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.
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Besides receiving and visiting Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament at Mass and Adoration, I find that the most nourishing aspect of my spiritual life is friendship with the saints. The Church holds celebrating the saints and asking for their intercession in high regard, as the Solemnity of All Saints, which falls on November 1st each year, is a holy day of obligation. The Vigil of All Saints, then, falls on October 31st each year.
One goal of the Christian is to engage in prayer with God, and prayer, simply put, is conversing with God. Each day, we can offer our work to God and talk to Him frequently. This is not always easy, though, and I have found that friendship with the saints helps immensely.
A friendship, which is the mutual willing of the good between people, is cultivated with communication and time spent together. Aristotle and Shakespeare, in their genius commentaries on friendship, always return to the simplicity of authentic friendship. Developing a friendship with the saints does not need to be overly-complex. It can also be founded upon communication and time spent together, ultimately bringing us closer to God and strengthening our communication with Him.
Communicating daily with the saints further orients our minds to the supernatural, to the existence of the “things…invisible” that we recite in the Creed, and it also strengthens us in the fight for our souls.
By communicating with the saints, we will become more like the saints, who in their devotion to Christ became like Christ. Thus, the saints will help us to become more Christ-like. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins gets at this point in one of his poems:
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is --
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
The “just man” is the saint, and the saint’s Christ-like actions help him to become like Christ.
As I mentioned in my last blog, stories of the saints are dramas of the highest caliber. Each saint had a unique personality and found their way to heaven in their own special, grace-filled way. There are so many saints that everyone can find someone they relate to or want to emulate. Below, I have listed just a few of my friends, and I pray that they will intercede for you!
Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Edmund Campion, St. Ignatius, St. John the Beloved Disciple, St. Luke, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. John Paul II, Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, Bl. John Henry Newman, Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, St. Robert Southwell, St. Henry Walpole, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Robert Bellarmine, St. John Berchmans, St. Francis Xavier, St. Leo the Great, St. Augustine, St. Vincent Pallotti, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Josemaria Escriva, St. John Vianney, St. Joseph, Guardian Angels, Our Lady…
Ora pro nobis!
Our country’s national anthem hails the United States as the “land of the free” in recognition of the many unique liberties and “inalienable rights” afforded to us, her citizens. One of these great gifts is the freedom of religious expression, that is, to be able to live out one’s faith without fear of persecution. Yet, recent times have seemed to cast a shadow over this right, and events of our time such as legal rulings and portrayals in the media would indicate that such freedoms are being curtailed. Throughout his visit to the U.S., Pope Francis encouraged us to nurture, promote, and defend the precious gift of religious freedom. Likewise, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has continued to encourage Catholics, other Christians, and all people of good will to set aside two weeks to reflect on religious freedom.
By the time this post is published, the Fortnight for Freedom will be concluding, having been started on June 21, the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. As Donald Cardinal Wuerl describes it, the Fortnight comprises of “fourteen days of prayer, education, and action. It is also a time for us to count our blessings… The challenge to live out our faith, the challenge simply to be who we are may at times seem daunting. But remember we’re a people of hope, we live in faith and we live in hope.” The theme for this year’s Fortnight is “Witnesses to Freedom.” As Archbishop William Lori noted, the USCCB invites us to look to the examples set in “the stories of fourteen women and men— one for each day— who bore witness to freedom in Christ, such as Bl. Oscar Romero, the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Martyrs of Compiègne, and the Coptic Christians who were killed by ISIS last year.”
Each year, dioceses around the country arrange special events to highlight the importance of defending religious freedom. To kick off the fourth annual Fortnight, for example, Archbishop William Lori celebrated the opening Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Each year, the closing Mass takes place at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. with Donald Cardinal Wuerl being the main celebrant and Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh serving as homilist. The Fortnight for Freedom reflects an understanding of the People of God that the right of religious expression must be protected against those who would negate it, not just for Catholics, but for people of all faiths.
As the Second Vatican Council noted, although we must respect the just autonomy of the secular, we also remember the truth that there is no aspect of worldly affairs that can be separated from God. On the eve of the first Fortnight for Freedom, Archbishop Lori, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, acknowledged that the effort was viewed by many as partisan and exaggerated. He commented:
It is not about parties, candidates or elections, as some others have suggested… In the face of this resistance, it may be tempting to get discouraged, to second-guess the effort, to soft-pedal our message. But instead, these things should prompt us to do exactly the opposite, for they show us how very great is the need for our teaching, both in our culture and even in our own church.
In standing up for our right to religious liberty, let us make prayer a central component of our efforts—prayer not only for ourselves, but for the leaders of our country and its citizens whom we are called to evangelize. These freedoms handed down to us by the Founding Fathers are too important to take for granted. Efforts to scrub any reference to God or the faiths of those who built up this great Nation must be called out and overcome. Finally, throughout it all (and beyond the two weeks), each of us must remember that our strength does not come from ourselves, but that “help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2). May these two weeks, by the grace of God, help us to grow in wisdom, courage, and love, that we too might be faithful witnesses to freedom.
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