I wrote a blog post last week on the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and why spectators at Mass might infer that Catholics don’t really believe in this sublime teaching, as they are often so lacking in reverence. A friend, recently returned from Denver in the US, has given me a book she brought back with her and which she is very enthusiastic about: Word Without End: The Mass – Splendor of the Incarnation, by Francis J Pierson.
Having now read it I can understand my friend’s response. It is an unusually clear, thoughtful and persuasive explanation of the three great, interlinked miracles of the Christian faith, the Incarnation, the Resurrection and the Eucharist, and why they are so important.
The last is the culmination, as Pierson explains: “It is the Eucharist that lifts both the Incarnation and the Resurrection from the static pages of history and makes them present, vital and relevant to every succeeding generation.”
Pierson emphasises that the Eucharist is the “greatest of all miracles” and that the “most real thing in our everyday existence should be the Eucharist because all other realities stem from this One Reality … We need to rediscover the mystery and wonder of that miraculous Real Presence which abides in every tabernacle.” In a sense, his book provides the reason for the awe and reverence due at Mass, the lack of which was deplored in my blog last week.
Behind all the history, theology and general culture that Pierson brings to play in his book is this ultimate reality. He writes: “Enter through a church door and kneel in adoration before the incarnate word of God, as Catholics do at every Mass, and the mysteries of the universe will suddenly be seen in a new perspective.”
Reading his book makes me feel I will never again take the Mass for granted as, sadly and given human nature, it is so easy to do, and I am curious to know more about the author himself. His book gives little away, apart from the mention of his mother’s lack of a father in her early life and how, despite the loving Catholic home she created, this lack had a lasting emotional impact on her.
So I asked Francis Pierson what had inspired him to write it. He tells me: “I think my sense that many Catholics were attending Mass more as a perfunctory obligation, little realising the true depth and impact it really has on our Christian vocation, spurred me on.” He expands: “At the same time it seemed to me that modern man’s understanding of his own humanity was lacking something essential, which is that we possess a spiritual nature tightly wound up with our bodily natures. Through the Incarnation, Christ’s humanity becomes a mirror on our own humanity. The Mass is where our humanity most saliently meets his humanity. In fact, the Incarnate Word of God, through the agency of the Mass, actually integrates, fulfils and perfects our human existence.”
Pierson believes passionately that Catholics “need to bring faith and reason together again, so that mankind can perceive the unified whole rather than the disparate parts.”
What was his educational background? Pierson explains that he has never formally studied theology and would not consider himself “learned”, adding: “My gift is not so much knowing about theology or anything else but rather, to be able to correlate those titbits I have picked up over time into what I call ‘the bigger picture’. A cartographer by profession, as well as a lover of music, architecture and the graphic arts, Pierson is also “enamoured of history, because I know that one cannot fully appreciate one’s humanity if one remains ignorant of history.”
He is clear that intellectual disciplines, including science, are “not meant to be pigeon-holed into separate containers. They are meant to inform and shed light on one another.” He fears this does not happen in the academic world and thinks “the social dysfunction we perceive all around us is a sad consequence of the isolation of knowledge. The Catholic worldview is, by contrast, the universal view because it integrates the different areas of knowledge so seamlessly and beautifully.”
As a lay man, Pierson tells me that he has been very involved in his own parish for the past 30 years, serving at Mass, training the altar boys, reading at the lectern and singing in the choir. What about his faith background? He relates that his own parents were lifelong daily communicants “yet strangely, I think it was my Czech grandmother, whom I never knew, who indirectly influenced me the most. Married to my non-Catholic grandfather and the mother of ten children, she died, aged 47, from TB. Yet her Catholic influence was so pervasive that not only did Grandpa continue raising his children as Catholics, but 23 years after her death, he himself entered the Church at the age of 80.”
Pierson says: “Their story convinces me of the penetrating power of the Catholic faith, for it apparently has the power to convert hearts even from beyond the grave. My grandparents’ lives were a glorious testimonial to me of the truth and potency of the Faith, as transmitted faithfully through my parents.”
Finally, I ask Pierson for his views on the West today. He replies soberly: “Faith and culture have diverged. The culture has pulled away from its Christian roots. Science has, in effect, emancipated itself from any objective truth and government funding of the academies has effectively politicised education to the point that independent critical thinking is being neutralised if not fully suppressed.”
He concludes: “This divorce of faith from science has led mankind to the brink of self-annihilation. Only God can accomplish what is impossible for man to accomplish and He works today through the Church. Faith must therefore be restored before our world can be restored. If we can re-instil faith in society to buttress reason as it once did, science will experience a golden age. We already have the tools. All that is lacking is faith in God’s own Incarnate Word.”
I write this blog on referendum day. Driving to the polling station I turned on BBC Radio 4 to hear Melvyn Bragg, in the programme In Our Time, discuss the poetry of William Blake. I instantly thought of his great poem “Jerusalem” with its potent reference to “England’s green and pleasant land.” As it happens I have voted the same way as William Cash, and for the same reasons, so persuasively enunciated by him in his article here.
However, important though the referendum vote is, it is nothing compared to the Christian faith that Francis Pierson has written about so well in his book. Describing the pre-Christian pagan world, he reminds us: “After the horrors of a dark world dominated by brute force, idols, demons and even human sacrifice, the Christian message of hope and salvation was able to resonate widely.” Whether the country votes to stay or to leave the EU, this deeper and more vital question remains: do we accept Christ as the Saviour of the world, and the Mass as the continuation of His sacrifice on Calvary – or not?
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