I grew up (in the 1940s) as a Catholic in England. In our family we all went to Mass on Sunday, and I would have been as shocked by my parents' non-attendance as they would have been if any of us had resisted. We didn't. In those days, one didn't.

My brother and I were sent to a Catholic boarding school, run by Benedictines. There was Gregorian chant, High Mass on Sunday, the full Tridentine panoply -- the Age of Pius XII. The choir stalls of the abbey were filled with monks whose black habits and tonsured uniformity disguised great individuality and sweetness. Day and night, they raised their voices to God.

Later on, when I left school, I stopped going to Mass. The flame of faith perhaps never burned very brightly, but it never went out, and for that I would congratulate myself. For 20 years, I ceased to be a practicing Catholic. My feeling was that, because I had never really lost the faith, I was broadly excused from its obligations. The rules of religion were true, and useful for society, but one could confer on oneself an honorable exemption from too minute an observance.

There is a word for this: Pride. Whether or not it foreshadowed a fall I don't know, but it was not conducive to happiness. I came to Washington, and a few years later -- not long after John Paul II was elected Pope -- I started to go to Mass again, to say my prayers (fitfully), and to go to confession. A priest told me that "God wants us to be happy." I will always remember that.

By that time it was a new age in the Church, and a disconcerting one. A quiet revolution had taken place in my absence. The elevated pageantry and ritual had been supplanted by something not just hum-drum but determinedly so. Instead of a missal, there was a "worship resource"; instead of poetry, one encountered the vocabulary of social-services. The uplifting music had been replaced by children's ditties.

The old certainties had gone, too. The bishops debated arms control, the distribution of income. In this one sensed disorder: bodies now were given priority over souls. There was a "preferential option for the poor." But everything that Jesus said about the poor and the rich suggests it is the latter who most urgently need spiritual help. The Church's opposition to abortion was obscured in a "seamless garment." In short, mundane politics seemed to have taken precedence over the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven.

Policies may come and go, but death is the one certainty that we all face. No faith is needed there. As for Judgment, Hell and Heaven, well, we had better prepare for one or the other of those combinations. And that is what the Church is for -- to help us in that preparation. The condition of our souls depends on the choices that we make, and they in turn must be guided by the teaching of the Church. Most of the time we don't really practice that faith -- we worry about money and public esteem and foolish things. But everything else is trivial compared to the fate of our souls. "What doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, yet suffer the loss of his own soul?" We contrive not to ponder that as much as we should.

The teaching of the Church cannot change in its essentials because human nature does not change and the relationship between God and man does not change. We are gravely misled if we think that because such things as liturgy can be changed, everything is up for grabs. It isn't. Despite all the turmoil of history and the vast changes wrought by learning and technology, the Ten Commandments have not been superseded, cannot be, will never be. We live under a law that we cannot change.

The whole tendency of our time is to interpret the Church's teachings leniently, to grant ourselves ever more indulgences and exemptions. The Church is daily rebuked for not surrendering totally to the spirit of the age. Reading the words of Jesus can therefore come as quite a shock. C. S. Lewis noted the modern misconception that Jesus "preached a kindly and simple religion," which St. Paul corrupted "into a cruel and complicated religion." In fact, Lewis added, such warrant as we have for hoping that all will be saved come from St. Paul, while "all the most terrifying texts come from the mouth of Our Lord."

We hear it said that belief in an after-life is wishful thinking. And there are many who really would like to believe that death is not the end. But I think there are many others who do not want to contemplate the scary possibilities inherent in a minute and, yes, a judgmental review of our lives. So they dismiss that possibility out of hand. Maybe that is the true wishful thinking of our time?

Fear of God is not the ideal relationship with the Creator, I know. But as the psalmist said, it is a beginning. It is something to build on.

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