“He has remembered His promise of mercy,” sang Mary, in a rapture of praise as she greeted her cousin Elizabeth, “the promise He made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever” (Lk 1:54-55). “Remember me, Lord,” said the thief to Jesus, “when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42).
God sees all things in the still-present moment of his eternal being. “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,” says St. Peter, warning his fellow Christians not to expect Christ’s return to be imminent, and not to suppose that God has forgotten them (2 Pt 3:8). An infinite stretch of years backward and forward are less than a wink of an eye to the Lord, indeed are as absolutely nothing, since it is He who made time, and all its moments.
Then why should Scripture so often refer to God’s remembering His covenants? That is what the Baptist’s father, the priest Zechariah, says He has done (Lk. 1:72), when his mouth is opened after the naming of John. Appropriately so, since the name Zechariah means “God remembers.” So too the name of the prophet, who foretold the coming of the King who would fulfill all the covenants, riding into Jerusalem “upon a colt the foal of an ass” (Zech 9:9).
God remembers, but has never forgotten. Instead, this “memory” suggests a relationship God has never abandoned, even though man has abandoned himself to sin. God remembers us: He will not let us go. He will have justice from us, whether we like it or not. He will have mercy on us, whether we like it or not. We wish He would not be mindful of us — a wish that is at the heart of every sin, that we should be treated as the witless beasts. We want God to forget us, or at least to overlook us while we are sinning, because we do not want to be reminded of Him.
We want no Savior to warn us that the blood of all the prophets will be upon our generation, “from the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple” (Lk 11:51), murdered by the Jews, because he told them what they did not want to hear, or reminded them of what they wanted to forget. To remember what we owe to God, and to our forefathers in the faith, is to set ourselves within the vast sweep of the history of salvation. It is to acknowledge centuries of blessing, without which we would be quite lost. It is to confess our ingratitude and our poor return on that kindness. It is to look forward, with that same thief, to the moment when Jesus may grace us with His memory — may say to us, “Come, blessed of my father!”
But what happens when all the currents of one’s day converge to destroy not our memory of this or that benefit, but memory itself? “History is bunk,” said Henry Ford, as he set about destroying a way of life that rewarded craftsmanship and thrift. “Education,” said the great American flattener of our schools, John Dewey, “[must] undermine and destroy the accumulated and self-perpetuating prejudices of long ages,” including, as far as he was concerned, the hoary old prejudices of religion. Neither Ford nor Dewey was much of a thinker. But we did not need them to tell us that we owed nothing to the past. We required no encouragement to forget. We have been doing that ever since Eve forgot the multitudinous blessings of God and ate of the single forbidden fruit.
We call it “cultural amnesia,” but the odd phrase already suggests how much we have forgotten. It might as well be called a living death, since to the extent that we have forgotten our past, we have no culture at all, amnesiac or otherwise. It is, I suppose, no surprise that a consumer anti-culture, ever on the lookout for the next ephemeral fad, should so detach itself from time and its claims and duties. But how on earth could the Catholic Church have done so?
Take Ford’s quote, and replace “history” with “tradition,” or “the faith expressed in the first creeds,” or “the piety of past ages of Catholics,” and you express the sentiment of any number of Catholics, lay and clergy. Do something similar with Dewey’s challenge: Tack on the name of a chancery director of religious education, and see if the result raises an eyebrow. So thoroughly have we committed ourselves to amnesia that we now hug ourselves for our betrayal of our heritage, as if it were a virtue.
There is no culture without memory. If you do not pass along, from generation to generation, the skills you ply, the truths you revere, the laws you obey, and the feasts you celebrate, you have no culture, but what Romano Guardini called “mass man,” thrall to the central marketers and manipulators.
So too, without memory, you have no Church. You may have thousands thronging the coffee shops at Willow Creek, in the market for the latest therapeutic Jesus promo. You may have 20 people in a little niche chapel in the country, where Pastor Joanne turns Christianity into chicken soup for old ladies. But you have no Church. That is because you have severed yourself from those who came before you, to whom you acknowledge no debt; from those among whom you live now, since you have substituted your personal predilections for the unity-making tenets of the faith; and from those who will come after you, who will follow your own example and forget you, as you have forgotten your fathers.
I stand in the faith of Augustine and Aquinas, not simply because I have been persuaded that they are correct, but because I owe them my allegiance. They are my fathers. I stand in the faith of Lawrence the Deacon, not simply because I admire his brave martyrdom, but because his witness has played its part in God’s design, making possible the conversion of all nations. He too is my father. I stand in the faith of Pope Benedict XVI, not simply because he is the wisest man alive, but because I accept the promise of Christ, that He would send His Church the Comforter, who would teach us all that it behooves us to know. I try, and God knows how often I fail, to remember, to be a loyal son of the Church, because my Savior Himself, knowing how inattentive and vain and forgetful we are, so commanded us all at that first Eucharist.
Said He, looking round upon those twelve who were, otherwise, but men of the passing day, “Do this in memory of me.”

Anthony Esolen

By

Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Monica

    This is beautiful, the Church of memory is one of the things I most love about the Catholic Church. We are a Church that remembers… There lies our Richness.

    And the beautiful connections that arise from this memory: My name is Monica, I’m daily reminded of the perseverance of my patron saint, I was born on September 30th so every year I’m reminded of Saint Th

  • Chrissy G

    Self-centeredness can become so harsh as to limit one’s desire or ability to remember and connect with the world, with family and friends, even with the self. Memory is a risk, because what you remember could conflict with your present desires. This rings especially true about remembering God in our lives.

    And yet, while we are busy forgetting it all, God remembers us. It is excruciating to think that any day I go about my business without any real care/love/sacrifice/devotion to the God of Heaven and Earth, He is constantly knowing/loving/remembering me. Our human nature (and the secular culture it has produced in this age) drives us to forget the Reality of it all: God, good, evil, sin, grace, sacrifice, Jesus, Heaven, Hell. We have to fight off the amnesia constantly. I don’t know how to do that, but I am trying. The one thing that works exceptionally for me is having deep friendships that include a shared desire for holiness and interest in the Faith. Human nature makes it easy to remember dear friends, and conversations can help you both to remember the Truth. I am trying to pray a Rosary each day- the Mysteries remind us of key moments in the Gospel. Paying careful attention in the Mass will call to mind the Truth of what happens there. (For me, the repetition and elegant wording of the Divine Liturgy in Eastern Catholic churches does so even better- for some, perhaps the Latin Mass does.)

    Forgetting who you are and who God is makes it impossible to learn your place in God’s plan. Remembering that you are God’s own, that you were purchased at great price, and that the Communion of Saints past and present has assisted you in innumerable ways is what gives a true Christian the will and the strength to follow Christ for another day. I pray that I and all of us may learn to do so. Thanks for a great article, a reminder of the importance of remembering.

  • Scott Johnston

    Dr. Esolen,

    Thank you for your article. I sympathize with calling attention to the profound issue of a growing disconnection from our Church’s memory (especially as this term is Biblically understood). An essential aspect of being Catholic is a living connection with her memory. At the very least this would imply respect for and interest in the traditions, theological schools, and doctrines that have endured.

    I don’t know, but I wonder if you aren’t perhaps a bit overly pessimistic about hopes for any future improvement on this issue in the coming years?

    I say this because I have been blessed by having had personal contact with a good number of Catholic seminarians in multiple seminaries (both diocesan and religious) over the past ten or so years, and I can say based on this experience that, by and large, the majority of them would agree with you, even if they couldn’t express it in as sophisticated a way.

    Do all American seminarians sense the urgency and gravity of our diminishing memory? No. But, I think many of them do–indeed most, at least in my experience (though, again, they may not think to articulate this idea in similar terms).

    This is not remotely comprehensive, but, here are just a few signs: Courses on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Church Fathers are offered more often and taken more seriously (compared to the period of the 70’s and 80’s; and, scholarship is available that is of better caliber than was sometimes used in the years prior to the Council–though this can be a mine field that needs competent guidance). Also, required systematic courses, at least in some places, have integrated the Fathers (esp. Augustine) and the Scholastics (esp. Aquinas) into their curricula to a greater degree than had often been the case since the Council. Again, generally speaking, present-day seminarians have respect for (and often share) pious religious customs. A (small but growing) number of new priests have taken to wearing cassocks around their home parishes. A (perhaps small but definitely growing) number of seminarians as well as lay Catholics desire to learn about and restore the use of chant to the liturgy. Adoration has been growing for years now (among laymen of all ages, and, especially younger clergy). Seminarians are very aware of the importance of the moral teaching of the Church to her overall evangelical message. And, they are (often in experiences prior to seminary) already familiar to some degree with paying a price for standing with the Church, and still do not balk at aspiring to Holy Orders. In other words, a large proportion of seminarians are well aware that standing for the Gospel in a vigorous way will bring persecution to them. A larger proportion of seminarians (this has to be true) have personal experience in pro-life activities prior to seminary than was the case in the 70’s and 80’s.

    There are more, but these are a few signs of hope. (And I don’t mean to ignore many hopeful signs among laymen that could be mentioned but I want to limit this comment to reasons for hope based primarily on my experience of seminarians.)

    Much of this, for now, still bubbles under the surface and has not yet had enough time to start registering in a bigger, more obvious way. Newly ordained priests must be prudent in fostering true fraternal charity for and collegiality with their pastors and bishops. The bishops and pastors set the tone. It is their proper authority to do so. (And by this I mean no disrespect for older generations of pastors and bishops)

    Yet, the time is nearing when a new generation of priests (say, ordained in the last 15 years or so) that greatly admire JPII and Benedict XVI (and probably celebrated energetically when BXVI was announced) will come to predominate in America as pastors and bishops. This is starting to happen now; but the process is gradual and uneven.

    But, I would suggest, at least on the issue of the clergy’s part in reacquiring our ecclesial memory, there is much reason for hope! This only happens one parish and one diocese at a time, so for many who only see their own parish and diocese, things may seem stale and bleak. But, I am confident that the American Catholic Church is indeed in for a gradual reinvigoration of bolder, more evangelical, more rooted-to-tradition, more respectful-of-pious-customs, ministry.

  • Tony Esolen

    Thank you, folks, for your excellent and inspiring comments. I’ll add that I myself am afflicted with the amnesia I criticize, and am far from the best person in the world at fighting it.

    To Scott Johnston: I agree with you wholeheartedly. I’m wondering what you will say about my piece to appear later this month, in which I show an example of what it means to have a culture, specifically a Catholic culture. But what you say is certainly true. Case in point: some young women at my school, on their own, have formed a Catholic women’s group; the book they’ve read this semester was Alice Von Hildebrand’s The Privilege of Being a Woman. Some young men then formed a similar group (about 20 members, meeting twice a week). They asked me whether I knew anybody on campus who could teach them chant. None of this could have happened even ten years ago.

    Maybe I could delineate the recovery of Catholic (or any kind of) culture this way:

    1. Dissatisfaction with the pointlessness and subhumanity of the life offered to mass man: mass education, mass entertainment, mass politics, mass media.

    2. The turn to something a little bit different, though usually deeply compromised by the anticulture: Christian rock, let’s say, or the support of nominally pro-life politicians, or listening to self-styled conservatives on the radio.

    3. The formation of groups to affirm what mass man rejects: homeschooling organizations, pro-life groups, prayer groups, Bible studies.

    4. The attempt to unearth, little by little, what has been lost: homeschoolers who learn Latin and study Virgil; choirs that commit themselves to learning polyphony; Great Books programs sprouting up everywhere.

    5. The attempt to incorporate what you cherish from the past into one’s vocation, and then, the most difficult of all,

    6. The coming-together of such people in a common and generation-spanning enterprise once known as culture.

  • Scott Johnston

    I look forward to your next article.

    And your delineation of a recovery of culture seems on target to me. (And in fact, I currently teach at a brand new independent Catholic school that began this past school year–Regina Luminis–in Downingtown, PA, begun by families many of whom had a homeschooling background)

    I sometimes wonder though if in America we are heading into an especially rough and challenging period of culture clash, even as compared to our recent past. This is because while there are many good things happening as far as a gradual renewal of Catholic culture (among laymen, religious, and clergy), there is also at the same time a degradation of basic humanity and civility continuing apace among the non-religious peers of this same generation.

    A growing number of young people have the great blessing of being raised in loving, stable, two-parent, devout families who love the faith and do what they can to make this a normal part of daily life. They are at least somewhat spared during their most impressionable years (compared to many of their peers) from the dehumanizing strands of contemporary mass man phenomena. I am optimistic that they have among them many who will be courageous and saintly beacons of light to their disenchanted peers.

    At the same time, it seems to me that the level of personal dehumanization–of individual dissipation and disintegration as a human person–is taking place at a horrible pace among some young people who lack guidance and stability and a sound vision of what life is for.

    I think the potential clash between these two very different worlds among the same generation may be very painful. [I don’t mean this as an overall gloomy outlook; but, just to acknowledge I suppose that for cultures as for individuals, enduring transformation into a more Christ-welcoming stance will always involve heavy doses of the Cross]

  • Scott Johnston

    Please forgive another post! I want to mention one particular example of a parish that I knew of when I lived in southern CA in the 90

  • Kyle Eastwood

    Thank you as always for your article Dr. Esolen.

    Mr. Johnson,

    I will second your positive observations of priests and seminarians. And why should we expect otherwise, these men are being called from above to a holy life in the midst of a lost society. I had the pleasure of knowing four such men who are all now at seminary either in Iowa or South Dakota. I know they are godly men because I witnessed them: leading early morning prayer, leading Chesterton classes, taking mass devoutly, one took a year off to help with Katrina recovery, skiping class to watch the Pope speak, and reading good books.

    I remember having a conversation with some Mormon evangelists. I explained that Christ promised his Church would not fail. I asked them how the Church fell away since they believed the truth was recently rediscovered meaning thereby the truth was lost for 1.5 millenia. They would only repeat that the faith died with the last of the apostles and the seventy disciples.

    As Catholics we are part of the oldest institution on earth by a long shot. Which is proof in itself of the promise of Christ and the Presence of the Holy spirit.

    I remember listing to an homily by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon. Where and which he said you do not become cultured by reading Jane Austen or attending a Symphonic performance. A culture is a living organism, you must be part of something larger than yourself. He went on to give an excellent argument for infant baptism, that we are God’s before he is ever ours. He makes a similar point in Cannon and community.

    This is truly a must listen:

    http://tinyurl.com/8ot8qh

  • Tony Esolen

    Scott and Kyle,

    Your letters are a great source of cheer for me, after I heard a lame sermon yesterday on how the Christian faith teaches us that “the best is yet to be.” Well, no, not really, not in the way the world understands it. But our hope is in Christ, and that hope will not be disappointed. That parish in California reminds me, though the one I’ve seen is much smaller, of my sister’s Italian parish in Roseto, Pennsylvania. That church’s stalwart priests have held that small borough together — by serving the church as she ought to be served. Confessions are held before every Mass, and there’s usually a line. No Eucharistic ministers; both priests (they are brothers) come to serve the people. There are no altar girls (and because there are none, none are needed; it’s not hard for them to enlist boys to do the job, till they leave for college). They have adoration of the Sacrament regularly, and novenas; they visit each street in the borough in succession; they lead a procession with the Sacrament through the streets of the borough in a long pageant and litany on the patronal feast; they are absolutely faithful to the Church and make no bones about what that faithfulness means for their flock. The result is pretty clear: the people love them, because they know that they are giving them their best. The church is always full, and people don’t leave until the last note of the last verse of the recessional is sung.

    Scott, I’d love someday to see your school in Downingtown. (I’m writing this from East Bangor, at the north end of Northampton County.) I actually have family in Downingtown (Lionville, really) —

  • Kyle Eastwood

    Have you all heard of John Senior and his books The Death of Christian Culture, and The Restoration of Christian Culture.

    I highly recommend the books, his writing and idea are clearly akin yours Dr. Esolen. He was a professor of humanities at Kansas in the 70s to early 80s. From what I gather he and two colleagues led many into the Catholic fold, which seemed to cause Kansas donation givers to halt unless they got rid of the humanities program.

    Several students of the program in fact became Benedictines at Fontgombault Benedictine Abbey in France. Because of the influx of Americans and Canadians, a new abbey was started in Clear Creek Oklahoma to give us back the vocations. All the hours of the liturgy are in Latin. My friend who has taken a retreat there says many families are buying up land to be close to the cloister and starting farms and such. I took a retreat last summer with the monks at Princeville Illinois in the Community of St. John. I noticed a similar circumstance there in that many families were uprooting to be near to these brothers and sisters and/ or become lay oblates.

    I am looking forward to taking a retreat there soon. Their web address is clearcreekmonks.org

  • Scott Johnston

    Dr. Esolen,

    Visitors are welcome! Of course, please give a call or email in advance.

    The school has a website (it’s very basic), which is
    http://reginaluminisacademy.com/

    There is contact info at the web site.

    My own school email is
    mr.johnston at reginaluminisacademy dot com

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