North-American Martyrs and Blessed Paul VI

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St. Isaac Jogues with missing fingers

At Holy Mass today, we commemorate the North-American martyrs. They came to these shores from France, to teach the Hurons about Jesus Christ and His Church. The martyrs happily gave their lives to spread the Gospel. What motivated them?

For a short and precise answer, let’s think back three years. Anyone remember what happened three years ago today, in St. Peter’s Square?

Here’s a hint. It involved the last Italian pope. Or at least the last Italian pope who lived for longer than two months in office.

Side note: It is amazing to think that we have not had an Italian pope in over 39 years. Most of the people living on the earth right now have never had an Italian pope. Which is amazing. We have had 266 popes in total. 196 of them have been Italians. Our current pope is an Italian-American, but that’s not quite the same thing.

Anyway: three years ago today, Pope Francis declared Pope Paul VI to be among the saints. The last Italian pope to live for more than two months in office became Blessed Pope Paul VI.

Blessed Pope Paul wrote many, many beautiful and inspiring things. He possessed an utterly tireless mind, along with a beautifully humble heart.

But a few sentences he wrote capture the spirit of the North-American martyrs perfectly, in my humble little opinion. We Catholics don’t proselytize, if proselytizing means assuming that people who do not know and accept our doctrines have not hope at all. We do not believe that. We believe that God has a plan for everyone, and God’s plans extend way beyond what we little creatures can grasp in our wee minds.

Nonetheless, we consider the task of evangelization urgent. Blessed Pope Paul explains:

It would be useful if every Christian were to pray about the following thought: men can gain salvation also in other ways, by God’s mercy, even though we do not preach the Gospel to them.

But as for us, can we gain salvation if—through negligence, or fear, or shame –if we ‘blush for the Gospel’–or as a result of false ideas, we fail to preach it?

For that would be to betray the call of God, who wishes the seed to bear fruit through the voice of the ministers of the Gospel; and it will depend on us whether this seed grows.

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St. Margaret Mary and Friedrich Nietzsche

St. Margaret Mary* received the vision of the… Sacred Heart. The divine human Heart. Of Jesus. Beating right now.

St. Paul began his letter to the Romans by declaring the fundamental historical fact involved in the proclamation of the Gospel: the divine man Jesus died and rose again. The resurrection..

Lord Jesus Himself referred to this fundamental fact in our gospel reading at Holy Mass today, too: The sign of God’s saving work on earth is the sign of Jonah. The death of Christ; His burial; then His resurrection from the dead on the third day.

Mencken NietzscheIs Christianity something nice? Something good? Something helpful? Does Christianity make positive contributions to world history? Does it have beneficial psychological effects? Does it make people better citizens? More productive? Better educated?

Anyone ever heard of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche? About 125 years ago, many European Christians lost confidence in the historical reliability of the gospels. These Christians decided they weren’t 100% sure that Jesus actually did rise from the dead on Easter Sunday.

Instead they started arguing things like: Our ancient Scriptures may not be altogether true, but isn’t Christianity good for mankind anyway? Hasn’t it contributed to the progress of the human race? Doesn’t it make people nice?

Nietzsche responded with a withering attack. Christianity has helped the human race? No! To the contrary. It makes people too weak and submissive. Too stoic about their difficulties. Too resigned to suffering. Christianity makes people too sympathetic with others and un-competitive. Christianity has hurt the human race worse than anything, Nietzsche argued, because we do better when we put our individual selves first and fight!

Now, to our ears, these sound like scandalous arguments. Selfishness is better? Contempt for the weak is better? Nietzsche’s ideas strike us as appallingly ugly.

Except that they tend to ring true in the world as we know it. The world is manifestly not nice. If the question is: Is being nice better, or is being competitive better? Or: Is being selfish better, or is being empathetic better? Or: Would the human race be more “advanced” if no one had ever heard of Christ? If those are the fundamental questions, we don’t have the answers.

Which is why we always have to stay focused on facts. The fact that Jesus rose from the dead. Selflessness, kindness, and being willing to suffer for true love are all better. But only because Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

That fact comes first. We can leave questions about the “advancement of mankind” to others. We’re not even sure that we ourselves are really all that nice. But we are Christians. Because Jesus of Nazareth is alive.

 

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*Died 327 years ago tomorrow.

Rise and Walk

John XXIII Vatican II

We keep a Memorial of Pope St. John XXIII today, because he solemnly opened the Second Vatican Council on October 11.

And he spoke on that occasion with such gentle faith, such serene confidence in the goodness of God, and of man, that it almost makes you want to weep to read it, fifty-five years later…

The Church has always opposed errors, and often condemned them with the utmost severity. Today, however, Christ’s Bride prefers the balm of mercy to the arm of severity…

Not that the need to repudiate and guard against erroneous teaching and dangerous ideologies is less today than formerly. But all such error is so manifestly contrary to rightness and goodness, and produces such fatal results, that our contemporaries show every inclination to condemn it of their own accord—especially that way of life which repudiates God and His law, and which places excessive confidence in technical progress and an exclusively material prosperity. It is more and more widely understood that personal dignity and true self-realization are of vital importance and worth every effort to achieve. More important still, experience has at long last taught men that physical violence, armed might, and political domination are no help at all in providing a happy solution to the serious problems which affect them.

As the pope spoke then, the great world wars of the 20th century still lay fresh in everyone’s memory. The ravages that systematic atheism had wrought: it stood in front of everyone’s eyes, an open wound on the face of the earth. The pope thought to himself (I paraphrase): We have learned something from this terrible upheaval and senseless slaughter. Living now in communion with Christ, and made wiser by harsh experience, we can become the human race that He made us to be!

The pope went on:

The great desire, therefore, of the Catholic Church in raising aloft at this Council the torch of truth, is to show herself to the world as the loving mother of all mankind; gentle, patient, and full of tenderness and sympathy… To the human race oppressed by so many difficulties, she says what Peter once said to the poor man who begged alms: “Silver and gold I have none; but what I have, that I give thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk.”

In other words it is not corruptible wealth, nor the promise of earthly happiness, that the Church offers the world today, but the gifts of divine grace which, since they raise men up to the dignity of being sons of God, are powerful assistance and support for the living of a more fully human life. She unseals the fountains of her life-giving doctrine, so that men, illumined by the light of Christ, will understand their true nature and dignity and purpose. Everywhere, through her children, she extends the frontiers of Christian love, the most powerful means of eradicating the seeds of discord, the most effective means of promoting concord, peace with justice, and universal brotherhood.

Was the holy pope a dreamer? Overly sanguine? Can we see him in our mind’s eye 55 years later, and not think: What a kind man—but naïve!

Well, if we dismiss St. John XXIII as naïve, we might as well stop saying the Our Father. Let’s pray for the grace to believe in God and in man, let evil rage as it might. If we die at the hands of the wicked, with them mumbling, “What hopeless naifs these Catholics are!” so much the better.

Seeing

The Samaritan saw the wounded man. Seeing the man in his distress moved the Samaritan—moved him to compassion. He saw, and seeing moved him. Seeing the reality of the wounds, the suffering, the victimization of the innocent.

Was the robbery victim perfectly innocent? Perfectly pure? We don’t know that. Be he did not deserve to be robbed and beaten and left half-dead by the side of the lonely road. That much the Samaritan instantly saw. The others had not seen it—the priest and levite, distracted as they were by important matters…

How can we see each other like the Samaritan saw the wounded man? I find myself a bit overwhelmed today, as if by an avalanche of events and emotions. The man eight nights ago manifestly did not see the people in the plaza below like the Samaritan saw the wounded traveler. An unimaginable blindness had overtaken the man in the Mandalay hotel. Scales harder than granite covered his eyes. Not that he couldn’t see to aim. Obviously he aimed successfully. But he could not really see what he successfully aimed at.

Why? What caused his lifeless blindness? Must we not find compassion for him, too? Somehow?

Then Tom Petty died. And it seems like Prince just died. Like yesterday. And I cannot handle all this death of my musicians.

Plus today is the anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Denis. They cut off his head on Montmartre in Paris. But he picked it up and carried it a few miles north of the city, preaching the whole way, before he lay down and died.

Some profound Europeans met in the city of St. Denis last week. They made an amazingly penetrating statement about themselves. It’s a statement that can help us Americans a lot, I think.

Jason Aldean made a statement on Saturday, too. He’s the musician who was singing when the shots rang out last Sunday night. He covered Tom Petty’s “Stand My Ground” in New York on Saturday. To very inspiring effect.

But these gentlemen of Europe managed to express some principles for us. Principles by which we can stand our American ground, even when things happen that can drive you to despair. I’ll probably have a lot more to say about this Paris Statement. It distinguishes the “true Europe” from the “false Europe.” For today let me just quote these few sentences:

The true Europe has been marked by Christianity. The true Europe affirms the equal dignity of every individual. This arises from our Christian roots. Our gentle virtues are of unmistakably Christian heritage: fairness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, peace-making, charity.

I think we can substitute “the true America” for “the true Europe” in this quote.

The true America has been marked by Christianity. The true America affirms the dignity of every individual. This arises from our Christian roots. Our gentle American virtues are of unmistakably Christian heritage: fairness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, peace-making, charity.

Brother Knights, and all dear brothers and sisters, fellow Americans, let’s celebrate Columbus Day by begging our Lord Jesus Christ for the grace to live the love that lets us see each other like the Good Samaritan saw the wounded man.

Wandering Straight, Into the Darkness

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St Francis Receiving the Stigmata by El Greco

 

Today we commemorate the 791st anniversary of the holy death of Francis of Assisi. At Holy Mass, we read from the gospel about how Lord Jesus renounced all possessions and lived as a penniless wanderer. St. Francis embraced the same poverty for the sake of the Kingdom of God. This led St. Francis to wander, also—around his home country, and further afield—all for the purpose of extending the reign of Christ.

But let’s pause and meditate on this: the poverty of Christ, which St. Francis embraced so thoroughly, went way beyond just the renunciation of worldly possessions—of home, and family, and security.

Yes, the Lord Jesus did renounce home and family and security, and that allowed Him to wander, and teach and heal. But Christ did not simply wander as an itinerant rabbi–as if that alone sufficed to fulfill His mission.

In all His wanderings, Christ had a final destination, towards which He proceeded tirelessly, without swerving to the right or to the left. Now, only He could fully perceive the unfolding of this path before Him; even His most-intimate companions could not see the path. But that doesn’t mean Christ didn’t walk straight down it. He did.

The road to the cross.

A Franciscan–a Christian—renounces everything not just because that gives you greater freedom to wander the world and spread the reign of Christ. No: a Christian lets go of everything because death is inevitable, and it’s the only way to God.

A Christian knows that the only thing worth having is God. And there is no way to “have” God during this mortal pilgrim life, except by faith. We “possess” the unknowable God only in the darkness of faith.

God Himself is the light that turns the darkness of faith into the brightness of understanding—but the only way to that light is to share in Christ’s death. His death.

That’s the poverty that liberates and makes us not just wanderers but pilgrims to the Holy Temple. We believe so thoroughly in Christ’s triumph over death that everything (most of all my self) utterly pales in comparison with the prospect of sharing in that triumph.

Heart of the Corpus Christi

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We don’t keep her Memorial this year, since it falls on Sunday. But we can’t pass over the 120th anniversary of the Little Flower’s death in silence.

st__therese_of_lisieuxO my Jesus! what is your answer to all my follies? Is there a soul more little, more powerless than mine? …I opened the Epistles of St Paul to find some kind of answer. Chapters 12 and 13 of the First Epistle to the Corinthians fell under my eyes…

The Church is composed of different members, and the eye cannot be the hand at one and the same time…

I understood that if the Church had a body composed of different members, the most necessary and most noble of all could not be lacking to it, and so I understood that the Church had a Heart… I understood it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood…

Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love…

Why speak of a delirious joy? No, this expression is not exact, for it was rather the calm and serene peace of the navigator perceiving the beacon which must lead him to the port. O luminous Beacon of love, I know how to reach You, I have found the secret of possessing Your flame.

 

 

The Mission

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St. Vincent de Paul

They set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news. (Luke 9:6)

What good news? That God is with us. Our brother, Jesus of Nazareth. That the Lord Jesus loves, and died for us, and rose again. That He reigns over a kingdom in which death and evil have no power at all.

The Apostles of Christ undertook their mission, The Mission–the proclamation of this wonderful news about God and our destiny as human beings.

Now, what’s the news today? September 27, 2017? Republican tax plan, football players kneeling, saber-rattling by two unpredictable men with their fingers on dangerous buttons? Well, yes, sure.

But the real news—the truly new news—is: Jesus Christ, Son of Mary, Son of God.

St. Vincent de Paul died 357 years ago today, September 27, 1660. Among many other things, he founded the “Congregation of the Mission.” Of The Mission. A name so simple and basic that it kind-of leaves you hanging. “Oh, the priests and brothers of the Congregation of the Mission… What mission?”

Well, The Mission. The saint had gone into the French countryside and found villages full of poor Catholics who knew next to nothing about Christ and their religion. So St. Vincent and some companions decided to do something about that—to preach to, to teach, and to love the people. On a regular basis.

That’s the mission! That why we have church buildings—to do that mission in them. Let’s do it!

Christ: The Light of the American Nation, Part II (Laudato Si’)

We have to start by going back to the 90’s, and to the work that Pope St. John Paul II did to help us understand our continent and our heritage as Americans. 1992 marked the anniversary of…? Knights? In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Pope St. John Paul II visited the island of Hispaniola to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the first proclamation of the Gospel in the New World. In his homily, the pope addressed himself to all the sons and daughters of “America,” from Canada to Chile and Argentina. He referred to his brother bishops “of America.” Continue reading “Christ: The Light of the American Nation, Part II (Laudato Si’)”

Basilicas of the Patron of Comedians

Titian Martyrdom of St. Lawrence
Titian’s Martyrdom of St. Lawrence

St. Lawrence died for the faith 1,758 years ago today.

Rome has at least two grand basilicas of St. Lawrence. But we have one, too—a basilica of St. Lawrence, here in the Appalachian mountains.

Why did they erect a basilica in honor of St. Lawrence in Asheville, North Carolina? Is it because Lawrence exercises a special patronage over brewers? But the basilica came before the craft-beer movement…

St. Lawrence loved the faith, and the Mass, and the poor. He went to his martyrdom so fearlessly that he made his famous joke, as they burned him alive: “Turn me over. I’m done on this side.” At that moment, he became the patron of both cooks and comedians. The Perseid meteor shower occurs on or around St. Lawrence’s feast day to remind us of the sparks from the fire that burned him into heaven.

Anyone visited the basilica in Asheville? It’s no St. Andrew’s—just like Asheville is no Roanoke. But you don’t visit a church with a soaring elliptical-dome roof every day. It’s like the peaceful and prayerful Oval Office of God.

Good St. Lawrence, pray for us.

75th Anniversary of a Holocaust Death

Exactly seventy-five years and two weeks ago, the Catholic bishops of the Netherlands issued a statement condemning the Nazis for deporting all Jews from the country.

Seventy-five years ago today, the Nazis killed a German Jewish philosopher in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, as an act of retaliation against the bishops’statement.

St. Edith SteinNow, how’s that? Kill a German Jewish philosopher to retaliate against Dutch Catholic bishops? Well, this Jewish philosopher had become a Catholic nun. Edith Stein had become Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

The sisters of her convent had escaped Germany, and made it to the Netherlands. But the Nazis caught up with them. And when the Dutch Catholic bishops had the gall to call the Nazis the vicious racists they were, the Nazis proceeded to arrest and deport all Jewish converts to Catholicism. As we know, the Nazis were efficient. They only needed two weeks to get their revenge, in the gas chamber.

Pope St. John Paul II declared that we must remember the Holocaust on St. Teresa Benedicta’s feast day. Nazi racism justified the systematic killing of millions of innocent people—racist killing carried out with scientific coldness. My departed grandfather participated, as an American G.I., in rescuing people from one of the concentration camps. What he saw horrified him so much, he could never talk about it.

But we must. We must acknowledge the fact that man can, and does, inflict such evil upon man—and for no good reasons other than his own profound spiritual delusions.

On the other hand, man can, and does, also love his fellow man. St. Teresa Benedicta died for love. “Come, let us go for our people,” she said to her sister, who had also become a nun, as they walked to the gas chamber.

Pope St. John Paul II put it like this, when he canonized St. Teresa Benedicta, “We must stand together for human dignity. There is only one human family.”