“Today, the Catholic Church celebrates the joyous martyr, St. Gerard of Csanád. The Legenda Minor S. Gerardi (ca. 1080) records that he was born around 970. He was a Benedictine monk who was made bishop of Marosvár (later named Csanád) in the Kingdom of Hungary. The region contained many Greek Orthodox inhabitants alongside numerous pagan communities in what was then a part of Hungary’s “wild west.” In addition to Gerard’s success at catechesis and exegesis, he converted many of the local pagans with gentleness and zeal. When the King of Hungary, St. Stephen, died in 1038, a period of political chaos ensued, and it was in this turmoil that St. Gerard was martyred. Several accounts of his martyrdom describe him, buoyed by the grace of God, rolling down a hill in a spiked barrel. Found still alive at the bottom of the hill, he was bludgeoned to death. Throughout this episode, and others in his life, various sources pay attention to Gerard’s joy, rooted in his deep love for Jesus Christ.
When we think of joy, perhaps images of victorious sports teams or holding a newborn baby come to mind. The Christian perspective goes deeper. Reflecting on its essence, Pope St. Paul VI taught that joy is “the spiritual sharing in the unfathomable joy […] which is in the heart of Jesus Christ glorified” (Gaudete in Domino 2). Drawing from St. Thomas Aquinas, Paul VI clarifies that joy is happiness “in the strict sense, when man, on the level of his higher faculties, finds his peace and satisfaction in the possession of a known and loved good” (see ST I-II, q. 31, a. 3). There is a distinction between the lower forms of happiness and joy in that “joy, which is about God, is caused by charity” (ST II-II, q. 28, a. 4). To the degree that our happiness is rooted in earthly things or in our love of God helps us differentiate between happiness and true, spiritual joy, respectively.
Drawing from the lives of the saints, perhaps the clearest expression of joy is given to us in the gospel, when Elizabeth felt John the Baptist “leap for joy” at the approach of Jesus in the Blessed Mother’s womb (Lk 1:44). The presence of God, even in the womb of his mother, was enough to send the baby John into a fit of joy! Saint Felicity, on her way to the arena for her execution, was in such a state of joy that she walked with “shining steps as the true wife of Christ, the darling of God” (The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity). We too, when we unite our gladness and anguish to Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection, can exude joy in responding to the love of God as his treasured sons and daughters. In so doing, we become magnetic Christians on account of our joyful tranquility, which in turn draws others to Christ.
As Catholics, we are called to witness to the “joy that we have in the celebration of the death and resurrection of the Lord” (Guadete in Domino 3). Joy, as that ultimate state of happiness described by Pope St. Paul VI, reflects the love that we are granted from the Father. The grace that God provided St. Gerard allowed him to endure his martyrdom and become God’s instrument for the conversion of the Magyar pagans, who eventually would embrace the faith. May the Holy Spirit also grant us the gift of joy as we persevere in the Christian life. Saint Gerard of Csanád, pray for us!”
O God, Who were pleased to give light to your Church by adorning blessed Gerard with the victory of martyrdom, graciously grant that, as he imitated the Lord’s Passion, so we may, by following in his footsteps, be worthy to attain eternal joys. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The sign of a Christian is JOY amongst our crosses. Not fake smiles, but because of our deep contemplative relationship with Him, all is JOY!!!!
At Pozzuoli in Campania [the memory] of the holy martyrs Januarius, Bishop of Beneventum, Festus his deacon, and Desiderius lector, together with Socius deacon of the church of Misenas, Proculus deacon of Pozzuoli, Eutyches and Acutius, who after chains and imprisonment were beheaded under the Emperor Diocletian.
The body of St. Januarius was brought to Naples, and there honorably interred in the church, where his holy blood is kept unto this day in a phial of glass, which being set near his head becomes liquid and bubbles up as though it were fresh.
Timotheus, President of Campania, was the official who condemned the martyrs, that Januarius was thrown into a fiery furnace, but that the flames would not touch him, and that the saint and his companions were afterwards exposed in the amphitheatre to wild beasts without any effect. Timotheus declaring that this was due to magic, and ordering the martyrs to be beheaded, the persecutor was smitten with blindness, but Januarius cured him, and five thousand persons were converted to Christ before the martyrs were decapitated.
Blood that flows
Saint Januarius is famous for the alleged miracle of the annual liquefaction of his blood. The first certain date is 1389, when it was found to have melted. Then, over the following two and a half centuries official reports began to appear declaring that the blood spontaneously melted, at first once a year, then twice, and finally three times a year.
While the report of the very first incidence of liquefaction did not make any explicit reference to the skull of the saint, soon afterwards assertions began to appear that this relic was activating the melting process, as if the blood, recognizing a part of the body to which it belonged, “were impatient while waiting for its resurrection”
-reliquary containing the head of St Januarius, please click on the image for greater detail
Thousands of people assemble to witness this event in Naples Cathedral three times a year: on September 19 (Saint Januarius’s Day, commemorating his martyrdom), on December 16 (celebrating his patronage of Naples and its archdiocese), and on the Saturday before the first Sunday of May (commemorating the reunification of his relics). The blood is also said to spontaneously liquefy at certain other times, such as papal visits.
-Matteo Treglia, Mitre of St. Januarius, 1713, Museum of the Treasure of San Gennaro, Naples, Italy, please click on the image for greater detail
-Michele Dato, Necklace of St. Januarius, 1679, Museum of the Treasure of San Gennaro, Neaples, Italy, please click on the image for greater detail
“Presentism” is a heresy of history of reading history through modern point of view, culture, and biases. We cannot judge the past from the present. It is impossible. Nor would the past understand the present. The best way to read history is to prepare like an actor to participate in that moment in history taking a well know, well worn role, and seeing it through those eyes.
“Events in history happen in certain times and places. Goes without saying, right? I’m not so sure. It’s not uncommon for us to examine the past through the lenses of today.
I once read a history of the eleventh-century Norman conquest of Sicily. This otherwise lively and accurate account portrayed Robert Guiscard and Roger de Hauteville as venture capitalists, a profession that no medieval man could have wrapped his imagination around.
It is a mistake to judge the decisions and actions of the churchmen involved in what has come to be called the Galileo Affair through the lens (no pun intended here) of modern astronomical discoveries. Better to consider the event by taking a stab at understanding the state of the science at the time, the personality of Galileo, the cultural and religious atmosphere, and the personality of the one saint in the story, the man whose sanctity we celebrate today on his feast day: Robert Cardinal Bellarmine.
-Nikolaus Kopernikus, “Torun portrait” (anonymous, c. 1580), kept in Toruń town hall, Poland, please click on the image for greater detail
Copernicus raises a question
Since ancient times man’s understanding of the cosmos was geocentric: a fixed, immobile Earth around which the heavenly bodies orbited. Aristotle and Ptolemy, whose model included planetary epicycles to account for apparent retrograde motion, were the chief proponents of this model. Among the ancients there was at least one proponent of a heliocentric model, Aristarchus of Samos (known to us through Archimedes), but in the absence of observational evidence the model that was intuitive took hold. Geocentrism was not doctrine, but because it came from Aristotle and because it comported with Scripture, the Church adopted the model.
Not until a canon of the Catholic Church, Nicholas Copernicus, in 1543 published on his deathbed his De revolutionibus orbium ceolestium did anyone give a serious look at a heliocentric model. Even then, few took notice, and the Church certainly was not alarmed. Fact is, Copernicus was encouraged by priests to publish, and he dedicated the book to Pope Paul III. (Luther and Calvin, it’s worth noting, were in fits; Luther called Copernicus a “fool.”)
Copernicus had not one piece of physical observational evidence in support of heliocentrism. De revolutionibus was a complex collection of mathematical formulas and Latin descriptions written to predict the location of the heavenly bodies throughout the year. It’s important to underscore that astronomers at this time in history were not natural philosophers, what we call “physicists” today. They were mathematicians. Their job was to devise the formulas that predicted the location of the heavenly bodies, whether or not the formulas were a true account of what was happening in the physical cosmos.
“Why bother then?” Well, if you were the navigator on a seagoing vessel, or one of the Jesuits at the Roman College hard at work on bringing more precision to the Julian Calendar (some eleven minutes too long every year), where the planets and stars were and when was of central importance to your trade. Also, if you were an astrologer—and make no mistake, back then astrology and astronomy were considerably less delineated than they are now (Galileo wrote horoscopes for cash)—the position of the heavenly bodies was critical to your trade, too.
-Galileo Galilei (1636), by Justus Sustermans, please click on the image for greater detail
Galileo: a force of nature
Knowing the distinction between astronomers (mathematicians) and natural philosophers (physicists) helps us appreciate just how groundbreaking Galileo was: he looked at astronomical questions from the perspective of a natural philosopher. His interests were motion, dynamics, mechanics, etc.; in other words, the fields that tell us what is happening in the physical world.
His theories would not have received the attention they did had it not been for the arrival in the early seventeenth century—in the Netherlands, perhaps—of a carnival toy. Galileo did not invent the telescope, but he sure did improve it, and—another critical contribution—in December of 1609 he pointed it at the heavens. The subsequent months revealed undiscovered wonders, the “mountains of the moon,” the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus. None of these was proof of a heliocentric solar system, but for a pioneer of deductive reasoning, they constituted compelling evidence.
Equally compelling was the force of Galileo’s personality. An impatient genius, Galileo did not go out of his way to make friends among his academic colleagues in Pisa, Florence, Padua, and Rome. His correspondence is replete with bold expressions of his arrogance and bitter insults leveled at men who disagreed with him. He not only lacked humility, he took pleasure at social gatherings in humiliating other scholars with rhetorical traps. His obstinacy is something to marvel at, especially when he was wrong—as he was about the tides, circular orbits, and comets, for example.
Had Galileo been a little more sensitive to the religious atmosphere of his age, the story might have gone less badly. It is commonly believed that the Church’s leading minds refused to look at Galileo’s arguments or look through his telescope. Nothing could be further from the truth. He had the backing of the Carmelite scientist and philosopher Paolo Antonio Foscarini and of many the Jesuits at the Roman College, including Gregorian Calendar architect Christopher Clavius, who were buying up his telescopes and confirming his findings. (His chief academic adversaries were laymen.)
It is true, however, that Galileo made his discoveries in a world still reacting to Martin Luther’s and John Calvin’s insistence that Scripture was subject to personal interpretation. The Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century said it was not. There was no shortage of scriptural passages making reference to a fixed Earth orbited by sun and stars. (There still are!) The Church, as Cardinal Bellarmine was at pains to explain to Galileo when they met in 1616, needed to be deliberate in interpreting scriptural passages that seemed to contradict the discoveries of modern astronomy.
Bellarmine: the voice of reason
Bellarmine counseled caution for two reasons. The first showed a more disciplined and careful approach to deductive science than Galileo’s. “The Copernican system predicts the phases of Venus,” Bellarmine told Galileo. “This does not prove the converse, that is: Venus exhibits phases, therefore the universe is Copernican.” Bellarmine was right, of course. Tycho Brahe’s hybrid model, in which all but the Earth revolves around the sun and all that swirling bundle revolves around the Earth, would also account for the phases of Venus. In other words, absent proof (and that does not come until the mid-nineteenth century) caution more than anything was required in reinterpreting Scripture—which brings us to the good saint’s second reason for caution.
Bellarmine was sharp of mind and had a strong pastoral sense. He told Galileo, “The evidence is insufficient to force scriptural reinterpretations that could lead to doubts in the minds of the faithful about the inerrancy of Scripture.” The position is a perfectly reasonable one. It applies a pastoral solution to a speculative problem. Had Galileo listened to Bellarmine, he would not have found himself in front of an understandably impatient (by this time he had implied that the pope was simpleminded) and admittedly heavy-handed inquisition in 1633.
The dictate of charity
The details of that conflict are for another piece. Let’s conclude with the reflections of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, who, while still an Anglican, argued that Bellarmine in his caution was following the dictates of charity:
Galileo might be right in his conclusion that the earth moves; to consider him a heretic might have been wrong; but there was nothing wrong in censuring abrupt, startling, unsettling, unverified disclosures, if such they were, disclosures at once uncalled for and inopportune, at a time when the limits of revealed truth had not as yet been ascertained. A man ought to be very sure of what he is saying, before he risks the chance of contradicting the word of God. It was safe, not dishonest, to be slow in accepting what nevertheless turned out to be true. Here is an instance in which the Church obliges Scripture expositors, at a given time or place, to be tender of the popular religious sense.
I have been led to take a second view of this matter. That jealousy of originality in the matter of religion, which is the instinct of piety, is, in the case of questions that excite the popular mind, also the dictate of charity. Galileo’s truth is said to have shocked and scared the Italy of his day. To say that the Earth went round the sun revolutionized the received system of belief as regards heaven, purgatory, and hell; and it forcibly imposed a figurative interpretation upon categorical statements of Scripture.
Heaven was no longer above and Earth below; the heavens no longer literally opened and shut; purgatory and hell were not for certain under the earth. The catalogue of theological truths was seriously curtailed. Whither did our Lord go on his ascension? If there is to be a plurality of worlds, what is the special importance of this one? And is the whole, visible universe, with its infinite spaces, one day to pass away?
We are used to these questions now and reconciled to them; and on that account are no fit judges of the disorder and dismay that the Galilean hypothesis would cause to good Catholics, as far as they became cognizant of it, or how necessary it was in charity, especially then, to delay the formal reception of a new interpretation of Scripture, till their imaginations should gradually get accustomed to it.”
“September 12 is the memorial of the Most Holy Name of Mary, a liturgical celebration that probably gives many Catholics pause. Honoring the Blessed Mother in the liturgy is nothing new or unique in the Church, but many may ask, why this feast on this day?
The answer lies in a pivotal battle fought in the late seventeenth century between the Cross and the Crescent at the “Gateway to Europe.” A little more than a hundred years after the great Christian victory at Lepanto (October 7, 1571) where Don John’s Holy League warriors prayed a rosary the night before their miraculous victory (remembered liturgically as the Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary), Christendom was once more severely threatened by the Ottoman horde. The Turks had solidified their hold on the Balkans since the time of Lepanto and were gaining strength for an attack on imperial Hapsburg territory.
Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I (r. 1658–1705) pursued a diplomatic policy of appeasement with the Ottomans, because he was more concerned about his belligerent French neighbor, King Louis XIV. Some of Leopold’s advisors believed the once-mighty Ottoman military was weak and ineffective compared to the strong and large standing army of the Sun King.
Leopold entered into a peace treaty with the Ottoman Turks in 1665 but, fearing the Ottomans might break the treaty, the emperor also entered into defense treaties with other European nations; including Poland, to come to his aid should the Turks invade. The treaty with the Ottomans was set to expire in 1684 but, unbeknownst to Leopold, the Ottomans had decided a year earlier to break the treaty and invade Austria.
At a meeting on August 6, 1682, advisors to the Ottoman sultan, Mehmet IV (r. 1648–1687), persuaded him that the time was right to invade Christian territory. The invasion would commence in 1683 with an army of 100,000 men under the command of the grand vizier Kara Mustapha (1634–1683). Although he was a veteran of numerous military campaigns, Kara Mustapha was not beloved by his troops, since he was known to accept large casualties to accomplish the mission. He lived ostentatiously, with thousands of concubines in his harem and numerous slaves and eunuchs to tend to his needs. He also despised Christians and was looking forward to the campaign.
Kara Mustapha was overly confident of victory and believed his army would capture not only Vienna but even Rome, where he bragged he would stable his horses in St. Peter’s basilica. The Ottoman army crossed the frontier in late June 1683, rampaging and pillaging as they marched.
Polish heroes ride out
As soon as news reached Leopold that the Turks were on the move, he reached out to his allies and begged them to come to the aid of Vienna. Jan Sobieski (r. 1676–1696), the King of Poland and a devout Catholic, responded to his treaty obligations and raised a relief army. He left Warsaw with an army of 20,000 men, mostly cavalry, on the way to Cracow, where the rest of his troops were ordered to assemble.
Along the march, Sobieski stopped to pray at the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. Entrusting the success of his military efforts to the intercession of the Blessed Mother, he began his army’s march to Vienna on the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 15, 1683. His forces were buoyed by the knowledge that Pope Innocent XI (r. 1676–1689) had granted the Crusading plenary indulgence to all who fought for the defense and relief of Vienna.
The Ottoman army arrived at the city on July 14 and, as was their tradition and custom, arranged their camp around the city in the shape of a crescent. The Viennese defenders fought bravely for a month, but by the end of August and into early September food was scarce in the city and disease was rampant. It was only a matter of time before the Ottoman’s broke into the city.
-King John III Sobieski of Poland, please click on the image for greater detail
The undoing of the Turks
The allied relief army led by Sobieski arrived near Vienna on September 9. Surprisingly, the Turks had not secured the approaches to the city; in fact, they did not even post sentries to warn Kara Mustapha of the approach of the relief army. It was a foolish and deadly mistake by the grand vizier, who had focused solely on the siege of the city. Sobieski developed his battle plan and prepared to attack the Ottomans using the high ground of the Kahlenberg Mountain on the outskirts of Vienna.
The battle began on September 11, and the fighting was intense. The unseasonal heat of the day exhausted soldiers on both sides so that by midday the fighting stopped temporarily. When it resumed, Sobieski sensed the Ottoman line was weak, and he unleashed his famed Winged Hussars for a cavalry charge that demolished Turkish resistance. Polish troops were first into the city and were greeted with cheers and prayers of thanksgiving by the beleaguered defenders.
Sobieski sent a victory message to Pope Innocent XI, who credited the Christian victory over the Ottomans and the salvation of the city to the intercession of the Blessed Mother. As a result, the pope established the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary, first celebrated in Spain in the sixteenth century, as a universal memorial for the Church in thanksgiving for the victory at Vienna.
The Ottoman campaign to capture the gateway to Europe and destroy Christendom was a risky operation. Its success would have ensured Ottoman hegemony over Eastern Europe and opened up the approaches to Western Europe. Its failure would begin the decline and ruin of the Islamic empire. Through the intercession of the Blessed Mother and the military genius of the Polish king Jan Sobieski, Christendom was saved.”
“In the same year that Pope Leo X condemned the errors of the recalcitrant Augustinian, Martin Luther, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire died. It was 1520, and Selim I left the throne of the mighty Turkish Empire to his only surviving son, Suleiman, who would come to be known to history as “the Magnificent.” Every Ottoman sultan was expected to glorify Islam by adding territory to the empire, and the Ottomans’ victorious and bloody march through Christendom since the late fourteenth century showed no signs of slowing at the beginning of the sixteenth.
Suleiman was the grandson of Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople, but he quickly overshadowed the great achievement of his ancestor. While Mehmet focused on conquering the “Queen of Cities,” Suleiman set out during his forty-six-year reign to conquer the world. His forces conquered Baghdad, Belgrade, Budapest, and Rhodes. As the empire reached what would be its furthest reach, Ottoman military planners knew that land conquests were important but insufficient: control of the seaways was vital. Therefore, the Ottomans embarked on a campaign to control the “center of the world,” the Mediterranean Sea.
Suleiman’s desire to control the Mediterranean was thwarted for a time, however, by a Catholic military religious order: the Knights Hospitaller on the island of Malta. An Ottoman fleet successfully conquered the Knights’ previous home island of Rhodes in 1522, but Suleiman allowed the surviving Christian warriors to leave the island due to their gallant and tenacious defense. The Knights settled on the strategic island of Malta and harassed Ottoman naval vessels for the next thirty years. By 1565, Suleiman could no longer ignore the problem of the Knights, so he assembled an army of 40,000 warriors, a hundred artillery pieces, and one hundred thousand cannonballs and set out to attack Malta. He was certain of the imminent victory of Islam, but once more the Knights would prove their mettle and push back against the Ottoman horde.
The Knights had used Malta as their base of operations for almost forty years when the great Ottoman invasion fleet arrived. The Master General of the Order, Jean de La Valette, a veteran of the siege of Rhodes, knew the situation was desperate, so he sent a summons to all the Knights in Christendom to come to the island’s defense. He recognized that if Malta fell, the Muslims would gain a strategic base from which to launch an invasion of Sicily, Italy, and ultimately the very heart of Christendom, Rome.
The Ottomans arrived on Malta in May 1565 with a 180-ship fleet that sailed into and took the main harbor, unopposed. La Valette had placed his greatly outnumbered troops in several forts around the harbor. The Ottomans disembarked and arranged their camp in a crescent shape, as was their custom. The Christian defense centered on Fort St. Elmo, at the tip of the largest and most strategic peninsula, as it commanded the entrance to the harbor. Recognizing the importance of the fort, the Ottoman commanders decided to attack it on May 25. Ottoman engineers estimated it would fall in four or five days, but their calculation proved substantially incorrect.
As the calendar turned to June, the Ottomans had succeeded in capturing only the outer trench. The fight was brutal, seeing bitter hand-to-hand combat, heavy sniper activity, and a near-continuous Ottoman artillery barrage. Although the defenders fought bravely, it was only a matter of time before the fort would fall.
The defenders knew the end was near when a cannonball decapitated the fort’s commander on the twenty-sixth day of the siege. The Ottomans launched what proved to be the last attack on June 23 against the sixty Christian defenders remaining (out of an original strength of 1500). Only five ultimately survived the siege. The Ottoman commander (Mustapha Pasha) hoped to demoralize the remaining Christian troops across the harbor so he ordered some of the bodies of the dead Knights stripped of their armor, their hearts ripped out and heads cut off. Each headless corpse was then marked with a cross cut into the chest and nailed by the hands and feet to a wooden crucifix, which was placed into the water to float across the harbor to the remaining Christian defenses. La Valette responded to the Ottoman atrocity by beheading captured Muslim soldiers, loading the heads into his cannons, and firing them into the Muslim camp.
This grotesque exchange illustrates the fact that both sides knew this was a fight to the death, and that the stakes both for the Islamic caliphate and for Christendom could not be higher.
Those who died at Fort St. Elmo gave the other defenders of Malta time to consolidate and reinforce their positions, but the respite was short-lived. Fighting was intense through the month of July, and in early August an Ottoman assault nearly broke the Christian defenses. The hour was so desperate that even Maltese civilians, including women and children, manned the walls to push back the Turks. The remaining days of August were filled with intense trench combat that produced a stalemate, and casualties on both sides were heavy.
The Christian defenders received news on September 8, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the arrival of the long-awaited Spanish relief force in eighty ships. A few days later, on September 11, 1565, the Spanish reinforcements began their march towards the harbor to relieve La Valette’s troops. Aware of their vulnerability, the Ottoman commanders tried a risky, and ultimately futile, attack against the Spanish relief force. The fresh Spanish forces easily routed the Ottoman troops, who were wearied after four months of heavy fighting.
-Jean Parisot de Valette, please click on the image for greater detail
The Ottomans retreated hastily to their waiting ships in St. Paul’s Bay, the famous site of St. Paul’s shipwreck fifteen centuries before, and sailed home. Malta was saved and with it, Christendom. Pope Pius IV offered La Valette the cardinal’s hat for his valiant and brilliant defense of Malta, but the humble warrior refused the offer. He lived another five years, dying from a stroke after returning from a hunt on a hot summer day. He was buried on the island he so nobly defended.”
-re-enactment, please click on the image for greater detail
Non nobis Domine, Domine
Non nobis Domine
Sed nomini, Sed nomini
Tu o da gloriam
Not unto us, O Lord
Not unto us, O Lord
But to Your name
But to Your name
Give the Glory!
“Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning He was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and He sat down and taught them. As He was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.
“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”
They were trying to trap Him into saying something they could use against Him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with His finger. They kept demanding an answer, so He stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then He stooped down again and wrote in the dust.
When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
“No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”” -Jn 8:1-11
Alcide-Vital Lastaste was born in Gironde, France, on September 5, 1832. As a teenager, Alcide felt a call to the priesthood, but as is the way of adolescence, sometimes there can be distractions. Alcide began courting a young lady named Cecilia de Saint-Germain while attending secondary school.
Cecilia and Alcide soon declared their love for each other and planned to get married as soon as possible. However, Alcide’s father, Vital, thought the couple was too young to be getting so serious. He voiced his great displeasure at their deep involvement, and the couple agreed to not see each other for a year. Incredibly, during that year, Cecilia suddenly passed away. The young man was heartbroken.
Alcide turned to his young faith for comfort. He joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and the visits to the downtrodden and homeless opened his eyes to the plight of the poor. At the same time, the call to the priesthood once more erupted within him. In 1857 he entered the Dominican Order. Alcide was ordained a priest on February 8, 1863, and took the name Jean-Joseph. His unexpected spiritual journey was about to take flight and reach heights no one could have ever imagined.
In 1279, Charles of Anjou discovered the allegedly true relics of Saint Mary Magdalene in the small town of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, and along with her grave were also found the grave of Saint Maximinus , the first Bishop of Aix. Karl of Anjou built the Gothic cathedral there to have a worthy repository for these relics. He also built an adjacent monastery, where he installed the Dominicans as guardians of the tomb. The monastery was named “The Royal Monastery” (Le Couvent Royal) . During the revolution, the Dominicans were expelled from the monastery, which is now converted into a hotel. It was there that Brother Jean-Joseph Lataste would deepen his spiritual life and become acquainted with Mary Magdalene, who became the inspiration for his role as founder.
On May 20, 1860, a large party was held on the occasion of the translation of Mary Magdalene’s relics. Lacordaire, who had reintroduced the Dominicans to France after the revolution, was unfortunately absent due to illness, and Brother Jean-Joseph was honored to kiss the saint’s skull, which for him would become a deep and significant spiritual experience. That thought was nailed to his mind, that so great love for the saint could be too great a sin, and he adopted Mary Magdalene as a special patron saint for his future work among sinners.
On September 15, 1864, after being a priest all of 18 months, Father Jean-Joseph Lataste was sent by the prior of the monastery in Bordeaux to conduct a four-day retreat for the inmates of a woman’s prison in the town of Cadillac. This experience would change his life forever.
Suddenly he found himself amid 400 women prisoners, most of them abused and abandoned with nowhere to go. In most cases, these women were poor, uneducated, and without family. Living on the streets forces one to live in survival mode. That means stealing and soliciting and doing whatever one must do to breathe another day. They had been discarded and treated like criminals. This was 1864, and they fit the cliché “out of sight, out of mind.”
The atmosphere of hopelessness and despair at the prison was overwhelming. He wondered what he could do for these women who were often called “the lost women.” Would they even sit and listen to him? He was frightened of the possibilities, but he was also filled with faith.
Father Jean-Joseph stood before the women, stretched out his arms, and began, “My dear sisters –” That was shocking in itself because no one ever truly spoke to these people. Dogs and cats were treated better. His gentle, brotherly greeting got their attention. He spent the next few days guiding them to a special place. It was a place where Hope existed. They had forgotten what that even meant, if they’d ever known at all.
He introduced them to God’s infinite mercy by telling them about the woman caught in adultery and how Jesus forgave her. He spoke about Hell and conversion and embracing freedom. He shared with them the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, and lastly, he spoke to them of Heaven. He could not believe how many women embraced the offer of forgiveness and began going to Confession. The chapel was filled each evening for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. His own heart became filled with a new purpose. He wanted to begin a ministry to serve these women.
The women asked that he come back, and one year later he did just that. This time there was only one sermon a day because the demand for Confession was so high. The last night of the retreat, most of the women attended Adoration. Some stayed the entire night, remaining until dawn. Using the words of St. Catherine of Siena, Father Lataste wrote in his closing notes about the retreat: “I have seen the secrets of God; I have seen the wonders.”
From that point on, he was determined to find a way to help these women. In 1866, he wrote a pamphlet called Rehabilitated. He sent copies to as many journalists and government officials as he could. He knew that the reason so many of those being released failed was because no one trusted them or gave them the slightest chance. He was determined to reshape public opinion.
He announced his intentions of starting an order where women leaving prison could begin a religious life in a contemplative setting. This order was approved and is known as the Dominican Sisters of Bethany. Bethany was the village in Judea where Jesus’ three friends lived—Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, the sinner who became a contemplative soul. Father Lataste, following the Latin tradition exemplified by Saint Augustine and Saint Gregory the Great, identified Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany. Jesus loved to come and stay with them. The Order still flourishes and serves many women in different countries around the world.
However, for French society in the nineteenth century, the nature of the new foundation was surprising, even scandalous. Hostile reactions came particularly from the Dominican Third Order Regular communities, onto which Father Lataste intended to graft Bethany. These religious, usually dedicated to the education of girls, were afraid of public opinion confusing them with repentant sinners. The provincial chapter of the Order informed Father Lataste that the very principle of his foundation raised objections. The founder was not discouraged. This opposition seemed to him to be the sign of divine blessing, given through the cross. In the end, the difficulties faded away, and the foundation continued its course.
The Dominican Sisters of Bethany, contemplative women religious who welcome among them women from various paths, have four houses today—two in France, one in Switzerland, and another near Turin. They visit nearby prisons. The heart of their community life is contemplation of the Divine Mercy, centered on the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, in keeping with Father Lataste’s wishes.
Tuberculosis took the life of Alcide-Vital Lastaste (aka Father Jean-Joseph) on March 10, 1868. He was only 36 years old. As he died, he could be heard softly singing the Hail, Holy Queen, “Salve Regina.”
Dominicans sing the Salve Regina at the end of Compline as the last hymn before holy silence for evening (and emptying dishwashers, yes, plural, novice joke) until morning, when “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise.” is intoned to begin Matins.
Salve, Regina, Mater misericordiæ,
vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.
Ad te clamamus exsules filii Hevæ,
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes
in hac lacrimarum valle.
Eia, ergo, advocata nostra, illos tuos
misericordes oculos ad nos converte;
Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui,
nobis post hoc exsilium ostende.
O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria.
Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
Hail our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry,
Poor banished children of Eve;
To thee do we send up our sighs,
Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious advocate,
Thine eyes of mercy toward us;
And after this our exile,
Show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving,
O sweet Virgin Mary.
-from a homily on the Gospels by Saint Gregory the Great, pope, Second Reading, Office of Readings, Liturgy of the Hours, for September 29th.
“You should be aware that the word “angel” denotes a function rather than a nature. Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits. They can only be called angels when they deliver some message. Moreover, those who deliver messages of lesser importance are called angels; and those who proclaim messages of supreme importance are called archangels.
And so it was that not merely an angel but the archangel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin Mary. It was only fitting that the highest angel should come to announce the greatest of all messages.
Some angels are given proper names to denote the service they are empowered to perform. In that holy city, where perfect knowledge flows from the vision of almighty God, those who have no names may easily by known. But personal names are assigned to some, not because they could not be known without them, but rather to denote their ministry when they come among us. Thus, Michael means ‘Who is like God?’; Gabriel is ‘The Strength of God’; and, Raphael is ‘God’s Remedy.’
Whenever some act of wondrous power must be performed, Michael is sent, so that his action and his name may make it clear that no one can do what God does by His superior power. So also our ancient foe desired in his pride to be like God, saying: I will ascend into heaven; I will exalt my throne above the stars of heaven; I will be like the Most High. He will be allowed to remain in power until the end of the world when he will be destroyed in the final punishment. Then, he will fight with the archangel Michael, as we are told by John: A battle was fought with Michael the archangel.
So too Gabriel, who is called God’s strength, was sent to Mary. He came to announce the One Who appeared as a humble man to quell the cosmic powers. Thus God’s strength announced the coming of the Lord of the heavenly powers, mighty in battle.
Raphael means, as I have said, God’s remedy, for when he touched Tobit’s eyes in order to cure him, he banished the darkness of his blindness. Thus since he is to heal, he is rightly called God’s remedy.”
“How precious the gift of the cross, how splendid to contemplate! In the cross there is no mingling of good and evil, as in the tree of paradise: it is wholly beautiful to behold and good to taste. The fruit of this tree is not death but life, not darkness but light. This tree does not cast us out of paradise but opens the way for our return.
This was the tree on which Christ, like a king on a chariot, destroyed the devil, the lord of death, and freed the human race from his tyranny. This was the tree upon which the Lord, like a brave warrior wounded in his hands, feet, and side, healed the wounds of sin that the evil serpent had inflicted on our nature. A tree once caused our death, but now a tree brings life. Once deceived by a tree, we have now repelled the cunning serpent by a tree. What an astonishing transformation! That death should become life, that decay should become immortality, that shame should become glory! Well might the holy Apostle exclaim: Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world! [cf Galatians 6:14] The supreme wisdom that flowered on the cross has shown the folly of worldly wisdom’s pride. The knowledge of all good, which is the fruit of the cross, has cut away the shoots of wickedness.
The wonders accomplished through this tree were foreshadowed clearly even by the mere types and figures that existed in the past. Meditate on these, if you are eager to learn. Was it not the wood of a tree that enabled Noah, at God’s command, to escape the destruction of the flood together with his sons, his wife, his sons’ wives and every kind of animal? And surely the rod of Moses prefigured the cross when it changed water into blood, swallowed up the false serpents of Pharaoh’s magicians, divided the sea at one stroke and then restored the waters to their normal course, drowning the enemy and saving God’s own people? Aaron’s rod, which blossomed in one day in proof of his true priesthood, was another figure of the cross, and did not Abraham foreshadow the cross when he bound his son Isaac and placed him on the pile of wood?
By the cross, death was slain and Adam was restored to life. The cross is the glory of all the apostles, the crown of the martyrs, the sanctification of the saints. By the cross, we put on Christ and cast aside our former self. By the cross, we, the sheep of Christ, have been gathered into one flock, destined for the sheepfolds of heaven.”
-“The Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary”, by Giotto, in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy (circa 1305 AD)
I was privileged in my volunteer work with hospice to sit vigil this morning with Frederick “Fred” J. from 4am to 8am, my preferred shift. My new friend Fred is 89, an orphan, no family, and one female friend. I said my Lauds/Morning Office for him and with him this morning. I am blessed. This was the hymn for Morning Office today.
Mary the Dawn, Christ the Perfect Day;
Mary the Gate, Christ the Heav’nly Way!
Mary the Root, Christ the Mystic Vine;
Mary the Grape, Christ the Sacred Wine!
Mary the Wheat-sheaf, Christ the Living Bread;
Mary the Rose-Tree, Christ the Rose Blood-red!
Mary the Font, Christ the Cleansing Flood;
Mary the Chalice, Christ the Saving Blood!
Mary the Temple, Christ the Temple’s Lord;
Mary the Shrine, Christ the God adored!
Mary the Beacon, Christ the Haven’s Rest;
Mary the Mirror, Christ the Vision Blest!
Mary the Mother, Christ the Mother’s Son.
Both ever blest while endless ages run.
-by Rev Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen, OCD, Divine Intimacy, Baronius Press, (c) 1964
Presence of God – O Mary, my Mother, teach me to live hidden with you in the shadow of God.
The liturgy enthusiastically celebrates Mary’s Nativity and makes it one of the most appealing feasts of Marian devotion. We sing in today’s Office: “Thy Nativity, O Virgin Mother of God, brings joy to the whole world, because from you came forth the Sun of Justice, Christ, our God.” Mary’s birth is a prelude to the birth of Jesus because it is the initial point of the realization of the great mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God for the salvation of mankind. How could the birthday of the Mother of the Redeemer pass unnoticed in the hearts of the redeemed? The Mother proclaims the Son, making it known that He is about to come, that the divine promises, made centuries before, are to be fulfilled. The birth of Mary is the dawn of our redemption; her appearance projects a new light over all the human race: a light of innocence, of purity, of grace, a resplendent presage of the great light which will inundate the world when Christ, “lux mundi,” the Light of the World, appears. Mary, preserved from sin in anticipation of Christ’s merits, not only announces that the Redemption is at hand, but she bears the firstfruits of it within herself; she is the first one redeemed by her divine Son. Through her, all-pure and full of grace, the Blessed Trinity at last fixes on earth a look of complacency, finding in her alone a creature in whom the infinite beauty of the Godhead can be reflected.
The birth of Jesus excepted, no other was so important in God’s eyes or so fruitful for the good of humanity, as was the birth of Mary. Yet it has remained in complete obscurity. There is no mention of it in Sacred Scriptures and when we look for the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel, we find only what refers to Joseph; we find nothing explicit about Mary’s ancestry except the allusion to her descent from David. Our Lady’s origin is wrapped in silence, as was her whole life. Thus, her birth speaks to us of humility. The more we desire to grow in God’s eyes, the more we should hide ourselves from the eyes of creatures. The more we wish to do great things for God, the more we should labor in silence and obscurity.
“When I feel myself tossed about in the sea of this world amidst storms and tempests, I keep my eyes fixed on you, O Mary, shining star, lest I be swallowed up by the waves.
“When the winds of temptation arise, when I dash against the reefs of tribulations, I raise my eyes to you and call upon you, O Mary. When I am agitated by the billows of pride, ambition, slander or jealousy, I look to you and I invoke you, O Mary; when anger or avarice or the seductions of the flesh rock the fragile little barque of my soul, I always look to you, O Mary. And if I am troubled by the enormity of my sins, troubled in conscience, frightened at the severity of judgment, and if I should feel myself engulfed in sadness or drawn into the abyss of despair, again I raise my eyes to you, always calling on you, O Mary.
“In dangers, in difficulties, in doubts, I will always think of you, O Mary, I will always call on you. May your name, O Virgin Mary, be always on my lips and never leave my heart; in order that I may obtain the help of your prayers, grant that I may never lose sight of the example of your life. Following you, O Mary, I shall not go astray, thinking of you I shall not err, if you support me I shall not fall, if you protect me I shall have nothing to fear, if you accompany me I shall not grow weary, if you look upon me with favor, I shall reach the port” (cf. St. Bernard).
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, “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, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine