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Archive for the ‘St. Francis of Assisi’ Category

Just a quick word about a project that’s just becoming available and that I’m proud to have been involved in.

Most of you are familiar with Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series. The Word on Fire team is following up with another video series and study program called Pivotal Players.  The first half of the program is just now being released. From the website:

CATHOLICISM: The Pivotal Players is a multi-part film series that illumines a handful of saints, artists, mystics, and scholars who not only shaped the life of the Church but changed the course of civilization.

The Study Guide looks very strong, with sections by scholars like Dr. Matthew Levering, Fr. Paul Murray, O.P. and Dr. Anthony Esolen. Here’s a pdf sample of the study guide material on Catherine of Siena.

My part? I wrote a prayer book: Praying with the Pivotal Players. 

Each figure gets five segments. Each segment begins with a quote from their writings, even Michelangelo who left many letters and wrote poetry. This is followed up with some reflections and then some prayer and reflection prompts. The sections are thematically aligned with whatever is emphasized in the episodes. I wrote the book last fall, and really enjoyed the process. It gave me an opportunity to immerse myself in the writings of these figures and I learned quite a bit. The table of contents is on the website. 

The book is included as part of the parish program packet, but judging from what I see on Amazon, you should be able to purchase it by itself eventually.

"pivotal players"

 

 

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(Repost….but why reinvent the wheel.)

What do we know about St. Clare of Assisi?

As is the case with many historical figures, separating legend and history can be a challenge with Clare and the effort can even miss the point because…well, who knows?

But it can be helpful and important to try to tease the two apart, not just for the sake of accuracy, but also so that we engage the willingness to be critical, not so much of the record that comes to us, but of our own assumptions.  Are we, for example, molding the figure of St. Francis to a particular modern agenda by  embracing some exaggerated legendary material about him but ignoring aspects of his life that are actually historically verifiable  – his strict views on liturgy and reverence, for example?

So, Clare.

58d729de3674eabab7869868b547b9aaIn his excellent and necessary biography of Francis, Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P. writes a bit about Clare, what we know about her and what is disputed.

He says that it is not clear how Francis and Clare came to meet. For his part, as an historian, he leans toward the view that it was via one of Francis’ early followers, Rufino, who was also Clare’s cousin. We don’t know how many times they met, but, as Fr. Thompson says, “The eventual result, however, was a plan for Clare to ‘leave the world,’ just s Francis had nearly seven years earlier.” (46)

The night of Palm Sunday 1212,  Clare and her sister Pacifica left the family home and went to the Porziuncula. “They found Francis and the community waiting for her in prayer before the candlelit altar. Francis cut the young woman’s hair and gave her a habit like that of the brothers, but with a veil. Before the ceremony, as Clare later recounted herself, she made profession of religious obedience for life directly to Francis…Francis now faced a new problem: what to do with his first female disciple. As on several other occasions of need, he turned to Benedictines.” (47)

After some time, they were settled at San Damiano. Francis prepared a rule of life for them by which they were charged to “follow the perfection of the holy Gospel.” (48)

And from that point, until his death, we have no record of contact between Francis and Clare.

When he died in 1226, his body was taken to the sisters at San Damiano for reverence.

********

The letters of St. Clare to Agnes of Prague. 

Agnes was the daughter of a king and espoused to the Emperor Frederick, who remarked famously upon news of her refusal of marriage to him, “If she had left me for a mortal man, I would have taken vengeance with the sword, but I cannot take offence because in preference to me she has chosen the King of Heaven.”

She entered the Poor Clares, and what makes the letters from Clare so interesting to me is the way that Clare plays on Agnes’ noble origins, using language and allusions that draw upon Agnes’ experience, but take her beyond it, as in this one: 

Inasmuch as this vision is the splendour of eternal glory (Heb 1:3), the brilliance of eternal light and the mirror 6477dcad09d8967545d8190b6c9cbdc1without blemish (Wis 7:26), look upon that mirror each day, O queen and spouse of Jesus Christ, and continually study your face within it, so that you may adorn yourself within and without with beautiful robes and cover yourself with the flowers and garments of all the virtues, as becomes the daughter and most chaste bride of the Most High King. Indeed, blessed poverty, holy humility, and ineffable charity are reflected in that mirror, as, with the grace of God, you can contemplate them throughout the entire mirror.

Look at the parameters of this mirror, that is, the poverty of Him who was placed in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes. O marvellous humility, O astonishing poverty! The King of the angels, the Lord of heaven and earth, is laid in a manger! Then, at the surface of the mirror, dwell on the holy humility, the blessed poverty, the untold labours and burdens which He endured for the redemption of all mankind. Then, in the depths of this same mirror, contemplate the ineffable charity which led Him to suffer on the wood of the cross and die thereon the most shameful kind of death. Therefore, that Mirror, suspended on the wood of the cross, urged those who passed by to consider it, saying: “All you who pass by the way, look and see if there is any suffering like My suffering!” (Lam 1:2). Let us answer Him with one voice and spirit, as He said: Remembering this over and over leaves my soul downcast within me (Lam 3:20)! From this moment, then, O queen of our heavenly King, let yourself be inflamed more strongly with the fervour of charity!

Now, more on Clare herself, from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, first from a General Audience in 2010

Especially at the beginning of her religious experience, Francis of Assisi was not only a teacher to Clare whose teachings she was to follow but also a brotherly friend. The friendship between these two Saints is a very beautiful and important aspect. Indeed, when two pure souls on fire with the same love for God meet, they find in their friendship with each other a powerful incentive to advance on the path of perfection. Friendship is one of the noblest and loftiest human sentiments which divine Grace purifies and transfigures. Like St Francis and St Clare, other Saints too experienced profound friendship on the journey towards Christian perfection. Examples are St Francis de Sales and St Jane Frances de Chantal. And St Francis de Sales himself wrote: “It is a blessed thing to love on earth as we hope to love in Heaven, and to begin that friendship here which is to endure for ever there. I am not now speaking of simple charity, a love due to all mankind, but of that spiritual friendship which binds souls together, leading them to share devotions and spiritual interests, so as to have but one mind between them” (The Introduction to a Devout Life, III, 19).

After spending a period of several months at other monastic communities, resisting the pressure of her relatives who did not at first approve of her decision, Clare settled with her first companions at the Church of San Damiano where the Friars Minor had organized a small convent for them. She lived in this Monastery for more than 40 years, until her death in 1253. A first-hand description has come down to us of how these women lived in those years at the beginning of the Franciscan movement. It is the admiring account of Jacques de Vitry, a Flemish Bishop who came to Italy on a visit. He declared that he had encountered a large number of men and women of every social class who, having “left all things for Christ, fled the world. They called themselves Friars Minor and Sisters Minor [Lesser] and are held in high esteem by the Lord Pope and the Cardinals…. The women live together in various homes not far from the city. They receive nothing but live on the work of their own hands. And they are deeply troubled and pained at being honoured more than they would like to be by both clerics and lay people” (Letter of October 1216: FF, 2205, 2207).

Jacques de Vitry had perceptively noticed a characteristic trait of Franciscan spirituality about which Clare was deeply sensitive: the radicalism of poverty associated with total trust in Divine Providence. For this reason, she acted with great determination, obtaining from Pope Gregory IX or, probably, already from Pope Innocent III, the so-called Privilegium Paupertatis (cf. FF., 3279). On the basis of this privilege Clare and her companions at San Damiano could not possess any material property. This was a truly extraordinary exception in comparison with the canon law then in force but the ecclesiastical authorities of that time permitted it, appreciating the fruits of evangelical holiness that they recognized in the way of life of Clare and her sisters. This shows that even in the centuries of the Middle Ages the role of women was not secondary but on the contrary considerable. In this regard, it is useful to remember that Clare was the first woman in the Church’s history who composed a written Rule, submitted for the Pope’s approval, to ensure the preservation of Francis of Assisi’s charism in all the communities of women large numbers of which were already springing up in her time that wished to draw inspiration from the example of Francis and Clare.

In the Convent of San Damiano, Clare practised heroically the virtues that should distinguish every Christian: humility, a spirit of piety and penitence and charity. Although she was the superior, she wanted to serve the sick sisters herself and joyfully subjected herself to the most menial tasks. In fact, charity overcomes all resistance and whoever loves, joyfully performs every sacrifice. Her faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was so great that twice a miracle happened. Simply by showing to them the Most Blessed Sacrament distanced the Saracen mercenaries, who were on the point of attacking the convent of San Damiano and pillaging the city of Assisi.

Such episodes, like other miracles whose memory lives on, prompted Pope Alexander IV to canonize her in 1255, only two years after her death, outlining her eulogy in the Bull on the Canonization of St Clare. In it we read: “How powerful was the illumination of this light and how strong the brightness of this source of light. Truly this light was kept hidden in the cloistered life; and outside them shone with gleaming rays; Clare in fact lay hidden, but her life was revealed to all. Clare was silent, but her fame was shouted out” (FF, 3284). And this is exactly how it was, dear friends: those who change the world for the better are holy, they transform it permanently, instilling in it the energies that only love inspired by the Gospel can elicit. The Saints are humanity’s great benefactors!

St Clare’s spirituality, the synthesis of the holiness she proposed is summed up in the fourth letter she wrote to St Agnes of Prague. St Clare used an image very widespread in the Middle Ages that dates back to Patristic times: the mirror. And she invited her friend in Prague to reflect herself in that mirror of the perfection of every virtue which is the Lord himself. She wrote: “Happy, indeed, is the one permitted to share in this sacred banquet so as to be joined with all the feelings of her heart (to Christ) whose beauty all the blessed hosts of the Heavens unceasingly admire, whose affection moves, whose contemplation invigorates, whose generosity fills, whose sweetness replenishes, whose remembrance pleasantly brings light, whose fragrance will revive the dead, and whose glorious vision will bless all the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, because the vision of him is the splendour of everlasting glory, the radiance of everlasting light, and a mirror without tarnish. Look into this mirror every day, O Queen, spouse of Jesus Christ, and continually examine your face in it, so that in this way you may adorn yourself completely, inwardly and outwardly…. In this mirror shine blessed poverty, holy humility, and charity beyond words…” (Fourth Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, FF, 2901-2903).

And then from a 2012 letter to the bishop of the area on the occasion of the anniversary of her conversion.

According to St Clare’s Testament, even before receiving his other companions Francis prophesied the way that would be taken by his first spiritual daughter and her sisters. Indeed while he was restoring the Church of St Damian, where the Crucifix had spoken to him, he proclaimed that women would live in this place who would glorify God by the holy tenor of their life (cf. FF 2826; cf. Tommaso da Celano, Vita Seconda, 13: FF 599).

The original Crucifix is now in the Basilica of St Clare. Christ’s large eyes which had fascinated Francis were to become Clare’s “mirror”. It is not by chance that the looking-glass would become a topic so dear to her that in her fourth letter to Agnes of Prague she would write: “Look into this mirror every day, O queen, spouse of Jesus Christ, and continually examine your face in it” (FF 2902).

In the years in which she met Francis to learn from him about the way of God, Clare was an attractive young woman. The “Poverello” of Assisi showed her a loftier beauty that cannot be measured by the mirror of vanity but develops in a life of authentic love, following in the footsteps of the Crucified Christ. God is the true beauty! Clare’s heart was lit up with this splendour and it gave her the courage to let her hair be cut and to embark on a life of penance.

For her, as for Francis, this decision was fraught with difficulty. Although some of her relatives understood her immediately — and Ortolana, her mother, and two of her sisters even followed her in the life she had chosen — others reacted violently. Her escape from home on the night between Palm Sunday and the Monday of Holy Week had something of an adventure about it. In the following days she was pursued to the places Francis had prepared for her but the attempts, even with force, to make her go back on her decision were in vain.

Clare had prepared herself for this struggle. Moreover although Francis was her guide, several clues hint that she also received fatherly support from Bishop Guido. This would explain the prelate’s gesture in offering the palm to her, as if to bless her courageous decision. Without the bishop’s support it would have been difficult for Clare to follow the plan that Francis had devised and that she put into practice, both in her consecration in the Church of the Porziuncola in the presence of Francis and his friars, and in the hospitality she received in the days that followed at the Monastery of San Paolo delle Abbadesse and at the community of Sant’Angelo in Panzo, prior to her definitive arrival at St Damian.

Clare’s story, like Francis’, thus has a specific ecclesial trait: an enlightened pastor and two children of the Church who entrust themselves to his discernment. In it institution and charism wondrously interact. Love and obedience to the Church, so marked in Franciscan-Clarissian spirituality, are rooted in this beautiful experience of the Christian community of Assisi, which not only gave birth to the faith of Francis and of his “little plant”, but also accompanied them, taking them by the hand on the path of holiness.

Francis saw clearly the reason for suggesting to Clare that she run away from home at the beginning of Holy Week. The whole of Christian life — hence also the life of special consecration — is a fruit of the Paschal Mystery and of participation in Christ’s death and Resurrection. The themes of sadness and glory, interwoven in the Palm Sunday liturgy, will be developed in the successive days through the darkness of the Passion to the light of Easter. With her decision Clare relives this mystery. She receives the programme for it, as it were, on Palm Sunday. She then enters the drama of the Passion, forfeiting her hair and, with it, renouncing her whole self in order to be a bride of Christ in humility and poverty. Francis and his companions are now her family.

Sisters were soon to come also from afar, but as in Francis’ case, the first new shoots were to sprout in Assisi. And Clare would always remain bound to her city, demonstrating her ties with it especially in certain difficult circumstances when her prayers saved Assisi from violence and devastation. She said to her sisters at the time: “We have received many things from this city every day dear daughters; it would be quite wicked if we were not to do our utmost to help it now in this time of need” (cf. Legenda Sanctae Clarae Virginis 23: FF 3203).

The profound meaning of Clare’s “conversion” is a conversion to love. She was no longer to wear the fine clothes worn by the Assisi nobility but rather the elegance of a soul that expends itself in the praise of God and in the gift of self. In the small space of the Monastery of St Damian, at the school of Jesus, contemplated with spousal affection in the Eucharist, day by day the features developed of a community governed by love of God and by prayer, by caring for others and by service. In this context of profound faith and great humanity Clare became a sure interpreter of the Franciscan ideal, imploring the “privilege” of poverty, namely, the renunciation of goods, possessed even only as a community, which for a long time perplexed the Supreme Pontiff himself, even though, in the end, he surrendered to the heroism of her holiness.

How could one fail to hold up Clare, like Francis, to the youth of today? The time that separates us from the events of both these Saints has in no way diminished their magnetism. On the contrary, their timeliness in comparison with the illusions and delusions that all too often mark the condition of young people today. Never before has a time inspired so many dreams among the young, with the thousands of attractions of a life in which everything seems possible and licit.

Yet, how much discontent there is, how often does the pursuit of happiness and fulfilment end by unfolding paths that lead to artificial paradises, such as those of drugs and unrestrained sensuality!

The current situation with the difficulty of finding dignified employment and forming a happy and united family makes clouds loom on the horizon. However there are many young people, in our day too, who accept the invitation to entrust themselves to Christ and to face life’s journey with courage, responsibility and hope and even opt to leave everything to follow him in total service to him and to their brethren.

The story of Clare, with that of Francis, is an invitation to reflect on the meaning of life and to seek the secret of true joy in God. It is a concrete proof that those who do the Lord’s will and trust in him alone lose nothing; on the contrary they find the true treasure that can give meaning to all things.

From St. Pope John Paul II

Due to a type of iconography which has been very popular since the 17th century, Clare is often depicted holding a monstrance. This gesture recalls, although in a more solemn posture, the humble reality of this woman who, although she was very sick, prostrated herself with the help of two sisters before the silver ciborium containing the Eucharist (cf. LegCl 21), which she had placed in front of the refectory door that the Emperor’s troops were about to storm. Clare lived on that pure Bread which, according to the custom of the time, she could receive only seven times a year. On her sickbed she embroidered corporals and sent them to the poor churches in the Spoleto valley.

In reality Clare’s whole life was a eucharist because, like Francis, from her cloister she raised up a continual “thanksgiving” to God in her prayer, praise, supplication, intercession, weeping, offering and sacrifice. She accepted everything and offered it to the Father in union with the infinite “thanks” of the only-begotten Son, the Child, the Crucified, the risen One, who lives at the right hand of the Father.

In the fall of 2012, as it happens, we visited Assisi.

The way to San Damiano:

"amy welborn"

The room where St. Clare died – the far corner, in fact.

"amy welborn"

Photographs are not allowed in the chapel – the site where Francis discerned the voice of Christ.  The “San Damiano” cross that is in the chapel at San Damiano is a reproduction – the original is in the church of S. Chiara, back up in Assisi.

120

S. Chiara basilica. 

And….part of the fruit is Adventures in Assisi…so even if you can’t have a photo of the cross inside S. Chiara, you can have a gorgeous watercolor..

9. Santa Chiara basilica - spread 8 copy

and of San Damiano’s interior:

8. San Damiano Chapel - spread 7

assisi

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Today is his feastday! Well, memorial, since we are all more cognizant of these rankings now…

Here is a link to some of his homilies. It’s pdf. 

Then, a General Audience from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, from 2011:

It is only the prayerful soul that can progress in spiritual life: this is the privileged object of St Anthony’s preaching. He is thoroughly familiar with the shortcomings of human nature, with our tendency to lapse into sin, which is why he continuously urges us to fight the inclination to avidity, pride and impurity; instead of practising the virtues of poverty and generosity, of humility and obedience, of chastity and of purity. At the beginning of the 13th century, in the context of the rebirth of the city and the flourishing of trade, the number of people who were insensitive to the needs of the poor increased. This is why on various occasions Anthony invites the faithful to think of the true riches, those of the heart, which make people good and merciful and permit them to lay up treasure in Heaven. “O rich people”, he urged them, “befriend… the poor, welcome them into your homes: it will subsequently be they who receive you in the eternal tabernacles in which is the beauty of peace, the confidence of security and the opulent tranquillity of eternal satiety” (ibid., p. 29).

Is not this, dear friends, perhaps a very important teaching today too, when the financial crisis and serious economic inequalities impoverish many people and create conditions of poverty? In my Encyclical Caritas in Veritate I recall: “The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centred” (n. 45).

Anthony, in the school of Francis, always put Christ at the centre of his life and thinking, of his action and of his preaching. This is another characteristic feature of Franciscan theology: Christocentrism. Franciscan theology willingly contemplates and invites others to contemplate the mysteries of the Lord’s humanity, the man Jesus, and in a special way the mystery of the Nativity: God who made himself a Child and gave himself into our hands, a mystery that gives rise to sentiments of love and gratitude for divine goodness.

Not only the Nativity, a central point of Christ’s love for humanity, but also the vision of the Crucified One inspired in Anthony thoughts of gratitude to God and esteem for the dignity of the human person, so that all believers and non-believers might find in the Crucified One and in his image a life-enriching meaning. St Anthony writes: “Christ who is your life is hanging before you, so that you may look at the Cross as in a mirror. There you will be able to know how mortal were your wounds, that no medicine other than the Blood of the Son of God could heal. If you look closely, you will be able to realize how great your human dignity and your value are…. Nowhere other than looking at himself in the mirror of the Cross can man better understand how much he is worth” (Sermones Dominicales et Festivi III, pp. 213-214).

In meditating on these words we are better able to understand the importance of the image of the Crucified One for our culture, for our humanity that is born from the Christian faith. Precisely by looking at the Crucified One we see, as St Anthony says, how great are the dignity and worth of the human being. At no other point can we understand how much the human person is worth, precisely because God makes us so important, considers us so important that, in his opinion, we are worthy of his suffering; thus all human dignity appears in the mirror of the Crucified One and our gazing upon him is ever a source of acknowledgement of human dignity.

Dear friends, may Anthony of Padua, so widely venerated by the faithful, intercede for the whole Church and especially for those who are dedicated to preaching; let us pray the Lord that he will help us learn a little of this art from St Anthony. May preachers, drawing inspiration from his example, be effective in their communication by taking pains to combine solid and sound doctrine with sincere and fervent devotion. In this Year for Priests, let us pray that priests and deacons will carry out with concern this ministry of the proclamation of the word of God, making it timely for the faithful, especially through liturgical homilies. May they effectively present the eternal beauty of Christ, just as Anthony recommended: “If you preach Jesus, he will melt hardened hearts; if you invoke him he will soften harsh temptations; if you think of him he will enlighten your mind; if you read of him he will satifsfy your intellect” (Sermones Dominicales et Festivi III, p. 59).

Secondly, for children, an excerpt from my Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints:

Then one day something happened that was almost as strange as the ship wandering off course. There was a large meeting of Franciscans and Dominicans, but oddly enough, the plans for who would give the sermon at the meeting fell through. There were plenty of fine preachers present, but none of them were prepared.

"amy welborn"Those in charge of the meeting went down the line of friars. “Would you care to give the sermon, Brother? No? What about you, Father? No? Well, what about you, Fr. Anthony—is that your name?”

Slowly, Anthony rose, and just as slowly, he began to speak. The other friars sat up to listen. There was something very special about Anthony. He didn’t use complicated language, but his holiness and love for God shone through his words. He was one of the best preachers they had ever heard!

From that point on, Anthony’s quiet life in the hospital kitchen was over. For the rest of his life, he traveled around Italy and France, preaching sermons in churches and town squares to people who came from miles around.

His listeners heard Anthony speak about how important it is for us to live every day in God’s presence. As a result of his words, hundreds of people changed their lives and bad habits, bringing Jesus back into their hearts.

Next, some photos of the huge Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua from our trip in 2012.

(No photos were allowed inside)

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An interesting coincidence (or is it???) that the Gospel reading for the Sunday after the Vatican announced that  Mary Magdalenes’ July 22 observance would be raised from a memorial to a feast is that in which we meet her, by name, for the first time.

It is from Luke. The bulk of the Gospel is the end of Luke 7, which tells the story of a nameless woman who enters the Pharisee’s home in which Jesus is dining and, repentant, kisses his feet, cleanses his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair and anoints them with oil.

Jesus points out to the aghast Pharisee that this woman has done what he failed to do – welcome him properly into his home by cleaning the dust of the road off his feet and his head. Of course, the meaning is deeper than that. The Pharisee has failed to welcome Jesus into his life out of pride. The woman, aware of her sinfulness, recognizes Jesus’ power to free her. Her gestures acknowledge who Jesus is, the grace he offers to forgive her and free her from the prison of her sins and how he will do this – through his own suffering. She recognizes, she welcomes, she is changed.

The option is given to tag the first part of chapter 8 onto this reading, and that is the section that specifically mentions Mary Magdalene, as one of a group of women who attach themselves to Jesus and the apostles, women who provide for the group’s needs. She is described as a woman from whom Jesus drove out seven demons. “Seven” is understood as an all-encompassing, consuming number, and so what we learn from this very brief description is that whatever had Mary in its grip, had her completely, and Jesus drove it all away and freed her. Just as completely as she was consumed by demons, she was freed. So of course she would leave her life behind and follow.

The juxtaposition of these narratives has led to an association – that Mary of Luke 8 is the same woman described in the chapter before. Mary Magdalene is also associated with other women in the Gospels – she is thought of as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, or even as the woman caught in adultery in John 7. When you add in the post-Gospel legendary material of both the eastern and western Christian traditions, the confusion builds even more.

So confusing..someone should write a book!
Well, I did – several years ago in the midst of Da Vinci Code fever. OSV published it and gave it the unfortunate title of De-Coding Mary Magdalene. It was unfortunate because it tied the book to DVC, and I felt that its potential value reached far beyond that particular moment, since it was (and I think still is) the only popular Catholic book-length treatment of the saint – who was, incidentally, the most popular saint of the Middle Ages after the Blessed Virgin herself.

It is out of print, but I am working on getting a digital text that I would like to make available at no cost, just as I have with Come Meet Jesus, The Power of the Cross and Mary and the Christian Life. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

In the meantime, take a look at this excerpt

Mary Magdalene was an enormously important figure in early Christianity. She was, after the Blessed Virgin Mary, the most popular saint of the Middle Ages. Her cultus reveals much about medieval views of women, sexuality, sin, and repentance. Today, Mary Magdalene is experiencing a renaissance, not so much from within institutional Christianity, but among people, mostly women, some Christian, many not, who have adopted her as an inspiration and patron of their own spiritual fads, paths, and fantasies.

Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of contemplatives, converts, pharmacists, glove makers, hairdressers, penitent sinners, perfumers, sexual temptation, and women."amy welborn"

This book is a very basic introduction to the facts and the fiction surrounding Mary Magdalene. We’ll unpack what Scripture has to say about her identity and role in apostolic Christianity. We’ll see how, very soon after that apostolic era, she was adopted by a movement that remade her image in support of its own theological agenda, a dynamic we see uncannily and, without irony, repeated today.

We’ll look at the ways in which both Western and Eastern Christianity have described, honored, and been inspired by her, and how their stories about her have diverged. During the Middle Ages in the West, Mary Magdalene’s story functioned most of all as a way to teach Christians about sin and forgiveness: how to be penitent, and with the hope of redemption open to all. She made frequent appearances in religious art, writing, and drama. She inspired many to help women and girls who had turned to prostitution or were simply destitute. She inspired Franciscans and Dominicans in their efforts to preach reform and repentance.

It all sounds very positive, and most of it, indeed, is. That’s not, however, the idea we get from some contemporary commentators on Mary Magdalene’s historical image.

Many of you might have had your interest in the Magdalene piqued by the novel The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. In that novel, Brown, picking up on strains bubbling through pop culture and pseudo-historical writings of the past fifteen years or so, presents a completely different Mary Magdalene than the woman we meet in the Gospels and traditional Christian piety. She was, according to Brown, Jesus’ real choice to lead his movement; a herald of Jesus’ message of the unity of the masculine and feminine aspects of reality; a valiant and revered leader opposed by another faction of Jesus’ apostles led by Peter; the mother of Jesus’ child; and in the end, some sort of divine figure herself. Mary Magdalene is no less than the Holy Grail herself, bearing the “blood” of Jesus in the form of his child.

 

 

….The Magdalene-Spouse-Queen-Goddess-Holy-Grail theories are not serious history, so, frankly, we are not going to bother with them until the final chapter, and then only briefly. What we will be looking at — the history of the person and the imagery of Mary Magdalene — is daunting, rich, and fascinating enough.

The contemporary scholarship on Mary (and, indeed, on much of the history of Christian spirituality and religious practices) is growing so fast and is so rich that all I can do here is simply provide an introduction. A thorough, objective introduction, I hope, but the fact is that the burgeoning scholarship on Mary Magdalene is quite vast, and much of it, particularly that dealing with the medieval period, is not yet available in English. I have provided an annotated bibliography at the end of this book for those readers interested in pursuing this subject in more depth.
Our brief survey will undoubtedly be revealing, as we rediscover how deeply Mary Magdalene has been revered, used, and yes, misused and misunderstood by Christians over the centuries. The story, I hope, will be provocative in the best sense. For the fact is, the greatest interest in Mary Magdalene in the West today comes from those outside of or only nominally attached to the great course of traditional apostolic Christianity. Roman Catholics, in particular, seem to have lost interest in her, as, it must be admitted, they have in most saints.

Lots of people are listening to a Magdalene of their own making, a figure with only the most tentative connection to the St. Mary Magdalene of centuries of traditional Christian witness.

May the story recounted in the book play a part in reclaiming Mary Magdalene, so that we may hear her speak clearly again, as she does in the Gospels: for Jesus Christ, her Risen Lord.

Here’s a piece I wrote for the Busted Halo site on MM.

(This nutty angle on MM will be getting more play in the fall, once again, as for some strange reason, Dan Brown releases a new edition of his book..”for teens.”)

And now let’s get back to the elevation of this memorial.

The designation of special days in the Catholic calendar is complicated. You might be tempted to shrug, “legalism” and wonder why such trouble must be taken to put various celebrations in specific categories, but don’t. When the Church celebrates something, it does so in terms of the Mass readings and prayers and also the readings and prayers of the Office, or Liturgy of the Hours, the cycle of prayers that all religious are bound to pray and that all laity are invited to pray as well. There are thousands of saints and blesseds formally recognized by the Church. There has to be a system for organizing these celebrations and keeping the calendar focused, particularly as these celebrations are observed from people all over the world and also since the calendar moves, as we saw, for example, a couple of months ago when the Feast of the Annunciation fell on Good Friday.

So don’t sneer. That specificity, that attention to that kind of detail is in service to all of us and the Gospel.

Anyway, to get the background on this elevation, read the declaration itself and this commentary from the New Liturgical Movement.commentary from the New Liturgical Movement, which alerts us to the fact that this “new” action circles back around to

Not only is this not a novelty, it is partially a return to the historical practice of the Tridentine Rite. In the Breviary of St Pius V, which predates his Missal by two years (1568), there were only three grades of feasts: Double, Semidouble and Simple. St Mary Magdalene’s feast was a Double, meaning that it had both Vespers, doubled antiphons at the major hours, nine readings at Matins, precedence over common Sundays, and had to be transferred if it were impeded. It is true that later on, as Double feasts were subdivided into four categories, she remained at the lowest of them (along with all the Doctors, inter alios). Nevertheless, the privileges of her liturgical rank did not even begin to be curtailed until late in the reign of Pope Leo XIII, at the end of the 19th century.

As I noted in 2014 in an article about her feast day, the Creed was traditionally said at the Mass of St Mary Magdalene in recognition of that fact that it was she who first announced the Resurrection to the Apostles. (This felicitous custom was removed from the Roman Missal for no discernible reason in 1955.) This is also why she was called “Apostles of the Apostles” in a great many medieval liturgical texts, such as the Benedictus antiphon in her proper Office sung by the Dominicans.

This recognition of Mary Magdalene as an “apostle to the apostles” is not a new invention. As Roche points out, it is ancient, but as he fails to point out, it is a notable characterization of Mary Magdalene in the East.

And now, I’ll carp.

  • The notification is offered to us because this change is something Pope Francis wants. It is by his “express wish” and a means by which he seeks to “underline” some themes.
  • This emphasis on framing the Faith in terms of Pope Francis’ priorities, hopes and dreams is such a huge problem, I can’t tell you. Well, I probably can.
  • The declaration is presented with no acknowledgment of the historical background of Mary Magdalene’s cultus or the shape of her memorial in the liturgy, and therefore comes across as an amazing new thing. This decision, in the current ecclesial context, seeks to reflect more deeply upon the dignity of women, on the new evangelisation and on the greatness of the mystery of God’s Mercy. 
  • The failure to mention the liturgical role of Mary Magdalene in Eastern Christianity is regrettable and narrow.
  • And Roche ends with this: For this reason it is right that the liturgical celebration of this woman should have the same rank of Feast as that given to the celebration of the Apostles in the General Roman Calendar and that the special mission of this woman should be underlined, she who is an example and model for all women in the Church. 
  • This is just wretched. Yes, we say, for example, that a certain teen-aged saint is a model for teenagers, or an African is a model and beacon of hope for other Africans, but we say that informally.
  • When we talk about the shape of Catholicism as a whole and how it embodies the saving action of Christ in the world, we do not use gendered or class-bound or ethnically-defined language. Women are invited to contemplate the witness of St. Francis of Assisi. Men are invited to embrace the spirituality of Therese of Lisieux. And so on.

    The amazing, beautiful and absolutely unique thing about Catholicism is how adolescent girl-martyrs, homeless guys, the homebound and in general, people of every ethnicity and age are held up as figures for everyone to look to, honor, pray to and emulate. In what other part of life on this earth do you find Very Rich People financing huge, elaborate edifices to house the bones of kids murdered by worldly powers? Where do you find a spirituality that says – the witness of his homeless fellow, of this woman who spent her life praying in solitude…the freedom they found in Christ? It’s yours, no matter who you are. Be like that homeless guy. Be like that woman. Be like that kid. All of you. Learn from them. Be like them. 

  • So, sure. This is good. But how much more powerful, or at least, less irritating, it would have been if the decision, as expressed, were more firmly and explicitly grounded in the Church’s already rich tradition of devotion to Mary Magdalene, not as an expression of the priorities of Pope Francis, and she was presented as an “example and model” for all people, and not in terms of mildly insulting gesture for the ladies who presumably haven’t figured out from, I don’t know, the entire witness of Catholic tradition..that sharing the Good News is what we, as baptized Christians, are all about.

 

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Frustrating, but not surprising:

The incorrect association of “Make me an instrument of your peace” with St. Francis runs so deeply now, no, it’s not surprising to see a bishop mention it or even it presented that way on the USCCB website, but still. It shouldn’t be this way. Truth matters, in areas great and small.

I explored the matter in my book The Words We Pray.  There are a couple of pages available for perusing online.  I think the actual history of the prayer makes it even more interesting than it is as a mythical pronouncement of St. Francis. Also, when Make me a channel of your peace comes to define the saint, we miss out on even more challenging words. Try it. Read his letters and Rule. 

 

If you want to learn more about St. Francis of Assisi, I recommend this biography by Fr. Augustine Thompson, OP. And for kids? My Adventures in Assisi takes kids on a journey with the saint on the roads of his home town. 

More, related, from an old post: Who didn’t write what. 

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The date has been set – September 4.

Mother Teresa is in my Loyola Kids’ Book of Heroes.  Here are the first couple of pages:

 

You can read most of the rest of the entry here. 

"amy welborn"

And looking ahead, you can read the entry on St. Patrick from the Loyola Kids Book of Saints here. 

I don’t have copies of these books to sell from home, but I do have lots of picture books – Friendship with Jesus, Be Saints, Adventure in Assisi – here. 

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We are in the final weeks before Easter, which means that we are in the final weeks of candidate and catechumen preparing for full initiation at the the Easter Vigil.

(Of course, RCIA is really, properly only for the unbaptized and already baptized Christians can and should be catechized and brought into the Church year-round if it’s appropriate for that person. But, nonetheless…)

The Scrutinies are the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Sundays of Lent and so perhaps this is a good time to share some good instructional material with friends or family members who are revving up for meeting Christ in the Eucharist for the first time in a few weeks.

The How To Book of the Mass has recently undergone a makeover – I had no role in it and was as surprised as anyone. Mike fought hard for the original cover – he didn’t want the normal Catholic-looking cover and wanted something that would really stand out on a bookstore shelf, so for years the left-hand image had been the cover.

 

 

The new cover looks much like any other intro-to-the-Mass book, but rest assured the content is the same. I’m glad it’s still in print, still selling welling, and helping people. And the content does reflect the most recent translation. Here is an excerpt. 

I have a few copies with the original  cover – you can order here. Or get through your local Catholic bookstore or online. 

"amy welborn"

In addition, I’d recommend my Words We Pray  – which is a collection of essays I wrote on traditional Catholic prayers from the Sign of the Cross to the Lord’s Prayer to the Memorare to the Liturgy of the Hours to Amen.  Each essay ties in some historical material with spiritual reflection, the goal being to help the pray-er link the prayers of his or her own heart with the prayer of the Church.  St. Paul says, In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.(Romans 8:26).

One way the Spirit helps us pray as we ought and give voice to our the depths of our hearts is via the Spirit-formed traditional prayer of the Church. It leads us away from solipsism and situates our prayer properly, putting praise and gratitude to God first, and placing our needs in the context of his will, above all.

I have a few copies of that here too, as well as all the picture books.  But you can get The Words We Pray online anywhere as well.  

 

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