Today is the Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran, the mother church for the whole of the world. It is St. John Lateran’s and not St. Peter’s basilica, that is the cathedral of Rome and thus the site of the cathedra, the sign of the bishop’s authority. Above the entrance to the Lateran is written OMNIUM URBIS ET ORBIS ECCLESIARUM MATER ET CAPUT which means “The Mother and Head of all churches of the City and of the World.”

There are many interesting facts about St. John Lateran. The “Lateran” name is a remnant of the Roman family who used to own the palace from which the basilica was originally made. In answer to the question, “After which St. John is St. John Lateran named?” the answer is St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. The basilica was dedicated to our Most Holy Savior but later changed to St. John by virtue of a Benedictine monastery attached to it and charged with its care. The monastery was dedicated to both St. Johns. The heads of St. Peter and St. Paul are said to reside in the baldacchino above the high altar. As odd as this sounds, it is true that the skulls of St. Peter and St. Paul were not discovered underneath their respective basilicas amongst their bones.

Pope St. Leo the Great, who’s feast is tomorrow, renovated the Lateran in 460. And its current condition was thanks to Pope Innocent X and Borromini. This is how the old Catholic Encyclopedia describes the “renovation”:

The palace, however, was never again used by them as a residence, the Vatican, which stands in a much drier and healthier position, being chosen in its place. It was not until the latter part of the seventeenth century that the church took its present appearance, in the tasteless restoration carried out by Innocent X, with Borromini for his architect. The ancient columns were now enclosed in huge pilasters, with gigantic statues in front. In consequence of this the church has entirely lost the appearance of an ancient basilica, and is completely altered in character.

I have to admit that the first time I walked into the Lateran I was underwhelmed. I think I understand the objection above. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say “tasteless,” but it certainly is not my favorite basilica.

Fr. Alban Butler makes a point about today and the commemoration of a basilica that I think is important. He quotes St. Augustine who encourages us to take care of ourselves who are temples of God. “Let us work,” Augustine wrote,

As hard as we are able with His help, that our Lord find not in His temple, that is, in us, anything whereby the eyes of His majesty may be offended…. If no one in dirty garments would dare to approach the table of an earthly ruler, how much the more ought one who is infected with the poison of envy or hate, or full of unrighteous anger, reverently and humbly to draw back from the table of the eternal King, that is, from the altar of God? For it is written, ‘Go first and be reconciled with thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift’; and again, ‘Friend, how camest thou in hither not having on a wedding-garment?’

This passage at once ennobles and challenges us. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and have within us a dignity which is magnified by the grace of baptism. We are temples of the Holy Spirit. We are beloved and gifted. Still we must prepare our temples well by eliminating sins of “envy or hate.”

For those of us who are more laid back, this might not be that difficult of a task. Calmness bordering on apathy helps one avoid envy and hate most of the time. But the standard is not just the avoidance of these sins, we also must decorate the temple as a bride or groom would. This involves effort, thus thwarting the apathetic.

What I love about feasts like this dedication of St. John Lateran’s is that it shows us just how incarnational our faith is. What a wonderful image it is to try to dress up our soul as groom. How does one do that? Well by decorating it with the flowers and gems of merciful charity of course. This is the ultimate test of the Christian soul. It is the love of neighbor that brightens the chambers of the interior temple. It is the joyful spirit of genuine charity that erects the bright adornment of the spiritual house.

This feast helps us to remember that the great basilicas of the world are physical reminders of the glory that awaits us in heaven, and of the glory which exists within us if only we would clear out the stain of sin and allow Christ’s healing hand to work its craft. Basilicas like St. John Lateran’s, are images of our own vocation, our calling to be more like Christ Himself.

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One Example of the Christ Pantokrator

I do love my parish ever so much. It is, I suppose, a testimony to the sad state of American Catholic parishes that this is perhaps the first time I have ever belonged to a parish in which I feel truly so much a part of it. People actually stick around after Mass to visit and catch up on the week. We see each other outside of Mass at gatherings of various sorts: cultural, religious, athletic. It is a true joy.

The parish Church itself is a thing of beauty outside and inside. Though it shows signs of the years of neglect that it suffered when so many left the part of town in which it sits, it is nonetheless stunning. There is a soft grandeur about the place, a disarming austerity that I cannot help but fall in love with.

The altar is decorated with three impressive mosaics. Saints Peter and Paul flank a central mosaic of Christ Pantokrator, which stands ominously above a dome that covers a crucifix that stand above the tabernacle that sits above the altar. The symmetry is gorgeous.

If you’re familiar with the tradition of the icon of Christ Pantokrator you will know that they all share a kind of menacing air. This is not a depiction of Jesus sweet and mild. This is the Christ, the ruler of the universe, the all-powerful, which is one of the various translations of the Greek word “pantokrator.” A non-Catholic friend of mine from graduate school referred to it as the “switch blade Jesus.” You weren’t sure what he was going to do, but he looked mean.

Another alternative translation of Christ Pantokrator is Christ the all sustainer. This I find wonderful and an understanding of God that I think is largely lost on us today.

We’ve a tendency to view God in a kind of pseudo-deistic manner. The deists saw God as a divine watchmaker who created the world in all its intricacy and with an internal mechanism of propulsion. The Lord needed only to wind the world up, let go, and watch from a safe distance as the universe followed its inevitable motions. We allow ourselves the thought, perhaps, that He intervenes at His convenience. But these instances are nothing more than brief intrusions by God into “our” realm. Nothing could be further from the truly Christian understanding of God, of the God who sent His only son.

No, in fact, God is Pantokrator, the all sustaining God who did not just create us but also sustains us at every moment. Should God forget us for a millisecond we would cease to exist. The fact that we are is a direct result of the will of God at this moment…and this…and this…and now too. God sustains all that is everywhere and at all times, and it was this God that came down from heaven to become one of us. This is what is so amazing, and this is what struck me yesterday as I sat before the mosaic of Christ Pantokrator, for I noticed something quite lovely.

Prominent to the mosaic is Christ’s face and shoulders, his right hand raised in it iconographic manner. However, the gorgeous Italian Marble dome that sits above the tabernacle, wonderfully framing the golden, upright crucifix, obstructs the image of Christ Pantokrator from his knees down. And when one sits, at just the right angle, one discovers that the all-powerful, all-sustaining Christ God is…barefoot. He wears no sandals, but, discalced, stands as omnipotence personified yet simultaneously humble.

Oh, the mercy of God is a beautiful thing.

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I was with some ministers yesterday speaking about the nature of the mission of the laity within the context of adult faith formation. At the average parish you have the pastor and their leader of catechesis. In certain parts of the country they still call this CCD, which stands for the Confraternity for Christian Doctrine. Here in the Omaha, we just call it “religious education.” The education of children takes up most of the time and resources for a parish. Adults are often left to fend for themselves to rummage through the resource library or the brochure display at the back of the Church. In the case of RCIA, when adults convert to the faith, there is more formation, but statistics have shown that though we have huge numbers of adults becoming Catholic every year, over 75% of them are gone after three years. Things seem rather grim.

In my presentation, I led everyone back to the 1979 Apostolic Exhortation by Pope John Paul II Catechesi tradendae “On Catechesis in our Time.” In paragraph 29 the Holy Father speaks of those things which we ought not forget in the work of catechesis. I thought it important since the next synod of the Church will be on the New Evangelization and since the opening lines of this paragraph read:

29. In the third chapter of his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi, the same Pope recalled “the essential content, the living substance” of evangelization. Catechesis, too, must keep in mind each of these factors and also the living synthesis of which they are part.

Catechesis is about evangelization and the transformation of the soul. But what are these things which we cannot neglect in catechizing? The first reads something like this:

The synod fathers were indeed inspired when they asked that care should be taken not to reduce Christ to His humanity alone or His message to a no more than earthly dimension, but that He should be recognized as the Son of God, the Mediator giving us in the Spirit free access to the Father.

Let’s make sure that we maintain the fact that Jesus is God. This would seem a rather basic or modest goal, but you would be surprised (or perhaps you wouldn’t be) at how many wish to either deny His divinity or leave it on the back burner. Is there more we ought not neglect?

It is important to display before the eyes of the intelligence and of the heart, in the light of faith, the sacrament of Christ’s presence constituted by the mystery of the Church, which is an assembly of human beings who are sinners and yet have at the same time been sanctified….

The Church is that body through which we encounter Christ in His fullness. The Catholic thing has never been a “me and Jesus” proposition. We are called to relationship with Him, but relationship in the context of community. Without that community, we have place an obstacle to complete knowledge of Him.

Then there is the last thing we ought not forget in catechesis. The Holy Father writes:

Finally, it is important to reveal frankly the demands – demands that involve self-denial but also joy – made by what the Apostle Paul liked to call “newness of life,” (Rom. 6:4) “a new creation,” (2 Cor. 5:17) being in Christ, (Cf. ibid.) and “eternal life in Christ Jesus,” (Rom. 6:23) which is the same thing as life in the world but lived in accordance with the beatitudes and called to an extension and transfiguration hereafter.

Hence the importance in catechesis of personal moral commitments in keeping with the Gospel and of Christian attitudes, whether heroic or very simple, to life and the world – what we call the Christian or evangelical virtues. Hence also, in its endeavor to educate faith, the concern of catechesis not to omit but to clarify properly realities such as man’s activity for his integral liberation, the search for a society with greater solidarity and fraternity, the fight for justice and the building of peace.

Besides, it is not to be thought that this dimension of catechesis is altogether new. As early as the patristic age, St. Ambrose and St. John Chrysostom – to quote only them – gave prominence to the social consequences of the demands made by the Gospel. Close to our own time, the catechism of St. Pius X explicitly listed oppressing the poor and depriving workers of their just wages among the sins that cry to God for vengeance.(74) Since Rerum novarum especially, social concern has been actively present in the catechetical teaching of the Popes and the Bishops. Many synod fathers rightly insisted that the rich heritage of the Church’s social teaching should, in appropriate forms, find a place in the general catechetical education of the faithful.

The Social Teaching of the Catholic Church is not some optional addendum to the work of catechetics. It is necessary, and it is something which in the patristic age was given “prominence.”

Giving Thanks

When I presented these facts to the good people around the table yesterday, I asked how many of them felt comfortable relating or speaking about the Social Doctrine to the adults they served. None of them did. The failure, I would then posit, to know it ourselves – for those of us who are in ministry – bars us from passing it on to the adults we work with and as a result fails to make charity in truth a reality, fails to connect the spiritual depths of relationship with Christ to our everyday life.

I did not plan this, but apparently this was exactly the same message of the Holy Father Pope Benedict yesterday. Wherein he says,

A profound understanding of the social doctrine of the Church is of fundamental importance, in harmony with all her theological heritage and strongly rooted in affirming the transcendent dignity of man, in defending human life from conception to natural death and in religious freedom. … It is necessary to prepare lay people capable of dedicating themselves to the common good, especially in complex environments such as the world of politics.

This effort is no joke. It is not peripheral to the work of the Church and the mission of the laity. We must know the Social Doctrine well.

But where to turn? The JustFaith program has been around for some time now and is considered one of the more popular programs. It is long and involved, but the commitment it requires does draw forth some transformation from its participants. The problem is that it includes materials that openly and frequently deny the divinity of Christ. Not only are the participants not provided the gorgeous language of the popes in the explanation of the Social Teaching, they are lied to about who Christ is. When I spoke to the people at JustFaith about this, they simply shrugged and said it was just a matter of emphasis. They want to emphasize Jesus’ humanity is all, lest focusing on his divinity distract us from this world and its needs. JustFaith would not reject these portions of its program.

There is little help out there for encountering and understanding the Social Doctrine of the Church. But the teaching needs to happen, and it needs to happen yesterday.

Kris McGregor and I are working on an audio series to help spread the teaching. Pray that we can finish it in a timely manner and that we can get out of our own way and let the Holy Spirit do the talking. Pray that we can meet the Holy Father’s call for this teaching “to prepare lay people capable of dedicating themselves to the common good,” and service to the Church.

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Today marks the feast of Saints Crispin and Crispian, brothers who were martyred by beheading in Rome sometime during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (emperor from 284-305 AD).  

That the saints lived is certainly true. The story of these brothers, however, comes to us from a late account that has little to suggest it’s authenticity. Generally, though, we know them to be from Rome, to have worked in Soissons, Gaul (now France), and to have been shoemakers thus earning them the title of patrons for shoemakers, cobblers, and those who work with leather.  

The tale is that these two brothers, perhaps twins of noble blood, caught up in the zealous care for their faith and in love for Christ, left Rome in the 3rd century in order to spread the Gospel in Gaul. They took up the trade of the shoemaker and would not charge the poor who requested their services. By their example, and not, it seems,by any grand preaching, these two were good witnesses to the faith and converted many. When Maximian was appointed co-emperor in 285 and came to Gaul, the brothers were accused and brought before a character named Rictiovarus, whom we don’t exactly know existed but whose seathing hatred for Christians is legendary. At any rate, they were tortured mercilessly, but when the attempt to kill the saintly brothers through drowning and burning  failed,  Rictiovarus was driven into such a desperate fury that he threw himself into the fire prepared for the brothers thus killing himself. Eventually, Crispin and Crispian were beheaded which is a very effective way of killing someone…unless you’re St. Winifred, in which case that might not always work.  

  

There are several things I’d like to draw out about these saints. The first is that it was on this day 595 years ago (1415) that King Henry V led his horribly outnumbered English army into battle against the French at Agincourt, the battle so wonderfully remember today for the speech written by Shakespeare in Henry V, a version of which can be seen below with Kenneth Branagh.  

The second thing is this, brought out in an edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, namely that Sts. Crispin and Crispian are a wonderful reminder that sanctity is not only for the cloistered hermit who has removed himself from society. These two never embarked on some large speaking tour throughout Gaul. They did not write any large tomes explicating the faith for the masses. They are not known for levitating or bilocation or magically producing shoes no one today can replicate with all our modern technology. No, they were simply saintly shoemakers. They were holy artisans is all, and this is a good thing. In this way they are almost the perfect patron saints for laborers, heroes of the Social Doctrine of the Church.  

I’m reminded of a line from the Part I Chapter 3 of St. Francis de Sales’ classic Introduction to the Devout Life where he says:  

It is an error, nay more, a very heresy, to seek to banish the devout life from the soldier’s guardroom, the mechanic’s workshop, the prince’s court, or the domestic hearth. Of course a purely contemplative devotion, such as is specially proper to the religious and monastic life, cannot be practised in these outer vocations, but there are various other kinds of devotion well-suited to lead those whose calling is secular, along the paths of perfection. The Old Testament furnishes us examples in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, David, Job, Tobias, Sarah, Rebecca and Judith; and in the New Testament we read of St. Joseph, Lydia and Crispus, who led a perfectly devout life in their trades:–we have S. Anne, Martha, S. Monica, Aquila and Priscilla, as examples of household devotion, Cornelius, S. Sebastian, and S. Maurice among soldiers;–Constantine, S. Helena, S. Louis, the Blessed Amadaeus, 2 and S. Edward on the throne. And we even find instances of some who fell away in solitude,– usually so helpful to perfection,–some who had led a higher life in the world, which seems so antagonistic to it. S. Gregory dwells on how Lot, who had kept himself pure in the city, fell in his mountain solitude. Be sure that wheresoever our lot is cast we may and must aim at the perfect life.  

Sanctity can be found through the work which God has given us no matter what that might be. Indeed it is to be found in the guardroom, in the shop, in the court, in the home. This is the message of the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church. Sanctity and evangelization can be found through the labor of everyday life. It is less what you do than the way you do it, and the way to do anything is with the love of Christ.  

An interesting image from July 1870 edition of Harper's Weekly. Chinese laborers were seen as taking the jobs of American shoemakers. Click on the picture for a link to an 1888 article on the subject.

 

 Third, I want to point out that with saints whose stories are in doubt it can be tempting  to write them off as the incipient pap of bygone days. There are some who actually claim that the Church has managed its control over the laity throughout the centuries by inventing such stories. I’m not making that claim, but many are tempted to think that there never was such a saint, or that we cannot glean any lesson from them, or that, poor bumpkins that they were, those ignoramuses of the early years of the Church meant well if they weren’t always truthful. This sort of temptation is what Chesterton called “chronological snobbery.” Somehow we image that in our Enlightened age we appreciate truth much more than the people of the early centuries. This would be a terrible mistake.  

Stories do evolve over time, and tales can be embellished but we should never forget three things: first, that the stories were told because of some real event or real person, even if we don’t remember their name and even if our collective memories have gotten the details wrong. Second, the miraculous is not impossible. We believe in things seen and unseen, so why presume the fantastical must be unreal? Third, someone in heaven answers to the name of these saints in question. That’s what matters.  

Alright, well, Happy Sts. Crispin Crispian’s day. Listen to good King Harry rouse your heart, and then go save a soul for the Church…don’t go beat up a Frenchman.  

 

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St. Paul of the Cross

I don’t know that I’ll ever forget my first reaction to the black habit of the Passionist Order. I was in Rome, studying at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas, and I was immediately drawn to the vital simplicity of the sable habit with the curious patch. Perhaps I was taken rather by its novelty to me. I had not only never seen the habit before, but I don’t believe I had ever heard of the congregation, and I certainly had never heard of or was consciously aware of their founder St. Paul of the Cross whose feast it is today.

The obscurity of the Passionists is not all that surprising given their limited presence here in the United States. Though present since the mid 1800’s, they have not exactly taken off here, and today their Passionist Retreat centers can only be found in four cities, two in California, one in Texas, and the last in Michigan. Still, that they should be so obscure given the wonder of St. Paul of the Cross their founder is a shame.

St. Paul was born in Ovada in Genoa, Italy in 1694. It seems that from a very young age he displayed particular spiritual gifts, gifts which he shared with his younger brother John Baptist. From St. Paul’s fifteenth birthday onward, he was known to have eaten very little, slept little, and spent many hours in prayer.

The Passionists' Patch

After trying several times to lead a “normal” life he was convinced more than ever that he was called to a clerical vocation. In the summer of 1720 he was granted several visions that included a black habit with a patch of white characters that bore Christ’s name with the cross. In one vision he was told clearly by Our Lady that he was to found an order.

There were many fits and starts to this order whose proper full name is the Barefooted Clerks of the Holy Cross and Passion (C.P. in initials), and there were so many because the rule was so austere. The aim of the order was to provide missionary preaching for the Church with always the theme of Christ Crucified, their charism the constant meditation and communion with the Passion of Christ. The rule was, even by many saintly standards, quite extreme. St. Paul’s missions were hugely successful, bringing many souls to Christ and drawing a good number of young men to his order. They seldom lasted long. It wasn’t until 1741 that the order began to increase in size, and this was due in part to the stipulation of Pope Benedict XIV that the rules be lightened.

St. Paul of the Cross and his order became known throughout Italy for their preaching. Indeed St. Paul achieved quite the reputation. One soldier is recorded to have said,

Father, I have been in great battles without ever flinching at the cannon’s roar. But when I listen to you I tremble from head to foot.

However, if his preaching did not seem to be making the impact he felt it should, he would take to self-flagellation in a public area to repair for the sins of the people. At the sight of such a thing, even the most hard-hearted of men could be known to break down in tears and confess all they had done ill before the now-bloodied priest.

Such a story may seem odd to us today. In our oh-so-dowdy conveniences we are quite sure that we can’t possibly engage in those sorts of sacrifices anymore. How old-fashioned of St. Paul, no? Or perhaps we are tempted to think that St. Paul of the Cross was a bit of a mental case? Who would do such a thing after all? But why should it be so? What does Christ’s Cross mean to us now if St. Paul of the Cross was over the top, extreme, zealous beyond prudence?

The Suffering God St. Paul Loved

Which is not to say that such austerities are for everyone, or anyone. I certainly don’t trust myself and my level of discernment capability in order to treat my body this way, but St. Paul had regularly high moments of contemplative prayer wherein he communed with the Godhead. Why should that not be what he discerned properly? We learned not too long ago that Pope John Paul the Great would also occasionally engage in self-flagellation. Was he mentally unstable? More importantly, for certainly good St. Paul of the Cross and John Paul the Great are beyond caring what our opinions are, what does all of this mean for us?

St. Paul of the Cross wrote this once in one of his letters,

It is very good and holy to consider the passion of our Lord, and to meditate on it, for by this sacred path we reach union with God. In this most holy school we learn true wisdom, for it was there that all the saints learned it.

Therefore, be constant in practicing every virtue, and especially in imitating the patience of our dear Jesus, for this is the summit of pure love. Live in such a way that all may know that you bear outwardly as well as inwardly the image of Christ crucified, the model of all gentleness and mercy. For if a man is united inwardly with the Son of the living God, he also bears his likeness outwardly by his continual practice of heroic goodness, and especially through a patience reinforced by courage, which does not complain either secretly or in public. Conceal yourselves in Jesus crucified, and hope for nothing except that all men be thoroughly converted to his will.

Is this not the height of perspicacity? Is this not the very same advice one ought to hear from a saint? Does this sound like the ravings of a mad man?

St. Paul of the Cross’ mandate from our Lady came to full fruition in 1769 when Pope Clement XIV gave the order final approval. St. Paul then proceeded to seek the erection of a Passionist order of women. He worked tirelessly, but passed before he could see the nuns in their habits.

St. Paul died on October 18, 1775, but as this is the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist, it was transferred to April 28th. It was transferred to October 19th as a result of the Vatican reforms of the last century.

I would encourage everyone on this day of St. Paul of the Cross to consider Christ crucified. Leave out the dimpled child of the manger. Ignore the kindly prophet of the mount. Forget, for the moment mind you, the risen king bedecked with the glory of heavenly esteem. Do this, and concentrate on the man on the tree, quivering in pain, solicitous of nothing more from us but the acknowledgment that we do love Him for all he suffers for us.

I cannot refrain from adding some minor points of interest about St. Paul of the Cross. Since his visions about founding the order he knew that a particular charism for him and the order would be to pray for the conversion of England. What with the beatification of Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman, I think good St. Paul is quite pleased. So keep up those prayers. They’re working.

Basilica of Saints John and Paul

Another thing is this, upon the death of the young brother John Baptist in 1765, the brother who remained by St. Paul’s side at all times, Pope Clement XIV granted the basilica of Saints John and Paul to the Passionist Order to memorialize the great relationship between the two brothers John and Paul. It is there that St. Paul of the Cross is buried, and it is this basilica which since 1946 has been the titular basilica of the Cardinal priest of New York. And it was also in this basilica that some interior scenes for the 1983 film The Scarlet and the Black were shot. Starring Gregory Peck as Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty, the film is the true story of an American priest who worked against the Nazis during the German occupation of Rome. In the end, with the failure of the Third Reich, the German Captain who sought to kill the Msgr. ended up asking the cleric to help move his family out of Rome in safety. The Msgr. did so and visited the Captain in prison after the war. The Captain eventually repented of his crimes and became Catholic.

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I want to use the following quote from Henri de Lubac’s Paradoxes of Faith in order to occasion the explanation of the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church and the distribution of wealth, yes another post on that. So here’s the de Lubac quote:

We would be more indulgent with one another, indeed, we would have more mutual love and admiration if from early on were inculcated in us the principle of the division of labor and all its consequences: division of talents, of tastes, of vocations, of orientations, of habits and all sorts of other qualities. Dialogue among us would not then be less serious, rather more peaceful. Spontaneously we would then make efforts to reach a common goal. We would then see that the Creator’s gifts to human nature are in practice irreconcilable in individual members of the human race. And we would find beauty in this in spite of all the questions, uncertainties, mutual difficulties and conflicts involved, because we would also have mutual respect and trust with an eye to a richer, subtler, and really rewording harmony. pg. 157-8

This, I would argue, is the very definition of the Social Doctrine principle of solidarity coupled with the principle of the universal destination of goods, and I want to apply it to the question of the distribution of property.

First, let me say that I am not going to go into the question of how property is distributed. This is because the Church is not exactly clear on this beyond that the state has a role, personal ownership is to be encouraged, and that the principle of subsidiarity must always be respected. ALWAYS! This means, therefore, that when you see the phrase “distribution of property” you simply may not assume that I or the Church mean the same thing as, say, Karl Marx. This is not Marxism, which has been roundly condemned by the Church over, and over, and over again.

St. Luke painting Our Lady by Marten de Vos

Now onto my larger point: what de Lubac is saying is that we can alleviate society of contention by the emphasis on the “division of labor” and the interdependence of all people. The education in the division of labor leads us to the inevitable realization that all the gifts of the Creator cannot have been given to just one individual. This seems obvious, but what does this mean in the end?

Well, it means that for all the brilliance of an artist, a laborer who has truly poured out their very personhood into that which they produce rightly making it theirs, despite this fact, someone made his brush; someone made his paints; someone invented the technology for the light bulb that shone over his work; someone flips the switch at the power plant that provides for the heat in his studio as he works; the work of the artist was made possible by the work of hundreds of thousands of other souls who have done their work well before the artist was a glimmer in his parents eyes.

While it is absolutely true that the individual can claim the fruit of their labor as their own, it is not true that this is an absolute claim, for the very simple reason that many hands go into producing the conditions that make one’s labor possible and thus the fruit.

Thomas Edison

What’s more, the labor of previous generations that makes our private property possible today is not just some static event in the past. It is not just that Thomas Edison improved the light bulb that makes what I’m doing now possible, typing away as I am on a computer, but that this invention of his has been preserved over time. We are able to do what we do because of the labor of people right now…and now…and now…and, yes, now. There is a constancy about the labor that makes my private property possible. There are the human forces of will and memory that are engaged at every turn of every day that allow all of us to own the things we do. The labor that makes the beer I’m drinking possible is indeed a “division of talents, of tastes, of vocations, of orientations, of habits and all sorts of other qualities.”

The self-made man is a myth. And the notion that our private property is ours because we are the sole cause of its coming into existence is a fallacy. We are not our own.

Self-Made Man

Private property is defended by the Church for reasons that have to do with the extension of our personality, yes. But ultimately private property is about the preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which for a Catholic means sanctity. Those things that we own that do not directly lend towards life, liberty, and sanctity are less ours than we would like to think. Once we begin to understand this, then, the distribution of property, which must begin with us, can happen all at once and without governmental force.

For now, we can just hope with Henri de Lubac for a “really rewarding harmony” amongst men, but our hope must turn into faith and that faith ought to animate action in love, which always bring us back to Christ Jesus. We can look for grand schemes in the Social Doctrine of the Church, ways and means to bring about some Christic Utopia. But this is not the point. The point is to introduce, foster, and cultivate the love of Christ so that, again as de Lubac desires, we might have “more mutual love and admiration.”

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St. Bruno by Jean Antoine Houdon

The vicissitudes of history do produce remarkable results. We can in some moments see the meetings of great saints all in one, fleeting moment of time’s plodding expanse. I am speaking about the life of St. Bruno (1030-1101) whose feast we celebrate today.

The Church in St. Bruno’s time was, quite simply, a mess. During Bruno’s lifetime the Church saw several popes and several more anti-popes. The Church saw the open persecution by political figures who claimed to be Catholic but who used the Church as a foil or a shield in order to advance political aims. The Church saw monks and priests who, with children to support, would unabashedly work to sell their spiritual “talents” to the marketplace, which is called simony. It saw the leading bishops of France reject the demands of the pope to excommunicate their King for open adultery. It saw a great deal of turmoil and many souls who had simply lost heart.

All the same, the Church in St. Bruno’s time was stupendously blessed by the likes of St. Robert of Citeaux, founder of the Cistercians, St. Hugh of Grenoble, who single-handedly reformed that diocese despite constant feelings of personal failure, St. Anselm of Canterbury, the founder of scholastic theology, and Blessed Pope Urban II, who called the first crusade and who succeeded in confirming the reforms of the clergy so desperately needed by the Church.

Carthusian Monk at Grande Chartreuse

St. Bruno was no slouch either, of course. He is the founder of the Carthusian order which still exists to this day and is the only ancient order (1,000 years counts as “ancient” in my book) that has never been reformed or that’s needed it. You can see his legacy in the astounding film Into Great Silence which came out as a documentary in 2005. It is a stunning piece of film-making that ought to be required viewing for any Catholic or someone thinking about becoming Catholic. In this little corner of the world, men still sit, stand, kneel in silent prayer communing with Our Lord Jesus Christ. The trailer is found below.

At any rate, what is so delightful about St. Bruno is the nonchalance of his zeal, his off-handed heroism. A bright man, well educated at Rheims, he taught and eventually became the head of the college at Rheims for upwards of twenty years. All the while he longed to leave and be alone with Christ. He was raised to the position of chancellor of the diocese, which he took, but which involved working with a totally corrupt bishop. He did his duty, but eventually spoke out against the bishop. All the while he longed to leave and be alone with Christ.

He eventually did get the chance to leave and with six companions visited St. Hugh of Grenoble who had had a dream about the seven travelers who visited him. St. Hugh gave them the desert of Chartreuse, a cold, isolated place in the mountains of southern France covered most of the year by snow. St. Bruno loved it.

La Grande Chartreuse in winter

He stayed there with his brother monks. They lived, in the Camaldolese tradition, in separate cells, more like huts really. They gathered together only for prayer twice a day, Matins and Vespers, but would not speak to each other. On high holy days, they would eat together and converse. Their labor was to do not much else but to pray and copy books. Imagine that. They just prayed – in silence unless it was one of the two hours of communal prayer – and copied books.

Poor St. Bruno only lasted six years there before a former student of his who just happened to be Blessed Pope Urban II asked him to come and help him in Rome, and there was a great deal of work to be done. St. Bruno complied. All the while, though, he longed to leave and be alone with Christ. It was because of Pope Urban’s request, however, that St. Bruno’s Carthusian order, named after Chartreuse, spread to Italy and beyond. The pope eventually allowed Bruno to set up another house in Calabria on land generously given by Roger, Grand Duke of Sicily, who would later visit the monastery often in order to live and pray with the monks. But there in Calabria, Bruno wrote his friends back in Chartreuse about how to live their lives and how to deal with certain problems. Though never setting out to found an order, and never having written a Rule, he fathered a way of Christian living which Cardinal Bona called

the great miracles of the world: men living in the flesh as out of the flesh; the angels of the earth, representing John the Baptist in the wilderness; the greatest ornament of the Church; eagles soaring up to Heaven whose state is justly preferred to the institutes of all other religious orders.

St. Bruno was finally with Christ, alone in the valley of Calabria at last. He died on October 6, 1101, and his last words were faithfully taken down.

St. Bruno and St. Hugh with The Virgin Mother and Himself

One of the funny little bits of St. Bruno’s story is that he’s never been formally canonized. The Carthusians – proper monks that they are – never wanted to bring attention to themselves, so they never petitioned. It was only until 1514 that they asked Pope Leo X if they could celebrate his death as a feast, and 1674 that Clement X extended the feast to the whole Church.

At any rate, St. Bruno is an example to us of the kind of simple heart that desires little more than a child does in the middle of the night as they lay in the dark. Bruno desired only his Father and the Mother of God, Our Lady. He yearned merely for a moment at their side so that he might whisper in their ears how much he loved them and perhaps for a small embrace in the darkness to know that he was still treasured.

Bruno did all that needed to be done during his life, fulfilling every wish put to him. But all along he wished to leave and be alone with Christ, in the brilliant silence of love’s everlasting hope, and thank God he did.

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St. Francis of Assisi

Today is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. As hands down one of the most popular, if not the most popular saint of all time, St. Francis enjoys a kind of universally recognized goodness from all corners. This is in part due to the fact that many are ignorant of him, misappropriate him, and lie about him. A 2006 movie on St. Francis has him decrying his merchant father’s labor violations. In one scene, while imprisoned for stealing his father’s things, Francis is talking to a fellow inmate who sneaked a vernacular Bible into prison – because of course as we all know the evil Roman Church imprisoned people for translating Bibles. Anyway, the inmate shares the Bible with Francis who reads the Gospels “for the first time.” A 2007 film bearing the St. Francis’ name is supposedly pornographic. I haven’t seen it, but the cover is suggestive to say the least.

Some of St. Francis’ popularity is due to his being seen as the Christian version of Pan the god of the woods, that mischievous, ever-youthful god that pretty much fulfills every undergrad dream of being able to party all night with no repercussions. Many turn the Italian saint into little more than a pagan merely dampened by the waters of baptism. He’s a tree hugger, a vegetarian, an eco-radical, and probably a follower of Ché only Francis sweetly wears a cross around his neck. He’s the socialist with a Beatles’ haircut – rarely is he depicted with the tonsure. He’s a poet who in the 60’s would have been dropping acid with the best of them. But St. Francis understood better than anyone that the ancient and dark gods of merriment and base living lead only to the liar who is quick to quit the scene when the repercussions of irresponsible living do come.

If we must have an analogy for St. Francis, let’s call him the new troubadour who’s songs told of the deepest love, the earth-shattering love for which every young heart yearns , that love that drives a man to the grandest achievements and the most vulnerable risks, a love that can only be found in love for Christ Jesus and in denying ones’ self for His sake. Here is the great romance in Francis’ life. It is not with St. Clare – as some renditions of his life would make it. It is with Our Lord.But St. Francis’ love was not the closed, myopic and adolescent love of the Twilight variety. His love for Christ made him sacrifice for the Church, Christ’s bride. It was St. Francis, remember, who was to rebuild the Church.

The Stigmatizing of St. Francis by Caravaggio

This diminutive Italian whom we celebrate today gave himself up for the Bride-Church, forgoing temptations of lust by, on one occasion, thrusting himself into a bush of thorns. Men these days find it difficult to just turn off the computer. Francis ate sparingly. This was not out of respect for the animals around him. He didn’t fear violating their animal rights. He fasted for the chance to draw himself closer to the suffering Christ on the cross. Few seem to remember that Francis had attempted to go off to war, to fight in the Crusades before having to return home, or that he met with the Sultan in order to convert him or die trying. Apart from the questions of the just war, St. Francis was not the modern man or the ancient Pan. He was a zealot in all the terribly non-tolerant and dogmatic overtones that zealotry involves. St. Francis was a stigmatist, mystically bearing the very signs of that crucifixion on his own body.  This is how much he loved Christ…even unto death to self.

This is, of course, why we turn to St. Francis’ example, and what an example St. Francis gives us in this time. Consider what G.K. Chesterton had to say about St. Francis in his biography of the saint:

What had happened to the human imagination, as a whole, was that the whole world was colored by dangerous and rapidly deteriorating passions; by natural passions becoming unnatural passions. Thus the effect of treating sex as only one innocent natural thing was that every other innocent natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex. For sex cannot be admitted to a mere equality among elementary emotions or experiences like eating and sleeping. The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant. There is something dangerous and disproportionate in its place in human nature, for whatever reason; and it does really need a special purification and dedication. The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology, of which the world grew weary two thousand years ago.

Sex is a sacred thing, which ought to be respected for what it is. It is sacred, though, not because of its carnal, baser elements. This is what makes it sacred to the corner-store Shivas and the pimps of Hollywood, in part because they can make money off of it. It is sacred because of the unique beauty of the human person. It is sacred because of the fundamental dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God. St. Francis knew this and lived it in so far a superior a fashion that centuries after his death we still celebrate his example of pious love for life, a love that translated into the embrace of a leaper.

So today I say fie on Don Juan, on the leading men of the silver screen and on the peddlers of pornography. Today celebrate St. Francis as the greatest lover of all time, and know that he is so because of his willingness to become like unto Christ.

St. Francis Holding up the Church by Giotto

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The distribution of wealth is something which raises a good many hackles. I was on the radio recently about the nature of a good economic system as that can be defined using the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church. I mentioned the distribution of goods and someone sent the station an e-mail saying that they took my advice, looked it up in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, determined it was wrong, thanked God that he didn’t have to listen to the Compendium, and then called me a Communist. Great!

Jesus separating the sheep from the goats based on when they helped the poor.

The truth, though, is that the distribution of goods is an integral part of the Social Teaching. Now what liberal members of the Democratic party think about the distribution of goods is usually not what the Popes had in mind. For clarity’s sake, I thought I would provide some of the key texts from our Holy Fathers that touch on the distribution of goods. Let me just point out that the following texts are not from obscure, seldom-read missives buried beneath the sands of time. The following texts are the very foundation of the Social Doctrine of the Church. To deny them is to deny doctrine of the Catholic Church.

Pope Leo XIII Rerum novarum:

33. …It would be irrational to neglect one portion of the citizens and favor another, and therefore the public administration must duly and solicitously provide for the welfare and the comfort of the working classes; otherwise, that law of justice will be violated which ordains that each man shall have his due. To cite the wise words of St. Thomas Aquinas: “As the part and the whole are in a certain sense identical, so that which belongs to the whole in a sense belongs to the part.”( Summa theologiae, IIa-Ilae, q. lxi, are. l, ad 2m.) Among the many and grave duties of rulers who would do their best for the people, the first and chief is to act with strict justice – with that justice which is called distributive – toward each and every class alike.

Pope Pius XI Quadragessimo anno:

5. The same feeling those many Catholics, both priests and laymen, shared, whom a truly wonderful charity had long spurred on to relieve the unmerited poverty of the non-owning workers, and who could in no way convince themselves that so enormous and unjust an in equality in the distribution of this world’s goods truly conforms to the designs of the all-wise Creator.

and

57. But not every distribution among human beings of property and wealth is of a character to attain either completely or to a satisfactory degree of perfection the end which God intends. Therefore, the riches that economic-social developments constantly increase ought to be so distributed among individual persons and classes that the common advantage of all, which Leo XIII had praised, will be safeguarded; in other words, that the common good of all society will be kept inviolate. By this law of social justice, one class is forbidden to exclude the other from sharing in the benefits….

58. To each, therefore, must be given his own share of goods, and the distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows, is laboring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice.

and

76. What We have thus far stated regarding an equitable distribution of property and regarding just wages concerns individual persons and only indirectly touches social order, to the restoration of which according to the principles of sound philosophy and to its perfection according to the sublime precepts of the law of the Gospel, Our Predecessor, Leo XIII, devoted all his thought and care.

Pope John XIII Mater et magistra

74. As Our Predecessor Pius XII observed with evident justification: “Likewise the national economy, as it is the product of the men who work together in the community of the State, has no other end than to secure without interruption the material conditions in which the individual life of the citizens may fully develop. Where this is secured in a permanent way, a people will be, in a true sense, economically rich, because the general well-being, and consequently the personal right of all to the use of worldly goods, is thus actuated in conformity with the purpose willed by the Creator.” (Cf. AAS 33 (1941) 200) From this it follows that the economic prosperity of a nation is not so much its total assets in terms of wealth and property, as the equitable division and distribution of this wealth.

and

82. Justice is to be observed not only in the distribution of wealth, but also in regard to the conditions in which men are engaged in producing this wealth. Every man has, of his very nature, a need to express himself in his work and thereby to perfect his own being.

and this whole section

The Effective Distribution of Property

113. But it is not enough to assert that the right to own private property and the means of production is inherent in human nature. We must also insist on the extension of this right in practice to all classes of citizens.

114. As Our Predecessor Pius XII so rightly affirmed: The dignity of the human person “normally demands the right to the use of the goods of the earth, to which corresponds the fundamental obligation of granting an opportunity to possess property to all if possible.” (33) This demand arises from the moral dignity of work. It also guarantees “the conservation and perfection of a social order which makes possible a secure, even if modest, property to all classes of people.” (34)

115. Now, if ever, is the time to insist on a more widespread distribution of property, in view of the rapid economic development of an increasing number of States. It will not be difficult for the body politic, by the adoption of various techniques of proved efficiency, to pursue an economic and social policy which facilitates the widest possible distribution of private property in terms of durable consumer goods, houses, land, tools and equipment (in the case of craftsmen and owners of family farms), and shares in medium and large business concerns. This policy is in fact being pursued with considerable success by several of the socially and economically advanced nations.

Vatican II Gaudium et spes in footnote #10

As for the determination of what is superfluous in our day and age, cf. John XXIII, Radio-television message of Sept. 11, 1962: AAS 54 (1962) p. 682: “The obligation of every man, the urgent obligation of the Christian man, is to reckon what is superfluous by the measure of the needs of others, and to see to it that the administration and the distribution of created goods serve the common good.”

Pope John Paul II Laborem exercens

2. …The disproportionate distribution of wealth and poverty and the existence of some countries and continents that are developed and of others that are not call for a levelling out and for a search for ways to ensure just development for all. This is the direction of the teaching in John XXIII’s Encyclical Mater et Magistra, in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council, and in Paul VI’s Encyclical Populorum Progressio.

In Solicitudo rei socialis

9. …We are therefore faced with a serious problem of unequal distribution of the means of subsistence originally meant for everybody, and thus also an unequal distribution of the benefits deriving from them. And this happens not through the fault of the needy people, and even less through a sort of inevitability dependent on natural conditions or circumstances as a whole.

So, yes, the equitable distribution of wealth ought to be pursued by men and by state.

The two big questions to be answered are:

1) How does this jibe with the forcefully defended right to private property, a natural right? and

2) How does the state or the citizen go about doing this distributing?

Well, more on these things tomorrow and this week.

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One of the parts of the Social Teaching of the Church that is commonly looked over is the importance of education. Blessed John XXIII spent some time toward the end of Mater et magistra to emphasize the importance of education, and certainly the Holy Fathers have spoken of the need to make education available to the poor. It is one of the liberating tools of society, and makes possible solidarity and participation in culture.

Julius Caesar

Sadly, our nation is terribly educated on a whole host of issues, and I fully admit to being deficiently educated in many of them myself. You need only read the prose of men like Chesterton or to look at the life of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman to understand what education used to mean and just how far we have gotten from that ideal. Actually, you needn’t go that far. I recall with great fondness meeting the dear father of a friend of mine. After offering me some of his whiskey at our first meeting, the only proper thing for an Irish gentleman to do, we sat down and he wanted to know who I was. When he learned I had attended a Jesuit school he said to me, “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.” This, I could tell him, was the opening line to Caesar’s Gallic Wars which I had to translate when I was in high school. One maybe two generations divided us, and we could share this because of our education. Today, amongst our youth, who could give the answer?

My wife and I saw an advertisement for a LeapFrog device for children that “teaches” them how to read and expand their vocabulary. It is for the children who learn differently, we’re told. While, I do not doubt for a second that there are different styles to learning, at what point does the intransigence of a child who is not learning a matter of laziness…especially in our culture?

All of this is coming to mind, not so much because of the commercial, but because I decided to pick up my copy of Plutarch’s Selective Lives and Essays. This would have been standard reading at one time in our country. Picking it up and turning to the life of Caesar I thought I might just read a line or two. I found myself engrossed in the story. I know how it ends. I’m aware of the betrayal, but Plutarch’s telling is magnificent even in translation. Consider this passage:

Brutus Albinus now got hold of Antony, who was loyal to Caesar and a man of vigor, and purposely detained him outside in a long conversation. Caesar, however, went in and the senate rose to do him honor. Some of Brutus’ party then took their stand behind his chair, while others advanced towards him, as if to join Tillius Cimber in a petition on behalf of his exiled brother. They all began imploring Caesar together and following him to his chair. But on taking his seat he rejected their petition, and as they pressed more strenuously on him, he grew angry with one and another. Thereat Tillius took hold of his toga with both hands and pulled it down from his throat. That was the signal for the attack.

First, Casca struck him on the neck with his sword, a blow neither fatal nor deep, for naturally he was nervous at the start of so terrific a deed of daring. At this Caesar turned around and clutched and held the knife, and both cried out almost in unison, the injured man in Latin, ‘You damned Casca, what are you doing?’ and his assailant in Greek to his brother, ‘Brother, help!’ Thus the struggle began…

The Murder of Julius Caesar

Reading it, I could almost feel my heart racing, wondering what poor Casca was thinking when, making the first blow, he realized he has only managed to anger Caesar more. What drove Caesar to the senate that day when he had received omen after omen after outright warning not to go? What is it about the dictator and his people that brings them to love him so dearly after his death?

Plutarch

That’s the thing about great literature. One can learn about the deepest failings and fears of the human person. This Plutarch is a treasure of human experience, filtered and crystallized into linguistically emotive beauty. But the vast majority of American children will NEVER hear of him, or read these passages, or think about what it might take to kill and die for liberty’s sake.

Education, a good education, is crucial for the Social Teaching of the Church. We must take it seriously and give up this game of pretending that things are better now that our children don’t have to memorize or learn languages or even read. Talk to any college professor today, and they will tell you of the deplorable state of literacy in this our phenomenally wealthy nation.

Fighting for good education is part of social justice as well. So let’s fight, and bring life back into Plutarch’s Lives.

Does the following not creep anyone else out?

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Henri-Marie de Lubac

Henri de Lubac is just one of the coolest people who ever lived. Alright, so that is not the most perspicacious thing to say, but it is truth nonetheless. That grand French Jesuit who passed on into the glory of Christ’s grandeur in 1991, is one of the heroes of Catholic thought in the twentieth century. He helped bring about and shape the thought behind the Second Vatican Council. He was one of the foundational thinkers for the Resourcement movement and its mission to bring us back to something of the spirit of Ancient and Medieval theology. He was a giant of a man if only physically small.

All of that having been said, it is still true that de Lubac is not the easiest man to read. This is not so much his fault as it is the fault of our collectively impoverished educations. De Lubac, along with many of his confreres and contemporaries, was the quintessential European scholar. He was a man who’s wide breadth of knowledge, interest and skill made him, almost by necessity, a tad bit out of reach; out of reach to we who are used to our single language of communication, our struggles with remembering the dates of our own history, our preoccupation with discussions on football drafts and reality shows, our oh-too-keen opinions about Oprah, Lady Gaga, and the top ten of anything. Still, thanks to the work of translators, we can dive into de Lubac with abandon and absorb what we can.

Ignatius Press published in 1987 one of his works titled Paradoxes of Faith. The original came out in 1945 with an addition, it seems, in 1958. We’re blessed to have it, if for no other reason than that it is a collection of fragmented statements on various subjects. There are no long, Ciceronian sentences to deconstruct. It is all much more accessible to the common man. For this reason, I wish to reproduce some of these paradoxical fragments from the chapter titled “Socialization.”

I should note that the translator is an Ernest Beaumont. Do say a prayer for him, wherever he is. And I should also provide the last bit from the introduction where de Lubac writes, as if to assuage our fears about the meaning of the word “paradox”:

Remember, after all, that the Gospel is full of paradoxes, that man is himself a living paradox, and that according to the Fathers of the Church, the Incarnation is the supreme Paradox.

Alright, so here is just one of the many gems in this chapter which you should meditate on. Consider it, particularly in light of what passes today for The Social Teaching of the Church:

The social order is not only a flowering out into society of Christianity lived within souls. It is also a safeguard against that paganism which always persists inside of us. It is not the sign of the triumph of the new man, but it is rather one of the necessary aspects of the eternal war against the old man.

Enjoy and digest.

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St. Thomas Villanova

One of the disappointments that I feel over the reform of the Roman calendar is the loss of some of the saints from whom we could learn so much. I’m not griping about old versus new. Like the Holy Father has done when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, I’m just lamenting the losses. I’m thinking today of St. Thomas Villanova, a Spaniard, which, as we know, is a good thing.

St. Thomas was born in 1488 in Fuentellana in Castile. His full name is Thomas Villanueva de los Infantes, which was the town in which he brought up. The basic facts of his life include profession as an Augustinian in 1516. Quickly he was promoted to teach theology to his brothers. By 1533 he was the provincial and shortly after given the Archbishopric of Granada and sent to Toledo. In 1544 he was transferred to Valencia, where he remained as a good and holy Archbishop until his death in 1555.

Those meager dates, however, do not tell the story of the man and the love of Christ that drove him.

One of the lovely little facts about St. Thomas was that he had a terrible memory. Despite his capacity to comprehend and teach on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Thomas Villanova was rather the absent-minded professor.

As an Archbishop, he was not prone to using his office to scold or castigate. Who among us has not desired that our respective bishops just come down once and for all on someone and excommunicate them? St. Thomas was very cautious to punish in order to convert. When someone tried to press him to make a firm decision to punish, he is said to have responded about that someone:

He is without doubt a good man, but one of those fervent ones mentioned by St. Paul as having zeal without knowledge….Let [the good man] enquire whether St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom used anathemas and excommunication to stop the drunkenness and blasphemy which were so common among the people under their care. No; for they were too wise and prudent. They did not think it right to exchange a little good for a great evil by inconsiderately using their authority and so exciting the aversion of those whose good will they wanted to gain in order to influence them for good.

St. Thomas was very concerned for the poor, to the point that he would not dress himself according to this office. His curial officials were rather embarrassed by him, and only after much argument and pleading did they get him to discard the hat which he had owned since his days as a novice and wear the silk mitre. This extended of course to the physical care of the poor, who would come to the doors of the Archbishop’s residence in droves. They would get food. They would get medical care. There was not one poor, young lady about to be married, so reports Fr. Alban Butler, who was not helped in some way with monetary charity.

Valencia Cathedral

Though he did not attend the Council of Trent, St. Thomas did send his thoughts to the Council on certain matters. One of them is reported to have been that just as much time at the Council ought to be spent reforming the Church as is spent denouncing Luther’s heresy. Another, which was not followed, involved his two opinions on the relationship between the bishop and his see. St. Thomas thought that a bishop should be chosen from amongst the priests of the diocese as much as is possible, particularly in rural areas. He also believed that a bishop should never be allowed to transfer.

You see St. Thomas believed that a bishop was wed to his diocese. Splitting them apart is an injustice. This speaks very clearly to the kind of spirituality that St. Thomas had, one which took his being an alter Christus very seriously. He was married to the Church, to a Church. Let him, he argued, live and die with her.

The choicest stories about St. Thomas Villanova relate to his love for Christ Jesus. Once, when preaching, he raised a crucifix and yelled to the body of Christians before him to look upon the cross, presumably to make some point about it. He only managed to yell, “Christians! Look here – ” before his sentence stopped, for St. Thomas was caught up instantaneously in the beauty of the cross and could not continue. On another occasion, when in the midst of a ceremony for a novice who was receiving his habit, St. Thomas simply dropped into ecstasy in contemplation of the grand meaning of it all. He was speechless, in deep communion with Our Lord for 15 minutes before he realized where he was. He, in his astounding humility could only say:

Brethren, I beg your pardon. I have a weak heart and I feel ashamed of being so often overcome on these occasions. I will try to repair my faults.

Allow me to end this your introduction to St. Thomas Villanova with these words from the saint who will probably be forgotten by many on this day. Take in these words, and thank the sweet Lord that he gave us St. Thomas Villanova and all the saints, so that we might gain from their example and likewise live in glory in praise of the Master:

Wonderful beneficence! God promises us Heaven for the recompense of His love. Is not His love itself the greatest reward, the most desirable, the most lovely, and the most sweet blessing? Yet a further recompense, and so immense a recompense, waits upon it. Wonderful goodness! Thou givest thy love, and for this thy love thou bestowest on us Paradise.

St. Thomas Villanova, pray for us.

St. Thomas Villanova, engraving

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Today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. One might wonder why it is that we’re celebrating the Cross in September when Good Friday tends to be on the other side of the calendar year.  The reason is that the feast commemorates a specific event as well as the Holy Cross itself.

As for the event, we’re celebrating that day in the year 629 AD when the relics of the true cross were again venerated in Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The relics, you see, had been purloined in 614 by the Persian Sassanid Empire lead by Khosrau II. Jerusalem was sacked by the Persians, the Christian shrines defaced, and treasures were hauled off to Ninevah in modern day Iraq. Heraclius was the Roman Emperor and was prone to warring. He had lost miserably to the Persians at the beginning of the 7th century, and these losses had resulted in the current situation. In 622, however, he mounted a counter attack against the Sassanids. This was with the Pope’s blessing, and it was considered something of a holy war against those who had defaced the holiest of Christian shrines.

Heraclius defeated Khosrau’s best generals in several battles, and even managed to thwart the attempts by Khosrau to start rebellions in other parts of the Empire so as to distract the invading armies. Heraclius’ efforts were not thwarted, however, and his victories mounted quickly enough that Khosrau was deposed, killed by his own son who then sued for peace.

On September 14, 629, Heraclius entered into Jerusalem  bringing back the relics of the true cross which were encased in silver. According to the Western tradition, the Emperor bore the silver case on his own shoulder and with pomp and circumstance, in order to demonstrate that he was the “King of Kings”, the almighty, the basileus. Upon reaching the threshold of the Holy Sepulcher shrine he was stopped in his tracks and simply could not move forward. Zachary, the patriarch of Jerusalem, pointed out to the Emperor that his demeanor did not match that of our Lord’s when He bore the cross. Heraclius then removed his purple cloak and his crown and proceeded barefoot into the shrine. The relics were displayed, and many were healed that day.

Heraclius defeating Khosrau II while blessed by Cherubim

The interesting twist on the story is that as a result of Heraclius’ victories, the weakened Sassanid Empire fell very easily to the rising Islamic forces coming out of Arabia, so that by 633 AD, four years after the event we commemorate today and just two years after the death of Muhammad, the Muslim tide had already swallowed what was left of the old Persian Empire. Three years later it would conquer all that Heraclius had won, for the Emperor had fallen ill shortly after defeating the Persians and did not even involve himself in the defense against the Muslims. Because of his victories against the Persians, Heraclius is the only Roman Emperor mentioned in ancient Islamic literature, and he is lauded as one of the great rulers and leaders of the age. In some Muslim stories, Heraclius actually became a Muslim.

But all this history does detract from the true point of the day, the exaltation of the Cross, the great symbol of Christianity from age to age. Since this week is all about (soon to be) Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, here is a bit from one of his beautiful sermons. The title is “The Cross of Christ, The Measure of The World.” That is truly the point here. As he will say below, the machinations of human activity cannot ever find their truest meaning unless they are measured against the Cross and what it proclaims. For the inquisitive mind, for the mind that seeks to know the meaning of things, the Cross is the key.

There is also a lovely and moving video at the end here and if you wanted a virtual tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, then here you go. Enjoy:

It is the death of the Eternal Word of God made flesh, which is our great lesson how to think and how to speak of this world. His Cross has put its due value upon every thing which we see, upon all fortunes, all advantages, all ranks, all dignities, all pleasures; upon the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. It has set a price upon the excitements, the rivalries, the hopes, the fears, the desires, the efforts, the triumphs of mortal man. It has given a meaning to the various, shifting course, the trials, the temptations, the sufferings, of his earthly state. It has brought together and made consistent all that seemed discordant and aimless. It has taught us how to live, how to use this world, what to expect, what to desire, what to hope. It is the tone into which all the strains of this world’s music are ultimately to be resolved.

Look around, and see what the world presents of high and low. Go to the court of princes. See the treasure and skill of all nations brought together to honour a child of man. Observe the prostration of the many before the few. Consider the form and ceremonial, the pomp, the state, the circumstance; and the vainglory. Do you wish to know the worth of it all? look at the Cross of Christ.

Go to the political world: see nation jealous of nation, trade rivalling trade, armies and fleets matched against each other. Survey the various ranks of the community, its parties and their contests, the strivings of the ambitious, the intrigues of the crafty. What is the end of all this turmoil? the grave. What is the measure? the Cross.

Go, again, to the world of intellect and science: consider the wonderful discoveries which the human mind is making, the variety of arts to which its discoveries give rise, the all but miracles by which it shows its power; and next, the pride and confidence of reason, and the absorbing devotion of thought to transitory objects, which is the consequence. Would you form a right judgment of all this? look at the Cross.

Again: look at misery, look at poverty and destitution, look at oppression and captivity; go where food is scanty, and lodging unhealthy. Consider pain and suffering, diseases long or violent, all that is frightful and revolting. Would you know how to rate all these? gaze upon the Cross.

Thus in the Cross, and Him who hung upon it, all things meet; all things subserve it, all things need it. It is their centre and their interpretation. For He was lifted up upon it, that He might draw all men and all things unto Him.

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Today is the feast of St. Omer (aka St. Audomarus). Don’t pretend you know who he is. I know you don’t. The only reason I even know that there is a St. Omer is because that is about as close as I can get to a St. Omar. There is no St. Omar, so I have always had a soft spot for St. Omer.

Interior of Notre Dame de St. Omer

He is largely known to us by two routes: the first is by the French city bearing his name. Located in the north of modern France in the “state” of Pas-de-Calais, the city grew up around the monastery the saint founded in the 7th century and so took his name. Today the cathedral is dedicated to Our Lady. The other way we know of St. Omer is by the fact that in this town, in 1593, Fr. Robert Persons, S.J. founded an English college; one which, as Evelyn Waugh puts it, “preserved Catholic education for three centuries of Englishmen and is the direct ancestor of Stonyhurst College.” Fr. Persons, by the way, was St. Edmund Campion’s superior during their expedition to England which ended in Campion’s martyrdom. This college of St. Omer was a part of the legacy of Campion’s sacrifice.

Back to St. Omer the man, Pas-de-Calais in the 7th century was, it seems, a rather lewd place and was known by the name Thérouanne. King Dagobert wanted a strong and zealous pastor in order to quiet the passionate extremes of the people he needed to rule. Omer was called upon from the monastery of Luxeuil, and he worked wonders through preaching and personal example. For instance, he would invite friends and acquaintances to help him as he fed the poor and took care of the ill. This engendered him to the local populace; they began to reform their ways; and his fame grew. Eventually, with the help of other monks from Luxeuil, he founded the monastery at Sithiu which is now the town of Saint-Omer.

The wonder of the lives of the saints is that we can still know something about what was no doubt a rather dark and dingy time and about people who were no doubt much different than we because of the heroic virtue of one man and some companions. We’ve a whole town in the north of France that has borne the weight of history through revolution and tumult coming out on the other side with the name of a saintly man who would rather spend time with the lowliest of people than swilling a cocktail glass and discussing the rudimentary facts of socialist collectives. St. Omer, whatever his particular personality traits might have been, however he was measured by Myers-Briggs was and is a man of consequence 1340 years later. Why? Well because he loved the baby Jesus not as a punchline to a joke, but as the savior of the world…no actually, he loved the baby Jesus because he was himself saved by the delicate hands that tugged at Mary’s hair.

Stonyhurst College

The town of Saint-Omer was where St. Thomas Becket fled from Henry II. And, as I said, it was in Saint-Omer that the Jesuit English College was founded that did so much for the Catholic education of English men. That college was moved, after some adventures, to England in 1794 and became Stonyhurst College where Gerard Manley Hopkins taught classics for a time. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a pupil there and named Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, Dr. Moriarty, after a fellow student of the college. It is where J.R.R. Tolkien wrote parts of the Lord of the Rings while his son taught classics. It is where Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh sent their sons.That college was also the college over which Fr. Alban Butler presided, and it is there that he died. Fr. Butler is, of course, the author of Butler’s Lives of the Saints which every good Catholic home should have if for no other reason than to be able to commemorate, with the communion of saints, the lives of our glorious heroes.

St. Omer died shortly after 670 AD. Raise a glass for him, and remember that our deeds of today do indeed echo into eternity by grace of the Christ child who likewise enjoyed crisp September days and nights.

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Astonishingly beautiful prose is rare and nothing to be to be trifled with. When it is applied to spiritual matters with the delicacy of a veteran artist, it can be earth-shattering.

Such is the work of Caryll Houselander. Wonderfully eccentric, beautifully English, always insightful Houselander provides some of the choicest passages on spiritual writing ever written in English. Here she is at the opening of her classic The Reed of God:

That virginal quality which, for want of a better word, I call emptiness is the beginning of this contemplation.

It is not a formless emptiness, a void without meaning; on the contrary it has a shape, a form given to it by the purpose for which it is intended.

It is emptiness like the hollow in the reed, the narrow riftless emptiness, which can have only one destiny: to receive the piper’s breath and to utter the song that is in his heart.

It is emptiness like the hollow in the cup, shaped to receive water or wine.

It is emptiness like that of the bird’s nest, built in a round warm ring to receive the little bird.

The pre-Advent emptiness of Our Lady’s purposeful virginity was indeed like those three things.

She was a reed through which the Eternal Love was to be piped as a shepherd’s song.

She was the flowerlike chalice into which the purest water of humanity was to be poured, mingled with wine, changed to the crimson blood of love, and lifted up in sacrifice.

She was the warm nest rounded to the shape of humanity to receive the Divine Little Bird.

Read Caryll Houselander if you dare. Just be warned: you may find yourself bereft of all reasons to stop reading her.

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