Category Archives: May

May 21 – St Eugene de Mazenod, OMI, (1782-1861), Bishop of Marseille, founder of the Congregation of the Missionaries, Oblates of Mary Immaculate, “A 2nd Paul”

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CHARLES JOSEPH EUGENE DE MAZENOD came into a world that was destined to change very quickly. Born in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France on August 1, 1782, he seemed assured of position and wealth from his family, who were of the minor nobility. However, the turmoil of the French Revolution changed all that forever. When Eugene was just eight years old his family fled France, leaving their possessions behind, and started a long and increasingly difficult eleven year exile.

The Years in Italy

The Mazenod family, political refugees, trailed through a succession of cities in Italy. His father, who had been President of the Court of Accounts, Aids and Finances in Aix, was forced to try his hand at trade to support his family. He proved to be a poor businessman, and as the years went on the family came close to destitution. Eugene studied briefly at the College of Nobles in Turin, but a move to Venice meant the end to formal schooling. A sympathetic priest, Don Bartolo Zinelli, living nearby, undertook to educate the young French emigre. Don Bartolo gave the adolescent Eugene a fundamental education, but with a lasting sense of God and a regimen of piety which was to stay with him always, despite the ups and downs of his life. A further move to Naples, because of financial problems, led to a time of boredom and helplessness. The family moved again, this time to Palermo where, thanks to the kindness of the Duke and Duchess of Cannizzaro, Eugene had his first taste of noble living and found it very much to his liking. He took to himself the title of “Count” de Mazenod, did all the courtly things, and dreamed of a bright future.

Return to France: the Priesthood

In 1802, at the age of 20, Eugene was able to return to his homeland – and all his dreams and illusions were quickly shattered. He was just plain “Citizen” de Mazenod, France was a changed world, his parents had separated, his mother was fighting to get back the family possessions. She was also intent on marrying off Eugene to the richest possible heiress. He sank into depression, seeing little real future for himself. But his natural qualities of concern for others, together with the faith fostered in Venice began to assert themselves. He was deeply affected by the disastrous situation of the French Church, which had been ridiculed, attacked and decimated by the Revolution. A calling to the priesthood began to manifest itself, and Eugene answered that call. Despite opposition from his mother, he entered the seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris, and on December 21, 1811, he was ordained a priest in Amiens.

Apostolic endeavours: Oblates of Mary Immaculate

Returning to Aix-en-Provence, he did not take up a normal parish appointment, but started to exercise his priesthood in the care of the truly spiritually needy-prisoners, youth, servants, country villagers. Often in the face of opposition from the local clergy, Eugene pursued his course. Soon he sought out other equally zealous priests who were prepared to step outside the old, even outmoded, structures. Eugene and his men preached in Provencal, the language of the common people, not in “educated” French. From village to village they went, instructing at the level of the people, spending amazingly long hours in the confessional. In between these parish missions the group joined in an intense community life of prayer, study and fellowship. They called themselves “Missionaries of Provence”. However, so that there would be an assured continuity in the work, Eugene took the bold step of going directly to the Pope and asking that his group be recognized officially as a Religious Congregation of pontifical right. His faith and his persistence paid off-and on February 17, 1826, Pope Leo XII approved the new Congregation, the “Oblates of Mary Immaculate”. Eugene was elected Superior General, and continued to inspire and guide his men for 35 years, until his death. Together with their growing apostolic endeavours-preaching, youth work, care of shrines, prison chaplaincy, confessors, direction of seminaries, parishes – Eugene insisted on deep spiritual formation and a close community life. He was a man who loved Christ with passion and was always ready to take on any apostolate if he saw it answering the needs of the Church. The “glory of God, the good of the Church and the sanctification of souls” were impelling forces for him.

Bishop of Marseilles

The Diocese of Marseilles had been suppressed after the 1802 Concordat, and when it was re-established, Eugene’s aged uncle, Canon Fortune de Mazenod, was named Bishop. He appointed Eugene Vicar General immediately, and most of the difficult work of re-building the Diocese fell to him. Within a few years, in 1832, Eugene himself was named auxiliary bishop. His Episcopal ordination took place in Rome, in defiance of the pretensions of the French Government that it had the right to sanction all such appointments. This caused a bitter diplomatic battle, and Eugene was caught in the middle, with accusations, misunderstandings, threats, and recriminations swirling around him. It was an especially devastating time for him, further complicated by the growing pains of his religious family. Though battered, Eugene steered ahead resolutely, and finally the impasse was broken. Five years later, he was appointed to the See of Marseilles as its Bishop, when Bishop Fortune retired.

A heart as big as the world

While he had founded the Oblates of Mary Immaculate primarily to serve the spiritually needy and deprived of the French countryside, Eugene’s zeal for the Kingdom of God and his devotion to the Church moved the Oblates to the advancing edge of the apostolate. His men ventured into Switzerland, England, Ireland. Because of his zeal, Eugene had been dubbed “a second Paul,” and bishops from the missions came to him asking for Oblates for their expanding mission fields. Eugene responded willingly despite small initial numbers, and sent his men out to Canada, to the United States, to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), to South Africa, to Basutoland (Lesotho). As missionaries in his mold, they fanned out preaching, baptising, caring. They frequently opened up previously uncharted lands, established and manned many new dioceses, and in a multitude of ways they “left nothing undared that the Kingdom of Christ might be advanced.” In the years that followed, the Oblate mission thrust continued, so that today the impulse of Eugene de Mazenod is alive in his men in 68 different countries.

Pastor of his Diocese

During all this ferment of missionary activity, Eugene was an outstanding pastor of the Church of Marseilles-ensuring the best seminary training for his priests, establishing new parishes, building the city’s cathedral and the spectacular Shrine of Notre Dame de la Garde above the city, encouraging his priests to lives of holiness, introducing many Religious Congregations to work in the diocese, leading his fellow Bishops in support of the rights of the Pope. He grew into a towering figure in the French Church. In 1856, Napoleon III appointed him a Senator, and at his death he was the senior bishop of France.

Legacy of a Saint

May 21, 1861, saw Eugene de Mazenod returning to his God, at the age of 79, after a life crowded with achievements, many of them born in suffering. For his religious family and for his diocese, he was a founding and life-giving source: for God and for the Church, he was a faithful and generous son. As he lay dying he left his Oblates a final testament, “Among yourselves-charity, charity, charity: in the world-zeal for souls.” The Church in declaring him a saint on December 3, 1995, crowns these two pivots of his living-love and zeal. His life and his deeds remain for all a window unto God Himself. And that is the greatest gift that Eugene de Mazenod, Oblate of Mary Immaculate, can offer us.

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“I am a priest, a priest of Jesus Christ. That says it all.” – Saint Eugene

“The Oblates [of Mary Immaculate] are the specialists of difficult missions.” – Pope Pius XI

“Go to Marseilles. There is a bishop there whose Congregation is still small, but the man himself has a heart as big as Saint Paul‘s, as big as the world.” – contemporary bishop speaking of Bishop de Mazenod

“Their ambition will be to encompass in their holy desires the immense breadth of the entire world.” – Saint Eugene, speaking of his missionaries; at the time, there were ten of them

“To love the Church is to love Jesus Christ, and vice versa.” – Saint Eugene

“We glorify God in the masterpiece of his power and love…it is the Son whom we honor in the person of his Mother.” – Saint Eugene

“Leave nothing undared for the Kingdom of God.” – Saint Eugene

“Learn who you are in the eyes of God.” – Saint Eugene

“Avoid giving the impression that you act like the Master.”  -St Eugene

“Practice amongst yourselves charity, charity, charity…and zeal for the salvation of souls.” – Saint Eugene to Oblate members as he lay dying

“I find my happiness in pastoral work. It is for this that I am a bishop, and not to write books, still less to pay court to the great, or to waste my time among the rich. It is true…that this is not the way to become a cardinal, but if one could become a saint, would it not be better still?” – Saint Eugene de Mazenod, OMI

“If priests could be formed, afire with zeal for men’s salvation, solidly grounded in virtue – in a word, apostolic men deeply conscious of the need to reform themselves, who would labor with all the resources at their command to convert others – then there would be ample reason to believe that in a short while people who had gone astray might be brought back to the long neglected duties of religion. We pledge ourselves to all the works of zeal that priestly charity can inspire… We must spare no effort to extend the Savior’s Empire and destroy the dominion of hell.” – Saint Eugene de Mazenod, OMI

“Every religious congregation in the Church has a spirit all its own; it is inspired by the Spirit of God to respond to the needs of the Church to work for the salvation of souls. By our particular vocation we are involved with the redemption of humanity… May we, by the sacrifice of our whole being, so cooperate as not to render His redemption fruitless for ourselves and for those we are called upon to evangelize. “– Saint Eugene de Mazenod, OMI

“Servants! Farmhands! Peasants! Poor! Come and learn who you are in the eyes of God. You poor of Jesus Christ, you afflicted, unfortunate suffering, infirm, diseased: all you who are burdened with misery, listen to me! You are the children of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, co-heirs of His eternal kingdom, His cherished inheritance. Lift up your minds: you are the children of God. Look through the tatters that cover you. There is an immortal soul within you made to the image of God, a soul redeemed at the price of the very blood of Jesus, more precious in the eyes of God than all the riches and all the kingdoms of this earth. Know your dignity – you even share the Divine Nature – Children of God, Children of the Most High!” – Saint Eugene de Mazenod, OMI

“How should men who want to follow in the footsteps of their divine Master Jesus Christ conduct themselves if they are to win back the many souls who have thrown off his yoke? They must strive to be saints. They must walk courageously along the same paths trodden by so many before them who handed on splendid examples of virtue they must wholly renounce themselves, striving solely for the glory of God, the good of the Church, and the growth and salvation of souls. The Oblates are a Missionary Congregation. They are men set apart for the Gospel, men ready to leave everything to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Their principal service in the Church is to proclaim Christ and his kingdom to the most abandoned. They preach the Gospel among people who have not yet received it. Where the Church is already established, their commitment is to those groups it touches least. The mission of the Oblate is especially to those people whose condition cries out for salvation and for the hope which only Jesus Christ can fully bring. These are the poor with their many faces – they have our preference because of their need Our mission is to proclaim the kingdom of God and seek it before all else. We fulfill this mission in community; and our communities are a sign that in Jesus, God is everything for us. Together we await Christ’s coming in the fullness of his justice so that God may be all in all. The cross of Jesus Christ is central to our mission. Like the apostle Paul, we “preach Christ and him crucified.” If we bear in our body the death of Jesus, it is with the hope that the life of Jesus, too, may be seen in our body. Through the eyes of our crucified Savior, we see the world which he redeemed with his blood, desiring that those in whom he continues to suffer will know also the power of his resurrection. Growing in faith, hope and love, we commit ourselves to be a leaven of the Beatitudes at the heart of the world. Our mission requires that, in a radical way, we follow Jesus who was chaste and poor, and who redeemed mankind by his obedience. That is why, through a gift of the Father, we choose the way of the evangelical counsels.” – extracts from the Rule of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

Love,
Matthew

May 10 – St Damien de Veuster, SSCC, (1840-1889) – Priest & Leper, Martyr of Charity, Martyr of Love, Patron of Leprosy, Outcasts, & those with HIV

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Born in Tremelo, Belgium, on January 3, 1840, the seventh child and fourth son of the Flemish corn merchant Joannes Franciscus (“Frans”) De Veuster and his wife Anne-Catherine (“Cato”) Wouters; following in the footsteps of his sisters Eugénie and Pauline (who became nuns) and brother Auguste, who became a priest of the same order, he joined the Sacred Hearts of Jesus & Mary Fathers, aka Picpus Fathers, in 1860. He was born Joseph and received the name Damien in religious life.

His superiors thought that he was not a good candidate for the priesthood because he lacked education. However, he was not considered unintelligent. Because he learned Latin well from his brother, his superiors decided to allow him to become a priest. During his ecclesiastical studies, he would pray every day before a picture of St. Francis Xavier, SJ, patron of missionaries, to be sent on a mission.  When his brother became ill and could not be sent on a mission to Hawaii, Damien went in his place.

In 1864, he was sent to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he was ordained. For the next nine years he worked in missions on the big island, Hawaii. In 1873, he went to the leper colony on Molokai, after volunteering for the assignment.

Hawaiians who contracted the disease were forcibly deported to Molokai under government sanctioned quarantine.  Dumped like so much trash, to live or to die, inconsequential, as fate may determine.  Damien cared for lepers of all ages, but was particularly concerned about the children segregated in the colony.

Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is a chronic infection caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis. Initially infections are without symptoms and typically remain this way for 5 to as long as 20 years. Symptoms that develop include granulomas of the nerves, respiratory tract, skin, and eyes.

This may result in a lack of ability to feel pain and thus loss of parts of extremities due to repeated injuries. Weakness and poor eyesight may also be present. It is believed to be transmitted by respiratory droplets. It is not very contagious, 95% of humans are immune to the disease, but this was not known before recently.

You have to be up close and personal for an extended period of time to contract the disease, such as a priest might be in the care of his flock; the unwanted, the abandoned, the diseased, the repulsive to look at, the impossible to touch.  Literally, “untouchables”.

Kalaupapa and Kalawao, where the leper colonies were located, is on the eastern end of the Kalaupapa peninsula on the island of Molokaʻi. Kalawao County, where the villages are located, is divided from the rest of Molokaʻi by a steep mountain ridge, and even now the only land access to it is by a mule trail. About 8,000 Hawaiians were sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula from 1866 through 1969.

Father Damien announced he was a leper in 1885 and continued to build hospitals, clinics, and churches, and some six hundred coffins.  He dressed ulcers, built homes and furniture, made coffins, and dug graves.  Before his arrival, a hopeless people were descending into a hell of hopelessness, in drunkenness and lewd conduct.  Under his leadership, basic laws were enforced, shacks became painted houses, working farms were organized, and schools were established.

He died on 8am, April 15 , 1889, at the age of 49.

Hawaiian King David Kalākaua bestowed on Damien the honor “Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalākaua”. When Princess Lydia Liliʻuokalani visited the settlement to present the medal, she was reported as having been too distraught and heartbroken to read her speech.

The most well-known treatise against Damien was by a Honolulu Presbyterian, Reverend Charles McEwen Hyde, in a letter dated August 2, 1889, to a fellow pastor, Reverend H. B. Gage; in it, Hyde referred to Father Damien as “a coarse, dirty man” whose leprosy should be attributed to his “carelessness”.

In 1889, Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his family arrived in Hawaii for an extended stay. While there Stevenson, also a Presbyterian, drafted a famous open letter as a rebuttal in defense of Damien.

Prior to writing his letter, dated February 25, 1890, Stevenson stayed on Molokaʻi for eight days and seven nights, during which he kept a diary. In the letter Stevenson answered Hyde’s criticisms point by point. He sought testimony from critical Protestants who knew the man, which he recorded in his diary. The treatise included some extracts, like the following, which upbraided Rev. Hyde for his fault finding:

“But, sir, when we have failed, and another has succeeded; when we have stood by, and another has stepped in; when we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain, uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and succors the afflicted, and consoles the dying, and is himself afflicted in his turn, and dies upon the field of honor – the battle cannot be retrieved as your unhappy irritation has suggested. It is a lost battle, and lost for ever. One thing remained to you in your defeat – some rags of common honor; and these you have made haste to cast away.”

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“Not without fear and loathing,” Pope Benedict underlined, “Father Damian made the choice to go on the island of Molokai in the service of lepers who were there, abandoned by all. So he exposed himself to the disease of which they suffered. With them he felt at home. The servant of the Word became a suffering servant, leper with the lepers, during the last four years of his life.”

He continued, “To follow Christ, Father Damian not only left his homeland, but has also staked his health so he, as the word of Jesus announced in today’s Gospel tells us, received eternal life.”

The figure of Father Damian, Benedict XVI added, “teaches us to choose the good fight not those that lead to division, but those that gather us together in unity.”

In Saint Damien’s role as the unofficial patron of those with HIV and AIDS, the world’s only Roman Catholic memorial chapel to those who have died of this disease, at the Église Saint-Pierre-Apôtre in Montreal, Quebec, is consecrated to him.

“I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”
-St Damien de Veuster, SSCC

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POPE FRANCIS' GENERAL AUDIENCE

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Love,
Matthew

May 26 – St Philip Neri, CO, (1515-1595) – Apostle of Rome, “A joyful heart…”

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If one had to choose one saint who showed the humorous side of holiness that would be Philip Neri.  “A joyful heart is more easily made perfect than a downcast one”, he often said.  Philip Neri was a sign of contradiction, combining popularity with piety against the background of a corrupt Rome and a disinterested clergy, the whole post-Renaissance malaise.   As the Council of Trent was reforming the Church on a doctrinal level, Philip’s appealing personality was winning him friends from all levels of society, from beggars to cardinals. He rapidly gathered around himself a group of laypersons won over by his audacious spirituality.

He was born in Florence on July 22, 1515, the youngest child of Francesco, a lawyer, and his wife Lucrezia da Mosciano, whose family were nobility in the service of the state. Neri was carefully brought up, and received his early teaching from the Dominican friars at San Marco, the famous Dominican monastery in Florence. He was accustomed in later life to ascribe most of his progress to the teaching of two of them, Zenobio de’ Medici and Servanzio Mini.  He showed the impulsiveness and spontaneity of his character from the time he was a boy. In fact one incident almost cost him his life. Seeing a donkey loaded with fruit for market, the little boy had barely formed the thought of jumping on the donkey’s back before he had done it. The donkey, surprised, lost his footing, and donkey, fruit, and boy tumbled into the cellar with the boy winding up on the bottom! Miraculously he was unhurt.

Philip’s own father was not successful financially, and, at the age of 18, Philip was sent to his uncle, Romolo, a wealthy merchant at San Germano, a Neapolitan town near the base of Monte Cassino, to assist him in his business, and with the hope that he might inherit his uncle’s fortune.  He did gain Romolo’s confidence and affection, but soon after coming to San Germano Philip had a conversion. During this time, Philip found a favorite place to pray up in the fissure of a mountain that had been turned into a Dominican chapel. We don’t know anything specific about his conversion but during these hours of prayer he decided to leave worldly success behind and dedicate his life to God.  He chose to relocate to Rome in 1533.

After thanking his uncle, upon arriving in Rome he was the live-in tutor of the sons of a fellow Florentine, Galeotto Caccia, an aristocrat.  He studied philosophy and theology under the Augustinians, until he thought his studies were interfering with his prayer life. He then stopped his studies, threw away his books, and lived as a kind of hermit.

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Night was his special time of prayer. After dark he would go out in the streets, sometimes to churches, but most often into the catacombs of St. Sebastiano to pray. During one of these times of prayer he felt a globe of light enter his mouth and sink into his heart. This experience gave him so much energy to serve God that he went out to work at the hospital of the incurables and starting speaking to others about God, everyone from beggars to bankers.

In 1548 Philip formed a confraternity with other laymen to minister to pilgrims who came to Rome without food or shelter. The spiritual director of the confraternity convinced Philip that he could do even more work as a priest. After receiving instruction from this priest, Philip was ordained in 1551.

At his new home, the church of San Girolamo, he learned to love to hear confessions. Young men especially found in him the wisdom and direction they needed to grow spiritually. But Philip began to realize that these young men needed something more than absolution; they needed guidance during their daily lives. So Philip began to ask the young men to come by in the early afternoon when they would discuss spiritual readings and then stay for prayer in the evening. The numbers of the men who attended these meetings grew rapidly. In order to handle the growth, Philip and a fellow priest, Buonsignore Cacciaguerra, gave a more formal structure to the meetings and built a room called the Oratory to hold them in.

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Philip understood that it wasn’t enough to tell young people not to do something — you had to give them something to do in its place. So at Carnival time, when the worst excesses were encouraged, Philip organized a pilgrimage to the Seven Churches with a picnic accompanied by instrumental music for the mid-day break. After walking twelve miles in one day everyone was too tired to be tempted!

In order to guide his followers, Philip made himself available to everyone at any hour — even at night. He said some of the most devout people were those who had come to him at night. When others complained, Philip answered, “They can chop wood on my back so long as they do not sin.”

Not everyone was happy about this growing group and Philip and Buonsignore were attacked by the priests they lived with. But eventually Philip and his companions were vindicated and went on with their work.

In 1555, the Pope’s Vicar accused Philip of “introducing novelties” and ordered him to stop the meetings of the Oratory. Philip was brokenhearted but obeyed immediately. The Pope only let him start up the Oratory again after the sudden death of his accuser. Despite all the trouble this man had caused, Philip would not let anyone say anything against the man or even imply that his sudden death was a judgment from God.

One church, for Florentines in Rome, had practically forced him to bring the Oratory to their church. But when gossip and accusations started, they began to harass the very people they had begged to have nearby! At that point, Philip decided it would be best for the group to have their own church. They became officially known as the Congregation of the Oratory, made up of secular priests and clerics.

Philip was known to be spontaneous and unpredictable, charming and humorous.

He seemed to sense the different ways to bring people to God. One man came to the Oratory just to make fun of it. Philip wouldn’t let the others throw him out or speak against him. He told them to be patient and eventually the man became a Dominican. On the other hand, when he met a condemned man who refused to listen to any pleas for repentance, Philip didn’t try gentle words, but grabbed the man by the collar and threw him to the ground. The move shocked the criminal into repentance and he made a full confession.

Humility was the most important virtue he tried to teach others and to learn himself. Some of his lessons in humility seem cruel, but they were tinged with humor like practical jokes and were related with gratitude by the people they helped. His lessons always seem to be tailored directly to what the person needed. One member who was later to become a cardinal was too serious and so Philip had him sing the Miserere, Psalm 51, the Psalm of repentance, at a wedding breakfast. When one priest gave a beautiful sermon, Philip ordered him to give the same sermon six times in a row so people would think he only had one sermon.  St Philip Neri was an enemy of solemnity and conventionality. When some of his more pompous penitents made their confession to him he imposed salutary and deflating penances on them, such as walking through the streets of Rome carrying his cat (he was very fond of cats). When a novice showed signs of excessive seriousness, Philip stood on his head in front of him, to make him laugh. When people looked up to him too much, he did something ridiculous so that they should not respect someone who was no wiser – and no less sinful – than they were. In every case there was an excellent point to his pranks: to combat pride, or melancholy, or hero-worship.

Philip preferred spiritual mortification to physical mortification. When one man asked Philip if he could wear a hair shirt, Philip gave him permission — if he wore the hair shirt outside his clothes! The man obeyed and found humility in the jokes and name-calling he received.

There were unexpected benefits to his lessons in humility. Another member, Baronius, wanted to speak at the meetings about hellfire and eternal punishment. Philip commanded him instead to speak of church history. For 27 years Baronius spoke to the Oratory about church history. At the end of that time he published his talks as a widely respected and universally praised books on ecclesiastical history!

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Philip did not escape this spiritual mortification himself. As with others, his own humbling held humor. There are stories of him wearing ridiculous clothes or walking around with half his beard shaved off. The greater his reputation for holiness the sillier he wanted to seem. When some people came from Poland to see the great saint, they found him listening to another priest read to him from joke books.

Philip was very serious about prayer, spending hours in prayer. He was so easily carried away that he refused to preach in public and could not celebrate Mass with others around. But when asked how to pray his answer was, “Be humble and obedient and the Holy Spirit will teach you.”  Amen. Amen.

Philip died in 1595 after a long illness at the age of eighty years.

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– St Philip Neri’s effigy at his tomb in the Chiesa Nuova

We often worry more about what others think than about what God thinks. Our fear of people laughing at us often stops us from trying new things or serving God. Do something today that you are afraid might make you look a little ridiculous. Then reflect on how it makes you feel. Pray about your experience with God.  Or, if you’re like me, just be yourself!  

Prayer:
Saint Philip Neri, we take ourselves far too seriously most of the time. Help us to add humor to our perspective — remembering always that humor is a gift from God. Amen

Cheerfulness is an important part of holiness. St. Philip Neri’s story teaches us that the way to be really happy is to put God and other people first in our lives. If we only think about ourselves we’ll never feel satisfied.  Laughter is not much heard in churches: perhaps that is to be expected… but outside church, Christians should laugh more than anyone else – laugh from sheer joy, that God bothered to make us, and that He continues to love us despite the fools and sinners we are, or, at least, certainly me. Everyone is a sinner, but Christians are sinners redeemed – an outrageous, undeserved rescue and act of Divine Love that we make even less deserved by everything we do. It is too serious a matter to be serious about: all we can reasonably do is rejoice.

Which reminds me of a joke…”Take my…”, no, not that one, “Two Irish guys…”, not that one either.  Why can angels fly?….Because they take themselves so lightly!  

Many people wrongly feel that such an attractive and jocular personality as Philip’s cannot be combined with an intense spirituality. Philip’s life melts our rigid, narrow views of piety. His approach to sanctity was truly catholic, all-embracing and accompanied by a good laugh. Philip always wanted his followers to become not less but more human through their striving for holiness.

Philip Neri prayed, “Let me get through today, and I shall not fear tomorrow.”

Love,
Matthew

May 10 – St John of Avila, (1500-1569) – Doctor of the Church

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-by Pierre Subleyras (1746)

Saint John of Ávila, called the “Apostle of Andalusia” was a Spanish priest, preacher, scholastic author, and religious mystic.  John was born in Almodóvar del Campo, in the Province of Ciudad Real, of a wealthy and pious family of Jewish converso descent. At the age of fourteen he was sent to the University of Salamanca to study law but returned home after a year, where he spent the next three years in the practice of austere piety.  His sanctity impressed a Franciscan friar journeying through Almodóvar, on whose advice he took up the study of philosophy and theology at Alcalá de Henares, where he was fortunate to have as his teacher the noted Dominican friar, Domingo de Soto. While he was a student his parents died and after his ordination he celebrated his first Mass in the church where they were buried, then he sold the family property and gave the proceeds to the poor.

He saw in the severing of natural ties a vocation to foreign missionary work and prepared to go to Mexico. In 1527, while he was in Seville looking for a favourable opportunity to set out for his new field of labour, his unusually great devotion in celebrating Mass attracted the attention of Hernando de Contreras, a local priest, who mentioned him to the Archbishop of Seville and Inquisitor General, Alonso Manrique de Lara. The archbishop saw in the young cleric a powerful instrument to stir up the faith in Andalusia, recently reclaimed for Spain in the Reconquista by Servant of God Queen Isabel the Catholic and Ferdinand II of Aragon, having expelled the Berbers and Moors from Spain.  After considerable persuasion, Juan was induced to abandon his journey to America.

John’s first sermon was preached on 22 July 1529, and immediately established his reputation. During his nine years of missionary work in Andalusia, crowds packed the churches at all his sermons. However, his strong pleas for reform and his denunciation of the behaviour of the aristocracy later brought him before the office of the Inquisition in Seville. He was charged with exaggerating the dangers of wealth and with closing the gates of heaven to the rich. The charges were refuted and he was declared innocent in 1533. By special invitation of the royal court, he was later appointed to preach a sermon for a major feast day in the Church of the Savior in Seville.  Like other Spanish mystics of the period, including La Beata de Piedrahita, he was suspected several times during his career of belonging to the Alumbrados, deemed a heretical sect.(1)

John of Avila is also remembered as a reformer of clerical life in Spain. He founded several colleges where his disciples dedicated themselves to the teaching of youths. Among the disciples attracted by his preaching and saintly reputation were St. Teresa of Ávila, St. John of God, St. Francis Borgia and the Venerable Louis of Granada.  Of special importance was the University of Baeza established in 1538 by a papal bull of Pope Paul III.  He served as its first rector, and it became a model for seminaries and for the schools of the Jesuits.  He is especially revered by the Jesuits. Their development in Spain is attributed to his friendship and support to the Society of Jesus.

He began his career as apostolic preacher of Andalusia, aged thirty. After nine years he returned to Seville, only to depart for the wider fields of Cordova, Granada, Baeza, Montilla and Zafra. For eighteen years before his death he was the victim of constant illness, the result of the hardships of his apostolate of forty years. He died on 10 May 1569 in the town of Montilla in the Province of Córdoba. He was buried in that city, in the Jesuit Church of the Incarnation, which now serves as the sanctuary to his memory.

In his homily declaring St John of Avila a Doctor of the Church, Pope Benedict said that John of Avila was a “profound expert on the sacred Scriptures, he was gifted with an ardent missionary spirit. He knew how to penetrate in a uniquely profound way the mysteries of the redemption worked by Christ for humanity. A man of God, he united constant prayer to apostolic action. He dedicated himself to preaching and to the more frequent practice of the sacraments, concentrating his commitment on improving the formation of candidates for the priesthood, of religious and of lay people, with a view to a fruitful reform of the Church.”

Saint John of Ávila’s works were collected at Madrid in 1618, 1757, 1792 and 1805; a French translation by d’Andilly was published at Paris in 1673; and a German translation by Schermer in six volumes was issued at Regensburg between 1856 and 1881. His best-known works are the “Audi Fili”  one of the best tracts on Christian perfection, and his “Spiritual Letters” to his disciples.

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-lower jaw relic of St John of Avila, currently in Almodovar del Campo

“Turn yourself round like a piece of clay and say to the Lord: I am clay, and you, Lord, the potter. Make of me what you will.” – Saint John of Avila

“Withdraw your heart from the world before God takes your body from it.” – Saint John of Avila

“Your life consists in drawing nearer to God. To do this you must endeavor to detach yourself from visible things and remember that in a short time they will be taken from you.” – Saint John of Avila

“Dear brothers and sisters, I pray God may open your eyes and let you see what hidden treasures he bestows on us in the trials from which the world thinks only to flee. Shame turns into honor when we seek God’s glory. Present affliction become the source of heavenly glory. To those who suffer wounds in fighting his battles God opens his arms in loving, tender friendship. That is why he (Christ) tells us that if we want to join him, we shall travel the way he took. It is surely not right that the Son of God should go his way on the path of shame while the sons of men walk the way of worldly honor: “The disciple is not above his teacher, nor the servant greater than his master.”” – from a letter by Saint John of Avila

Love,
Matthew

(1) The alumbrados (The Illuminated) was a term used to loosely describe practitioners of a mystical form of Christianity in Spain during the 15th-16th centuries. Some alumbrados were only mildly heterodox, but others held views that were clearly heretical. Consequently, they were firmly repressed and became some of the early victims of the Spanish Inquisition.

The historian Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo found the name as early as 1492 (in the form aluminados, 1498), and traced the group to a Gnostic origin. He thought their views were promoted in Spain through influences from Italy.

The alumbrados held that the human soul can reach such a degree of perfection that it can even in the present life contemplate the essence of God and comprehend the mystery of the Trinity. All external worship, they declared, is superfluous, the reception of the sacraments useless, and sin impossible in this state of complete union with God. Persons in this state of impeccability could indulge their sexual desires and commit other sinful acts freely without staining their souls.

In 1525, the Inquisition issued an Edict on the alumbrados in which the Inquisitor General, Alonso Manrique de Lara, explained how the new heresy of alumbradismo was discovered and investigated. The text then gave a numbered list of forty-eight heretical propositions which had emerged from the trials of the alumbrados’ first leaders, Isabella de la Cruz and Pedro Ruiz d Alcaraz. After each proposition were given the grounds on which it was judged heretical. Among the odder of these propositions are that it is a mortal sin to read a book to console one’s soul (No. 31), which the Inquisition’s theologians described as “crazy, erroneous, and even heretical”; and that one sinned mortally every time one loved a son, daughter, or other person, and did not love that person through God (No. 36), which the theologians said was “erroneous and false, and against the common teaching of the saints”. One alumbrado, seeing a girl cross the street, said that “she had sinned, because in that action she had fulfilled her will” (No. 40). The theologians commented: “The foundation of this proposition is heretical, because it seems to state that all action that proceeds from our will is sin.”

A labourer’s daughter known as La Beata de Piedrahita, born in Salamanca, came to the notice of the Inquisition in 1511, by claiming to hold colloquies with Jesus and the Virgin Mary; some high patronage saved her from a rigorous denunciation.  She is often, as The Catholic Encyclopedia cautiously notes, “cited as an early adherent” of the alumbrados’ errors, though “it is not certain that she was guilty of heresy”.  Some recent scholars, like the Dominican historian and theologian Álvaro Huerga, who takes a relatively favorable view of her, question, on chronological and other grounds, the tendency to associate her with that movement, seeing her rather as “pre-alumbrados”.

Henry Charles Lea, in his “A History of the Inquisition in Spain”, mentions, among the more extravagant alumbrados, a priest from Seville named Fernando Méndez, who had acquired a special reputation for sanctity: “he taught his disciples to invoke his intercession, as though he were already a saint in heaven; fragments of his garments were treasured as relics; he gathered a congregation of beatas and, after mass in his oratory, they would strip off their garments and dance with indecent vigor — drunk with the love of God — and, on some of his female penitents, he would impose the penance of lifting their skirts and exposing themselves before him.” Méndez died before the Inquisition could bring him to trial.

Ignatius of Loyola, while studying at Salamanca in 1527, was brought before an ecclesiastical commission on a charge of sympathy with the alumbrados, but escaped with an admonition. Miguel de Molinos was also accused of sympathy owing to some similarities between his book The Spiritual Guide and the teachings of the early alumbrados, Isabella de la Cruz and Pedro Ruiz de Alcaraz.

Their persecution, by Inquisitional standards, was not particularly severe. Those convicted of engaging in the mystical practices and heresy of the alumbrados were not executed, few endured long-term sentences, and most were tried only after they managed to acquire large congregations in Toledo or Salamanca. Not all, however, were so fortunate. In 1529 a congregation of naïve adherents at Toledo was subjected to whippings and imprisonment. Greater rigors followed, and for about a century alleged connection with the alumbrados sent many to the Inquisition, especially at Córdoba. In spite of this determined action, however, the heresy maintained itself until the middle of the 17th century. The connection of later alumbrados, whose practices varied in different places, to the original alumbrados, Isabella de la Cruz and Pedro Ruiz del Alcaraz, is debatable, but the continuing influence of their teachings is not improbable.

The movement (under the name of Illuminés) seems to have reached France from Seville in 1623, and attained some following in Picardy when joined (1634) by Pierce Guerin, curé of Saint-Georges de Roye, whose followers, known as Guerinets, were suppressed in 1635.

A century later, another, more obscure body of Illuminés came to light in the south of France in 1722, and appears to have lingered till 1794, having affinities with those known contemporaneously in the United Kingdom as ‘French Prophets’, an offshoot of the Camisards.

May 28 – Blessed Margaret Pole (1473-1541), Countess of Salisbury, Martyr

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Margaret Pole was born in England in 1473 and was the niece of two English kings. Another king arranged for Margaret to marry Sir Reginald Pole, a friend of the royal family. They had a happy marriage, giving birth to five children: Henry, Reginald, Geoffrey, Arthur, and Ursula.

When Reginald died, the new king, Henry VIII, made Margaret a countess. He appointed her governess of his daughter. Henry VIII called Margaret the “holiest woman in England.”

Untimely and homicidal death was a reality of royal English politics and intrigues before, during, and after the time Margaret lived.  Brutal, harsh, but real.  She was from the Plantagenet royal line, kings who had ruled over England from the 12th to the 15th century.  Her grandfather Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, warrior in the English War of the Roses, which ultimately produced the Tudor line, died on the field of battle.  Her father, George, Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV, died in the Tower of London in January, 1478.  Many other tragedies happened in Margaret’s family due to the central place her family relations held in English royal lines.

When Henry VIII, once called by Pope Leo X, “Fidei defensor” – Defender of the Faith, due to his authorship of “Defense of the Seven Sacraments”, which was critical of Martin Luther, broke with Rome and appointed himself head of the Anglican Church in England, so he might divorce Queen Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, Margaret told Henry that he was wrong. Margaret had served as Governess of the Princess, eventually Queen, Mary.

The king expelled Margaret from the royal court. He became even angrier when one of Margaret’s sons, Reginald, a cardinal of the Catholic Church and the Archbishop of Canterbury, but who resided outside of England on the European continent, wrote an article denying Henry’s claim to be head of the Church in England. Henry blamed Margaret. He had her arrested.  Margaret was seventy years old by this point.

Margaret was questioned harshly to prove that she was a traitor, but there was no evidence. She had always been faithful to Jesus and the Church. None of this mattered to Henry. Margaret was sentenced to death. She was imprisoned in the Tower of London for two years, suffering cold and neglect, before being executed by beheading on the morning of May 28, 1541.

The following poem was found carved on the wall of her cell:

“For traitors on the block should die;
I am no traitor, no, not I!
My faithfulness stands fast and so,
Towards the block I shall not go!
Nor make one step, as you shall see;
Christ in Thy Mercy, save Thou me!”

Her last words were: “Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

The character of Lady Salisbury, played by Kate O’Toole in the Showtime series “The Tudors” is loosely inspired by her.

Lord, in Whom there is no change or shadow of alteration, You gave courage to Your servant Blessed Margaret Pole. Grant unto us, we beseech You, through her intercession, the grace to always be steadfast in faith. May we be strengthened to serve You in imitation of the courage of Blessed Margaret. We ask this through Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, forever. Amen.

Our Lady, Queen of Martyrs, pray for us!

Blessed Margaret Pole, pray for us!

Love,
Matthew

May 3 – Sts Timothy & Maura of Antinoe, (d. 286), Husband & Wife, Martyrs

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I love the story of Sts Timothy & Maura.  I hold a special devotion to them for Kelly & I.  Mara’s name is inspired by the story of Sts Timothy & Maura. They provide an example, firstly, of the devotion to duty, despite the circumstances, a love of Scripture, and the ability to love when we would be justified by human reason in anything but.  They provide an example for all Christians and especially those vowed in the heroic vocation of marriage, that love and forgiveness is possible no matter what, with God’s grace.  I hope and trust you will concur.  (If you’re squeamish, take my word.)

Coming from the Eastern Christian tradition, and so not usually included on the American Roman liturgical calendar, Timothy was a deacon, a lector, and a catechist of the Church in Egypt (then called Kemet) in 286 AD, during the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian.

As a deacon, it was traditional that each deacon serve some particular practical function, and Timothy’s was to safeguard the scrolls on which the Scriptures were written.  He was betrayed by an enemy to the local Roman authorities as a Christian, and when the Romans learned of his unique function they demanded the Scriptures from Timothy so they could defile them.  Timothy refused saying it would be like giving up one of his children to them.  Timothy had only recently been married to Maura, a fellow Christian, and a fellow catechist in the community at Penapais.  They had only been married twenty days.

The Roman governor said to Timothy: “You see, don’t you, the instruments prepared for torture?” Timothy replied: “But don’t you see the angels of God, which are strengthening me?”

Because of Timothy’s refusal to hand over the scrolls containing the Scriptures, the Romans tortured him by inserting white hot irons into his ears, which also blinded him.  They then hung him upside down and tied a very heavy stone to his head. The cut off his eyelids.  The Romans then brought Maura in.  The Romans had put a piece of wood in Timothy’s mouth so he could not speak.  At Maura’s request, they removed the wood and Timothy incited her to give witness by her suffering.

The Romans believed any harm done to Maura on Timothy’s behalf, and for his refusal, would be far less bearable to Timothy than any pain inflicted on him directly.  Maura never encouraged Timothy to submit, rather, she encouraged him to be strong.

This enraged the Romans and they pulled all the hair from her head.  They chopped off her fingers.  And they lowered her into boiling water, making Timothy aware all the time of what was going on despite his injuries.

Finally, Timothy and Maura were each crucified at Antinoe on opposite walls facing each other.  They both lingered for nine more days, during which they encouraged one another.  They died of shock, blood loss, and dehydration.

It is reported the Roman governor, Arian, who ordered and oversaw the torture of Timothy & Maura later repented, became a Christian, and suffered martyrdom for Christ, as well.  His feast day is December 14.

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Troparion (liturgical hymn) of Sts Timothy & Maura – Tone 4

Your holy martyrs Timothy and Maura, O Lord,
Through their sufferings have received incorruptible crowns from You, our God.
For having Your strength, they laid low their adversaries,
And shattered the powerless boldness of demons.
Through their intercessions, save our souls!

Kontakion (Tone 4)

You accepted many humiliations,
And deserved to be crowned by God.
Great and praiseworthy Timothy and Maura,
Intercede with the Lord for us
That we may celebrate your most pure memory;
That He may grant peace to our land and people,
For He is a powerful stronghold for the faithful!

Love,
Matthew

May 22 – St Rita of Cascia (1381 – 1457), Patroness of Abuse Victims & Impossible/Desperate Situations

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Whoever said life would be easy?  Plus, you know I have a special weakness for married saints, like Kelly.

Born late to Antonio & Amata Lotti in the village of Roccaparen, Umbria, Italy in 1386, from her early youth, Rita visited the Augustinian nuns at Cascia, Italy, and showed interest in a religious life. However, when she was twelve, her parents betrothed her to Paolo Mancini, an ill-tempered, abusive man who worked as town watchman, and who was dragged into the political disputes of the day.

She begged her parents to allow her enter the convent, but they would not relent.  If she married, her parents had the chance of being cared for in their later years by her and her husband’s family.  If she entered the convent, there would be no such support.  Disappointed but obedient, Rita married Mancini when she was 18, and was the mother of twin sons. She put up with Paolo’s physical and verbal abuses for eighteen years before he was ambushed and stabbed to death by his political enemies, although near the end of his life, Rita’s positive influence began to take hold on him. Her sons swore vengeance on the killers of their father, but through the prayers and interventions of Rita, they forgave the offenders.

Upon the deaths of her sons, Rita again felt the call to religious life. However, some of the sisters at the Augustinian monastery were relatives of her husband’s murderers, and she was denied entry for fear of causing dissension. As a condition of being allowed to enter the monastery, Rita was given the seemingly impossible task of reconciling the family of her husband’s murderers with her husband’s own.  Asking for the intervention of Saint John the Baptist, Saint Augustine of Hippo, and Saint Nicholas of Tolentino, she managed to bring the warring factions together, not completely, but sufficiently that there was peace, and she was admitted to the monastery of Saint Mary Magdalen at age 36.

Rita lived 40 years in the convent, spending her time in prayer and charity, and working for peace in the region. She was devoted to the Passion, and in response to a prayer to suffer as Christ did, she received a chronic head wound that appeared to have been caused by a crown of thorns, and which bled for 15 years.

Confined to her bed the last four years of her life, eating little more than the Eucharist, teaching and directing the younger sisters. Near the end, she had a visitor from her home town who asked if she’d like anything; Rita’s only request was a rose from her family’s estate. The visitor went to the home, but it being January, knew there was no hope of finding a flower; there, sprouted on an otherwise bare bush, was a single rose blossom.

Rita is well-known as a patron of desperate, seemingly impossible causes and situations. This is because she has been involved in so many stages of life – wife, mother, widow, and nun, she buried her family, helped bring peace to her city, saw her dreams denied and fulfilled – and never lost her faith in God, or her desire to be with Him.  Rita died of tuberculosis on May 22, 1457.

Recently, St. Rita has been referred to as the patron saint of baseball, due to the several references made to her in the Walt Disney movie The Rookie (2002), in which the chances of Dennis Quaid’s character of playing professional baseball is considered a lost cause. This has sparked a small movement in Roman Catholic baseball circles of considering St. Rita the patron saint of the sport: in support of the connection religious medals have been printed with an image of St. Rita on one side and a batter on the other.

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-“St Rita of Cascia”, aka Santa Rita, window, 19th century, Austin, TX, Cathedral of St Mary.

Prayers to St Rita of Cascia

Dear Rita, model Wife and Widow, you yourself suffered in a long illness showing patience out of love for God. Teach us to pray as you did. Many invoke you for help, full of confidence in your intercession. Deign to come now to our aid for the relief and cure of {name of sufferer}. To God, all things are possible; may this healing give glory to the Lord. Amen.

Holy Patroness of those in need, Saint Rita, you were humble, pure and patient. Your pleadings with your divine Spouse are irresistible, so please obtain for me from our risen Jesus the request I make of you: {mention your petition}. Be kind to me for the greater glory of God, and I shall honor you and sing your praises forever. Glorious Saint Rita, you miraculously participated in the sorrowful passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Obtain for me now the grace to suffer with resignation the troubles of this life, and protect me in all my needs. Amen.

Hymn to Saint Rita of Cascia

Come, virgins chaste; pure brides, draw near
Let Earth exult and Heaven hear
The Hymn that grateful accents raise,
Our song of joy in Rita’s praise.

By fast her sinless frame is weak;
Her livid flesh the scourges streak.
In pity for her Savior’s woes,
Her days and even nights are closed.

The thorn-wound on her brow is shown,
The crimson rose in winter blown,
And full-ripe figs on frozen tree
At Rita’s wish the wonders see.

The widowed spouse and wedded wife
The way to heaven see in her life;
The way secure our Rita trod,
In life’s dim day, through paint o God.

Praise to the Father and the Son,
Praise to the Spirit, Three in One;
O grant us grace in heaven to reign
Through Rita’s prayer and life-long pain.

Thou hast signed thy servant Rita
With the sign of thy Love and Passion.

O God! who didst deign to confer on Saint Rita for imitating Thee in love of her enemies, the favor of bearing her heart and brow the marks of Thy Love and Passion, grant we beseech Thee, that through her intercession and merit, we may, pierced by the thorns of compunction, ever contemplate the sufferings of Thy Passion, who livest and reignest forever and ever. Amen.

-translation of the hymn of Lauds, office of Saint Rita of Cascia, approved by Decree of S.C.R. 24 November 1900

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Love,
Matthew

May 2 – St Athanasius (293-373 AD), Bishop, Father & Doctor of the Church, Defender of the orthodox Faith

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-St. Athanasius (1883–84), by Carl Rohl-Smith, Frederik’s Church, Copenhagen, Denmark.

In my study of and training in Christology, I have come to learn and to observe nearly every varied interpretation and manipulation, if you will, throughout history has been attempted, offered, and promulgated by heretics as to whom Jesus was and is.  There is a truth and a saying when one studies Church history:  “there are no new heresies”.  This is so true.  That word, heresy, grates on the modern ear.  We much prefer the calm, soothing, comforting, anesthetizing sounds of relativism – contemplation without thought, without challenge.  Peace at any cost, peace in our time.  Thank you, St Neville Chamberlain (Warning:  NOT a real saint!)  This is so as opposed to a more challenging, sobering truth.

The rational mind with integrity cannot accept mutually exclusive truths and rest easy.  The Church may have to deal with heresies for a time, from time to time, hopefully refute and suppress them successfully, but given the mind of man, general ignorance of and training in the theological sciences, our own willfulness and refusal to learn from our forbears in faith who have climbed Himalayan mountains of faith, thought, and life’s experiences, add in the work of the Enemy, and heresies constantly return over time mutated, altered, changed, but still holding onto the core deception.  Bad thinking leads to bad action.  History is replete with examples.

The most difficult conclusion human beings have had to come to, the hardest to hold, and the most embattled throughout human history, is that He was Whom He said He was:  the Son of the Father, co-equal with the Creator and the Holy Spirit in true Trinitarian theology.  I feel this is the most challenging since it begs of us the most difficult questions and challenges us profoundly.  How would we live differently if His divinity were not an article of faith?  But, rather, a daily, moment-by-moment live experience of fact – as we define fact?  How would we live differently if we knew our appointment with Him were not merely a possibility, but an inevitability?  For this reason, I believe this conclusion is the most difficult to which to come and hold because of the profound challenges and questions it poses – too much to bear many would claim.  Hence, the heresies, both ancient and modern, and the human temptation towards them continue.

Arius (250-336 AD) was a bishop from Alexandria, Egypt.  He taught that Jesus did not always exist, but was created by the Father and was of a different substance than the Father, nearly, or actually, implying Jesus was perhaps divine, but not Divine as God is Divine, but also a creature of God, like us, only better.  At the heart of the Arian heresy, if taken to its logical conclusion, was truly to call into question Jesus’ divinity.  At best, a second rate divinity, really.

It is really helpful at this point if one knows a little Greek and understands how one letter, “i”, one iota, literally, can change the entire meaning of a word and generally cause a big fight.  But, I will spare you that for now.  (Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists have sometimes been referred to as Arians or Semi-Arians.  Unitarian Universalists deny the Trinity altogether, as well as several other problems.  Gnosticism, which pre-dates Christianity, has been recreated in the modern age as Freemasonry and Scientology.)

Ok, I lied,

homoiousios/ηομο and homoousios/ηομοουσιος The first, the heretical word if inserted into the Creed, means of a “similar essence/substance”.  The second means of the “same essence/substance”.  BIG FIGHT!!!!!  It caused such a huff, the Emperor Constantine ordered a Church council to meet, the Council of Nicea (325 AD), and work it out for the sake of peace in the empire.  Wars have been fought over the words in the Creed, which is why I am always so scandalized when new, creative, modern, “Oh, what the hell.  Let’s use this one today” type creeds get used rather blithely in Christian, especially Catholic worship.  No wonder people, even the ordained, mea culpa, are often confused.  When I teach young people, consistently they present their brains to me as so much theological mush.  I fancy myself a theological personal trainer for the young – tightening their theological core, as my actual personal physical trainer is teaching me to tighten mine.  Ouch!  I am a certified catechist, you know.  St Athanasius, pray for us!

When we recite the Nicene Creed (325 AD), it is the words,”We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father”, think of and thank St Athanasius, and those who held to the orthodox belief of the Trinity despite profound opposition and difficulty.  We have Arius to thank that we are so emphatic, repeating over and over this truth when we pray the Creed, seventeen centuries later.  Arius had trouble with the Trinity.  Granted, that’s a tough one for any Christian, even the most erudite theologians, to wrap their minds around, let alone explain.  Hence the ascription as mystery.  But, mystery as it may be, most Christians do not slip into heresy and lead others to follow because they don’t like it, most.

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-Athanasius’ Shrine (where a portion of his relics are preserved) under St. Mark’s Cathedral, Cairo

Tomb of Zaccaria and Saint Athanasius
-Tomb of Zaccaria and Saint Athanasius

“You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.”
-St Athanasius

“Jesus, Whom I know as my Redeemer, cannot be less than God.”
-St Athanasius

Love,
Matthew

May 25 – St Mary Magdalen de Pazzi (1556-1607), Carmelite Mystic & Great Catholic Reformer, “To suffer and not to die”

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“Our Lady of Carmel and Saints”, by Pietro Novelli, 1641, Simon Stock (standing), Angelus of Jerusalem (kneeling), Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, Teresa of Avila, Museo Diocesano, Palermo

It would be easy to concentrate on the mystical experiences God gave this saint, rather than on her life. In fact, it would be difficult to do differently, so overwhelming were those gifts from God. The temptation for many modern readers (including the author) would be to see little to identify with in these graces and walk away without seeing more. The other temptation would be to become so fascinated with these stories that one would neglect to dig deeper and learn the real lessons of her life.

But Mary Magdalene de Pazzi is not a saint because she received ecstasies and graces from God. Many have received visions, ecstasies, and miracles without becoming holy. She is a saint because of her response to those gifts — a lifelong struggle to show love and gratitude to the God who gave her those graces.

In fact Mary Magdalene saw her ecstasies as evidence of a great fault in her, not a reward for holiness. She told one fellow sister that God did not give this sister the same graces “because you don’t need them in order to serve him.” In her eyes, God gave these gifts to those who were too weak to become holy otherwise. That Mary Magdalene received these gifts proved, in her mind, how unworthy she was.

Born into one of the wealthiest and most distinguished noble families in Florence on April 2, 1566, the normal course would have been for Catherine de Pazzi to have married wealth and enjoyed comfort.  Baptized Catherine, she was taught mental prayer when she was nine years old at the request of her mother. Her introduction at this age to this form of prayer which involves half an hour of meditation did not seem to be unusual. And yet today we often believe children incapable of all but the simplest rote prayers.  At twelve years old she experienced her first ecstasy while looking at a sunset which left her trembling and speechless.  She received religious training from the Jesuits.

With this foundation in prayer and in mystical experience, it isn’t surprising that she wanted to enter a contemplative monastery of the Carmelite Order. She chose the monastery of St. Mary’s of the Angels because the nuns took daily Communion, unusual at the time.

In 1583 she had her second mystical experience when the other nuns saw her weeping before the crucifix as she said, “O Love, you are neither known nor loved.”

Mary Magdalene’s life is a contradiction of our instinctive thought that joy only comes from avoiding suffering. A month after being refused early religious profession, she fell deathly ill. Fearing for her life the convent had her professed from a stretcher at the altar. After that she experienced forty days of ecstasies that coexisted with her suffering. Joy from the graces God gave were mixed with agony as her illness grew worse. In one of her experiences Jesus took her heart and hid it in his own, telling her he “would not return it until it is wholly pure and filled with pure love.” She didn’t recover from her illness until told to ask for the intercession of Blessed Mary Bagnesi over three months later.

As a safeguard against deception and to preserve the revelations, her confessor asked Mary Magdalene to dictate her experiences to sister secretaries. Over the next six years, five large volumes were filled. The first three books record ecstasies from May of 1584 through Pentecost week the following year. A severe five-year trial would follow. The fourth book records that trial and the fifth is a collection of letters concerning reform and renewal. Another book, “Admonitions”, is a collection of her sayings arising from her experiences in the formation of women religious.

What her experiences and prayer had given her was a familiar, personal relationship with Jesus. Her conversations with Jesus often take on a teasing, bantering tone that shocks those who have a formal, fearful image of God. For example, at the end of her forty days of graces, Jesus offered her a crown of flowers or a crown of thorns. No matter how often she chose the crown of thorns, Jesus kept teasingly pushing the crown of flowers to her. When he accused her, “I called and you didn’t care,” she answered back, “You didn’t call loudly enough” and told him to shout his love.

She learned to regret the insistence on the crown of thorns. We might think it is easy to be holy if God is talking to you every day but few of us could remain on the path with the five year trial that followed her first ecstasies. Before this trial, Jesus told her, “I will take away not the grace but the feeling of grace. Though I will seem to leave you I will be closer to you.” This was easy for her to accept in the midst of ecstasy but, as she said later, she hadn’t experienced it yet. At the age of nineteen she started five years of dryness and desolation in which she was repelled by prayer and tempted by everything. She referred to her heart as a pitch-dark room with only a feeble light shining that only made the darkness deeper. She was so depressed she was found twice close to suicide. All she could do to fight back was to hold onto prayer, penance, and serving others even when it appeared to do no good.

Her lifelong devotion to Pentecost can be easily understood because her trial ended in ecstasy in 1590. At this time she could have asked for any gifts but she wanted two in particular: to look on any neighbor as good and holy without judgment and to always have God’s presence before her.  She dedicated herself to the reform and renewal of the Church.  Her great desire for Church reform was born during this time, after witnessing rays of light from on high in the summer of 1586, showing her the true state of the Church in the era after the Council of Trent.  Like Catherine of Siena, she felt ‘compelled’ to write letters to the Pope, cardinals of the Curia, her archbishop and other Church leaders, encouraging them to work for the renewal of the Church.

Far from enjoying the attention her mystical experiences brought her, she was embarrassed by it. For all her days, she wanted a hidden life and tried everything she could to achieve it. When God commanded her to go barefoot as part of her penance and she could not walk with shoes, she simply cut the soles out of her shoes so no one would see her as different from the other nuns. If she felt an ecstasy coming on, she would hurry to finish her work and go back to her room. She learned to see the notoriety as part of God’s will. When teaching a novice to accept God’s will, she told her, “I wanted a hidden life but, see, God wanted something quite different for me.”

Some still might think it was easy for her to be holy with all the help from God. Yet when she was asked once why she was weeping before the cross, she answered that she had to force herself to do something right that she didn’t want to do. It’s true that when a sister criticized her for acting so different, she thanked her, “May God reward you! You have never spoken truer words!” but she told others it hurt her quite a bit to be nice to someone who insulted her.

Mary Magdalene was no pale, shrinking flower. Her wisdom and love led to her appointment to many important positions at the convent including mistress of novices. She did not hesitate to be blunt in guiding the women under her care when their spiritual life was at stake. When one of the novices asked permission to pretend to be impatient so the other novices would not respect her so much, Mary Magdalene’s answer shook this novice out of this false humility: “What you want to pretend to be, you already are in the eyes of the novices. They don’t respect you nearly as much as you like to think.”

Mary Magdalene’s life offers a great challenge to all those who think that the best penance comes from fasting and physical discomfort. Though she fasted and wore old clothes, she chose the most difficult penance of all by pretending to like the things she didn’t like. Not only is this a penance most of us would shrink from but, by her acting like she enjoyed it, no one knew she was doing this great penance!

In 1604, headaches, paralyzation, and tuberculosis confined her to bed. Her nerves were so sensitive that she could not be touched without agonizing pain. Ever humble, she took the fact that her prayers were not granted as a sure sign that God’s will was being done. For three years she suffered, before dying on May 25, 1607 at the age of forty-one.  Even to this day, her body remains with the Carmelite community in which she lived and is incorrupt, and is under the altar of the Church of the Monastery of St. Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi in Careggi, Florence.

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-The Ecstasy of Saint Mary Magdalen de Pazzi” ,1670, by Alessandro Rosi (1627-1707), oil on canvas, 120 x 102 cm. Sold $90,900 (2008, Christie’s), Musée des Beaux-arts, Chambéry, France

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-“The Vision of Santa Maria Maddalena de Pazzi”, 1702,  by Giovanni Sangrestani

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-Carmelite Saints:  Prophet Elijah; Cyril of Constantinople ;Andrew Corsini, Bishop and Peacemaker; Mary Magdalene de’Pazzi; Brocard, the first Superior of Mount Carmel; Thérèse, The Little Flower; Simon Stock; Our Lady of Mount Carmel with Child Jesus; Albert of Sicily; Teresa of Jesus; Berthold, the Second Prior General of the Carmelites; Patriarch Peter Thomas; Angelus of Sicily; John of the Cross; and the Prophet Eliseus.

Prayer ought to be humble, fervent, resigned, persevering, and accompanied with great reverence. One should consider that he stands in the presence of a God, and speaks with a Lord before whom the angels tremble from awe and fear.”
– Saint Mary Magdalen de Pazzi

“Come, Holy Spirit. Spirit of truth, you are the reward of the saints, the comforter of souls, light in the darkness, riches to the poor, treasure to lovers, food for the hungry, comfort to those who are wandering; to sum up, you are the one in whom all treasures are contained.
Come! As you descended upon Mary that the Word might become flesh, work in us through grace as you worked in her through nature and grace.
Come! Food of every chaste thought, fountain of all mercy, sum of all purity.
Come! Consume in us whatever prevents us from being consumed in You.”
– from the writings of Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi

“A little drop of simple obedience is worth a million times more than a whole vase of the choicest contemplation.”
– Saint Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi

“If I thought that by saying a word, however indifferent, for any other end than the love of God, I could become a Seraph, I certainly would not say it.” – Saint Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi

“If I had a voice sufficiently loud and strong to be heard in every part of the world, I would cry out to make this Love known, loved, and honored by all men as the one immeasurable Good.” -St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi

“Trials are nothing else but the forge that purifies the soul of all its imperfections.”
-St Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi

“You will be consoled according to the greatness of your sorrow and affliction; the greater the suffering, the greater will be the reward.” –St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi

Prayer:
Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, pray that we will make a commitment to seek the presence of God in prayer the way you did. Guide us to see the graces God gives us as gifts not rewards and to respond with gratitude and humility, not pride and selfishness. Amen

“St. Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi is a symbolic figure of living love that recalls an essential dimension of every Christian life,” said Benedict XVI in 2007. The Pope said this in a letter to the Cardinal Ennio Antonelli of Florence, Italy, in honor of the 400th anniversary of the Carmelite mystic’s death.”She did not let herself be conditioned by the world; the world, though Christian, did not satisfy her desire to become ever more similar to her crucified Spouse,” wrote the Holy Father.  “Purified love, which beat so strongly in her heart, opened her to the desire for full conformity with Christ, her Spouse, even unto sharing with him the ‘nudo patire’ [naked suffering] of the cross,” the Pope continued. “The last three years of her life were a true Calvary of sufferings for her.”  Benedict XVI added: “During her life she would ring the bells and exhort her fellow sisters saying: ‘Come to love Love!’  The great mystic from Florence, from her convent and from the Carmelite monasteries that aspire to her, we pray that we may still hear her voice in the entire Church, spreading the proclamation of God’s love for every human creature.”

Love,
Matthew

May 25 – St Bede the Venerable, (673-735 AD), Doctor of the Church, Father of English History

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He was known as the most learned man of his day, and his writings started the idea of dating this era from the incarnation of Christ. The central theme of Bede’s “Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People)” is of the Church using the power of its spiritual, doctrinal, and cultural unity to stamp out violence and barbarism. Our knowledge of England before the 8th century is mainly the result of Bede’s writing.

It was as a teacher that Bede was supreme. He had no interest in speculation and no desire to be original; his genius was that of one who, with infinite pains, educates himself and transmits not only what he has learned but a deep sense of the value of such knowledge. Of his oral teaching–to which he attached great importance–of course we cannot speak, but his books became standard works of reference in his own lifetime.

His carefulness and sobriety of approach, his pains to be accurate, his obvious orthodoxy, gave to them a unique authority. Bede’s works fall into three well-defined classes. His theological writings consist mainly of a teacher’s commentaries on the Bible, based very largely on the western Fathers and written for the most part in the allegorical manner of Christian tradition. Bede used his knowledge of Greek and displayed what we may think was an innocent vanity in making the most of such Hebrew as he had learned. Yet, despite the lack of originality in his approach, the commentaries of Bede remain even today one of the best means to arrive at the thought of the early Fathers.

His scientific writings consist partly of traditional explanations of natural phenomena, in which the poetic approach of St. Ambrose is sometimes reflected, and partly of treatises on the calendar and the calculation of Easter–a matter of moment, as the Paschal controversy between Saxons and Celts had by no means entirely died down. It was Bede’s popularization of the method of calculating calendar years from the supposed date of our Lord’s birth which more than anything else ensured its universal acceptance in western Christendom.

At the time Bede wrote the Historia Ecclesiastica, there were two common ways of referring to dates. One was to use indictions, which were 15-year cycles, counting from 312 AD. There were three different varieties of indiction, each starting on a different day of the year. The other approach was to use regnal years—the reigning Roman emperor, for example, or the ruler of whichever kingdom was under discussion. This meant that in discussing conflicts between kingdoms, the date would have to be given in the regnal years of all the kings involved. Bede used both these approaches on occasion, but adopted a third method as his main approach to dating: the anno domini method invented by Dionysius Exiguus. Although Bede did not invent this method, his adoption of it, and his promulgation of it in De Temporum Ratione, his work on chronology, is the main reason why it is now so widely used.

His death was as sober and undeterred as was his life. In the early summer of 735, when he was sixty-three, his health began to fail, and he suffered much from asthma. He was, however, at work until the very end. On the Tuesday before Ascension Day he summoned the priests of the monastery, made them little gifts of pepper and incense and begged their prayers. At intervals during the next forty-eight hours, propped up in bed, he dictated to the very last sentence an English rendering of the Gospel of St. John upon which he was engaged at the onset of his illness. Finally, asking to be laid on the floor, he sang the anthem ‘O King of Glory’ from the Office of Ascension Day and so died. It was May 27th, 735.

Prayer to St Bede:

“Careful Historian and Doctor of the Church, lover of God and of truth, you are a natural model for all readers of God’s inspired Word. Move lectors to prepare for public reading by prayerfully pondering the sacred texts and invoking the Holy Spirit. Help them to read in such a way that those who hear may attain learning and edification. Amen.”

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-“St Bede Dictates the Translation of the Gospel of John on his deathbed”, one of four scenes on triptych by David Hewson, 2003, St Bede Catholic Church, Williamsburg, VA

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-St Bede’s tomb, Durham Cathedral

The Last Chapter
-The Last Chapter, by J.D. Penrose, 1902

Love,
Matthew