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?
In 1745, Fr. Alban Butler produced his collection of the Lives of the Saints. It’s been in circulation ever since, providing the faithful with stories of holy men and women as exemplars to imitate. Oftentimes, the stories in the volumes of the Lives of the Saints do not seem to portray real human beings. The brief passages list only miracles and pious deeds. Sometimes I feel that the examples used could even make the sweet St. Therese, the Little Flower, look positively scandalous in comparison!
This is not to say that Fr. Butler’s work is in vain. It is good that these names are recorded for us. As we celebrate All Saints’ Day, we should honor those who came before us and passed down the faith from generation to generation. But this feast day raises the question: what is a saint?
The process of canonization tells us that we know when a certain person is surely in Heaven and that their life is worth imitating, but there are more unrecognized saints than those that are recognized. Saints are people who, through the course of their lives, have grown into the image of themselves which God holds in His divine mind. They become who they were created to be in the fullest sense. The marvelous thing about saints is that they were real, gloriously messy, complex human persons. If we believe every human being is an unrepeatable expression of God’s love, then it stands to reason that every saint is an unrepeatable example of what it means to live out of that love.
I think too often we get concerned with trying to imitate certain saints, like St. Therese, and forget to discover who we were created to be. You cannot be St. Therese: Part 2, or Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati 2.0. Those roles have been taken because those two individuals had the humility to see the greatness God was inviting them into. They stepped into the journey of becoming who they were meant to be. Dr. Gianna Molla, known for giving her life to save her infant daughter’s, was not a saint because of that one action. Her life was steeped in holiness. She was a doctor, a mother, a lover of fashion, and apparently a terrible driver. But as much as I want to be her when I grow up, I can’t. I will never be a doctor, for one thing. What I can do is find pieces of my personality in hers, and I can learn from her example of how she lived and how she handled certain situations and use those lessons in my own life—much like getting advice from an older sister.
Holy lives are not replicas of each other. You cannot program holiness by inserting a set of statutes, commands, circumstances, or ideals into people. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his General Audience on April 13, 2011, said “Holiness, the fullness of Christian life, does not consist in carrying out extraordinary enterprises but in being united with Christ, in living his mysteries, in making our own his example, his thoughts, his behavior” (emphasis mine). We are called to live as Christ in a particular manner, in this particular time, with our own particular gifts. I cannot be you and you cannot be me. But I need you to be the person God has called you to be because we are part of the same mystical Body of Christ, alongside the saints. Conversely, I need to become the person God created me to be as well.
We will never know all of our spiritual brothers and sisters until we reach Heaven. As members of the Church triumphant, the saints want us united with God even more than we want to be with Him because they love more perfectly than we do. May we imitate their holy example and ask for their guidance in living out of the love of God more and more completely each day.
Reflection Questions: Who is your favorite obscure saint? What quality of sanctity do you want to grow in this season?
Angels are mysterious beings. Our culture has a lot of misconceptions about angels--what they are, who they are, and what they do. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), an angel is a being of pure spirit; that is “what” they are. St. Augustine tells us that the word “angel” is actually what they do: they are messengers and servants of the Most-High God.
There are three archangels named in the Bible: Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel. These messengers served God’s people at different times and had different purposes. They had vastly diverse missions, each corresponding to their very identity and being. Let’s take a look at them now.
St. Michael is known as the Prince of the Heavenly Hosts and the defender of God’s people. According to the Catholic Bible Dictionary, Michael means “Who is like God?”. In the Book of Revelation, “Michael and his angels” battle the dragon, an ancient symbol of the devil, and throw him and his followers out of heaven. Christianity honors him as a patron of the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people of the Old Testament. Today, Michael is still thought of as a guardian of the Church, God’s people of the New Testament.
St. Raphael is mentioned in one book of the Bible—the Book of Tobit. His name can be translated as “God will Heal.” In the Book of Tobit, God sends Raphael to answer the prayers of two people: Tobit, who was blinded by bird droppings, and Sarah, who was harassed by a demon who killed any man she married. These two, on the same day, prayed to God for death. God answered their prayers by sending Raphael, who brought together Tobias, Tobit’s son, and Sarah. He also banished the demon that stalked Sarah and healed Tobit’s blindness in the same journey.
St. Gabriel appears once in the Old Testament and twice in the New Testament. His name means “God is my warrior” or “God is strong.” First, he is sent to the prophet Daniel in the time of the great exile to interpret visions concerning the coming of the Messiah. Second, he appears to Zechariah to foretell the birth of John the Baptist. St. Gabriel is best known, however, for appearing to Mary and announcing the birth of the Messiah, Jesus.
The names of these angels tell us their missions. Michael (Who is like God) reminds us that there is no one like our God who deserves and desires our love. Raphael (God Heals) reminds us that it is only through the power of the Divine Physician that our wounds can be healed. Gabriel (God is Strong) reminds us that it is in God and the proclamation of his Word that we find our true strength.
What can these three messengers tell us about our missions? Our own name gives us our mission. I’m not necessarily thinking about our personal names, as those meanings don’t always correspond to a call from God. Through our baptism, we have been named Christians. In the early Church, the term was used in reference to those who followed Christ and were persecuted for the faith. This name gives us our truest identity as those who belong to and follow Christ. It also gives us a mission: to continue his work in our world today. We are called to be the face, hands, feet, and heart of Jesus to all we encounter. Let us live out of this identity as authentically as we can so that others may come to know Jesus through us. As St. Ignatius of Antioch, who lived in the generation after the apostles, said, “Let me not merely be called ‘Christian’; let me be one.” May the angels and archangels help us to live up to our identity and mission as followers of Christ on our journey towards heaven.
NOTE: Definitions of angels’ names found in the Catholic Bible Dictionary edited by Scott Hahn.
Peter and Paul are often depicted together in iconography in a circle, embracing one another in a brotherly hug with expressions of affection. In contrast, images of Romulus and Remus, the mythological twins, are usually facing away from each other.
According to legend, Romulus and Remus, after whom the city of Rome was named, were abandoned at birth and cast into the Tiber River. When they grew up, the twins embarked on a quest to found their own city. Romulus and Remus disagreed about which hill to build their city on. Eventually, Romulus just started digging a ditch around the Palatine Hill and building a wall. Remus mocked his brother’s work, and in a fit of anger Romulus killed him; Rome and her empire were founded on fratricide.
Now contrast this with the re-founding of Rome through the spread of Christianity by Sts. Peter and Paul. If anyone had a cause for strife and division, it was these two. Paul was the chief persecutor of the early Christians led by Peter. These two, at first, had little in common. It took divine action to make these enemies into brothers. Peter and Paul were ultimately bound together in a bond stronger than blood: the love of Christ.
It is in this love that Peter and Paul had the foundation of their relationship. Through Christ, these two men were closer than twins in the womb. That’s something I don’t think we fully understand today. Media often portrays the family as the highest and most deserving of our love and loyalty, but there is One who has a higher claim on us. Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” God must come first in our lives, as he did for Peter and Paul. All of our relationships need to take their cue from this one. It isn’t that these natural, human relationships are bad; quite the contrary, they are good. But they are called to be ordered and rooted in the love of Christ.
For Peter and Paul, Jesus of Nazareth was the source of their relationship. Peter knew Jesus and walked with him for three years before Christ entrusted him with his flock. Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, persecuted Christ by persecuting his followers until Jesus appeared to him on the way to Damascus. Peter and Paul eventually met and talked about the workings of God in their lives and in their ministry.
That doesn’t mean they always got along perfectly. In what is known as the “Incident in Antioch,” Paul calls Peter out on the issue of whether or not Gentile converts have to first become Jews and follow Jewish laws in order to be “real” Christians. Peter had previously stated that the Gentiles had no need to follow Jewish custom, and that the new covenant was open to all. However, under pressure from Jerusalem, Peter went back on his word. He traveled to Antioch, where Paul was, and Paul “opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong.” One can almost hear the exasperation in Paul’s voice as he writes of the incident. But along with the exasperation, one can hear love. Paul is not calling Peter out for the sake of pointing out his spiritual brother’s mistake, but for the sake of the Church and Christ, whom they both love and preach. Peter accepted Paul’s rebuke. In fact, it gave Peter courage to stand up to the Judaizers, those who wanted the Gentiles to practice Jewish customs. Paul always accepted and sought out Peter’s authority as head of the Church, but it didn’t stop him from encouraging his brother to remember the truth and to care for the souls entrusted to him.
Peter and Paul remind us that brothers can be born from unlikely sources. Early Christian tradition tells us they were imprisoned together for nine months before their martyrdoms on the same day. The New Rome and her Kingdom were founded on fraternal love. As we celebrate the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, let us look to their model of fraternal correction and mutual love as we work to spread the Gospel message in our own lives.
Questions for Reflection: Have you ever had to challenge a friend or family member to become a better version of themselves? Has anyone ever called you out on something you were doing that wasn’t in line with your faith?