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Archive for the ‘St. Francis of Assisi’ Category

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From The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols

 

We all love St. Francis, and most of us know a bit about him, too.

But as many have noted over the years, St. Francis is like Jesus in more ways than one. Like Jesus, he’s put to many uses by people with sometimes wildly varied agendas.

In general, though, we all agree that in essence, Francis of Assisi decided to follow Jesus by giving up material things and living with and for the poor, he really loved nature and he founded a religious order in order to spread his message.

There’s truth in that common portrait, but there are also distortions and gaps.

Because Francis lived so long ago and because the written record is challenging to interpret, the search for the “real Francis” is a fraught one. A few years ago, Fr. Augustine Thompson set to the task, and produced a biography that anyone seriously interested in Francis should read.  I’ve written about it a couple of times, including here. 

Bullet points for brevity’s sake.

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  • Francis didn’t have a plan.  He did not set out to form a band of brothers – at all.   His conversion was a personal one, and the life he lead for the first couple of years after it was the life of a penitent, pure and simple.
  • What was his conversion, exactly?  This actually is a knottier problem than we assume.  It wasn’t simply rejecting a life of relative wealth for a life lived in solidarity with the poor, through Christ.  In fact, well, it doesn’t seem to be fundamentally about that at all.
  • Screen shot 2014-10-05 at 11.50.50 PMFrancis doesn’t say much about this at all himself.  He refers to being “in his sins.”  After his traumatic battle experiences, Christ drew him closer, he abandoned all for Christ, lived as a rather sketchy hermit-type penitent on the outskirts of Assisi, and then, in a crucial moment, encountered a leper.
  • As he describes it himself, lepers had been figures of particular horror to him when he was “in his sins.”  But now, God intervened, converted him, and the leper became a person through whom Francis experienced peace and consolation.
  • Francis sought to do penance, live the Gospel and be a servant.  He did not intend to draw followers, but did, and their initial way of life was simply living in this same way, only in community.
  • It wasn’t until their form of life was approved by Pope Innocent that preaching entered the picture – it was an element that the Pope threw into his approval.  This was a surprise to Francis.

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To me, this is most fascinating because, as I mentioned in the other blog post,when we read history, we often read it with the eyes of inevitability.  As in:  everything unfolds according to intention and human plan.  Just as it is with life in general, this is not the way history is, and it’s not the way the life of Francis was – well, not according to his plan.  For he didn’t have one.

But this interesting turn of events shows how the Spirit shakes us up and turns us in a slightly different direction from where we thought we were going.  It happened to Francis.  He adapted, shakily and slowly.  It happens to us.

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  • When you actually read Francis’ writings, you don’t see some things that you might expect.  You don’t, for example, read a lot of directives about serving the poor.   You don’t see any general condemnations of wealth.  You don’t read a call for all people, everywhere, to live radically according to the evangelical counsels.
  • You do read these sorts of things – although not exactly – in the early guidelines for the friars and the few letters to fellow friars that have come down to us.
  • But surprisingly, it’s not what is emphasized.  So what is?
  • Obedience. 
  • When Francis wrote about Christ embracing poverty, what he speaks of is Christ descending from the glory of heaven and embracing mortal flesh – an act  – the ultimate embrace of poverty – not just material poverty, but spiritual poverty – the ultimate act of obedience.
  • Through this act of obedience, Christ is revealed as the Servant of all.
  • So, as Francis writes many times, his call was to imitate Christ in this respect:  to empty himself and become the lowly servant of all.  To conquer everything that is the opposite: pride, self-regard, the desire for position or pleasure.
  • Francis wrote that the primary enemy in this battle is our “lower nature.”  He wrote that the only thing we can claim for ourselves are our vices and all we have to boast about is Christ.
  • Francis also emphasized proper celebration and reception of the Eucharist – quite a bit.  He had a lot to say about proper and worthy vessels and settings for the celebration of Mass.  He was somewhat obsessed with respectful treatment of paper on which might be written the Divine Names or prayers.  He prescribed how the friars were to pray the Office.
  • The early preaching of the Franciscans was in line with all of this as well as other early medieval penitential preaching: francis of assisithe call to the laity to confess, receive the Eucharist worthily, and to turn from sin.
  • Praise God.  Whatever the circumstances – and especially “bad” circumstances – praise God.
  • Accept persecution.  It’s interesting that Francis routinely resisted church authorities affording his order any privileges or even writing them letters allowing them to preach in a certain vicinity.  He felt that if they entered an area and were rejected, this was simply accepting the Cross of Christ, and should not be avoided.
  • Begging was not a core value for Francis, as we are often led to believe.  He and his friars did manual labor.  In the early days, begging was only allowed on behalf of sick and ailing brothers, and then only for things like food.  No money, ever.
  • He really didn’t like telling people what to do.  Well, my theory was that he actually did – what we know about his personality, pre-conversion, indicates that he was a born leader.  Perhaps his post-conversion mode was not only an imitation of the Servant, but a recognition that his “lower nature” included a propensity to promote himself and direct others.
  • That said, Francis’ emphasis on servanthood meant that his writings don’t contain directions for others beyond what the Gospel says (repent/Eat the Bread of Life) unless he’s forced to – when composing a form of life and so on.   This tension, along with ambiguities in the Franciscan life, made for a very interesting post-Francis history, along with problems during his own lifetime as well.

To me, Francis is a compelling spiritual figure not simply because he lived so radically, but, ironically, because the course of his life seems so normal. 

Why?

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Because he had a life.  That life was disrupted, and the disruption changed him.  Disoriented him.  He found a re-orientation in Christ: he found the wellspring of forgiveness for his sins and the grace to conquer them (a lifetime struggle).  His actions had consequences, most of which were totally unintended by him, and to which he had to adapt, as he sought to be obedient to God.  His personality and gifts were well-equipped to deal with some of the new and changing circumstances in his life, and ill-equipped for others.  He died, praising God.

Yes, Francis was all about poverty. All about it.  He was about the poverty of Christ, who was obedient and emptied himself.

“I am the servant of all”  

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What can you do to celebrate the feastday of St. Francis of Assisi? Pick some flowers? Pet a wolf?

Maybe.

Or (after you pray) you could read his writings. 

Hardly anyone does, unfortunately. It’s too bad because there’s no reason to avoid them. They aren’t lengthy or dense, and you don’t have to pay to read them. You could read – not deeply, but you could do it – his entire corpus in part of an evening.

Here are links to all his extant works, although you can certainly find them in other places. 

The bulk of what he left was addressed to his brothers, but since most of us are not Franciscans, I’ll excerpt from his Letter to the Faithful:

Of whose Father such was the will, that His Son, blest and glorious, whom He gave to us and who was born for us, would offer his very self through His own Blood as a Sacrifice and Victim upon the altar, not for His own sake, through whom all things were made (cf. Jn 1:3), but for the sake of our sins, leaving us an example, so that we may follow in his footsteps (cf 1 Pet 2:21). And He willed that all might be saved through Him and that we might receive Him with a pure heart and our own chaste body. But there are few, who want to receive Him and be saved by Him, though His yoke is sweet and His burden light (cf. Mt: 11:30). Those who do not want to taste how sweet the Lord is (cf. Ps 33:9) and love shadows more than the Light (Jn 3:19) not wanting to fulfill the commands of God, are cursed; concerning whom it is said through the prophet: “Cursed are they who turn away from Thy commands.” (Ps 118:21). But, o how blessed and blest are those who love God and who do as the Lord himself says in the Gospel: “Love the Lord thy God with your whole heart and with your whole mind and your neighbor as your very self (Mt 22:37.39).

Let us therefore love God and adore Him with a pure heart and a pure mind, since He Himself seeking above all has said: “True adorers will adore the Father in spirit and truth.” (Jn 4:23) For it is proper that all, who adore Him, adore Him in the spirit of truth (cf. Jn 4:24). And let us offer (lit.”speak to”) Him praises and prayer day and night (Ps 31:4) saying: “Our Father who art in Heaven” (Mt 6:9), since it is proper that we always pray and not fail to do what we might (Lk 18:1).

If indeed we should confess all our sins to a priest, let us also receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ from him. He who does not eat His Flesh and does not drink His Blood (cf. Jn 6:55.57), cannot enter into the Kingdom of God (Jn 3:5). However let him eat and drink worthily, since he who receives unworthily eats and drinks judgement for himself, and he does not dejudicate the Body of the Lord (1 Cor 11:29), that is he does not discern it. In addition let us bring forth fruits worthy of penance (Lk 3:8). And let us love our neighbors as our very selves (cf. Mt 22:39). And if one does not want to love them as his very self, at least he does not charge them with wicked things, but does good (to them).

Moreover let those who have received the power of judging others exercise it with mercy, just as they themselves wish to obtain mercy from the Lord. For there will be judgment without mercy for those who have not shown mercy (James 2:13). And so let us have charity and humility; and let us give alms, since this washes souls from the filth of their sins (cf. Tob 4:11; 12:9). For men lose everything, which they leave in this world; however they carry with them the wages of charity and the alms, which they gave, for which they will have from the Lord a gift and worthy recompense.

We should also fast and abstain from vices and sins (cf Sir 3:32) and from a superfluity of food and drink and we should be Catholics. We should also frequently visit churches and venerate the clerics and revere them, not only for their own sake, if they be sinners, but for the sake of their office and administration of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which they sanctify upon the altar and receive and administer to others. And let us all know firmly, since no one can be saved, except through the words and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which the clerics speak, announce and minister. And only they should minister and not others. Moreover the religious especially, who have renounced the world, are bound to do more and greater things, but not to give up these (cf. Lk 11:42).

We should hold our bodies, with their vices and sins, in hatred, since the Lord says in the Gospel: “All wicked things, vices an sins, come forth from the heart.” (Mt 15:18-19) We should love our enemies and do good to them, who hold us in hatred (cf. Mt 5:44; Lk 6:27). We should also deny ourselves (cf. Mt 16:24) and place our bodies under the yoke of servitude and holy obedience, just as each one has promised the Lord. And no man is bound out of obedience to obey anyone in that, where crime or sin is committed. However to him whom obedience has been committed and whom is held to be greater, let him be as the lesser (Lk 22:26) and the servant of the other friars. And let him show and have mercy for each one of his brothers, as he would want done to himself, if he were in a similar case. Nor let him grow angry with a brother on account of the crime of a brother, but with all patience and humility let him kindly admonish and support him.

We should not be wise and prudent according to the flesh, but rather we should be simple, humble and pure. And let us hold our bodies in opprobrium and contempt, since on account of our own fault we are all wretched and putrid, fetid and worms, just as the Lord say through the prophet: “I am a worm and no man, the opprobium of men and the abject of the people.” (Ps 21:7) Let us never desire to be above others, but rather we should desire that upon all men and women, so long as they will have done these things and persevered even to the end, the Spirit of the Lord might rest (Is 11:2) and fashion in them His little dwelling and mansion (cf. Jn 14:23).

Why such a long excerpt? To give you a taste of what St. Francis was actually concerned about, which is perhaps not what we have been led to believe.

St. Francis is, not suprisingly, one of Bishop Barron’s “Pivotal Players.” So that means I wrote about him in the prayer book. 

Last year, I wrote a lengthy post on Francis. It’s linked here. Earlier this year, I noted that it was unfortunate that a bishop had cited the “Prayer for Peace” as having been penned by St. Francis – it’s wasn’t. 

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SO…I decided to write a book trying to communicate this to kids.  I worked, of course, with my friend Ann Engelhart, and the result is Adventures in Assisi, in which two contemporary children travel in Francis’ footsteps, confront their own need for greater charity and humility, and experience the fruit. It’s intended to be a discussion-starter, to get kids talking and thinking and praying about how they treat each other, and how they think about Christ in relationship to their own lives.

I mean..it’s not hard to get kids to get into animals or Christmas creches.  But St. Francis of Assisi was fundamentally about imitating Christ in his poverty of spirit, and I thought that aspect of the saint’s life was woefully underrepresented in Francis Kid Lit.

Here’s an interview Ann and I did with Lisa Hendey:

Q: What prompted you to write/illustrate “Adventures in Assisi” and what will our readers discover in this book?

Amy: I love history and I love to travel and the saints are central to my Catholic spirituality. In my teaching and writing, I’ve always particularly enjoyed bringing Catholic tradition and history to readers and listeners and many of my books reflect that interest.

St. Francis of Assisi has always interested me not only because his is a truly compelling, radical figure, but also because he is  rather mysterious.  The radical nature of his conversion and the singularity of his journey is unique, but the legends and stories that have grown around him over the past eight hundred years have only added to the mystique and have always piqued my curiosity.  My earliest encounters with Francis were both quite memorable, although both were rooted, I now understand, in more fiction, personal ideology and a cultural moment than fact – reading NIkos Kazantzakis’ St. Francis as a teenager and seeing Brother Sun, Sister Moon with my friends from the Catholic campus ministry in college.  Despite the serious limitations of both, what moved me in these works was my vivid and thought-provoking encounter with the possibility that radical sacrifice was, paradoxically, the path to fullness of life.

In the subsequent years, I encountered St. Francis here and there.  I taught his story when I taught high school theology.  I wrote about him in the Loyola books. I wrote about his prayers in The Words We Pray.  Over the years, I probably read every existing children’s picture book about Francis to my own children, most of which were about either the wolf of Gubbio or the Christmas creche.

And then, a few years ago, I read the new biography of Francis by Fr. Augustine Thompson OP  – Francis of Assisi: A New Biography.  It’s a tight, compact, rich work, and Fr.Thompson’s insights struck me to the core, so once again, St. Francis moved me…. MORE

Q: Ann, please say a few words on the artwork in this new book. How did you conceive of the characters “look”? What type of research do you have to undertake to artfully depict a venue like Assisi?

Ann: I was able to visit Assisi on two occasions, once with my teenage children and another time alone with my husband. I was able to walk the same paths as the characters in this book as they followed St. Francis’ footsteps.

I took countless photos because the style of my work is quite detailed, and I wanted the reader to authentically experience the exquisite Umbrian landscapes, the extraordinary architecture that is both grand and humble, and the simple beauty of the country roads and olive groves that surround St. Francis’ hilltop hometown….

MORE

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Finally:

How about that Peace Prayer of St. Francis, guys?!

Nope.
The incorrect association of “Make me an instrument of your peace” with St. Francis runs so deeply now, it’s presented, unquestioningly, 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. 

A bit more on who didn’t write what – some other incorrect attributions out there. 

Tomorrow?

St. Faustina, who’s in the Loyola Kids Book of Heroes. 

 


For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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First, business: The Absence of War is now available on Kindle again. I had pulled it because I entered in a competition which, not surprisingly, I did not win, so here it is again for you – lending is enabled, so if you like it, you can pass it on. And while you’re at it, check out Son #2’s new book, coming in a week or so: Crystal Embers.  Preview here. 

All right, now for travel things. Monday, we traveled from Caceres to Guadalupe, the site of the famed Royal Monastery of Guadalupe. History:

There is a legend of the origins of the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The legend says that St. Luke was the person who created the statue in the first century AD. When he died in Asia Minor, he was buried with the statue. In the 4th century, his remains were transferred to Constantinople in the 4th century. In 590 Gregorio Magno was elected Pope and he had a devotion to this Virgin and exhibited the statue in his chapel. One day the Pope was having a solemn procession with the Virgin in Rome and asked the Virgin to intercede to stop an epidemic in the city. An angel appeared to the Pope and the epidemic stopped.

Pope Gregorio Magno sent the statue to Seville to St. Leandro, who was the archbishop of the city, through his brother Isidoro, who was in Rome. During the boat trip, a sudden storm overtook the boat, but Isidoro prayed to the Virgin and the storm stopped suddenly. The Virgin was enthroned in Seville in the principal church at that time until the Moorish invasion in 714. Many priests in Seville fled the city during the invasion and went north with the statue of the Virgin and other reliquaries of the saints. They hid the statue near the river in Guadalupe.

At the end of the 13th century, a cow herder called Gil Cordero had a vision from the Virgin Mary beside the river. She indicated to him where her statue could be found. She told him to tell the priests where the statue was and for them to build a church in that place. The priests of Caceres then build a hermitage in that place and dedicated it to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Pilgrimages started to the hermitage and later in 1389 the monks of the Order of St. Jeronimo arrived and took over the hermitage. Many of the Spanish kings, especially the Catholic Kings, favored the monastery and many additions were made to it and many treasures were given to it too. The Catholic Kings made a pilgrimage to the monastery after their conquest of Granada.

The statue of the Virgin has been examined by experts several times. The statue was carved in cedar and polychromed at the end of the 12th century. Its style is Romanesque and today her image looks black, from the passage of time. The Virgin is seated and has the Child Jesus in her arms. The image measures 59 cm. Today the Virgin is venerated and on Sept.8 there is a celebration on her feast day. After Santiago de Compostela, the number of pilgrimages to Guadalupe is the most numerous in Spain.

On July 29, 1496, Columbus brought two Indians named Cristobal and Pedro to the monastery to have them baptized, when he met the Catholic Kings here. This was the first baptism of Indians from America. They returned to Mexico and many hermitages and churches in the Americas were dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Columbus named one of the islands he discovered Guadalupe, after the Virgin. Today there is a great devotion to this Virgin in all of the Americas and around the world, especially in Mexico.

Images of the baptism are everywhere and the font that was used is the center of a fountain in front of the monastery.

I was a little surprised by how the monastery was situated. The place has a mini-Lourdes-like vibe, not surprising, if you read the note above about its long-time popularity as a pilgrimage site. So it’s not exactly a peaceful place, with the monastery being literally right up against the little town – the steps a couple hundred feet from the plaza-side cafes. It’s kind of strange, but because the town structures around the monastery retain their medieval look (except, you know, for the Mahou ads and such), it fits.

There are two aspects to visiting the monastery complex: Visiting the monastery itself, which requires participation in a tour, and then visiting the basilica, which is of course, open. The tours just kind of…happen, it seems to me. Enough people gather, and they start a tour. So, thinking that we might do this tour on Tuesday, we showed up Monday around 4:30, having checked in our cute little hostel (2 rooms for $70 total), and people were sitting around in the gathering area, so..you know…why not?

The tour is in Spanish, and takes you in the cloister, adjoining rooms which have been made into museum rooms of choir books and religious artifacts, the magnificent sacristy which features paintings by Zubaran, and then the upper…chapel, I guess. A layman takes you through most of the tour, and then in that upper chapel, a Franciscan takes over. We were, I gathered, about to see Guadalupe herself. He talked for a while, then opened another door – there was a panel with all sorts of painted images on it which he turned…and there she was! He lead a Hail Mary in front of it, then offered us a disk attached to the statue with a rope for us to venerate. Most in the group did, some held back. There was a pregnant woman in the group to whom he gave the privilege of turning the statue back the other way. (When you go in the basilica, the statue is up high from your vantage point – so where you’ve been on the tour is up behind it.)

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At one point one of my sons asked me, “What is he saying?” of the lay tour guide and I quickly explained that he was telling us we were in the former refectory and this is where the tables where and up there was the niche in which the reader stood during meals. He stared at me and said, “But you don’t speak Spanish.” “But I speak Catholic,” I said – and continued explaining that if I know the context of the speech and if I’m familiar with the topic, I can follow the general gist of what someone is saying in French, Spanish or Italian. Context is everything, though. So here, once I picked up the word for refectory, I was set.

The tour was a little rushed, but I guess you could also say it was efficient, right? The basilica was…a basilica. There was not much distinctive about it, so I’m glad we got all that done when we arrived – the advantages of the late-living Spanish lifestyle!

No photos were allowed in the monastery, but you can easily find images of that online.

Monday evening, we wandered, took in views, and prepped for the next stage. Tuesday morning, we got up and I thought we might do some walks around Guadalupe, but as we drove out, I couldn’t figure out stopping points or parking places or trail beginnings, so we just sped on. It would be an hour and a half to the next stop, so might as well….

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A few years ago (several…more than ten….), I wrote a few back-of-the-book one page pieces on Franciscan-related saints for Steubenville’s Franciscan Way magazine. Here’s one on today’s saint, Benedict the Black. You can see that all those years ago, I looked askance at the self-fulfillment- passions-n-dreams bandwagon. It just ain’t the Gospel, folks.

 

 


 

 

In the modern world, we make much of personal initiative. The praiseworthy person, we’re told, is one who goes out there, sees what he wants, and grabs it. Our drive for action, our motivating center is supposed to  be  all about expressing   our personal vision.

Have we forgotten how to listen? For it seems to me that a really complete life isn’t about us charging through, imposing our lovely selves on a breathlessly waiting world. No, isn’t it more about watching the world, listening  to  it,  sensing  needs,  and  responding  in kind?

The saints seem to tell us  this is so, among them, St. Benedict the Black.

St. Benedict has been called “the Moor” at times, but while his parents were indeed African, they  were not, in fact, Moors (an ethnic group from western Africa). Over time,  he came to be called “the Moor” as a mistranslation of the nickname he earned during his life, “il moro santo ,”which means  “the  black saint.”

stbenedictblackBenedict’s parents converted to Christianity after they were brought from Africa to Sicily as slaves. Their owner promised to free their oldest son when he reached manhood, so on his eighteenth birthday, Benedict was released from slavery.

He took work as a day laborer,  and working in the fields one day, he was subjected to mockery from a passer- by, who insulted his race and the fact that his parents were slaves. Benedict responded  to  the  taunts,  not  out   of revenge or anger, but in the spirit of Christ who calls us to love our enemies.

Benedict’s  response  drew  the attention of a hermit named Lanzi, who was living in loose association with others nearby in the spirit of St. Francis. He told those who had spoken the harsh words, “You ridicule a poor black now; before long you will hear great things of him.” He invited Benedict to join him and his associates. Benedict listened and responded. He sold what possessions he had, gave the money to the poor, and joined the hermits.

The group of hermits moved several times over the years. When Lanzi, the group’s superior died, they elected Benedict to replace him. In 1564, however, Pope Pius IV ordered all groups of hermits to either associate themselves with an established religious order or disband. Benedict joined the Friars Minor of the Observance and became a lay brother at a friary in Palermo, where he was given the  role  of cook.

The  mid-sixteenth  century  was a time of great upheaval in the Church. The Franciscans had, of course, engaged in many reforms and realignments already over the course of the order’s 300-year life. Benedict’s convent was already part of the stricter element of the order—the Observants, and in 1578, it voted to participate in more reforms to bring it even  closer to the Franciscan ideal. Benedict was elected guardian of the convent—the one who would oversee the   reforms.

Since he could neither read nor write, and was not even a priest, Benedict was initially unhappy with his election, but in the end, bound by obedience, had no choice but to  listen and accept. He might not have seen his own gifts as particularly suited to this office, but his brothers obviously did, and their call to Benedict proved a wise one. Benedict led the reform with wisdom and prudence. He responded in the same way to the next call—to be novice master—saying yes to God’s call through the needs of his community. His reputation for holiness spread beyond the convent walls as well, as he directed his energy towards helping the poor.

At last, his administrative duties at an end, Benedict requested and was granted a return to the friary kitchen. There he spent the rest of his days, not only helping to nourish his brothers, but also sharing the love of Christ with all who came to him for help. The poor and the sick flocked to the friary kitchen, knowing that there they would meet the compassion of Jesus, working through the hands and heart of Benedict, a holy man who would listen to them speak of their needs and would always respond.

We all have our plans, it  is true. We can’t help but make them. But when we listen to God’s voice as he speaks through a world in need, we might hear hints that God has some- thing else in mind. Something even better.

 

 

 

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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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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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