Tag Archives: holiness

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.”

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. 

Successful and Unsuccessful Saints

In yesterday’s post I offered a summary of Bishop N.T. Wright’s talk to the Italian Catholic Bishops in which he stated that our understanding of the resurrection of Jesus is influenced today by the thinking of the Enlightenment, which placed God (if God exists) beyond our world. We are the lords of creation, according to that thinking. This life and all in it is in our hands to shape and control as we think best.

Yet, the Risen Christ is Lord of creation, still present in our world, fashioning it to become God’s new creation. He has not just come and now is gone, with us only at our death to take his own into heaven. Nor is he just lord of the perfect. Every knee bows before him.

I wonder if the thinking of the Enlightenment has also influenced our thinking about the saints. We like “successful saints” who seem to leave their mark in society by what they accomplish: building schools, hospitals, blazing new trails on the world scene. We like saints who do something big.

What about saints like Saint Gemma, Saint Pio–who seem to be sidelined most their lives without obvious human accomplishments­– aren’t they witnesses to the power of the Risen Christ to reach into humble life and be present there?

I heard recently that Saint Pio is probably the most popular saint in the church right now. Interesting. Books about St. Gemma are the most popular books we distribute at Passionist Press. Interesting.

Is holiness only for the perfect, the bright, the accomplished? Or does the Risen Christ reveal himself to the humble, sometimes giving them the treasures of his wounds? Maybe the voice of the faithful is telling us something.

All Saints

Years ago I wrote a book on the lives of the saints honored in our church calendar. Saints like Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the apostles, the martyrs, founders of great religious orders, men and women recognized for their great holiness.

It was a hard book to write and I’ve never felt satisfied with it. My dissatisfaction isn’t just  from not capturing their lives as well as I would have liked. I think it’s because we can’t capture what the saints experience at all.

A saint is someone who enjoys a completed life, a life we haven’t seen yet, a life we hope for. “We feebly struggle while they in glory shine.” We can never capture the final steps of their story.

The letter of St. John we read today on the Feast of All Saints tells us that. We haven’t seen yet what God intends us to be. We haven’t completed our lives yet; we complete our lives when we join the company of the saints.

“See what love the Father has bestowed on us

that we may be called the children of God.

Yet so we are…

Beloved, we are God’s children now;

what we shall be has not yet been revealed.”

The saints we honor in our calendar led extraordinary lives; they were shining examples of faith, hope and love and changed the world they lived in.  What’s interesting about today’s feast of All Saints is its promise that they’re not the only ones in heaven. There are unnumbered saints in God’s company, saints who lived obscurely, without any sign of the extraordinary.

People like us.

I like St. Bernard’s advice about saint-watching in today’s Office of Readings:

“We must rise again with Christ, we must seek the world which is above and set our mind on the things of heaven. Let us long for those who are longing for us, hasten to those who are waiting for us, and ask those who look for our coming to intercede for us. We should not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness. While we desire to be in their company, we must also earnestly seek to share in their glory. Do not imagine that there is anything harmful in such an ambition as this; there is no danger in setting our hearts on such glory.

When we commemorate the saints we are inflamed with another yearning: that Christ our life may also appear to us as he appeared to them and that we may one day share in his glory.”

Steve Jobs. A Secular Saint?

Some years ago that term was used to designate someone without any obvious connection with religion, yet who had the heroic virtue we usually associate with the saints.

As I listened to his address to graduates at Stanford University a few years ago, I thought the term could apply to Steve Jobs who died a few days ago. It was a remarkable address that any Christian preacher would admire and be happy to preach. I was especially moved by his respect for death as an advisor and mentor for life.

A solid spirituality. You hope the next generation would follow his example.

The other night on iTunes, one of Jobs’ wonderful contributions to the new digital world, I listened to a lecture (free) by Charles Taylor, author of The Secular Age, from Columbia University. Taylor objected to new atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens who want to banish religion from the world as a worthless and destructive force.

But he also objected to Christians denying the worth of secularists who work for the good of the world and its peoples.

There are secular saints as well as saints honored by the church.

Feast of Charles Lwanga and Companions

 

The martyrdom of St. Charles Lwanga and his twenty one companions in Uganda, Africa in 1885-86 was a decisive factor in the remarkable spread of Christianity in that continent that began in that century. The White Fathers reached that remote part of the world in 1879 and the Catholic missionaries succeeded in converting a number of native Africans, some of whom were servants of King Mwanga, a local Ugandan ruler. In 1885 King Mwanga began to persecute Christians.

Charles Lwanga was in charge of the pages in the king’s court. The king wanted some of the pages as sexual partners. When the Christian pages  refused he threatened them with torture and death.

Led by Charles, they rejected the king’s advances, and so the king summoned them to appear before him and asked if they were going to persist as Christians and deny what he asked. “Till death!” they answered.  “Then put them to death!” the king shouted.

On the road to their execution at Namugonga  three pages died. Many of the bystanders were amazed at the courage and calm of Charles and his companions.  On Ascension Day, 1886, they were wrapped up in mats of reeds and set afire for their faith. The following year an extraordinary number of Ugandans became Christian. The prayer for their feast  praises God for his graces to them:

Father, you have made the blood of martyrs the seed of Christians.

In today’s Office of  Readings, Pope Paul VI says their sacrifice opened a new page in the history of holiness in Africa. They join the 4th century Martyrs of Scilli (whose relics are now in the Passionist church of Saints John and Paul),  Cyprian, Felicity and Perpetua and other Christian martyrs and confessors from the past.  And he adds:

“Nor must we forget those members of the Anglican Church who also died for the name of Christ.” A recognition that holiness is found in other Christian churches too.

“These African martyrs herald the dawn of a new age. If only our minds might be directed not toward persecutions and religious conflicts but toward a rebirth of Christianity and civilisation!”