While getting ready for Mass one Sunday, one of my fellow parishioners commented that he felt so far from the Kingdom of God sometimes. Specifically, he said that when listening to the stories of the saints, his only thought is, “That could never be me!” His comment was not simply a statement of humility but rather one of despair.
You should have known me when. . .
The stories of the saints are supposed to inspire us but if we think the saints were born perfect, sainthood does seem unattainable. Only Saint Mary, the Mother of God, was born without sin. The rest of the Saints had the same human weaknesses and failings that all of us pilgrims on Earth are experiencing now. Saint Peter denied Christ three times. Saint Augustine was raised by a Christian mother but became pagan before turning his life back over to Christ. Each declared Saint of God was a flawed sinner. In fact, some of their flaws were far greater than ours. Yet, God can meet anyone anywhere in their lives and lead them to heaven, including you and me!
Not perfect, just holy.
There is a big difference between being perfect and being holy. I work every day on holiness, not perfection. There has been only one perfect man in the history of humankind and you all know what we did to him. I have no interest in being perfect. Being holy on the other hand is something I strive for everyday. The saints were certainly not perfect. But, each of them was holy even though they were sinful. In the midst of the holy season of Christmas, let’s strive to be holy, not perfect!
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.
In today’s first reading at Mass St Paul writes to the Philippians of the glory that our currently lowly bodies will one day enjoy:
He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified Body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself. (Phil 3:19)
I once spoke with an older woman who wasn’t all that pleased to hear that her body was going to rise and be joined again to her soul: “Oh, Father, you don’t mean this old decrepit body?! If this body has to rise I am hoping for an improved model!”
Yes! I think most of us can relate to the need that our current lowly bodies will be improved. And they will surely be. Notice how the passage above says, that these lowly, often weak, diseased, and often over-weight bodies will be changed and reflect the glory of the resurrected body of Jesus. Yes, this old general issue clunker that I’m currently experiencing is going to be upgraded to a luxury model. We’re headed for first class.
In this month of November when we recall the four last things: Death, judgment, heaven and hell, we ought to consider for a moment what scripture and tradition have to say to us about what our resurrected bodies will be like.
Now an important starting point in discussing this matter is a little humility. The fact is, a lot of what we are going to say here is speculation. But, it is not WILD speculation. It is rooted in Scripture to be sure. However, Scripture is describing things that are somewhat mysterious and difficult to reduce to words. Further, Scripture does not always elaborate on things which are said. Where we might wish for more details, none are given. Sometimes too, we infer qualities of the resurrected body based only on scriptural texts whose main purpose is not so much to describe the resurrected body. Rather, their purpose is to set forth the fact of the resurrection of Jesus. For example, Jesus appears and disappears at will in a room though the doors are locked. The point of the text is to tell us he appeared, not necessarily that the resurrected body has something we have come to call “agility” (see below). Hence the text does not elaborate on this point and we are left to infer things about Jesus resurrected body and then apply it to our own. This is not wrong, for Paul above says that our resurrected bodies will have qualities that conform to Jesus’ resurrected body . But the point is that the biblical texts do not elaborate on this or other qualities in a detailed manner and so, we are left to speculate and infer some of what we know.
St. John the Apostle expresses some of the humility we should bring to this discussion:
Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be like. But We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. (1 John 3:2)
I do not interpret John to mean we know nothing, for in so doing, he would negate other Scriptures. But I interpret him to mean that we do not fully grasp the meaning of what we are discussing, and that much of it is mysterious. Something is known and revealed but much more of it is unknown and far beyond what we have yet experienced.
With the need for humility in mind let’s consider some of what we might be able to say of the qualities of a resurrected body. Perhaps it is well that we start with the most thorough passage in the New Testament on this subject and then list the traditional seven qualities of a resurrected body.
St. Paul writes of the resurrected body in First Corinthians 15:
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body…..The splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another……The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man…..Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”(1 Cor 15:35-55 selectae).
Now using this passage and others we can distinguish seven traditional qualities of a resurrected body. Here we will allow our source to be the Summa of St. Thomas. You can click on each quality (in blue) to read more a the NewAdvent Summa online.
1. Identity – What this means essentially is that the very same body that falls in death will rise to be glorified. We cannot claim that we will get a different body, but rather, that our current body will rise and be glorified. St. Thomas says, For we cannot call it resurrection unless the soul return to the same body, since resurrection is a second rising, and the same thing rises that falls: wherefore resurrection regards the body which after death falls rather than the soul which after death lives. And consequently if it be not the same body which the soul resumes, it will not be a resurrection, but rather the assuming of a new body (Supl, Q 79.1).
This does not mean that the body will necessarily be identical in every way. As St. Paul says above, are current bodies are like the seed. And just as a seed does not have all the qualities of the mature plant, but does have all these qualities in seed form. So too our body is linked to our resurrected body causally and essentially though not all the qualities of the resurrected body are currently operative. Again, the Summa states: A comparison does not apply to every particular, but to some. For in the sowing of grain, the grain sown and the grain that is born thereof are neither identical, nor of the same condition, since it was first sown without a husk, yet is born with one: and the body will rise again identically the same, but of a different condition, since it was mortal and will rise in immortality. (Ibid).
Scripture attests that the same body that dies will also rise. Job said, And after my flesh has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another (Job 19:26-27). And to the Apostles, shocked at his resurrection Jesus said, Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have (Luke 24:39).
Hence the same body rises and so there is continuity. But there is also development and a shining forth of a new glory and capabilities that our bodies do not currently enjoy.
2. Integrity– We will retain all of the parts of our current bodies. Now this means every physical part of our body, even the less noble parts such as intestines etc. In the Gospel Jesus plainly ate even after the resurrection. He ate a fish before them (Luke 24:43). He also ate with the Disciples in Emmaus (Luke 24:30). He ate breakfast with them at the lake shore (Jn 21:12). Hence it follows that even less noble parts of our body will rise for eating and digestion are still functions of a resurrected body. Now Thomas argues (I think rightly) that food will not be necessary to the resurrected body (supl 81.4). But it is clearly possible to eat, for Christ demonstrates it.
St. Thomas reasons that every aspect of our bodies will rise since the soul is the form of the body. That is, the body has the faculties it has due to some aspect of the soul. The soul has something to say and hence the body has the capacity to talk and write and engage in other forms of communication. The soul has the capacity to do detailed work and hence the body has complex faculties such as delicate and nimble fingers, arms and so forth, to carry out this work. Now body is thus apt for the capacities of the soul, though now imperfectly, but then even more perfectly. (cf Summa supl. Q. 80.1).
At some level it seems we have to suspend our speculation and keep it within limits. The Summa goes into matters which I think are highly speculative and you can click on the blue word integrity above to read these speculations. But personally I think we should refrain from trying ask questions about whether hair and nails will grow and what bodily fluids will still be necessary and why. Will latrines be needed in heaven or will food be perfectly absorbed and nothing wasted? etc. We just have to stop at a certain point and say we just have no business knowing this stuff and it is purely speculative to discuss it. The bottom line is that, yes the Body shall rise, whole and complete. Its functions will be perfected and perfectly apt for the soul in a way beyond what they are now. But as to the intimate details, we ought to realize that humilty is the best posture.
3. Quality – Our bodies will be youthful and will retain our original gender. Now youthful here does not necessarily mean 18-22. Note that in the Philippians text that began this post, Paul says that our glorified bodies will be conformed to Christ’s glorified body. Now his body rose at approximately 30 – 33 of physical age. Elsewhere St. Paul exhorts Christians to persevere, Until we all meet into the unity of faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the age of the fulness of Christ (Eph 4:13). Hence it would seem that Christ’s resurrected body is the perfect age.
St Augustine also speculates, that Christ rose again of youthful age,….about the age of thirty years. Therefore others also will rise again of a youthful age (cf De Civ. Dei xxii).
St. Thomas further notes: Man will rise again without any defect of human nature, because as God founded human nature without a defect, even so will He restore it without defect. Now human nature has a twofold defect. First, because it has not yet attained to its ultimate perfection. Secondly, because it has already gone back from its ultimate perfection. The first defect is found in children, the second in the aged: and consequently in each of these human nature will be brought by the resurrection to the state of its ultimate perfection which is in the youthful age, at which the movement of growth terminates, and from which the movement of decrease begins. (Supl Q. 81.1)
Further, since gender is part of human perfection, it will pertain to all to rise according to the gender we are now. Other qualities such as height, hair color and other such diverse things will also be retained, it would seem, since this diversity is part of man’s perfection.
Here too we have to realize that merely picturing Jesus as a 33 year old guy is not sufficient. All the resurrection appearances make it clear that his appearance was somehow changed, though also recognizable, and this is a mystery. Further the heavenly description of Jesus is far from simple to decode in manners of age and appearance:
and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. (Rev 1:12-18)
Hence we must avoid over-simplifications when it comes to speaking of how our resurrected bodies will appear. We cannot simply project current human realities into heaven and think we understand what a resurrected body will look like in terms of age, stature, and other physical qualities. They are there but they are transposed to a higher level.
4. Impassability – We will be immune from death and pain. Scripture states this clearly: The dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. (1 Cor 15:52-53). And again, He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:4). Thomas goes on at some length and you can click on the blue word impassibility to read more. But for here let the scriptural reference suffice
5. Subtlety – Our bodies will be free from the things that restrain them now. Subtlety refers to the capacity of the resurrected body to be completely conformed to the capacities of the soul. St Thomas says of this quality, the term “subtlety” has been transferred to those bodies which are most perfectly subject to their form, and are most fully perfected thereby….For just as a subtle thing is said to be penetrative, for the reason that it reaches to the inmost part of a thing, so is an intellect said to be subtle because it reaches to the insight of the intrinsic principles and the hidden natural properties of a thing. In like manner a person is said to have subtle sight, because he is able to perceive by sight things of the smallest size: and the same applies to the other senses. Accordingly people have differed by ascribing subtlety to the glorified bodies in different ways. (Supl. Q. 83.1)
In other words, the Body is perfected because the soul is. And the body is now fully conformed to the soul. Currently in my lowly body, I may wish to go to Vienna, Austria in a few moments to hear an opera, but my body cannot pull that off. It does not currently pertain to my body to be able to instantly be somewhere else on the planet. I have to take time to get there and exert effort. However it will be noticed that Jesus could appear and disappear in a room despite the closed doors. Although, before his resurrection he had to take long physical journeys, now he can simply be where he wants (cf John 19:20, 26). This quality is very closely related to agility which we consider next.
6. Agility – We will have complete freedom of movement, our souls will direct our bodies without hindrance. St Thomas says, The glorified body will be altogether subject to the glorified soul, so that not only will there be nothing in it to resist the will of the spirit…..from the glorified soul there will flow into the body a certain perfection, whereby it will become adapted to that subjection: …Now the soul is united to body not only as its form, but also as its mover; and in both ways the glorified body must be most perfectly subject to the glorified soul. We have already referred to the capacity of Jesus’ in his glorified body to anywhere at once and not be hindered by locked doors etc. Consider too these description of the agility of the resurrected body:
As they [on the road to Emmaus] talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; (Luke 24:15)
Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus, and he disappeared from their sight. (Luke 24:31)
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, Peace be with you (Luke 24:36)
7. Clarity – The glory of our souls will be visible in our bodies. We will be beautiful and radiant. It is written in the Scriptures “The just shall shine as the sun in the kingdom of their Father,” (Matthew 13:43) . And again: “The just shall shine, and shall run to and fro like sparks among the reeds.” (Wisdom 3:7). And again, The body in sown in dishonor, it shall rise in glory. (1 Cor 15:43).
So, rejoice! The Lord is going to take these lowly bodies of our and change them to conform with his own body. We’re going to upgrade to an improved model to be sure. And in your glorified body you won’t have to take all this time to read this post, you’ll just know it. A long post to be sure. I am posting it in PDF form as well in case you want to print it our and read it. You can get it here: What Will Our Resurrected Bodies Be Like
Many fine histories exist on the life of St. Francis and I would not need to replicate them here. But on this Feast of St. Francis it might be significant for us to reflect on a few lessons from his life.
1. On the possibility of radical conversion and the role of affliction and humiliation – St. Francis had lived and experienced the life of great wealth. The son of a successful cloth merchant, he enjoyed a very affluent easy life growing up and partook of the permissiveness of the times. He was a natural leader and drew to himself a crowd of young people who spent their nights in wild parties. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, said of him that him that, “He attracted to himself a whole retinue of young people addicted to evil and accustomed to vice.” He had visions of grandeur and became a knight. Perhaps the horrors of battle and a year as a prisoner of war began a gradual conversion in him. The Fourth Crusade was called in 1205 and Francis impulsively bought new armor and sallied forth. But perhaps his own anxiety, and more surely a vision, wherein God rebuked his manner of life, led him to turn back. At home he was derided as a coward and suffered great wrath from his earthly father.
This crisis in his life led ultimately to his conversion, and a dramatic one at that. The Book of Psalms says, Before I was afflicted I strayed. But now I have kept your word, O Lord (Psalm 119:67). We all know people whose conversion seems unlikely. But God may yet humble them and draw them to conversion. Further, we ought never underestimate the fact that affliction and humiliation may be a necessary component of conversion for many of us. At times we may feel as though God has abandoned us, or others we love. In fact he may be doing some very important work. Our greatest enemy is pride and our best friend is humility. Humility and affliction may be gifts in strange packages. Learn to trust in God’s ways, painful though they may be, sometimes. God may be drawing us, and those we love, to deeper conversion.
2. On the freedom of poverty and simplicity – Francis and his early companions embraced a life of radical poverty. So severe was this poverty that some thought them mad and rebuked their ways as beyond rational. St. Francis responded, If we had any possessions we should need weapons and laws to defend them. One hagiographer says, Possessing something was the death of love for Francis. Also, Francis reasoned, what could you do to a man who owns nothing? You can’t starve a fasting man, you can’t steal from someone who has no money, you can’t ruin someone who hates prestige. They were truly free.  Not all of us may be able to embrace this radical poverty due to our obligations to others. But, more and more, we ought to experience a growing simplicity of life that frees us from the power of this world. Poverty and simplicity are powerful and fruitful gifts of God. Once again, they are gifts in strange packages. But, if we can learn to embrace them, we discover greater freedom.
3. On the Love of God’s Church and how reform is best accomplished – During St. Francis’ lifetime the Church was in need of reform. Greed, worldliness and scandal were problems among clergy and laity as well. Heresies were abundant. Some, noting sin in the Church have chosen to hate the Church and leave her. But others, like Francis, hear the call of God, who never ceases to love His Church, and they, themselves, intensify their love for the Church and work for her reform. In a vision, St. Francis sensed the call from God: “Francis, Repair my Church.” Gradually he deepened his understanding of the Lord’s call and began that reform by seeing first to his very own life.
It is possible for critics of the Church to excoriate the sins of others, but not see their own. Francis began in the vineyard of his own life and then went forth gently preaching conversion by personal example to his neighbors. The movement for reform spread. It was grassroots, it was personal. True reform begins with me. Simply denouncing the sins of others or the Church, real though these sins may be, seldom has lasting effect. The best reform starts with personal conversion. Personal conversion spreads to others, and reform is underway. Within 10 years there were over 5,000 men in Francis’ community and the Poor Clares were also well underway. It works. If I let God set me on fire, then I can spread that fire.
4. On unity with all creation and the gift of wonder and awe -St. Francis thought of nature, all God’s creation, as part of his brotherhood. In some sense, the sparrow was as much his brother as the Pope.
There is a radical tendency today, in some of the environmental movement, that sees man as the enemy of the natural world, rather than an integral part of it. We can tend to see ourselves as outsiders of the natural world, rather than partakers and members of it. But for St. Francis there was brotherhood. And in brotherhood there are legitimate needs we supply one another. Nature supplies us and we in turn help to perfect nature. We have done this in our best moments by helping to increase the yield of our fields and bring far greater bounty to the earth by agriculture and animal husbandry. We also seek to master disease and push back the destructive boundaries of what is unruly in nature, such as infestations and the like. It is true we have often transgressed by unnecessary pollution and the like. But in the end we are not the enemies of nature, we are companions and brethren to the natural world.
St. Francis can help us to find this balance. He surely exhibited a sense of gratitude for God’s creation and a deep wonder and awe at all that God has given. We too ought to develop a deep appreciation for the beauty of God’s work and reverence our very selves as a part of that creation. In the first video below is a meditation based on the poem and prayer of St. Francis known as the Canticle of the Sun, his meditation on the magnificence of creation.
5. On the Need to Evangelize the Muslim World – We may think that the struggle with the Muslim world is new. It is not. In his life, St Francis decided to go to Syria to convert the Moslems while the Fifth Crusade was being fought. In the middle of a battle, Francis decided to do the simplest thing and go straight to the sultan to make peace. He and his companion were captured and Francis was taken to the sultan, Melek-el-Kamel. Francis challenged the Muslim scholars to a test of true religion by fire; but they refused. Francis proposed to enter the fire first, under the condition that if he left the fire unharmed, the sultan would have to recognize Christ as true God. The offer was turned down but the sultan was so impressed that he allowed Francis to preach to his subjects. Though Francis did not succeed in converting the sultan, the last words of the sultan to Francis of Assisi were, Pray for me that God may deign to reveal to me that law and faith which is most pleasing to him. This work of Francis and his attempted rapprochement with the Muslim world had far-reaching consequences, long past his own death, since after the fall of the Crusader Kingdom, it would be the Franciscans, of all Catholics, who would be allowed to stay on in the Holy Land and be recognized as “Custodians of the Holy Land” on behalf of Christianity. 
In times like these, when extremist forms of Islam have emerged, we need, more than ever to have the courage of St. Francis to engage the Islamic world and seek to bring them to Christ. It may be difficult work and successes may be few at this stage. But God calls us to be faithful, not successful. Ultimate success is up to God. We who are Catholics have a special role in this evangelization since the Muslim world shares with us a respect for Mary, Mother of Jesus our Lord. More on that in a future post.
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
Spetember 16th is the feast of St. Cyprian and, since he is an important witness to the truth of the Catholic faith from antiquity, I want to present a few of his teachings below. Perhaps first just a short account of his life.
He was born to a rich, noble family about the year 210 A.D. His full name was Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus. Raised in a pagan family he would not convert to the faith until his mid thirties. He attended the finest schools and became a master of Rhetoric. He then took up a career in law. He, like many of his elevated social class, enjoyed a comfortable life without career worries and filled with the luxuries and pleasures of that his high social rank afforded.
We do not know that the exact time or manner of his conversion but it is clear from his writings that he became increasingly besieged by a feeling of emptiness and a hidden desperation. His own riches seemed burdensome and whatever pleasures they offered were empty. More and more he was disillusioned with the immorality of his age. He wrote sadly not only of the sexual immorality of his day but also of the horrible violence displayed in the arena and on the stage where the death of gladiators was entertainment for the crowds. He lamented the injustice and bribery in the courts where “justice” often went to the highest bidder. And then there was the neglect of the poor.
Cyprian had been introduced to the teachings of the Christian faith by Cecilanus, an elder in the Christian community of Carthage. He took instructions and was baptized on April 18, 246 at the Easter vigil. He was now thirty-six years old and newly baptized. On year later he was ordained a priest.
In 248 A.D. Donatus, the Bishop of Carthage died. It was the practice of the early Church in many parts of the ancient world to permit the members of the local Church to present a man for the office of Bishop. And so it was that after the burial of Donatus, a groundswell began that would lift Cyprian to the office of Bishop.
He proved a good administrator and was a prolific writer of many letters and treatises. Through these he provides an important glimpse into the beliefs and practices of the early Church.
He was exiled twice and eventually martyred on September 14, 258. I have placed an account of his martyrdom here: The Martyrdom of St Cyprian
That the early Church was Catholic in her beliefs and practices is clear from reading the Fathers of the Church, of whom Cyprian is one. I present here a brief listing of some of his teachings that emphasize the Catholicity of the early Church. It is clear that things such as Confession, Holy Communion, Church authority and unity were all established at this time and that those who disputed them were departed from the received apostolic and Catholic faith. As these debates continue today it is good to have a voice from antiquity so clearly rebuke the common errors of today:
TEACHINGS OF NOTE AFFIRMING THE ANCIENT BELEIF OF CATHOLIC TEACHING:
That the Church was both founded and intended by Christ as a necessary means of salvation and that those who wilfully depart from the Church thus sin against the unity willed by Christ. If someone does not hold to this unity of the Church can he imagine that he still holds the faith?…He cannot have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his mother. If anyone outside the ark of Noah was able to escape, then perhaps someone outside the pale of the Church may escape….Does anyone believe that in the Church this unity, which proceeds from the divine stability and which is welded together after heavenly patterns can be divided and can be separated by the parting asunder of opposing wills? Whoever holds not fast to this unity holds not to the law of God…(The Unity of the Catholic Church 4,6) Letter of Cyprian to All His People,” 43)
That unity with the successor to St. Peter, the Pope, was an essential ingredient and expression of Church unity.The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you, you are rock and upon this rock I will build my Church…and to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatever things you bind on earth will be bound also in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth they shall be loosed also in heaven.’ (Mt 16:18-19). It is on one man that He builds the Church and although he assigns like powers to all the apostles after His resurrection ….nevertheless, in order that unity might be clearly shown, He established by His own authority a source for that unity which takes its beginning from one man alone. A primacy is given to Peter whereby it is clear that there is but one Church and one chair (“The Unity of the Catholic Church,” 4).
On the fact that there is one established faith and one altar around which ae are to gather: There is one God, and one Christ, and one Church and one chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord. It is not possible to set up another altar or for there to be another priesthood besides that one altar and that one priesthood. Whoever has gathered elsewhere is scattering. (“Letter of Cyprian to All His People,” 43)
On the Confession of Sins to the Priests – St. Cyprian clearly taught that sins, especially serious sins, must be brought to the clergy for there to be reconciliation. His teachings in this regard are significant since they provide important evidence that the Sacrament of Confession was celebrated in the earliest days of the Church. St. Cyprian was bishop in the middle part of the Third Century. This means that by the middle 200’s A.D. confession was an expected remedy for serious sins. It is also interesting that Cyprian does not give lengthy explanations or defenses in requiring this practice of sinners under his care. This provides additional evidence that the practice of confession of sins to the clergy was an accepted or at least normative part of Church life that had been received from the earliest days. Here are some references to confession in St. Cyprian’s writings:
Finally, of how much greater faith and more salutary fear are those who…confess to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. Thus they remove the weight from their souls and seek the saving remedy for their wounds, however small and slight they be…I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned, confess his sin while he is still in the world, while his confession is still admissible, while satisfaction and remission made through the priests are pleasing before the Lord. (“The Lapsed,” 28).
We [i.e. the Bishops of North Africa] think that no one should be held back from the fruit of satisfaction…We know by our faith in the Divine Scriptures, of which God Himself is the author and initiator, both that sinners are brought back to repentance and that pardon and forgiveness are not denied the penitent. Inasmuch as the Lord is merciful and kind, we find that none of those imploring and entreating his mercy should be prohibited from doing penance, then peace is able to be extended through His priests. (“Letter to Bishop Antonianus,” 55).
On the need to receive Communion worthily– The anxious cares of my office and the fear of God leave me no choice but to send you…words of admonishment…Certain priests behave, without a thought or fear of God or respect for their bishop…They acting contrary to the law of the gospel…before penance has been done, before confession of the most serious and grievous of sins has been made, before there has been the imposition of hands by the bishop and clergy in reconciliation, they have the audacity to make the offering on their behalf and give them the Eucharist, that is to say, to profane the sacred body of the Lord. And this in spite of the words of Scripture: “He who has eaten the bread or drunk the cup of the Lord unworthily, will be guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord.” (1 Cor 11:27) – (Letter 15 of Cyprian to the Martyrs and Confessors).
On the Necessity of frequently and worthily receiving Holy Communion – As the prayer [Our Father] continues we ask and say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We ask that this bread be given us daily, so that we who are in Christ and daily receive the Eucharist as the food of salvation may not, by falling into some more grievous sin and then, in abstaining from communion, be withheld from the heavenly Bread, and be separated from Christ’s Body…He Himself warns us saying, “Unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, You shall not have life in you” (Jn 6:54). Therefore we ask that our Bread, which is Christ, be given us daily that we who abide and live in Christ, may not withdraw from His sanctification and from His Body. (Treatise on the Our Father, 18)
On the necessity of Baptism and why infants should be baptized – As far as concerns the case of infants you [Fidus] expressed your view that they ought not be baptized within the second or third day after their birth; rather, that the ancient law on circumcision ought to be respected and you therefore concluded that the newly-born should not be baptized and sanctified before the eighth day. Our Council [of African Bishops] adopted an entirely different conclusion. No one agreed with your opinion on the matter; instead without exception, we all formed the judgement that it is not right to deny the mercy and the grace of God to any one that is born….We must do everything we possibly can to prevent the destruction of any soul….For just as God draws no distinction between persons, so neither does He between ages, but shows Himself Father equally to all, being evenhanded in the distribution of His heavenly graces….In our view no one is to be prevented from obtaining grace…Rather, every one without exception, has the right to be admitted to the grace of Christ. We ought not be the cause for debarring anyone from access to baptism and the grace of God for He is merciful, kind, and loving towards all men. And whilst this is a rule that ought to be observed and maintained concerning the whole of mankind, it is our view that it is to be observed most particularly in the case of newborn infants; they have all the more claim upon our assistance and God’s mercy for the reason that, right from the very first moment they are born, in their crying and wailing they are doing nothing else but imploring our help (Letter 64 to Fidus, 2,3,5).
On the Power of Grace to Transform – St. Cyprian taught emphatically on the power of God’s grace to effect dramatic change in one’s life. This he did not so much by a long discourse as in a vivid description of his own experience of what God did for him. In this testimony written in 247 A.D. he describes first his condition before baptism and then turns to a beautiful description of the glorious freedom of the children of God. And I myself was bound fast, held by so many errors of my past life, from which I did not believe I could extricate myself. I was disposed therefore to yield to my clinging vices; and, despairing of better ways, I indulged my sins…But afterwards, when the stain of my past life had been washed away by means of the waters of rebirth, a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and now pure heart; afterwards, through the Spirit which is breathed from heaven, a second birth made of me a new man. And then in marvelous manner, doubts immediately clarified themselves, the closed opened…and what had been thought impossible was able to be done(Letter to Donatus, 4).
Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Monica, mother of Augustine and Patroness of all mothers who storm heaven on behalf of their sons and daughters. Monica was born in 332 in Thagaste, North Africa. She was born into a Christian home and practiced her faith seriously. She had a particular devotion to the martyrs who lives were a source of strength for the Christians of her day.
In re-reading the life of Monica, I was struck by a quote of Augustine in the Confessions. Augustine writes “She did not die sadly nor did she die completely” (IX, 12). What a pithy way to get at the heart of the Christian experience of dying. Death is not the end of the story for those who love God. It seems to me from reading of Monica’s life that she seemed rather peaceful and confident in facing death. I think it was her devotion to the Eucharist that prepared her for death. It is in every celebration of the Eucharist that the church on earth and the church in heaven are united in praise of God (loosely quoted from the Catechism). So, while dying with the finality that marks the end of life on earth, it is in this very death that the seeds of new life begin. They are seeds that have been planted in the way in which we live. Augustine prays.
But you, O God of mercy, would not despise the contrite and humble heart of that chaste and pious widow, so generous in giving alms, so prompt in serving Your saints, who never let a day pass without assisting at the sacrifice of Your altar, and came twice daily, morning and evening without fail, to Your church…that she might hear You in your preaching and You her in her prayers. (Confessions, V, 19).
Perhaps the best way we can celebrate the feast of St. Monica is to pray for and if possible, call or visit our mothers, who in many cases are our first and most influential teachers of the faith!
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.
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 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 that the martyrs even to this day were willing to suffer death but many 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! And never forget the cost of the faith handed on to us.
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.