To repeat: How many of us, who sincerely want to do good work for the Lord, spend more time in the office than in the sanctuary? Too many of us who set out to do the work of the Lord would dare not miss a meeting, a conference or a pledge drive, but we let prayer slip away from us too easily (To be sure, I am a work in progress in this regard). We forget that it is not what we do or say that is the most important thing. Rather, it is what God does with what we do or say that makes the difference. Christ said, “Without me you can do nothing.” And Psalm 127 says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”
The question then becomes: Are we building in vain? Are we, like the early Christians and St. John Vianney, giving prayer its due? For them, designated times of prayer throughout the day were of the highest priority; more important than any administrative duty. It is what attracted souls to Christ. As Pope Pius XII said in reference to St. John Vianney, “A man who is filled with Christ will not find it hard to discover ways and means of bringing others to Christ."
The way ancient pagan civilization was saved, with all of its cruelty and barbarity, is the same way our post-Christian civilization will be saved. After the martyrs did their part by sanctifying the European and Mediterranean soil with their blood, the monastics (i.e. religious monks and nuns) built upon that foundation through the habit of prayer and penance. They gave us the template of spiritual and evangelistic success.
The early Christians -- the ones who called down God's grace for so many conversions -- were not half as administrative as we are, but they got things done! As Sister Lucia, a Fatima seer, once wrote: We receive more light, more strength, more grace and virtue than you could ever achieve by reading many books, or by great studies. She then added that with a real commitment to prayer we will accomplish a lot in a short period of time.
As for St. John Vianney, he did daily meditations, he visited the Blessed Sacrament, he recited the Rosary, and carefully examined his conscience. But like the early Christians, he did more. He offered spiritual sacrifices for sinners. With St. Paul, he exhorted his parishioners to do the following: “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.” St. John Vianney also used to say, "The works of penance abound in such delights and joys that once they have been tasted, nothing will ever again root them out of the soul.... Only the first steps are difficult for those who eagerly choose this path."
The Cure' of Ars knew that making spiritual sacrifices on behalf of others was essential. One day, a priest had inquired as to why tens of thousands of pilgrims visited Ars, France; this, just to see the holy priest. In response, St. John Vianney reminded him: “You have preached, you have prayed, but have you fasted? Have you taken the discipline? Have you slept on the floor? So long as you have done none of these things, you have no right to complain.”
Keep in mind that the Catholic parish in Ars was not well attended at all for the first ten years after St. John Vianney arrived. But eventually, what he did to increase Mass attendance worked! It is a recipe for success. In fact, about one hundred years later, the "cure" to low Mass attendance was once again confirmed. As Jesus reminded St. Faustina, “You will save more souls through prayer and suffering than will a missionary through his teachings and sermons alone.”
Assisting at Mass presupposes an active, living relationship with Christ. Without talking to Jesus on a daily basis, without learning more about Jesus through the reading of Scripture on a daily basis and without doing one's best to observe his precepts on a daily basis, the Mass is just another ritual. It's hardly worth getting up for on Sunday mornings. You see, just as a family meal in the home presupposes a pre-existing relationship among family members, so too does the Sacred Meal at the altar presuppose a communion with Christ and his Church. But to ignite the flame of faith -- to stoke the fire of love for our Lord in the hearts of people -- it is absolutely essential "workers in the vineyard" revisit what has proven to work in the past. Not only did St. John Vianney and the early Christians point out the cure to spiritual apathy, the applied it! And, as history reveals, the results were impressive.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.