Josephine Bakhita’s Master

In his letter on Christian hope, Pope Benedict XVI undertook to explain something that we tend to take for granted. That is, how we came to have a concept of God that gives us hope.

St Josephine BakhitaThe pope illustrated his point with the life story of St. Josephine Bakhita of Sudan. She had become a slave at age nine. Her multiple masters beat her mercilessly. One branded her by cutting ownership symbols into her skin and filling the wounds with salt. Then Josephine got caught up in the Sudanese civil war.

As a girl, Josephine never heard anything about Jesus and the heavenly Father. Until she was thirteen or fourteen. But when she learned from some nuns about Christ, and His love—His love for the Father and for all the Father’s children—Josephine realized that this was the true God Whom she had always longed to know.

Pope Benedict put it like this:

Bakhita came to know a different kind of ‘master’—the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time, she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her. Now she heard there is a master above all masters, the Lord of all lords. And that Lord is good. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that He had created her, that He loved her… This master had Himself experienced being flogged and was now waiting for her at the Father’s right hand. Now she had hope.

Here’s how Josephine explained her awakening to God: “I am definitely loved, and no matter what happens to me, I am awaited by this Love. So my life is good.”

Josephine’s encounter with the nuns led to her liberation from slavery. She herself became a nun. She lived in Italy through World War II and died 72 years ago today.

Now, speaking of anniversaries: here in Virginia we commemorate the fourth centenary of African slavery in the Commonwealth. It began in 1619. It became one of the basic foundations of the state’s economy and culture.

I don’t think the meltdown at the Richmond state house is a tempest in a teapot. Speaking for myself, it has rocked my own sense of who we are in this state and how we can understand ourselves. We need to find a way to face reality that involves neither unsustainable self-righteousness nor a willingness to excuse the inexcusable.

Seems like the Lord is watching out for us. He has given us the anniversary of St. Josephine Bakhita’s holy death right when we need it. We can tackle the very long, and very difficult, sorting-out process with a sense of hope–by starting from St. Josephine’s love affair with Jesus Christ.

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St. Paul and Vatican II

Caravaggio Conversion on the Way to Damascus Paul

Lord Jesus died, rose again, ascended into heaven bodily, and reigns over all things, at the right hand of the Father.

The original Apostles witnessed some of these events, from the point-of-view of Planet Earth. St. John saw Jesus die. They all saw Him after He rose. They watched Him ascend into the clouds.

The Apostles proceeded to testify orally and in writing. All except John suffered execution, rather than deny what they had seen, and what they believed about the One they had seen. Namely: that He is the Christ of God, the incarnate eternal Word, Who has made Himself the new Adam of the redeemed human race.

St. Paul did not witness the things that the original Apostles witnessed. But he did encounter some of those Apostles personally, as well as other original Christians.

At first Paul not only did not believe them, he despised them. He counted them blasphemers, criminal enemies of true religion.

But then, on this holy day, He, too, encountered Jesus. The Lord spoke to Paul from heaven. Why do you persecute Me? Why do you kick against the pricks? You love God and desire only to serve God. I, Jesus, am God—the true God of love and mercy, in Whom your father Abraham believed.

St. Paul had the faith and courage to embrace Jesus with every fiber of his being.

One thing that makes Christianity so believable is this: The New Testament depicts the human countenances of some absolutely believable people. Jesus Himself. His mother. St. Peter. St. John. And St. Paul.

John XXIII Vatican IIProbably St. Paul more than any other. After all, he wrote half the New Testament. Plus, almost half of St. Luke’s second book is about Paul.

Many passages of St. Paul’s letters pose extreme challenges to the reader. He had a mind of encyclopedic complexity, and he lived a pilgrim life ten times more adventuresome than Indiana Jones.

A lot of Paul’s writing requires careful study in order to understand–precisely because it is all so absolutely real. The whole thing is geographically coherent, religiously consistent–full of human love, human impatience, webs of relationships, and fatherliness.

Speaking of which: sixty years ago today, the new pope, John XXIII, visited the tomb of the Apostle Paul. The pope gave a little speech. He declared that he would soon summon all the world’s bishops to the Vatican, for an ecumenical council.

I think I may be one of the last of a dying breed: an incorrigibly conservative priest who loves Vatican II. Who loves it more, not less, with each passing year.

Conversion. Pope St. John XXIII had enough faith in Christ, and enough courage, to imagine that the indefectible Church could convert—in those aspects of Her life that can, and have, gone wrong. The pope believed that the true Church of Jesus—Who is the same yesterday, today, and forever—could adapt Herself better to what the Lord asks of Her now. Which differs somewhat from what He asked of Her yesterday.

St. Paul trusted totally and completely in Christ—enough to change. We can, too.

Melchisedek and St. Agnes

saint agnes fuori la mura
Sant’Agnese fuori le mura, Roma

At Holy Mass today, we read that Jesus, the Son of God, ministered as a priest. Not as a priest of the Old Covenant with Abraham and Moses, but a priest of the order of Melchisedek.

Any idea what that means? Melchisedek ruled Jerusalem in the most-ancient times. Our father Abraham won a battle, and Melchisedek blessed him afterwards. Melchisedek offered a sacrifice of bread and wine, and Abraham offered a tenth of his goods, which is where we get the idea of tithing. (Genesis 14:18-20)

King David sang as a prophet in Psalm 110. He called the eternal Son of God “a priest forever in the manner of Melchisedek.”

We Christians mention Melchisedek at the altar, whenever we use the Roman Canon at Mass, Eucharistic Prayer #1.

We use that prayer today (at St. Joseph, in Martinsville, Virginia), because we also mention St. Agnes in that prayer. She went to her martyr’s death today.

At age twelve or thirteen. Younger than the now world-famous-for-a-short-time Covington-Catholic students. (St. Agnes, pray for them, and for all of us!)*

In ancient Rome at the dawn of the fourth century AD, the persecution of emperor Diocletian tried to force Christians to burn incense to the pagan gods. Especially lovely, young, eligible bachelorettes, like Agnes.

But she refused. She made the sign of the cross instead. She had consecrated her virginity to Christ. She would not marry the suitor who courted her.

They took her to a brothel. The one man craven enough to try anything with her? He got struck by lightning and blinded. St. Agnes kindly healed his blindness.

So they beheaded her.

Her name sounds like one of the titles of Christ, in Latin. “Agnes.” “Agnus.” Lamb. The Lamb of God.

______________

*My prize for the best, most-appropriate reaction to the initial video of the Lincoln-Memorial incident, from a dear parishioner who watched it with me on a smarrphone after Mass yesterday: “What’s up with the staring contest?”

Beautify the Basilica Instead of Building the Wall

guadalupe face

Four hundred eighty-seven years ago today, the mother of God appeared on our continent, to assure us of her love for us.

That was before the United States of America existed, or the United States of Mexico. At that time, the Rio Grande did not mark a “national borderline.” Nor did any kind of border run through the Sonora desert. And baja California and alta California were both parts of one place. [Click for Part I and Part II of my extended commentary on this.]

Our Lady appeared to St. Juan Diego in Mexico City. She left her image on his cloak, which still hangs in the basilica there.

Twenty years ago, Pope St. John Paul II visited the same spot. He had gathered the bishops of the entire American continent. The pope made December 12 a feastday in all these lands. He recognized Guadalupe as the spiritual center of the western hemisphere.

By the grace of God, I have laid eyes on the tilma twice, in ’95 and ’97. Maybe you, dear reader, have seen it, also. Hopefully someday all of us Catholics of America will make a holy pilgrimage, to see the indescribably lovely image and receive the unique graces of our Lady’s presence here with us on our continent.

When the pope visited Guadalupe, he made no comment regarding the architecture of the current basilica. They built it in the mid-1970’s, to accommodate up to 10,000 people. Anyone ever seen it? Or a picture of it? It looks like a wrecked spaceship, in the shape of a melted Hershey’s kiss.

Basilica Guadalupe

I don’t think we want a wall between us and the place where Our Lady visited us. A wall would only get in the way of a pilgrimage there.

Maybe, instead of spending $1 zillion on a pointless, counter-productive border wall, we could spend the money building a new, nicer Guadalupe basilica instead?

Final Jeopardy! and a New Beginning

A liturgical year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, which is the Sunday closest to the feast of this ‘first apostle.’

Final Jeopardy question yesterday evening. In the category of “Catholicism.”

None of the contestants got the correct answer. It was a hard question. For two years I served as pastor of St. Andrew’s parish in Roanoke, and I can confidently say: only about 10% of the parishioners of St. Andrew’s would have known that the correct answer is St. Andrew.

We call Andrew the ‘first’ because he recruited his brother… Right: St. Peter. We call them all ‘apostles’ because: St. Andrew, along with everyone else in the upper room on Easter Sunday, saw Jesus after He had risen from the dead.

We could say a lot more. Each of us baptized Christians exercises the ‘apostolic ministry’ in some way. So there is certainly a great deal to say about it.

But let’s start here: The original Apostles saw Jesus. Risen from the dead. They saw Him multiple times, over the course of forty days. The “New Testament:” the original Apostles testimony that they saw Jesus of Nazareth, risen from the dead, with their own eyes. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church believes that testimony.

missale-romanum-white-bgNow, speaking of resurrection: Alex Trebek reminded me. St. Andrew Day means: it’s time to flip back to the beginning of the book. The Missal. The Lectionary. The Breviary.

We start again. We cannot overstate the spiritual significance of the liturgical year. It organizes the Sacred Scriptures for us. It unfolds the mysteries of the Savior’s life. It consecrates the months and seasons. It redeems time, draws daily earthly life up into eternal heavenly life.

It doesn’t get old, the business that begins anew every year on the First Sunday of Advent. We flip the ribbons back; we start fresh. The world outside gets older. But the Sacred Liturgy of the Church offers us, quite literally, a heavenly Fountain of Youth.

Was this past liturgical year the worst in the history of Jesus’ Church? From my limited vantage point on the unfolding of events, I would say: Absolutely.

Will the year to come actually bring even worse? No doubt. We’d be fools to imagine otherwise. Our ‘leaders’ have given us nothing upon which to base any optimism. To the contrary, their heartbreaking ineptitude has all but ground us down in to despair.

I still stand by the suggestion I floated in August. Namely, that the whole lot of them, from the pope on down, resign. And we fill their places in the hierarchy by a lottery that chooses parish priests from around the world at random. But, Father! That might result in an incompetent hierarchy! Well…

All that said: A new year of saving grace dawns for us Catholics anyway. The holy Church can still light the candles of Advent. Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, still reigns in heaven. And He continues to sanctify His people through the annual celebration of the unfathomable mysteries of His pilgrim life.

Forty Years Ago Today

Pope John Paul II: His Remarkable Journey

Pope St. John Paul II began his ministry as the pope. Over the course of the ensuing quarter century, many of us came to revere John Paul II as a hero and a spiritual father.

During the 1980’s, when I was in high-school, some of us held on to the pope for dear life. It seemed like he alone, on the whole face of the earth, offered a brave witness to sexual sanity, to chastity–while everyone else was awash in condoms and broken marriages.

Many of us spent the 90’s reading John Paul II’s writings. He consumed himself with teaching the faith inherited from the Apostles. He traveled the world and used the power of his reverberating voice and magnetic charm to evangelize.

Technocrats and feminists hated his intransigence on artificial contraception, abortion, divorce, and the men-only ministerial priesthood. Political and aesthetic conservatives hated his rejection of the capitalist profit motive and his embrace of Vatican II.

But in the middle, we vast multitudes of spiritual children listened eagerly to the man we loved as a trustworthy father. A lot of us wept more bitterly on the day that he died than we had since we were babies. Mainly because we knew we wouldn’t hear the sound of his voice on earth again.

Looking back now with 20/20 hindsight, we can wish that JP II had applied himself more to the reform of the Roman Curia. We can wish that he had understood the sex-abuse crisis better–understood it more as a practical matter, rather than as a purely spiritual one.

st john paul ii

And we can recognize: The way Popes Paul VI and John Paul II defined the Roman papacy after Vatican II left a huge gap in authority. That gap has now brought the Church to the point of paralysis.

Bishops need a disciplinarian, too—just like priests, seminarians, doctors, nurses, accountants, lawyers, bricklayers, school children–everybody needs a disciplinarian. But the world’s Catholic bishops don’t have one. The whole post-Vatican II system of Church governance assumes that bishops will do right. But, as we now know all too well, often they do not.

So St. John Paul II had human faults, blind spots—which we did not want to see, as we listened to him heroically urge us on to holiness.

But let’s go back to October 22, 1978, to what he said in his homily that day. His words resonate today with even more force than they had then.

Our time calls us, urges us, obliges us, to gaze on the Lord and to immerse ourselves in humble and devout meditation on the mystery of the supreme power of Christ himself…

The absolute, and yet sweet and gentle, power of the Lord responds to the whole depths of the human person, to his loftiest aspirations of intellect, will and heart. It does not speak the language of force, but expresses itself in charity and truth.

The new Successor of Peter in the See of Rome today makes a fervent, humble and trusting prayer: Christ, make me become and remain the servant of your unique power, the servant of your sweet power, the servant of your power that knows no dusk….

Do not be afraid. Open, I say open wide the doors for Christ… Christ knows ‘that which is in man.’ He alone knows it.

…Man does not know that which is in him, in the depths of his mind and heart… He is uncertain about the meaning of his life on this earth. He is assailed by doubt, a doubt which turns into despair. We ask you, therefore, we beg you with humility and with trust, let Christ speak to man. He alone has words of life, yes, of life eternal.

Missionary Martyrs

Fr. Jayme martyred
The Death of Father Luis Jayme at Mission San Diego, November 4, 1775

In Christ you were chosen to exist for the praise of God’s glory…You have heard the word of truth, the Gospel of our salvation. (see Ephesians 1:11-14)

Missionaries evangelize. They proclaim the Gospel and initiate pagans into the life of Christ and His Church. Missionaries give up everything and risk everything. They make friends with people who speak another language, with unfamiliar customs. All in order to share the heavenly life of Jesus.

Missionaries often get themselves killed. In New York and Ontario, the French Jesuit martyrs we commemorate at Holy Mass today met death at the hands of Hurons and Iroquois.

In San Diego, California, the Kumeyaay killed a Franciscan named Luis Jayme during a night raid of the mission. In 1597 the Guale killed five Franciscans near Savannah, Georgia. Here in Virginia, eight Jesuits died as martyrs in 1571.

One thing many of these martyrs have in common is this: They loved the native Americans and learned their languages and customs, but they would not compromise with polygamy. As we know from reading the holy gospels, the Son of God preached a Gospel involving monogamous marriage for life. The early missionaries of these lands practiced ‘enculturation’ like nobody’s business. But the Gospel always requires some change in people’s lives. Like renouncing polygamy.

Anyway: While the martyrs of what is now the USA shed their blood here, the life of the Church had all kinds of issues in Europe. Don’t know if they had federal grand jury investigations in those days. But plenty of secular authorities clashed with corrupt bishops and priests.

Meanwhile, the missionaries here bore their pure and loving witness to the urgency of conversion to Christ. Mankind needs the Gospel, and Jesus, and His Church. Internal ecclesiastical problems don’t make that need less clear; they make it all the more clear.

Peter and Paul Conflict

When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.

circumcison knifeWho wrote this? St. Paul. The first pope had erred how?

By acting in a hypocritical manner. Apparently because he feared conflict—over a matter in which conflict could not be avoided.

St. Peter knew by divine revelation that under the New Covenant all foods were “clean.” The Lord had given St. Peter a vision, while the Apostle made his way to the pagan home of…? The centurion Cornelius.

But that doesn’t mean that the problem was simple. God had given the Law of Moses to His Chosen People. Not all of that Law admitted of revision. The Ten Commandments still remained in effect, of course. And circumcision had distinguished God’s people for almost two millennia. Also, in pagan homes, worshiping false gods usually involved eating foods offered to them. Christians had to take care to avoid even the appearance of co-operating with pagan worship.

To try to deal with these difficult matters, they convened the Council of…? Jerusalem.

Much to the relief of the adult pagan men who wanted to enter Christ’s Church, the Council decided that they could retain their foreskins.

That said, the Apostles decided that the prohibitions in Leviticus 18 remained in effect. No homosexuality, and no marriage within the family (including in-laws).

Moral: Sometimes finding our way together as God’s People gets difficult. But the Lord does help us.

Words of St. Francis

st_francis_receiving_stigmata-400

St. Francis’ brief Rule of Life contains sage advice:

I admonish and exhort the brothers that, in their preaching, their words be well chosen and chaste…speaking to the people of vices and virtues, punishment and glory in a discourse that is brief, because it was in a few words that the Lord preached when on earth.

Speaking of the Lord’s words: He sent out his 72 missionaries. The Rule of St. Francis quotes liberally from Christ’s missionary instructions. Since the Way of St. Francis consists simply in following them. Sell what you have, give it to the poor. And come follow Me.

“Carry no money bag.” “Wherever they welcome you, say ‘Peace to this household,’ and eat what is set before you.” Have nothing, except the Gospel. Live as heirs to the Kingdom of heaven.

St. Francis died 794 years ago yesterday. Among his dying words:

Above everything else, I want the most holy Sacrament to be honored and venerated.

A Welcome Oasis

st_therese_of_lisieux

We look around for some solid place to stand. We have a hard time finding one.

But of some things we can be sure:

St. Therese of Lisieux died 121 years ago yesterday. There is absolutely no chance that she ever got drunk in high school. Or that she ever falsely accused someone of getting drunk in high school.

There is no chance that St. Therese ever promoted to a higher position a miscreant who belonged in jail. Or that she ever had political motives in accusing a superior of a cover-up.

St. Therese certainly never turned a deaf ear to someone crying out for help. There is no doubt whatsoever that she kept the confidences entrusted to her; she never leaked anything to the press.

She never had worldly ambitions that blinded her to right and wrong. She never moralized at the expense of human sympathy. She never hedged her bets and waited for the next news cycle, in the hopes that her difficulties would drop off the radar, so she could pretend they didn’t exist.

She never got grandiose. She never got belligerent. She never got overly technical. She never cared about anything, except honestly loving Jesus and the people around her.

She wasn’t born perfect. But she preserved the purity of her heart from childhood to death. She had a powerful, precise, inquiring mind. She was a Little Flower with the courage to stride out alone into the dark night of the soul. She believed, through the bitterest physical and spiritual sufferings.

And she is real. She lived in rural France, died at age 24 of tuberculosis, and went to heaven. She is no plaster statue. Her glorified soul offers us a bona fide spiritual oasis.

We need one. We might doubt whether Lord Jesus will find any faith on earth when He comes. But when we think about St. Therese: we can hope that, indeed, He will. A lot of faith–hidden in millions and millions and millions of little corners.

Click here to read Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter proclaiming St. Therese a Doctor of the Universal Church