St. Anthony and Theology

One of my goals when teaching the lives and writings of the saints to an undergraduate audience is to take these figures “out of stained glass.” That is to say, I endeavor to teach this material in such a way that brings these authors to life. An image of a saint piously kneeling before the Virgin and Child can leave a somewhat one-dimensional impression upon the viewer. This impression is then reinforced as one becomes accustomed to it and does not probe its theological meaning.

Today the Church celebrates the memorial of St. Anthony of Padua, O.F.M. (1195-1231). St. Anthony’s feast day is particularly special to me as it is my onomastico or “name day,” and the imagery of St. Anthony with which we are most familiar has him holding the Child Jesus. This artistic motif is derived from an apparition that St. Anthony received of the Child Jesus, and it became part of his standard artistic depiction during the 17th century. Prior to that time, he was often portrayed with a lily (a symbol of purity) and a book (a symbol of the preaching for which he was renowned even in his own lifetime).

Alvise Vivarini, Sacra Conversazione (1480) (l-r, Ss. Louis, Anthony, Anna, the Virgin and Child, Joachim, Francis and Bernardino)

Alvise Vivarini, Sacra Conversazione (1480)
(l-r, Ss. Louis, Anthony, Anna, the Virgin and Child, Joachim, Francis and Bernardino)Further, though we may think of St. Anthony as the “finder of lost things” or identify his popularity with Italian and Portuguese Catholics, St. Anthony reminds me most of the goal of theology.

 

Further, though we may think of St. Anthony as the “finder of lost things” or identify his popularity with Italian and Portuguese Catholics, St. Anthony reminds me most of the goal of theology.

While theology is the diligent study of sacred realities, we can often stress the activity (diligent study) over the object (sacred realities). As a mentor of mine is fond of saying: theology is about transformation, not information. Few religious orders have incorporated this belief into their spiritual legacy as profoundly as the Franciscans and, in particular, St. Anthony was acutely aware that the goal of theology is eternal beatitude – not the accumulation of facts and certainly not an academic degree.

St. Anthony joined the Franciscans, after first becoming an Augustinian, while they were still in their infancy. He was the Order’s first reader of theology, or “official theology teacher,” and yet no manuals or scholastic disputations have survived from his work. What we possess from St. Anthony’s writings are a collection of sermons. Like many Patristic Fathers before him, St. Anthony was most concerned with living the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his homilies are rich examples of a probative explication of Scripture at the service of the conversion of souls.

Rather than provide a quotation from one of his homilies which demonstrates this point, I would instead like to share a letter which was written to St. Anthony by St. Francis. The occasion for this correspondence was the instillation of St. Anthony as the Order’s first reader of theology. The entire letter is the following:

“Brother Francis [sends his] wishes of health to Brother Anthony, my overseer. It pleases me that you teach sacred theology to the brothers, as long as – in the words of the [Franciscan] Rule – you ‘do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’ with study of this kind.”

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El Greco, St. Anthony of Padua (1577)

St. Anthony reminds us that theology is an activity which serves the Church, seeks the conversion of souls, and aims at our eternal communion with God. Without these goals, theology is just another collection of facts and figures like any other academic discipline. And if theology remains the latter, it can more easily “‘extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’” than inspire it.

A painting of St. Anthony which communicates this well is by the artist known as El Greco (a.k.a., Domenikos Theotokopoulos). El Greco combines the more traditional imagery of St. Anthony with that which will soon become standard. In doing so the artist reminds us that, for St. Anthony, theology is a lived activity; an activity of mind (book), heart (Child Jesus), and body (lily). The integration of these elements can be seen in St. Anthony’s posture, as he looks serenely upon a book which upholds the Child Jesus and holds a lily as if it were a pen. The senses gaze upon the sacred mysteries, which are then communicated through intellectual and physical acts. St. Anthony reminds us that the goal of theology is a living relationship with Christ which embraces every dimension of the human person, not simply an intellectual activity.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program. This post originally appeared on June 14, 2015.

Mother Teresa Was A Thin Place

I’ve never really thought of myself as a person who is overly concerned or even that aware of celebrity or celebrities.   In retrospect, it being 20/20, I can see that I’ve been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time on occasion.  Once, when I was a little girl, we were on a family vacation touring Washington D.C.  In simpler times when there were virtually no security concerns or precautions it was easy for a little girl to wonder into the Speaker’s Office where I was welcomed by Speaker of the House of Representatives,  Sam Rayburn,  who invited my stunned parents and older brother to come in and meet Senators Everett Dirksen and Charles Halleck.  After handshakes and gifts of House of Representatives pens and stationery we continued wondering the halls.  I realize now that a little girl who actually knew who those men were is just as unimaginable as a time that existed when that could actually happen. (My Father was very civic minded and talked to me about politics and just about everything else, like I was an adult.)

Once, as my Mother and I exited a performance of Funny Girl in New York, we noticed a crowd gathering across the street.  So we investigated and found Ginger Rogers signing autographs.  She had just completed her performance in Hello Dolly.  She touched my Mother’s face, patted me on the head and signed our Funny Girl program.  (Yes, it really happened.)

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Teaching in a high school in a small state (Delaware) it was not uncommon to have elected officials visit.  Then Senator, Joe Biden lived not far from school and often visited.  Besides my memory I can actually document this occasion with a photo…

 

By far and away, however, the most profound meeting came when I was a novice many years ago.  Its impact on me has not waned over time and I can still close my eyes and experience the moment as if for the first time.  Cardinal O’Connor had invited Mother Teresa of Calcutta to speak at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.  Our Mother House was several hours away in Pennsylvania.  Assuming that she would speak during Mass, perhaps at the post-communion, we did not attend Mass before we departed for New York.   We learned when we got there that she would be speaking shortly but not within the celebration of Mass.  She gave a wonderful message, elegant in its simplicity.  When she concluded the Cardinal graciously invited all present to a reception in the lower church.  We were informed by our superior that we would not be attending the reception since we had not yet attended Mass.   We would attend the Mass which was about to begin and depart immediately thereafter for PA.  We were, I must admit, not very devout, because we really wanted to meet Mother Teresa.  All present, except us, filed out of the cathedral to the reception, leaving us and a few others, to attend our Sunday Mass.

End of story?…oh no.  After Mass we piled back onto the yellow school bus and headed out of NYC and onto the New Jersey Turnpike.  About 30 miles down the Turnpike one of the novices in the back of the bus called loudly, “Mother Teresa’s in the car behind us!”  You would have thought someone had just spotted one of the Beatles.  We all stood and looked toward the back and sure enough there she was with a younger sister who was the driver.  Mother still had a dozen red roses on her lap that someone had given her at the Cathedral.    Just then the driver motioned for us to pull over.  So, at the next interchange we did just that.  I can’t imagine what the passersby on the turnpike thought.  We looked like a scene from the Sound of Music.  Can you imagine driving by and saying to your friend, “Is that Mother Teresa in the middle of that?”  Yes, and In the middle of all of that one of the novices began taking pictures as Mother Teresa graciously and gently hugged every one of us.  She offered her roses to us until they were gone.  She said that she was disappointed that we were not at the reception and that she had seen us in the cathedral and recognized out habits.  We explained about Mass.  We said our goodbyes and made our way back to our Motherhouse in PA.

IMG_2050For me the enduring effect of that meeting resides in the experience of grace.  The old Irish speak about the “thin places”.  Celtic spirituality holds that the separation between the natural and supernatural is very small and that in some cases very, very small.  These places are the thin places.  A thin place can be a place.  It can also be a person or an experience.  In this case, the thin place was Mother Teresa.  The experience while vivid is still ineffable, but I can say that I experienced a palpable sense of grace and I felt an urgency to be open to it.  I smile when I think of the details of this story, but I pray when I close my eyes and remember the grace.

Susan O’Hara teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Valentine’s Day: Love is in the Air

February 14th, what an exciting day! Of course it is the date we celebrate Valentine’s Day. There is more to this day than a simple marketing ploy by Hallmark to create a holiday in which a plethora of cards can be sold, along with roses, boxes of chocolates, and candle lit dinners for two. (Wow that sounds nice. I remember now what it was like before I had st-valentinekids). There is indeed a St. Valentine who is on the Roman Catholic list of saints. However, the details of his life are not entirely clear. He is believed to have lived in Rome and to have been martyred there for witnessing to the Faith in the third century. His feast day was celebrated on February 14th until the revision of the General Roman Calendar in 1969 under Blessed Paul VI (cf. catholic.org), and it is still celebrated in some places.

Valentine’s Day is typically thought of as a day to celebrate love. We as Catholics can be especially joyful when we celebrate the holiday as a day of love. First and foremost we call to mind our God who is love (1 John 4:8). God loved us so much that He incarnated His love in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And St. Paul explains that, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). So if we buy red roses or see others buying red roses on Valentine’s Day, we can reflect on the blood of Christ that flowed from His side on Calvary as a sign of His love for us. We can reflect on the martyrdom of St. Valentine who died because he refused to deny Jesus. If we see people buying chocolates in the shape of a heart, we can reflect on the Sacred Heart of Jesus which burns with love for each of us. And when two people enjoy a candle lit dinner, they can reflect on the sacred meal that is the Eucharist with Jesus who is the light of the world (cf. John 8:12).

February 14th is also the Feast Day of Ss. Cyril and Methodius. They’re two brothers who were bishops in the ninth century. St. John Paul II actually wrote an entire encyclical letter StsCyrilMethodiusabout the two, stating, “THE APOSTLES OF THE SLAVS, Saints Cyril and Methodius, are remembered by the Church together with the great work of evangelization which they carried out” (Slavorum Apostoli 1). Cyril and Methodius are known for playing a major role in bringing Christianity to the Slavic people. They’re co-patron saints of Europe (Ibid.). I am particularly drawn to their story since my ancestors first came to the United States from Poland. And the first Polish pope, St. John Paul II, explained that while the evangelization of Poland stemmed from a few historical events, “the fact remains that the beginnings of Christianity in Poland are in a way linked with the work of the Brothers…” (Slavorum Apostoli 24). As we reflect on how our Catholic Faith has been handed on from generation to generation, from one person to another under the guidance of the successors to the Apostles the bishops, I can reflect on how the Gospel first influenced those Slavic people in the ninth century. At some point, one of my ancestors heard and accepted the Gospel and would hand it on to his or her ancestors or family members.

February 14th is a special day for me indeed. It is a special day to celebrate God’s love and to recall St. Valentine’s courage in proclaiming the Gospel. It is a day to reflect on how the Gospel was effectively proclaimed to the Slavic people through the brothers Ss. Cyril and Methodius. These two set out to a foreign land trusting that the Holy Spirit would guide them to speak and live the truth in love (cf. Ephesians 4:15). And February 14th is also a special day for me because it happens to be my birthday… but I won’t share which one.

Ss. Valentine, Cyril, Methodius, and John Paul II, pray for us!

Edward Trendowski teaches family life ministry for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

God love you!

The Venerable Fulton J. Sheen opened one of his New Year’s broadcasts with this greeting:

God love you! That is the way I shall conclude my broadcasts, and that is the way I shall begin them today. I want the first word on the air of this New Year to be God. It is God who makes us happy. It is Love, which makes old things new. It is you who count the years in terms of God’s abiding love. Combining all three we have “God love you,” which is but another way of saying, “Happy New Year.” —The Relevance of God

God is the author and the subject of every single day, and it is no coincidence that we devote to God the first day of the calendar year. You may scratch your head and say, “What do you mean?” January first is the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. While God is mentioned, isn’t the New Year really about Mary?”

"Virgin of the Green Cushion, " by Andrea Solario, 16th century

“Virgin of the Green Cushion, ” by Andrea Solario, 16th century

Any Marian feast is about her Son, and specifically, about our salvation. For example, the Mysteries of the Rosary—Mary’s Prayer—are, essentially, a meditation on God’s salvific acts, of which His Mother is central.

What is it about Mary that makes her so special? Surely, her complete and unreserved surrender to God’s will makes her special, but we can point to many saints who, as Mother Teresa said, gave themselves to God in “Total Surrender.”

Catholics, however, acknowledge Mary to be above all saints because of her Immaculate Conception—conceived without sin. Catholics also admit that Mary, like any human being, is saved by the grace of God, but unlike us, God graced Mary in an inimitable and extraordinary manner, making her the first to be redeemed. Mary’s soul was transfigured into the image of Christ in this life; thus, for us, she becomes a compass of sorts, pointing true north to Heaven: “to Christ through Mary.”

Integral to her purity of heart and unreserved assent to God’s will, Mary gave us Christ’s human nature, and, above all, this is why we give Mary our highest honor above every great saint who ever lived. God could have redeemed us in any manner but, as Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us, the most fitting way was to become Incarnate: God-made-man. Because God shared in our lives, utterly and truly, we know that God wants us to share in His Life, that is, to be transformed into the image of His Divine Son. The Incarnation is the transfiguration of humanity. Saint Athanasius said, “God became man that man may become god,” that is, full of grace—divinized. Or, as Saint Paul put it, “It is no longer I who live but Christ in me.”

At heart, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, is about the Incarnation—about the human nature that she freely gave to her divine Son: “Let it be done to me according to Thy Will.” Christ is born of a woman, true man and true God, and this woman, Mary, is the Mother of God.

On January first, the Byzantine Rite and the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite celebrate the Octave of the Nativity of our Lord, which is the Feast of Christ’s Circumcision. The Nativity of Christ is, of course, a Marian solemnity as well, for we never can view the baby’s birth apart from his mother. Noting Jesus’ circumcision on the eighth day (the octave), the Church unequivocally claims Christ’s human nature, truly born of a woman, and at his circumcision, our Lord bled for the first time. We cannot help but wonder at the stirrings in Mary’s maternal heart, as she heard her newborn Son cry in pain and shed His blood on the octave of His birth and as she pondered the magnitude of God’s love expressed in such a tiny and vulnerable vessel.

God love you!

Patricia Sodano Ireland is Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Program Director of Online Theology Programs at Saint Joseph’s College.

Pray to God – then dance with your feet

Think about how many times you’ve worried and fretted over a particular problem or situation in your life. Think about the hours spent in prayer asking God for your desired resolution. Think about those times when your prayers were answered and things seemed to fall right into place. Now, think of the times when your prayers went unanswered, where you felt as if God was quiet, distant, and unmoved by your supplication. Dreams fulfilled and hopes dashed: this is the drama of our human experience, and the test of the Christian life. But the Christian life is not only about how we respond to the obstacles and real suffering in life, but how we handle God’s response to us.

For the better part of their marriage Anna and Joachim suffered through the terrible mystery of unanswered prayers. Longing to be parents and desperate to fulfill their duty to God’s Covenant, the couple prayed fervently and faithfully. Month after month, then year after year, God was silent. With the passage of time Anna must have felt her chances of conceiving grow slimmer. Still she and Joachim prayest_joakhim_st_annad, and cried, and undoubtedly wondered just what God was up to, and what He might be asking of them. The apocryphal Protoevangelium of James tells of the unexpected moment in which God broke His silence through the message of an angel: “Anna, Anna, the Lord has heard your prayer….” Anna conceives a daughter, whom she is told will be “spoken of in all the world.” In their shared joy, the couple promise God that the child will be dedicated to Him. They are overwhelmed with gratitude and the realization that this child is not a possession to which they can greedily cling, but a gift to be offered in return to the generous Giver. The child is born and called Mary, and she is loved and cherished. When she is three years old, Anna and Joachim make good on their promise and take little Mary to the Temple. Having waited so long for her, this decision cannot have been an easy one for the couple. Nor was it one mandated by God; He did not make their return of the child to Him a condition of His blessing. So great was their love for Him, and so well did they trust Him, that Anna and Joachim repaid His faithfulness with their own.

Once the child had been weaned, at the age of three, Anna and Joachim brought her to the Temple to be raised by the priests, schooled in faith, and to grow into a daughter of God. The Proto-gospel observes that when Mary is given away by her parents the Priest “set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her.” This is a peculiar statement, and one we may be tempted to dismiss as a shade of the esoteric in a “gospel” not even included in the biblical canon (though the Protoevangelium does enjoy a special place in the Tradition.) But it’s a mistake to simply discount this strange idiom because it offers us some insight into that mystery of prayer, and God’s attention to our distress, with which we began. The little child Mary, unaware of prayers and prophecies Present Maryand angel visitation (only of her parents’ love and their devotion to God), entrusts herself to the Priest and is content where he places her. The third step may or may not have theological meaning, but perhaps it can serve as a symbol for us of God’s providence. In our expectation, our moments of fear and anguish, and in our fervent supplication, God hears – He knows – and He sets us down right where we’re meant to be. Maybe it’s not always where we want to be, but it’s the place where He can love us and remind us that we are His children. Whatever the “third step” is for each of us, it can become a place of gratitude, a moment to surrender our pride and our fear, and to just “dance with our feet.” This little Mary, innocent of what this moment on the third step would mean for her life going forward, simply delighted in being where God placed her, and she danced. Perhaps the lesson from Mary’s response – the one her parents learned in praying to receive her and then letting her go – is that whatever our journey, wherever we land, God is always with us. He is quietly by our side – though too often we don’t recognize His presence, probably because we’re too busy making our own noise to hear His voice.  But God does hear us. He knows our fears and our desires and our longing. God knows what is good for us, and how to make even the most difficult circumstances into opportunities for grace. More than anything God wants to see us dance with our feet. Are we willing to stand on the step where we’ve been set down and be His partner?

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

The Human Family

We are social beings.  Granted, we require varying amounts of solitude and privacy, but we are “wired” to experience (and need) our bonds with others.  Our kinship with family and our relations with friends extend our arms to embrace the world beyond our immediate environment.  Our instinct to be and create community is so much a part of what it means to be part of the human family.  With the rest of the world, I was horrified by the terrorist’s attacks in Paris. I was, however, edified by the love and humanity that was expressed by people of good will around the world.  “Je suis Paris” seemed to appear everywhere.  What a beautiful expression of global community!

comm_of_saints1We are a human family, a community.  For me, as a Catholic Christian, it is a natural association to consider how my Faith lifts me and guides me.  I love the Liturgical Year and its rhythmic interfacing with the natural seasons.  The month of November, which is dedicated to the Holy Souls, invites us to remember our place in the entire human community…the Communion of Saints.  In my youth, I was introduced to the Church as all the living and the dead: The Church Triumphant, those with God in Heaven; The Church Suffering, those being purified and readied for entry into Heaven; The Church Militant, those on earth still struggling to embrace their holiness in life.

Maybe it’s the connection of the rhythm of the seasons to the embedded metaphors of Robert Frost.  Maybe it is woven into my training as an academic and a catechist.  Whatever the context, I know that it is the beauty of late fall that draws my heart to themes of redemptive suffering and the ebb and flow of dying and rising.   As I walk along the dirt road near my house or through the woods adjacent to the road, I am celebrating and remembering all holy men and women and the lives and souls of the just. These special days of remembrance, All Saints and All Souls and the entire month of November, are an invitation from the Church’s liturgical calendar to enter into that spirit and celebrate Community.

In my role as instructor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s, I am frequently honored and humbled by the personal sharing of my students.  So many of them have suffered almost unbearable wounds.  Some carry lingering questions about the purpose and meaning of their suffering.  While meditating on the Crucifixion, or the entire Stations of the Cross, one can be touched by the ineffable truth and value of suffering.  God’s good grace with our tenacious will can wrestle meaning and purpose from anything.  I’ve recommended Victor Frankel’s “Man Search For Meaning” and Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”  I have often sought comfort in a prayerful, meditative reading of the Twenty Third Psalm.  The month of November offers a beautiful opportunity to enter into the heart of the Church and rejoice in the graces that the trials of life offer us.

As members of the Communion of Saints, let us offer our prayers for those who have died…

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.

May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed

through the mercy of God rest in peace.

Amen

Susan O’Hara teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College.

All Saints

As we mark the Feast of All Saints’ Day we may tend to think about the “big name” saints like St. Joseph, St. Teresa [of whom we just noted the 500th anniversary of her birth!], St. Ignatius, St. Catherine McAuley, and so many others with the history and recognition as Saints. I love that this feast is an invitation to honor ALL saints – those known and those unknown! We can read the lives of known saints, whether they have the title or not, and recall our own experiences with the unknown saints in our midst, those who call us to holiness by their mere presence or a single encounter.

I think that it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that sanctity is the same as divinity. Nothing could be further from the truth! I have been created as a human being; my call is to live as fully human as I can be – to be reconciled with my humanity in all of its limitations and frailties, joys and experiences. I am not called to be divine, perfect, or striving for either of those states of being (see Phil 2:6). So when I read the lives of the known Saints and encounter unknown saints, I am encountering real people, fully human, with the same graces and challenges that I have. These people are not superhuman, but rather, they have embraced their humanity and the grace that comes with living so truthfully.

All SaintsThe known Saints were not perfect (although some of the stories may lead us to think that they were, or at least pretty close!) and lately we’ve seen some controversy over certain people being presented for sainthood or actually being canonized because they were not perfect and might even be labeled as sinners! And yet, that is precisely why they can be raised up as models for all of us – they are us! There is nothing that prevents me from being a Saint! I am the only one preventing me from welcoming God’s action in my simple, human, life. “I am not holy (read: perfect, sin-less) enough for God to use; when I get my act together, then I’ll see what we can do.” God has made me; God knows all my beauty and my wounds – all of which can bring me and others closer to God.

Who are the unknown saints that I have met – those that witness God’s love to me, those that invite me to strive to be a better person and human, and those that bring out the best in me and challenge me to be that for others? Who are the Saints that model the action of God in fragile humanity for me? We are all called to be Saints – numbered among the known and unknown Saints of today’s feast – not tomorrow, not when I’m holy enough, not when I get my act together – today! Every day is a chance to allow the Spirit of God to work in my life, in my messy human life.

So let’s do this! Let’s be Saints and reveal God’s love in our world, in, for, and by being fully who we are called to be: human! Happy Feast Day to YOU!

Sr. Kelly Connors, pm, teaches Canon Law for Saint Joseph’s College.

Mary’s Prophetic Witness as Our Model

Worth Revisiting Wednesday – This post originally appeared on September 10, 2014.

This work week begins with our September 8 liturgical celebration of the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  We may echo the words of her divine Son in the Gospel of John (18:37) and apply them to His Mother: the Virgin Mary came into the world to bear witness to the Truth, to Jesus Christ.  All who are on the side of truth listen to His voice—this is Mary’s directive to us, also: “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5).

100_0107(rev 0)The Virgin Mary and her prophetic mission really resonate with today’s September 10 readings.  The first reading from 1 Corinthians begins with St. Paul’s reference to virgins and ends with his assertion that “the world in its present form is passing away.”  The Virgin Mary’s detachment from worldly attractions, and her focus on “what is above” (Colossians 3:1-2)—on embracing God’s will (Luke 1:38)—underscore the transiency of this world.  Today’s Responsorial Psalm, drawing from Psalm 45, addresses the “king’s daughter.”  The high Christological tone is obvious: the king above kings is God, and His God has anointed Him (45:7-8).  The name of the king’s daughter will be renowned through all generations (45:18): Mary’s Magnificat alludes to this—“from now on all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48).

The Blessed Virgin certainly embodies the teaching of Jesus in His Sermon on the Plain, imparted through the Gospel reading according to St. Luke.  Jesus tells us, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.”  Mary is blessed by being poor—materially poor, yes (e.g., Luke 2:24, offering the poor person’s sacrifice), but more importantly, spiritually poor, or humble.  She demonstrated her humility so profoundly by embracing God’s will in all things, including accepting the humbling, humiliating, and devastating circumstances that befell her.

Mary of Nazareth had to place her newborn Son in a manger because there was no room for the Holy Family in the inn.  She lived in the Nazarene community in which citizens—some of whom Mary probably knew quite well—rejected her only Son and disdained Him enough to try to hurl Him down the brow of the hill upon which Nazareth was built. (Luke 4:29).  Not too long afterward, the leaders of His own people delivered Him to betrayal, torture, and execution.  Mary was there.  She felt His pain and shared in His rejection.

The Virgin Mary fulfilled Simeon’s prophecy: “And a sword shall pierce your own soul, too” (Luke 2:35).  Simeon seems to prophesy about Mary in continuity with and in partial fulfillment of Zechariah 12:10: “And I will pour out on the House of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication.  And they shall look upon me, whom they have pierced; and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a first-born son.” [This is my own translation from Biblical Hebrew into English.  Notice, from the Hebrew translation, the identity of the object pronoun—“they shall look upon me”!  Many translations change the pronoun from first masculine singular to third masculine singular.]  As Jesus, the first-born and prophesied Shepherd (Zechariah 13:7-9) is struck and pierced by the sword/lance as a sign of contradiction, so too Mary’s soul is pierced by the sword, metaphorically.  Her pain, in union with her Son, is emotional and spiritual.

In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus tells us, “Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh.  Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude and insult you…on account of the Son of Man…your reward will be great in heaven!”  The Blessed Virgin exemplifies this blessed and exalted one of whom Jesus speaks.  Her fidelity and obedience to God’s will in her life is our standard for authentic discipleship and prophetic witness.  With the Virgin Mary’s example and powerful intercession for divine grace, we may be light in darkness, love in a world gone cold, setting the earth ablaze by the love of Christ!

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College.

 

Who is Saint Francis of Assisi?

Saint Francis of Assisi, born in 1182, lived only 44 years, dying in 1226. He was the son of st_francis_assisi_prayer_carda wealthy merchant, known for taking to the streets with his friends for fun and frolic. However, as he reached manhood, he took off for battle between his town of Assisi and the town of Perugia, Italy, where he landed in prison. Upon his release from prison in 1205, he sought the meaning of life, thinking it should be so much more than following in his father’s footsteps. Therefore, Francis turned his back on the family business to embrace the love of God and serve God through the imitation of Christ. He became a living human example of Christ in action, loving God and all that God made.

Francis was not a theologian, buried amidst a pile of books looking for the true meaning of God. No, Francis found God in his own heart, the heart that burned with love. Through prayer and contemplation, penance and sacrifice, Francis developed a loving relationship with God from which the essence of his spirituality flowed.

Francis trusted God. By detaching himself from earthly cares, he freed himself to open his heart to God. He moved from a life of luxury and indulgence to a life of austerity and self-imposed poverty. He embraced the simplicity of Christ’s life, following Christ as closely as possible. Three biblical passages were near and dear to Francis’ heart and guided his every action:

  1. Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’ (Matt 19:21).
  2. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me’ (Matt 16:24).
  3. He said to them ‘Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money, nor let no one take a second tunic’ (Luke 9:3).

Francis lived by these instructions. He never worried about where his next meal would come from; where he would lay his head to rest; or how he would keep warm in winter. He knew God would provide.

Francis’ approach came across as refreshing to those who became followers. By his own example, he lived the Gospel, rather than talk about the Gospel. Francis did everything for love of God, neighbor and nature, by expressing passion about God and everything that God made.

Francis liked being around people most of the time. However, he understood the need for solitude, silence and stillness. In living the Gospel, he recognized that Christ would also go to pray alone before important decisions or events. Francis would do the same. Yet, he also saw the need to be among the people in service to their needs. He balanced his time between service and solitude.

Within only three years of release from prison, Francis had twelve companions who joined him. They were a community emphasizing a top priority on love, fellowship, brotherliness, and mutual support. Within a year’s time of banding together, Francis recognized a need for organization and a rule of conduct for his little community. The very first sentence of the Rule summarizes all that Francis wanted to accomplish in establishing the Order of Friars Minor:

The rule and life of the Minor Brothers is this, namely to observe the holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without property, and in chastity (Rule of Saint Francis, Catholic Encyclopedia).

This statement directly correlates back to the three biblical passages from the New Testament, continually referred to by Francis to define what it means to follow Christ.

Men of all different walks of life joined the Order; the wealthy and the poor, the educated and the uneducated; all were welcome. Everyone was treated the same, with no distinctions, except for ordained priests. Francis thought it important that all men should be considered equal, to better foster humility. Francis also believed in obedience, poverty and chastity because Jesus was obedient to God the Father. Jesus lived a life on earth in poverty, and Jesus never married. With the establishment of the Order of Friars Minor formally blessed by papal authority, Francis sent his fellow brothers throughout Europe in pairs of two to evangelize as described in Luke 9:3.

Saint Francis of Assisi is considered one of the greatest saints because of his simplicity, sincerity, compassion, humility, gentleness, and joyous nature, the radical commitment to following Christ, and trust in God to provide. Francis possessed a willingness to live amongst the poor, to understand their struggles and to strive to bring souls to God through his preaching. Francis imitated Christ in everything that he thought and did. He encountered Christ daily, truly living the deep Christian way of living that defines Christian spirituality. Francis was open to God; giving his life over to God, so that the will of God would be accomplished in the life of Francis.

The charisms of Saint Francis flow forth into every person who becomes a Franciscan (Order of Friars Minor, Poor Clares, or Secular Franciscan). Today, we have over one million Franciscans. The simplicity, sincerity, compassion, humility, gentleness, and joyous nature, the radical commitment to following Christ, and trust in God to provide, so effervescent in Francis, are trademarks of Franciscan spirituality to this day. Living the Gospel, with authenticity, is a very alluring attitude that draws people in. Extending care and concern keeps one’s attention. Service with love converts followers. Coming to know Jesus in your heart, not just knowing about Him from reading books, that creates Christians – and that is what Franciscans do – they “rebuild the Church!”

Virginia Lieto teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College. She recently published her first children’s book Finding Patience and blogs at virginialieto.com.

Goal & Path Simultaneously

Today is the feast of St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660). Another post-Reformation era exemplar of holiness, St. Vincent most memorably served the poor.  His Congregation of St Vincent de Paulthe Mission, the Vincentians (or “Lazarists”, named after their founding at the St. Lazarus prior in 1633), and a women’s order he co-founded with St. Louise de Marillac, the Daughters of Charity, sought to serve the poor’s spiritual and physical needs.  Interestingly, together these two orders covered the needs of the French poor in both city and countryside.  They did so based on St. Vincent’s personal example.  Throughout his life, whether he tutored a wealthy family’s children, advised seminary training, or directed spiritual retreats, St. Vincent treated all equally.  Having been sold into slavery for two years during his twenties, St. Vincent’s missionary zeal knew few boundaries.  He addressed the spiritual needs of those whom he encountered, wherever he met them.  One online biographer concludes: “It would be impossible to enumerate all the works of this servant of God. Charity was his predominant virtue. It extended to all classes of persons, from forsaken childhood to old age.” The parish society bearing his name, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which has accomplished so much for America’s poor (as well as in other nations!), was founded in Paris in 1833 by Blessed Frederic Ozanam.  This group, too, takes its inspiration from St. Vincent’s charity.

Charity should be everybody’s predominant virtue, and not just because St. Vincent de Paul embodied it so well.  The Catechism teaches that charity is “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (#1822).  Christ enjoined us to “love as He does, even our enemies,to make ourselves the neighbor of those farthest away, and to love children and the poor as Christ himself” (#1825).  Clearly St. Vincent de Paul sought this last command throughout his life.  Charity is, the Catechism continues, “the form of the virtues…it is the source and goal of their Christian practice” (#1827).  Elsewhere the Catechism proclaims: “Charity is the greatest social commandment. It respects others and their rights.  It requires the practice of justice, and it alone makes us capable of it.  Charity inspires a life of self-giving” (#1889).  So much for thinking of charity merely as dropping a few coins in the Salvation Army Christmas bucket!  Charity is a virtue before it is an action, but the two are obviously related.

How fitting, therefore, that today concludes Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba and the United States.  In the days leading up to this momentous occasion, more than one media or Pope Francispolitical figure took issue with Pope Francis’ stark call to serve people, and most immediately the poor, not ideologies.  This is what one blogger has aptly called “Pope Francis Derangement Syndrome,” the inability of some—Catholic or not—to accept Francis’ criticism of capitalist economies.  Despite evidence that many of Francis’ remarks follow similar ones made by Pope Benedict XVI, these critics reserve for themselves alone the right to select Pope Francis’ legitimate message.  In other words, they are not charitable, nor, apparently do they much appreciate charity.

Bearing all that in mind, today’s readings might come into better focus.  As Christ reminded the disciples in St. Mark’s gospel, the one who is not against us is for us.  Pope Francis, who took his name after another saint who joyfully served the poor, is surely “for us”…us all, actually.  He extols charity to both poor and rich.  The latter, though, require the charity of being reminded that their material possessions are not, ultimately, their own.  That resonates with St. James’ stark cry against the abuses committed by the wealthy.  The Catechism does insist that charity requires, among other things, fraternal correction (#1829).  So charity might help us hear more clearly the Holy Father’s message.  Meanwhile, charity will also move us to make our love of neighbor and the poor and our enemies all the more real.  Pope Francis merely extols a path which is also our goal. St. Vincent de Paul’s saintly example of charity reminds us of this.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.