For All the Saints – Reflecting on a Great Hymn of the Church

blog10-29As we approach the Feast of All Saints this Sunday, we do well to meditate on one of the great English hymns, “For All the Saints.” It is a wide and sweeping vision of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. Its imagery is regal and joyful, its poetry majestic and masterful. A vivid picture is painted in the mind as the wondrous words move by. To me it is a masterpiece. Many people know the opening line, but most have never sung it all the way through and thus miss its wondrous portrait. A number of years ago I committed words of this hymn to memory, very much in the spirit of my father, who loved to memorize things that moved him.

Let’s spend a few moments reflecting on this masterwork. It was written in 1864 by William Walsham How, an Anglican Bishop. Ralph Vaughan Williams set it to a stirring melody in 1906. I love to play this hymn at the organ since it has a challenging but exciting “walking base” played by the feet and big rich chords in the hands. In his recent outreach to the Anglicans the Pope speaks of the liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion as a “precious gift” and “treasure to be shared”. This hymn from the Anglican tradition is surely one of those treasures. Permit me to set forth each verse and then comment.

For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.

As the hymn begins, we cast our eyes heavenward to the Church Triumphant. Stated in the first verse is the hymn’s purpose: that we sing to and praise God for all those saints who have finished their course here and entered into the rest of the Lord. Like the Lord, they can say, It is finished. Like St. Paul, they can say, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day (2 Tim 4:7-8). By their words and deeds, these saints declared to the world His holy and blessed name. They confessed and did not deny Him. To them and us, Jesus made a promise: Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven (Matt 10:32). We, too, are called to take up the cry, “Blessed be the Name of the Lord!”

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.


Salvation and the living of a holy and courageous life are only possible by the grace of God. Only if God is our rock, our defender, and our strength do we stand a chance in the battle of this earthly life. Jesus said, Without me you can do nothing (Jn 15:5). St. Paul taught that the ancient Israelites made it through the desert only through Christ: they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them in the desert, and that rock was Christ (1 Cor 10:4). Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in a time of storm! Only in Christ and by His light could they have the strength for the battle and garner the victory.

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.

Ah, this is the connecting verse. We here on earth (the Church Militant) share blessed communion with the saints in Heaven because we are one in Christ. The Body of Christ is one and so we have communion with the saints. We are not in separate compartments, unconnected to the saints in Heaven. We are one in Christ. And though we struggle feebly here on earth, we are strengthened by our communion with the saints and the vision of the glory they already share with Him. Referring to the saints in Heaven, the Book of Hebrews says, Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders us and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us! (Heb 12:1-2)

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.

Having gazed heavenward and having derived strength from our mystical communion with the saints in Christ, we now face the trials of the Church Militant and are counseled to have courage.

We are told to be like courageous soldiers, holding firm and loyal to the end. We must often fight bravely in a world that is hostile to Christ and His truth. So fight we must, nobly, for the crown comes only after the cross. But the victory will one day be ours. Although it doesn’t always look that way to us, Christ has already won the victory. And even if this world deprives us, ridicules us, or even kills us, the victor’s crown awaits all who remain faithful. Jesus said, You will be hated by all because of me, be he who perseveres to the end will be saved (Matt 10:22).

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.

Now comes a call to courage, rooted in the song that faith puts in our hearts. Psalm 40 says, I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD. It is a song that echoes from Heaven through the words of Scripture and the teachings of the Church: Victory is ours today!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.

For now it is God’s will that we hear the call to fight on. Now we are the Church Militant. But here the verses of the hymn direct us back toward heavenly things and the last things, because one day the battle will end for us. The hymn speaks elegantly of the “golden evening” of life and the “rest” that death will one day bring. And, likely through the purifying effects of purgatory, we shall one day pass where we will cast off our burdens, our sorrows and final sins. There the Lord will wipe every tear from our eyes (cf Rev. 21:4).

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.

And then an even more glorious day breaks forth. The hymn closes the circle and we are back in Heaven again! There the saints are clothed in bright array. The heavenly liturgy is beautifully captured in two lines that describe the saints in worshipful praise as the King of Glory, Jesus, passes by in triumphal procession. What a glorious vision this verse provides!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:

The hymn takes one final look. We have come full circle from Heaven to earth and then back to Heaven again. We have made our journey but now the hymn bids us to cast our glance outward and see the magnificent procession that continues for all who will come after us. Jesus said, “And I when I be lifted from the earth I will draw all men unto me” (Jn 12:32). So now look, fellow Christians! Look outward from a heavenly perspective and see the harvest as Christ draws countless numbers to Himself.

Ah, what a hymn! What a sweeping vision and wondrous celebration of the Christian life! Though the battle be now engaged, victory is sure if we but stand firm and hold to God’s unchanging hand.

St. Monica and the Prayers of Mothers

CEP III July 1961On this Feast of St. Monica, who prayed at length for her son, I’d like to say that my mother prayed for me, too! And I really needed (and still need) her prayers.

Satan hates priests and seeks above all to get to us. Jesus remarked laconically and pointedly, quoting from Zechariah (13:7), Strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered. This is why Satan hates priests and seeks to topple them. Corruptio optime pessima (The corruption of the best is the worst.)

I have always felt my mother’s prayers very powerfully. I pray that my mother, Nancy Geiman Pope, who died in 2005, and is now at home with the Lord. She always told me that she was praying for me! I often attributed her prayers to her tendency to worry. But I have learned of the power of her prayers and of their necessity. She told me that the Lord had told her that Satan wanted me and all priests and that she had better pray for me. I never doubted that she did and I’m sure she still does.

I remember once, a week before my ordination in 1989, I was up on the roof of our family house cleaning out the gutters. My mother came out and told me to “Come down from the roof at once!” and that she would hire someone to clean them. She later explained that her concern was that I, so near to my ordination, was now a special target of the Evil One and that I might have fallen from that roof by his evil machinations.

Yes, she always told me she was praying for me. I have come to see both her wisdom and my need for her prayers. I have also come to value the prayers of so many of my parishioners, who have told me that they were praying for me. Yes, I need a hedge of protection—and so do all other priests. Pray for priests! Pray, pray, pray!

And though my mother has long since gone home to the Lord, I still feel her prayers.Somehow she knew that I needed them in a way that I, in my pride, did not. But I have come to know.

Thanks be to God; I have been a faithful and fruitful priest for 26 years. But I know that it was not I who accomplished this. It was the Lord and so many people, like my mother, who have prayed for me.

Back in my 33rd year of life and my 5th year of priesthood, I was severely attacked by the Evil One. He made his move and sought to discourage and destroy me; he did not succeed. My mother and others were praying for me. My parishioners, too, saw my distress and rallied to pray for me and hold me up. And now, almost 20 years later, I feel strong, alive, joyful, and grateful. Sometimes I’m weary in the work, but never weary of the work.

But I am no fool; I know that Satan will try again. I pray only for the prayers of God’s holy people and for my own sober awareness of the need to pray and to fulfill the mandate of the Lord who said, Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matt 26:41).

So today on this Feast of Monica, my thoughts stretch to my mother. Thanks, Mom, for your prayers and for your wisdom. You knew that precious gifts, like the priesthood, also come with crushing burdens and temptations that require sober and vigilant prayer. One day you called me down from the “roof” of my pride and told me to keep my feet on solid ground. Yes, you knew and you prayed. You warned me and then prayed some more.

And thank you, dear readers and beloved parishioners, for your prayers. They have sustained me. Better men than I are suffering and better men than I have fallen under the burden of office. It is only your prayers that have kept me. Yes, pray, pray, pray for priests! Join your prayers to those of my mother, Nancy Geiman Pope, others in the great beyond, and many others still here on this earth. Pray for priests! Pray, pray, pray!

The photo at the top? Yeah, that’s yours truly, in a needy moment; my mom is holding me up in prayer and care. She still does this from her current location, closer to the Lord. Her prayers still hold me, as mine hold her. Requiescat in Pace.

Answering Those Who Say There Is Only One Mediator

blog 8.20.15There is a common Protestant claim that there is one (sole) mediator between God and Man—Jesus. Therefore, they say, asking the saints to pray for us is useless, wrong, and maybe even sinful. Those who object, usually cite some of the following texts:

  • For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Timothy 2:5).
  • Come to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:24).
  • For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant (Hebrews 9:15).

To this claim, we should first answer that we do not teach a substitutional mediation in invoking the saints, as if we were trying to go to the Father apart from Jesus’ mediation.

Rather, we speak of a subordinate mediation, in which we seek the prayers of the saints, or of one another. For indeed we could have no communion with them or one another if it were not for Jesus Christ, who as the Head of the Body, the Church, unites all His members and facilitates our communion with one another.

Objectors seem to speak of there being one mediator in an absolute sense, excluding any other possible interaction or any subordinate mediation. But consider that if there is only one mediator in an absolute sense, then no one ought to ask ANYONE to pray for him; and neither should the objectors attend any church, read any book, listen to any sermon, or even read the Bible (since the Bible mediates Jesus’ words to you).

A “mediator” is someone or something that acts as a “go-between,” acting to facilitate our relationship with Jesus. And though Jesus mediates our relationship to the Father, He also asked Apostles, preachers, and teachers to mediate, to facilitate His relationship with us.

Thus Jesus sent Apostles out to draw others to him. St. Paul says, How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ (Rom 10:14-15, 17).

And thus Jesus has His relationship with us mediated through His Word and through the Apostles and others who announce that Word and draw us to Him.

But since some Protestants say that there is absolutely only ONE mediator, and no subordinate or deputed mediators, there is therefore no need to ask ANYONE or ANYTHING to mediate. So should they not burn their Bibles, stop asking anyone to pray for them, and seek no advice, since NO ONE can mediate a single thing? No one can do this because there is, as they say in an absolutely unqualified sense, only ONE mediator—one and only one.

But for those of us who see that there is a subordinated mediation in service of Christ’s supreme mediation, the prayers of others, preaching, and teaching all make sense. And just as the Bible can mediate His presence and will, or as a preacher can mediate His word, so too can the prayers of others (including the Saints) convey my prayers to Him. And Jesus can mediate my prayers to the Father and give graces to me by mediating them through others.

Consider the analogy of the body, since the Church is Christ’s Body. Jesus has one Body and all the parts are connected through the Head, who is Jesus. Now consider your own body. All the members of your body have communion and unity through your head, your mind. There are different ways to have interaction with others. Perhaps someone will reach you through your ears by speaking, or through the sense of touch by tapping you on the shoulder, or visually by waving. Various members of your body facilitate (mediate) interaction with others in different ways, but it is all facilitated through the head of your body, your mind. So, too, do I confidently expect to reach Jesus in different ways: directly, or through one of His members (realizing that He Himself facilitates it).

And thus for us Catholics, our relationship with Jesus is a rich tapestry of relationships with all the members of His body, those who are with us here and now as well as those who have gone on before us but remain members of the one Body, the Church, with Christ our Head.

On Reverence and Reserve in the Holy Liturgy – A Meditation on an Instruction by St. Cyprian

Heiliger_CyprianusIn the Office of Readings we are currently sampling from a treatise on the Lord’s Prayer by St. Cyprian. One of those readings earlier this week offered some cautionary notes on what might be termed “reverential reserve” when celebrating the Sacred Liturgy.

Before quoting St. Cyprian, I’d like to make some observations regarding the role of culture and history. Of course, dear reader, you are free to skip my poor musings and jump right to the teaching of St. Cyprian, who outranks me substantially by being a bishop, a martyr, a Father of the Church, and a Saint!

St. Cyprian surely calls for some reserve in prayer, both private and public. But I wonder how to quantify reserve? And how is it related to respect? I have certainly seen and participated in worship experiences that were “over the top.” In such instances the music was too loud, the musicians were more in the role of performers, and the “house was “rocking” more so than praying. In gospel music there is a distinction between Church gospel and “performance gospel.” The first inspires prayer and praise while the second is designed more to please and excite the audience. Christian contemporary music has similar distinctions. Some pieces can be deeply prayerful or stirring works of praise, while others have more of a “listen to me!” quality or even a “pep rally” feel.

Even in more traditional forms like chant, polyphony, and orchestral Masses there have been excesses that the Church eventually weighed in on. Chant, though seemingly the least capable of excess, did have times and schools in which the use of proportional rhythm or overly extended melismata sometimes obscured the text. Gallican Chant was more florid than Roman, and during the late Middle Ages the people of Paris flocked to places like Saint Denis and Notre Dame to hear the increasingly musical chants now sung in organum. It was quite the rage.

During the Polyphonic Age the rich harmonies and often-complex intertwining of parts sometimes overshadowed the text. The borrowing of secular tunes was also problematic. The Church Palestrina helped lead the way back to a simpler form that emphasized the sacred text over the rich harmonies.

Orchestral Masses increasingly grew to resemble operas. The settings, quite musical and elaborate, wowed the worshippers. They were also quite lengthy: some Glorias and Creeds lasted more than twenty minutes. But here, too, some popes (e.g., Pius X) sought to set limits.

As you can see, excess is not just a modern phenomenon.

Searching even further back, we see that even in  biblical times worship was an often noisy affair. Nehemiah 8 describes a kind of Liturgy of the Word that featured the people shouting “Amen” during the preaching, falling to the ground, weeping, and so forth. Many of the Psalms directed the people to clap their hands and raise their voices with shouts of joy. Psalm 150 speaks of trumpets, lutes, cymbals, and many other loud instruments that were often used in worship.

Thus we see in all eras a tendency to a certain “excess,” if a respectful reserve is the norm. Indeed, there are some cultures in which sitting quietly to pray seems almost disrespectful. In the African-American congregations in which I have served, it is often said that “God is worthy of our praise!” or, “Hallelujah is the highest Praise,” or “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord … give Him the highest praise.” Charismatic worship has similar features and declarations.

But in every age some limits have had to be found. Even in the earliest days St. Paul had to caution the Corinthians and others to maintain decorum and to set limits on speaking in tongues, prophesying, and so forth. He says to them regarding the Liturgy, Let all things be done decently and in good order (1 Cor 14:40).

And all of this background finally leads us to St. Cyprian, who in the passage quoted below summons us to a kind of sober reserve as the norm for liturgy. In some ways Cyprian, though living in North Africa, displays a kind of Roman temperament and reserve. Latin was his native tongue. And there is, to be sure, a kind of sober reserve evident in the Roman Rite and the Roman prayers, especially the Collects, which are often terse, brief, and quite to-the-point. The whole shape of the Roman Rite is sober and brief. Other forms of this Rite, especially the Gallican and Mozarabic, were far more elaborate and elongated.

And thus St. Cyprian writes from this sort of experience—or so it would seem. But for all of us, his call for reserve can be salutary, even if there are cultural differences that might permit a more demonstrative worship. Consider the words of St. Cyprian as a good reminder that some boundaries are necessary:

Let our speech and our petition be kept under discipline when we pray, and let us preserve quietness and modesty–for, remember, we are standing in God’s sight. We must please God’s eyes both with the movements of our body and with the way we use our voices. For just as a shameless man will be noisy with his cries, so it is fitting for the modest to pray in a moderate way. …

When we meet together with the brethren in one place, and celebrate divine sacrifices with God’s priest, we should remember our modesty and discipline, not to broadcast our prayers at the tops of our voices, nor to throw before God, with undisciplined long-windedness, a petition that would be better made with more modesty: for after all God does not listen to the voice but to the heart, and he who sees our thoughts should not be pestered by our voices … And we read in the Psalms: Speak in your hearts and in your beds, and be pierced. Again, the Holy Spirit teaches the same things through Jeremiah, saying: But it is in the heart that you should be worshipped, O Lord.
Beloved brethren, let the worshipper not forget how the publican prayed with the Pharisee in the temple–not with his eyes boldly raised up to heaven, nor with hands held up in pride; but beating his breast and confessing the sins within, he implored the help of the divine mercy. … and he who pardons the humble heard his prayer.

(from the Commentary on the Our Father by St. Cyprian, bishop and martyr (Nn. 8-9: CSEL 3, 271-272))

To be sure, Cyprian wrote this as a true Roman. But it is a corrective, or at least a good reminder, for us all. Exuberance has its place, especially in certain cultures, but proper order is also essential. Again, as St. Paul says, Let all things be done decently and in good order (1 Cor 14:40). Amen.

In Times Like These, Reform is Still Possible. A Meditation on the Life of St. Charles Borromeo

There is perhaps a tendency for some of us today to feel discouraged over the state of the world, and the Church. It may surprise us, that there have been times in the Church and in Western culture when things were possibly worse. The exact mix of troubles may have been different, but troubles, deep troubles they still were.

I have spent some of today, Sunday, November 4, meditating on the life of my patron saint, St. Charles Borromeo. Today is his feast day, and thus mine as well. And the times in which he lived were not so different from today. And the leadership he exemplified is also what is needed today. I pray that in some small way, I may be like him.

He was born in 1538. These were turbulent times for the Church which was in the midst of perhaps her greatest crisis. Martin Luther had begun his revolt some 15 years earlier when, in 1522, he published his “95 Theses.” In the aftermath of the Protestant revolt, some 12 million Europeans, a large number for those days, left the Church. More would follow in successive waves.

The medieval Church was breaking up and suffering schism. Indeed, the whole medieval synthesis of Christendom was in turmoil, hopelessly intertwined with politics and intrigue, both within the Church and outside.

Indeed, the clergy especially, were in great crisis and in tremendous need of reform. It was an era of absentee bishops and clergy. Wealthy European families collected parishes, monasteries, and other “benefices” more as a kind of “stock portfolio” rather than out of any spiritual love or interest. It was common that these benefices were given to the sons of these families, who all although ordained a priests, seldom served as such, and farmed out the pastoral duties of their many parishes and even dioceses, to often poorly trained, priests. Knowledge of Latin, Scripture, indeed of the Lord himself, was notably absent in many of them of these clergy for hire. Preaching was poor, the moral life of the clergy was degraded and the faithful had little leadership.

It is no wonder that Luther and other so-called reformers were so easily able, in this climate, to attract large numbers of the laity, who were not only poorly served, but also poorly catechized.

Trent – Recognizing how critical the problem of the revolts among Luther and others was, and recognizing her own need for internal reform, the Church had summoned the Council of Trent, which met sporadically between 1545 and 1563.

Into this period of crisis for both Europe and the Church, St. Charles Borromeo was born and raised. He was born of a noble family in Milan, the third of six children. His parents were notably pious and well-known for their care for the poor. Their sober and religious demeanor goes a long way to explain the piety and appetite for reform that St. Charles would later develop.

Reform Starts at home – All that said, the Borromeo family, being wealthy and prominent were well woven in to the difficulties and problems of the late medieval Church, themselves owning large numbers of ecclesiastical benefices. At a very young age Charles Borromeo was given, outright by his uncle, Givlio Borromeo, a large and wealthy Benedictine Abbey. At the tender age of 12 years of age, Charles Borromeo found himself to be the “abbot” of a large monastery. Of course, he was not even an ordained priest, and this fact, coupled with his age, shows the serious abuses that were common in time.

Despite this, St. Charles showed already some inclination for reform by indicating that his income from the Abbey should be only enough to support his education, and that the large and ample remainder should be given to the poor. Further, despite his young age, he promoted reform at the monastery by insisting on a return to a purer monastic environment.

At age 16 he was sent to Pavia to study Canon Law. And though he found his studies difficult, he was noted again for his piety, his refusal to give way to the frivolities of university life, his devotion to the rosary, and to private prayer. Of some significance, is the fact that he dismissed two of his tutors, both of them priests, since he considered them to secular, lax in saying their office, and he objected to the fact that they did not wear clerical attire, but dressed as laymen.

Papal Secretary of State at age 22! Just after completing his studies, Pope Pius IV was elected. The new Pope was Charles uncle, and bestowing benefits upon his family, summoned Charles to Rome to be his Secretary of State. It is perhaps ironic then, that Charles Borromeo was made a Secretary of State, and named a cardinal, all technically under the auspices of the abuse of nepotism, but he would emerge to be one of the leading figures of Church reform.

At age 22 and not even a priest (only a sub-deacon), Charles Borromeo became the Secretary of State at the Vatican, personal assistant to the Pope and was named a cardinal deacon

Perhaps his chief work was, under the direction of Pope Pius IV, to reconvene the Council of Trent which had been suspended due to war. After many months of difficult negotiations and the overcoming of political intrigue, the Council reconvened in 1561. Charles Borromeo serve not only to coordinate the activities of the Council sessions but also engaged in many delicate negotiations as the Pope’s personal representative. He had to work carefully to overcome the differences among certain Council delegates. Things finally wrapped up in December of 1563, just prior to the death of Pope Pius IV.

The importance of the Council of Trent cannot be stressed enough. Its decrees rejuvenated the huge and complex medieval Church, and would serve as a guiding light for the next four centuries. But then, as now, the decrees of a Council are not always welcome, understood or well applied. Thus the work of Borromeo was just beginning.

Setting to work in applying the decrees of the Council, St. Charles lost no time in applying the decrees of the Council, wherever his authority extended. The decrees of the Council having been promulgated, he communicated them to the world’s dioceses.

The next step was for Cardinal Borromeo to have a catechism written and published. He appointed three Dominican theologians to work under his supervision, and the Catechism of the Council of Trent was completed within a year. He then ordered it faithfully translated into the vernacular in order that it be taught by all pastors to the faithful. He also set to work founding seminaries and colleges for the study of the clergy, who were woefully trained at the time.

He was also involved in implementing liturgical norms, and even took a hand at the reform of church music, encouraging the development of sacred polyphony which was emerging at that time. It needed a guiding hand to ensure that did not become too florid and that the sacred text did not become buried in musical flourish and performance. In this matter, he worked closely with Palestrina.

Time to get personal – Having used his Roman position of influence to help implement the Council, he now petitioned Pope Pius V that he might implement the Council in his own life. For, truth be told, that although Pius IV had named him Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, he had been an absentee bishop, remaining in Rome as papal Secretary of State.

This was a common abuse at the time, as already noted. In fact it was rare in the larger cosmopolitan dioceses that the actual Bishop would be present at all. These larger dioceses were usually benefices for rich families whose sons merely collected the monies did not actually serve in any pastoral capacity, as the actual Bishop. Dioceses were thus administered by underlings.

It does not take much to understand that abuses flourished under this system. With no actual resident Bishop, no true shepherd in place, errors went unaddressed, and corruption abounded.

After some months of negotiations and resistance from the new Pope Pius V, St. Charles was finally permitted to go and take up residence in his diocese of Milan. He went with great eagerness to implement the reforms of the Council of Trent. He called several local councils of the church there, set up seminaries for the training of clergy, insisted on clerical reform, and that priests be present in, and ministering to their own parishes. He also established the Confraternity for Christian Doctrine (CCD) for the training of children in the faith, enrolling some 40,000 children in the first few years. He set about visiting every parish in his archdiocese, even the small ones up in the remote Alpine regions.

As is not hard to imagine, not everyone appreciated the reforms he sought to institute. Some of his greatest resistance came from his own clergy and monks, one of whom pulled out a gun, and shot him at Vespers! Luckily, the bullet only grazed him. Yet despite some resistance, St. Charles began many successful reforms in the Church at Milan, reforms centered on the liturgy, the life, training and discipline of the clergy, and the training of the faithful in the ways of faith.

As can be seen, St. Charles lived in difficult times for the Church. Millions had left, and corruption abounded. Many would have despaired in the face of so many deep problems. Indeed, many would wonder if and how the Church could ever recover such losses in numbers and recover her capacity to preach the gospel, and reach the faithful.

And yet, as the example of St. Charles shows, reformers can and do make a lasting difference. Changes for the better may come slowly, but they do come.

Pray for zealous pastors, and reformers like St. Charles Borromeo. For today, it goes without saying, that the Church is in a great crisis. Many millions have left, confusion among the faithful and the clergy abound, many of the faithful are poorly catechized, and there are often grave moral, spiritual and leadership issues among the clergy. It may at times seem bad, very bad.

Yet, things are already better now, inside the Church, than they were in the late 70s and 80s. The reform minded Pope John Paul II, and his successor Pope Benedict XVI, along with many zealous clergy and faithful, have begun a reform that may take many years to fully see. But God has not forsaken his Church and he will both purify her and ensure her ultimate indefectability.

God still has his saints, his reformers, his St. Charles Borromeo’s. Many of them are already known to us, and many more are yet to come. But come they will, for God will reform, establish, and cause to flourish the Church which he loves.

St. Charles Borromeo died in the early hours of November 4th 1584. He had been on his way to visit a parish in the Alps and was stricken with a high fever. He was 46 years old. I have written more of him here: St Charles Borromeo

St. Charles Borromeo pray for us.

The Real St. Nicholas – Not Fat and Not Particularly Jolly

Today is the Feast of St. Nicholas. The real St. Nicholas was nothing close to the St. Nick (Santa Claus) of the modern age. He was a thin curmudgeonly man with a zeal for the Lord that caused flairs of anger. Compromise was unknown to him. The slow transformation of him into “Jolly ole’ Saint Nicholas is a remarkable recasting of him centuries in the making. Some years ago the Washington Post featured an article entitled Poles Apart: Nicholas of Myra; How a 4th-Century Bishop Achieved Fame 1,500 Years Later, With a Whole New Attitude.

Since I had to blog twice yesterday (due to the need to respond to the current Washington Post article on Clergy Sexual Abuse) I thought I might take a break and present excerpts from the article that detail the real St. Nicholas of Myra. It is a very engaging look at the cantankerous Saint who lived through some very tough times.

I am aware that hagiography (the study of the Saints) is sometimes more art than science. I cannot vouch for every detail in the article and would be interested if some of you intrepid hagiographers what to clarify, correct or add to the details given.

The Full Article (which details, somewhat thoroughly, St. Nicholas’ transition to Santa) can be read here: Poles Apart. I have also placed a PDF of the whole article which is more easily printed here: PDF – Poles Apart Nicholas and Nick

Enjoy this excerpt on the real St. Nicholas of Myra (aka Santa):

The year is 325. The place is Nicaea, a small town near the Black Sea in what is now Turkey. Thousands of priests, 318 bishops, two papal lieutenants and the Roman emperor Constantine are gathered to face a looming church crisis…..

One of the churchmen rises to speak. Arius, from the Egyptian city of Alexandria, tells the gathering that Jesus was not divine. He was just a prophet. Suddenly, a second man is on his feet, an obscure, cantankerous bishop named Nicholas. He approaches Arius, fist raised menacingly. There are gasps. Would he dare? He would. Fist strikes face. Arius goes down. He will have a shiner. Nick, meanwhile, is set upon by holy men. His robes are torn off. He is thrown into a dungeon.

Peer down through the bars. Behold the simmering zealot sitting there, scowling, defiant, imprisoned for his uncompromising piety. Recognize his sallow face? No? Well, no reason you should. But he knows you. He’s been to your house many times….

[O]n this holiday we examine the puzzling paradox of Santa Claus. On the one hand, we have the modern Santa, a porcine, jolly man who resides at the North Pole with a woman known only as Mrs. Claus. …

On the other hand, we have the ancient Santa. Saint Nicholas. Paintings show a thin man. He was spare of frame, flinty of eye, pugnacious of spirit. In the Middle Ages, he was known as a brawling saint. He had no particular sense of humor that we know of. He could be vengeful, wrathful, an embittered ex- con….No doubt, Saint Nick was a good man. A noble man. But a hard man.

Nicholas was born in Patara, a small town on the Mediterranean coast, 280 years after the birth of Christ. He became bishop of a small town in Asia Minor called Myra. Beyond that, details of his life are more legend than fact….He became a priest at 19, and bishop in his twenties….Diocletian ruled the Roman Empire; it was the early 300s, and…began the “Great Persecution.”…. Nicholas kept preaching Christianity, and was arrested and tortured for disobeying the new laws. He spent more than a decade in jail. Among his punishments, according to Saint Simeon’s 10th-century history, were starvation and thirst. That is how Santa got skinny…. Twelve years later, AD 312, ….Constantine triumphed. Across the empire, bishops and priests returned to work and Nicholas got out of jail. He tended to local business. He was not pleasant about it. At the time, Myra was a hotbed of Artemis-worship…Nicholas prayed for vengeance, and his prayers were answered. Artemis’s temple crumbled. ” …The priests who lived in Artemis’s temple ran in tears to the bishop. They appealed to his Christian mercy. They wanted their temple restored.….Nicholas was not moved. Prison had left him in no mood for compromise. “Go to Hell’s fire,” he is said to have said, “which has been lit for you by the Devil.”

The Time of Nick In his lifetime, Nicholas crusaded against official corruption and injustice, seeing both as an affront to God. Supposedly, his intervention — through fire-and-brimstone denunciations of corrupt officials — saved at least a half-dozen innocent men from the gallows or the chopping block. He was forgiven for punching Arius and rescued from the dungeon. In the end, his views on the Trinity were vindicated by the adoption of the Nicene Creed, which declares Christ divine. Saint Nick died on Dec. 6. The year could be 326 or 343 or 352, depending whose account you rely on. Why we know the day of the year, but not the year itself, will be explained forthwith…..

……Nicholas of Myra might not seem like the kind of person who relates to kids, and few acts attributed to him involve children. There are two, though neither is exactly the stuff of sugar plums and Christmas stockings. In one tale, widely told, Nicholas secretly delivers three bags of gold to a penniless father. The debtor dad uses the loot as dowries so his three girls do not have to become prostitutes….The second anecdote tells of the time a tavern owner robbed, murdered three children, hiding their remains in pickle barrels. …Fortunately, Saint Nicholas happened to walk through the tavern-keeper’s door….Soon, all three boys, were back home, reeking of pickle juice. What became of the shopkeeper is unrecorded…. By the Middle Ages, Nick had become the patron saint of children, and he had a new gig: gift-giving. Throughout Europe, the legend spread: He delivered trinkets to good kids and twigs to naughty ones. It was an uneasy transition — from curmudgeon to cuddle-bear. ….

🙂 As said above you can click on those links to read the full story of how St. Nicholas of Myra morphed into Santa Claus.

Here’s a Medieval Version of “Jolly old St. Nicholas.” The text is the Introit for the feast of St. Nicholas (Statuit ei Dominus) and translated says: The Lord made unto him a covenant of peace, and made him a prince, that the dignity of the priesthood should be to him forever.

Here’s the Modern Version: 🙂

On the Call to Martyrdom and Accepting the Increasing Cost of the Faith

In recent days, the Church celebrated the feasts of Sts. Peter and Paul, and the early martyrs of Rome. All of these died for the faith and show forth the cost of true discipleship: hatred by the world. Jesus had said,

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates me hates my Father as well. (Jn 15:18:23)

We ought to study the martyrs of the early Church carefully, for their times are not unlike our own: polytheistic, proud, anti-Christian, sexually confused, with rampant infanticide, frequent wars, incivility and cruelty, and a general breakdown of family loyalties. Rome was in decline, especially in the West and the Christians, who looked higher and strove to live differently, had much to suffer in frequent, episodic outbreaks of martyrdom.

Our current climate in the West does not accept public executions or enjoy public massacres. However, things are becoming more difficult for true disciples of the Lord in other ways. And as the years tick by, it would seem things are going to get worse, not better. Whether it is simple ridicule of Jesus and the truths of our faith, or outright hostility and the erosion of our religious liberty, we will, it would seem, experience increasing hatred from the world. But if so, we are in good company. Jesus and all the martyrs bid us to join them.

And if no persecutions befall us in this present evil age (cf Gal 2:1) then we ought to question how true our discipleship be. For the contrasts are becoming too strong for us not to experience persecution, if we are faithful. Jesus warns, Woe to you if all men speak well of you (Lk 6:26). He also said, If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels (Mk 8:38).

Now is not the time to be ashamed to be a Christian! The world will try to shame us by calling us intolerant, bigoted, homophobic, judgmental, narrow minded etc. But do not be ashamed of Jesus and his teachings! Now is the time to testify to a sinful and adulterous generation.

And do not let them shame you about the sins of the Church, it is a diversion. Where there are human beings there is sin. But. keep the focus on Jesus, who is sinless. As a member of the Church, you are speaking for Him.   

Many people today think little of the faith that has been handed on to them. Only 27% of Catholics even go to Mass. Many too, consider any suffering due to the faith intolerable. So, when reminded of basic moral norms against things like fornication, contraception, assisted suicide, or requirements such as weekly Mass attendance, frequent confession, occasional fasting etc, many consider such things too demanding or unreasonable. But all of us should consider how precious is the faith handed on to us.

Many however, have died for the faith because they would not compromise with the demands of the world or deny Christ. Many too were imprisoned and suffered loss of jobs and property because they witnessed to Christ. Others were rejected by family and friends.

It is remarkable to consider thatthe martyrs even to this day (in places like Egypt and Sudan) are willing to suffer death, but many other Christians today are not even willing to risk some one raising an eyebrow at them or any unpopularity.

Pray for the courage of the martyrs! We’re going to need more courage as the days go on. And never forget the cost of the faith handed on to us.

A word on the Early Martyrs of Rome and then a video tribute to them: Many martyrs suffered death under Emperor Nero. Owing to their executions during the reign of Emperor Nero, they are called the Neronian Martyrs, and they are also termed the Protomartyrs of Rome, being honored by the site in Vatican City called the Piazza of the Protomartyrs. These early Christians were disciples of the Apostles, and they endured hideous tortures and ghastly deaths following the burning of Rome in the infamous fire of 62 AD. Their dignity in suffering, and their fervor to the end, did not provide Nero or the Romans with the public diversion desired. Instead, the faith was firmly planted in the Eternal City. The Blood of Martyrs is the Seed of the Church.

This video depicts the suffering of the First Martyrs of Rome. Careful! It is a graphic video which quite accurately depicts death by lions and the cruel and sadistic glee of the crowds who found it entertaining to see other humans torn apart and eaten. This clip is from the 2002 Movie “Quo Vadis” a Polish Production available at Amazon  I added some music over the top that is a dramtic hymn: Once to Every Man and Nation. I listed the Words in the comments section.


Walking in the Footsteps: God’s Fidelity

First Proclamation of the Nicene Creed

The Thursday after the Fourth Sunday of Lent brings us to San Martino ai Monti. Originally a house church, the original structure was built by Saint Sylvester (314-335) and was later dedicated to St. Martin of Tours (317-393) and Pope St. Sylvester. A preparatory meeting for the Council of Nicea in 325 was held here. Here Christians in Rome first proclaimed the Nicene Creed, a practice that continues to this day through the entire catholic world.

God’s Fidelity

Our reflection today is on the fidelity of God. The Lord made a promise to Israel, to build a house for it, to make it a great nation with descents beyond number. The Holy Catholic Church is the new Israel and the Lord’s promise extends to each of us.  We often think of making acts of faith in the Lord, but don’t as often think about His fidelity to us, His great love for us. Even when we fail to trust in Him, even when we fail to follow His word, He is still faithful to us. He will never turn back on his promise. He is always there for us, always available. Because of our sins, we have much to answer for. But because of God’s promise, He has more to answer for. God is faithful

Written By Fr. C. Gallagher

Photos by Fr. J. Huber