Maurice Baring, a member of the well-known banking family, and a convert to Catholicism, was in Russia at the height of the Bolshevik revolution. He relates an incident that occurred in a Russian village when a band of atheists (calling themselves 'Bezbozhniks' i.e. 'Without God-ites'), arrived, mocking the faith of the peasants. The leader of the Bezbozhniks addressed a gathering of the villagers and taking a sacred icon said: "I will spit on this icon and you will see whether fire comes down from heaven to kill me, or not.” He then spat on the icon and said to the peasants: “You see God hasn't killed me.” “No,” said the peasants, "but we will." And they did.
Sacrilege means the profanation of something or somebody or some place set aside for the worship, glory and service of God.
The retribution for the sacrilege of the Bezbozhnik was swift in the instance recounted by Maurice Baring. But mention sacrilege these days, and you will be rewarded with a pitying glance, an uplifted eye on a dismissive wave of the hand. Sacrilege is as unfashionable a concept for many of our contemporaries as is the existence of the God whose majesty it offends.
We rightly deplore the use of lead in petrol, and fear carbon monoxide poisoning. The' 'green-house' effect is as lamented as the use of asbestos or the pollution of the sea by oil leakages. Yet sacrilege is more lethal, for it can kill the soul, not just the body; and it offends not simply nature, but the God of nature.
Sacrilege, whether acknowledged or not, is no longer the shocking things it was for our Catholic ancestors. It has become part of the air that we "liberated" moderns breathe; the staple diet of the dead or dying hearts of materialistic western societies, of big business, especially the publishing business, of many "educators", of politics, and of the entertainment industry, especially of the unrelenting, if ephemeral, media.
As young religious, I and my contemporaries used to be warned: sanctt sancte tractanda sunt, i.e. holy things must be treated holily. This needs repeating in a world grown used to hearing God's name, and the names of his saints, not just taken 'in vain' (i.e. lightly) but often coupled with obscenities and blasphemies.
The French Revolutionaries, Napoleon and successive atheistic governments in France helped make sacrilege fashionable, as did the Nazis, the Fascists, and the Communists in Russia, Eastern Europe, China, Spain and Mexico. But they were not the first; and recent history in the Middle East and Balkans, to say nothing of Rwanda, a number of Latin American countries, and East Timor, has shown that they are by no means the last.
Sacrilege in modern times is multi-faceted. Catholic faith and practice, morality and tradition are not only questioned, they are sacrilegiously derided and dismissed as irrelevant, or ridiculed by TV producers, "journalists", radio commentators, pop or movie stars, or politicians, many of whom arrogate to themselves prerogatives that properly belong to the Church, to bishops and priests and others legitimately authorised to teach or comment on matters of faith and morals.
Abuse of the Catholic Church is, sadly, also not uncommon among many Protestant sects whose vehement denunciation of the Mass, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Sacraments, the authority of the Pope and of the Church, even holy water and the sign of the Cross, constitutes sacrilege.