Catholic Holocaust Remembrance Day

Women in Auschwitz May 1944
Birkenau, May 1944

From now on, as we celebrate the memory of this new saint every August 9, we cannot fail to remember the Holocaust.

–Pope St. John Paul II, at the canonization of the Jewish philosopher Edith Stein–who had become Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

She did not die on August 9, 1942, in a wild frenzy of racist violence. She died in the due course of the Nazi’s systematic implementation of an explicit policy–a policy they had developed over the course of two decades.

According to National-Socialist racial doctrine—which Hitler and his allies openly proposed as their party platform during the 1930’s—Jews had ‘infiltrated,’ had ‘invaded,’ had aspired to ‘conquer’ the German nation. Hitler alone had the clarity and courage to ‘fight back,’ to enunciate clearly that Germans must preserve the purity of their race.

St. Edith Stein
St. Edith Stein

The Nazis declared this the fundamental national priority. The presence of Jews in the life of the German nation was not, in their eyes, the simple reality of history. It was a problem. The #1 problem.

Hitler and the Nazis unapologetically proposed this idea as the basis for an entire political, legal, and military regime. The power that martyred Sister Teresa Benedicta was not a band of bloodthirsty marauders, obvious monsters, or stereotypical jackbooted thugs. No. A political alliance, based on Hitler’s ideas about German blood, developed an extensive technical and bureaucratic organization. Over the course of a decade, the Nazis established their idea as the organizing principle of German national life.

At Holy Mass today, we hear Moses rejoicing in the gift of God’s law. He revealed it fully on the cross, when the soldier pierced His Heart: the eternal law of love.

We human beings can go wrong. Our laws do not always correspond to the divine decree revealed in the wounded Heart of the Savior. We must constantly search ourselves for the evil of racism. And pray that, by the grace of God, we will see each other as who we truly are–one human family, with the loving God as our Father.

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Patron Saint

 

ars ceiling
Inside the Basilica in Ars, France

Rich in what matters to God. (Luke 12:21) [Spanish]

Here’s a quote from a preacher who died 160 years ago Sunday:

Man by himself is nothing, but with the Holy Spirit he is very great. Man is all earthly and all animal; nothing but the Holy Spirit can elevate his mind, and raise it on high. Why were the saints so detached from the earth? Because they let themselves be led by the Holy Spirit.

One hundred sixty years ago Sunday, the Rev. Father John Vianney breathed his last, in Ars, France.

The French Revolution broke out when he was a toddler. The government prohibited the celebration of Holy Mass. Thirteen-year-old John Vianney received First Communion at a Mass celebrated by an underground priest, in a remote farm house. They blocked the windows so no one could see the altar candles burning inside.

Napoleon Bonaparte re-established the Church in France three years later. As a teenager, John Vianney revered as his heroes the priests who had risked their lives to keep the faith going in France.

st-john-vianney-confessionJohn left his farm to get an education so he could become a priest. He had trouble with the books, but he got ordained. Three years later, he became the pastor of the obscure country town of Ars. At that time, only a handful of old women ever came to the parish church.

Father Vianney would remain there as pastor for 41 years. For four decades, he gave relentlessly strict sermons.

Does everyone know St. John Vianney’s great claim to fame? His reputation as an insightful and holy confessor began to spread throughout the country. People began to come from all over, to go to confession to him. So Father Vianney wound up hearing confessions for 18 hours a day.

The train company had to open a special window at the Lyon train station to sell tickets for the train to the little farm town of Ars. An average of 20,000 penitents came every year.

The priest lived on a few boiled potatoes per week and just a couple hours sleep each night. He said His Mass, recited his breviary, taught catechism, and visited the sick daily; he preached on Sundays and Solemnities. And he heard thousands upon thousands upon thousands of confessions.

When Father Vianney finally died at age 73, they preserved the parish church and rectory just as it was. They encased the little church in a basilica, to hold the saint’s tomb. The pope proclaimed St. John Vianney the patron saint of parish priests.

I had a chance to make a pilgrimage to Ars shortly before I was ordained. I was a transitional deacon, so I got to hold the chalice at Mass. It was a chalice used by the saint himself.

Because of St. John Vianney’s selfless pastoral love, devotees of the saint have a special devotion to his heart. They keep his heart in a separate reliquary, in a small chapel outside the basilica. The Knights of Columbus sponsored a tour of St. John Vianney’s heart through the US this past year. Anyone get a chance to visit the relic? The closest it came was Alexandria, VA.

During my seminarian years, the austerity of St. John Vianney’s life mystified and frightened me. Subsisting on a meager weekly portion of boiled potatoes. And hardly any sleep.

st-john-vianneyBut then I, too, got ordained. And started hearing confessions. I realized: the saint didn’t live like that for its own sake. He just had a lot of people lined up, waiting to reconcile with God—and he didn’t want to keep them waiting any longer than he absolutely had to.

“Rich in what matters to God.”

St. John Vianney simply did not care about anything other than God and the salvation of souls. Nothing else interested him or distracted him. He prayed, “Lord, grant the conversion of my parish. I am willing to suffer whatever you wish.”

Now, I myself can eat more tamales in one day than the number of potatoes St. John Vianney ate in a week. I get up early—but nowhere near as early as he did. You do not have a very holy priest. But I can honestly say: nothing interests me more than all of us getting to heaven together.

“The eyes of the world see no farther than this life, but the eyes of the Christian see deep into eternity.” A quote from St. John Vianney’s instruction to his people about the Holy Spirit. He went on:

“The Holy Spirit is like a man with a carriage and a horse, who wants to take us to Paris. We only have to say Yes, and get in. It is an easy matter to say Yes. Well, the Holy Spirit wants to take us to heaven. We have only to say Yes and let Him take us there.”

St. Francis Portiuncula Indulgence

portiuncula

The medieval town of Assisi sits on the top of a hill in Umbria, Italy. In the town square, young St. Francis removed his rich garments and embraced his life of Christ-like poverty.

On the plain at the bottom of the hill sits an ancient chapel. It honors Our Lady of the Angels. Was originally dedicated on August 2, shortly before Assumption Day. It was eight hundred years old at the time of St. Francis, eight hundred years ago.

The chapel languished in disrepair then. The Lord inspired St. Francis: “Repair My house!” So Francis and his companions renovated the little chapel and made it their home.

stfrancisAnyone been there? My dear mom, my late aunt, and I visited on November 16, 2008, along with a group of pilgrims. That was my third visit.

The Portiuncula now sits inside a large basilica. And they built replica portiunculas at the Franciscan Monastery in Washington, and in downtown San Francisco, CA.

The Lord promised St. Francis that anyone who wants to honor Our Lady of the Angels and visits the Portiuncula—or visits any parish church, on the anniversary of the dedication of the Portiuncula—can gain a plenary indulgence.

You just have to recite the Creed, pray the Our Father, pray for the pope’s intentions, renounce all attachment to sin, and confess and receive Holy Communion sometime within the same fortnight.

A plenary indulgence helps a soul get to heaven. Either my own soul, or a soul in purgatory.

As Luther pointed out, selling indulgences involves the grave sin of simony. But obtaining an indulgence by praying and renouncing sin? Good to do.

Liguori + Final Judgment

Basilica St Alphonsus Liguori Pagani Italy

St. Alphonsus Liguori died 232 years ago today. His body lies in the Redemptorist basilica in Pagani, Italy.

Not that we count St. Alphonsus among the pagani! The town presumably got its name from the ancient pagani of Pompei.

Reminds me of a couple I knew, in a former parish. The Pagans. Mr. and Mrs. Pagan. Devout Catholics. Not pagans.

Anyway… In His preaching and teaching, Lord Jesus clearly announced the final judgment. He left us in no doubt about it. The Catechism puts it like this:

The conduct of each individual and the secrets of hearts will be brought to light. The culpable unbelief that counted the offer of God’s grace as nothing will be condemned. Our attitude toward our neighbor will disclose acceptance or refusal of grace and divine love

To break that down:

Salvation on Judgment Day begins with: believing in God and His saving Christ. Faith in Jesus comes as a gift from the Holy Spirit. But we have a responsibility to accept that gift, and to live by our faith in the triune God.

Second: The Judge will say, “As you did to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to me.” The Lord will judge us according to our co-operation with divine love, in all our interactions with our fellow human beings.

So: We will face Jesus Christ as the judge of our whole lives, He Who knows all and sees all, Who understands us better than we understand ourselves. This is a supernatural fact that God Himself has revealed to us. We believe it with utter conviction, because of the authority and trustworthiness of God Almighty, Who revealed it.

We know neither the day nor the hour. So we live with an eye to the final judgment and the life to come. In the meantime, the more fully prepared for judgment we are right now, the more deeply do we grow in friendship with God .

Easter in July

Mary Magdalene Tiberias Jerusalem church
painting in the Russian Orthodox church of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem

Mary Magdalene loved the Lord Jesus enough to seek restlessly for Him. Then she found Him—or He found her. She learned that He had risen from the dead.

The Bible tells us that Mary Magdalene announced the resurrection to the Apostles. One tradition reports that she traveled to Rome to tell the Emperor Tiberius that Jesus had risen.

Mary presented an egg to the emperor as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection. Tiberius replied, “That man no more rose from the dead than that egg is red.” Whereupon the egg turned red—the first dyed Easter egg.

Mary also apparently sailed to France, where she proclaimed the Gospel, then lived as a hermit until her death. (Presumably on July 22.) They preserve her remains in a Gothic basilica outside Marseille.

Three years ago Pope Francis raised today’s commemoration from the rank of Memorial to Feast. Christians have commemorated Mary Magdalene on July 22 since time immemorial. During the Middle Ages her feast day was a holy day of obligation in England.

Anyway, today’s feast gives us a little extra Easter, in July. Mary’s beloved Lord rose from the dead, to give us life. Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ, now and forever.

Basilica St Maximin w tomb of Mary Magdalene
Basilica of St. Maximin, with the tomb of Mary Magdalene

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.

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.