Category Archives: February

Feb 21 – St Peter Damian, OSB, (1007-1072), Doctor of the Church, Great Catholic Reformer

stpeterdamian

St Peter Damian was one of the forerunners of the Gregorian Revolution/reformation in the Church of the late 11th century, a revolution marked by the effort to centralize Church governance, establish a distinction between lay and clerical states, and proper revulsion against sexual vice, especially within the clergy and the general reform of the clergy.  Dante placed St Peter Damian in one of the highest circles of his Divine Comedy’s Paradiso.

St. Peter Damian must be numbered among the greatest of the Church’s reformers in the Middle Ages, yes, even among the truly extraordinary persons of all times. In Damian the scholar, we admire wealth of wisdom: in Damian the preacher of God’s word, apostolic zeal; in Damian the monk, austerity and self-denial; in Damian the priest, piety and zeal for souls; in Damian the cardinal, loyalty and submission to the Holy See together with generous enthusiasm and devotion for the good of Mother Church. He was a personal friend of Pope St Gregory VII.  In his lifetime, he served seven Popes, there were sixteen during his lifetime.

St Peter Damian was a monk, a lover of solitude, and at the same time a fearless man of the Church, committed personally to the task of reform, initiated by the Popes of the time. He was born in Ravenna in 1007, into a noble family but in impoverished circumstances.  The family was large, Peter was the youngest, and it was reported Peter’s mother was overwhelmed by the care of so many children such that she was not an affectionate or dutiful mother.

Peter had a difficult childhood, he lost both parents at an early age, as well. Put in the care of a brother who mistreated him, Peter’s brother used him more as a slave than loved him as a sibling.  Peter never forgot his poverty and was always kind to the poor he encountered throughout his life thereafter.  Another brother, Damian, the eldest, was a priest in the city of Ravenna and took pity on his younger sibling and took him in.  Damian could see Peter’s intellectual gifts and sent him to be educated at Parma and Faenza.  Peter was so grateful he took his brother Damian’s name.

The Cross was the Christian mystery that was to fascinate Peter Damian more than all the others. “Those who do not love the Cross of Christ do not love Christ”, he said (Sermo XVIII, 11, p. 117); and he described himself as “Petrus crucis Christi servorum famulus Peter, servant of the servants of the Cross of Christ” (Ep, 9, 1). Peter Damian addressed the most beautiful prayers to the Cross in which he reveals a vision of this mystery which has cosmic dimensions for it embraces the entire history of salvation: “O Blessed Cross”, he exclaimed, “You are venerated, preached and honored by the faith of the Patriarchs, the predictions of the Prophets, the senate that judges the Apostles, the victorious army of Martyrs and the throngs of all the Saints” (Sermo XLVII, 14, p. 304). The example of St Peter Damian should always spur us, too, always to look to the Cross as to the supreme act of God’s love for humankind.  St Peter Damian also had a very special devotion to the Blessed Mother.

However, the ideal image of “Holy Church” illustrated by Peter Damian does not correspond as he knew well to the reality of his time. The eleventh century was rife with corruption within the Church, especially among its clergy.  Peter wrote Liber Gomorrhianus (Book of Gomorrah), which described the vices of priests, including sexual sins, offenses against their vows of celibacy including sodomy, and mainly in their concern with worldly matters, with money, and the evil of simony, the buying and selling of church offices.

For this reason he did not fear to denounce the state of corruption that existed in the monasteries and among the clergy.  The practice of the conferral by the lay authorities of ecclesiastical offices was common, such that various Bishops and Abbots were behaving as the rulers of their subjects rather than as pastors of souls. Their moral life frequently left much to be desired. For this reason, in 1057 Peter Damian left his monastery with great reluctance and sorrow and accepted, if unwillingly, his appointment as Cardinal Bishop of Ostia. So it was that he entered fully into collaboration with the Popes in the difficult task of Church reform. He saw that to make his own contribution of helping in the work of the Church’s renewal contemplation did not suffice. He thus relinquished the beauty of the hermitage and courageously undertook numerous journeys and missions.

Because of his love for monastic life, 10 years later, in 1067, he obtained permission to return to Fonte Avellana and resigned from the Diocese of Ostia. However, the tranquility he had longed for did not last long: two years later, he was sent to Frankfurt in an endeavor to prevent the divorce of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV from his wife Bertha.

Henry IV was eventually excommunicated for other offenses, entanglements, and interferences in Church affairs, including conspiring and executing a plot to the kidnap and imprison the Pope.  He famously stood in the snow at Canossa for three days, 25-27 January 1077, wearing no shoes, taking no food or drink, wearing a hair shirt, The Walk of Canossa as it is called, as penance imploring that his excommunication by Pope St Gregory VII be lifted.  While meant as remedy to make clear the error of ways, excommunication absolves, it gets technical, the Christian community from Gospel obligations towards the excommunicated, including fealty to a sovereign.  Once having known the love of Christ in the bosom of the Church and having rejected it, Christian duty no longer applies towards the excommunicated.  Repent or lose your crown was the message.  The expression “going to Canossa/nach Canossa gehen”, as in doing penance of some type for some wrong, is still contemporary in Europe.

After another mission, on the journey home to his hermitage, an unexpected illness obliged St Peter Damian to stop at the Benedictine Monastery of Santa Maria Vecchia Fuori Porta in Faenza, where he died in the night between 22 and 23 February 1072.

saint-peter-damian

“Do not let your weakness make you impatient.” -St. Peter Damian

Ercole_de'_Roberti_007

-Saint Peter Damian (far right), depicted with Saints Augustine, Anne, and Elizabeth, by Ercole de’ Roberti (ca 1451–1496)

Prayer of St Peter Damian:

“Have mercy, Lord, on all my friends and relatives, on all my benefactors, on all who pray to You for me, and on all who have asked me to pray for them. Give them the spirit of fruitful penance; mortify them in all vices, and make them flower in all your virtues.  Amen.”

Love,
Matthew

Feb 6 – St Dorothy of Caesarea, (d. 311 AD), Virgin & Martyr

Francisco_de_Zurbarán_038

-Santa Dorotea, by Francisco de Zurbaran, 1648, oil on canvas, 180.2 x 101.5 cm, $3-4M US, Sotheby’s, 1/28/2010, private collection.

Even though her feast day was removed from the revised Roman calendar and her cultus suppressed in 1969 by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, nevertheless, I love the story of St. Dorothy:  the triumph of love over hate, the lesson of what has truest and permanent value, and the profound cost embracing the name Christian implies if dared lived fully and faithfully.  I hope you find it worthwhile, too.

Saint Dorothy, virgin and martyr, was a Christian who lived in the 4th century A.D. in Caesarea of Cappadocia, now modern day Turkey. The cult of St Dorothy celebrates her for her angelic virtue. Her parents are believed to have been martyred before her in the Diocletian persecution.

She was ordered summoned before the governor of the region, Sapricius.  She explained that the God she adored was majestic — above all emperors, who were mortal, and their gods, none of whom created either heaven or earth. She was stretched upon the rack, and offered clemency, favors, and honors if she would consent to sacrifice to idols, or death if she refused. And her torturers waited for her reply.

She asked why they delayed to torture her; they were expecting she might give in out of fright. She said to them, “Do what you have to do, that I may see the One for Whose love I fear neither death nor torments, Jesus Christ.”

She was asked, “Where is this Christ?” and she replied: “As Almighty, He is everywhere; but for weak human reason we say that the Son of God has ascended into heaven, to be seated at the right hand of the Almighty Father. It is He who invites us to the garden of His delights, where at all times the trees are covered with fruits, the lilies are perpetually white, the roses ever in their freshness. If you believe me, you too will search for the true liberty, and will labor to earn entry into the garden of God’s delights.” She was then placed in the custody of two women who had fallen away from the faith, in the
hope that they might pervert her; but the fire of her own heart rekindled the flame in theirs, and she led them back to Christ.

When she was set once more on the rack, Sapricius himself was amazed at the heavenly expression on her face, and asked her the cause of her joy. “Because,” she said, “I have brought back two souls to Christ, and because I shall soon be in heaven rejoicing with the Angels.” Her joy grew as she was smacked and buffeted in the face and her sides were burned with plates of red-hot iron. “Blessed art
Thou,” she cried, when she was sentenced to be beheaded, “Blessed art Thou, O Lover of souls, who call me to paradise, and invite me to Thy nuptial chamber!”

Saint Dorothy suffered in mid-winter when very little grows and local fresh produce is absent.  On the road to her execution, a lawyer named Theophilus, who had grown accustomed to cursing and persecuting the Christians, asked her, in mockery, “Bride of Christ, send me some apples or roses from the garden of your Spouse you speak of, this Jesus!”

The Saint promised to grant his request. Just before she died, a little child stood by her side bearing three apples and three roses. She told him to take them to Theophilus, and to tell him it was the present he sought from the garden of her Spouse.  Saint Dorothy was beheaded February 6, 311 A.D.

Theophilus was still making merry over his challenge to her, when the child entered his room. He recognized that the fruit and flowers were of no earthly growth, and that the child was an angel in disguise. He was converted to the faith, and then shared in the martyrdom of Saint Dorothy.

72551

Prayer to St Dorothy:

Good St Dorothy, by the radiance of your holy life, you blessed your persecutors and forgave your enemies, just as Jesus told us to do.  You eloquently gave witness, by your suffering, to a power greater than that of fear of death and torture; your love for Him.

Holy St Dorothy, we beseech you, ask that same Lord of Life, to give us a fraction of your grace and courage; that we may joyfully endure any minor inconveniences or small embarrassments living a faithful witness in our lives to Him may mean, never denying Him.

Blessed St Dorothy, you did draw the two sisters who were weak in faith back into the Eternal Light of the Faith; and sent roses and apples from Paradise to Theophilus. Always intercede for us, that we may grow more daily fervent in our love for Him.

O, St Dorothy, as a fellow contestant for the faith with Theophilus, you both were counted worthy of the divine glory of martyrdom. Ask your Spouse that we, who praise you for your steadfast witness, may give similar witness in our lives and thereby receive the forgiveness of our sins.

Glorious St Dorothy, even though once mistaken for the gardener of the Tomb by the Magdelene, through your intercession, may the Risen One grant us a share of your joy in His Garden of Eternal Freshness.  May we be counted worthy to spend eternity with Him, Who is the Eternal Gardener of our souls.   Amen.

Love,
Matthew

Feb 5 – St Agatha (d. 251 AD), Martyr, Patroness of Rape Victims & Breast Cancer Sufferers

Lanfranco,_Giovanni_-_St_Peter_Healing_St_Agatha_-_c._1614

Saint Peter Healing Agatha, by the Caravaggio-follower Giovanni Lanfranco, ca 1614

Born in Catania, Sicily, in the early third century, young, beautiful and rich, Agatha wanted to live a life consecrated to God.

When the Roman Emperor announce edicts against the Christians, the magistrate Quinctianus tried to profit from Agatha’s sanctity; he planned to blackmail her into sex in exchange for not charging her.

When she refused his offer, he handed her over to a brothel.  After she had suffered a month of sexual assault and humiliation in the brothel and again rejected Quinctianus’ advances, she was beaten, imprisoned, tortured, her breasts were crushed and cut off.

She told her torturer, “Cruel man, have you forgotten your mother and the breast that nourished you, that you dare mutilate me this way?”

Imprisoned further, then rolled on live coals, she was near death when an earthquake struck.  In the destruction, the magistrate’s friend was crushed, and the magistrate fled.  Agatha thanked God for an end to her pain, and died in 251 AD.

St Agatha is the patron saint of rape victims and of those who suffer with breast cancer.

Prayer to St Agatha

Saint Agatha, you suffered sexual assault, indignity, and torture because of your faith.  Help heal all those who are survivors of sexual assault and protect those women who are in danger;  give strength also to all women and their families who suffer the scourge of breast cancer.  Amen.

Giovanni_Battista_Tiepolo_-_The_Martyrdom_of_St_Agatha_-_WGA22352

-The martyrdom of Saint Agatha,Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1750, oil on canvas, 184 x 131 cm, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany

Sebastiano_del_Piombo_001

-The Martyrdom of Agatha, by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519, Palazzo Pitti, oil on panel, 127 × 178 cm, commissioned by Ercole Ragone to celebrate his elevation to the cardinalate; his titular church was Sant’Agata dei Goti.

“Jesus Christ, Lord of all things! You see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am – you alone. I am your sheep; make me worthy to overcome the devil.” – Saint Agatha

“Lord, my creator, you have protected me since I was in the cradle. You have taken me from the love of the world and given me patience to suffer. Now receive my spirit.” – Saint Agatha

“My fellow Christians, our annual celebration of a martyr‘s feast has brought us together. Agatha achieved renown in the early Church for her noble victory. For her, Christ’s death was recent, his blood was still moist. Her robe is the mark of her faithful witness to Christ. Agatha, the name of our saint, means “good.” She was truly good, for she lived as a child of God. Agatha, her goodness coincides with her name and her way of life. She won a good name by her noble deeds, and by her name she points to the nobility of those deeds. Agatha, her mere name wins all men over to her company. She teaches them by her example to hasten with her to the true Good, God alone.” – from a homily on Saint Agatha by Saint Methodius of Sicily

Love,
Matthew

Feb 3 – St Ansgar, (801-865 AD), Apostle to Scandinavia

Erzbischof_Ansgar_01_KMJ

The “apostle of the north” (Scandinavia) had enough frustrations to become a saint—and he did. He became a Benedictine at Corbie, France, where he had been educated. Three years later, when the king of Denmark became a convert, Ansgar went to that country for three years of missionary work, without noticeable success.

Sweden asked for Christian missionaries, and he went there, suffering capture by pirates and other hardships on the way. Less than two years later he was recalled, to become abbot of New Corbie (Corvey) and bishop of Hamburg. The pope made him legate for the Scandinavian missions. Funds for the northern apostolate stopped with Emperor Louis’s death. After 13 years’ work in Hamburg, Ansgar saw it burned to the ground by invading Northmen; Sweden and Denmark returned to paganism.

He directed new apostolic activities in the North, traveling to Denmark and being instrumental in the conversion of another king. By the strange device of casting lots, the king of Sweden allowed the Christian missionaries to return.

Ansgar’s biographers remark that he was an extraordinary preacher, a humble and ascetical priest. He was devoted to the poor and the sick, imitating the Lord in washing their feet and waiting on them at table. He died peacefully at Bremen, Germany, without achieving his wish to be a martyr.

Sweden became pagan again after his death, and remained so until the coming of missionaries two centuries later.

History records what people do, rather than what they are. Yet the courage and perseverance of men and women like Ansgar can only come from a solid base of union with the original courageous and persevering Missionary. Ansgar’s life is another reminder that God writes straight with crooked lines. Christ takes care of the effects of the apostolate in his own way; he is first concerned about the purity of the apostles themselves.

Bendixen_Ansgar

st_ansgar2

Love,
Matthew

Feb 6 – St Paul Miki, SJ, (1562-1597) & Companions, Martyrs of Nagasaki

saint_paul_miki_by_tesm-d4pbn9o

The cross bears the Kanji of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

The left spear bears the ancient Greek abbreviations for
“Iesus Christos Nika!” which means “Jesus Christ Conquers” or “Jesus Christ, victor!”

The right spear bears the line from the cross of St. Benedict, which reads “Crux Sacra Sit Mihi Lux” which means “May the holy cross be my light!”

During 1593, Franciscan missionaries came to Japan from the Philippines by order of Spain’s King Philip II. These new arrivals gave themselves zealously to the work of charity and evangelism, but their presence disturbed a delicate situation between the Church and Japanese authorities.

Suspicion against Catholic missionaries grew when a Spanish ship was seized off the Japanese coast and found to be carrying artillery. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a powerful imperial minister, responded by sentencing 26 Catholics to death.

Nagasaki, Japan, is familiar to Americans as the city on which the second atomic bomb was dropped, killing hundreds of thousands. Three and a half centuries before, 26 martyrs of Japan were crucified on a hill, now known as the Holy Mountain, overlooking Nagasaki.

Today the Church commemorates twenty-six martyrs, three Jesuits
and six Franciscans, crucified in Nagasaki, Japan, on February 5, 1597. Most were Japanese and most were laypersons and they were among the first martyrs of a young Church. The names of the martyrs are:

The Franciscans

Fathers Peter Baptist, Martin of the Ascension, Francis Blanco; Seminarian Philip of Jesus; Brothers Gonsalvo Garzia, Francis of St Michael with seventeen native Franciscan Tertiaries

The Jesuits

Seminarians Paul Miki, John Goto, and Brother James Kisai

Among them were priests, brothers and laymen, Franciscans, Jesuits and members of the Secular Franciscan Order; there were catechists, doctors, simple artisans and servants, old men and innocent children—all united in a common faith and love for Jesus and His Church.

Paul Miki was born into a rich family. His father was an important military leader.  He was educated by Jesuits in Azuchi and Takatsuki. He joined the Society of Jesus and preached the gospel for his fellow citizens. The Japanese government feared Jesuit influences and persecuted them. Miki was jailed among others on the order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the national ruler, for preaching Christianity. They were imprisoned, then later marched through the snow to Nagasaki, so that their execution might serve as a deterrent to Nagasaki’s large Christian population. Paul Miki, SJ, and his fellow Christians were forced to walk 600 miles (≈966 kilometers) from Kyoto while singing “Te Deum” as a punishment for the community. Hung up on 26 crosses with chains and ropes, the Christians were lanced to death in front of a large crowd on Nishizaka Hill.

Brother Paul Miki, a Jesuit and a native of Japan, has become the best known among the martyrs of Japan. While hanging upon a cross Paul Miki preached to the people gathered for the execution: “The sentence of judgment says these men came to Japan from the Philippines, but I did not come from any other country. I am a true Japanese. The only reason for my being killed is that I have taught the doctrine of Christ. I certainly did teach the doctrine of Christ. I thank God it is for this reason I die. I believe that I am telling only the truth before I die. I know you believe me and I want to say to you all once again: Ask Christ to help you to become happy. I obey Christ. After Christ’s example I forgive my persecutors. I do not hate them. I ask God to have pity on all, and I hope my blood will fall on my fellow men as a fruitful rain.”

When missionaries returned to Japan in the 1860s, at first they found no trace of Christianity. But after establishing themselves they found that thousands of Christians lived around Nagasaki and that they had secretly preserved the faith. Beatified in 1627, the martyrs of Japan were finally canonized in 1862.

Exhibits at the Twenty-six Martyrs Museum and Monument (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twenty-Six_Martyrs_Museum_and_Monument) include “fumie” or treading images. Every year from 1629 to 1857, Nagasaki residents were forced to go through a ritual of stepping on bronze images of Christ or Mary to prove they were not Christians.

“Since Jesus, the Son of God, showed his love by laying down his life for us, no one has greater love than they who lay down their lives for Him and for their sisters and brothers (see 1 John 3:16; John 15:13).

Some Christians have been called from the beginning, and will always be called, to give this greatest testimony of love to everyone, especially to persecutors.

Martyrdom makes disciples like their Master, who willingly accepted death for the salvation of the world, and through it they are made like Him by the shedding of blood.

Therefore, the Church considers it the highest gift and as the supreme test of love. And while it is given to few, all, however, must be prepared to confess Christ before humanity and to follow Him along the way of the cross amid the persecutions which the Church never lacks” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 42, Austin Flannery translation).

Love,
Matthew

Feb 23 – St Polycarp (69 -155 AD), Bishop of Smyrna, Martyr

Polycarp-DVD-FINAL-r351

It is a Catholic tradition that when celebrating the Sacrament of Confirmation, whereby one becomes an adult in the Church and a “Soldier for Christ”, ready to lay one’s life down for the Faith, the old expression goes, one should take a new name, a saint’s name.  Taking a new name is ancient tradition signifying a new identity – kings, prophets, etc.  The idea is that that saint would be a guide and intercessor for the confirmand to strengthen them the rest of their life to live the Faith as faithfully as possible.  This is done more, hopefully still, for young people than for adults entering the Church, although I think the RCIA graduates would benefit just as much.

My parents had friends who made all of their children take the name “Polycarp” as their confirmation name.  Cruel joke some no doubt would say, and I am sure their children’s friends in catechism class had no mercy – so much for Christian virtue among Catholic youth.  Imagine each of these young people muttering “Polycarp” under their breath, as quietly as possible, each time their catechist asked them what name they would take, or the bishop asking, somewhat loudly, what name, or having to wear it on a paper sign around one’s neck – a scarlet letter, no doubt!  Such are the character builders of growing up Catholic!

Imagine being able to sit at the feet of the apostles and hear their stories of life with Jesus from their own lips. Imagine walking with those who had walked with Jesus, seen him, and touched him. That was what Polycarp was able to do as a disciple of Saint John the Evangelist.

But being part of the second generation of Church leaders had challenges that the first generation could not teach about. What did you do when those eyewitnesses were gone? How do you carry on the correct teachings of Jesus? How do you answer new questions that never came up before?

With the apostles gone, heresies sprang up pretending to be true teaching, persecution was strong, and controversies arose over how to celebrate liturgy that Jesus never laid down rules for.

Polycarp, as a holy man and bishop of Smyrna, found there was only one answer — to be true to the life of Jesus and imitate that life. Saint Ignatius of Antioch told Polycarp “your mind is grounded in God as on an immovable rock.”

When faced with heresy, he showed the “candid face” that Ignatius admired and that imitated Jesus’ response to the Pharisees.  Marcion, the leader of the Marcionites who followed a dualistic heresy – believing their were two gods, a wrathful god of the Hebrew Scriptures and a loving god of the New Testament, confronted Polycarp and demanded respect by saying, “Recognize us, Polycarp.” Polycarp responded, “I recognize you, yes, I recognize the son of Satan.”

On the other hand when faced with Christian disagreements he was all forgiveness and respect. One of the controversies of the time came over the celebration of Easter. The East, where Polycarp was from, celebrated the Passover as the Passion of Christ followed by a Eucharist on the following day. The West celebrated Easter on the Sunday of the week following Passover. When Polycarp went to Rome to discuss the difference with Pope Anicetus, they could not agree on this issue. But they found no difference in their Christian beliefs. And Anicetus asked Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist in his own papal chapel.

Polycarp faced persecution the way Christ did. His own church admired him for following the “gospel model” — not chasing after martyrdom as some did, particularly the Marcionites, but avoiding it until it was God’s will as Jesus did. They considered it “a sign of love to desire not to save oneself alone, but to save also all the Christian brothers and sisters.”

One day, during a bloody martyrdom when Christians were attacked by wild animals in the arena, the crowd became so mad that they demanded more blood by crying, “Down with the atheists; let Polycarp be found.” (They considered Christians “atheists” because they didn’t believe in their pantheon of gods.) Since Polycarp was not only known as a leader but as someone holy “even before his grey hair appeared”, this was a horrible demand.

Polycarp was calm but others persuaded him to leave the city and hide at a nearby farm. He spent his time in prayer for people he knew and for the Church. During his prayer he saw a vision of his pillow turned to fire and announced to his friends that the dream meant he would be burned alive.

As the search closed in, he moved to another farm, but the police discovered he was there by torturing two boys. He had a little warning since he was upstairs in the house but he decided to stay, saying, “God’s will be done.”

Then he went downstairs, talked to his captors and fed them a meal. All he asked of them was that they give him an hour to pray. He spent two hours praying for everyone he had every known and for the Church, “remembering all who had at any time come his way — small folk and great folk, distinguished and undistinguished, and the whole Catholic Church throughout the world.” Many of his captors started to wonder why they were arresting this holy, eighty-six-year-old bishop.

But that didn’t stop them from taking him into the arena on the Sabbath. As he entered the arena, the crowd roared like the animals they cheered. Those around Polycarp heard a voice from heaven above the crowd, “Be brave, Polycarp, and act like a man.”

The proconsul begged the eighty-six-year-old bishop to give in because of his age. “Say ‘Away with the atheists'” the proconsul urged. Polycarp calmly turned to the face the crowd, looked straight at them, and said, “Away with the atheists.” The proconsul continued to plead with him. When he asked Polycarp to swear by Caesar to save himself, Polycarp answered, “If you imagine that I will swear by Caesar, you do not know who I am. Let me tell you plainly, I am a Christian.” Finally, when all else failed the proconsul reminded Polycarp that he would be thrown to the wild animals unless he changed his mind. Polycarp answered, “Change of mind from better to worse is not a change allowed to us.”

Because of Polycarp’s lack of fear, the proconsul told him he would be burned alive but Polycarp knew that the fire that burned for an hour was better than eternal fire.

When he was tied up to be burned, Polycarp prayed, “Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of You, God of angels and powers, of the whole creation and of the whole race of the righteous who live in your sight, I bless you, for having made me worthy of this day and hour, I bless you, because I may have a part, along with the martyrs, in the chalice of your Christ, to resurrection in eternal life, resurrection both of soul and body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, among those who are in Your presence, as You have prepared and foretold and fulfilled, God Who is faithful and true. For this and for all benefits I praise You, I bless You, I glorify You, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through Whom be to You with Him and the Holy Spirit glory, now and for all the ages to come. Amen.”

The fire was lit as Polycarp said Amen and then the eyewitnesses who reported said they saw a miracle. The fire burst up in an arch around Polycarp, the flames surrounding him like sails, and instead of being burned he seemed to glow like bread baking, or gold being melted in a furnace. When the captors saw he wasn’t being burned, they stabbed him. The blood that flowed put the fire out.

The proconsul wouldn’t let the Christians have the body because he was afraid they would worship Polycarp. The witnesses reported this with scorn for the lack of understanding of Christian faith: “They did not know that we can never abandon the innocent Christ who suffered on behalf of sinners for the salvation of those in this world.” After the body was burned, they stole the bones in order to celebrate the memory of his martyrdom and prepare others for persecution. The date was about February 23, 155.

“Stand fast, therefore, in this conduct and follow the example of the Lord, ‘firm and unchangeable in faith, lovers of the brotherhood, loving each other, united in truth,’ helping each other with the mildness of the Lord, despising no man.” – Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians

Prayer:
Saint Polycarp, sometimes Christ seems so far away from us. Centuries have passed since He and the apostles walked on the earth. Help us to see that He is close to us always and that we can keep Him near by imitating His life as you did.  Amen

Love,
Matthew

Feb 18 – Blessed John of Fiesole, OP, (aka “Fra Angelico”) (1395-1455)

Annunciation
please click on image for a larger view
-Annunciazione, Madrid, Museo del Prado, 1430-1432

Having been a Dominican novice directly after college, I was introduced to Fra Angelico (“Brother of the Angels”) at an early age. He is one of my most favorite artists, as you may imagine. I asked for and received for my birthday one year a large coffee table book of his works. It is a treasured possession in my library.

The patron saint of Christian artists was born around 1400 in a village overlooking Florence. He took up painting as a young boy and studied under the watchful eye of a local painting master. He joined the Dominicans at about age 20, taking the name Fra Giovanni. He eventually came to be known as Fra Angelico, perhaps a tribute to his own angelic qualities or maybe the devotional tone of his works.

He continued to study painting and perfect his own techniques, which included broad-brush strokes, vivid colors and generous, lifelike figures. Michelangelo once said of Fra Angelico: “One has to believe that this good monk has visited paradise and been allowed to choose his models there.” Whatever his subject matter, Fra Angelico sought to generate feelings of religious devotion in response to his paintings. Among his most famous works are the Annunciation and Descent from the Cross as well as frescoes in the monastery of San Marco in Florence.

He also served in leadership positions within the Dominican Order. At one point Pope Eugenius approached him about serving as archbishop of Florence. Fra Angelico declined, preferring a simpler life. He died in 1455.

Fra Angelico is one of the few candidates for beatification and canonization who have had their artwork examined for orthodoxy and sanctity by Vatican committees charged with verifying such things, as opposed to their writings. It is averred Fra Angelico never handled a brush without fervent prayer and wept when he painted the Crucifixion.

Pope John Paul II beatified Fra Angelico on October 3, 1982 and in 1984 declared him patron of Catholic artists. Angelico
was reported to say “He who does Christ’s work must stay with Christ always”. This motto earned him the epithet “Blessed Angelico”, because of the perfect integrity of his life and the almost divine beauty of the images he painted, to a superlative extent those of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Fra_Angelico_Final_Judgement

please click image for a larger view

The Day of Judgment – (n.b. notice the saved on Christ’s right, your left, seated as Final Judge in Glory – His angels and saints surrounding Him, right dancing with angels, and the New Jerusalem (Heaven) on the hilltop in the background; and the damned on His left being taken into Hell.  Notice the opened and empty graves down the middle of the scene.)

Worldwide press coverage reported in November 2006 that two missing masterpieces by Fra Angelico had turned up, having hung in the spare room of the late Jean Preston, in her “modest terrace house” in Oxford, England. Her father had bought them for £100 each in 1965 then bequeathed them to her when he died in
1974.

Jean had been consulted by their then owner in her capacity as an expert medievalist. She recognized them as being high quality Florentine Renaissance, but it never occurred to anyone, even all the dealers she approached on behalf of the owner, that they could possibly be by Fra Angelico. They were finally identified in 2005 by Michael Liversidge of Bristol University.

There was almost no demand at all for medieval art during the 1960s and no dealers showed any interest, so her father bought them almost as an afterthought along with some manuscripts. The paintings are two of eight side panels of a large altarpiece painted in 1439 for Fra Angelico’s monastery at San Marco, but split up by Napoleon’s army 200 years ago. While the centre section is still at the monastery, the other six small panels are in German and US museums. These two panels were presumed lost forever. The Italian Government had hoped to purchase them but they were outbid at auction on 20 April 2007 by a private collector for £1.7M.

Even if we were illiterate and lived in the Middle Ages, as most people of that time were, we would know the tradition about praying to the Virgin before her image, so the good (Beato) Fra has still helped us raise our mind to God through his favorite subject of the Annunciation.

Medieval devotion (even late medieval and early Renaissance–circa Fra Angelico) to the Virgin was extreme. It really was “to Jesus, through Mary” and often “only through Mary.” God fills us with awe to such an extent that we cannot but tremble in His presence, but the Virgin was a simple peasant woman – comprehensible, appealing and approachable to a wider audience of the time. She was and is the door to salvation for the bad, the stupid, the concupiscent, the ignorant, and the unworthy. Popular literature of the Middle Ages is replete with stories of how the Virgin saves everyone who asks, leading them to her Son. Fra Angelico’s Annunciations are a real reminder of that: not just a reminder to ask, but an opportunity to do so.

Medieval art tends to be performative—it is intended to be actually efficacious for the obtaining of grace. Attempting to appreciate Medieval merely passively or as a simple visual aesthetic would be to underestimate it and misunderstand, under-appreciate it in the extreme.  It is not just a picture or a reminder to pray—it is a prayer, and you pray it by looking and participating in it. The intent of medieval artists and their expectation of their audience was the art, whether a painting, a sculpture or a medieval morality play, is a sacramental, and it really does help save your soul.

Fra_Angelico_Deposition_of_Christ

please click on the image for a larger view

Deposition from the Cross, Fra Angelico, 1432–1434, Tempera on panel, 176 cm × 185 cm (69 in × 73 in), National Museum of San Marco, Florence.

Love,
Matthew

Feb 15 – St Claude de la Colombiere, SJ, (1641-1682), Apostle of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus

Claude de la Colombiere, S.J and St. Margaret Mary

Many of you know of the McCormick family’s, and, therefore, especially my, special devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.  At dinner, after Grace, we say “O, Sacred Heart of Jesus, we place our trust in Thee!”

Claude de la Colombiere, SJ, descended of French nobility, third child of the notary Bertrand La Colombière and Margaret Coindat, was born on 2nd February 1641 at St. Symphorien d’Ozon in the Dauphine, southeastern France. After the family moved to Vienne, Claude began his early education there, completing his studies in rhetoric and philosophy in Lyon.

It was during this period that Claude first sensed his vocation to the religious life in the Society of Jesus. We know nothing of the motives which led to this decision. We do know, however, from one of his early notations, that he “had a terrible aversion for the life embraced”. This affirmation is not hard to understand by any who are familiar with the life of Claude, for he was very close to his family and friends and much inclined to the arts and literature and an active social life. On the other hand, he was not a person to be led primarily by his sentiments.

At 17 he entered the Jesuit Novitiate at Avignon. In 1660 he moved from the Novitiate to the College, also in Avignon, where he pronounced his first vows and completed his studies in philosophy. Afterwards he was professor of grammar and literature in the same school for another five years.

In 1666 he went to the College of Clermont in Paris for his studies in theology. Already noted for his tact, poise and dedication to the humanities, Claude was assigned by superiors in Paris the additional responsibility of tutoring the children of Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance, Jean Baptiste Colbert.

Claude became noted for solid and serious sermons. They were ably directed at specific audiences and, faithful to their inspiration from the gospel, communicated to his listeners serenity and confidence in God. His published sermons produced and still produce significant spiritual fruits. Given the place and the short duration of his ministry, his sermons are surprisingly fresh in comparison with those of better-known orators.

On 2nd February 1675 he pronounced his solemn profession and was named rector of the College at Paray-le-Monial. Not a few people wondered at this assignment of a talented young Jesuit to such an out-of the-way place as Paray. The explanation seems to be in the superiors’ knowledge that there was in Paray an unpretentious religious of the Monastery of the Visitation, Margaret Mary Alacoque, to whom the Lord was revealing the treasures of His Heart, but who was overcome by anguish and uncertainty. She was waiting for the Lord to fulfill His promise and send her “my faithful servant and perfect friend” to help her realize the mission for which He had destined her: that of revealing to the world the unfathomable riches of His love.

After Father Colombière’s arrival and her first conversations with him, Margaret Mary opened her spirit to him and told him of the many communications she believed she had received from the Lord. He assured her he accepted their authenticity and urged her to put in writing everything in their regard, and did all he could to orient and support her in carrying out the mission received. When, thanks to prayer and discernment, he became convinced that Christ wanted the spread of the devotion to his Heart, it is clear from Claude’s spiritual notes that he pledged himself to this cause without reserve.

After a year and half in Paray, in 1676 Father La Colombière left for London, remaining in contact with St Margaret Mary by letter. He had been appointed preacher to the Duchess of York – a very difficult and delicate assignment because of the conditions prevailing in England at the time. He took up residence in St. James Palace in October.

In addition to sermons in the palace chapel and unremitting spiritual direction both oral and written, Claude dedicated his time to giving thorough instruction to the many who sought reconciliation with the Church they had abandoned. And even if there were great dangers, he had the consolation of seeing many reconciled to it, so that after a year he said: “I could write a book about the mercy of God I’ve seen Him exercise since I arrived here!

The intense pace of his work and the poor climate combined to undermine his health, and evidence of a serious pulmonary disease began to appear. Claude, however, made no changes in his work or life style.

Suddenly, at the end of 1678, he was calumniously accused and arrested in connection with the Titus Oates “papist plot”. After two days he was transferred to the severe King’s Bench Prison where he remained for three weeks in extremely poor conditions until his expulsion from England by royal decree.  It was only by the intervention of Louis XIV that Claude was not martyred.  This suffering further weakened Claude’s health which, with ups and downs, deteriorated rapidly on his return to France.  On 15 February 1682, Claude began coughing up blood and died.

St John Wall, OFM, knew Saint Claude. After having spent a night in spiritual conversation with him, the soon–to–be martyr said, “When I was in his presence I thought that I was dealing with Saint John returned to earth to rekindle that fire of love in the Heart of Christ.”

Saint Claude de la Colombiere, SJ, is considered a “dry” martyr, having suffered every abuse for the Faith, except death.  His major shrine and relics/remains are in the Jesuit church directly next to the Monastery of the Visitation in Paray-le-Monial, France.

ClaudedelaColombiere

St Claude de la Colombiere
-tomb of St Claude de la Colombiere, SJ, Chapelle la Colombiere, Rue Pasteur, 71600 Paray le Monial, France

“The past three centuries allow us to evaluate the importance of the message which was entrusted to Claude. In a period of contrasts between the fervor of some and the indifference or impiety of many, here is a devotion centered on the humility of Christ, on His presence, on His love of mercy and on forgiveness. Devotion to the Heart of Christ would be a source of balance and spiritual strengthening for Christian communities so often faced with increasing unbelief over the coming centuries.” – Pope John Paul II, during the canonization of Saint Claude de la Colombiere, SJ, May 31, 1992.

“My Jesus, you are my true friend,
my only friend,
you take part in all my misfortunes;
you know how to change them into blessings.
You listen to me
With the greatest kindness
When I tell you all my troubles
And you always have something
With which to heal my wounds.
I find you at any time of the day or night
For I find you wherever I happen to be
You never leave me;
If I change my dwelling place
I find you wherever I go
You never weary of listening to me;
You are never tired of doing me good.
I am certain of being loved by you,
If I but love you.
My worldly goods are of no value to you
But by bestowing yours on me
You never grow poorer.
However miserable I may be,
No one more noble or cleverer or even holier
Can come between you and me
And deprive me of your friendship;
And death,
Which tears us away from all other friends,
Will unite me forever to you.
All the humiliations attached to old age
Or the loss of honour
Will never detach you from me;
On the contrary
I shall never enjoy you more fully
And you will never be closer to me,
Than when everything seems to conspire
Against me to overwhelm me,
And cast me down.
You bear with all my faults
With extreme patience,
And even my want of fidelity
And my ingratitude
Do not wound you to such a degree
As to make you unwilling to receive me back
When I return to you.
O Jesus,
Grant that I may die loving you,
That I may die for the love of you.”
-Prayer of Friendship to Jesus, St Claude de la Colombiere, SJ

“Lord, I am in this world to show Your mercy to others. Other people will glorify You by making visible the power of Your grace by their fidelity and constancy to You. For my part I will glorify You by making known how good You are to sinners, that Your mercy is boundless and that no sinner no matter how great his offences should have reason to despair of pardon. If I have grievously offended You, My Redeemer, let me not offend You even more by thinking that You are not kind enough to pardon me. Amen. “
-Saint Claude de la Colombiere, SJ

Love,
Matthew