When you hear the name St. Augustine, what do you think of? Probably something about the Confessions, arguably his most famous work. Or perhaps you remember that he is one of the first doctors of the Church. But do you know about his spiritual journey from youthful hedonism to prominent theologian?
St. Augustine was born in the mid 300s in North Africa to a Christian mother and a pagan father. Initially educated in rhetoric, as a teenager, Augustine embraced a life of comfortable vices, which he outlines in his autobiographical and philosophical work the Confessions. Eventually, his intellectual pursuits lead him to Europe, into and out of Manicheism (a dualist religion based on pure reason), and back toward the religion of his childhood. Through the evangelizing work of St. Ambrose, Augustine was finally baptized into the Christian faith in his early 30s. He went on to become one of the early Church’s most important philosophers.
For cradle Catholics like me, our faith journeys are nowhere near as dramatic as St. Augustine’s conversion from corrupt youth to doctor of the Church. Nevertheless, there are always opportunities for daily conversion! The teenage Augustine would pray, “Give me chastity and continency, only not yet.” How often do we catch ourselves praying in a similar vein? “Give me temperance—but not until I’ve eaten three packages of Oreos”; “Give me a stronger desire for prayer—but maybe not until next week, after I’m done binge-watching this TV show.” Like Augustine, we often find ourselves wrestling with our human weaknesses and our desire to do things on our own timeline rather than God’s.
But even as we struggle to overcome our personal vices, God draws us closer to Himself, taking our fractured pasts to create a beautiful whole. St. Augustine’s theological and philosophical treatises would perhaps have not been so fervent or persuasive had he not previously so fully embraced bad philosophy before his conversion. His secular education and his training in rhetoric and Platonic philosophy prepared him for his work defending true Christian theology and refining its philosophy—so much so that he is recognized as one of the original doctors of the Church. Long before Augustine had come to fully accept the Christian faith, God was already preparing him for his future role as bishop and philosopher. Likewise, our past does not restrict our future. Choices that ended up leading us seemingly nowhere, periods of doubt or conflict—God can take these moments of human weakness and use them to bring us closer to Him. Like St. Augustine, even a previous decade of promiscuity could remind us of how empty is a life not lived for Christ.
St. Augustine is living proof that no one—no matter how seemingly corrupt, how spiritually lost, or how morally confused—is beyond the power of God’s grace. On St. Augustine’s feast day, let us consider where we are on our faith journeys. Where is there room for daily conversion? How can we learn from our past failures to more fully embrace a future lived with Christ?
Question for Reflection: What failure can I use from my past to build up my relationship with Christ?
When I was young, I thought that strength was something you could only have from going to the gym and building muscle. I used to see people who were physically strong and think to myself, “Wow I want to be strong like they are!” Later, I realized that strength comes in many different forms and physical strength is only one of them. There are three forms of strength I have noticed that I would like to unwrap and reflect on: physical strength intellectual strength, and spiritual strength.
Our society likes the idea of being strong. Many build their bodies to withstand enormous force, pressure, and endurance. There are contests for strong people, strength is applauded in sports, and generally those who are stronger win out and become the victor. Strength to some people is building muscle, but it can also be about the power of thought and intellectual strength. Lifelong academics, philosophers, theologians, and other great minds spend their lives thinking, keeping their brains agile and “in good shape.” These are the ones who can create, invent, and solve the world’s problems because of perseverance in learning.
After considering these two forms of strength, let’s think about one more that I’ve intentionally left for the end: spiritual strength. This one is a big part of my life because I have faith in God’s plan for my life, trust in his mercy, and have learned what I can from the Psalms. One Psalm that rings true for me when things are difficult is Psalm 28: Praise be to the Lord, for he has heard my cry for mercy. The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him.
From this perspective of faith, my own spirituality can blossom. I can find strength in the Lord who answers my prayers, knows my heart’s desires, and will always know what is best for me. In my own life, I have experienced trials and hardships that channeled thoughts and feelings into becoming stronger within. I learned to stay positive and seek God’s help when times were tough. This spiritual strength has also helped me to grow in compassion.
One way I am still growing in strength is through daily reflection. A prayer I use with my class is called an Examen, a prayer that St. Ignatius of Loyola encouraged. The Examen involves looking at things that went well, things that went wrong, analyzing the day on the whole, speaking to God, and asking for his strength to take on the next day and grow. Here’s an Examen that provides three minutes of quiet reflection and is quick for my busy schedule, but meaningful and thought-provoking as well.
Where does my strength come from? A compliment. The Psalms. Quiet reflection. A long run. Peaceful music. Adoration in a quiet chapel. A good night’s sleep. Eating well. A good book. The Eucharist. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, and varying degrees of each. Where is this strength found for you? How do you build strength? When we are aware of Christ’s presence in our lives, we are strengthened by knowing we can always improve and be better tomorrow. So I challenge you now, to build your prayer muscles and become spiritually fit.
Start here, with Psalm 121:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you— the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.
For more resources on prayer, please click here.
If you attended an Easter Vigil Mass this year, then you participated in what St. Augustine called the “mother of all holy Vigils”(Sermo 219)—the day the Church receives many new Catholics through the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation.
The newly baptized, or “neophytes,” (a Greek word meaning “new plant”) begin a fourth and final period of formation called mystagogy, which lasts the Easter Season until Pentecost. If you haven’t personally participated in the formal process of becoming Catholic as an adult (called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA, in parishes), chances are you haven’t heard this word recently… or maybe ever.
What is Mystagogy?
Our faith needs mystagogy first and foremost because of one simple reason: we celebrate and proclaim a mystery.
As evangelists and catechists, I think it is important to recognize that for some people, the idea of religious “mystery” prima facie, conjures up images of a Da Vinci Code-esque Church shrouded in secrecy, New Age spiritualism, or even a pre-scientific belief in “magic.” But the sacraments do not initiate us into a special club or secret society. Through them, we are made participants in the life of Jesus Christ.
Faith begins and ends in mystery, most especially the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, “the central mystery of Christian faith and life . . . the source of all other mysteries of faith” (CCC 234). In the scriptures, liturgy, and sacraments, we truly encounter and participate in the Triune life of God. But no matter how intelligent or insightful we are, we will never fully wrap our minds around God’s glory or totally experience it with our five senses.
Mystagogy comes from the Greek word meaning, “to lead through the mysteries.” The Catechism describes mystagogy as a “liturgical catechesis that aims to initiate people into the mystery of Christ” (CCC 1075). Mystagogy leads us from the external signs and rituals of the liturgy to the inner, spiritual meaning of the divine life they signify. Mystagogy is the form of catechesis that helps us unpack and explore the spiritual treasures contained in the sacraments by continuously reflecting on their meaning and significance in our personal lives of faith.
Mystagogy was the way the early Church Fathers embraced and trained new Christians in the practices and beliefs of the faith. Perhaps the most well known teacher of mystagogy was St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386 CE), who delivered a famous series of sermons, known as “mystagogic catecheses,” during the time of Lent through the Easter Octave. After the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church revitalized this ancient practice, especially in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. But mystagogy isn’t just for the newly baptized; it is the way every Catholic can continually deepen their relationship with Christ by daily drawing on the grace of the sacraments.
Significance for our New Evangelization
Just as Catholics are rediscovering the importance of the “kerygma” (Greek for “proclamation”) for evangelization, mystagogy is incredibly important in our approach to catechesis in the New Evangelization. John Paul II wrote, “Through catechesis the Gospel kerygma is gradually deepened . . . . and channeled toward Christian practice in the Church and the world” (Catechesi Tradendae, n. 25), specifically the form of mystagogy. Additionally, mystagogy serves as a trustworthy guide when reflecting on ways to improve our catechetical methods.
Living the Mystery Daily
Ongoing mystagogy is important because our relationship with the sacraments change as we grow and mature as individuals and meet new life challenges and circumstances. In turn, the sacraments really change us. Pope Benedict XVI said, “The mature fruit of mystagogy is an awareness that one's life is being progressively transformed by the holy mysteries being celebrated” (Sacramentum Caritatis n. 64). By reflecting regularly on the sacraments, we access an incredible strength for our daily tasks.
Developing a practice of Eucharistic mystagogy can combat the routinization that often sets in to our receiving communion. For those who are married, or preparing for marriage, there is a mystagogy of marriage. With ongoing mystagogic reflection, you may discover new fruits of that sacrament in every season of life.
Studying theology and the Bible is often an undervalued way of developing our spiritual life. Learning about someone or something is a sign of love, and we truly become what we behold (cf 2 Cor. 3:18). Reading the great books and sermons of Catholic authors and theologians greatly expands our hearts and minds to experience the truth and depth of our faith.
The great Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel is attributed as stating, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.” Mystagogy is the path leading Christians to learn to live the mystery of our faith. I encourage you to follow the path trod by St. Cyril up through popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, in making this incredible tradition and gift called “mystagogy” a part of your life.
To learn more about Catechesis, please consider reading the General Directory for Catechesis or the National Directory for Catechesis.
For more resources on Prayer and Catechesis, click here.
Back in 2002, my 8th grade religion teacher assigned my class the task of choosing a saint for Confirmation and then writing about why we chose the person. After deciding that I would research a patron of lawyers and politicians, I came across a name: St. Thomas More. He seemed like an interesting person whose work and faith were integral in his life. His feast day is on June 22, and his life and personality can offer us something to apply to ourselves today.
After researching his life, seemed even more interesting to me, primarily because of how history and faith intertwine in his life. A brief history on him: St. Thomas More was Chancellor to Henry VIII and a personal friend. He was a devout Catholic and criticized the King about his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. This was treason, but he was willing to put aside friendship and his life for his convictions, and was not harmed. But, when Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church of England, separating himself from the papacy, all in the government were to sign signifying their agreement to this act. Thomas More refused. Because of this blatant act of treason, Thomas was imprisoned in the Tower of London and eventually executed along with Bishop John Fisher on July 6, 1535. In both the Anglican and Catholic liturgical calendars, he is celebrated as a saint for his willingness to being martyred for his faith.
Thomas More is considered to be a “Man for all Seasons” because of his ability to be a philosopher, politician, lawyer, devout Catholic, and loving father of 4 children. The man was considered a model civil politician in English Parliament and respected by some of his most hated rivals for his integrity. It was due to his integrity that he was martyred. Can we willingly give our lives due to our personal integrity and unwillingness to move away from what faith teaches us? Are we willing to deal with the ridicule and criticism for our beliefs? Thomas More was a person of such integrity that he was willing to die instead of lie and go against his beliefs.
St. Pope John Paul II considered him such an important and needed saint for the 21st century that he declared him the patron saint for political leaders. Thomas More’s civility and statesmanship should serve as a reminder for those in political office. Despite differences that people may have with each other as politicians, love and respect of those with different viewpoints is imperative. Thomas More was one who disagreed with many, but was always willing to work with others and be a truly welcoming and hospitable person.
It is my hope every time that I ask for the intercession of St. Thomas More that I and all those who care about political life are willing to listen to those we disagree with and still love the person. It is a difficult task, but with the assistance of the saints, such as Thomas More, we can work for the betterment of society together.
Jonathan Sitko is the Program Manager of the Catholic Apostolate Center.
Courage and perseverance are two traits that I admire. The latter is a characteristic that not many people have, is hard to teach, and one that is imperative for success. In my classroom of 2nd graders, I try to remind them to “not give up, but try again and again.” When they become frustrated with challenging work or difficult friendships, they stop wanting to try again. They start to give up - but I tell them, “Keep trying!” and “Don’t be afraid to make a mistake!” Hopefully, one day my students will grow to recognize how courage can help them persevere through anything.
People who do extraordinary things should be recognized for their courage and conviction. Saint Catherine of Siena, whose feast day we celebrated yesterday, is a woman whose contributions to the Church, taking action in times of need and exceptional theological writings, sometimes can be overlooked. Born in Siena, Italy in 1347, Catherine spent her life doing the will of God. She began receiving visions and praying to God from a very early age, even seeing in one in which Christ reassured her with an armor of courage that could overcome anything that tempted or threatened her.
St. Catherine lived her entire life in prayer and was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI on October 4, 1970. She along with St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of Lisieux are the three women to have been bestowed with such a title. St. Catherine worked to return Pope Gregory XI to Rome, from Avignon France where the Papacy had been residing for 67 years. Her determination to see this mission through was a testament to her unwavering courage to do God’s will.
In her many philosophical letters, prayers, and the Dialogue, St. Catherine reflected on four theological concepts with which she considered while in ecclesiastical mysticism. The first was a Treatise of Divine Providence, the second was a Treatise of Discretion, third was a Treatise of Prayer, and finally a Treatise of Obedience. Throughout her courageous writings, she discusses the goodness of a person’s knowledge of God and his unending love for his children living on earth.
Because of this prayerful life she led, in 1375, St. Catherine was blessed with the Stigmata on her hands, feet, and side. Her wounds reflected those of Christ’s and were only visible to the naked eye upon her death in 1380 at the young age of thirty-three. Found incorrupt in 1430, St. Catherine is now buried under the altar of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, in Rome and a sculpture of her body is on display there, too.
Throughout the year, let us strive to be like St. Catherine of Siena and take courage and persevere. Unshaken by those who challenged and doubted her, she remained steadfast in her commitment to Christ, His Church, and His people. You don’t have to be a saint to follow God’s call to courageous witness, but prayer and perseverance can lead you toward holiness in Christ.
Krissy Kirby is a teacher for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
“Saint Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.” This simple invocation was the conclusion to my family’s Morning Prayer ritual. Every morning, for as long as I can remember, my family would pray together an Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, and the St. Michael’s Prayer. We would conclude with the invocations of Saint Anthony (for a safe trip to school) and Saint Thomas Aquinas (for help with our studies). Today the day before the feast day of Saint Thomas, patron saint of students, and during Catholic Schools Week; I wanted to share my experience of education.
I attended public schools from first grade until I graduated from high school. I was not the only religious student in my grade (or even the only Catholic) but nonetheless I was labeled as the “token Catholic.” This label was at times a point of pride for me and at others a burden
I wish I could evade. While it never hindered me from making friends, it still set me apart. I would take up defense of the Church’s often unpopular stance on social issues in class discussions. In some rare cases I even found that my thoughts on certain subjects were brushed off as being my opinion only because of my faith, and any evidence I supplied in support of that stance was ignored. While I received a well-rounded education, the school community was so concerned with being tolerant of all things that it became intolerant of ideas it perceived as being intolerant.
After high school, I attended a Catholic college. This was my first real experience of having faith integrated into my formal education. There were numerous differences, but perhaps the most notable was the community. In every classroom, there were Catholic students whose beliefs varied widely, as well as students of other faiths or no faith at all. Regardless of who you were or what you believed, you were expected to support your opinion with reason. It was this environment that fostered a community of intellectual discussion and debate (which rarely turned into conflict). Every idea was heard, which allowed me to hone my own beliefs while also growing in faith. This community was truly welcoming and challenging to all—even when that meant a difference of opinions.
Education should be a constant exchange of ideas. This exchange is not always smooth and simple, and that can in fact be a good thing. Saint Thomas’s two greatest works, Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles, incorporate the work of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (which, at the time that Saint Thomas lived and wrote, was just shy of heresy). He also conversed with philosophers of other faiths, most notably Islam. Despite this pushing of boundaries—or perhaps because of them—Saint Thomas is recognized today as one of the founders of modern philosophy. In his writings he addresses arguments and opposition to his theories head-on regardless of whom they came from. This boldness in spirit is what made him both an incredible student and teacher. It is also why, over eight hundred years later students—myself certainly included—ask for his intercession with their studies.
As Catholics, it is our duty to build up communities where we can encounter both those who share our faith and those who do not. We can see this lived out in the challenging and formative words of our Holy Father. May we always seek to be students and teachers of the faith. Saint Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.
Patrick Burke is a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.