Category Archives: Saints

Benedict and Francis

Not the popes.  The saints.

Today, I was able to head to the small mountain town of Subiaco, famous for the cave in which Saint Benedict spent his first three years as a monk.  That part I knew.  But I didn’t know that Saint Francis had made a pilgrimage to Subiaco in the last years of his life.



Subiaco is a breathtaking spot, away from the hustle and bustle of Roman life.  That is my reality, but it was also the reality of the young student, Benedict.  He came to Rome to receive an education in rhetoric at the end of the 5th century, but fled the life of vanity there to become a hermit in the wilderness.  He came to Subiaco, a large cave that is now filled with paintings and chapels.  In this lonely place, Benedict gave himself over to prayer.  Romanus, a hermit who lived on the mountain above the cave, used to lower food to him.  Soon, however, the local shepherds and farmers would come to learn something from this man, exchanging food and other necessities for a bit of wisdom.


The monk who gave us the tour today brought out one aspect of the story that was new to me.  Benedict composed  his famous Rule for these simple people who always came to him seeking wisdom and advice.  His Rule for the monasteries that he would found throughout this region of Italy, was also a rule of wisdom for the daily life of ordinary Christians.  We see in this little aspect of the tale two beautiful realities: the desire of the people for the wisdom of God and the desire of Benedict to share what he had received from God in his life of prayer and dedication.  And we must remember the context in which all this happened.  The Roman Empire had just collapsed in the West, leaving a huge vacuum which the barbarian–which mainly means un-educated–peoples would fill.  The Benedictine monasteries would be set up throughout Europe as “cities on a hill”, places of civilization and beauty in the midst of the Dark Ages that followed the fall of Rome.

Which brings me to a second thing that struck me in this trip to Subiaco: Saint Benedict is the patron saint of Europe.  In the picture above, which was taken in a part of Benedict’s cave, there is a candle with the most unique candlestick I have ever seen.  It is a part of a bomb!  The bomb landed near the shrine during World War II but never exploded.  It was placed there (diffused!) in 1964 when Pope Paul VI named Benedict the patron saint of Europe.  At the base of the bomb-candlestick it says “Europa Una”, “One Europe”.  We were reminded that the motto of the Benedictine order is “Pax”, “Peace”.


Benedictine monasteries are always places of peace. But more importantly, the life of prayer, study, work, and community that characterized those monasteries is a sure path to peace.  The peace of God, which is the only true peace, is not meant just for monks, but also for ordinary Christians, those for whom Benedict originally wrote his Rule.  It is the life of the Gospel that brings peace to our troubled souls, and makes us “instruments of peace” for the world around us.

The sanctity and message of Saint Benedict brought thousands of pilgrims to Subiaco in the years following his death.  We saw at the entrance to the cave a painting of Mary and Jesus that dates back to the 7th century!  The painting is at the bottom of a staircase that leads up to the cave of Benedict, and it was these stairs that Saint Francis climbed in the year 1223.


In one of the side chapels of the cave, there is a painting of Saint Francis that commemorates the pilgrimage that he made.  It is a rather unique painting, because Francis is not depicted with the stigmata.  The monk who was giving the tour asked us why he was not pictured with the wounds of Christ, whereas most paintings of Saint Francis show him with these wounds.  And then he reminded us of the year Francis a had visited Subiaco, 1223, one year before he received the stigmata (1224) and three years before his death (1226).  The artist had seen Saint Francis, and painted him as he remembered him, which means that this is a very accurate depiction of the saint from Assisi.  The Benedictine monk was quick to point out: more accurate than even the paintings at Assisi, which were done by men who had never met Francis!


Needless to say, we were all struck by this trip to Subiaco, and inspired by these saints–giants of the faith–who gave themselves entirely to the Lord’s service.  Where would the world be today if it weren’t for men like Saint Benedict and Saint Francis?  Benedict used his learning and wisdom to mark out a path to peace and friendship with God that continues to shape the world today.  Benedictine monks are incredible people, and gave Europe and, through Europe, the world, so many gifts of culture and faith.  They were truly lights in the midst of the Dark Ages, and in every age the darkness of sin has need of men and women who bring the light of Christ.  Saint Gregory the Great, himself a Benedictine monk, would send the monks Saint Augustine of Canterbury and Saint Boniface to the English and German peoples.  The list of saints, scholars, and missionaries reaches all the way to our day.

Francis would set the world on fire with his burning heart, burning with the love for Lady Poverty, to show the Church and the world “the one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42).  He found a great treasure, Christ, and was willing to give up everything to buy it.  His communion with Christ went so far that he would receive the marks of Christ’s passion on his own body in 1224.  Franciscan priests and brothers have had such a profound impact on the Church not only in Europe, but throughout the world.  They were largely responsible for the evangelization of the Americas, and it was a Franciscan, Junipero Serra, who founded the missions of California.

And of course, my mind turns today to our two popes, Benedict XVI and Francis, who also have the same desire that moved our two saints–to bring us into relationship with Jesus Christ, our true peace.  In this reflection, we can understand a little better the depth behind the names chosen by these men, and we are grateful that the popes call our attention to these great saints.

Where would we be without men like Saint Benedict and Saint Francis?  Where would we be without the saints?  These men astound us by their lives, but they also show us a path, the path to the peace that does not pass away and to the essential in life.  This peace and this essential thing have a name and a face: Jesus Christ.  That is what saints do; they make Christ present!

Saints Benedict and Francis, pray for us!



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The Lord is Glorious in His Saints

These past days were truly blessed days to be a “temporary” citizen of Rome.  Two popes were canonized at a Mass celebrated by two popes–what has been termed in much of the Catholic world as “the Mass of four popes”.

Here is a little bit of a chronicle of the fateful day, which actually started the night before, as the center of Rome became a pilgrimage spot and its streets were filled with excitement for the Church’s two new saints: John XXIII and John Paul II.

Trinità dei Monti:


The evening began at the top of the Spanish Steps, at the church called Trinità dei Monti, which is actually a monastery of the Monastic Community of Jerusalem.  The church is my spot to go for Vespers, the Evening Prayer of the Church, because of the monks and nuns who sing the psalms there in four-part harmony.  I first came across this community at their home church of Saint-Gervais in Paris.

The church was packed with French-speaking pilgrims and those who just happened to wander into the church at the top of the famous steps.  The community sang Vespers in French, and the congregation joined in their parts, amazingly finding their spot in the harmony.  As I looked around, what struck me was the youth of those who were there to pray: young single people, young couples with children, and the monks and nuns who are mostly young French men and women.

I have always been struck by the beauty of French spirituality, its simplicity and its profundity, with such saints as Therese of Lisieux, Joan of Arc, and John Vianney.  The French are known today as a pretty secular bunch, but the beauty of faith is that it gives those who “tap into” it access to the incredible depth of a culture formed by Christ, the “eldest daughter of the Church”, as France is known.

Here is a clip of their singing from their monastery in Quebec:

Il Gesù:


After a brief stop at Sant’Andrea della Valle, where my friends from Communion and Liberation had been asked by the Diocese of Rome to offer hospitality to other French pilgrims, I headed over to the Gesù to meet up with some priests from my house who follow the Neocatechumenal Way.  The folks from “the Way” were all gathering at this Jesuit church, where St Ignatius and St Francis Xavier are buried, to keep an all night vigil before the canonization Mass.

The Neocatechumenal Way, as its name suggests, offers the spiritual richness of the catechumenal process (the process for unbaptized people to become Catholic, aka RCIA) to Catholics who may have drifted away from the Church or never tapped into the grace of the Sacraments of Initiation.  They do this by forming small communities that share life together in an intense formation that often goes on for years.  The “Neo-cats” began in Spain and have spread all over the world.  They are well known for the many families that leave their homes to become missionaries precisely as families, and for the seminaries that have opened on every continent.  I became friends with the Way while I was in Denver, where they have a seminary.

What struck me about this gathering was the great energy and enthusiasm that filled this huge baroque, Jesuit church.  The contemplative experience of the Monastic Community of Jerusalem gave way to a rather raucous and joyous celebration, as many hundreds of young people–mostly Spanish and Italian–“settled in” for their vigil.  The prayer vigil consisted of Vespers, a rosary, adoration, and Confession, accompanied by the powerful, energetic music for which the Way is known.  Here is a link to one of their most famous songs, “Resucitò”:

The Canonization:

At this point, I did something that many of the pilgrims did not get to do on Saturday night before the canonizations: I went home and went to sleep.  The next morning, I set out at 6:30am (now, others spent the whole night at the gates of St Peter’s Square and others got up as early as 2:30am to get there in time–and they now want to kill me!).  By the time I was heading to St. Peter’s to distribute communion–with my special ticket which is why I could leave so late–there were already many others heading from the Square to other parts of the city where they were showing the canonizations on screens.

Here are two photos from the Roman Forum, which is a long street that was completely covered with people watching on five jumbo-trons (called maxischermi in Italian):

Roman Forum

 Roman Forum 2

Now, back to Saint Peter’s Square: the priests who were distributing communion gathered in the Paul VI Audience Hall and then moved from there into the Square already filled with people.  As we walked out, you could feel the energy and excitement of the people.  I knew we were going to be close to the altar, but I did not know how close.  I was just excited to get into the Square and see how many people were there, and of course, the flags!  More than half, for sure, were Polish flags with the names of cities and dioceses from which so many of the pilgrims had come.  Here is a glimpse of the Square from where I was sitting:

Me in St Peter's

And here is the glimpse the other direction (yes we were that close to the Basilica of St Peter!):


What can I say about the canonization itself?  It was an incredible moment to hear Cardinal Amato (in charge of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints) ask Pope Francis on behalf of the whole Church to declare these men saints.  Before this, we had chanted together the Litany of Saints, which really brought the reality of the canonization home to me: we were asking that Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II be numbered among these men and women (Peter, Paul, Augustine, Catherine of Siena, Francis, Dominic, Teresa), the “Hall of Fame” of Christianity!

Then came the moment for which I was vested and seated where I was: the consecration and the distribution of the Most Holy Eucharist.  What struck me the most about this moment was the peacefulness and reverence of the crowd, who at moments were so silent that you did not know that there were 500,000 people standing behind you.  The people came forward to receive communion so devoutly, which showed me the reason why they were in St Peter’s Square that day: they had encountered Christ through the witness of St John XXIII and St John Paul II.

This may seem a little thing, but I have distributed Holy Communion many times (thank God!) at St Peter’s, and often I witness the lack of reverence and attention with which the “normal” tourists receive Communion.  I do not mean that as a harsh judgment on those people, but only to point out the difference that I experienced this time around.  For me, this reverence and devotion was a huge testimony to the holiness of our two newest saints: they helped people to love Christ, really to see Christ and encounter Him where He is to be found.

The prayer that has filled my heart in the days since the canonization has been the “Glory Be”; the glory of God is that for which the saints live and that which they show to the Church and to the world.  The Lord is truly glorious in His Saints, who have born such beautiful (and diverse) fruit because they remained in Christ, as branches on the true Vine.

Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, pray for us that we too may remain always in Christ.  “In this is my Father glorified, that you bring forth much fruit and that you be my disciples.” (John 15:8)

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The Risky Popes

The cover of a Catholic magazine recently referred to the two popes to be canonized on Sunday, April 27, as “The Odd Couple”.  Now, the magazine cover did the trick, in that it caught my attention and elicited a reaction.  The reason that these two are seen as an odd couple is that, in the mind of many, Pope John XXIII opened the door of the Second Vatican Council, seen as a liberalizing of the Church, and Pope John Paul II tried to reign in what he saw as the excesses of the Council’s interpretation and its quite vague “spirit”.

My reaction to this fairly common and superficial reading of the history of the Church was to ask myself the question, What do these two different popes have in common?  Why would they be canonized together?

And the word that came to my mind was “risk”.  I will explain how risk played out in each of these popes’ lives, but first we must link the word risk to another word: “freedom”.  What do risk and freedom have to do with each other?  Let us think of the experience of falling in love, of saying to someone for the first time, “I love you!”  What a risk!  It is possible that the other person does not feel the same way about me.  It is possible that the other is not ready to say those words back to me.  It is possible that this “revelation” of what is in me could scare the other person, or be misunderstood, or could lead to a lot of heartache and pain.

Why is the declaration of my love for another person a risk?  Because the other person is free, free to love me back, free not to love me back, free not to live up to the demands to which love commits us.  It is the freedom of love that our two popes risked, when the “put themselves out there” in proposing the Gospel, which is the greatest declaration of love that could ever be given.

John xxiii

The risk of John XXIII: calling the Second Vatican Council.  In the history of the Church, Councils have been called mainly to deal with grave problems that have arisen, points of doctrine that need clarification because they have been attacked.  Think of Arius (Christ is a creature, not God) and the Council of Nicea in 325 (we still say the Creed today).  Think of the Protestant Reformations and the Council of Trent in the middle of the 16th century.

John XXIII called a Council not to deal with any particular issue, not to settle any particular doctrinal question, but rather, “The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.” (Speech at the Opening of Vatican II)  John XXIII saw the need to teach the faith, the same Catholic faith as ever, in a new and more convincing manner.  The way to do this, according to John XXIII, was not by changing things all around, but by finding a mode of expression that could be understood in our time.

The substance of the ancient doctrine of the Deposit of Faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.

The difference was to move from a defensive position, taking refuge in “being right”, to a position of proposing the faith so that it could be understood and accepted in a world that was drifting farther and farther away from the Church.  Some say that John XXIII was too optimistic about our ability to propose the faith (without changing it) and about the openness of the world to being affected by this new transmission.  But he set us on a path, and it is precisely the path of risk, of proposing the revelation of the love of God to us in Jesus Christ, of proposing that love to the freedom of a world that may reject, may misunderstand, may persecute…but may accept it!

Illuminated by the light of this council, the Church—we confidently trust—will become greater in spiritual riches and, gaining the strength of new energies therefrom, she will look to the future without fear. In fact, by bringing herself up-to-date where required, and by the wise organization of mutual cooperation, the Church will make men, families and peoples really turn their minds to heavenly things.

I hope the way that John XXIII presents the Council sounds familiar to us, because it is the greatest legacy of Vatican II.  I recommend the Pope’s speech, called “Mother Church Rejoices”, to everyone.  Here is a link:

JP-II-wizerunek blogoslawionego

The risk of John Paul II: World Youth Day.  It seemed like the risk of John XXIII did not “pay off”, that the world had said NO to the invitation that the Second Vatican Council wanted to propose to them.  The hemorrhage of Catholics from the Church continued, and even sped up, in the years after Vatican II.  Many priests and nuns left their vocation, and many people drifted away from the practice of their faith.  Inside the Church, even, many people did not get John XXIII’s distinction between the teachings of the Church (which cannot change) and the way of proposing the faith (which can, and must change, throughout history).  They wanted to change the teachings of the Church, to be more “up to date”.

And then came John Paul II.  Among the many risks that the Polish Pope took and invited the Church to take, I want to focus on the World Youth Days.  I had the privilege of attending two World Youth Days with John Paul II (Rome and Toronto), and have watched with joy how they have continued to take on such an important place in the mission of the Church in our time.

What was the risk?  In a world where young people seem to have no desire for what the Church proposes, where they continue to leave the Church like it was on fire, John Paul II invited them to come to Rome for a celebration of faith.  Who would come?  Would it just prove that the Church had been overly optimistic to believe that the faith could still awaken people?

On Palm Sunday in 1984, 300,000 young people came to Saint Peter’s Square at the invitation of the Pope.  On that occasion, he said to them, “What a fantastic spectacle is presented on this stage by your gathering her today! Who claimed that today’s youth has lost their sense of values?  Is it really true that they cannot be counted on?”  This “counting on” the youth, “betting” on their freedom is the experience of risk, which is the way that love grows, not just for the young, but for any of us.  It was that first experience that launched the World Youth Days.


John Paul II would reflect years later, in 2002 at the World Youth Day in Toronto, about the risk he took, and the amazing response of the young to his invitation:

When, back in 1985, I wanted to start the World Youth Days… I imagined a powerful moment in which the young people of the world could meet Christ, who is eternally young, and could learn from him how to be bearers of the Gospel to other young people. This evening, together with you, I praise God and give thanks to him for the gift bestowed on the Church through the World Youth Days. Millions of young people have taken part, and as a result have become better and more committed Christian witnesses.

The vision of John XXIII, about a new way of proposing the Church’s faith, has taken flesh in a remarkable way in the World Youth Days of John Paul II, and in the worldwide “project” and call for a New Evangelization, which is new in ardor, method, and expression, not in content.

The risk of Christ: the Cross.  The content of the Christian proclamation is “Christ, and Him crucified,” as Saint Paul says.  To take a risk out of love is nothing more than to embrace the Cross of Christ.  Christ “handed Himself over to us” without any guarantee of what our response would be.  This love of God has been subject to so much derision, misunderstanding, and rejection throughout history and in our own day.  But it has also been accepted, and has born fruit in our hearts in beautiful ways!  God thought the risk worth it, because “there will be more joy in Heaven over one person who repents than over 99 who (think they) have no need of repentance.” (Luke 15:7)

The content of Christianity, the love of God incarnate, also indicates to us a method: risk, freedom, love.  Of course, these realities look different at different times in history.  Pope Francis canonizes two men who show us what the “risk of love” looks like in our time.  These men are saints, not so that we can admire them as museum pieces, but so that we too may risk in love for the good of the world.

Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, pray for us.

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That We May Rejoice to Behold Your Glory

One of my professors, Michelina Tenace (affectionately known as Tenacious M) mentioned in class the other day that the “final exam” that a monk must take to become an iconographer in the Eastern Christian tradition is to depict the Transfiguration of the Lord.  The reason being that all the glory that must be depicted (or written, as they say of icons) comes from the light with which Christ shone on Mount Tabor.


The gold background of any icon is the light of glory, which radiates from the body of Christ and from the bodies of the saints who belong to Christ.  In the Western tradition, whose images and statues are often more “realistic” than the Eastern icons, this glory is still visible in the halos that surround the head of Christ and the Saints, or in the gold that highlights the clothes of our Lord or His Blessed Mother.

A few years ago, a woman told me that she didn’t like a particular Crucifix because Jesus’ clothing had touches of gold in it.  The golden element made the Crucifix seem less “realistic”, because Christ was a poor man and would not have worn such ornate clothing.  But what the Transfiguration teaches us is precisely the “reality” behind, or rather in, the earthly life and destiny of Jesus Christ.  St John understands this well, when he describes the Cross as Christ’s “glory”.  It is the eternal love of God that is glorious, and this eternal love shines in everything that Christ did and suffered for us.

And so we read the Gospel account of the Transfiguration every year on the Second Sunday of Lent.  This may seem odd to us that Lent would shine with a glory that “rightly” belongs to Easter.  But we are able to “bear our share of hardship for the gospel” not because Lent is about our efforts by which we would prove ourselves to God or to others.  We carry the Cross with Jesus during Lent “with the strength that comes from God” (2 Tim 1:8).

It is this strength that accompanied Jesus throughout His whole life, ever since the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary.  At certain moments in Christ’s life, this glorious strength flashed out, for our benefit; precisely after Christ is transfigured in today’s Gospel, He makes a prediction about the horrible death He will have to endure.  The glimpse of Christ’s glory provides a firm place for us to grasp when the darkness and difficulties of life seem to overwhelm us.  In fact, the spiritual tradition of the Church will describe this darkness as an abundance of light that blinds us, similar to when we walk out of a dark room into the bright sunshine.


The glorious light of Tabor, though, is not something that wants to remain outside of us, a strength that is purely an “example”, good for Jesus and encouraging for us.  In fact, the light of Mount Tabor is not a “something” at all. The light of Mount Tabor is Someone, the third Person of the Holy Trinity, that is, the Holy Spirit.

The collect for the Second Sunday of Lent in the Roman Rite prays:

O God, who have commanded us to listen to your beloved Son, be pleased, we pray, to nourish us inwardly by your word, that, with spiritual sight made pure, we may rejoice to behold your glory.  Through our Lord Jesus Christ…

To be nourished by God’s word, to have our spiritual sight purified, to rejoice in beholding God’s glory–this is the work of the Holy Spirit.  The light in which Christ is bathed on Mount Tabor does not come from outside of Him; rather, it bursts forth from within Him in whom God’s Spirit dwells “without measure” (John 3:34).  This same light made it possible for the disciples Peter, James, and John to see Christ’s glorious Transfiguration.  The Fathers of the Church–especially the Eastern Fathers, who celebrated the Transfiguration as a feast since the 4th century–are adamant that the light of Mount Tabor was not a physical light at all.  Peter, James, and John are not just lucky because they saw something that we didn’t see.  It is not a light that can be videotaped, or put into tents, like Peter wants to do.

There is a relationship, though, between the light that radiates outward from Jesus and the light that allows the disciples to see Christ’s light.  The relationship is the Holy Spirit, which also works in those of us who belong to Jesus, who makes it possible to see Jesus and therefore to be transfigured like Him, into Him.  Let’s listen to St. John and St Paul:

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)

All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthian 3:18)

The Fathers of the Church and the whole Eastern Church speak about this reality as divinization, a word that even my spellcheck will not accept (it keeps wanting to turn it into “divination”).  It is not a word we are  familiar with in the West.  Peccato, as they say in Italian: a sin, a shame that we do not know the word.  Because it is the whole reason why God became man, why God created us in the first place.  In the famous phrase: “God became man, so that men might become gods.” (St. Athansius, St. Augustine, and many others)  That is Catholic theology, my friends.

Divinization takes place in the light of Mount Tabor, that is to say, in the Holy Spirit, who wants to dwell in us so as to profoundly change and transfigure us.  This does not mean that we will skip over suffering and death, anymore than Christ avoided suffering and death after His Transfiguration.  It means rather that like Abraham, “all the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you” (Genesis 12:4).  God does not just want to bless you and me; He wants to make you and me a blessing.


That is why the iconographer has to show that he can depict the Transfiguration before he becomes a “master”.  He must understand that it is only in light of the Holy Spirit that anyone or anything can be holy.  Yet, he must write icons–of Christ, of the Virgin Mary, of the Saints–precisely because this is the goal of our human life, which the iconographer holds up to the world: “once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Ephesian 5:8).

The goal of human life is not just to be blessed, but to become a blessing…to become an icon.

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St. Agatha: Of Pastries and Martyrdom

A couple blocks away from the Casa Santa Maria, the American priests’ house in Rome, you will find the Sicilian bakery named “Nonna Vincenza” (Grandma Vincenza).  I was first introduced to this place by a friend who was buying a birthday cake for his mother who was visiting us in Rome.  While we were there, we bought some pastries for the house, one of which looked remarkably like, well, like this:


When I asked my priest friend what these ones were called, he answered, “St. Agatha’s Breasts”.  Oh!  And that is how I learned the story of St. Agatha, virgin and martyr, whose feast we celebrate February 5.

Veneration of St. Agatha goes all the way back to the 6th century, but we know very little about her: that she was Sicilian and that she died a martyr.  The story goes that she had dedicated her life to God at a young age, promising not to marry, or rather, to belong only to her Divine Spouse, Jesus Christ.  Of course, the young men in the village had other ideas.  When she refused to marry one Quintian, he denounced her as a Christian, hoping that the threat of torture and death would induce her to marry him.

He was wrong, and so Agatha suffered.  One of the punishments inflicted on her was to have her breasts cut off.  Around the year 251, she gave the ultimate witness to Christ and died the martyrs death.  She is often depicted as holding a plate with her breasts on them, just like St. Lucy is depicted holding a plate with her eyes that were taken out.  Agatha is the patron saint of bell-makers (the shape!), of bakers, who make special pastries and bread in the shape of breasts on her feast day (and on other days of the year, as my trip to Nonna Vincenza’s proved), and of breast cancer patients.


One of my high school students told me once that he thought heaven would be boring.  Why?  It would be boring just to think about God and do “God stuff” all day long.  I replied to him that the saints show us how much more interesting God and “God stuff” is than anything we can think up for ourselves.  The saints break us out of many of our false notions of religion, and particularly of the false notion that Christ gives us less rather than more life.

One of these false notions is in the very name of our saint, Agatha, which in Greek means “good”.  What an abused word this “good” is in our everyday living of Christianity and in our Christian imagination!  Good is often equated with nice, so that the highest goal of our deflated Christianity would be not to ruffle too many feathers, to get along with others, and to smile at people more often.  Christ told us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and we love ourselves so little, we aim so low, that “nice” is the best thing we can come up.  If only we really loved ourselves, then we would have something better to give our neighbor than “nice”.  We could give him “good”.

St. Agatha found the best that life had to offer when she met the Love that loved her all the way to death on a Cross.  For this love, she was willing to do anything, and her virginity was not so much a giving up as a being totally “taken” by the goodness of the Savior.  Her virginity and her martyrdom had the same source and the same goal: the Good.  How could she settle for any lesser good, when she had found the Good?


The opposite of good is evil.  The history of salvation, along with Christian experience, teaches us that the more good shows itself, the more evil is rooted out.  But in its being rooted out, evil rears its ugly head, evil shows its face.  A dog does not bark except when it feels threatened, and the evil one would rather be left alone, would rather “we let sleeping dogs lie”.  When the Good comes, He exposes all of our idols as false, all of those attempts to set up a lower good as the god of our life. And we like our idols; we are attached to them.  So, the revelation of the Good is also the exposure of evil and of its false claims on our life.  The reality of martyrdom, today as in the past, is such a paradox, because it is a sign of the victory of God’s Kingdom at the moment when all we see is defeat.

Evil cannot be defeated except by its being exposed.  The manifestations of evil–ordinary or extraordinary–are signs of evil’s downfall.  It means that the Good is about to win, is winning.  Just think of those who have been converted after witnessing a martyr’s death or even causing a martyr’s death (St. Maria Goretti’s killer).  Just think of the famous phrase, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.”

Evil is not defeated by “nice”, which would rather have an absence of conflict than expose evil for what it really is. Nice is generally a good policy, except when it would mean covering up what must be exposed, turning a blind eye to what in the end can only bring destruction.  “Nice” needs to become “Good”.  The Good does not try to “sugarcoat”–pun very much intended–the idols and the masks behind which evil hides.

The saints remind us and invite us into the adventure of the only battle truly worth fighting: the confident march though the world of the Good that overcomes every evil.  As the Chronicles of Narnia say of Aslan, “He is not a tame lion, but he is good.”  St. Agatha tells us by her very name, but also by her virginity and her martyrdom, that there is a Good for which it is worth dying.  He is the same Good, Jesus Christ, for whom it is also worth living, who makes life worth living.

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(Saint) Peter Faber

Last week, one of my Jesuit professors at the Gregorian University spoke about Blessed Peter Faber (sometimes written Favre, like the quarterback) as a key to understanding the style of Pope Francis.  Here was the story he told of the first priest ordained for the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits):

In the city of Cologne, the bishop was worried by the great influence and spread of Protestantism, and especially of the great number of priests that were going over to the Lutherans.  Nothing he did to try to reform the clergy and bring them into line seemed to be working.  In 1541, Peter was sent to Germany, where he began to give the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola to priests and laity.


The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius come in many different shapes and sizes.  A 30-day silent retreat, an 8-day silent retreat, a daily period of prayer while staying in our everyday occupations (called 19th annotation, from the book The Spiritual Exercises).  But the basic thrust of the Exercises is the encounter with Christ in the Gospels.  This encounter is facilitated by the imagination, wherein we place ourselves in the Gospel scenes, listen to Christ teach, watch him perform miracles, identify ourselves with those whom Christ chooses and calls.

In Cologne, the reform of the clergy began to take root, and the Church was strengthened.  The encounter with Jesus Christ gave the priests the strength, the desire, to change their lives.  What was the issue?  Many of the priests did not want to give up their concubines (their woman on the side), and the Protestants were telling them that they would not have to if they “converted”; they would be able to marry.  So, the encounter with Christ enabled these Catholic clergy to be faithful to the vows they had made at their ordination, to live a celibate life in service to the Lord.

One of the seminarians who made the Spiritual Exercises with Peter Faber was Peter Canisius.  Struck by the encounter with Christ in the Gospel and the charism of the Jesuits, he joined the Jesuits and became one of the greatest preachers and teachers of the faith in Germany.  Peter Canisius is sometimes called the second apostle of Germany (Saint Boniface being the first, from the 8th Century).

Peter Canisius has long been a saint.  Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier, the two most famous Jesuits, have long been saints.  But what about this first Jesuit priest, a Frenchman, who came to Germany, who also preached in Portugal and Spain, and who died (of exhaustion at age 40, in the arms of Ignatius) in 1546 at Rome?

peter-faber1Pope Francis has spoken of the inspiration that Blessed Peter Faber is for him personally, and of course as a Jesuit priest.  In his interview with La Civilta Cattolica, Pope Francis held up these attributes of Blessed Peter:

His dialogue with all, even the most remote and even with his opponents; his simple piety, a certain naïveté perhaps, his being available straightaway, his careful interior discernment, the fact that he was a man capable of great and strong decisions but also capable of being so gentle and loving.

Sound familiar?  It is obvious to see the resemblance of this 16th Century Jesuit in the first Jesuit pope.  “His dialogue with all, even the most remote and even with his opponents”–we think of the Pope’s interview with Scalfari and his continual call for us to go the “periphery” of existence to find the lost sheep.

“His simple piety”; “his being available straightaway”; “his careful interior discernment”–these traits become evident for anyone who watches the Pope pray (just find a YouTube video of him saying Mass) and who has been struck by his ability to connect with so many different people.

“Strong, gentle and loving”–characteristics that often do not go together, but that coincide in an amazing way in Pope Francis.

Lastly, we think of the insistence of Pope Francis that the moral teachings of the Church must be presented and lived within the context of a personal relationship with Christ.  The modern world (even the priests!), maybe even more than in the 1500s, does not just want to be told what to do or what not to do.  Morality springs from a relationship, as a response to the one who has loved us “to the end” (John 13:1).  What gave those priests the will to follow Christ and stay faithful to their commitments?  Wonder–the amazement before a Person who gives life a new horizon and a definitive direction (as the last Pope said–continuity!).  Peter Faber preached Christ in a convincing way, so convincing that concrete changes became visible and the Church began to reform.

I am excited to learn more about Blessed Peter Faber throughout the pontificate of Pope Francis, and precisely through the pontificate of Pope Francis.  We will all be hearing more about this saint in the coming weeks, as the word on the street (not 100% official yet) is that Faber will be canonized in December.

Blessed Peter Faber, pray for us!

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Retractions (Augustine’s Humility)

For a long time I have been thinking about and planning to do something which I, with God’s assistance, am now undertaking because I do not think it should be postponed: with a kind of judicial severity, I am reviewing my works–books, letters, and sermons–and, as it were, with the pen of a censor, I am indicating what dissatisfies me.

So begins the Prologue to Saint Augustine’s Retractions, a work that, as the professor of my class on Augustine observed, is unique in literature.  The spirit in which Augustine wrote this work demonstrates for all of us a truer response to life and to the work we do in this life.


Now, Augustine was a man who took  himself and especially his task as Bishop of Hippo very seriously.  But he did not hold onto his own ideas or his own grasp of things; rather, he sought more and more to assimilate himself to the truth of things, more precisely to the Truth who is Christ.  Put simply, Augustine loved the truth more than himself.

And so, Augustine took to heart the words of Saint Paul, “If we judge ourselves, we should not be judged by the Lord,” (1 Cor 11:31) writing whatever corrections he needed to earlier works in light of continued study and insight.  “Hence, it remains for me to judge myself before the sole Teacher whose judgment of my offenses I desire to avoid.”

The Retractions are a very valuable work for scholars who would like to find out the order and the history of Augustine’s writings.  He does the work for us, giving us the history of his mind and helping us to know which writings are really his and which we later attributed to him.  But that is not why this work interested me.  His humility and ability to judge himself inspire all of us in light of two contemporary temptations, not only for scholars by for everyone: relativism and ideology.

What do we mean by relativism?  We could say that relativism is a philosophy or worldview whereby I hold that there is not a solid ground or meaning to life.  Some societies thought this and some societies thought that, but everyone was conditioned or shaped by the time in which they lived.    We do our best to make our way in a world, but we cannot escape these conditions, and so every claim to truth must be taken “with a grain of salt” because “it’s all relative”.

Joseph Ratiznger, in a speech just before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI, spoke of the fact that our society lives under the “dictatorship of relativism”:

We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

This dictatorship of relativism expresses itself in my life, and maybe in others as well, in a loss of passion for the truth of my life, of my existence, the meaning of my life.  Why look for the meaning of life if it doesn’t exist, if we just have to make it up for ourselves?  And all my attempts to make up the meaning of life are bound to fail, and end in terrible boredom.  All of my projects or “the things I’m into” cannot fill the need for ultimate meaning that I am.

This brings me to the second temptation: ideology.   We see in the political culture around us how political ideology can make our leaders intransigent, unable to collaborate with each other for the common good.  But we cannot just point the finger at other people; there will always be three fingers pointing back at us (just try it).

Ideology is a false response to relativism, and in fact, goes hand-in-hand with relativism.  Put simply, it is turning our project or our thing into an absolute, as a reaction to “everything is relative”.  Ideology is a form of immorality, maybe the worst form of immorality, because it makes us blind to the true Truth.  We think of the Pharisees in front of the man born blind.  They said that they already could see and thus they were blinded to what Jesus was doing right in front of their eyes (John 9).  We think of it in front of the people we live with.  I already know about him.  I know what he is like.  He could never change.

The temptation to escape relativism (that there is no meaning to life) by constructing “false absolutes” is very real, and affects us more than we know.  Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have spoken to this possibility many times.

Benedict and Francis

They have also spoken about a solution, and  I would like to share just two quotes, before returning to Saint Augustine.

We do not possess the truth, the truth possesses us: Christ, Who is the truth, has taken us by the hand, and we know that His hand is holding us securely on the path of our quest for knowledge.  Pope Benedict XVI, 21 December 2012

Our quest for the truth about things, for the meaning of life, is not a solitary journey.  There are two “players” in this journey: the heart of man that searches for God and the heart of God that searches for man.  Here is the announcement of Christianity: life is more about letting ourselves be grasped by Christ than about grasping for a false security that could be “ours” (ideology).

In this relationship to Christ, we also have the key for escaping the dictatorship of relativism.  Pope Francis spoke in his letter to Eugenio Scalfari that truth is always a relationship, because I do not arrive at the truth except in relationship to Christ through the circumstances that are his vehicle:

To begin with, I would not speak about “absolute” truths, even for believers, in the sense that absolute is that which is disconnected and bereft of all relationship. Truth, according to the Christian faith, is the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Therefore, truth is a relationship. As such each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture and situation in life, etc.

At the end of Augustine’s introduction to his book of retractions, he says, “Let those, therefore, who are going to read this book not imitate me when I err, but rather when I progress toward the better.” We too have been called to continually “progress toward the better”.  We may feel overwhelmed by all the pressures of the dictatorship of relativism and all the “false absolutes” that are so clearly on offer in this world.  But we have incredible traveling companions in the Saints (like Augustine) and in the Church (through our leaders like Pope Benedict and Pope Francis).

We can go forward, because Christ is still acting and still drawing us toward Himself, the Truth who has become our companion on life’s journey.  “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own.” (Phil 3:12)

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The Voice of the Bride

Last year, walking into the chapel at Bourgade Catholic High School where I was chaplain, I was struck to hear the students praying together out of a little red book the Psalms and prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours.  My heart rejoiced that the students really took to this “education” that the Church gives us through what is known as “The Divine Office”.

Education?  Yes, by putting words into our mouths, words we don’t make up but receive, the Church shapes our hearts, our minds, our lives to a new self-awareness. And not just any self-awareness.  The Psalms are the same prayers that Christ and His disciples prayed in the synagogues and Temple.

Vatican II, in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 84) tells us:

By tradition going back to early Christian times, the divine office is devised so that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praises of God. Therefore, when this wonderful song of praise is rightly performed by priests and others who are deputed for this purpose by the Church’s ordinance, or by the faithful praying together with the priest in the approved form, then it is truly the voice of the bride addressed to her bridegroom. It is the very prayer which Christ Himself, together with His body, addresses to the Father.

Portugal - Religion - Prayer

The Psalms are unique prayers.  They are the Word of God in that they are an inspired and infallible part of the Scripture.  They are the word of man in that every human experience is reflected therein.  And this is the real educational value of the Psalms.  It is the education of the Incarnation: Christ, taking on our human nature, has shared with us everything that is truly human, filling it with His divine life for our salvation.

Let us look at the Psalms from two angles: the Incarnation and the Communion of Saints.

Every time we recite the Creed at Mass, we bow at the words For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.  On the solemnities of the Annunciation and Christmas, we even kneel at that part of the Mass, as the Church “compels” us to recognize the greatness of the mystery.

The Psalms are an incredible way for us to understand more deeply the mystery of the Incarnation.  Saint Augustine said (somewhere, I can’t remember) “In order to teach us how to praise God, God praised Himself.”  God used the human experience of the Psalmist (David and others) in order to show us what the true stature of our humanity really is.  Just as Jesus pointed out in the Gospel the publican who would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but humbly asked God for mercy, holding him up as an example to us all, so also the Psalms are God’s outline for us of what is a true human position before God.

And we might be surprised: Psalm 73 speaks about the man who notices, as all of us have noticed, that the just seem to suffer more while the wicked are “sound and sleek”.  He expresses his frustration with God, wondering if it is “useless to keep my heart pure and wash my hands in innocence,” until he realizes that God will work everything out.  Coming to his senses, he comments: “I was stupid and did not understand, no better than a beast in your sight.”  But still, God was faithful in all that drama: “Yet I was always in your presence; you were holding me by my right hand.”

So, what part of this Psalm is God’s Word and what part is the word of man?  All of it!  We cannot separate God’s part from the human part.  And here is the fascination of what God did in becoming man.  He took all of this on Himself.  As Saint John said, “He knew what was in the heart of man,” not only because God is omniscient but because God had (has) a human heart.

So, the comfort of the Psalms is in the fact that nothing I experience is foreign to God.  When I pray the Psalms in “the key of Christ”, I realize that I am always in His presence and that He is holding my right (or left) hand.  The Psalms find their fulfillment in the Incarnation, when God does not just use some other humans’ words (David or Solomon), but has the same experience as all of us, to the point of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Psalm 22 by the way).


But what if I am not experiencing the particular situation or feeling of the Psalm that the Church gives me for Daytime Prayer of Thursday Week 2?  What if “Lord, you have been good to your servant according to your word” (Psalm 119) is not my experience today?  What if “they fight me all day long and oppress me” (Psalm 56) does not fit with my rather boisterous and peppy mood?


The very objectivity of the Psalms within the Liturgy of the Church allows us to situate this prayer within the Communion of Saints.  Simply said, I pray the Psalms in the context of the whole Church, and someone in the Church is having the experience that this Psalm describes.  When I do not “feel” what the Psalm is saying, I can be in solidarity, in communion, with someone who is going through what that Psalm says.  The “saints” refer to the whole Church, those who belong to Christ, those who are united in the holiness of the Church, a holiness that is outside of us and that stretches and shapes us.

The communion of saints is the deepest reality of the Church, because in Christ, through Baptism, we are made sharers in the communion of life and love which is the Blessed Trinity.   As such, we are united to one another in the Body of Christ. Through this fraternal communion we draw nearer to God and we are called to support one another spiritually.  The communion of saints does not only embrace the Church on earth; it also embraces all who have died in Christ, the souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven. –Pope Francis, 30 October

The Liturgy of the Hours is the prayer of the Church.  It does involve our “private” feelings and devotion, but cannot be limited to that.  We cannot be limited to that, because no one is a private Christian.  Through Baptism, we have been brought into the drama of the Son of God to whom we belong, a drama that is expressed on every page of the Scripture, but particularly powerfully in the Psalms.  We have been stretched and are being stretched into the Communion of the Saints.

This is the education offered to us in the Liturgy of the Hours, the education I was so happy to see those students at Bourgade participating in that Tuesday morning last year with their little red books.;;;

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Saint Paul of the Cross

On this beautiful morning here in Rome, I had the chance to visit the tomb of the saint that we celebrate today.  Now, not being in upstate New York, I was not able to go to the shrine of the North American Martyrs, who feast also falls today, October 19.  So, Saint Paul of the Cross it is!

Paul of the Cross is an 18th Century Italian saint, and founder of a religious community called the Passionists, whose priests and sisters also have a presence in the United States.  He is buried at the Basilica of Saints John and Paul, on the Caelian Hill in Rome, built on the site of an old Roman house-church.

Lets get a few names right: Saints John and Paul do not refer to the Apostles John and Paul.  They are Roman martyrs from the 4th Century, whose names are mentioned in the Roman Canon/Eucharistic Prayer I (John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian).  At the Basilica is buried Saint Paul of the Cross, the 18th Century saint (not to be confused with Saint John of the Cross, the 16th century saint).  Hopefully that wasn’t too confusing!


Saint Paul of the Cross, then, was born in Liguria (north-western Italy) in 1694.  After a vision and consulting his bishop, he took the habit and formed a religious community dedicated to the Passion of Our Lord, especially dedicated to care for the poor and sick.  He came to Rome in 1721 to work on approval from the Holy Father, which he obtained 20 years later.   He worked throughout Italy and established a community at Saints John and Paul Basilica.

As I walked into the Basilica to pray at the tomb this morning, I was struck by the painting which is above the high altar (the altar in which the saint is buried).


What strikes me the most about this image is that it is not our Saint who is embracing Christ on the Cross, but rather Christ on the Cross embracing him.  Saint Paul of the Cross was very much aware of his great need of Christ, of his dependence on the Love of the Crucified.  He lived a life of great humility about himself at the same time as God worked great things through him.

Saint Paul of the Cross lived the same experience that Mother Teresa lived, as recounted to us in the book Come Be My Light.  Mother Teresa’s powerful, foundation experience of Christ’s invitation to be His light was followed by an intense period of spiritual darkness that lasted 50 years.  In that book, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk notes that the only other saint with that kind of a prolonged “dark night” was Saint Paul of the Cross, who lived for 45 years in the same condition.

Indeed when the cross of our dear Jesus has planted its roots more deeply in your hearts, then will you rejoice: “To suffer and not to die,” or, “Either to suffer or to die,” or better: “Neither to suffer, nor to die, but only to turn perfectly to the will of God.”  –Paul of the Cross

Reading about this experience can make us wonder why Christ would allow something like this.  Why does God not only allow us to experience His presence, but also his absence?  This seeming injustice could seem to lend fuel to the fire of those atheists who reject God because of the great suffering that He allows (but if He doesn’t exist, I don’t know how He could allow it).

It is not fair for us to judge these saints from the outside, though.  Reading the book about Mother Teresa’s experience, we see that while her experience of darkness continued, she did not grow resentful or angry with God.  Her love increased, which is the sign that God-who-is-love was present.  Even if she was not allowed to experience this light for so many years, we are all amazed at the amount of people who did experience the light of God through her.

And so that phrase “Come be my light” is really apt: the light-bulb does not enjoy the light it gives off, but the rest of us do.  Mother Teresa or Paul of the Cross did not feel “cheated” by this experience of darkness.  They knew that they were united to the God who took on not just some of the darkness of this world, but all of the darkness.  In their experience of the Cross, they fell deeper in love with Crucified, who held them and embraced them during their extra-ordinary mission.

The “proof” of the origin of this mission in and for the Church comes from the fact that the darkness and dryness did not shrivel these saints up, did not make them closed in on themselves–as so often happens with us, with me.  Let us listen to Saint Paul of the Cross from today’s Office of Readings:

Live in such a way that all may know that you bear outwardly as well as inwardly the image of Christ crucified, the model of all gentleness and mercy.  For if a man is united inwardly with the Son of the living God, he also bears his likeness outwardly by his continual practice of heroic goodness.

Of course, all of us encounter the Cross in our lives.  We cannot avoid it, and it generally gets worse when we do try to avoid it.  Whether or not that Cross becomes a Holy Cross is up to us co-operating with the Love of the Crucified, the giver of every good thing.  Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Saint Paul of the Cross, pray for us!

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