Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
The Blessed Sacrament
and the Apostolate in the
Conference on April 23th 1955 (*)
Church of St. Claudio (Rome)
Defining concepts: “world” and “modern”
The theme I was asked to speak about —“The Blessed Sacrament and the Apostolate in the Modern World”— is rich in ideas. It contains four nouns, four concepts, each of them important, but very unequal in precision and clarity.
For if it is true that the concept of the “Blessed Sacrament” is precise, if it is true that the concept of “apostolate” is precise, the concept of “world” is already less so, and the most problematic, the trickiest of all, is the concept of “modern.” What do we understand by world? And what should we understand by “modern” world?
The Gospel speaks of the “world.” Our Lord refused to pray for it, but the Apostles received the mission to preach the Gospel to all peoples, and this means to evangelize the whole world. What then does “world” mean?
In common usage, “world” means earth, the planet we live on; it means mankind; and it means a specific society of men in temporal society, which is distinguished, in this sense, from the Church. In another sense, it is a kind of “kingdom of darkness” of the devil. It is not temporal society per se, but evil, the evil of which Satan is the prince. In this sense, Satan is the prince of this world.
The modern world: What does the word “modern” mean? Historians and sociologists are giving a growing importance today to the study of words, even words of everyday usage which express states of soul, thoughts, and ideas. When the complete history of our stormy 20th century is written, a special chapter will have to be dedicated to the study of this seducing, viscous word “modern,” which has various and almost contradictory meanings.
First meaning: everything which pertains to today, both the “advanced” and the traditional
In one sense, “modern world” is the world of today, as distinguished from the world of yesterday. Thus, we can say that the modern world does not consist solely of modern things. For the entire past of mankind, to the degree in which it lives on today—and every era lives in part, from its past—forms part of the modern world. And at the same time we see some rays of the super-new and super-atomic era that loom on the horizon, we can contemplate faraway glimmers of the beginnings of civilization, which still shine, still exist, and still live.
The present instant, the modern instant, this instant in which I am speaking to you, is made up of heterogeneous elements, from reviviscences and permanencies to the most remote future —of course the remote future, since the future also makes up somehow the modern world. A man’s outlook on life is not only the panorama before immediately before him, but also the set of perspectives, projects, and possibilities he carries in his soul.
And so we see the modern world with its many contradictory aspects. How many glorious things remain from this our past — which many consider as the opposite of the word “modern.” We retain, above all, something which is more than the past, more than the present, and more than the future, for it is divine: the Holy, Roman, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
Modernity of the Church – Nearly 2,000 years old, the Church is an old institution. Yet it is the youthful and most promising of the institutions of the modern world. In this civilization, which appears to totter and to be headed to destruction, in this civilization where so much is dying and which nevertheless promises unending youth, stands the Catholic Church, modern in all times. The Church was modern when She was born from the Divine side of Our Lord Jesus Christ; She will be modern again when, in the last moments of history the powers of heaven are disturbed, and terrified man awaits looking up at the heavens for the coming of the Son of Man to judge them in power and majesty. Even then, the Holy, Roman, Catholic, and Apostolic Church will still be the most perennial of institutions.
Pope Pius XII in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament
Modernity of traditional things – We can also call “modern” in this sense so many ceremonies and rituals that come to us from the past. Is today’s England not a modern England? Did this modern England not celebrate recently, with magnificent medieval ceremonial, the pomp and pageantry of its traditional monarchy, giving to the world an example of the veneration it has for its past? Even though the British royalty seems to come straight out of the illuminations of a medieval book, is it not modern? And, side by side with so much glory, so much beauty from the past, how much rubbish which, sad to say, still marks, still influences the world today. It is one of the characteristics of the modern world.
For example, is there anything that comes from a more remote past, is there anything that is closer to man’s pre-history than voodoo? Even though voodoo’s roots sink down to our pre-history—searching for voodoo’s roots, our eyes look over the ocean to Africa—nevertheless, who would dare deny that voodoo and superstitions that date back to our old colonial Brazil are things that from a certain perspective are modern? Just yesterday, returning to São Paulo—perhaps the most modern city in all of South America, the fastest-growing city in the world, a city of cement and sky-scrapers—I was pained seeing a voodoo scene late at night on a busy street corner, with candles burning, and some people waiting around for the results of their presumably ill-intentioned witchcraft. Is this not an aspect of the modern world? Thus, as can be seen, the word “modern” takes on different connotations, which makes it difficult to define.
Second meaning: that which suggests progress
Analyzing the meaning of the word “modern” more profoundly, we see that it is sometimes used to signify something else, so that by “modern” is understood that which is contrary to what existed in the past. So, whatever begins now is modern. In this sense, all things, at every moment, are ceasing to be modern, and other modern things are appearing. Yesterday, the day before yesterday, a year ago, the “modern” treatment for child paralysis was one; today, that treatment is archaic, since we have discovered another, better, more efficacious treatment, so that what was done before is consigned to the history of medicine. That old form of treatment is part of a dead past, for a new fact has now appeared.
In this sense, our era, which is so enthralled with novelty, boasts that it is modern. It boasts of a large number of things that did not exist in the past, and which confer to our era a mark of superiority over the past.
We can say, therefore, that the word “modern” is imbibed with a certain concept of progress; and we understand by progress, in this case, an improvement towards a specific, ideal condition for mankind. By “modern” is meant a march forward, an improvement, progress.
Progress and calamities – At the same time, however, our vocabulary has been humbled. While recognizing that all new technological improvements are modern, we are also obliged to speak of the modern scourges, the modern panics, to recognize that all this technology, which is the glory of modernity, brings with it terrifying dreads, even the perspective of annihilation of the modern world with the hydrogen bomb.
It is said that when Einstein was asked if he knew with what weapons the World War III would be waged, he quipped: “I don’t know how the Third World War will be fought, but the Fourth will be with bow and arrow.” Mankind would regress so much during the Third World War, that the Fourth World War would be fought with bow and arrow. These are the perspectives for this dubious modernity, in the age of technology.
If on the one hand technology brings many worries — and Pope Piux XII emphasized in one speech how much technology, which in itself is good and praiseworthy, unfortunately has contributed to brutalize men, to form a materialistic society, to deform social life, since man, not knowing how to direct and govern technology, became enslaved to it — if it is true that technology has brutalized mankind so much, on the other hand, it has improved man’s lot in the material sense of the word.
Third meaning: that which agrees with the Revolution
The word “modern” has yet another subtler meaning, much more profound, and this is the meaning that I will analyze now.
Nobody today will say that a country that had separation of Church and State modernized itself by returning to the union of both; but many people will say that a country that had union of Church and State and separates the two has become modern.
Nobody will say that to go from legalized divorce to the legal recognition of the indissolubility of marriage is modernization; but many people believe that to go from the legal recognition of the indissolubility of marriage to a regime of legalized divorce is modern.
Nobody will say that to preserve the elites, to concern oneself with maintaining the social hierarchy, to labor at preserving the habits, customs, and institutions that establish the indispensable hierarchy, which should exist in every society, is a typically modern concern. On the contrary, it will be said that this is outdated, and that the modern spirit is more inclined to dismantle all social and political barriers, towards a complete equality that finds its full realization in communism, the regime of economic equality.
Secularism, egalitarianism, sensuality – We have then a definition of modernity that is different from the previous ones, but which dwells, so to speak, within them. This definition suggests a modernity in light of which people understand that everything secularist, everything egalitarian, everything that allows man’s instincts free reign is truly modern.
This concept of modern really exists and we can see it work. It can be observed in contemporary life. It constantly transforms itself. We see customs changing all the time. We see an institution that takes on a new aspect. We see another institution that dies in order to give place to something new. Observing these changes, one perceives that in their totality —maybe to be generous and prudent, it is better to say in their near totality— the transformations that occurred represented a progress of either the notion of equality, or the principle of secularism, or of sensuality.
In domestic life, for example, we see the boundaries which set apart and should set apart parents from children weaken at every moment; the authority of the husband is weakened at every moment; the liberty of the children increases at every moment. And why does it increase? Is it so that the children will fulfill their duties better? Is it so that they can be more chaste? More diligent? Or, on the contrary, does their liberty increase so that they are freer to do what they please, to sink into unchaste and dishonest diversions, to satisfy their thirst for pleasure, to break the “fetters” of the indispensable obedience which should link children to their parents in a family?
Look at the relations between social classes. Fashions change constantly and tend to level and make equal the classes. At every moment manners change, so as to lower the respect of younger for older, men for women, women for men, children for their parents, and students for their teachers.
Everywhere we see a diminishing of the forces of authority, hierarchy, order, eroded by a gradual but profound and incessant movement, eroded by this overwhelming tendency to level all things, which ultimately finds its most complete expression in secularism. For man, having rejected every superiority on earth, ends up not wanting to accept one in Heaven. He does not want to know about God, and he organizes his life as if he did not believe in God.
Contradiction between everyday life and the statistics – What a terrible phenomenon that undermines the Catholic population itself, and which leads the Brazilian spirit, unfortunately so accommodating, to a monstrous situation. We are a nation with an overwhelming Catholic majority. Statistics in fact show a near unanimity of Catholics in Brazil. If we examine the morality of Brazilian public life, however, it is as if God did not exist. If we examine our social life, we will see that its morality is almost as if God did not exist. If we examine our domestic life, we will see that day by day it is becoming the way it would be if God did not exist. Nevertheless, the churches are filled, acts of worship continue are well attended, and at census time, it is undeniable that everyone claims to be a Catholic.
How to explain this? Only this silent corrosion, this discreet, silent corrosion, terrible as leprosy, resulting from this state of spirit that organizes the world abstracting from God, this state of spirit that conceives all things in the shadow of the Revolution and disorder, that organizes everything based on sensuality, which is itself disorganization.
If a country like Brazil, so worthy of better days, writhes today in one of the gravest crises of its history, it is because it lacks morality. It is because it lacks the coherence between the Faith and daily life. It is because we have the tendency, which unfortunately increasingly overwhelms us, to adore God Our Lord with words alone, saying “Lord! Lord!” and then to live as we choose.
The distinctive note of the modern world
Having thus defined the various meanings of the word “modern,” we can ask what is the role of this modernity in the modern world.
We could say that this mentality which calls itself “modern” has not conquered everything in the world today. It is the great propelling force behind almost everything. It is the great distinctive note today. It is also the great danger. And, while it would be exaggeration to argue that only this miserable modernity exists in the world today, it would be blindness and madness to deny that it is the strong and decisive note.
The Blessed Sacrament — antidote for today’s evils
It is also true that in this world increasingly dominated by this spirit, Someone eternal is present: Our Lord Jesus Christ. Someone who is present in all the tabernacles of the earth—in those that are golden as well as those that are poor, and even in those that are hidden in countries behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains. But this Someone whose Presence is not perceived by our bodily senses, is the great Apostle of the world today, as He is throughout history. He speaks continuously to souls, teaching them in the silent, but infinitely efficacious language of God. God speaks constantly about the need for man to oppose those things which are his misery, his degradation; on the need of changing course; of building his life on God, sacrifice, renunciation, acceptance of authority; of turning to God and converting with his whole heart.
Admirable fruits of the Blessed Sacrament
That, which happens every time man challenges God, happens in this terrible modern world as well. God multiplies His marvels, and as iniquity reaches its apex, we see admirable fruits of the Blessed Sacrament, fruits of grace, fruits that bring incomparable results to the apostolate. While entire multitudes head to pleasure and vice, become cowardly and silent in the face of evil, we see an ever increasing number of souls who long for absolute perfection, total orthodoxy, full obedience to the Catholic Church. Souls who abandon everything, are ready to challenge and confront everything, and to affirm in all simplicity the doctrine of the Church, to suffer and prevail over everything for love of Our Lord Jesus Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament.
Saint Maria Goretti – At this point, it is impossible not to recall the angelic figure of Saint Maria Goretti. Today, when beaches are filled with a neo-paganism that broadcasts the corruption of modern civilization, this young virgin resolutely surrendered her life in order not to lose that which she loved more than anything else—more than the light of her eyes, more than her very existence—that virginity which one learns to love as life’s most precious gift, when one has a truly eucharistic soul. Saint Maria Goretti life is a crowning example. But is this a solitary fact?
The Viennese member of the Marian Congregations – How much heroism can be seen in Western and Eastern countries alike! There is the case of a member of the Marian Congregation of Vienna. Being wheeled in for surgery to have his tongue removed, he made a sign to the doctor that he wanted to say one last word with the tongue he was about to lose forever. The doctor agreed and the room was filled with expectation. Everyone imagined that it would be a request he wanted to make or a last word of kindness for those around him. Some may have thought the poor young man wanted to complain. Amidst the silence and recollection and with great effort, the young man uttered these admirable words: “Long live Our Lady!” And then, having used his last moments of speech to glorify Mary Most Holy, he went forward into the silence that would mark the remainder of his days. Mary Most Holy, whom so many forget and deny, whom so many love less than they should, received in this gesture an incomparable glory. Mary Most Holy raises up legions of soul like this in the modern world.
The boy martyrs of the tabernacle – There is another impressive case. It happened behind the Iron Curtain and was reported in L’Osservatore Romano some time ago. The communists entered a village, which had a Catholic church. The boys of the village heard that the communists planned on breaking into the church, to vandalize the tabernacle and profane the consecrated hosts. It was dark, and the moonlight reflected marvelously on the snow. The church lay in total solitude. So many of the faithful, terrified, slept in their homes while the church is about to be ransacked. Will Our Lord remain alone in this Garden of Olives? No. All night long three young boys hide inside, having entered through one of the windows. When the communists break in, one of the young boys tries uselessly with his small hands to bar their access to the sanctuary, but he dies under their blows. Another perishes defending the Holy Communion rail. The last one climbs onto the altar to protect the tabernacle with his chest. The barbarians kill this living tabernacle, then break into the golden one, which is worth so much less. They take the sacred hosts and profane them. Hell rejoices, but Heaven does too, and much more, with the blood shed in the church by these three young martyrs. Certainly, their blood is no less glorious than that shed by the martyrs in the Coliseum.
At the moment when iniquity is reaching its apex, grace and the mercy of God also reach their apex. In opposition to the “fortitude” of vice and evil, God raises an indomitable fortitude of good. The Catholic Church will triumph in the modern world. For sure this triumph will occur in the gigantic clash between the small forces of good and the enormous forces of evil, but we will see this clash — I believe it will probably occur in our own lifetimes.
We will see this fact: the Church shall have one of the greatest victories of all time, and this victory shall be the victory of the Blessed Sacrament, the Fountain of Grace that is opened for the world, through the intercession of Our Lady, who praying incessantly to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, obtains for us the graces we need.
This role of the Blessed Sacrament in the modern world makes us think of Our Lady, and since we cannot speak of triumphs or graces, without speaking of Her, the necessary Mediatrix, I can affirm that one of the most precious gifts the Blessed Sacrament bestows on the world is devotion to Our Lady. And it is this devotion to Our Lady —so characteristic and so deeply rooted in our Land of the Holy Cross— that will save Brazil.
Church of St. Claudio (Rome)
(*) See the original text in portoghese: "Anais da Semana Eucarística de Campos – 17 a 24 de abril de 1955", pp. 101 a 113, A EUCARISTIA E O APOSTOLADO NO MUNDO MODERNO, na Sessão Solene da Semana Eucarística de Campos (Rio de Janeiro).