Chaplain’s Conference: The Iron Curtain and Why We Worship

Chaplain’s Conference
Sacred Heart Catholic High School
Thursday, January 25, 2018


iron curtain

In the years surrounding and following World War II, an Iron Curtain descended across the continent of Europe, dividing the East from the West. Countries to the West of the Iron Curtain enjoyed more freedom, while countries to the East of the Iron Curtain found themselves under the influence of the Soviet Union and communism.

These countries, including Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, were gradually occupied one after another by the Soviet Army. As the Soviets invaded, they lowered the Iron Curtain, which served to keep information and the influence of the outside world out and to keep people who might flee to freedom in the West in.  These countries were referred to as being “behind the Iron Curtain.”  The Iron Curtain allowed war crimes to be committed without being observed and controlled by the outside world.

The Iron Curtain got its name from the iron curtain that was common in the theaters of the day. Events behind the theater curtain were not visible to the audience and were cut off from outside observation.

The term became popular in 1946, just a year after World War II ended, when Winston Churchill, the British Prime minister, delivered his famous “Iron Curtain Speech”, in which he stated the following:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe, Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest, and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but also to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.[1]

To say that life behind the Iron Curtain for Christians was hard is an understatement. Totalitarian regimes cannot and do not tolerate the free expression of religion.  The alarm was sounded because churches had organized their own youth retreats and summer camps.  Soviet leaders marched into the forest and brought children home.  By the late 1940’s, Christian charities and schools were closed down and large numbers of priests were arrested.[2]

 Karol Woityla was a young man who grew up behind the Iron Curtain during this time. In 1978, he was elected Pope and took the name John Paul II.  That year, he wrote a letter to priests, in which he tells of a custom that developed in many places behind the Iron Curtain, where persecution left no priests.

The custom is this:

People would go to an abandoned church, or if one no longer existed, to a cemetery where a priest was buried. They would take a stole, the garment worn by a priest when he celebrates the sacraments, when he acts in the person of Jesus Christ, and they would place it on the altar or on the priest’s tombstone, and together they would recite the prayers of the Mass.  At the place where the consecration would occur, a deep silence would ensue, which was sometimes interrupted by weeping.[3]

My brothers and sisters, think how much these people yearned to hear the words of consecration that only a priest could utter! Think of how much their hearts ached to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord.  Think of how much they longed to hear someone tell them, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Here in the United States, here in East Grand Forks, we live with incredible freedoms. Yet as the book of Proverbs says: “Times of adversity make one forget times of prosperity; and times of prosperity make one forget times of adversity.”  In other words, sometimes we forget how good we have it.

Those who lived behind the Iron Curtain risked their lives to offer worship to God, and they longed to celebrate a Mass which they could not celebrate because they had no priest to offer the sacrifice.

What about us?

Can we recover this sense of the sacred, this sense of the gift of what we have offered to us here every week?

What is my attitude toward community prayer, in particular our High School Masses and our Thursday celebrations of the Liturgy of the Hours?

You may say: “It’s boring.  I don’t like to sing.  I don’t like praying in a group.  I don’t get anything out of it.”

I say: “Worship is not about what you get out of it. It’s about what you put into it.”

Cain and Abel were to first two sons of Adam and Eve. Abel was a shepherd and Cain was a farmer who worked the soil.  Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil, while Abel, for his part, brought one of the best firstlings of his flock.  God was pleased with Abel’s sacrifice because he brought his best.  He gave an offering out of a grateful heart.  God was displeased with Cain’s offering because he didn’t give his best – he gave simply because he was supposed to give something.  His heart wasn’t in it.  Abel gave his best out of love and his sacrifice cost him something, while Cain held back his best out of selfishness, and it didn’t cost him anything.

What about us?

When we gather to worship together, we offer neither a lamb nor crops. We offer our hearts.  Each of us brings our heart.

How do you offer your heart? Do you offer the best of what you have, like Abel?  Or do you hold back, like Cain?

God desires one thing: our hearts.

A grateful heart is the one thing that we can offer the Creator that he does not possess already. A grateful heart is the best that we can offer to God for his blessings to us.

True worship is not about me.  It is about God.  True worship is defined by the priority we place on who God is in our lives.

That’s good news.

It means that when I worship, when I choose to sing, when I choose to say the responses loudly and with boldness, even when I don’t feel like it, especially when I don’t feel like it, it is then that I offer God my best worship.

It means I can offer God my best:
even at the absurd hour of 7:15 in the morning,
even when the singing is off-key,
even if I’m tired and cranky – perhaps especially when I’m tired and cranky because it is then when I am truly offering a sacrifice of praise.

I said it at the beginning of the school year and I will say it again:
Just “being here” while prayer is going on, is not prayer. It is a waste of your time.  Prayer requires something of us – it requires us to invest our hearts.

Two weeks ago, in my homily at mass, I spoke of paralyzed hearts. I also spoke of how the Holy Spirit wants to use you to transform our experience of worship.  He will work through you if you allow him to.  Your personal worship has an impact on the worship of the community.

Worship is not about what you get out of it. It’s about what you put into it.
But God will not be outdone in generosity.
When you put yourself into it, it’s then that you begin to get something out of it.
When you put yourself into it, it’s then that we all begin to get something out of it.

Last week, during the Liturgy of the Hours, we saw the beginning of this transformation, as a group of young men banded together and offered their best worship to God. They led the charge.  They lifted their voices.  They sang out.  They spoke boldly.  They allowed the Holy Spirit to work through them, and it began to transform our community’s experience of worship.

I invite you to join them. Join us.  Lift up your hearts.  Raise your voices and speak out loudly.  Let’s mean the words that we say.  Let’s offer God a worthy sacrifice of praise, a sacrifice that those who gathered in that cemetery behind the Iron Curtain so many years ago risked their lives to offer.

From the depths of our hearts, let us ask God’s blessing upon us as we begin anew. Let us ask his blessing upon us through the intercession of our Blessed Mother,

Our Blessed Mother who gave her whole heart to God with her “yes” to the angel’s message,
Our Blessed Mother who was radically open to the Holy Spirit and offered perfect worship to God…
that Blessed Lady upon whom we cast all of our cares:

Hail Mary…


[1] http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences-and-law/political-science-and-government/military-affairs-nonnaval/iron-curtain

[2] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2013/01/religion-behind-the-iron-curtain/

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, Teaching and Learning the Love of God: Being a Priest Today, p. 39

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