Monthly Archives: December 2010

There was a thing that struck me yesterday as I was listening to the proclamation of the Gospel. It stewed about in my head, so I needed to look up the reading. Here is the text from the beginning of the eleventh chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel:

When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ,
he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question,
‘Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?’
Jesus said to them in reply,
‘Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.’

Jesus healing the paralytic

In that litany of signs, the first thing that struck me was the implication that poverty is an illness to be undone, an evil to be corrected. Like blindness, paralysis, leprosy, deafness, and even death, poverty is addressed by the king of kings, by God Himself as a wrong to be righted.

That says several things to me. First, it tells me of what concern Our Lord has for the poor. It is not some saccharine drivel to say that Jesus cared most especially for the poor. He ranks His ministry to them on par with the healing of the blind and the raising of the dead. That’s some high octane love.

 I know some like to point out that wealth has its place in the kingdom too, and I don’t doubt that it does, but let’s not pretend that the Master takes a kind of neutral stance between the poor and the wealthy. He doesn’t. He is most especially concerned for the poor, which leads me to the second thing.

Poverty is an evil. Thus I don’t think Christ is talking about the willfully poor, i.e. those who have chosen detachment from the world. That is not the poverty Christ is talking about, the disease that is poverty. My sense is that His poverty is the grinding, life-threatening poverty that perpetuates itself and holds its captives tightly against its wheezing breast. Or to put it in a more contemporary and perhaps irreverant way, it is not the bohemian lifestyle of our youth today who buy clothes that are worn and frayed because it is “a statement,” because they like being dirty and outcast. Dorothy Day had something to say about this:

“There is a Bohemianism of the religious life among young people as well as Bohemianism in the labor movement, and it too smacks of sentimentality. The gesture of being dirty because the outcast is dirty, of drinking because he drinks, of staying up all night and talking, because that is what one’s guests from the streets want to do, in participating in his sin from a prideful humility, this is self-deception indeed!” pg. 255 The Long Loneliness

Yes, what a deception. As ragged as some of our young like to make themselves appear, you will notice, of course, that they have the finest media accoutrements available: the latest iPod and the most recent editions of video games. They also spend remarkable amounts of money on primping themselves, that’s men and women by the way, not just women. But I digress…

Heal the Blind

The last thing that strikes me, though, about the above passage from the Gospel is that while the other evils are cured, Christ finds only the time to proclaim the Good News for the poor. I mean, wouldn’t the symmetry have been better maintained if he had said,

the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor are granted socio-economic stability?

Poverty is like these other diseases, but it is most unlike them in that Christ does not seek to “cure” it. Rather, to the poor the Good News is proclaimed. This is somehow sufficient.

Now, some would rightfully object that I am way off base here. Some might argue that the real meaning is that the proclamation of the Good News equates to socio-economic bliss. That’s how we need to understand the Good News, i.e. a social utopia. They would say that it is precisely to overthrow the structures of sin that the Jesus of history came. He was a political revolutionary, martyred for the cause of liberation for the common man. But if the economic balance of things were what he meant by the proclamation of the Good News, then why is this not plain, and why is this not the sense of the phrase elsewhere?

When we look to the rest of the New Testament, we find that it is St. Luke who uses the phrase most often. He has a parallel passage to the above in chapter 7, but there are several instances of its use. The first of these is when the angel Gabriel speaks to Zechariah. He tells him that he brings him the good news of Zechariah’s child who will prepare the people for the Lord. It is Gabriel too that uses the phrase when addressing the shepherds who are then told of the coming of the anointed one. Later in Luke we find the phrase associated with the kingdom of God. It is in chapter 8 and 16 that it becomes the “good news of the kingdom of God.” In Acts St. Luke includes the phrase several times, but now it is the “good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus,” “the good news of Jesus,” “the good news of peace of Jesus Christ,” “the good news that what God promised to the fathers.”

I take this all to mean that the Good News is Jesus who is the Word. He is the Good News. He has presented himself to the poor, and this is the fulfillment of the prophecy. But how is this to be understod with the healing of the blind, deaf, lame, dumb, leprous, and dead?

To my mind, this tells us that through the proclamation of the Good News the poor will be relieved of the evil of poverty. You see, Christ cannot simply relieve one of poverty as he can with the physical evils of death and leprosy. There is nothing within the poor man that is not functioning correctly. Poverty is a result of the injustices extent within the society. To “cure” poverty would be to have all men behave justly, which would mean denying them the capacity to choose unjustly, which is the loss of any meaningful freedom.

Jesus and Blind Baritmeaus by Carl Bloch

But that’s just it. It is only through an introduction to Christ that men will move beyond themselves in freedom to the point of choosing the just over the unjust even when it is painful to do so. By being in relationship with the Word, who is the Good News, society can be transformed, the revolution can occur so as to bring about a more just society that can, one day, “cure” poverty.

As always, I come back to the centrality of the encounter with Christ. This is the proper approach and not that one which requires socio-economic redistribution right now regardless. That is to say that, the effort to make the Good News into a battle cry for root and branch global, political reform is to place us at the center of the news thus displacing the very Christ who wants that we give them Himself.

Hope for the poor is in Christ Jesus, in their and our encounter with Him, and not in the promises of political parties or community organizations that pledge caring attention to the needs of the poor. Christ, the Good News, reveals to us ourselves and thus our real needs…needs detached from news cycles and election years. This is why Popes Paul VI, John Paul the Great, and Benedict XVI all say that the social doctrine is evangelizaton and evangelization fulfills the social doctrine.

So… you want to help “cure” poverty? Get to know Christ, bring Him to the poor, and let Him direct you in your service to them. Do that, and not only will you relieve their suffering, but you might even heal the blind and cure the lame.


St. Augustine and St. Ambrose


Some years ago, as I was fishing about trying to find a suitable topic for my master’s thesis, I was encouraged by a venerable Cistercian to investigate the Eucharistic language of St. Ambrose of Milan. In my typical obtuseness, I sought not just to read Ambrose, but to translate him from the Latin. I still own my one volume of Migne’s Patrologia Latina dedicated to the work of St. Ambrose. It dates from 1880. It cost me a pretty penny. I never did write about Ambrose.   

Nevertheless, the search into this man’s life would serve me well, and I am reminded of all of this since today is the Feast of St. Ambrose of Milan, one of the greatest bishops, theologians, fathers, doctors of the church.   

He was born to a noble Roman family in Gaul probably around the year 340. His father died while he was quite young, leaving his mother, sister, and brother to move back to Rome. His education was well provided, and he quickly showed talent at oratory as well as administration. A rare talent I can well tell you!   

Ambrose and his family were Christian, but as was the habit at the time with many Christians, he was not baptized as an infant. Some waited to the end of life so as to be able to ensure their purity at the moment of death.   

In the year 374, Ambrose had already risen in the community of Milan as an important figure for the maintenance of the Empire. Milan, at that time, was the city of the peninsula and not Rome, which has had over the centuries difficulties with swamps and disease. So it was that he found himself in the midst of a dispute in the Cathedral where there was a rather heated debate over who was to be the new bishop of Milan. The combatants, for that’s what they were, argued from one side the Catholic position and from the other the heretical Arian position. The fighting between the two factions grew so violent that Ambrose was forced to step in, plead for peace and Christian charity. For this, he was greeted with the cry, tradition tells us it was a small boy, “Ambrose, bishop!” And thus, he was stuck.   

What me worry?


Ambrose’s life as a prelate would be marked from the start with the tension between Church and State. As he was not even baptized he pled his case to the Emperor Valentinian that he might be released of the obligation. Of course, from the Emperor’s point of view, it suited him very well that one of his own governors was chosen fit for the bishopric of Milan. Valentinian presumed, as Emperors tend to, that he would be able to use Ambrose for his own purposes. So, yes, Ambrose was stuck. He even tried to hide in the home of a Roman senator until he could find his escape. The senator, upon hearing the Emperor’s decision, ratted out his friend. And on this day in 374, Ambrose was made bishop of Milan. He was only 35 years old, the same age as your dear writer.   

Ambrose applied himself to the details of the faith immediately, for of course he knew nothing. By pouring over the works of Origen and St. Basil, he acquainted himself with the error of Arianism, which had so taken over the Church. He also advised and wrote some remarkable works on the defense of the faith against the imposition of the pagans, who had still not given up on the old-time religion. Most especially important to me, however, have been St. Ambrose’s thoughts and actions on the relation between Church and State, thoughts which are very much a part of the Social Doctrine of the Church.   

In letter XVII he wrote:   

While all the people who are under Roman rule do battle on behalf of you, O emperors and princes of the earth, you yourselves do battle on behalf of almighty God and the sacred faith.   

He was very keen on making sure the Christian emperors understood that they had a moral obligation not just in the running of the machine, but that they were obliged to fulfill their duties towards God and the faith. This did not mean any imposition of Christianity on the populace, but only that the faith should be free to be, and to be spread.   

In response to a movement by pagan senators to return the pagan altar of victory to the senate house in Rome, it was St. Ambrose who petitioned the Catholic Emperor to deny them this claim. They, of course, complained of persecution. To this, Ambrose pointed out that pagans were not being rounded up and crucified for sport. But then he went on to write this in the same letter quoted above:   

They are also asking you to grant them privileges – they who, under Julian’s recent law, denied our co-religionists the commonplace right to speak and to teach.  These are privileges by which even Christians have often been led astray, for by these privileges they sought to ensnare a number of people – some through heedlessness and others anxious to avoid the burdens of public responsibilities.  And, inasmuch as not everyone is strong, many fell even under Christian princes.   

Note please the phrase, “the commonplace right to speak and to teach.” St. Ambrose, the classically trained oratorian turned theologian, believed and taught and argued that to publicly speak about and teach ones faith was a common right, a basic human right. This basic human right would be recalled and defended by the Second Vatican Council in the Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis humanae.   

St. Ambrose is famous as well for an incident in 390 that again speaks to this brave bishop’s desire to teach us about the proper relationship between Church and State. In that year, in the city of Thessalonica, the governor, whose name was Butheric, had imprisoned a charioteer for seducing one of his maid servants. The people of Thessalonica demanded that the charioteer return for the games, but Butheric refused. A riot broke out and several Roman soldiers were killed including Butheric.   

The emperor Theodosius, a hot-tempered Spaniard, would teach those back-wood Thessalonians a lesson. While the people were at the games, Theodosius ordered the Roman soldiers to surround the circus and slaughter every, single person. The massacre took hours, and, in all, seven thousand were dead. The Empire was horrified.   

Ambrose, in consultation with his brother bishops, wrote the emperor and told him in no uncertain terms that he ought not present himself for the reception of Holy Communion. He wrote,   

What has been done at Thessalonica is unparalleled in the memory of man. …You are human, and temptation has overtaken you. Overcome it. I counsel, I beseech, I implore you to penance. You, who have so often been merciful and pardoned the guilty, have now caused many innocent to perish. The devil wished to wrest from you the crown of piety which was your chiefest glory. Drive him from you while you can. …I write this to you with my own hand that you also may read it alone.   

The repentant Theodosius comes to St. Ambrose


The legend is that Theodosius stormed to the Cathedral of Milan and that Ambrose rebuked him at the Church’s gate. That story, though, is just that, a story. In truth, Theodosius’ conscience was so struck by the words of St. Ambrose that he did a public penance causeing some to feel sorrier for Theodosius than they ever did for the people of Thessalonica. In fact, Ambrose would say at the funeral of Theodosius:   

He stripped himself of every sign of royalty and bewailed his sin openly in church. He, an emperor, was not ashamed to do the public penance which lesser individuals shrink from, and to the end of his life he never ceased to grieve for his error.   

What, do you think, would be the reaction of our present-day politicians if the bishops were very clear with them that they not present themselves for Holy Communion if they advocated the torture of thousands or the murder of millions of preborn babies? Whatever the answer to that question might be, we can be certain that St. Ambrose would have made the demand of the politician…at least that.   

The feats of St. Ambrose could go on for pages. It was St. Ambrose who was so instrumental in the conversion of St. Augustine. St. Ambrose wrote his own liturgy which is one of the only ancient Latin liturgies still in use today. St. Ambrose wrote hymns and prayers. St. Ambrose has a saintly sister St. Marcellina who, with him, helped to advance the tradition of consecrated women who worked in the world for the advancement of the mission of the Church. And then there is St. Ambrose’s Eucharistic language, which the venerable Cistercian asked me to investigate. That will still have to be for another time.   

Until then, happy feast of St. Ambrose to you all, and I implore you to please pray daily for your bishop.   

Enjoy this bit of the Ambrosian liturgy: Vespers at St. Andrea this past May   



Il Gesu


Along a rather busy street in Rome, as one walks along with various-colored motorini passing by in the typical Italian nonchalance, there stands a rather impressive façade of a Church. Churches in Rome are not rarities. Edifices of worship, shrines and even bits of images of the Blessed Virgin dot the city’s corners and crevices throughout. Here, though, with buildings rising tightly upward, is a church with a piazza that stands resolute. The Church is named after Jesus and is referred to by the Italian Gesù. 

Inside the Gesù, amidst the distracting busyness of the Baroque interior, one will find the remains of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the punctilious and perceptive Spaniard who founded the order known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. Across the nave, though, is an oddly obvious glass display case gilt with gold and silver. Above this floats the golden form of an angel whose wings and flowing robes give a good deal of attention to the case, for inside the case, in that only-too-Catholic fashion, is… a forearm. 


The forearm belonged, or I suppose I should say that it still belongs to another Spaniard who met St. Ignatius at the University of Paris whilst the two of them studied theology. The forearm is on display not in mere virtue of its owner’s friendship with Ignatius. It is on display because its owner, St. Francis Xavier, was one of the most successful missionaries in the history of Christianity. That forearm, black and no doubt by now quite brittle, baptized more souls than perhaps any since the early baptisms of thousands one reads about in the Scriptures. 

St. Francis Xavier was born in 1506. When he met St. Ignatius of Loyola, it did not take long for him and five others to join Ignatius and be those magnificent seven souls to start the Jesuit order that would transform the world. This was 1534. Nor did it take long, after their order had found some grounding, for Francis to be sent by Ignatius to go and preach to the nations, as Jesus had commanded. St. Francis and his companions, Fr. Paul of Camarino and Francis Mansilhas, sailed from Portugal for India in 1541. 

The story of his work in India is dazzling. Certainly Christianity had already been in parts of India, and been there for over a thousand years. However, large swaths of the land were still not evangelized, and anyway the Christians there needed the catechetical and spiritual support of ones like St. Francis, who traveled extensively regardless of danger, time, or geography. What is more astonishing is that the zeal which St. Francis held in that fiery heart of his was not quenched by the successes of India, Ceylon, and the nearby regions. St. Francis heard of a land in which Christianity was not thriving and was compelled to do something about it. That land was Japan. 

In 1549, he and some companions set out for that mysterious island nation and landed in Kagoshima. In a year they had 100 converts. Considering this a pittance, Francis pressed onward. At Hirado he was well received and converts came in the droves. His forearm tired at the effort of so many baptisms. Still he pressed on. By the time he left Japan in 1551 at least 2,000 Japanese had been baptized. But there were more lands to be given the Gospel. 

In August of 1552, St. Francis was off again, this time to China. Unfortunately, he fell ill there and died a short time after, on December 3, 1552. 

Memorial to St. Francis Xavier in Kagoshima


Some of the marks of St. Francis’ story are truly wonderful to relate, not the least of these is the sheer number of baptisms he performed during his eleven years of service in Asia. Modern estimates of his work put him at about 30,000 baptisms. To put that in perspective a bit, that means that St. Francis Xavier would have baptized between 7 and 8 people every day for eleven straight years. 

Though he worked to learn the many languages of the lands in which he preached –  of course keeping in mind that he would have already known Basque, Spanish, Latin, French, Italian, and Portuguese – he did not have the gift of tongues. The languages he picked up on in India and elsewhere were the result of grueling work on his part. He was not gifted as some are with languages. He had to work hard. This therefore meant that he got creative. He used art a good deal in the attempt to communicate the fundamentals of the faith and as a tool to remember creeds. He also met the people “where they were at,” as the saying goes these days. To the Indians he lived as they did in extreme poverty, eating only rice and water, sleeping on the ground in a hut. In Japan, this would not do. So he dressed richly and presented the local magistrate with fine gifts. This was well received, and he gained instant respect and thus an audience with attentive ears. 

Just a couple of last points about St. Francis: first, his travels throughout the world included missionary work not just for the unbaptized but almost especially to already baptized Catholics. Imagine you’ve just sailed the seas for over a year in order to do work in a land far stranger to you than any you’ve ever visited. Upon arriving you discover that the port town is largely Christian. But then you witness what Fr. Butler will describe as the “ambition, avarice, usury, and debauchery” of the Christians there. 

The sacraments were neglected, there were not four preachers and no priests outside the walls of Goa; when slaves were atrociously beaten, their masters counted the blows on the beads of their rosaries. 

Fr. H. J. Colerdige, S.J. one of the biographers of St. Francis Xavier relates the following, 

There has probably never yet been a zealous European missionary in any part of the heathen world in which Christians from his own country have been settled, or which they have occasionally visited for purposes of commerce, who has not found among them the worst enemies to his work. No exception can be made as to this lamentable truth in favour of Catholic nations: Spaniards, Frenchmen, Portuguese have as much to answer for in this respect as Dutchmen and Englishmen. 

In other words, no Christian missionary has been spared the embarrassment of having to explain to the prospective flock the atrocious behavior of Christians. St. Francis had clearly a lot to do for the Christians already there in Goa. Normally, we…normally I would have thrown in the towel at that point. What is the purpose of preaching the Gospel when the very people who are supposed to be living it are behaving so poorly? Have you not asked yourself this question? 

The rest of St. Francis Xavier in the Basilica of Bom Gesu in Goa, India


I dare say that we’ve all experienced something like this in our lives. Have we heard the line that the Church is in more danger of corruption from Catholics within than from non-Catholics without? There is something true in that saying I think. Yet St. Francis pressed on. His dedication to Christ Jesus was so deeply ingrained in him, that he did not need to know that all Catholics would behave properly for him to fulfill his vocation. All he needed to do was to listen to God, to press on living for Him. 

Lastly, I don’t want to suggest that St. Francis’ focus on his vocation despite these atrocities is anything like a sign of callousness or concession. Of these crimes he wrote that they became “a permanent bruise on my soul.” He allowed the love for Christ to inform his care for his neighbor, over against those of his own faith. He wrote once, when an Indian was abducted for the slave trade, 

Would the Portuguese be pleased if one of the Hindus were to take a Portuguese by force and carry him up country? The Indians must have the same feelings. 

This ability of St. Francis Xavier to be driven by his compassion for his neighbor well enough to see beyond the natural affinities of nation, ethnicity, and faith… this ability to defend the rights of these downtrodden strangers, only brings me to wonder how we can be Catholic, today in the U.S., and not desire for ourselves more largeness of heart for the immigrant. Immigration is too large an issue to enter into here, but given the life of St. Francis presented above, how do we really think he would behave in our current time? Would he deny prenatal care to a woman because her proximity is illegal? Would he demand his neighbor produce proof of eligibility before offering them something as simple as shelter from the storm? No, St. Francis Xavier wouldn’t, not the great missionary, not the grand heart, not the forearm that helped to reconcile strangers in his valley of tears to the God of our homeland in the heavens. 

Perhaps, then, take time this day of St. Francis Xavier and consider the immigrant in our midst, the stranger in a strange land. If you find your heart hardened by the vituperative rhetoric that so dominates our political culture, then I ask you only to pray to St. Francis the Spaniard, St. Francis the missionary, St. Francis the lover who allowed that love to bring Jesus to the world. Perhaps we might raise a forearm, glass in hand of course, and toast with a friend the same love that saved a wretch like me. 

In that spirit: St. Francis Xavier…pray for us! 


St. Edmund Campion

I’ve mentioned good St. Edmund several times now in these pages. It was on this day in 1581 that he was martyred by Queen Elizabeth’s men.

Here is what I wrote some time ago after finishing the wonderful biography written by Evelyn Waugh:

“Reading the life of St. Edmund Campion, …, I have come to find many things about the man with which I relate. For one, we both very much love the passage in Scripture wherein Christ states that He has ‘come to set the world on fire. Oh how I wish it were already ablaze.’ This line has always meant a great deal to me if for no other reason than simply that it shows something of the vulnerability of Our Lord. There is regret in these words.

“Campion also had a penchant for arguing, which I must admit I have as well, to a fault at times. Campion had desired a quiet life of scholarly pursuit, something for which I can only dream. Read More