St. Wenceslaus, King and Martyr

When we think of St. Wenceslaus we usually think of Christmas due to the Christmas Carol about him. But today is his feast day and we ought to reflect a bit on his life. In so doing remember to pray for all kings and rulers that they might be so faithful as was he. Here is an excerpt of his life from a popular history:

St. Wenceslaus was born about the year 907 at Prague, Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic. His father was killed in battle when he was young, and the kingdom came to be ruled by his pagan mother. But Wenceslaus was educated by his grandmother, St. Ludmilla and she taught him to be a Christian and to be a good king. She was killed by pagan nobles before she saw him king, but she left him with a deep commitment to the Christian faith.

In his years as a duke he was most kind to his subjects, and quite generous toward the poor.  He was known frequently to carry wood on his own shoulders to the houses of the needy. He often attended the funerals of the poor and ransomed captives. He was filled with a deep reverence for the Church and labored with his own hands to sow the wheat for making altar breads. He also pressed grapes for the wine used in the Mass. During winter he would visit the churches barefoot through snow and ice, frequently leaving behind bloody footprints.

Wenceslaus was eighteen years old when became king. He worked to convert his largely pagan country. He ended the persecution of Christians, built churches and brought back exiled priests. As king he gave an example of a devout life and of great Christian charity, with his people calling him “Good King” of Bohemia.

His brother Boleslaus, however, turned to paganism. One day he invited Wenceslaus to his house for a banquet. The next morning, on September 28, 929, as Wenceslaus was on the way to Mass, Boleslaus struck him down at the door of the church. Before he died, Wenceslaus forgave his brother and asked God’s mercy for his soul. Martyred at the age of twenty-two, St. Wenceslaus is the national hero and patron of the Czech Republic. He is the first Slav to be canonized.

It is a rare combination that those who have the reigns of world power are so turned to God. In an increasingly secular age such as ours we ought to pray through the intercession of St. Wenceslaus that God would move the hearts of the powerful to deep faith, hope and profound charity.

I want to ask you to look carefully at the Carol: Good King Wenceslaus. Look beyond the first verse. It is a little masterpiece of the English Language. Consider well its powerful message. In the verses is described the King who sees a poor man who has recently moved into the area. On the Feast of St. Stephen, (Dec 26), he wishes to welcome him and share with him a feast that he will provide. He enlists the help of one of his pages who accompanies him. Yet in a winter storm the page almost dies on the way. St. Wenceslaus, on fire with the love of God, is unaffected by the chill and bids his page to stay close. Because of the the fiery love the saint, the page is saved.

Isn’t that to be the life of the Christian? In a cold world that seeks to chill the hearts of others, we are to bring warmth and light. We are to radiate the fire of God’s love to all we meet and help them endure the deep winter of this world.

Please read all the verses of this beautiful carol and (according to me) small masterpiece of the English Language written by John Mason Neale and published in 1853. The video contains the music if you’d like to listen and read:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel 

“Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather

“Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing

The Price of Our Faith: Do You Know How the Apostles Were Martyred?

It is too easy to take our faith for granted. We can complain at the slightest requirement. Perhaps the Mass is “too long.” Perhaps the air conditioning or PA system is less than ideal. Perhaps the Church’s moral teaching seems too demanding or “out of touch” with modern thinking. Perhaps some  aspect of the Liturgy seems “boring.” And so forth.

But have you recalled that martyrs died so you could have this faith? Every one of the Apostles except St. John the Evangelist died a martyr’s death for our capacity to know that Jesus is Lord and that he died and rose for us.

  1. Andrew was crucified on an X shaped cross after being scourged. He preached to his tormentors to his last breath.
  2. Bartholomew had his skin flayed off
  3. James the Great (Son of Zebedee) was beheaded
  4. James the Younger was cast off the Southeast pinnacle of the Temple. When the 100 foot drop did not fully kill him he was beat to death with clubs.
  5. John the Evangelist was thrown into a vat of boiling oil and when he miraculously survived he was sent to prison on the Isle where Patmos where he died years later.
  6. Jude was shot through with arrows
  7. Simon was Crucified
  8. Matthew was killed with a sword
  9. Phillip was beheaded
  10. Peter was crucified upside down.
  11. Thomas was stabbed to death with a spear
  12. St. Matthias was stoned then beheaded.
  13. Mark was dragged to death by horses.
  14. Paul was beheaded
  15. Luke was Hanged to death

What will you suffer for handing on the faith? The martyrs went to death to proclaim Christ but some us cannot bear if some one merely raises an eyebrow at us or scoffs. Merely being less popular or excluded from  the world’s admiration is too high a price for many. The next time you recite the Creed at Mass remember those words are written with blood. The next time you kids protest going to Church or your teenager scorns the faith you insist they practice, remember that others have faced far more formidable does than an unhappy child. The next time you are challenged for your faith and merely have to  risk ridicule, remember others suffered (and still suffer) prison. Many were (and still are) killed for it.

Remember the Martyrs and stay faithful, dedicated and courageous. Stand firm in the Faith and never give up.

St. Joseph and Manhood

I remember once being amused to hear that a certain Franciscan Theologian from the 19th Century (whose name I cannot remember) wrote a six volume “Life of St. Joseph.” Six volumes?! How could one possibly get enough material? We know so little of Joseph from the Scriptures. He seems to have been the strong, silent type. Not a word of his is recorded. But his actions have much to say, especially to to men. On this feast of St. Joseph we do well to ponder him as a model for manhood, for husbands and fathers.

  1. A man who obeys God and clings to his wife – Joseph was betrothed to Mary. This is more than being engaged. It means they were actually married. It was the practice at that time for a couple to marry rather young. Once betrothed they lived an additional year in their parents’ household as they became more acquainted and prepared for life together. Now at a certain point it was discovered that Mary was pregnant, though not by Joseph. The Scripture says that Joseph was a “just man.” This is does not mean that Joseph was a fair and nice guy (though I presume he was). What it means was that he was a follower of the Law. He based his life of the Jewish Law that God gave through Moses and as interpreted by the Rabbis. Now the Law said that if a man discovered that a woman to whom he was betrothed was not a virgin, he should divorce her and not “sully” his home. Joseph as a just man, that is a follower of the Law, was prepared to follow its requirements. However, he did not wish to expose Mary to the full force of the law which permitted the stoning of such women. Hence he chose to follow the law by filing the divorce decree  but not publicly accusing her. He would remain quiet as to his reason for the divorce and Mary would escape possible stoning. To fail to divorce Mary would expose Joseph to cultural ramifications. Just men just didn’t marry women guilty of fornication or adultery. To ignore this might have harmed not only Joseph’s standing in the community but also that of his family of origin. But you know the rest of the story. Joseph is told in a dream not to fear and that Mary  has committed no sin.  Matthew records: When Joseph awoke, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. (Matt 1:24).  Now a man obeys God even if it not popular, even if he may suffer for it. Joseph is told to cling to his wife. He may suffer for it but he as a man “obeys God rather than men.” It takes a strong man to do this especially when we consider the culture in which Joseph lived, and in a small town, no less. Joseph models strong manhood and has something to say to the men of our day.  In the current wedding vows  a man agrees to cling to his wife, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or health. This is what a man is to do. Our culture often pressures men to bail out when there is trouble Joseph shows the way by obeying God over the pressures of prevailing culture, even if he will personally suffer for it.
  2. A man whose vocation is more important than his career – In Bethlehem Joseph is warned by an angel in a dream: Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him (Matt 2:13). Joseph may well have had much to lose in this flight. Back in Nazareth he had a business, a career if you will. He had business prospects, business partners and contacts. Fleeing to a distant land might mean others would take his business etc. But Joseph was a father and husband before he was a businessman. His child was threatened and his first obligation was to Jesus and Mary. His vocation outweighed his career. In a culture like ours where too many parents make their careers and livelihoods paramount and their children are too easily placed in day care Joseph displays a different priority. It is true that many parents feel they have no choice but to work. But it is also true that many demand a lifestyle which requires a lot of extra income. Perhaps a smaller house, less amenities etc would permit a daycare free childhood for more of our children. Joseph points the way for parents: vocation has priority over career. For fathers especially Joseph shows that a man is a husband and father before he is a businessman.
  3. A man who protects his family– And for men, Joseph also models a protective instinct that too many men lack today. Our children, like Jesus was,  are exposed to many dangers. Our American scene does not feature a lot of physical dangers but moral dangers surely abound. Fathers, what are your children watching on TV? What are their Internet habits?  Who are their friends? What do your children think about important moral issues? Are you preparing them to face the moral challenges and temptations of life?  Are you teaching them the faith along with your wife? Or are you just a passive father, uninvolved in the raising of your children? A man protects his children from harm, physical, moral and spiritual. Joseph shows forth this aspect of manhood.
  4. A man of work –The Scriptures (Matt 13:55) speak of Joseph as a “carpenter.” The Greek word however is τέκτονος (tekton, os) which can mean more than a worker in wood. It can also refer to a builder or any craftsman. It seems unlikely that Joseph and Jesus would have worked exclusively in wood since wood was more rare in the Holy Land and used more sparingly than in our culture. Stone was surely plentiful and so it may be that Joseph also worked with stone as well as wood in his work. It was and through his work Joseph supported his family. It is the call of a man to work diligently and to responsibly and reliably provide for his family.  Joseph models this essential aspect of manhood.  Paul felt it necessary to rebuke some of the men of his day for their idleness: In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching  you received from us….For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”  We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ that with quietness they earn the bread they eat. (2 Thess 310-12)
  5. A man who teaches his son– We learn from Scripture that Jesus too was a carpenter (Mk 6:3). It is obvious that it was Joseph who taught this trade to Jesus. Consider the hours each day they spent together as Joseph patiently handed this trade on to Jesus, teaching him of its intricacies, and methods. It is not enough for a father to provide for his children, he must also prepare them for life. He does this through modeling and teaching discipline, moderation, hard works, self-control, and many other life skills. In our times it is more rare for fathers to teach a trade to their sons or other children. But in the end a man prepares his children for life. Joseph models manhood by preparing his Son Jesus for life as a tradesman.

Joseph is a model for manhood. Nothing he ever said was recorded but his life speaks eloquently enough. He is referred to at the Guardian and Patron of the Universal Church. He has these titles for he was guardian, protector and patron(provider) of the Church in the earliest stage, when the Church was just Jesus and Mary. But since the Church is the mystical Body of Christ, in protecting, providing and preparing Jesus he was doing that for us for we are in Christ as members of his body. Men especially do well to imitate St. Joseph and invoke his patronage in all their endeavors as Husbands, Fathers and providers.

St. Joseph, pray for us.

The Martyrdom of St. Cyprian

Today is the feast of St. Cyprian the patronal saint of my parish.  What follows is an account of his martyrdom.

In the year 258 AD severe edicts were issued from Rome indicating that those who persisted in their refusal to worship the pagan gods were to be put to death. Knowing his end was near, Cyprian spent his final days encouraging his flock and expressing his affection for them. He also undertook personal penances in preparation for death.

 Sentenced to Death – Cyprian had already been imprisoned and exiled to the City of Curubis the year before for his refusal to burn incense to the Roman gods. Soon enough orders came and Cyprian was brought back to Carthage to stand trial once again. When word got out among the populace that Cyprian was in custody, a large multitude gathered and lamented him. Even a great many pagans protested on his behalf for they remembered his kindness, courage and generosity during the recent plague. But it was to no avail, the new proconsul, Galerius Maximus, seemed anxious to enforce the death penalty.

We are blessed to have received from antiquity the account of St. Cyprian’s final trial which is substantially reproduced here:

  • Proconsul: Are you Thascius Cyprian?
  •  Cyprian: I am
  •  Proconsul: Are you the person who has been bishop and father to men of ungodly minds?
  • Cyprian: I have been their bishop.
  • Proconsul: The most sacred emperors have commanded you to conform to the ceremonies of the Roman religion.
  • Cyprian: I cannot
  • Proconsul: Consider again for your own safety.
  • Cyprian: Obey your orders. In so manifestly just a case there is no need for me to reconsider.
  • Proconsul: Long have you lived with an irreligious heart and have joined great numbers with yourself in an unnatural conspiracy against the Roman deities and their holy rites. Nor have our sacred and most pious emperors…been able to claim you to their ceremonies. Since you have been a ringleader in crimes of such a heinous nature, you shall be made an example to those whom you have seduced to join with you and discipline shall be established in your blood. I will that Thascius Cyprian be beheaded.
  • Cyprian: Blessed be God

Many Christians who were within the room cried out, Let us be beheaded with him! As Cyprian was led out to die a large crowd pressed in on all sides so that a strong cohort of soldiers was required to escort him. They led him outside the city to an open field ringed by large trees. Many onlookers climb those trees to better see him.

Martyred – On arriving at the spot where he was to die, Bishop Cyprian took off his mantle (or overcoat), and fell to his knees and prostrated himself before God. Then, arising he took off his dalmatic which he gave to his attending deacons and remained in his long white robe. He payed his executioner the sum of 25 gold denarii. While this gesture was not unheard of especially for a person of some means it nevertheless tells us of the graciousness and forgiveness in the heart of Cyprian. He himself tied the blindfold over his eyes after which his hands were tied. Kneeling again he awaited the final blow. At length the sword passed and Cyprian ended his pilgrimage here. It was September 14, 258.

We have solemnly renounced the world and therefore, while we continue in it should behave like strangers and pilgrims. We should welcome that happy day (of our death) which is to fix us, everyone, in our proper habitation, to rescue us from the embarrassments and snares of this world, and remove us to the kingdom of heaven…. There we shall meet with the glorious choir of apostles; with the goodly company of the prophets; with an innumerable multitude of holy martyrs; there we shall be blessed with the sight of those triumphant virgins who have subdued the inordinate lusts of the flesh; and there we shall behold the rewards of those who, by feeding the hungry and consoling the afflicted have with their earthly treasure stored up for themselves treasure in heaven. To these beloved brethren let us hasten with eager longing! Let us pray that it may befall us speedily to be with them; speedily to come to Christ. (St. Cyprian,  De Mortalitate, 26)

From a dysfunctional family comes…Saints

monicaToday is the memorial of St. Monica, mother of Saint Augustine. A family who produces two saints must look more like the holy family than your family or my  family, but this family may surprise you. Monica married a man who was an alcoholic and as often happens with alcoholism, violent and abusive. She lived in the home of her mother-in-law, who was also an alcoholic and so it is not hard to imagine how difficult her family life must have been. Monica, however,  had one great defense and that was that she was a woman of great faith and a powerhouse of prayer.

Monica prayed for the conversion of her husband and indeed he did convert at some point in his life.  Monica is an inspiration for all mothers who fervently pray for their children, particularly when all seems hopeless. She felt that way about Augustine, who was smart, talented, successful, but also a self-described lover of wine and women and the good life. He joined, for a time, a crazy religious sect, and he fathered a child with a woman to whom he was not married.  Monica prayed for his conversion, seemingly without ceasing, as St. Paul would say. Augustine, in the true style of an obstinate young man, decided to flee their home in North Africa and go to Italy, in part, to get away from his mother. But Monica was on a mission and not to be deterred, she actually got on the next boat that left after his and followed Augustine to Europe!

The Power of Prayer

Monica is a witness to the strength and fortitude that can come from prayer. She gives all mothers of temperamental teenagers and young adults hope that one day, they will again have a close relationship with their children.

In the spirit of Monica

Today, many mothers are inspired by Monica. I wrote recently about the two planes that crashed over the Hudson. In that story is a subplot which brought the story of Monica and Augustine to mind.  The pilot of the helicopter, though baptized Catholic had stopped practicing the faith. This did not keep his mother and his fiancee from praying for him and his return to the faith. Last Easter he was confirmed. His mother commented at the time of his death, “It was the perfect time.”

Seeking the intercession of Monica

tomb of Saint Monica
tomb of Saint Monica

I have a great love for Monica as she is buried in the church of Saint Augustine in Rome. It was my parish while I was studying at the Angelicum. I would often visit the tomb and ask her intercession for situations that seemed hopeless and for my friends who were struggling with their kids. The stories of the prayer of these two mothers are a reminder to me that God’s time is not always our time and that our prayer is never in vain.

Series on the Saints

Here is a three-part series on the Saints of the Catholic Church. It is visually quite beautiful and generally well done. It answers questions such as who is a saint. How does the Church come to recognize and declare certain men and women to be officially recognized saints? How has this process evolved over the Centuries? How are miracles of the saints distinguished and understood…etc.

Careful about part three. There are two problems in that segment.  Our gracious host makes a mistake, she says we worship the saints. We do not. We venerate them. To worship them would be a terrible sin. Worship belongs to God alone. A second problem is that one of the interviewed guests suggest that there is some merit to the notion that after the Second Coming of Jesus that hell will be emptied and everyone welcomed to heaven. Sorry there is no merit to this position. Scripture is clear to speak of hell as eternal. Wishful thinking may feel good but the truth is what really sets us free. That hell is eternal is an important way that God teaches us that there comes a time when who we have chosen to be is forever fixed. This is important to understand since the trajectory of our life is an important matter to which we must attend. Through our decisions we gradually form our basic character and over time it becomes more fixed. At some point, we know not when (probably at death) it is fixed forever.  Sow a thought, reap a deed. Sow a deed reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character reap a destiny.  Anyway enjoy the series with these cautions.

The Church’s Photo Album

Every now and then we Catholics get asked about statues and images. Sometimes we get accused of “worshiping” them. Well actually that would be pretty strange and stupid since plaster and marble and paint on canvas can’t hear us or respond. Not much of a god if you ask me. Of course we don’t worship these things, we aren’t stupid.

But what is with these statues and pictures? Why do we have them? Well the question is kind of odd since most people who ask us this really already have the answer. When I get asked this question I ask another question in return: “Do you have pictures of your family in your home, in your wallet or at your office?”  Most answer “yes.””Why?” I ask. The usual answer amounts to the fact that these things “remind me of my loved ones.” Exactly. And so to statues and images of saints. They remind us of family members (the saints) who have lived heroic lives.  While it is not common for us to have statues of loved ones in our homes, it is common to see such things in State Houses and museums. Just a little more formal than a painting or photo but its the same idea.

So really, folks ought to lighten up on us a bit. We are neither stupid nor idolaters here. We’re just venerating the memory of heroes who have gone before us. We are reminded to ask their prayers and imitate their example.

Here is another video from that Catholic Show that speaks on this topic further. I have one quibble with the video. It seems to imply that statues and pictures only came into use in the Church after the Renaissance. In fact they have been with us almost from the start. All the way back in the 8th Century the Church struggled with the Iconoclasts (image smashers) who went through churches smashing statues and images. They claimed it broke the commandment against idolatry. But the Church ruled that there was no violation of the commandment in the use of images for the reasons stated above. But the point here is that images and statues were in use far back before the Renaissance.