Three Things about St Patrick

While I was at my first assignment I was blessed to come across a great little book that contained two documents written by St Patrick himself (which was fitting since one of the parishes was named for him!). I really enjoyed this glimpse into the saint’s own mind and personality. The two works are his Confession (the word is used here in a similar sense to St Augustine’s book, as a basic account of his life), and his Letter to Coroticus. Here are three things to share from them-

 

1. His humility.

St Patrick writes about himself in a very simple and humble way. This can be seen in the first line of each work: “I Patrick, am a sinner, the most uncultured and smallest among all the faithful…” and “I, Patrick, an unlearned sinner who dwells in Ireland…” He was well aware that the work he was doing was not a result of his personal strength but came from the grace of God.

2. His encounter with the Lord’s mercy.

This is the counter-point to his above humility. As much as he was aware of his own weakness, he was aware of the power of God. He writes, “But I know… that before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in the deep mud. But the Strong One came and in His mercy He took me out and He lifted me on high and placed me on the top of His wall. Therefore, I must cry aloud in thanksgiving to the Lord for so many good things which He has given me both now and for eternity… He thus prepared me to be the kind of person I am today so that I can care and work for the salvation of others; me who never cared for my own salvation.” My favorite line is his description that, “[God] watched over me before I knew Him and before I could tell right from wrong: He had compassion for me just as a father has for his son.”

3. The love that he had for the people of Ireland.

It sometimes surprises people to learn that St Patrick wasn’t Irish. He was British and originally came to Ireland as a captive. Patrick escaped his slavery back to Britain, but then felt the call to return to Ireland as a missionary. He talks about hearing the voice of the Irish in his dreams and prayers, and his heart being rent within him. He writes to Coroticus, “I am also urged by the love I have for my neighbors and children, for whom I have renounced my fatherland and family and handed over my very life even unto death.” Patrick describes coming to Ireland as if he had adopted the whole people to himself, and from history we know that the love of his dedication to the people of the island has been well felt!

 

These are just a few small samples, I highly encourage taking the time to read his works if you get the chance. God bless!

John Henry Cardinal Newman

I first heard of Cardinal Newman as the namesake of the “Newman Center” that I attended at the University of Illinois (the Catholic student center). It was with great joy that I heard he had been approved for canonization as a saint! In this post I thought I’d give a few reasons as to how he has been a positive influence in my life.

Cardinal Newman was a significant theologian of the 19th century (lived 1801-1890). He was a member of the Oxford Movement within Anglicanism and developed a deep interest in the writings of early Christians. Much of his research can be found in his work, “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine” (although the word ‘essay’ may be deceiving… my paperback copy is 480 pages!). This study is particularly interesting because he began the research before entering the Catholic Church, and finished it as Catholic. It documents his discovery of the historical roots and unity of the early Church with the Catholic Church today. His writing is full of profound insight into the reasons for belief—which was not an abstract study for him, but a burning personal question. Newman’s writing can be dense at times, but very rewarding!

Second, I find his spirituality compelling and timely. He took as his motto “Cor ad cor loquitur” (heart speaks to heart). As important as study was to him, Newman recognized that what is most powerful is when the Gospel is embodied in a personal witness. In it we can consider the Heart of God speaking to our heart, as well as seeking to let our heart speak to others. My favorite explanation of this phrase comes from a book by Louis Bouyer about St Philip Neri (side note— When Newman entered the Catholic Church he decided to start a community of the Congregation of the Oratory, the religious order founded by Neri. At some point I will write a post on Neri! He is my favorite non-biblical saint). Bouyer writes, “Cardinal Newman’s motto, ‘Cor ad cor loquitur,’ sums up the Philippian ideal; neither speeches nor arguments can awaken a living faith in those whom Christianity has lost its meaning. Only contact with people whose daily lives are dominated by an intense and personal experience of the truths of the Faith can achieve such a result, and it is precisely this result which Philip achieved through his dual life of intimate communion with God and men.” There is a personal touch to his approach to preaching and teaching, and a good reminder that the Faith isn’t just to be studied, but to be lived.

Finally, his legacy keeps popping up in my life. Newman was the rector of a Catholic university and wrote a book called “The Idea of a University,” and his interest in this topic helped him to become the patron of the line of Catholic student centers that I encountered on campus in Champaign-Urbana. This center helped me to make the transition from my high school faith into a more adult faith, and to discern my vocation as a priest (another side note—when I entered seminary, the directors of our diocesan retreat center would begin the retreats with his prayer “Some Definite Service,” it’s worth looking up!). Also, his community and school at the Birmingham Oratory was closely connected with two of my favorite British writers: Hilaire Belloc and JRR Tolkien. Belloc graduated from there as a student himself. Tolkien’s mother appointed a priest of the community as the guardian for him when she was near death, which helped guide him to develop his faith and studies to become the author and professor that he was. Tolkien then sent his children to the school. So, Newman’s influence is all over!

I never can capture everything about a person in a summary like this, but hopefully that gives a little crash course on Newman. God bless!

Mary as the Woman

At the wedding feast of Cana, Mary notices that the wine has run out and makes this need known to Jesus. His response to this request might strike us as a little harsh: “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). It doesn’t take very developed social skills to know that referring to your mother simply as “woman” is not considered polite! However, Mary responds without taking offense, and tells the servers to do whatever Jesus tells them. So, maybe there is more at work in His comment than a sharp rebuke…

In fact, the title of “Woman” has a wide Biblical significance. The first use of it is to refer to the first woman, Eve. It is then used again shortly after the Fall in the first promise of the Redeemer. God tells the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers…” (Genesis 3:15). This title, then, points to the mother of the Messiah. The beginning of the first creation was a husband and wife, while the beginning of the re-creation will be a mother and son. Therefore, it speaks of Mary as the new Eve – the new “Woman.”

Jesus refers to Mary as “Woman” a second time later in the Gospel of John. While hanging on the Cross, Jesus entrusts His apostle John to Mary with the words, “Woman, behold, your son” (John 19:26). Here we again can see a connection with Mary as the new Eve. Jesus is entrusting her with the care of the infant Church (just as He likewise entrusts us with the care of her in the next verse).

The common link between these references is her role as the new Eve. Since the miracle at Cana is Jesus’ first public sign (John 2:11), it is the beginning of His work of redemption that will conclude with the arrival of His “Hour” on the Cross and His Resurrection on the third day (on that note, I think it’s also important to notice that the account of the miracle begins, “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana…”). What might first strike us as a rude comment, then, is in fact a reference to how this request ties into the whole of God’s plan. Hopefully this post has helped you to better understand this passage, and some of the Biblical foundation of Catholic devotion to Mary. God bless!

The Christmas Octave

The Catholic Church celebrates Christmas as an “octave.” What does this mean? It refers to extending the feast from a single day into an eight day celebration because there is just too much to fit into twenty-four hours! Octaves have a long tradition, and in the past many other feasts received this treatment (Easter is the only other Octave in the Church right now). The practice flows from a number of Old Testament feasts that celebrated the “eighth day,” as well as the eight-day dedication of the Temple. Here are some highlights from the Christmas Octave – these days help to extend the grace of the 25th, and draw out more aspects of its meaning!

December 26th commemorates St Stephen, the first martyr (see Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6). This is referenced in one of my favorite Christmas carols, Good King Wenceslas, which is set “on the feast of Stephen!” Stephen shows the strength of the Gospel being put into practice, as well as a powerful symbol of forgiveness. St Paul (before he was St Paul) was present at the stoning of Stephen, and the Office of Readings on this day reflects on this in light of Paul’s later conversion. It quotes a sermon by St Fulgentius, who wrote, “Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.” (You can find the full text here towards the end of the page: http://www.liturgies.net/Liturgies/Catholic/loh/christmas/stephen/officeofreadings.htm).

December 27th marks the feast St John, the Apostle and Gospel-writer. His books of scripture give a special insight into the heart of Christ, and emphasize that Jesus is the Word made flesh (born to save us and offer us the opportunity for encounter with Him). He alone among the Apostles stood faithful at the Cross, and was entrusted with/to the care of Mary, the mother of Jesus. As Stephen represents those who give their life by martyrdom, John represents those who give their life by fidelity to the end of natural life.

December 28th remembers the “Holy Innocents,” the children killed by Herod in his attempt to kill the Christ-child.  In a way they represent all of those that gave their life before the arrival of the Messiah, as well as all those that suffer unjustly. This event required Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt with Jesus for a time. So, although Christmas is a joyful time, this day invites us to remember those who suffer and wait for the full peace of the Kingdom (As an interesting cultural note, in Mexico this is the equivalent of April Fools’ Day. The idea is that everyone wants to be seen as a “holy innocent” even while pulling the pranks!)

The Sunday after Christmas (or, December 30th if Christmas is a Sunday) is the feast of the Holy Family. We focus on the dynamics of the relationship of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. In their home at Nazareth they began to embody and live the Gospel. I always appreciate this feast as a day of gratitude for my family, and to pray for all those that are in particular need at this time. It is also a time to reflect on what I can do to support my family and those around me.

Finally, I want to say a little about the “octave day” (January 1st). It is celebrated as the feast of Mary, the Mother of God (this day has a history of many names, which may be its own blog post at some point!). The title “Mother of God” was strongly promoted after the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) in contrast to the preaching of Nestorius (who denied the unity of Jesus as one Person, true God and true Man). We believe Mary gave birth to a Person, Jesus – who was the Son of God from all eternity, and took to himself a human nature in his birth in time from Mary. This is a key point because the whole work of redemption was to reunite fallen human nature with the abundance of the divine nature. Jesus realizes this in His person. Therefore, this feast brings us back to the beginning by reinforcing the full impact of what happened on Christmas Day; not just the birth of a good human child, but the birth of Salvation itself!

Who was St Elizabeth of Hungary?

St Elizabeth of Hungary was born in 1207, and died 24 short years later in 1231. She filled these brief years with a profound vitality and love for God and neighbor. A daughter of the king of Hungary, she was married at a young age to a German nobleman. There she began to raise a family infused with a deep commitment to the poor and needy (she was strongly inspired by St Francis of Assisi, who was alive and active in Italy during the same time period). She needed a spiritual director not so much to spur her on to deeper virtue (as most of us need!), but instead to help her moderate her desires and focus them on her vocation at hand. When she was sadly widowed at age 20, she converted one of her residences to a hospital and served the sick there herself until her death.

I think St Elizabeth is a model for us of someone who let her life be directed by the Gospel rather than the expectations of the culture around her. As a noblewoman she could have been considered pious with even a passing practice of devotion. Instead, she sought to live her calling as completely as possible rather than seeking to know the minimum that was asked of her. May she pray for us that we be inspired by the same burning furnace of charity!

Fr Georges Lemaître

If you went to Google’s homepage on July 17th you would have seen the picture of a Catholic priest! Google changes its graphic (“doodle”) from day to day to commemorate various individuals or events, and on the 17th decided to honor the 124th birthday of Fr Georges Lemaître- a Jesuit priest. Why?

In addition to being a priest, Fr Lemaître was a distinguished astronomer. He studied at Cambridge, Harvard, and MIT in the course of his education. He is most famous for proposing what is now called the “Big Bang Theory” of the development of the universe (although that was not his phrase for the theory). I have mentioned this before, but it is interesting that this theory is so often considered the epitome of an atheistic view of creation, when in fact it was proposed by a Catholic priest! Fr Lemaître did not construct it as a specific argument for the Catholic understanding of creation. It flowed from the fruits of his academic study. However, he saw that it was not in conflict with our faith. Although the theory is often described as a theory of creation (especially by those that might see it in opposition to belief in creation by God), it is actually a theory about how pre-existent matter developed into the universe as we know it. It does not require one to deny that the universe has a Creator, order, or purpose.

In my experience so much of the popular opinion of the opposition of faith and science flows from a mistaken understanding of one (or both!) of the elements. As Catholics we see them as two different ways to come to know about the same universe. They can mutually enlighten each other with their own specific emphasis. In Fr Lemaître – along with so many other examples – we can see this process in action.

A Famous Quote from St. Catherine of Siena

St. Catherine of Siena (feast day April 29th) lived in the late 1300’s and is considered one of the masters of the spiritual life despite her simple life and training. She also worked vigorously to correct the disunity and dysfunction of the Church at her time. This letter was written to her friend Stefano Maconi, who she believed was resisting God’s call to enter monastic life. She saw this as emblematic of the problems of the time, and wished his help in the work she had undertaken. After her death Stefano did become a Carthusian, eventually being named General of the Order. A quote from the end of this letter has become somewhat famous, and I think knowing this context makes it even more powerful! If we are what we ought to be (i.e., if we follow the call God has for us), we will set the world on fire! God bless-

From a Letter of St Catherine Sienna to Stefano Maconi

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary:

Dearest son in Christ Jesus: I Catherine, servant of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to you with desire to see you arise from the lukewarmness of your heart…  For in truth, if we did see [the utter love of Christ], our heart would burn with the flame of love, and we should be famished for time, using it with great zeal for the honor of God and the salvation of souls. To this zeal I summon you, dearest son, that now we begin to work anew…

Be fervent and not tepid in this activity, and in encouraging your brothers and elders of the Company to do all they may in the affair of which I write. If you are what you ought to be, you will set fire to all Italy, and not only yonder. I say no more to you. Remain in the holy and sweet grace of God….