Msgr. Michael K. Magee

In a discussion last year among a very spanerse group of Catholics, I was speaking with admiration for the seminarians I see nowadays: their following of a vocation unsupported by contemporary culture and their strong Catholic faith despite the challenges all around them.

Someone paraphrased my statement by saying, “So Monsignor, you think they’re real warriors?” Sensing that he was referring to their readiness to embark on a peaceful mission with the same valor as some of their contemporaries who have gone courageously into another kind of battle, I answered, “Yes! I do think they are.”

But another member of the group seemed very upset by this characterization, grimacing in pain as she repeated the word in a questioning tone of voice: “Warriors?!”

Even so, if we look at the new translation of the Roman Missal expected to be put into use next year, we will see that the celebration of Mass on Ash Wednesday begins with just the same kind of language:

Grant us, Lord, to begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service
that, as we fight against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with the weapons of self restraint.

Someone might express discomfort at the warlike tone of that prayer as well, but in fact, it could have been made even more so; the Latin word translated here as “service” is militiae.

Why would the Church still give us such language for prayer? Certainly it is right that war is detested more today than ever before, especially because its horrors have been displayed on television. No sane person thinks today of war between nations as good. Yet the prayer, newly translated, suggests that there really is a uniquely good kind of battle, one that sums up the meaning of Lent and of the whole Christian life.

The language of the ancient prayer is not a call to the violence of earthly war. But it is a call to the valor of selfless warriors, a reminder that we are indeed engaged in a mortal duel with evil that confronts us from three different sources: from those currents of thought and action in the world that would diminish our dignity and that of others; from those habits of our own hearts that threaten to put us in alliance with such forces; and from the devil, a real being who really does seek to undermine our allegiance to God.

Fought with the traditional weapons of prayer, almsgiving and fasting, this is the one and only battle into which we human beings can throw ourselves completely without fear of doing damage to our human dignity or that of our brothers and sisters; the battle to rid ourselves of every movement of soul that is not in league with the Lord. The only casualties in this war are egocentrism and those forces in our world that would make human beings less than they are called to be.

St. Paul reminds us of both the beginning and the goal of this battle: “Put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground … clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the Gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:13-15).

Msgr. Michael K. Magee is the chair of the Department of Systematic Theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.