Over the past year as I helped develop the Catholic Feast Days website, I was always struck by the number of saints whose feast days were in July. As we enter into this July, I found myself reflecting on the lives of the saints whose feasts are celebrated this month. From apostles to saints in our era and everywhere in between, the lives of the saints celebrated this month have offered great spiritual nourishment to me.
Three well-known Saints:
This month we get to celebrate three powerhouse saints: St. Benedict, St. Bonaventure, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. Sometimes I find it hard to relate to some of these well-known saints. St. Benedict helped found modern monasticism. St. Bonaventure was one of the greatest theologians of his time. St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuits. Together they set a pretty high, almost discouraging, standard that feels hard for me to reach. But, as I continue to learn more about their lives, I realize that throughout their ups and downs, they offered themselves to God, no matter how high the mountain or low the valley. Likewise, God is calling us to follow Him. He is calling each of us individually, wherever we are in our lives, to do the same.
Four Saints on the Way:
Starting later this week, we get to celebrate four ‘Blesseds’ in the Church: Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, Bl. Maria Romero Meneses, Bl. Stanley Rother, and Bl. Solanus Casey. Even among these four Blesseds, I can see the beauty in how God calls each of us personally. Whereas Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassait was a young Italian known for his social activism, Bl. Maria Romero Meneses was a Nicaraguan sister who devoted her life to teaching and helping all throughout Central America. Whereas Bl. Solanus Casey was a humble American Capuchin known for his spiritual counseling, Bl. Stanley Rother was an American pastor who volunteered for mission work in Guatemala for 15 years until he was martyred in 1981. Through the witnesses of their lives, these four Blesseds inspire me to live my life striving for holiness in whatever way God is calling me.
Families of the Saints:
Throughout this entire month, we are reminded of the importance of family in the lives of so many saints. Sts. Louis and Zellie Martin are the parents of two saints, including the well-known St. Therese of Lisieux. St. James the Apostle is the brother of St. John the Evangelist, also one of the Apostles. Sts. Joachim and Anne are the parents of Mary, the grandparents of Jesus, and the patron saints of grandparents. St. Bridget of Sweden is the mother of St. Catherine of Sweden. All of these saints helped me reflect on the importance of our families in our journey of faith. For many of us, let us follow the model of these saints and take advantage of the easing pandemic restrictions to get to see family members we may not have seen in well over a year.
Not as well-known Saint for the Month:
One saint in July who I wasn't very familiar with was St. Camillus de Lellis. I eventually learned that he was one of the patrons of the sick. The religious order he founded, the Camillians, is known as the Ministers to the Sick. What I find particularly inspiring about his life was that St. Camillus himself was sick most of his life and was in a state of constant suffering, yet he still devoted himself to this ministry. There are stories of him being unable to walk. Instead, he would crawl to visit the sick. Even as there is a light of hope to the eventual ending of the pandemic, let us continue to hold in prayer those who are sick with any ailment and those who care for them, and let us as the People of God pray for the intercession of St. Camillus.
As we go throughout this July, let us walk with the saints as role models for offering to God all of our highs and lows while trusting Him wherever He leads us.
To learn more about the saints, visit our Catholic Feast Days Website by clicking here.
To view a calendar of the feast days in July, and each month, click here.
Faith is a gift. The ability to practice that faith, to worship freely, to share our faith in the public square, is also a gift. Each year, the Church in the US observes Religious Freedom Week. This year, we focus on Solidarity in Freedom. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis writes, “Solidarity means much more than engaging in sporadic acts of generosity. It means thinking and acting in terms of community” (Fratelli Tutti, 116). The theme of Solidarity in Freedom forces us out into a global mindset, to one of community and fraternity. I’d like to focus on Religious Freedom Week through the stories of two men 400 years apart, Safa Al Alqoshy and St. John Southworth.
At the 2018 Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, Safa Al Alqoshy, the only youth delegate from Iraq to the Synod, shared the story of the struggle of Iraqi Christians. While I didn’t meet Safa in my time at the 2018 Synod, I was around him during the 2019 Post-Synod Forum in Rome on Christus Vivit. His stories from the Synod followed him back to Rome where he was met with great admiration. Even though he had to arrive at the Forum late, the community that formed with him was immediate.
Safa said to Crux, “It’s very important to pay attention that there is not only persecution by killing, there is a persecution by psychology, by feelings. You feel that you are alone, that you are not supported” (Crux). Safa expressed the reality of friends and family fleeing from Iraq, likely not to be seen again. He wasn’t just speaking generally about the people of Iraq, but from his own personal experience. He shared about two of his friends who were killed in a car bombing in 2009 and how Safa and his friends shared the common experience of saying, “see you next week” only to never see one another again.
The temptation can be to take Safa’s story, and the story of so many Christians like him across the world, and to use it for our own advantage. To share it as an example, but one devoid of the personal reality which courses through its proverbial veins. When we share Safa’s story as just another example of the terrible persecution that Christians face, even worse as a “look what could happen to us next” story in relation to religious freedom in the US, we fail to show solidarity. We dehumanize those who have died, those who have been separated by the flight for freedom and safety, and we turn our suffering brothers and sisters into objects whose story we use for our perceived gain. No, instead, Pope Francis urges us to be in true solidarity with Safa and his friends and family, to think and act in community. We must pray for them, we must give when we can give, but we cannot use them as pawns in a game of politics that is antithetical to true solidarity.
About 400 years before Safa there lived an English priest by the name of John Southworth. John was born around 1592 and was ordained in 1618 at the English College, Douai in France. St. John was arrested and imprisoned multiple times throughout his life, all for being a Catholic priest. Between his imprisonments, St. John would serve the plague victims of Westminster and provide sacraments to the sick and dying. St. John was arrested for the final time in 1654 and was sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. His body was returned to France in 1655 and buried after having been, literally, put back together. During the war between the English and French in 1793, St. John’s body was buried in an unmarked grave where it remained until 1927 when the grave was discovered. He was canonized in 1970 by Pope St. Paul VI.
John’s story is one of perseverance and solidarity. He was arrested multiple times and, eventually, killed for his Catholic faith. All throughout that time, he remained in solidarity with the English people, serving them through the sacraments, refusing to allow his own persecution to stand in the way of his Gospel mandate to be Christ to the world around him.
Religious Freedom Week invites us to be, like St. John, fervent in our faith. It reminds us that, even in times of persecution, we carry on in sharing the Gospel. The week also invites us to remember those in our days who are persecuted, such as Safa and our brothers and sisters in Iraq. Solidarity means that we are united with them in prayerful community, but never using them for our own means- detaching their story from their persons. May we pray for all persecuted Christians and reflect upon the meaning of religious freedom this week with the hope of growing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters across our Universal Church.
Over the course of this past year, we have had many opportunities to lose hope. Friends and family became ill, we could not enjoy a common handshake or hug, loved ones died, churches, schools, and recreational activities were shuttered, and we were required to keep distant from each other. In such circumstances, it is easy to feel low, to feel alone, and to feel as though better times are not on the way. Yet, the saints we honor on this day teach us the exact opposite – in the darkest of times, that is when hope is most needed. By clinging to hope, one can get through any hardship.
St. Thomas More (1478-1535) is probably one of the most well-known English Catholic saints. The quote, “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first,” is attributed to him and typically serves as the basis for many a reflection on faithful citizenship. He was also a prominent humanist and counted the great Erasmus as a friend. More famously refused to acknowledge Henry VIII as head of the Church of England, leading to More’s imprisonment and eventual execution.
While awaiting his trial, More composed his final work, A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation. He begins by stating that while some things can ease tribulation, like medicine, the most effective comfort is faith given by God. Because of faith, one can persevere through any trial encountered. He notes that one’s time on earth is fleeting compared to eternal life afterwards. Thus, one should live life striving to attain the rewards of heaven rather than those on earth.
St. John Fisher (1469-1535) is perhaps less well-known to contemporary Catholics. However, in his own time, many considered him not only the greatest preacher but also the greatest theologian in all Europe. He served as the bishop of the Diocese of Rochester and chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Fisher defended Queen Catherine of Aragon when Henry VIII attempted to divorce her. He also refused to acknowledge Henry as head of the Church and paid the price of imprisonment and execution. Just before Fisher’s trial, Pope Paul III named him a cardinal.
Asked to preach at the funeral of King Henry VIII’s father, Henry VII, Fisher began by declaring, “Let no man think that my intention is to praise him for any vain transitory things of this life.” The bishop went on to say that great wealth and power do not ensure eternal life. Rather, Fisher said, “The cause of this hope was the true belief he had in God, in his Church, and in the Sacraments thereof.” By holding strong to his faith in the merciful God, Fisher stated that Henry VII left this world in peace hoping to see his heavenly reward.
It is easy to admire the great convictions of the great people of the past. It is much harder to match that same zeal. Pope Francis reminds us that prayer is “a sacred fire in us too, which burns continually and which nothing can extinguish.” Therefore, by working little by little, day by day, we can grow in faith and, thus, grow closer to God. And as we come closer and closer to Him, then no matter what may be going on around us, no matter the discouragement that may afflict others, no matter the tribulation, we can remain anchored in the hope that comes from God alone.
To learn more about the saints, please visit our Catholic Feast Days page.
For more resources on COVID-19, please click here.
Today is the feast day of St. Josaphat, a monk and bishop who was martyred in modern-day Belarus due to his efforts for Christian unity in the 17th century. He was born John Kuncevic to Orthodox Christian parents in the late 1500s in Lithuania. Despite strong anti-Catholic sentiment in the Eastern Orthodox churches, a number of Eastern Catholic bishops signed the Union of Brest in 1598, which allowed several Eastern churches to maintain their liturgical rites while remaining in full communion with Rome. Following the leaders of his Ruthenian Church, John chose to unify himself with Rome and subsequently entered monastic life, taking on the name Josaphat.
As a priest and later a bishop, St. Josaphat worked tirelessly for reunification between the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox tradition; he produced apologetics texts and catechisms, published defenses of ecumenism, and reformed the priesthood in his diocese. He struggled against an influential rival Orthodox bishop and schismatic preachers who slandered Josaphat’s reputation and who denounced his desire for Christian unity. Eventually, in the early 1620s, St. Josaphat was attacked by an anti-unification mob, who shot and beheaded him before dumping his body into a nearby river. After his death, many of his former dissidents converted to union with Rome and even Josaphat’s greatest Orthodox rival eventually returned to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
What struck me when reading about St. Josaphat’s story was the utter breakdown in civil discourse. There were members on either side of the reunification debate who, while they disagreed strongly with one another, were able to do so without coming to blows. But after decades upon decades of increasing tension between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Christian churches, even a peaceful reformer and ardent defender of unity like St. Josaphat came to be seen by some as an enemy who must be taken down. And there were some whose support of maintaining the schism was so strong that they openly murdered the nearest figurehead of the ecumenical movement.
At times like ours, when it feels like there is division and violence all around us, I find it comforting to look at the history of the Church and to see that she has struggled against division almost as long as she has existed. The difficulties that St. Josaphat faced in Eastern Europe were not new to the Church—from the Arian heresy to the Eastern Schism and the Protestant Reformation, Church history is littered with examples of people arguing over the truth, outright rejecting the authority of the magisterium, or spreading misinformation about the Church and her mission.
St. Josaphat’s life reminds us of how we are called to evangelize with respect and charity in turbulent—and sometimes violent—times. We must work tirelessly for unity without compromising on the fundamentals of the Catholic faith and the authority of the magisterium, and study and defend the truth in respectful dialogue with those who disagree with us. And we must also prepare, perhaps, to be martyred for our efforts.
Most of us will not suffer a violent martyrdom as so many saints before us have done, but there are smaller, everyday crosses that we can endure. When pointing out the truth loses us friendships, that is our little martyrdoms. When we have to wake up in the middle of the night to change yet another diaper, that is our little martyrdom. When someone cuts us off on our way home after a long day, that is our little martyrdom. When a family member misunderstands our intentions, that is our little martyrdom.
Like Josaphat, let us rely on God to give us the strength and courage to continue in our everyday mission of evangelization. Every effort matters—even if you never see the fruit it bears—whether you are an archbishop trying to bring Orthodox Christian churches back into unity with Rome or you are a young Catholic trying to demonstrate that an authentic Catholic lifestyle is one of joy and peace.
For more resources on Christian Unity, please click here.
On September 15, my Pallottine confrere, Fr. Richard Henkes, S.A.C., was beatified in a beautiful and spiritually moving Mass in Limburg, Germany. Having preached against the Nazi regime while serving in what is now the Czech Republic, Fr. Henkes was arrested in 1943 and imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp. He died serving people with typhoid in the barracks where he was their “secret pastor.” The Heart of Jesus Province of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate summarizes his life and death in this way;
“The Pallottines consider his sacrifice as one of a brave warrior and as a testimony for the Christian faith as well as a martyr of Christian charity.”
Blessed Richard Henkes was not perfect, but Christ perfected him through his living witness unto death of the motto of the Pallottines: “The Charity of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor. 5:14). Rekindling charity as St. Vincent Pallotti called us to do, often means witnessing to what is just in this world, even if it causes persecution and suffering. We are called to accompany our brothers and sisters who are oppressed and in need without counting the cost to ourselves and our own comfort.
God provides us with the ability to do such things – to grow in holiness – as Blessed Richard Henkes came to know. We do not do it on our own. Pope Francis offers an important reflection for our day when he says in Gaudete et Exsultate:
“Persecutions are not a reality of the past, for today too we experience them, whether by the shedding of blood, as is the case with so many contemporary martyrs, or by more subtle means, by slander and lies. Jesus calls us blessed when people ‘utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account’ (Mt 5:11). At other times, persecution can take the form of gibes that try to caricature our faith and make us seem ridiculous. Accepting daily the path of the Gospel, even though it may cause us problems: that is holiness” (94).
May the Charity of Christ urge us on!
Learn more about Blessed Richard Henkes, S.A.C. at www.CatholicApostolateCenter.org/Henkes
We are now offering a new book about Blessed Richard Henkes, S.A.C. Click here to order the print version and here for the eBook.
Today is the optional memorial of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, who were twin brothers born in the third century in Arabia. Both Cosmas and Damian became physicians, and in true Christian charity, refused to accept payment from their patients. During the persecutions under Roman Emperor Diocletian, the brothers’ renown in their Christian community made them easy targets. They were imprisoned and tortured by various means in an effort to force them to recant their faith, and after surviving most of these tortures while remaining true to Christ, Cosmas and Damian were finally beheaded.
What draws me to the story of Sts. Cosmas and Damian is not only their adherence to the faith while under excruciating torture, but also their unfailing generosity to those around them. They tended the sick in their community and did so without asking for or taking any monetary compensation. I like to think this was because they were often helping sick people who were also too poor to afford a physician in the first place.
Generosity is a virtue that can easily be motivated by pride—we do good things for others, secretly hoping to get accolades or some kind of reward for being so self-giving. But I think generosity is really about giving to others —material, spiritual, or emotional—because you know the other will benefit, even if there is no compensation for you in return, or if (like Cosmas and Damian) you refuse to take any.
Generosity is not only exemplified by a wealthy man donating money to charitable causes, nor only by going on mission trips to help those in poverty, nor is it demonstrated by showering poor children with gifts at Christmastide. We can cultivate the virtue of generosity in ourselves much closer to home and on a daily basis—just as St. Cosmas and St. Damian did. Generosity is lived out by a talented musician volunteering at his church to worship God in song, or by a mother who prepares and brings home-cooked meals to other families in her parish who have a new baby or have had a recent surgery. There is also spiritual and emotional generosity: being present and available to our siblings, children, parents, or friends as they struggle with transitions or discernment. When we engage in these acts of generosity, we serve Christ by serving others—even if it is not necessarily a sacrifice for us to do so. (Although I know for myself, the sacrifice that comes with being generous is striving to be selfless in my generosity and not to expect or desire reciprocation.) We are called to use anything that we have been given in order to glorify God.
And what about those—presumably poor—people that Sts. Cosmas and Damian healed and treated? Who knows what kinds of generosity they were able to offer to their benefactors as a result of their encounter with the twin saints? Maybe they were generous in their prayer lives and interceded for the physician brothers. Maybe they were inspired by the generosity and faith of the two saints and went on to assist others in their community. Even if we cannot always be materially generous to each other, giving of ourselves in any capacity can cause a ripple effect of generosity throughout our communities.
We can also learn to support and foster the generosity of others by thinking about how we respond when we are offered someone’s generosity, whether we asked for it or whether it was volunteered to us. Personally, I am working on asking for help or accepting generosity with humility. I know that I am less likely to help someone if they repeatedly protest my efforts or insist that I am doing too much, and therefore I try not to protest or downplay the good work that someone does for me. I try to remind myself that by serving each other, we are ultimately serving Christ.
Questions for Reflection: Have you ever been the recipient of an act of generosity that changed your life? How so?
Today is the celebration of the Feast of St. Januarius, lovingly known in Italy as St. Gennaro. Januarius was an Italian bishop and martyr who died around the year 305. Not much is known about him other than what has been passed down in tradition, which tells us that the bishop of Benevento died under the Christian persecution of Diocletian along with six companions. After being thrown to wild beasts, who did not attack them, the Christians were beheaded.
The accounts and lives of the martyrs always serve to build up the Church. As Tertullian’s saying famously states, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." We recall the accounts of martyrs throughout the ages such as Felicity and Perpetua, Joan of Arc, Thomas More, Maximilian Kolbe, Blessed Miguel Pro, Blessed Richard Henkes, S.A.C., and most of the Apostles themselves. How diverse and rich is the witness of the martyrs and saints! In each generation, the martyrs demonstrate heroic faith in a culture of opposition that culminated in the sacrifice of their very lives.
In the case of St. Januarius, his witness continues in a special way today as a result of his relics. Not only is his witness of martyrdom powerful, so is the miracle associated with his blood. After Janurius’ beheading, a woman named Eusebia collected the bishop’s blood in a vial. This was brought to Naples and has been venerated for centuries. Most extraordinarily, for the past recorded 400 years starting in 1389, the dried vial of Januarius’ blood liquefies typically on three dates a year: “in the spring during celebrations of the feast of the transfer of the saint’s relics to Naples; Sept. 19, his feast day; and Dec. 16, the local feast commemorating the averting of a threatened eruption of Mount Vesuvius through the intervention of the saint.”
Most recently, his blood half-liquefied on a date outside of the normal dates with a visit from Pope Francis in March of 2015. In his typical humble fashion, Pope Francis responded to the applause from the crowd saying, “The bishop said the blood is half liquefied. It means the saint loves us halfway; we must all convert a bit more, so that he would love us more.” Through his words, Pope Francis reminds us that the purpose of miracles is to draw us closer to Christ and to increase our faith. Jesus performed miracles not for spectacle, but for healing and conversion.
The miracles of holy men and women continue to this day and serve the same purpose: to inspire profound faith in the ongoing work of God that causes us to strengthen our love of Him in word, action, and service. May they inspire our own faith and lead us closer to the One who modelled perfect martyrdom in charity—Jesus Christ—whose martyrdom we commemorate at every celebration of the Eucharist. Nourished by his Body and Blood, may we emerge from our parishes strengthened to answer persecution with love, hatred with forgiveness, apathy with zeal, ignorance with truth, and selfishness with compassion. In doing so, we will be everyday martyrs—literally, witnesses—proclaiming the Gospel with our lives.
St. Januarius, pray for us.
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?
On October 14, 2018, Pope Francis will canonize two great church leaders who helped shape Catholicism across the globe in the second half of the twentieth century: Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero. In reflecting on their lives, I cannot do justice to the complex and controversial circumstances that forged these extraordinary men into the saints they are. Instead, I’d like to reflect on something common and fundamental to us and them: Baptism.
Baptism sets the foundation for a lifelong calling and mission. The Catechism calls Baptism “the basis of the whole Christian life” and “the gateway to life in the Spirit” (CCC 1213). A saint is someone who lives their baptismal identity to the full. The three fundamentals we are called to live and practice “on entering the People of God through faith and Baptism” (CCC 783) are what we call the “three offices of Christ”: Priest, Prophet, and King. What made Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero saints was the integrity and fullness with which they lived out their baptismal vocations as priest, prophet, and king.
Both Pope Paul VI and Oscar Romero were ordained Catholic priests, but by virtue of their Baptism they shared what we call the “priesthood of the faithful.” What is this priestly vocation? We live it by offering prayer and sacrifice for others. At the heart of every saint is a love for and commitment to prayer. Archbishop Romero lived his priestly vocation in a powerful and tragic way when he was martyred on March 24, 1980 while celebrating Mass in Divina Providentia Hospital—uniting his prayer and sacrifice with Christ’s into eternity.
Paul VI and Oscar Romero excelled at the way they lived the prophetic vocation of their Baptism. A prophet, in the biblical sense, is someone called by God to deliver a message of truth through either words or actions. One of my favorite descriptions of a prophet is one who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. During their lifetime, prophets are often inconvenient, unpopular, or even attacked, but history proves they shared the right message at exactly the right time.
Both Paul VI and Oscar Romero faced harsh criticism, and Romero (as did many other prophets through history) suffered martyrdom. When Paul VI issued the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (1968), which affirmed traditional Catholic teaching on sexual ethics, he faced a wave of criticism and dissent in the Church. Fifty years later, many Catholic moral theologians and historians see that his analysis and predictions were right on target. Archbishop Romero, standing in the tradition of Old Testament prophets like Amos and Isaiah, stood up and spoke out to the government (known as the Junta) in his home country of El Salvador, as well as other world governments (including the United States), on behalf of the poor and marginalized who were being treated unjustly. Like Paul VI and Romero, every baptized person is called to stand up and speak out for truth and justice, especially when it is unpopular or inconvenient.
While we gravitate toward thinking of the “royal” or “kingly” role as one of being above or served by others, it is actually the exact opposite. A true leader is one completely dedicated to serving others through his administration and decision-making. I can think of few more monumental or difficult tasks a church leader faced than Pope Paul VI when he was called by the Church to steer the conclusion and implementation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which has been called the single most important religious event in the twentieth century. Archbishop Oscar Romero was often criticized for his ecclesial administration getting mixed up with the political situation. Yet Romero recognized that in order to effectively lead and serve the church under his pastoral care, he needed to engage the civil government around him.
We, like Paul VI and Oscar Romero, do not become saints by being perfect administrators or leaders, but by bringing God’s spirit of wisdom into the challenges and opportunities that come our way. I would guess that at their baptism and even priestly ordination, Paul VI and Oscar Romero had no idea how God had planned for them to exercise their royal vocation. Under extraordinary times and circumstances, these saints modelled for us how we all are called to exercise leadership in ordinary, everyday circumstances with humility and whole-hearted devotion to God and others.
On October 14, let us rededicate ourselves to living our own priestly, prophetic, and royal vocation of Baptism with the same spirit and integrity as Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Please click the following links for more information about the canonization and lives of Pope Paul VI and Oscar Romero.
In AD 590, when a man named Gregory—the abbot of St. Andrew’s Monastery in Rome—was called upon to serve as Bishop of Rome, he responded with an open letter to the Church: "Pastoralis curae me pondera fugere" — “I have thought to flee from the burdens of pastoral care.” In essence, Gregory pleaded to be spared the heavy and awesome responsibility of the office of bishop. His letter formed the opening lines of his work Pastoral Care (Regula Pastoralis), one of our church’s greatest works of pastoral theology by one of our church’s greatest shepherds. Interestingly, we celebrate Pope St. Gregory the Great’s feast on September 3, the day he was consecrated pope — not the anniversary of the saint’s death, as per usual — perhaps as a testament to the light of personal holiness and institutional reform that he exhibited during the dark days, literally the historical “Dark Ages,” of the church when he was elected.
Though primarily addressing his soon-to-be brother bishops in Pastoral Care, St. Gregory’s words resonate with all those who exercise leadership and responsibility in ministry, especially in light of the painful days in which our church now finds herself. In times of turmoil, St. Gregory believed that God calls all the baptized faithful — laity and clergy, women and men, young and old — to the task of renewal in the apostolate.
St. Gregory did not mince words when he called out leaders “who aspire to glory and esteem by an outward show of authority within the holy Church,” and as a result, “when those who go before lose the light of knowledge, certainly those who follow are bowed down in carrying the burden of their sins” (Pastoral Care, I.1). He observed, “For no one does more harm in the Church than he, who having the title or rank of holiness, acts evilly” (Pastoral Care, I.3).
St. Gregory’s great handbook on pastoral care challenges the core values and virtues that ought to shape our Christian life and community. In aspiring to roles of leadership, Gregory makes the striking remark that “whosoever was set over the people was the first to be led to the tortures of martyrdom” (Pastoral Care, I.8). In other words, Gospel ministry in the footsteps of Jesus, especially for those serving in leadership, is a laying down of one’s life — one’s time, talent, treasures — so that the power of the crucified and risen Christ may live in us. The result is not necessarily “success,” but joy and salvation. In imitation of Jesus, true pastoral care conquers the love of power with the power of love.
In calling others to holiness, what made Gregory truly “great” was that in spite of his strengths, he never lost sight of his own weaknesses, sins, failures, and need for constant conversion. He ends his work by stating:
“I, miserable painter that I am, have painted the portrait of an ideal man; and here I have been directing others to the shore of perfection, I, who am still tossed about on the waves of sin. But in the shipwreck of this life, sustain me, I beseech you, with the plank of your prayers, so that, as my weight is sinking me down, you may uplift me with your meritorious hand.” (Pastoral Care, IV)
In short, we Christian brothers and sisters need each other more than ever. We need each other to offer joy, consolation, encouragement, and a helping hand to one another. That is what makes ministry not only possible, but even worth doing. We hold out hope that our God never ceases to call forth church leaders and Christ followers like Gregory to lead us through the Dark Ages, in whatever age they seem to be dawning.
Let’s face it: We live in a world that doesn’t really understand the meaning of love. We hear this word “love” thrown around a lot. There are any number of things we can say that we love in a day: our latest tv show binge, a favorite food, or place that we have travelled. We use this word with such inconsistency that it has begun to lose its meaning.
How often do we succeed at recognizing and paying accolades to these “lesser loves” while failing to acknowledge the people and moments that actually deserve our recognition? All the while we are too easily forgetting Jesus, who is Love made flesh.
The Gospel of John says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” While the world proposes time and time again that we settle for lesser loves, the Gospel promises us that if we want to find our lives - if we want to find love - we must lay ourselves down.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, whose feast we celebrate today, exhibited this in a way that was truly heroic. Not only did he defend and promulgate the faith during the height of World War II, but he, in a final act of heroic love, also laid down his life for a man randomly selected to die in a starvation chamber at Auschwitz. When St. Maximilian Kolbe was asked who he was by the Nazi guards, he simply responded: “I am a Catholic priest.”
Maximillian Kolbe’s sacrifice is what the Church calls an act of “redemptive suffering” – suffering which allows and invites us to participate in Christ’s redeeming sacrifice and make manifest the love of God. The Catechism states:
The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the "one mediator between God and men". But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, "the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery" is offered to all men. He calls his disciples to "take up [their] cross and follow (him)",[Mt.16:24] for "Christ also suffered for (us), leaving (us) an example so that (we) should follow in his steps."[1Pet.2:21] In fact Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering.
Because St. Maximilian knew and loved the truth of the Gospels, he was found ministering to others and singing praises to God even as he was being starved to death. Maximilian used his suffering to show his fellow prisoners a God who loves us so much that he gave His life to us on the Cross. His own life provides a powerful example of someone who, even in the midst of horrific circumstances, has so much confidence in Christ that he is able to sing out, “For my yoke is easy, my burden light.”
As Christians in the 21st century, it is our privilege to live lives of heroic love. Although most of us won’t be called to the sufferings of St. Maximilian Kolbe, we are ALL called to show and share love in a way that points others to the love of the Cross.
St. Maximillian Kolbe, pray for us.
The story of St. Paul has always been one that has touched me to my very core. To think that someone who was persecuting the Church—who saw to it that the very first martyr, Stephen, was stoned to death—would eventually leave everything to follow God’s will for his life is truly extraordinary.
But the story of St. Paul, although extraordinary, is not something beyond our reach. Some of us have experienced massive conversions in our lives—whether they involve entering the Church for the first time or returning to the sacraments after a time away. Some of us have had conversions of mind and heart when it comes to embracing what the Church teaches in regards to morality. Still others experience ongoing, undramatic conversion throughout their lives.
Regardless of our individual experiences, the conversion of St. Paul can inspire us to encounter Christ in a deeper way that leaves us transformed. The Church does not celebrate the feast of the conversion of St. Paul merely for that moment of initial encounter and conversion. We celebrate it because of how it changed absolutely everything for Saul, now Paul. Paul met Christ personally; and this encounter guided his decisions and actions for the rest of his life. And so it must be with us! Shortly after Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, Acts 9:18 describes how after a conversation with Ananias, “things like scales fell from his eyes.” It was only after this that Paul was able to go and preach the good news of the Gospel—the good news that changed everything for him.
Although we may not be knocked blind by a voice in the heavens, most of us do have scales on our eyes that prevent us from truly seeing and knowing Christ and spreading the Gospel. Whether we experience scales of sin, shame, bitterness, or inadequacy, we must remember that God desires constant conversion for us. Just as He so faithfully spoke to Paul in his conversion, He is inviting us to the same thing—the promise that a life turned toward Him will be better than anything our clouded eyes could imagine.
This will manifest itself in our lives in any number of ways—through reconciliation in a relationship, returning to confession, or an increased disposition of mercy for those in our lives who need it. By allowing our lives to be constantly converted, we will be equipped, encouraged, and enabled to share the news that changed everything for Paul 2000 years ago and that continues to change everything for us now. Let us pray and ask the Lord for a deeper encounter with him. May he continually remove the scales from our eyes.
St. Paul, pray for us!
Questions for Reflection: Have you experienced a powerful moment of conversion or has your spiritual life been one of ongoing, gradual conversion? What might be some “scales” in your life that prevent you from living as a missionary disciple?
On July 25th, we celebrate the feast day of St. James the Apostle. St. James and his brother John were the sons of Zebedee. Jesus referred to these brothers as the “Sons of Thunder,” most likely due to their penchant for rash, emotional reactions and decisions. St. James teaches us the importance of humility and of promptly responding to God’s call, regardless of the securities we may leave behind in doing so. He was the first apostle to die a martyr’s death. We can look to his zeal for following Christ and his courage in spreading the faith in difficult times as examples for our own spiritual lives.
We remember from Scripture that St. James and St. John initially asked Jesus if they could be placed on either side of him in his heavenly kingdom. Jesus uses this as an opportunity to reiterate to the disciples the importance of servant leadership. Jesus responds, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
From this lesson and Jesus’ previous parable of The Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), we learn that the faithful are invited to receive the ultimate reward of eternal life with our Father in heaven. Jesus reminds us that we shouldn’t get caught up in the earthly understanding of rankings, but can all share in the glory of God in heaven.
We also learn from this example with St. James and St. John that serving others is how we are called to love our neighbors. As 1 Corinthians 13:3 says, “If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Jesus asks us to rely on him and not on others’ recognition of our sacrifices.
In the New Testament, we often hear of St. James mentioned with Sts. John and Peter. These three disciples were privileged to be present at many of the significant moments in Jesus’ ministry on earth, including the Transfiguration and Agony in the Garden. The Holy Spirit’s presence within the apostles at Pentecost was a turning point for St. James and the other disciples because it showed them the true nature of Jesus’ mission and the meaning of his sacrifice on the cross (Benedict XVI, General Audience, June 21, 2006). From there, James and the other apostles went out to all the nations, preaching Jesus and his Gospel message.
James’ life after Pentecost symbolizes the pilgrimage of the Christian journey (Benedict XVI, General Audience, June 21, 2006). His journey is one of the reasons he is considered the patron saint of pilgrim travelers and was recognized as a patron saint of World Youth Day 2016. In fact, the path to Santiago de Compostela, where St. James is buried in northwestern Spain, was one of the most traveled pilgrim routes during Medieval times after Rome and Jerusalem. Many people continue to make this pilgrimage today and to seek the guidance of St. James. We can call upon him to protect us during our journeys and to intercede for us for our personal conversions of heart before, during, and after our travels. We are called to follow Jesus as St. James did, knowing that even through life’s difficulties, we are walking along God’s path for us together with Christ.
Through the example of St. James the Apostle, we see that following Jesus can have its difficulties through persecution and other hardships, but that our eternal reward is life in heaven with him. St. James’ story encourages us to leave our comparisons to others behind, fully trust in God, and show enthusiasm for Jesus Christ even when it is difficult.
Questions for Reflection: Have you ever embarked on a pilgrimage? How did it deepen your spirituality? What are some ways we might be called to grow in our humility as we practice servant leadership in following Christ?
“They were to be brought into the arena just as they were. Perpetua then began to sing a psalm.” -The Passion of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity
What psalm did you sing, Perpetua, when you were thrown into the arena to face the wild beasts? I can’t help but wonder as I reread the martyrdom account of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, whose feast we celebrate today. The calm and joy of both women astounds me.
What psalm would one sing in the face of death? And how could one find the courage to even sing?
Martyrdom contradicts everything we are told to value in this world. It entails giving without reserve, sacrificing all, even the greatest good, which is life itself. And yet the martyrs are a stark, beautiful, and perhaps even uncomfortable proof of what sacrificial love can look like. They help us to readjust our eyes to the eternal.
“Who are the martyrs?” Pope Francis asked in his message for the beatification of the Spanish Martyrs of the Twentieth Century. “They are Christians won by Christ, disciples who learned well the meaning of ‘loving to the end’ that took Jesus to the Cross.… Christ goes before us in love; the martyrs have imitated him in love to the end.”
We read in the first letter to the Corinthians just what we are called to when we are called to love. “Love is patient, love is kind,” he begins. But what else does Paul write? That love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” The martyrs, such as Perpetua and Felicity, give testament to this love.
What sets Perpetua and Felicity apart for me is their role in the Church not only as martyrs, but as women, specifically mothers. The account of their martyrdom includes text from Perpetua herself and is one of the few documents we have from the early Church of lay women martyrs. How beautiful that we celebrate the witness of these two women on the same day. Together, they give us a rich portrayal of grace by experiencing suffering with joy and remaining perpetually faithful to Christ. The account of their martyrdom notes that even those who had come to watch the martyrdom shuddered “seeing one a tender girl, the other her breasts yet dropping from her late childbearing.” As a new mother myself, re-reading their account makes their sacrifice all the more visceral. Both Perpetua and Felicity lost everything by human standards to face their martyrdom: family, wealth, possessions, children. Yet both gain everything by God’s standards: eternal life resting in the beatific vision.
Both women live up to their names. Perpetua remains steadfast to her faith. While Felicity, which means intense happiness, joins the Christian martyrs with joy and serenity, praising God for the early birth of her child so that she could join her companions in martyrdom. The example of these women seems baffling to our world. How could a mother give up her child? How could a person give up wealth, possessions, titles, security? Apart from God, these sacrifices make no sense.
So what can we learn from the martyrs? “The Holy Fathers say: ‘Let’s imitate the martyrs!’” Pope Francis continued in his message.
Does this mean we must forfeit our lives, give up everything, if we are to follow Christ? Some have been and still are called to give their physical lives for the Christian faith. However, I think we can all live out martyrdom in many different ways. Pope Francis expands on this understanding. He continues, “We always have to die a bit to come out of ourselves, of our egoism, our wellbeing, our sloth, our sadnesses, and open ourselves to God, to others, especially the neediest.”
In other words, we can join in the sacrifice of the martyrs, and of Christ for that matter, each and every day by offering up our own prayers and hardships—by dying to ourselves first and foremost. While we may not be called to give our physical life for our faith, we are always being challenged to give up anything in our lives that is not love. Lent is a particularly intense time of this dying to self, or mortification, in order to grow closer to our neighbor and to Christ. Additionally, we are called to endure this process of “everyday martyrdom” with joy and hope—something Perpetua in particular models beautifully with her singing.
Let us follow the advice of St. Augustine as we continue our pilgrim journey: “Sing as wayfarers do—sing but continue your journey. Do not grow tired, but sing with joy!”
Question for Reflection: In what ways can you die a little to yourself this Lent?
Praise God in his holy sanctuary; give praise in the mighty dome of heaven.
Give praise for his mighty deeds, praise him for his great majesty.
Give praise with blasts upon the horn, praise him with harp and lyre.
Give praise with tambourines and dance, praise him with strings and pipes.
Give praise with crashing cymbals, praise him with sounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath give praise to the LORD!
- Psalm 150
Back in high school, my primary extracurricular activities were band and drama club. I’ll always remember how our band teacher, Mr. Crocken, would begin every concert by reciting Psalm 150. Before any announcements or accolades, any thanks or congratulations, he would acknowledge the one from whom all our gifts and talents flow. Before all else, he gave a gentle but profound reminder of the importance of thanking God for our blessings at all times, especially through music.
As one would expect in a Catholic school, we began every meeting, whether a class, club, or team practice, with prayer. Our after-school drama club rehearsals were no different. Concluding prayer with the school’s traditional litany to our three patrons, the drama club also always added Saints Genesius and Cecilia, the patrons of actors and musicians. I’d always wondered why Cecilia was patroness of musicians and, since her feast day is today, I finally investigated.
Saint Cecilia, one of the most venerated of the Roman martyrs, is most well known as patroness of musicians. Despite having consecrated her maidenhood to God, she married a man called Valerian. During their nuptial Mass, she sang to God in her heart, asking for an angel to protect her virginity. When Valerian asked his bride for proof that she was protected by an angel, Cecilia sent him to the Appian Way to be baptized. There, he saw the angel and quickly became an evangelist, converting many to the faith before being martyred some time later. Cecilia’s martyrdom soon followed, ministering to the poor even on her deathbed. Since her canonization, Cecilia has been very much defined by that story of her singing on her wedding day. There’s even a musical conservatory in Rome, one of the oldest in the world, named after her.
It’s always struck me how music is consistently referred to, particularly in Church circles, as a means by which to glorify and praise God. When I think of the moments when my soul has been most moved, they frequently involve music. Pieces like Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Requiem, and especially Schubert’s Ave Maria, move me even to tears more often than not. Why? They are beautiful works of art, to be sure, but the reasons they were written are far deeper. The composers used their craft to elevate the listener closer to God in a way that no other media seems able to match.
Pieces of music like those just mentioned seem to take root in people’s hearts in a very profound way. That’s why they’ve been integrated into everyday life over the ages. From the Gregorian Chant used in the Mass, to folk songs sung at table or around the fire, even to modern popular music, the common thread is that humanity is united by that universal language that speaks directly to the heart. In my own life, Handel’s Messiah is very dear to me. We sang it in choir when I was in college, I listen to it every year while trimming the Christmas Tree and “decking the halls”, and I join a group of friends every December 23rd for a sing-along performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Something about the piece moves me in a way I can’t really explain. But that’s the beauty of music!
St. Cecilia gave thanks to the Lord in her heart and with her voice. This Thanksgiving, as we reflect on the blessings God has bestowed upon us this year, let us follow the example of St. Cecilia and the Psalms and join everything that has breath and praise the Lord.
St. Cecilia, pray for us!