“Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55)
In St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he makes a bold claim: death does not defeat us, death is not the end. Christ’s death has brought resurrection; through God’s grace, eternal life is ours. Death, a consequence of sin, has been conquered by Christ’s sacrifice and triumph. St. Paul encourages the Corinthians to keep death in its rightful place. That is to say, we are not to take death lightly. Mindfulness of our mortality should motivate us to avoid sin and prepare for our final judgement. But we also should not give death power over us to keep us living in fear.
This acknowledgement of death’s rightful place is illustrated beautifully by the celebration of Día de Muertos in the Latino tradition. While this celebration pre-dates the arrival of Christianity to the Americas, the cultural intuition points toward the Gospel truth that the meaning of death, “is revealed in the light of the Paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ in whom resides our only hope” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1681). The people of Mexico and Latin America celebrate this feast, not out of a macabre fascination with death, but out of a whole-hearted belief that our earthly life is not all there is.
Día de Muertos is celebrated primarily on the 2nd of November, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (or All Souls’ Day), but also throughout the entire month.
Altars, or ofrendas, are assembled and decorated with sugar skulls bearing names of the deceased, and pictures of loved ones are displayed. The favorite food and drink of the beloved dead are placed prominently on the altar. Families and friends celebrate at cemeteries by eating tamales and pan de muerto (a sweet bread topped with pieces of dough made to look like bones), drinking atole (a hot drink that is thickened with masa and sweetened), and singing along to the music of mariachi. Elaborately cut tissue paper (called papel picado) and brightly colored marigolds (or zempasuchil) line streets, altars, and gravesites. Candles are burned as the vigil is kept. Limericks, poems, cartoons, and jokes make fun of death. All of this is done to put death in its place, to recognize it for what it truly is, and remind us that death does not have the last word.
While we may still mourn, we place our hope in the Resurrection and look forward to reuniting with our loved ones in eternity. Entrusting them to the mercy of God, we pray that “as our faith in your Son, raised from the dead, is deepened, so may our hope of resurrection for your departed servants also find new strength” (Roman Missal, Collect for the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed).
From the very earliest days of Christianity, we have honored the memory of the dead with the greatest respect and offered prayers for them. The first martyrs’ places of death, burial sites, bodies, and even possessions (relics) were venerated. Churches were built in their honor, and the accounts of their lives, suffering, and death were proclaimed in celebrations.
Similarly, families gather on Día de Muertos and share about their beloved dead, passing on treasured memories to the next generation. They honor their loved ones, celebrate their lives, and pray for the souls of the faithful departed—a spiritual work of mercy.
This commemoration may not take away our pain or grief, but it does invite us to place our hope in the Resurrection and affirm that death has lost its power. “For even dead, we are not at all separated from one another, because we all run the same course and we will find one another again in the same place. We shall never be separated, for we live for Christ, and now we are united with Christ as we go toward him . . . we shall all be together in Christ.” (St. Simeon of Thessalonica, De ordine sepulturæ, as quoted in Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1690). Let us then celebrate today’s feast praising the Lord who “is not God of the dead but of the living” (Mk 12:27).
Tomorrow, we celebrate the birthday of St. Vincent Pallotti, patron of the Catholic Apostolate Center and founder of the Union of Catholic Apostolate. St. Vincent Pallotti was born on April 21, 1795. How appropriate for the saint who lived and worked in the city of Rome to share his birthday with the traditional date for the founding of the city. To help celebrate his birthday, I have put together a list of some of his more interesting achievements and activities during his life. I hope that you too will be inspired by his life.
1) The Baptism of St. Vincent Pallotti
St. Vincent Pallotti was baptized on April 22, 1795 in the St. Lawrence Church in Rome. This began his life in the church.
2) St. Vincent Pallotti on Holiday
On his arrival in Frascati around 1805, St. Vincent Pallotti exchanged his new shoes for that of a poor boy. Giving away his new clothing to the poor would become a lifelong habit for the saint.
3) St. Vincent Pallotti Makes a Prediction
While speaking with the young Giovanni Mastai-Ferretti in 1817, St. Vincent Pallotti predicted that he would one day be elected to the papacy. Mastai-Ferretti was elected Bishop of Rome on June 16, 1846.
4) St. Vincent Pallotti the Professor
St. Vincent Pallotti was awarded two doctoral degrees in both theology and philosophy in 1814 and 1819. Teaching was one of the favorite activities of the saint.
5) St. Vincent Pallotti Showing Courage
During the cholera epidemic of 1837, St. Vincent Pallotti organized a barefoot procession of religious. This action was penitential and showed that they were not afraid of the disease.
6) Catholic Apostolate Received Church Approval
St. Vincent Pallotti received approval for the Catholic Apostolate from the Church in 1835. Pallotti also received support for the Catholic Apostolate from Pope Gregory XVI when others objected to it.
7) St. Vincent Pallotti the Chaplain
Beginning in 1838, St. Vincent Pallotti served as a prison chaplain in Rome. He often worked with the condemned, saving many souls. He had a true willingness to serve all, especially the poor and the marginalized.
8) St. Vincent Pallotti the Peacekeeper
St. Vincent Pallotti stopped a riot in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. He implored the people to stop rioting by showing them an image of Mary, Mother of Divine Love.
9) St. Vincent Pallotti Preaches one Last Time
On the last day of the octave of the Epiphany in 1850, St. Vincent Pallotti gave his final sermon.
10) St. Vincent Pallotti Dies
In 1850, St. Vincent Pallotti gave his final blessing to his followers. He showed great courage even in the face of death.
There are many more stories about St. Vincent Pallotti that you may find interesting. Check out our St. Vincent Pallotti Portal to learn more about our patron and his many works.
This Easter season, I have been thinking a lot about my late brother Tim, who died in an accident seven years ago - at the age of 24 - while serving as an EMT in Indianapolis, IN. Tim’s death, along with the death of his IEMS partner Cody Medley, left all their friends and families at an inestimable loss.
While I never got to meet Cody personally, I have learned that he was an exceptionally driven and talented young person who also served as a fire cadet before becoming a paramedic. Tim’s story is not much different; he was an Eagle Scout and volunteer EMS before going professional and passing his paramedic certification shortly before he died.
In life, Tim achieved success in almost every field. As a teenager he won academic and musical scholarships and posted regular five-minute miles in outdoor and indoor track. He mastered Mandarin and spent an immersion summer in Shanghai. He participated in a service trip to Jamaica and volunteered back home as a “running buddy” alongside students with special needs in Central Park. These successes, paired with his later commitment to the medical profession, truly made him “A Man for Others” – the Jesuit motto of his alma mater, NYC’s Regis High School.
Only looking backwards have I come to appreciate how brilliant Tim was. Perhaps you have a similar person in your family – someone who is so smart that they are intimidating. Tim was fearless in challenging others (especially those in authority) when he thought they were wrong. I have thought of him throughout this entire pandemic. As a first responder, I know that he would be helping wherever help was needed. As the outspoken person he was, I know he would have choice words for those he felt were ignoring public safety protocols. And most of all, as a cuttingly funny person, I know he would help me laugh during this time.
Tim died three days into Lent, on February 16th, 2013. I have remembered him especially during every Lent and Easter since then. This past Lent was perhaps the most difficult yet. Many say that it takes seven years to heal from losing a loved one. The year 2020 marks seven years for all who loved Tim. To me, I felt healing – which also meant letting my guard down to feel fully the pangs of loss I couldn’t afford to feel in 2013.
The coronavirus situation, if nothing else, has clarified the relationship between life and death. We are all vulnerable humans. This can be a scary thought, but also a freeing one.
This can be a time to meditate on life as what it is – a short chance to grow, love, and serve others. We do not know how long the journey will last. I sometimes think that my brother attacked life the way he did because he might have sensed that he had less time than others. He used to wake me up after midnight, for instance, after I had already gone to bed, and say “Come on bro, get up, let’s make some memories.” At the time I thought he had a screw loose. Now I think he was prophetic.
Recently in the Gospel readings, we hear Jesus tell the disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”
These words are a balm to all of us who have experienced loss, or who fear loss during these challenging times. As I read this passage, I am touched by the care and concern Jesus shows for his followers. He is also being quite honest with them and reminding them that they will lose him. The promise of peace is made realer by the reality of loss. This is what I receive from today and feel to be true in my own life.
One year after Tim’s death, on Easter Sunday 2014, my family went to Mass in a church we had never been to before. The previous year had been difficult for everyone. Personally, I had not been taking care of myself mentally, physically, or spiritually. In the prior twelve months, I had not felt anything approaching peace. I was experiencing great fear and having awful panic attacks. That morning, sitting in the pews, waiting for Mass to begin, I suddenly noticed all sound around me fade out. I felt a sensation of all the breath leaving my body – and then my next breath was a slow, purposeful breath that was like drinking cool water in the desert. I was able to begin breathing in a deep and rhythmic way. Over the next few minutes, I felt as if warm light was streaming over me, from the head down. It was a feeling of complete release and relief. Ever since, I’ve been hoping to feel that peace again.
Like my brother, I doubted (and still doubt) aspects of my faith. Tim wrestled to understand people who believe that faith and the intellectual life are incompatible. Being the true original that he was, I think he found it difficult at times to imagine a place in Christianity where he fit in. Yet after his death, I learned that some of Tim’s recent writings and reflections expressed the faith of a mature man who trusted in a loving God. I reflect on his words often as I remember my “kid brother” - who responded to numerous life-or-death situations and treated severe injuries which I would be terrified to walk into. Like everything else, Tim’s faith journey happened at a rate and intensity that most of us will never know.
As Easter moves on and we navigate the new normal that is COVID-19, my spiritual suggestion (for what it’s worth) is this: In your prayers, dreams, and doings, try to let fear and hope co-exist. I will try to do the same. If we can hold those two seemingly irreconcilable opposites, we may find that peace can sprout like a flower right in between our hands.
I would like to begin this monthly recollection talk by stating the reason why I was chosen as the preacher. Owing to the current situation of the Coronavirus pandemic, the preacher chosen for this monthly retreat, Fr. Louis Caruna SJ, Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University (Rome), was unable to come. Incidentally, two weeks ago, I had written - in Polish - an article on Pallotti's commitment during the cholera epidemic in Rome in 1837. The rector of our community had obviously seen it, and had probably read it, so he asked me to develop it a bit more and then deliver it for the recollection. Thus, I now stand as the ‘extra cog’ – a cog as significant as the real cog for any machine, even for the machine called ‘the community.’
The following four texts served as the main sources for my reflection. They are: Francesco Todisco, San Vincenzo Pallotti: Profeta della Spiritualità di Comunione; Francesco Amoroso, San Vincenzo Pallotti: Romano; the ancient but the excellent Dizionario di Erudizione Storico-Ecclesiastica by Gaetano Moroni; and the letters of Pallotti.
The 1830’s, especially the years between 1835 and 1837, were years of great suffering for Europe because of the cholera epidemic, which was then known as the ‘Asian epidemic’ because it had originally come from India (part of today’s Iraq).
In previous centuries, epidemics spread from city to city starting from port cities such as Civitavecchia, Genoa and Naples. The cholera epidemic began differently when it reached some Baltic countries, such as Poland, as early as 1831. Then in 1832 the epidemic reached England; in 1833 it was brought to Ireland, Portugal and the Netherlands. It then spread to France in 1835. As the epidemic was spreading, it left behind a long trail of death (Moroni, 233-243).
The spread of the disease was quick. In Italy, the first epidemic deaths occurred on September 13th, 1835. As a preventive measure to preserve the Eternal City from the disease, Pope Gregory XVI ordered, without any delay, the exposition of the most distinguished Christian relics for the common veneration in the churches where they were present. Here I want to specify the relics considered to be important for common veneration both in times of solemn and difficult occasions in 19th century Rome. These details are taken from Moroni’s book (Dizionario di Erudizione Storico-Ecclesiastica). They were:
· The skulls of the apostles Peter and Paul in the Lateran Basilica;
· The holy face of Veronica and the finger of St. Peter in the Vatican Basilica;
· The body of St. Pius V in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major;
· The Wood of the Cross and the Thorn of the Crown in the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem;
· The scourging pillar in the minor Basilica of St. Praxedes (Basilica di San Prassede);
· Two celebrated crucifixes – one in St. Lawrence in Damaso (a minor basilica) and the other in the church of St. Marcello al Corso;
· The imprisonment chains of Sts. Peter and Paul in the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains;
· The arm of St. Roch, the protector against the plague in the church of St. Roch in Lungotevere, Ripetta;
· The arm of St. Francis Xavier in the church of Gesù (the mother church of the Society of Jesus);
· The bones of St. Sebastian in the minor basilica of St. Andrew of the Valley (San Andrea della Valle).
Pope Gregory XVI also ordered the celebration of an extraordinary novena to be held from August 6th-15th, 1835 in all the fifteen churches dedicated to Mary [in Rome] in preparation for the feast of the Assumption of Mary,
By July 31st, 1835 the Cardinal Vicar Odescalchi had published a decree L’invito Sacro (The Holy Call), which was fixed on the doors of all the churches. However, this document does not have much in common with the decrees issued by Cardinal Angelo De Donatis (also posted on church doors) on March 8th, 12th, and 13th, 2020. The decree signed by Cardinal Odescalchi reveals the 19th century mentality regarding the epidemic. I will cite a few lines:
A fatal disease, which for the obscurity of its origin, for the extravagance of its progress, for the uncertainty of its attacks, appears for the believers, to have the features and signs of a scourge. Will Rome be immune from it (dispensed from it)? Oh! Romans, do not delude yourselves! Yes, Rome has failed its duty. The Holy Name of God is trampled on; feasts and solemnities are desecrated, and with what an insolence the vice roams the streets of the Holy City! So if Rome has failed its duty, it must again be scourged. Oh! Unhappy Rome, only with MARY covering the city with her mantle, the arm of the Angel of End Times that is waiting to empty the poisonous cup on the poor guilty children, can be held back. So, let us all turn to MARY.
Cardinal Vicar Odescalchi had some concrete proposals. On the positive side, there was the announcement of an extraordinary novena for the occasion of the feast of the Assumption of Mary in all the fifteen churches dedicated to her. On the negative side, many public gatherings were also forbidden. Specifically, during the period of the novena, taverns, places selling alcohol and most other places of entertainment were all closed. The one exemption was coffee shops. The great Roman poet Giuseppe Gioachhino Belli composed numerous sonnets expecting to exorcise the city of the impending arrival of the virus. Some of the letters of Pallotti from this period of time reveal that he was committed to promoting the initiatives announced by Cardinal Odescalchi.
Another preventive and interesting initiative started by Pope Gregory XVI was the procession with the icon of the Madonna Salus Populi Romani - that is "Salvation of the Roman People" (some translate as "Protector of the Roman People"). In fact, the pope had ordered that on September 8th, 1835 the icon of the Madonna Salus Populi Romani should be carried in procession from the Basilica of St. Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore) to the Vatican Basilica (San Pietro). This is the famous icon, the icon par excellence of Rome (The icon of the Eternal City), that Pope Francis kneels in front of as he starts and ends each of his apostolic journeys. The icon Salus Populi Romani has a very close connection to the history of the Eternal City and the Supreme Pontiffs. It is believed to have been painted by the St. Luke the Evangelist and it was seen as the reason for victory against epidemics and plagues as well as the reason for many other miracles.
Il Diario di Roma, a periodical of the time, explained that the pope had ordered the procession to “assure the souls of the powerful protection of the great Mother of God who regards with delightful eyes this Seat of Christianity [Rome].” Unfortunately, the procession in which the pope walked barefoot was accompanied by such bad weather that this icon of the Virgin Mary was forced to stay for eight days in the New Church (Chiesa Nuova also known as Santa Maria in Vallicella). The return journey of the icon from St. Peter’s Basilica to the Basilica of St. Mary Major was also disrupted by bad weather. In its return journey, the icon Salus Populi Romani had to stay for a long period of time in the Church of Gesù. It finally reached the Basilica of St. Mary Major on September 30th, 1835.
The Spread of the Epidemic: The Report of the Physicians, Newspapers and the Church:
In Rome, the medical practitioners exhorted people not to be afraid and not to worry. They also forbade the public from talking about deaths and burials, believing as if optimism and joy fortified people against the attacks of cholera. In addition, the medical practitioners urged people to keep their homes very clean. The General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Jan Roothaan (whom Pallotti knew very well), had personally vowed to celebrate the feast of The Immaculate Heart of Mary every year if the Jesuits in Rome who had given themselves generously for the care of the sick and were in the frontline fighting the contagion, were spared from the disease.
Despite all these attempts, by July 1837 the fear of the epidemic had penetrated all social levels. On July 5th Fr. Vincent Pallotti began a Triduum of prayers with a particular intention seeking favors for the people of Naples, the port city where the epidemic had already penetrated. In the Triduum, Pallotti also blessed the food eaten by infected people so that they may be protected by God.
On July 29th, Il Diario di Roma launched an attack on its front page on people who were spreading news about the cholera epidemic. It declared itself the right authority on the news pertaining to the spread of the epidemic and said: “[We] deny completely the ill-founded rumor already spread in Rome, that some individuals in the Capital had contracted the Asian cholera.”
But the people knew better. They gave little credit to the journals. They knew very well that the newspapers and journals only intended to avoid panic in the city. On August 6th, 1837, the icon of the Virgin (Salus Populi Romani) was again brought in procession to the Church of Gesù. This event was recorded by Il Diario di Roma. According to the report, a squad of soldiers on horseback went before the procession and the procession itself was led by the pupils of the Apostolic Homes and Orphanages. Following them were members of the clergy with candles or torches. The clergy also took turns reciting the rosary. Next in the procession was the icon surrounded by some Jesuits. Everyone else was shut off by the Swiss Guards. The procession went around Via Quattro Fontane and Via del Quirinale. Pope Gregory XVI, the College of Cardinals and the senator of Rome (Prince Orsini – Duke Domenico) joined in the procession as it reached Via del Quirinale. Together, the procession moved slowly towards the Church of Gesù where the Madonna was received by the General and members of the General Curia of the Society of Jesus. The litanies were then sung, and the pope concluded the procession with the final blessing.
On August 15th, a grand procession was organized from the Church of Gesù to bring the image of the Madonna Salus Populi Romani back to the Basilica of St. Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore). Acting on the exhortation of the Cardinal Vicar, Fr. Vincent Pallotti workedt to organize a sizable group of clergymen who would walk barefoot with him in the procession. The group started its journey from the Church of the Holy Spirit of the Neapolitans located in Via Giulia.
To organize this group of religious and diocesan clergy, Pallotti made the best use of all his acquaintances. Pallotti wrote to Fr. Efisio Marghinotti, one of his friends and collaborators: “I ask you humbly, if possible, to inform many clergy of tomorrow’s barefoot procession. Also inform the Abbot Bianchini that even if he could not walk barefoot he could at least direct [the procession]. Tell everyone to get at least twelve others or more [for the procession]. We meet in the Church of the Holy Spirit.” (OCL II, p. 199)
In spite of the efforts, the situation in Rome was not good. It is said that fear is the mother of all excesses. This was proved right. On the evening of August 14th, an English Language teacher was killed by a crowd of people near Piazza del Campid’oglio because the victim was believed to be an "anointer" who spread the disease by anointing people and things.
The optimism advised by the medical experts was not of much use. Neither could the prayers contain the natural course of the epidemic! Finally, on August 19th, 1837 Il Diario di Roma admitted what was already evident. It said that according to the opinions of the medical doctors, the Asian Cholera had entered Rome.
By the beginning of September, the Count Antonio Maria Plebani, who was residing in the region of Marche but whose son was studying in Rome, had already sent a letter filled with grievances to Pallotti. In the letter, he affirmed that there were reasons to worry this time: “cholera, earthquakes, wars, hunger …” Fr. Vincent Pallotti replied saying: “Let us seek God. Let us seek Him always and in all things. And we will find Him and in Him we will all be saved.” (OCL II, p. 206)
Meanwhile, in the same period of time, Giovanni Marchetti, a married lay person and a collaborator of Pallotti from Gubbio, wrote to Pallotti asking how he could escape the epidemic. Pallotti replied advising him not to escape from God, but to look for a way to not merit punishment of God. Pallotti wrote: “Hold firm to the maxim that there is no escaping from the Divine scourge. In order to not deserve it, it is better to attend to one’s proper duties.” (OCL II, p. 208)
Pallotti’s Response to Cholera:
Let us now look at the response of Pallotti to the cholera epidemic. Inside the Church of the Holy Spirit of the Neapolitansthere is a plaque with an inscription bearing the works undertaken by Pallotti as the rector of the church. The inscription reads: “From 1835 to 1846, St. Vincent Pallotti, the Roman priest, was the rector of this Church of the Holy Spirit of the Neapolitans:
· He founded the Union of the Catholic Apostolate.
· He founded a College for the Foreign Missions.
· He celebrated the First Epiphany Octave.
· He celebrated the Marian Month of May for the clergy and the faithful.
· He animated the spiritual conference of the clergy.
· During the cholera epidemic of 1837, the people of Rome recognized in him a holy priest and in his work ‘an apostolate of charity’.
In fact, during the cholera epidemic, the action of the clergy in general was exemplary. Pope Gregory XVI, who himself was old, made visits to hospitals, thus setting an example for the clergy. We should not be surprised, therefore, that during the epidemic, the charity of Fr. Vincent Pallotti and the members of the Union emerged in a special way to assist the needy in every part of the city. Already by August 19th, Pallotti requested the ministerial faculties for the forgiveness of reserved sins for his collaborators Melia and Michettoni. He asked for them in order: “to satisfy the multitude of penitents, who in the current circumstances approach the Holy Tribunal of penance in the Church of the Holy Spirit of the Neapolitans.” (OCL II, pp.200/201)
Fr. Vincent Pallotti was fully committed – among many things - to assisting the sick and helping their families and also spending many hours in the confessional. Sr. Maria Colomba (a future Pallottine Sister) testified in this regard: "Several times I have seen him [Pallotti] in surplice and stole following the hearse that carried the dead." Here is another example: shortly after the end of the epidemic, Pallotti wrote to Mr. Cassini Tommaso apologizing that he was not able to visit a certain prisoner. Mr. Cassini Tommaso had asked Pallotti to visit the prisoner in Castel Sant’Angelo (The Mausoleum of Hadrian). Pallotti could not visit the prisoner because of the other works necessitated by the epidemic. “When at last I went – writes Pallotti – the person was no longer there.” (OCL II, p.234)
In order to respond to the numerous appeals that Pallotti received, he divided the city into sectors, and entrusted the sectors to the members of the Union of the Catholic Apostolate. He wrote shortly after: "In the time of cholera, The Pious Society placed a small box at the entrance of the sacristy of the Church of the Holy Spirit of the Neapolitans. And it was accessible to all the poor. It was enough that the poor person wrote in a small piece of paper the name, the surname, the place of residence, the name of the parish, and the person’s need and placed it in the box. Then, two by two, the priests went to the place of the poor and cared for their needs.” (OOCC V, 139/140)
The members of the Union sought to help according to the need of the place or person; some helped with clothing and others with coupons for bread and meat; some helped bring lemons to cholera patients since lemons were then considered to be the most suitable medicine for cholera. Pallotti had noted this: “The priests of the Pious Society, night and day, went to the assistance of the cholera patients. The distribution of coupons for bread and meat had been a practice since the beginning of the Union in 1835, and continues even to this day.” (OOCC V, 139-140)
At last, on October 12th, the epidemic had been contained and it was declared that the epidemic had been defeated. Rome alone reported 5,419 deaths out of the population of 156,000. Among the deaths were some people who were very close to Fr. Vincent Pallotti. One such person, Blessed Anna Maria Taigi, died of cholera on June 9th, 1837. In spite of her popularity, many medical doctors did not participate in her burial. They did so in order not to infect other people with the disease. In a letter written on June 9th, 1837, Fr. Vincent Pallotti communicated the following to Fr. Felice Randanini in Vienna: “In Rome, yesterday died in secret a great Servant of God, who had been showered with many extraordinary gifts.” (OCL II, p.183)
The father of Pallotti, Peter Paul Pallotti, passed away on September 15th. He had gone to the New Church (Chiesa Nuova) to pray. There, he collapsed on the ground in front of the altar of St. Philip Neri. He was immediately rushed to his home. Even before Fr. Vincent Pallotti could arrive, he died. That same day, Fr. Pallotti dispatched three letters asking for suffrages in favor of his father "to whom I owe so much" (OCL II, 206/207)
As the year 1837 ended, two other deaths marked the life of Fr. Vincent Pallotti. First was the death of Fr. Bernardino Fazzini, Pallotti’s confessor for thirty years, on December 25th (Christmas Day). Second was the death of Fr. Gaspar del Bufalo, Pallotti’s friend and collaborator, and the founder of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood on December 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
A few days later, in a letter to Randanini, the Secretary of the Apostolic Nunciature in Vienna, Pallotti wrote: “Today, it has been nine days since the death of the great missionary and the canon Fr. del Bufalo, and twelve days since the death of the Chaplain of the Apostolic Hospice of St. Michael a Ripa [Fr. Fazzini]. Two great saints! Pray for me that I may gain from the examples, advices, and exhortations that they gave me with their lives.” (OCL II, 232/233)
The Conclusion: The Monthly Retreat – Preparation for the Good Death:
And finally, I would like to highlight a theme: the preparation for death. How many of you, today, ask yourselves about the purposes of a monthly retreat? When you do that, you will find that a monthly retreat is:
· A nutritious aliment for prayer
· A renewed self-dedication to God
· A perfect and generous push into the apostolate
· A growth in fraternal love
They are all true and right, but traditionally, the monthly retreat had also been thought to be, among many other things, an exercise in preparation for death. Pallotti also speaks of it in the Rule of our Congregation. In other words, we can say that the objective of a monthly retreat is to prepare our mind and heart to face death, the undeniable reality! Firstly, we need to acknowledge it! Not just acknowledge, but we also need to overcome the fear of death. Thus, when death approaches, we will be better equipped to face it. Besides, acknowledging death would help us to appreciate our daily living by providing it with more meaning and richness. We give two examples.
The First Example:
It is taken from a letter written by Pallotti to a lay person, Luigi Nicoletti. Nicoletti was two years younger than Pallotti and like Pallotti, a Roman. But Pallotti had high respect for Nicoletti. Nicoletti died in 1851, just a year after St. Vincent Pallotti’s death. On September 20th, 1822 during his stay in Monte Compatri with the Carmelites, Pallotti had addressed a letter to Nicoletti. I now cite a large passage from the same letter:
Yesterday, as the sun was about to set, the Spirit by the infinite Mercy of God led me on a high solitary mountain [probably the 773 meter high Monte Salomone [a mountain] that is located along the road that leads from the town of Monte Compatri to the town of Rocca Priora]. Isolated from human association, looking towards heaven, I lost myself in prayer. And as I prayed, I remembered you distinctly. In fact, God had shown me that you had not gained much from the letter that you received last year from the well-known, caring and considerate Jesuit. From the letter, it was quite frightening to know that your death was close. But it was not God’s intention that you always had the thought of death on your mind so that you lived every day as the day of your death. I humbly ask you, with my face on the ground, to promise me not to spend any day without having at least for a few moments meditated on the great Principle of Death. Do not believe that this means that your passage to Eternity is near, but I say this, so that by responding to the grace of God, you will increasingly enrich yourself with the merits for Eternity. (OCL I, pp.155/156)
The Second Example:
As the cholera epidemic was spreading, the anxious and apprehensive Fr. Felice Randanini, the Secretary of the Apostolic Nunciature in Vienna, wrote to Pallotti several times. He felt that he had contracted the disease (cholera). But Fr. Vincent Pallotti reassured him writing: “Look for cholera as much as you want, but you will not be able to find it because it is not for you.” (OCL II, p.139) The other times when the young secretary was caught up in fear, Pallotti eased his fear by foretelling that he would see the secretary again in Rome. Pallotti wrote: “About the fear of your death, I tell you: I wait for you in Rome.” (OCL II, p.138). Pallotti wrote another time: “Be calm: cholera will not find you.” (OCL II, p.140) The secretary, accustomed more to the diplomatic language and less to the prophetic language, wondered at the certainty with which Pallotti had spoken. Once the immediate danger was over, Pallotti asked him to humble himself and to seek forgiveness for his fears and his weaknesses in the time of distress. Pallotti wrote: “Always and in every situation, you must live and should be able to say with that spirit and with that firm belief with which the Apostle Paul said: Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord. Pray that the Lord grants me the same grace even though I am not worthy of it.” (OCL II, p.143)
You, [dear friends] certainly remember these famous sayings of Pallotti: “Time is precious, short, and it never comes back. I would like that time is given a high regard. I would like to insert in the faithful the highest regard for the time.” (OOCC X, 594); “Time is precious, short and irretrievable. I would like that with the grace of God I made good use of the time like a person who had come back to life from death used it to redeem the past.” (OOCC X, 553)
Dear confreres, the reactions in the face of death are varied and diverse. Some confuse awe with fear as Cardinal Ravasi said very recently, “and this is the most serious mistake one is likely to commit in this time of Coronavirus”. We need to distinguish between the fear and the awe in the presence of the Lord (‘Fear of God’). What is the difference between fear and ‘Fear of the Lord’? We can very well say that fear and ‘Fear of the Lord’ are not synonyms. “The thing I fear most is fear,” said the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. He also defined fear as the ‘bad advisor.’ ‘Fear of the Lord’ on the other hand is ‘the beginning of wisdom’ (Prov 1:7). “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.” (Ps 34:11) To describe the success of the early Church, St. Luke writes in The Acts of the Apostles: “The church had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (Acts 9:31). In fact, ‘Fear of the Lord’ actually brings about peace. And the paradox goes even further – ‘Fear of the Lord’ exists along with love. We read similarly in the Book of Deuteronomy: “So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart with all your soul.” (Deut 10:12) Fear, on the other hand, cannot be interwoven with love. Thus writes the Apostle John in his first epistle: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment…” (1 John 4:18) On the contrary, ‘fearful respect’ for God is the source of great trust and thus wins over the fear.
It is now up to you (up to all of us) to allow this teaching to transform each one of us personally and to transform the life of the community.
To learn more about St. Vincent Pallotti, please click here.
For more resources on the COVID-19 pandemic, please click here.
1. Have Trust in the Lord:
In every situation, Pallotti sought the will of God. Any difficult situation should not discourage us to doubt the goodness of God. That is why when Count Antonio Maria Plebani (who was staying in the region of Marche), wrote with a heavy heart about the safety of his son who was studying in Rome, Pallotti responded saying: “Let us seek God. Let us seek Him always and in all the things. And we will find Him and in Him we will all be saved.”
It was the time of the cholera epidemic. The suffering was visible for everyone to see. People - the saints and the ordinary, the churchmen and the lay people – died in large numbers. Pallotti’s close acquaintances – his father, his confessor, his friends, and associates - died during the epidemic. Pallotti did not lose heart or faith. He held himself like a strong tree with a firm foundation that fails to bow down to the strong wind of suffering.
The situation is not different today. There is suffering everywhere. The invisible virus seems to be all-powerful. People, even people we know, suffer and die. We especially remember our confrere Fr. Alberto Fernandez Merayo, SAC (Heart of Jesus Province) who died of the deadly Coronavirus on April 7th, 2020. Some of our members in Poland (Oltarzew) have tested positive for the virus. These incidents can shake the foundations of our faith. God seems to be silent or absent. Our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears.
It is the same for lay people. People look for God and they cannot seem to find Him! When they seek answers from us, the clergy, it is difficult to try and have answers for them. In spite of everything, it is very necessary that we, especially the priests and religious, stand as solid believers believing in the goodness of the Lord. In the time of Pallotti, there was the exemplary Pope Gregory XVI. Today we have Pope Francis doing the same. He sends out the message of a pastor who is truly concerned for the faithful and who continues to battle for them with his prayers. His actions have indeed strengthened the Catholic faithful all over the world.
A man of God standing firm in faith—even in the most difficult times—is the most powerful symbol. Pallotti was one such symbol for the people who sought his advice in the most difficult times of the cholera epidemic.
2. ‘Do your Duties’:
Our first necessary act is to be faithful and to stand firm in our beliefs. Faith alone does not suffice. “Faith without works is dead” writes the Apostle James (Jas 2:14-17). In a letter written to Giovanni Merchetti, a married lay person and a collaborator of Pallotti, we find the following advice: “it is better to attend to one’s proper duties [in the time of the epidemic].” Pallotti seems to be a believer in the battle cry: ‘Stop whining. Start working.’ Every person is supposed to do his or her duty in all situations, especially in the difficult times.
The fear of sickness can limit us with inaction. Life under lockdown can also eventually result in lethargy. However, we should not allow our spirit to be burdened. Life under lockdown amidst the sickness should not be an excuse. We are supposed to be doing our duties to the best of our ability with the limits in place. In this regard, some great examples in these times are medical doctors, selfless nurses, the numerous pharmacists, generous healthcare workers, the committed members of the staff in hospitals, the police force, the proprietors of various shops selling the necessary food, the unknown truck drivers, the service minded priests and the other Church personnel. They were acknowledged by our beloved Pope Francis when he delivered the extraordinary blessings ‘To the City and to the World’ (Urbi et Orbi) on March 27th, 2020.
The world will move on and there will be hope if everyone does his or her duty. Pallotti was very much aware of this simple but a significant fact. Because of Pallotti’s hope, one of his advices for the time of epidemic was ‘to do one’s duties.’
3. Acts of Mercy:
The next area in which Pallotti directed his actions in difficult times like the cholera epidemic was to be sensitive to the needs of his neighbors. To be charitable is good, and to be charitable in the time of epidemic is better. It is best when the beneficiary can in no way repay you. Pallotti was an exemplary figure in that sense. He engaged both in the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy.
Spiritual Works of Mercy:
As the epidemic was ravaging Rome and wreaking havoc on the physical and spiritual lives of people, Pallotti wasted no opportunity to restore and strengthen the faith of the people. To the people who sought his counsel, he reassured them that God was still in control. It was praiseworthy that people sought the will of God in everything, including in the rough times of the epidemic. To the Apostolic Secretary in Vienna, who was very anxious for his life, Pallotti assured him that he would come out of the scourge untouched. Later, when he was proved right, Pallotti wrote to the secretary to ask for pardon and forgiveness from the Lord for the moments he was doubtful and weak in his faith. That was Pallotti’s way of counseling the doubtful and strengthening the feeble minded. The people who received the instructions of Pallotti were struck by the certainty with which he pronounced his teachings.
Pallotti was also on the forefront of praying for the suffering people. When the Church organized a novena in honor of Our Lady and when it decided on a barefoot procession with the icon of the Madonna Salus Populi Romani, Pallotti plunged himself completely into prayerful ministries. For instance, Pallotti organized a Triduum in the Church of the Holy Spirit of the Neapolitans with a special intention to procure the necessary graces for the people infected with cholera. On another occasion, for the votive procession organized by the Church, Pallotti tried to get as many clergy as possible to participate in the procession. That was Pallotti’s service through prayer.
Pallotti also spent a lot of time in the confessional hearing the sins of the faithful, and he encouraged his fellow clergy to do the same. In the extraordinary time of the epidemic, Pallotti requested the ministerial faculties for reserved sins for his collaborators (Frs. Melia and Michettoni). That was the comforting ministry of Pallotti in the time of the epidemic.
Corporal Acts of Mercy:
Pallotti also had the foresight to know that the spread of the epidemic would cause many people to lose their jobs and cause financial stress on many families paying for necessities and medical expenses. This would eventually result in a great increase in the number of the poor. Pallotti had an innovative idea to help such people in need. He placed a small box in the Church of the Holy Spirit of the Neapolitans (where Pallotti was the Rector). It was a box in which people in need could drop a piece of paper with their names, surnames, the place of their residence, their parish and their particular pressing need. Later the members of the Union were sent two by two with the relief materials to the homes of the people in need. Even before the arrival of the epidemic in Rome, when cholera was already present in the port city of Naples, Pallotti had sent bread to the affected people there. Thus, we learn that Pallotti fed the hungry when they most needed food.
Besides carrying food for the needy, Pallotti and the members of the Union also attended to their other needs. They carried clothing to whoever lacked and asked for it (clothing the naked). They distributed lemons, which were thought to be a powerful medicine against the cholera outbreak, to the sickly. Pallotti asked his collaborators to assist the sick in their suffering. Additionally, Pallotti was seen on many occasions walking behind a hearse for the dead with his surplice and stole (burying the dead).
Today, we are called to emulate the example of St. Vincent Pallotti. If an act of charity is possible, it should be done. Everyone is called to respond to the call of charity. There is no excuse for anyone. If a person is old or sick in bed, he or she can certainly pray for all of suffering humanity and they can offer his or her suffering as mortification for the world’s sins. If a person is young and active, he or she should participate in as many of the works of mercy as possible. A priest can very well say votive masses for the end of the epidemic. A religious or lay associate can dedicate him or herself to pray for the sick and the suffering and for the medical professionals who fight the deadly virus.
The priests and religious are to stay with the flock -- if and when possible, they should be easily available to assist the sick and the dying. Fr. Giuseppe Berardelli (72), a priest from the Diocese of Bergamo, is a great example of Christian service and witness. He gave up his ventilator so that a young patient could recover. Many other priests and religious have served the sick and the dying and eventually fell victim to the virus. The Church and its dedicated personnel have been at the forefront caring for the needs of the people. If Pallotti were alive, he would be walking around in the hospital wards with the necessary protective equipment assisting the sick and the dying. He also would have encouraged the members of the Union to do the same.
If such action is not possible (owing to the nature of the disease and the lack of enough Personal Protective Equipment), the other acts of mercy (corporal acts of mercy) are very much feasible. There are hungry people and abandoned families around us. We need to have compassionate eyes to look at them and listen to their needs to then do what is possible. Some might need immediate nourishment; some might require medicine; some might ask for another form of help. We need to look around and recognize people’s needs and respond. Pallotti responded. As his followers, we need to walk the same path.
As a summation, I would say that if St. Vincent Pallotti were alive today, seeing the ravages of the current pandemic, his exhortation for his followers would have been something in the line of the following: “Do not worry. Pray and have trust in the Lord. Do your duties. And do not forget the acts of mercy.”
To learn more about St. Vincent Pallotti, please click here.
For more resources on the COVID-19 pandemic, please click here.
“Seek God and you will find God. Seek God in all things and you will find God in all things. Seek God always and you will find God always.” – St. Vincent Pallotti
Today is the 225th anniversary of the birth of St. Vincent Pallotti. In the first twenty years of his life, he experienced a pope run out of Rome by revolutionaries who died in exile and another taken from Rome and held in France by Napoleon. When that pope, Pius VII, returned in 1815, Pallotti was 20 years old and three years away from his ordination to the priesthood. He saw people who were baptized throw off their faith and take up revolution. He witnessed clergy and religious who needed renewal. Twenty years later, in 1835, he founded the Union of Catholic Apostolate, an association of lay people, religious and clergy in order to assist in the Church’s missionary efforts, revive the faith of Catholics, and enkindle charity in the hearts of all.
Amid a cholera pandemic that hit Rome in 1837, he worked tirelessly along with the small and new community of priests and brothers, as well as lay people, to care for the suffering and the dying, both spiritually and physically. In the aftermath of that pandemic, which left many orphans, St. Vincent Pallotti founded through the Union of Catholic Apostolate the House of Charity in Rome in 1838. This orphanage for girls is still in operation today and is the birthplace of the Pallottine Sisters.
St. Vincent Pallotti evangelized in the streets, cared for the poor, taught and provided spiritual direction to seminarians, clergy, and religious, served in prisons and hospitals, was confessor to the poor and popes, aided the Church’s work in the missions, including the United States, and fostered what today we would call collaboration and co-responsibility among Catholics so that they would live as apostles of Jesus Christ.
He was also a mystic who experienced God as Infinite Love and Mercy. It was this experience of God that sent him forth, urged on by Christ’s charity or love (2 Cor. 5:14). Even seeing a third pope and long-time friend, Bl. Pius IX, flee Rome due to revolution in 1848, St. Vincent Pallotti still worked tirelessly until his death in 1850 in the hope that all would come to full life in Christ. His great project of the Union of Catholic Apostolate did not grow large in his lifetime. Today, though, thousands of his spiritual sons and daughters of the Union of Catholic Apostolate—which also includes the Pallottine Fathers, Brothers, and Sisters—continues his work in 56 countries around the world.
Pallotti was canonized by St. John XXIII in 1963, just over a month after the close of the first session of the Second Vatican Council—an appropriate time given the Council’s teaching that all are called to holiness and to live as apostles of Jesus Christ.
Blessings to all on the birthday of St. Vincent Pallotti! May the Charity of Christ urge us on!
Perhaps by this time, having become frustrated by the fact that even for a relatively short period of time we have been forced into isolation, we might find ourselves asking: “Why now?“ , “Why this bad?”, and perhaps even cursing the fact that this pandemic has so radically turned our lives upside down in what seems but a few moments. It might be an experience so taxing because it is so very different for us, but certainly not to human history.
Between 1830 and 1837, a cholera epidemic swept through Europe and North America. It began in India, spread to what was at the time called Arabia, and then to Iraq. In 1831, the epidemic reached the Caucasus and soon after spread to Poland, Hungary, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and eventually to Italy. Like epidemics in the past centuries, this epidemic also spread from city to city by way of local ports.
In Rome, news of the spreading illness was met with the usual responses of apprehension and fear. But there was no small number of people who actually doubted that the disease would have a significant impact on Rome. In July of 1837, the first three people in Rome died of cholera. However, the news media denied that cholera was in fact the cause of these deaths and claimed that lies were being spread by persons seeking to cause panic and attempting to disturb the social well- being of the city. Is it not true that our initial reaction to the news of the Coronavirus was that it was far away in China and so our concern for the spread to the U.S. was rather limited?
During the time of the cholera infestation of Rome, the charity of a Roman priest, now St. Vincent Pallotti, emerged in a special way. He immediately saw to it that his priests of the Congregation of the Catholic Apostolate, which he had founded, were on hand constantly (as was he) to meet the spiritual needs of the many penitents who were constantly entering the Church of Spirito Santo where Vincent served as rector to have their confession heard. Assisting the sick, caring for their families, and also spending many hours in the confessional, Fr. Vincent was extremely busy.
To respond to the numerous and varied appeals he received from so many, Vincent divided the city of Rome into three sectors, entrusting each sector to his priests working in collaboration with the lay members of the Union of the Catholic Apostolate, which he had also founded, to meet the various spiritual and material needs of a then desperate people. Funds were collected and distributed to families throughout the city who had lost the person responsible for their principal source of income. The rectory of Spirito Santo became a center where families who overnight had become destitute could in writing request whatever it was they needed, and the priests with their lay cooperators would bring to the home whatever was required: bread, meat, fruit and other necessities of life as well. They found beds for the sick, redeemed articles that had been pawned out of desperation for ready cash, and helped families to pay bills that would allow them to purchase further necessities. Vincent and his priests were ever on the move, caring for the ill. They were, at the same time, finding an increasing number of children who had lost their immediate family and now had no one to care for them.
In 1838, the year following the end of the epidemic, Vincent organized a lottery offering excellent and expensive prizes donated by his more affluent friends in order to raise funds to begin a program of caring for the orphans left behind by the epidemic. Many of those who won returned the prizes to Vincent that they might be sold and thereby add further monies to the orphan fund.
It might well happen, as it did in Vincent’s day, that one or other of us might be called upon to meet certain needs of persons made quite helpless by the present pandemic. No one of us knows either the day nor the hour when we might run into a situation that calls for immediate involvement and appropriate response with no questions asked. May the life of St. Vincent Pallotti, who prayed that “the work of the Blessed Trinity be realized in us,” be a model and inspiration for us during this time.
Cf St. Vincent Pallotti: Prophet of a Spiritual Communion. Ed. Fr. Francesco Todisco, SAC. Trans. Kate Marcelin- Rice. Herefordshire, United Kingdom. Gracewing, 2015
The ashes of our Lenten journey were more pronounced this year—not fading with Ash Wednesday but thickening in the following weeks with the outbreak of COVID-19. Each of the plans we had for Lent—the sacrifices, the resolutions, the acts of charity—were rearranged, making room for more sacrifices than we thought possible.
We sacrificed control, physical freedom, the assurance that our pantries would be stocked or that our bank accounts would be replenished. We sacrificed our physical friendships, birthday celebrations, anniversary milestones, family vacations, date nights. We’ve lost friends, family, or neighbors to a virus that until a few months ago was hardly known about or discussed. We’ve sacrificed our liturgical lives, being able to receive Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist, attendance at weddings or baptisms, pastoral formation, the journey into the Church on Easter via RCIA.
Pope Francis likens this pandemic to the evening storm experienced by the disciples in the boat, saying, “For weeks now it has been evening.”
This evening has been long, dark, full of the unknown. Throughout this “evening,” we have had to confront our vulnerabilities and experience our littleness. We’ve had to realize that without light, we cannot see. Perhaps we’ve grappled with fear in this darkness—a fear of the unknown, a fear of isolation, a fear that the dawn may never come.
Perhaps our minds have been left to imagine: Lord, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
This time of quarantine, social distancing, and pandemic has been our evening storm which,
“Exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules…shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities… [and] lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls.”
We thought “we would stay healthy in a world that was sick,” but the storm has awakened us from our personal slumber. And we need light.
This realization is the seed of faith—a faith which recognizes the need for salvation, for one another, for the light of God. The realization of our littleness, our helplessness, our dependence, our mortality, is the perfect place from which to enter into the Triduum and await the lighting of the Easter candle—the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
God has provided flickers of hope, reflections of grace, throughout our journey at sea: livestreams of Masses, daily Scripture reflections, broadcasts of Adoration, priests hearing Confessions in drive-thrus, virtual retreats, Pope Francis’ blessing of the entire world.
We have seen a “creativity of love”--the production of ventilators in car factories, the making of masks in workplaces, the donations of money, food, and supplies across the world, the video chats to those in quarantine facing death alone. We see dancing from porch balconies. Teddy bears in windows. Embraces in hospitals. Birthday drive-bys with signs and honking. People on their knees.
Yes, the light of Christ exists even in the darkness. And the darkness has not, and will not, overcome it. It will shine ablaze all the more radiantly this year in the midst of our utter darkness, sparkling in the gloom. The darker the night, the better able we are to see the light. And in the darkness, we look up.
Let us welcome the light of Christ this Easter by first lighting his love in our hearts.
When Christ’s life lives within us, we can enkindle it in the souls of others and set alight all we encounter. “Prayer and quiet service: these are our victorious weapons,” Pope Francis reminds us.
Wake up, Lord! The disciples shouted in the midst of the storm.
Wake up, Lord! The world shouts again today.
Let us awaken the Lord through our prayers and service. Through our acts of charity to those suffering, tired, or scared. Through our cries and supplications. Through our fasting in these unwelcome sackcloths and seemingly perpetual ashes.
Cry out with me again this Triduum, “Wake up, Lord! We are perishing.”
Christ’s response to our cries this week is open arms embracing us through nails and scourging. His response to our cries is a head beaten, bruised, and crowned with thorns. His response to our cries is silence to jeers, taunts, mockery, and abandonment. His response to our cries is the relinquishing of his spirit in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.
He who cried out to his Father, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” also knows the darkness intimately. He knows what it feels like to be alone and perishing. But by his words do we find the light: “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” ….“My Father…not as I will, but as you will.”
Our cries are never unheard. “The Lord awakens so as to reawaken and revive our Easter faith,” Pope Francis said. “We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love.”
The goal of our Lenten journey is transformation—to be transfigured. This is also our prayer throughout this pandemic. Yes, we pray that it ends, that healing comes, that daily life can resume, that economies will be restored, and that suffering will cease. But even more than all of that, we pray for transfiguration. Because when we are transfigured by the love and light of Christ, when our faith has awakened and we have realized our need for salvation, then the storm can rage on while we rest knowing we will not perish—for we will know deep in our hearts that with the “dawn there is rejoicing.”
Then, and only then, “In the silence of our cities, the Easter Gospel will resound.”
For more Easter and Lenten resources, please click here.
For more resources and reflections on COVID-19, please click here.
The other day I drove past a grocery store that had people waiting in line to get inside and stock up on food and other supplies due to the continuing spread of COVID-19. Most of us have seen pictures of empty store shelves devoid of food and medicine as people make a mad rush to make sure they have what they need to self-quarantine for an extended period.
An equally startling yet vastly different image is that of empty church pews during the numerous Sunday Masses being livestreamed from Catholic parishes around the world. Whereas the emptiness of store shelves suggests the preparedness, albeit over the top at times, of consumers, the emptiness of Church pews suggests the possibility of the Christian Faithful not having the spiritual support which they need during this pandemic. Fortunately, the Church has been through pandemics before, and an examination of our past offers insight for our days ahead.
At the outset of the Bubonic plague, commonly referred to as the Black Death, Europe’s faithful sought heavenly aid to withstand the suffering caused by the plague. Various communities invoked the Blessed Mother and the saints for protection against the plague. One of the most interesting and enduring of such devotions comes from Western Germany where 14 “auxiliary saints” were venerated together as the Fourteen Holy Helpers.
The Fourteen holy helpers were:
Pious legend tells of a shepherd boy receiving a vision of the 14 Holy Helpers in a field near the German town of Bad Staffelstein. After this, a church was erected on this spot and miraculous healings began to occur on account of the intercession of the Holy Helpers. A shrine church still stands in Bad Steffelstein to this day where pilgrims continue to go and seek the help of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. As this group devotion spread to other countries, new helpers were added for more popular saints in any given region including St. Nicholas, St. Sebastian, and St. Rocco (Roch). Regardless of which saints composed the group of helpers, the people of Europe implored the Helpers’ aid against the harsh symptoms of the Black Death.
Today, the world once again suffers from a pandemic, the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus. Though medicine and science have surely advanced and we know much more about diseases and how they spread than medieval Europeans, maybe those Christian faithful of the past can teach us an important lesson: the lesson of faith and trust in God.
As we adapt our lifestyles to work from home, social distance ourselves, and view Mass via livestream, let us not forget the great cloud of witnesses who watch over us from heaven. May we turn to their help during these challenging times.
Fourteen Holy Helpers, Pray for us!
Joseph Basalla is a graduate from The Catholic University of America living in the Washington, DC area.
On March 7, my husband threw a surprise party to celebrate my 30th birthday. That would be the last time I would physically spend with many dear friends for at least a month.
It was at the beginning stages of the coronavirus pandemic when the United States seemed to just barely be grasping what was going on across the Atlantic. We were aware but unafraid. The virus was like the flu. It only affected the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. It wasn’t a big deal. We would be fine.
But around that time, my family began to take the notions of staying home, social distancing, and self-quarantining seriously. Each day brought more news. So we spent time outside. We tried to stay 6 ft apart. We bought a few more groceries than usual. We began to lay low.
Almost three weeks later, I write from home, having gone “out” less times than I can count on my fingers apart from family walks, romps to open fields, or our backyard. No grocery stores. No movie theaters. No social events. No playgrounds. No libraries. No stores. No Masses.
I haven’t had to “try” to make Lent this year somber or serious. Every day is a fast from something I deemed important to my life: a fast from physical friendship; a fast from community in the way I’m used to living it; a fast from outings, from the sheer independence of being able to step out of my house and go where I want to go when I want to. This fasting has been humbling.
Prayer is the rhythm to my day. It is the breath of my days. The heartbeat.
I watch online daily Masses or reflections on the Scriptures. I pray the rosary by myself or with my husband and children. I sing the Divine Mercy chaplet. I continue a novena. I make a spiritual communion with tears in my eyes. I utter supplications for others throughout the day. I offer my fasts—both the voluntary and involuntary—for our world.
At the beginning of this Lenten journey, I shared how I thirsted to emerge from spiritual mediocrity. Now I thirst for God himself. I yearn to join the Body of Christ once again in the sacraments and receive him at the Eucharistic table. I live Paul’s exhortation to pray without ceasing in a profound way.
And yet God has been so good. And peace prevails in my heart. I have so much to be thankful for: continued jobs and paychecks, long days of sunshine and warm weather, our health, food on our plates, a roof over our heads, snuggles with my children, reading books in our indoor tent, video calls with friends and family all over the country. In spite of everything, we are together. In spite of everything, God is here. In spite of everything, there is always hope.
Let us continue to “rend our hearts” this Lent by turning to God and giving him everything we are feeling right now: exhaustion, confusion, anxiety, disillusionment, anger, despair, or fear. We can approach the one who became a vulnerable child for us and give him our own insecurities and vulnerabilities. At the manger, we will be met with his never-ending love.
In his homily for the fourth Sunday of Lent, Fr. Mike Schmitz noted that God did not make an unbreakable world. Though he created perfectly, he instilled in mankind the ability to have free will—the ability to break our relationship with God by introducing sin into the human condition. Death, pain, suffering, temptation—all is the result of sin. This pandemic is more evidence of this truth. What matters, however, in the midst of our suffering, is that God does not abandon us to it—nor has he ever. Scripture recounts the story of God’s unfailing love for humanity since the Fall—a story of salvation that continues personally with each of us today.
God does not promise fulfillment on earth, perfect joy, blessing, and comfort. He promises the cross, daily. But he also promises us that he will be with us always—even to the end of time—that he came to give life in abundance, that we can be transfigured, and that there is resurrection. He invites us to complete satisfaction and joy with him in Heaven for eternity.
And in the meantime, as we continue on our own personal journeys in this “vale of tears,” he remains waiting for us at the well. Inviting us on the shore. Looking for our return on the horizon. Feeding us at the table. He remains pouring out all for us on the Cross.
As we continue to navigate this Lenten season, the coronavirus pandemic, and the approach of Easter, let us go to him with humble hearts. “Let us allow ourselves to be loved, so that we can give love in return. Let us allow ourselves to stand up and walk towards Easter. Then we will experience the joy of discovering how God raises us up from our ashes.” -Pope Francis (Ash Wednesday Homily, 2020)
In the movie The Farewell, the central plot hinges on the question of an individual vs. communal approach to the burden of end of life care. One of the central characters has cancer, and the issue surrounding the family is whether the person with the disease should know or not. In the US, as the movie acknowledges, such duplicity would not be likely to happen, but in China, where the movie takes place, society often allows for such things because they believe the burden of suffering is to be carried by the family and friends rather than the sick or afflicted. I found that to be a fascinating concept because most of us have experienced the loss of someone due to cancer, and the question of death and mourning is a very present concern to all of us. I would recommend viewing the movie, if for nothing less than to understand the potential hardships of walking with someone who is about to die and with those that love them.
Our faith acknowledges that our time on earth is not all that there is, but rather that we are made for heaven and joining God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares: “The Christian funeral is a liturgical celebration of the Church. The ministry of the Church in this instance aims at expressing efficacious communion with the deceased, at the participation in that communion of the community gathered for the funeral, and at the proclamation of eternal life to the community (CCC 1684).” As Catholics, we believe that there is life after our life on earth. So the funeral and death itself serve as reminders of the Paschal Mystery and our hope for all—and in particular, those who have just died—to have eternal life in heaven with the Lord. The prayer spoken while receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday is a poignant reminder of this: “Remember you are dust and from dust, you shall return.” Time on earth is fleeting, but time in heaven is eternal.
As Catholics, we are part of a community of believers. We must not only accompany the one who is preparing to die, but also those who the deceased is leaving behind. This is not the responsibility solely of the priest or deacon presiding over the funeral rites, but rather a shared responsibility of all the church. The Catechism goes further to explain that funeral ceremonies have the Eucharistic Sacrifice as a critical component because: “It is by the Eucharist thus celebrated that the community of the faithful, especially the family of the deceased, learn to live in communion with the one who ‘has fallen asleep in the Lord,’ by communication in the Body of Christ of which he is a living member and, then, by praying for him and with him” (CCC, 1689).
It is essential as a community of faithful to also accompany those left behind who are grieving the loss of a loved one. This grief is normal and completely human, but it means that we need to accompany those grieving and serve as a living reminder of Christ’s presence in their lives. We are called to serve as witnesses to those we encounter daily, whether we know them well or not. As stated in the book the Art of Accompaniment: Theological, Spiritual, and Practical Elements of Building a More Relational Church: “Witnessing can be effective even if a deep, committed relationship is not yet formed…witnessing demonstrates an example of an integrated Christian life within the one who witnesses. … Witnesses are essential to the process of spiritual accompaniment because, ‘modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers it is because they are witnesses (Evangelii Nuntiandi)’ (Art of Accompaniment 16)” Times of suffering and hardship are especially profound moments for evangelization and witness. As a Church, we can offer hope and healing to those who are dying or grieving the loss of a loved one.
For more resources on Accompaniment, please click here.
My grandmother passed today.
In her last few days, she told her nine children, “I remain in the will of God. God’s will is love and mercy. What do I have to fear?”
In a word, she got it. She got what life was all about: she had a friendship with God that helped her to understand his identity and to recognize death as the vehicle that would bring her eternally to him.
The grace with which my grandmother understood her last days is uncommon. Death usually seems to surprise or horrify. We don’t think about it too often in our culture, either because it makes us uncomfortable or we’re often focused on earthly things.
As a teenager, I experienced a lot of family deaths in a short period of time. During an incredibly formative period, I attended many funerals, said many prayers, visited several hospitals, and travelled often unexpectedly. Life seemed incredibly uncertain and precarious, and I found myself often asking, “Who’s next?”
Death was real, and it seemed to be everywhere. Though I felt like an adult at the time, I was still unable to comprehend the greatness and depth of what was occurring. It is normal for human beings to dislike death. Death is ugly, unnatural, and uncompassionate. It visited my grandparents, aunt, and cousin. It tried to visit my own father.
In those teenage years, death and I were at war. It took my relatives and did not ask my permission. As a method of self-preservation, I attempted to turn off my feelings and approached life with a blasé attitude. If it was all going to end, I thought, then what was the point? What was the point of feeling if feelings are heartache and tears? What was the point of getting too close to someone who would ultimately slip away?
It was an immature but perhaps understandable reaction for a teenager. And since then, it has taken many years for me to be able to “feel” again and understand death’s role in the spiritual life.
If we start researching the saints and their perspective on death, we quickly find a completely different understanding of death than the one the world gives us. “Tomorrow will be a wonderful day” Blessed Solanus Casey said to a fellow priest, prophesying his own death the next morning. He and many of the saints saw death as a friend, a door, a wedding banquet, a bridge welcoming man into reality—eternal life. “Death is no phantom, no horrible specter as presented in pictures,” Therese of Lisieux said. “In the catechism it is stated that death is the separation of soul and body, that is all! Well, I am not afraid of a separation which will unite me to the good God forever.”
The saints also understood that life on earth is a pilgrimage, not our final destination. As a girl, Therese of Lisieux found inspiration in the quote: “The world is thy ship and not thy home.” We are pilgrims on a road hopefully leading back to God. Every decision we make leads us either closer to this end or farther from it.
I believe mankind has such an aversion to death because we were not created for it. In the beginning, death did not exist. Death was the consequence of sin: separation from God. In order to not leave us in this state of separation permanently, God worked throughout time and intervened in human history in order to bring mankind back to himself in a state even greater than we experienced prior to the Fall. He now invites us to share in his very life—the trinitarian life of love, of complete gift of self—in heaven which “is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC1023).
Because of God’s work throughout salvation history culminating in the Passion, death and Resurrection of his Son, death no longer is the last word. As Paul wrote to the early Church in Corinth: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is taken away—transfigured. God took the ugliest and most unnatural consequence of sin and transformed it into the passageway that leads us back to him. This is the Christian perspective of death, what the saints understood, but what we have such a hard time truly grasping. We often only see the life taken too soon, the pain and suffering of the dying, the wrinkles, the tubes, the bloodshed. Christ offers us more: resurrection, transfiguration.
St. Paul says that if we but understood the eternal, we would willingly suffer on earth—calling tribulation “momentary light affliction.” He says, “We are not discouraged…although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal.” 1 Cor 4:16-18
I believe my grandmother, in her final days, understood what St. Paul and the saints did: death was simply the vehicle that would bring her into the loving arms of the Father. She understood God’s identity in two words—love and mercy—and surrendered to this truth in order to live eternally in God’s love. I look to her example and see incredible strength and faith, and I pray, as I visit her tomb in Mexico, that I can have the grace to remain in God’s will and see death as a momentary light affliction producing an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
“She competed well; she finished the race; she kept the faith” (cf 2 Tim. 4:7).
May we all do the same.
Two forces have particularly influenced my life. The first is my Catholic faith – given by my parents and nurtured by others as I grew. The second is my adulthood experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In wrestling with both of these forces (at times feeling like Jacob, who wrestled with God), I accidentally discovered a saint whose experiences reflected my own.
Saint Dymphna lived in Ireland during the seventh century, after the time of Saint Patrick, Saint Brigid, and Saint Columba. Christianity was practiced by many – including Dymphna’s mother, who had her daughter secretly baptized. Dymphna’s father was a pagan king named Damon. Dymphna’s mother died when Dymphna was just 15 – throwing her father into a terrible grief.
Damon’s counselors advised him to remarry, and though they searched for another wife, they found none. They then advised Damon to marry his daughter, who reflected her mother’s great beauty. Initially repelled, Damon eventually agreed and proposed to his daughter. Under the guidance of her confessor priest, Saint Gerebran, Dymphna rejected her father’s proposal, and fled Ireland for Belgium. Tradition states that Dymphna then built a hospice in Geel for the sick and the poor, where she remained for some time.
Soon, Damon and his men traced Dymphna’s journey, and ascertained her whereabouts due to Dymphna’s use of foreign currency. Confronted by the mad king, Saint Gerebran rebuked his behavior, and Damon had his men kill the priest. Still hoping to win his daughter, Damon then pleaded kindly, offering wealth, prestige, and honor. Dymphna, steadfast in her vow of chastity, rejected the offer – and by her own father’s sword was beheaded.
Soon after Dymphna’s martyrdom, several “lunatics” spent the night in the countryside where Dymphna died, and woke up in the morning healed. This miraculous place became known throughout Europe: a church was eventually built in the 1300s, with a sanctuary expansion built to accommodate pilgrims seeking mental relief. Townspeople themselves even began taking them into their homes, a tradition that continues to this day.
Saint Dymphna entered my own life in a chance way seven years ago, near the onset of my OCD symptoms – which involved uncontrollable obsessions and time-consuming “checking” behaviors. Around this time, I discovered in my bedroom a prayer coin invoking Saint Dymphna. I do not recall where this coin came from – and I certainly had never heard of Dymphna before. But the prayer on the back captured me: “Oh St. Dymphna, Patroness of nervous and mental illnesses, grant that, through prayer, I may be pure in mind and soul.”
Fascinated by her story and her Irish identity, I began to read, learn, and ask in prayer for her help. This relationship deepened and developed into my own pilgrimage to St. Dymphna’s church in Geel – which was closed when I reached Belgium! Nevertheless, she has continued to inspire my journey from OCD sufferer to OCD advocate, and I am more convinced than ever that she is a great intercessor and resource in our current Age of Anxiety.
Below are some brief meditations on Dymphna’s continued influence on my life:
1. Dymphna kept faith even in grief. We all know how grief challenges our faith. Not only did Dymphna lose her mother, but she also had to tread the impossible tightrope of consoling her father while recognizing that his sickness was warping him. This must have torn at Dymphna’s heart. Yet even amidst suffering, she did not stop hoping in God’s providence. In my own life, losing my brother six years ago in an accident severely challenged my faith in God. During this time, I believe Saint Dymphna’s help guided me back to a place of trust and hope.
2. Dymphna chose the path of unknowing and vulnerability. By fleeing to Geel, Dymphna took a major-league risk and rejected the familiarity of her native land. Yes, she was momentarily safe from the king – but incredibly vulnerable as a foreigner and refugee. In many ways, staying home and appeasing her father would have been the “safe” choice.
OCD constantly tempts me with gaining “safety” at the cost of doing ridiculous compulsions. While it’s terrifying to reject what OCD wants me to do (“Think hard enough and you’ll have peace!”), I have to respond by saying, “I’m willing to be anxious and unknowing, so I can live a real life.” That Dymphna, Patroness of mental illness, was beheaded, indicates to me that I must abandon relying on my brain, and embrace God and that which I cannot see or “figure out.”
3. Dymphna perfected her own authority and freedom to choose. In standing up to Damon, Dymphna inspires all of us who face temptation and all who face oppression from those who misuse their power. Not only did Dymphna preserve her vows of chastity, but she also avoided another, potentially graver misstep – the acceptance of a false crown, that is, her mother’s rightful crown.
The choice to be independent is terrifying. The story of Dymphna, however, shows true independence is possible, through faith in God who desires our freedom from sin and from oppression. With God’s help we may learn to abandon the perceived “safety” of acquiescing to the soul-stealing machinations of tyrants (even the tyrants in your own mind), at which time the opportunity for freedom, originality, generosity, charity, and creativity arises.
Questions for Reflection: What false crowns have you been offered in your life? What powerful proposals have been extended at the cost of your authority and freedom to choose?
“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
We are now over a week into our Lenten journey; the reality has set in. We are questioning our decisions to give up sweets or the snooze button, and we are tired. Perhaps we have even failed a few times. The forty days seem to drag, and the somberness of the liturgical season has made itself known. Yet during the Ash Wednesday service at my parish, our priest was talking about the joy of the season and how our failures are meant to bring us closer to Our Lord. In a word, he talked about the hope of Lent.
As someone who would rather stay in the joy and light of the Christmas season, I was really challenged by Father’s perspective, especially now, after my many failed attempts to give up the snooze button. We often focus so much on the “giving up” aspect of Lent that the words joy and hope do not seem to go hand in hand with this season. This is especially true when I think of the phrase that kickstarts our Lenten journey: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” On a superficial level, this sign on our forehead doesn’t look so good. Where are the hope and joy in having ashes smeared on your forehead?
Throughout his homily, Father also encouraged us to change our perspective on the difficult acts of penance we are attempting and instead to live in the reality that this season could be a time of true conversion of heart. Our Lord desires us to be holy! The acts of penance we choose could be the very means He uses to break us of habitual sin and to bring a deeper level of charity into our hearts. Conversion of heart and holiness? I could get behind that; I can see the joy there!
The priest did not say “if you fail your resolutions” but “when you fail.” This is a reminder of our weakness and utter dependence on Jesus, who will be making His way to Calvary soon, in Scripture, to save our souls. This dependence on Him will assist in our conversion of heart, considering “we can do nothing without him” (John 15:5). So: it’s alright to fail, but run back to Him. Beg Him for more grace!
Now let’s read this sentence from the Ash Wednesday service one more time: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Where is the hope there? Father explained that this is the most hopeful reality yet. Ultimately this reminder of our sinfulness and our death paradoxically represents the life we have in Christ, the Resurrection of Jesus, and the hope we have of entering into the Eternal Reward. Even though the phrase seems bleak, it can propel our hope throughout these 40 days. We have something to strive for, to live for, and to love for.
Though I have failed at my Lenten resolutions more times than I have not, I pray with the hope that my humanity might be resurrected, that Our Lord may convert my sinful ways, and that I may remember that this liturgical season is less about what I do and more about what the Lord is doing in my heart to get me home.
What are ways you need to be renewed in hope and joy? How can you accept the failures that come with penance and run to Jesus this Lenten season?
“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
For more resources to accompany you on your Lenten journey, please click here.
It might be frightening to look at our culture today. There is the sense that a Catholic worldview is not welcome. Some feel confusion about what it means to be Catholic. A culture of death and darkness seems to oppose God’s love. One wonders how the Holy Spirit will work in the world and through the Church amidst such hostility and division.
This is not the first time the Church has encountered such a moment. The 1500s were also a tumultuous era. At the beginning of the century, in, 1517, the Protestant Reformation started. Then the English Reformation of Henry VIII began in 1534. The Church responded with the Counter-Reformation. A new order, the Jesuits, was founded in 1540 and in 1545, the Council of Trent was initiated. By that time, millions of people had left the Catholic Church. It seemed to be a time of waywardness and chaos. How was the Holy Spirit going to work in such a world?
Simple: By sending the Mother of God not to the Old World—Europe—but to the New World. Specifically, Mary appeared at the Hill of Tepeyac in 1531 to ask a 57-year-old peasant named Juan Diego to speak to Bishop Zumarraga about building a chapel in her honor there. This is where Our Lady, on December 9th, made her first apparition to her “Juanito” or “dear little Juan.” She told him that she was “the perfect and ever Virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the God of truth through Whom everything lives, the Lord of all things near us, the Lord of heaven and earth.” On her last visit on December 12th, Mary arranged roses in Juan Diego’s tilma and sent him to the bishop to ask him again to build a shrine to her on that spot. When he opened his tilma to show the bishop the roses, it revealed her image, which can still be seen in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
Mary appeared on a hill that was already sacred to the ancient peoples of Mexico as a shrine to a mother goddess. She was dressed as an Aztec princess, pregnant with the God who made us. She spoke to a humble native of the land and called him her “youngest and dearest son.” Before her apparition, approximately 200,000 Native Americans had been baptized. Between the time of her visit to Juan Diego and her message to Bishop Zumarraga and their deaths in the spring of 1548, over 9 million ancestral peoples had received the gift of faith and baptism.
In a time of great conflict, colonialization, and racial tension, Mary appeared on this continent to tell Juan Diego, “I am truly your merciful Mother, yours and all the people who live united in this land and of all the other people of different ancestries, my lovers, who love me, those who seek me, those who trust in me.” She is the mother of all the peoples in the land, then and now. She reminds us that what truly defines us is not our status or ancestry, but our membership in the Body of Christ.
It can be a struggle to know and act like a member of Christ’s Body when there are so many opposing forces. What does it mean to act like a Christian, vote like a Christian, shop like a Christian, or even speak like a Christian? It means that we take our fears, our sorrows, our hopes, our hurts, and our weeping not to a political party or an outlet mall; but to our Mother, who in turn presents them to her Son.
Am I not here, I, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more? -Our Lady to Juan Diego
Question for Reflection: In times of distress, do you turn to Our Lady to bring you closer to Christ?