Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Ave Maria!

Easter Sunday—4 April A.D. 2010

Pessimism or Optimism?


Durer: The Resurrection,  A.D.1510
Durer: The Resurrection, A.D.1510.

[Ordinary of the Mass]
[ Mass Text-Latin]
[Mass Text-English]

“This is the day that the Lord hath made,
let us rejoice and be glad in it.”[1]

    First of all, let me be among the first to wish you a happy Easter!  And let me thank all those of you who have helped in any way with the observance of Holy Week and Easter.  A great deal of effort goes into the proper observance of the most important week of the Church’s year, and your help and participation is truly appreciated.

    Just a few weeks ago I had a discussion with a fellow who wasn’t a Catholic, but who was curious about our observance of Lent.  He was quite respectful, but I was a little taken aback when he referred to the traditional Catholic observance of Lent as being “pessimistic.”  I had never thought of it that way, so I asked him to explain his choice of words.  He said that what he meant was that Catholics seem to go out of their way to not enjoy life during Lent, and indeed, that it seemed that some Catholics go out of their way to not enjoy life most of the time.  What he viewed as “pessimistic” were things like fasting and abstinence, and going to Confession and doing penance, and what he thought of as rather rigid Church laws about matrimony and attending Sunday Mass.

    I had to laugh a little—it was good that this fellow didn’t realize that such things were considerably more severe during the middle ages.  He certainly would not have understood things like abstaining from eggs and butter and oil, or wearing a hair shirt!

    “And you Catholics seem to have a view of man as being somehow internally flawed, and incapable of great goodness on his own,” he said.

    What my friend was missing, though, was not that Catholics attempt to bring themselves under a certain discipline, but that we do so for reasons that are not at all “pessimistic.”  And that to say that man is somehow flawed by original sin is entirely correct.  But still, “pessimistic” is the wrong choice of words.  I suggested to him that the word ought to be “realistic.”  Traditionally, the Church has recognized that man was weakened by original sin, becoming more likely act according to bad inclinations.  A consequence of original sin is the inability to distinguish what is truly good for us from that which is bad—and a lack of the virtues necessary to pursue the good when it happens to lie along the more difficult path than the bad.

    The traditional Catholic is “realistic” in recognizing these things and devoting some of his time to developing the self discipline that will enable him to make good moral decisions when he is confronted with making a choice.  Some of this is intellectual, for we must first recognize that sin is real, that it offends God even if it has no apparent earthly victim, and that atonement must be made for our transgressions, for fear of purgatory and hell.  Some of this is supernatural, for we are strengthened by the graces we receive, first of all in Baptism, and later in making good Confessions, attending Holy Mass, receiving Holy Communion, and so forth.  But some of it is our personal effort to respond to those divine graces with acts of discipline and self control—virtue is always something that requires practice.

    To see the truth of this realism, one has only to look where traditional Catholicism has been abandoned—where the reality of sin and hell is intellectually denied or trivialized—where the supernatural means of holiness have been reduced to social events—and where personal efforts at self discipline have become mere tokens.

    I left my friend with the idea that the penitential practices of the traditional Church are not the result of pessimism, but rather, the result of optimism.  Particularly in Lent (and to a lesser degree, in Advent) the penitential period looks forward to a joyous celebration of our union with Almighty God.  We retain the penitential practices of the Church with the optimism that men and women can be perfected through them.  We are looking forward to a heritage of glory with God in heaven, rather than backward to a sinful past.

    Nearly sixteen-hundred years ago, Pope Saint Gregory the Great wrote a brief sermon that we read every year in the Office of Easter Sunday.  He refers to the Gospels we read on this day wherein Mary Magdalen led a small party of women to the tomb in which Jesus was buried on Good Friday.[2]  They came bearing aromatic spices to anoint His body according to the Jewish manner of burial; something not allowed until the end of the Jewish Sabbath.  But when they arrived there, they were quite surprised to find that the huge stone that had sealed the tomb had been rolled back.  And inside, rather than the lifeless body of Jesus which they expected to find, there was an angel dressed in a shining festive white tunic.  “I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified, He is not here for He has risen even as He said He would.  Go and tell Peter and the others.”

    In his sermon, Pope Saint Gregory makes the rather happy statement that the Angel is in white to celebrate this feast of Easter, which belongs both to angels and to men: “the resurrection of our Redeemer is indeed our feast because it renders us immortal, but it is also a feast of the angels because their number was completed upon our admission to heaven.”[3]

    In his Epistle to the Romans, Saint Paul speaks eloquently about our new found immortality: “our ‘old man’ is crucified with Him, that the body of sin may be destroyed, to the end that we may serve sin no longer.... Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall live also together with Christ.”[4]  If we make the conscious commitment to “die to sin” then we shall live forever with Christ in the kingdom of heaven.  If that sounds like optimism, the second part of Pope Gregory’s statement is even more so.

    Not only has Christ won for us the gift of immortality, but Pope Gregory suggests that the faithful in heaven will actually take the places of the angels who eons ago had rebelled against God and fallen from grace.  We will complete the number of these superior creatures, living in eternal happiness with God in heaven.  While this may not be a doctrine of the Faith, Pope Gregory shares it with Saint Augustine, and Saint Anselm, two of the all time great theologians.[5]

    So, if perhaps we appeared to be a little “pessimistic,” or maybe just realistic during Lent, today we have three powerful reasons for being optimistic:  Our Lord has conquered sin and death by rising from the grave;  He has offered us a share in His immortality;  and He has set aside a place for us in the choirs of His angels.

“This is the day that the Lord hath made,
let us rejoice and be glad in it.”[6]


[2]   Matthew xxviii: 1-7,;  Mark xvi: 1-7,

[3]   Pope Saint Gregory the Great, Homily 21 on the Gospels.  Lesson at Easter Matins.

[4]   Romans vi 6ff.,

[5]   Augustine, Civitas Dei;  Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, Bk. I, Chapter xvi.


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