Posts Tagged ‘Saints’

Welcome to the Arena

Saturday, June 10th, 2017

[I had the honor of being invited to address the graduates of The Montfort Academy. This high school is a gem — a truly, entusiastically and unapologetically Catholic school that focuses on classical learning and guiding the personal and spiritual growth of their students. May God bless those grads and the faculty and staff of Montfort. This is the text of my address.]

I would like to thank the faculty and staff of the Montfort Academy for inviting me to speak to the graduating class today. It is an honor to be able to participate in this great enterprise of Catholic education.

We all know that high school graduation is a significant milestone in our lives. No matter how old we are, we probably remember our own graduation very clearly. We tend to look at it as the dawn of adulthood and our entry into the world at large. I hope and trust that your school and family have been safe and nurturing environments, in which you were respected and valued. Unfortunately, I have to tell something that you probably know already — you are stepping into a world that is not like that at all.

Welcome to the arena. I use the word “arena” very deliberately. It has particular significance to us Christians, calling to mind the early martyrs and confessors, heroes in the face of the hostility of the world. They were people of great courage and virtue. I also use the word “virtue” deliberately, because I know that your classical education has been deeply immersed in the development of virtue. So you have an excellent foundation for the challenges that lie ahead.

That’s good, because the arena is a tough place. Our modern world is very hostile to the message of the Gospel and to those who bring it. We see it every day in the news. Threats to religious liberties by our government; open hatred and contempt towards our faith and our Church in the media, and probably in most of the universities that you will be attending; threats to human life at the beginning, end and every point in between; attacks on the very meaning of what it is to be a man and a woman; and when we look beyond our borders, bloody persecutions in other lands. Powerful forces in our culture want people of faith to sit down, shut up, and leave their faith at home in private. And they are using the force of law and social pressure to make sure that we either conform to their views or we pay the price.

We have to be clear, though, that our battle is not just with the forces of the world — governments, media, entertainment, etc. It is a spiritual struggle as well. In fact, this is the most serious and difficult part of being in the arena. As St. Paul said, “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but… with the evil spirits in the heavens.” (Ephesians 6:12) We cannot opt out of this spiritual battle. And we are called to choose whose banner we will follow – God’s or His Enemy’s.

Make no mistake, once you step into the arena, you’ll will feel it in your heart and soul – because that’s where the real battle is taking place. I recall once being in the State Capitol, going to a meeting with a high-ranking and hostile legislator about an abortion bill. I could feel the sense of opposition as I went to the meeting, as if I was walking into a strong headwind or swimming upstream. Just the other day, a colleague and I were at a conference run by assisted suicide advocates, and we could feel the evil in the room. In times like these we really need to listen to St. Paul’s advice, and draw our strength from the Lord and from his mighty power, and put on the armor of God so that we can stand firm against the Evil One (see Ephesians 6:10-11).

In the face of all these challenges, the worst mistake we could make would be to huddle together in small communities with only people who think like ourselves, and hope that someday somhow things will get better in the outside world. No. That’s a response of despair and defeat. Too much is at stake to do that.

We are called to build the kind of society that God wants us to live in. And so we need to arm ourselves with certain virtues that I’d like to talk about.

To illustrate this, I’ll call on the example of two of my favorite people from history – George Washington and Joan of Arc. Two soldiers who fought for great causes against overwhelming odds in a hostile world. They have a lot to teach us about how to fight our fight.

First and foremost, they had the virtue of trust in God.

I think of George Washington on Christmas Eve 1776. His army had suffered a series of defeats by the most powerful army in the world. He faced the likelihood of his army melting away. It would have been easy to think that defeat was inevitable. But Washington had absolute confidence that God supported what he called “the Glorious Cause”. As he put it once in a letter, “as far as the strength of our reason and religion can carry us, a cheerful acquiescence to the Divine Will, is what we are to aim at”. With that attitude, he trusted in Providence and went on the attack, turning the tide of the war at the Battle of Trenton, and saving the cause of independence.

Think also of Joan of Arc in 1429. Her homeland was torn and devastated by civil war and foreign invasion. She had been receiving private revelations for years from St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret. They had assured her that God had a special plan for her, and she believed them. But it was an astounding plan – God wanted this illiterate peasant girl, perhaps 17 years old, with no military experience at all, to lead the French Army to victory and make sure that the king was crowned and anointed with sacred oil. If ever there was something to scoff at, that was it. Imagine if one of you ladies went to the Pentagon and said that God had sent you to win our wars. But Joan never doubted, she trusted God. She pursued her mission with passion and tenacity, overcoming all skeptics and opponents and obstacles. She achieved a remarkable series of victories in battle, and she stood beside the king as he was crowned and anointed, just as God had promised.

We need trust in God in our struggles today. Don’t ever forget that God has a specific design and plan for each one of you. He has a design and plan for our nation. God cares what we do, how we live, what our laws are, how we are governed. Discerning His plan is difficult, but when we understand what it is, we must hold firm to it and place our trust in Him.

The second virtue is a purity of heart. By this, I don’t mean the theological virtue of detachment from sin (which we all need). I mean a kind of selflessness and humility that puts other people and the cause ahead of our own self-interest.

Whenever Washington was asked to assume a new office he spoke of his sense of unworthiness, and his fear of disappointing those who were entrusting him with his duties. At the end of the Revolutionary War, and again at the end of his second presidential term, Washington didn’t seize ultimate power, as many victorious military leaders have done. Instead, he put the nation above himself, and he gladly returned to private life. When hearing that Washington might retire voluntarily, King George said that “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world!”  But so he did, and so he was.

Joan, too, was a great example of this virtue. Having come from poverty, she never asked for riches or titles or honors. Her greatest wish was to complete her mission and then return home to her parents. Surrounded by ambitious and conniving courtiers, she stood out for her simplicity and lack of egotism. Serving God was the entire purpose of her mission and her life, not personal glory. As a sign of this, she wore only one piece of jewelry, a simple gold ring, a gift from her mother, with the plain engraving of the names of Jesus and Mary. That was enough honor for her. At the trial that led to her unjust execution, Joan offered a statement that sums up her purity of heart: “I came from God. There is nothing more for me to do here! Send me back to God, from Whom I came!”

Purity of heart is essential for our leaders and for the success of our cause.
But it is in short supply. Think of the public figures who revel in their celebrity status or constantly resort to bragging or self-advancement. That erodes trust and breeds suspicion and cynicism. It also encourages division in our ranks. We need purity of heart to stay strong and united. As the Bible says, One person standing alone can be overcome, two together can resist, but a cord of three strands is hard to break. (Ecc 4:12)

The final virtue is boldness. This is a form of courage, but it’s more than that. It’s a sense of freedom and honesty, being able to act on one’s deepest beliefs, unrestrained by fear or self-consciousness, certain of the truth and justice and inevitable triumph of one’s cause.

Washington repeatedly showed boldness in battle, both in his personal conduct and in his strategy. Several times he exposed himself to enemy fire in order to rally his soldiers. On that Christmas Eve in 1776 when all hope seemed lost, he led his men on an impossible venture – crossing a frozen river and marching through a blizzard to surprise and defeat the enemy at Trenton. A bold stroke, and a decisive one.

Joan’s boldness was legendary. She took a defeated, disheartened and demoralized French army and galvanized it into action. She rejected counsels of caution and attacked the enemy directly and decisively. She led her troops from the front of every battle, with her standard in her hand. When things were going badly she refused to retreat, but rallied the troops and attacked again. When asked if she was afraid, she said: “I fear nothing for God is with me!” Old hardened soldiers, with years of battle experience, willingly followed this young girl – they followed her up the battlements and they would have followed her anywhere. So would I.

Every generation faces its own battles. Washington and Joan fought for freedom and justice for their nations, against steep odds. The battle we face is similar, and just as daunting. We are in a struggle to define our culture and our nation, to determine what kind of people we are, and how we are going to live together. We defend human life at every stage against what the Holy Father calls a “throwaway culture” that would just get rid of inconvenient lives. We stand for authentic masculinity and femininity, and the truth about human love and sexuality. We stand up and fight for poor, powerless, sick and suffering people in a culture that would rather avert its gaze and ignore them. We speak the truth of God’s will in a culture that rejects the very idea of truth.

Pope Francis once said: “Even today the message of the Church is the message of the path of boldness, the path of Christian courage… [and] the path of Christian courage is a grace given by the Holy Spirit.” So when we step out into the arena, we are not alone. We stand with the Holy Spirit, with Our Blessed Mother, our guardian angels, the heavenly hosts and the communion of saints. With them, we can truly say with the Psalm, “The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts” (Psalm 28:7). We can also hold on to the words of Jesus: “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (Jn 16:33)

This is a difficult time. But this is a time for trust in God. This is a time for purity of heart. This is a time for boldness. This is a time for heroes. This is a time for you.

Welcome to the Arena. Congratulations and God bless.

A Holy Warrior for Our Time

Saturday, May 30th, 2015

Today is the feast day of my favorite saint — she called herself Jeanne the Maid (“Jehanne la Pucelle”), but we know her better as Joan of Arc.  She was a beautiful person, simple, devout and strong.  She rose from utter obscurity to accomplish one of the most remarkable feats in human history.  Just consider it — a seventeen-year-old girl, with no military experience whatsoever, leading the army of a defeated and demoralized nation to impossible victories.  Biographers to this day — even cynics like like Mark Twain — find her to be one of the most remarkable people who has ever lived.

But her military and political accomplishments aren’t the most important thing about her, even though they remain astonishing and unmatched in history.  Her entire mission was not intended to glorify herself, but in humble obedience to the will of God, communicated to her through visions of Sts. Michael, Catherine, and Margaret.  She never wanted anything more than to return to her humble home, yet she obeyed God and set aside her own desires to wage war to bring peace and justice to her homeland.

The price she paid for this devotion was appalling.  After all her triumphs, she was betrayed by the same king whom she raised to the throne, abandoned by her comrades in arms, persecuted by hard-hearted enemies and corrupt Churchmen, and cruelly put to death in one of the most painful ways imaginable.

Jeanne’s beauty of soul and her sterling faith shone through, even in battle and even in the darkest days of her cruelly unfair trial.  Here is what she said at the trial, when asked about who carried her standard (i.e., her flag): “It was I who carried the aforementioned sign when I charged the enemy. I did so to avoid killing any one. I have never killed a man.”  She wept over the loss of life in battle, strove to minimize it, insisted on sparing prisoners, and comforted dying enemy soldiers.

Jeanne rejected worldly honors, and refused to accept titles for herself.  She never lost sight that serving God was the entire purpose of her mission and her life.   As a sign of this, she wore only one piece of jewelry, a simple gold ring, a gift from her mother, with the plain engraving “+Jhesus+Maria+”. As she was suffering at the stake, she had a cross before her eyes and she died with the name of Jesus on her lips.

She is, in my humble opinion, the most outstanding example of a brave and Christian warrior, whose love of God inspired all that she did, whose nobility of character inspired deep love and devotion among the hardened soldiers who followed her, and whose courage under persecution is a shining beacon of purity and virtue.

Back in 2011, Pope Benedict was presenting reflections on the great female saints at his regular Wednesday address.  One of those he spoke about was Jeanne, and he said this: “Her holiness is a beautiful example for lay people engaged in politics, especially in the most difficult situations. Faith is the light that guides every decision”.

She is a saint for the ages, and she is particularly important for this age.  The Church and people of faith need holy warriors now more than ever.  I feel the strength of Jeanne’s patronage, and if I ever make it to heaven, she will be one of the first saints I seek out.

Jeanne la Pucelle, priez pour nous.

 

Saints and Public Figures

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

On this day in 1535, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester in England and newly-created Cardinal, was judicially murdered by the government of England.  His offense?  He defended the validity of marriage, and the authority of the Church to determine what marriage means.

Today we celebrate his feast day, on an ominous day for marriage and the liberty of the Church here in New York.

John Fisher defended the marriage of Queen Catherine to the tyrant King Henry VIII, who wished to have that union dissolved by the Church.  When the Church refused, Henry persecuted and murdered all those who stood for the validity of the marriage, and for the authority of the Church.  John Fisher stood alone among the English episcopacy — every single other bishop sided with the King and against the Holy See.  Other prominent Englishmen also took the side of the marriage and the Church, and paid the price — most notably, of course, the great St. Thomas More.  St. Thomas, and many other English martyrs for the meaning of marriage and the liberty of the Church, share this feast day, and we humbly pray for their intercession.

As we recall the memory of these great witnesses for the truth, powerful men are in Albany redefining marriage, and threatening the liberty of the Church.  They sit behind closed doors, making a mockery of democracy with secret political deals, not disclosing to the public the language of the bill they will soon foist upon us.  That bill will certainly threaten the liberty of the Church to fulfill her apostolic mission, even as it redefines the family and the nature of every marriage.

A few people stand in their way.  A few brave legislators have resisted the inducements, threats and pressures, and are defending the truth.  Ordinary people of all faiths have sacrificed to go to Albany to give witness to their belief in the sanctity of authentic marriage, and to their fears of religious persecution.  They were met with derisory anti-religious chants.

St. John Fisher and the other English martyrs gave their lives to testify to the divine institution of marriage, and to defend the freedom of the Church established by Christ Himself.

Perhaps some people in Albany will receive special graces today, thanks to their intercession.

St. John Fisher, St. Thomas More, all you English Martyrs, please pray for them, and for us.

Glorious Saint Joan

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Yesterday, at his regular Wednesday address, the Holy Father continued his series of talks about great female saints by commenting on St. Joan of Arc.

Jehanne the Maid, as she called herself, is one of my favorite saints, and I love her dearly.  She was a beautiful person, simple, devout and strong.  She rose from utter obscurity to accomplish one of the most remarkable feats in human history.  Just consider it — a seventeen-year-old girl, with no military experience whatsoever, leading the army of a defeated and demoralized nation to impossible victories.  Biographers to this day — even cynics like like Mark Twain — find her to be astonishing.

She did this not to glorify herself, but in humble obedience to the will of God, communicated to her through visions of Sts. Michael, Catherine, and Margaret.  She never wanted anything more than to return to her humble home, yet she obeyed God and set aside her own desires.

The price she paid for this devotion was appalling.  After all her triumphs, she was betrayed by her own king whom she raised to the throne, persecuted by hard-hearted enemies and corrupt Churchmen, and eventually put to death in one of the most painful ways imaginable.  Of course, the world could not really recognize her, much as the world never recognized Our Lord.  As the Holy Father noted, her judges “were fundamentally unable to understand her, to see the beauty of her soul: they did not know they were condemning a Saint”.

Joan’s beauty of soul shone through, even in battle and even in the darkest days of her cruelly unfair trial.  Here is what she said at the trial, when asked about who carried her standard (i.e., her flag): “It was I who carried the aforementioned sign when I charged the enemy. I did so to avoid killing any one. I have never killed a man.”  She also wept over the loss of life in battle, strove to minimize it, insisted on sparing prisoners, and comforted dying enemy soldiers.

She is, in my humble opinion, an outstanding example of a brave and Christian warrior, whose love of God inspired all that she did, whose nobility of character inspired deep love and devotion among the hardened soldiers who followed her, and whose courage under persecution is a shining beacon of purity and virtue.  I feel the strength of her patronage, and if I ever make it to heaven, she will be one of the first saints I seek out.

Joan rejected worldly honors, and refused to accept titles for herself.  She never lost sight that serving God was the entire purpose of her mission and her life.  As a sign of this, she wore only one piece of jewelry, a simple gold ring, a gift from her mother, with the plain engraving “+Jhesus+Maria+”.

At her trial, Joan offered a statement that sums up her character, and could have been her battle cry:  “I came from God. There is nothing more for me to do here! Send me back to God, from Whom I came!”

The Holy Father Reminds Us of Our Mission

Friday, November 19th, 2010

All too frequently, I get wrapped up in the daily whirlwind of all the things that I think are important.  And all too infrequently, I fail to keep in mind the real priorities of life, and what my true mission is.

Thank God for Pope Benedict, who never fails to make things perfectly clear.  In the introduction to his new document on Sacred Scripture, Verbum Domini, there is a section entitled “That our joy may be complete”, the Holy Father says this:

I encourage all the faithful to renew their personal and communal encounter with Christ, the word of life made visible, and to become his heralds, so that the gift of divine life – communion – can spread ever more fully throughout the world. Indeed, sharing in the life of God, a Trinity of love, is complete joy (cf. 1 Jn 1:4). And it is the Church’s gift and unescapable duty to communicate that joy, born of an encounter with the person of Christ, the Word of God in our midst. In a world which often feels that God is superfluous or extraneous, we confess with Peter that he alone has “the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God, the God who speaks to us and shares his love so that we might have life in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10).  (emphasis added)

In these few simple words, the Holy Father has defined the essence of discipleship, and the path to real happiness.

Thank you, Pope Benedict, for once again making our mission clear.  Now it’s up to me.

Thanks to My Patron Saints

Monday, March 8th, 2010

So, yesterday was my birthday.  And that got me thinking about my patron saints.

If you’re like me, you have lots of favorite saints, and lots of saints who you think are looking out for you and helping you.  That’s one of the best things about being Catholic — a regular, daily awareness of the communion of saints. And also, if you’re like me, you had the good fortune to be born on a day on which the Church honors the memory of particular saints.

I’m old enough to have been born when the old Roman Calendar was still in effect.  As a result, I was born on the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas.  I have received many graces through his intercession, including a keen interest in theology and my middle name.  Thomas led a fascinating life, and he wrote so beautifully and deeply on all aspects of the faith that he has been a great gift to my faith.  I am particularly mindful of one of his final thoughts, after having some kind of mystical experience.  He ceased work on a project, and upon being asked by his secretary why he didn’t finish the work, replied “all that I have written seems like straw to me.”  That’s a good reminder that nothing that we could do in this life could ever stand comparison to the glory of God.  As St. Paul said, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil 3:7-8)

When they reformed the Roman Calendar in the Sixties, they decided to move Thomas’ feast to January 28.  Oddly enough, they chose the day that they “translated his relics” — that is, the day they dug up his body and moved it from one resting place to another.

Although I still have some hard feelings about them taking Thomas from me, I have to say that I lucked out again when the Church restored the ancient feast day of Saints Perpetua and Felicity to their proper day.

If you aren’t familiar with Saints Perpetua and Felicity, you should immediately drop all that you are doing and correct this.  Perpetua, a Roman noblewoman, and her slave Felicity, were martyred in 203 A.D., in Carthage.  Perpetua was nursing her baby when arrested, and Felicity was pregnant. Perpetua’s child was taken from her by her family, but Felicity gave birth while imprisoned and the child was adopted by a Christian family.  Perpetua wrote an account of their ordeals in prison with other Christians — one of the earliest written records by a Christian woman.  The story of their witness to Christ is vivid and moving, and should be required reading for all Christians who want a glimpse into the heroism of our ancestors in faith.

The night before their martyrdom, after having celebrated a “love feast” (the ancient name for the Mass) with her fellow prisoners, Perpetua had a dream about being led to the arena by one of the men who had already been martyred, who beckoned her to come and join them.  In the arena, she was beset by a mighty enemy, but vanquished him and was called to enter the Gate of Life.  Realizing the significance of this dream, she wrote, “I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that mine was the victory”.

The next day, March 7, Perpetua, Felicity and their companions were taken to the arena, whipped, attacked by wild beasts and slain by gladiators.  They have been honored ever since.  As Tertullian said, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians”.

I certainly do not consider myself to be in the intellectual ballpark of Thomas, or anywhere near as courageous as Perpetua and Felicity.  But I feel very close to them, as if they were my friends, but just separated from me for a short time.  Perhaps one day, if their prayers for me are heard, I will meet them, and I can thank them for their help and friendship.