Category Archives: Religion

Saint Francis de Sales, January 24

Francis de Sales had a wonderful approach to holiness. He believed in the uniqueness of every person and recognized the variety of ways people can become holy. He also believed firmly in respect and dialogue, especially with someone who doesn’t think like you or is from another religious tradition.

Some years ago, I visited a church in Geneva, Switzerland, center of Calvinism in the 16th century, where Francis was the Catholic bishop. A statue in that church (above) pictures him holding a book and a pen in his hand – not a sword.

Geneva was a city of swords then, real and verbal;  religious differences led to conflict and even bloodshed. Francis believed instead in peaceable dialogue.

Dialogue did not mean for him abandoning your own beliefs or being silent about them. It meant examining and measuring your own beliefs more deeply while listening carefully and respectfully to the beliefs of others to find the truth.

Francis de Sales prepared the Catholic Church for the approach to ecumenism it would take in the 20th century at the Second Vatican Council. He would certainly support the ecumenical movement today.  

 The spiritual writings of Saint Francis de Sales have become classics. Here’s something from  “An Introduction to a Devout Life” that reveals the way he thought and taught.

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“When God the Creator made all things, he commanded the plants to bring forth fruit each according to its own kind; he has likewise commanded Christians, who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each one in accord with his character, his station and his calling.

“I say that devotion must be practised in different ways by the nobleman and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince, by the widow, by the unmarried girl and by the married woman. But even this distinction is not sufficient; for the practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, to the occupation and to the duties of each one in particular.

“Tell me, please, my Philothea, whether it is proper for a bishop to want to lead a solitary life like a Carthusian; or for married people to be no more concerned than a Capuchin about increasing their income; or for a working man to spend his whole day in church like a religious; or on the other hand for a religious to be constantly exposed like a bishop to all the events and circumstances that bear on the needs of our neighbour. Is not this sort of devotion ridiculous, unorganised and intolerable? Yet this absurd error occurs very frequently, but in no way does true devotion, my Philothea, destroy anything at all. On the contrary, it perfects and fulfils all things. In fact if it ever works against, or is inimical to, anyone’s legitimate station and calling, then it is very definitely false devotion.

“The bee collects honey from flowers in such a way as to do the least damage or destruction to them, and he leaves them whole, undamaged and fresh, just as he found them. True devotion does still better. Not only does it not injure any sort of calling or occupation, it even embellishes and enhances it.”

You can find this spiritual classic online here.

The opening prayer in today’s liturgy asks God to give us too  Francis’ gentle approach to life: 

O God, who for the salvation of  souls willed that the bishop St. Francis de Sales become all things to all, graciously grant that, following his example we may always display the gentleness of your charity in the service of our neighbor. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

A good prayer and a good saint for our contentious times. 

THE PASSIONISTS: 300 YEARS

The Passsonists recently commissioned the painting of an icon to celebrate their founding 300 years ago.This year and part of next year the icon, a tryptic painted by a prominent European iconographer, is traveling to different Passionist communities throughout the world.

The top part of the icon shows the heavenly origins of our congregation. The hand of God the Father surrounded by his angels offers the Passionist Sign,  symbol of the community, to the world, signified by the sun and the moon. The Dove, the Holy Spirit, brings this gift into the world. 

Our congregation is not just a human creation, it’s from the hand of God, through the Holy Spirit. It’s not simply human in its origin.

The congregation is to keep alive the mystery of the Passion of Jesus in the world. The central panel of the icon is focused on Jesus Crucified.

Mary, his mother, points to her Son. She’s the sorrowful mother, holding a cloth to her tearful face; two angels surrounding the Cross weep with her.

Paul of the Cross stands on the other side of the Crucified Jesus, looking at us. He has one hand on his heart and the other extended to us. His mission to proclaim this mystery to the world. 

The Cross stands on a rocky cave containing a coiled monster in yellowish green. Artists sometimes place the bones of Adam and Eve beneath the Cross, which brings them new life, but here the artist has a symbol of evil that must be defeated. 

That evil is the “forgetfulness of the passion of Jesus” that Paul saw affecting the world of his day. Great changes were taking place in his time, the 18th century. The Enlightenment, a movement still affecting our world today, had begun. It fostered a new enthusiasm for human learning and human progress. It brought about a scientific revolution and an industrial revolution that changed the way we live and think in our western world. 

The Enlightenment has brought benefits, but it also brought about a forgetfulness of religion. diminishing religion’s importance in western society. It also brought about a forgetfulness of creation, as Pope Francis claims in his letter on the environment, Laudato Si. Human flourishing came before the flourishing of creation. 

The side panels of our icon have portraits of Passionist saints and blesseds. St. Gabriel Possenti and Blessed Dominic Barberi on the right facing us, and St. Gemma Galgani and Blessed Isidore de Loor on the left. They follow Paul of the Cross in his mission.

Gemma certainly represents the women called to share in the Passionist charism, religious women and laywomen. 

Isidore de Loor, represents the religious brothers who embrace the Passionist vocation, but he also represents all those who, from beyond Italy, from Europe and the rest of the world, would follow the Passionist charism. Isidore bears a cross on his forehead; he suffered from cancer during the Nazi wartime occupation of Belgium. 

Blessed Dominic Barberi represents the missionary outreach of the Passionists. As a zealous missionary to England he received Cardinal Newman into the Catholic Church.

Gabriel Possenti grew up in 18th century Spoleto, a center of the Italian Enlightenment. He was an Enlightenment child, who found the wisdom of the Cross as a Passionist.

The angels at the top of the panels of the saints link them and those who come after them with the heavenly mystery revealed to Paul Danei 300 years ago. Recalling the past, the icon points to years ahead.

Learning about Water

In his letter, Laudato Si, Pope Francis says that the sacraments teach us to respect and reverence creation. Water, bread, wine, oil–sacramental signs– not only bring us into the divine mystery, they also bring us to the created world, our common home.

Water, for example, the sign of the sacrament of baptism, is more than something to drink, it’s a sign of life and death. In the beginning, God moved over chaotic waters to make them life-giving;’ In the time of Noah the Lord moved over the flood waters that threatened death to recreate dry land where life could flourish. . (Genesis 1, 1-2)

Because water symbolizes the life and chaos of the world, Jesus began his ministry going down into the waters of the Jordan River. The waters of the Jordan are muddied today, I doubt they were sparkling then. The world was muddied then; it’s muddied now. .

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When Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan, he entered the world as it is and brought new life to it by the power of God. The liturgies of the eastern churches emphasize the blessing brought to water by the Word made flesh. They see the Jordan, filled with the blessing of the Word flowing out to the whole world. Every river, every land, every baptistery holds the blessing of God.

Water is holy. We baptize in clean water because, by the power of Jesus, we are given new life and the promise of eternal life. We become a new creation. Water is holy, but it can be chaotic. The disciples on the Sea of Galilee knew that. “Did you not know that when you were baptized, you were baptized into his death.”

Jesus was revealed when he went into the water at his baptism. “This is my beloved Son,” a voice from heaven proclaims. He is revealed in the waters of life. He quieted the storm on the Sea of Galilee, he turned water into wine at Cana. “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink,” he said. Blood and water flowed from his side on Calvary.

Today, water plays a major role in climate change. In the last century sea levels globally have risen almost 7 inches and in the last 10 years have risen more rapidly than ever. The rise in sea level is caused primarily by two factors related to global warming: the added water from melting land ice and the expansion of sea water as it warms.

This affects us especially in the New York/New Jersey area where I’m writing from. More than 20 million people live along our coastlines, near the water. Flooding and drought from changing patterns of rainfall can affect the homes we live in, our water supply for food and drink. The poor and the vulnerable will be affected most deeply as sea levels push salt water onto our coasts and further upstream in our rivers.

Water, in which Jesus was revealed, now calls us to live responsibly and care for the earth.

Paul in Sin City

We’re reading Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthian for the next few weeks at Sunday Mass. Paul wrote a number of letters to the Christian community he founded after reaching Corinth about the year 50. It was the most exasperating community Paul dealt with, but the Corinthians made him think about faith, so we can thank them for keeping Paul on his toes.

Corinth was a rich, sprawling seaport, being rebuilt as Paul arrived, a frontier city attracting ambitious people from all over the Roman world. They were people who wanted to get ahead. Corinth was a city of “self-made” people; only the tough survived there. It was also a center for prostitution and sexual commerce. We could call it a “sin” city.

Maybe that was a reason why Paul wanted to establish a church there. He was God’s apostle to the Gentiles. Where could be better meet Gentiles than a seaport connected to the whole world. If Christianity could take root there, it could take root anywhere.

When Paul arrived there around the year 50 AD, he did what anybody has to do when they go to a new place– find a place to stay and get a job. He stayed in the house of Prisca and Aquila, a Jewish Christian couple who owned a small shop in Corinth. He worked as a tentmaker in their shop. He met people, and Paul spoke to them of Jesus Christ, and they believed.

Then on the Sabbath in the synagogue he made contacts too, but I think Paul probably did most of his preaching while working. A lot of things can happen when you are working.

To form new believers, Paul asked some of his friends with large houses to hold meetings there. A lot of things happen in homes that don’t happen in church.

Paul generally founded a church and moved on. But when he moved on, troubles often started in many of those communities, so sometimes he wrote letters, and sometimes he had to come back himself to try to straighten things out. There were some grave problems in the church at Corinth. The church was split into factions, based on wealth, status and friendship. It also was confused about sexual morality.

Paul reminded the Corinthians where they came from and who they were. Not many of you were wise or well-born, he told them. God chooses the weak things. God still does.

St. Agnes, January 21

St. Agnes
January 21, 2019

St. Agnes, Rome

Agnes, one of the most popular Roman women martyrs of the 3rd century, is among the seven  women mentioned in the 1st Eucharistic Prayer:  “Felicity, Perpetua,  Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia.” She’s honored in a special liturgy in the Liturgy of the Hours. 

Her story appears in legendary 5th century sources, but some basic facts about her seem historically reliable. Agnes was a beautiful, wealthy 13 year old girl chosen to be the wife of an influential Roman man, but she refused to marry him because she believed as a Christian she had the right to remain unmarried. A deeply religious young woman, she wanted to give her life to God.

That wasn’t an option for Roman women then. Women were expected to marry young, to marry men chosen for them, and to have two or three children. Rome needed citizen soldiers then to grow and hold on to its empire. Only reluctantly did Rome come to depend on foreigners for its fighting. It preferred its own men and wanted its own women to produce them. 

When Agnes refused to marry, she went against Roman expectations. She was also a Christian and since she lived in times influenced by Diocletian, a notorious enemy of Christianity, she was a target of religious persecution. They pressured her to give up her beliefs; when she refused they declared her an enemy of the state.

Tradition says the authorities brought her first to the Stadium of Domitian, to a brothel of prostitutes there, to commit her to a life of degradation, but God kept her from harm. She would not yield, and so they took her to the arena and killed her by slitting her throat. Those who saw her die marveled at her courage and her faith. 

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Martyrdom of Agnes, Church of St. Agnes, Rome

Commentators like St. Ambrose, writing afterwards about Agnes, marveled at the young girl’s bravery. In Roman households of the best kind, young girls were protected and not expected to speak for themselves. Here was a young girl who stood up to the Roman establishment, even till death. How did she do it ?

“God chooses the weak to confound the strong” the prayer for the Mass of St. Agnes says.  She confounded the way Roman Christians thought about holiness. Men like Peter and Paul and other disciples of Jesus, soldier saints like Sebastian, who witnessed to the faith by dying for it were  the usual measure of holiness then. Devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, grew later in the 4th century, as disputes took place about the human nature of Jesus. In Agnes’ time women were hardly seen or heard. 

Agnes and women martyrs like her redefined the way early Roman Christians thought about holiness. Women, even young girls, could be heroic witnesses to the Jesus Christ. 

Agnes was buried in the catacombs along the Via Nomentana outside the walls of the city and has been honored there ever since. A majestic ancient church stands over her grave. Another 16th century church honoring her in on the Piazza Navona, where the Stadium of Domition once stood and the young girl endured great suffering.

Some say the 1st Eucharistic Prayer mentioned above goes back to the 6th century pope, St. Gregory the Great, whose family home was on the Celian Hill in Rome, Some also say his mother and aunt may have promoted the women listed in that prayer, all strong women who died for their belief.

One of the new Eucharistic prayers asks us to see “the signs of the times by the light of faith.” What’s the role of women in our times and in our church? 

Wonderful churches to visit, if you go to Rome.

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St. Agnes, Via Nomentana, Rome

Climbing On God's Creation

by Francesca Hain, Grade 4, Catholic Schools Week 2020, Poetry Contest


Rocks. Ropes. Nature.
Trees everywhere.
Figures climbing,
But not many are there.

What could it be?
A forest?
God’s creation?
An adventure ahead?
Maybe so.

What are the figures doing?
Perhaps setting up gear.
Tying knots everywhere.
Ropes swinging down a mountain.

A tent.
A sleeping bag.
On walls of galore.
Maybe the figures are scaling the walls.

As I help set up the ropes,
There’s this strong feeling inside me, saying,
I’m scared! What if I fall?

Will I see God’s creation?
Are there spiders, leaves, or caterpillars?
Perhaps I will see a stream of water flowing from a rock.
On the journey up the wall, will I fall?

As my hand touches the hard rocks,
I say in my mind,
You can do this!

When I slip, I try again.
Although the rock is rough, no matter what,
I try again.

If I do succeed, I scream
Shouts of happiness and fear
At the same time.

When I’m up there,
I thank God that I’m all right.
As I stand up at the top, I see seagulls and many other birds.
What wonderful creations God has made!


Pierre Toussaint

Toussaint

We observe a day in honor of Doctor Martin Luther King. Someone asked Doctor King, ‘What will we do if the whites continue to discriminate and mistreat us?’ ‘We will continue to love them to the point that they can’t do anything else but love in return, ’’ he said.

That sounds like what Jesus would say, who took the “form of a slave” when he came among us “and  became obedient, even to death, death on a cross.”

That was how Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian slave brought to New York City late in 18th century lived, until his death in 1853. Toussaint was motivated by a profound love of Jesus Christ. When he  died, a New York newspaper recognized him “ a man of the warmest and most active benevolence.” His goodness was legendary.

Toussaint came to New York City with his French owners, the Berard family, shortly before the Haitian revolution in 1789. He lived in the city almost 66 years. A successful hair-dresser, confidant to some of New York’s most prestigious Protestant families, extraordinarily generous and faithful to the poor, a devout parishioner of St. Peter’s church on Barley Street, at Mass each morning at 6 AM. At his death in 1853 he was acclaimed one of New York’s finest citizens.

St. Peter's Church
St. Peter’s Church

His first biographer was Hannah Farnham Sawyer Lee, a Protestant who wrote about him shortly after his death. It’s a lovely biography, of memories she and others had of him. She admired his character, his good deeds, his genuine love for people, black or white:

“He never felt degraded by being a black man, or even a slave…he was to serve God and his fellow men, and so fulfill the duties of the situation in which he was placed…. He was deeply impressed with the character of Christ; he heard a sermon from Dr. Channing, which he often quoted. “My friends,” said Channing, “Jesus can give you nothing so precious as himself, as his own mind. May this mind be in you.”

Those last words, of course, come from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: “Have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.*
Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.…Philippians 2, 6-9

Toussaint made the mind of Jesus his own. His body now lies in the crypt under the main altar of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral and his cause for canonization has begun.

Some question why Toussaint wasn’t more aggressive in the struggle against slavery. He could have easily won his own freedom well before 1807, when Madame Berard  emancipated him before her death. Why didn’t he? Why wasn’t he active in the abolitionist movement against slavery then?

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For one thing, Toussaint feared violence would erupt in the United States, like the violence destroying Haiti then.

But he was influenced most of all by the teachings of the gospel and the example of Jesus Christ who insisted on loving God and your neighbor.  Loving and serving others is his great commandment, more important than the color of your skin, or your status in life or even fighting for a cause.

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Toussaint understood that. Doctor Martin Luther King did too.