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Another great saint.  B16 spoke about him at a General Audience in 2009. It’s very appropriate that John’s feast falls during Advent, during our preparation for the Feast of the Incarnation.

(I have re-paragraphed it for ease of reading. Also bolded some key points.)

John, born into a wealthy Christian family, at an early age assumed the role, perhaps already held by his father, of Treasurer of the Caliphate. Very soon, however, dissatisfied with life at court, he decided on a monastic life, and entered the monastery of Mar Saba, near Jerusalem. This was around the year 700.

He never again left the monastery, but dedicated all his energy to ascesis and literary work, not disdaining a certain amount of pastoral activity, as is shown by his numerous homilies. His liturgical commemoration is on the 4 December. Pope Leo XIII proclaimed him Doctor of the Universal Church in 1890.

In the East, his best remembered works are the three Discourses against those who calumniate the Holy Images, which were condemned after his death by the iconoclastic Council of Hieria (754). These discourses, however, were also the fundamental grounds for his rehabilitation and canonization on the part of the Orthodox Fathers summoned to the Council of Nicaea (787), the Seventh Ecumenical Council. In these texts it is possible to trace the first important theological attempts to legitimise the veneration of sacred images, relating them to the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

John Damascene was also among the first to distinguish, in the cult, both public and private, of the Christians, between worship (latreia), and veneration (proskynesis): the first can only be offered to God, spiritual above all else, the second, on the other hand, can make use of an image to address the one whom the image represents. Obviously the Saint can in no way be identified with the material of which the icon is composed. This distinction was immediately seen to be very important in finding an answer in Christian terms to those who considered universal and eternal the strict Old Testament prohibition against the use of cult images. This was also a matter of great debate in the Islamic world, which accepts the Jewish tradition of the total exclusion of cult images. Christians, on the other hand, in this context, have discussed the problem and found a justification for the veneration of images. John Damascene writes, “In other ages God had not been represented in images, being incorporate and faceless. But since God has now been seen in the flesh, and lived among men, I represent that part of God which is visible. I do not venerate matter, but the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to live in matter and bring about my salvation through matter. I will not cease therefore to venerate that matter through which my salvation was achieved. But I do not venerate it in absolute terms as God! How could that which, from non-existence, has been given existence, be God?… But I also venerate and respect all the rest of matter which has brought me salvation, since it is full of energy and Holy graces. Is not the wood of the Cross, three times blessed, matter?… And the ink, and the most Holy Book of the Gospels, are they not matter? The redeeming altar which dispenses the Bread of life, is it not matter?… And, before all else, are not the flesh and blood of Our Lord matter? Either we must suppress the sacred nature of all these things, or we must concede to the tradition of the Church the veneration of the images of God and that of the friends of God who are sanctified by the name they bear, and for this reason are possessed by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not, therefore, offend matter: it is not contemptible, because nothing that God has made is contemptible” (cf. Contra imaginum calumniatores, I, 16, ed. Kotter, pp. 89-90).

We see that as a result of the Incarnation, matter is seen to have become divine, is seen as the habitation of God. It is a new vision of the world and of material reality. God became flesh and flesh became truly the habitation of God, whose glory shines in the human Face of Christ. Thus the arguments of the Doctor of the East are still extremely relevant today, considering the very great dignity that matter has acquired through the Incarnation, capable of becoming, through faith, a sign and a sacrament, efficacious in the meeting of man with God. John Damascene remains, therefore, a privileged witness of the cult of icons, which would come to be one of the most distinctive aspects of Eastern spirituality up to the present day. It is, however, a form of cult which belongs simply to the Christian faith, to the faith in that God who became flesh and was made visible. The teaching of Saint John Damascene thus finds its place in the tradition of the universal Church, whose sacramental doctrine foresees that material elements taken from nature can become vehicles of grace by virtue of the invocation (epiclesis) of the Holy Spirit, accompanied by the confession of the true faith.

John Damascene extends these fundamental ideas to the veneration of the relics of Saints, on the basis of the conviction that the Christian Saints, having become partakers of the Resurrection of Christ, cannot be considered simply “dead”. Numbering, for example, those "amy welborn"whose relics or images are worthy of veneration, John states in his third discourse in defence of images: “First of all (let us venerate) those among whom God reposed, he alone Holy, who reposes among the Saints (cf. Is 57: 15), such as the Mother of God and all the Saints. These are those who, as far as possible, have made themselves similar to God by their own will; and by God’s presence in them, and his help, they are really called gods (cf. Ps 82[81]: 6), not by their nature, but by contingency, just as the red-hot iron is called fire, not by its nature, but by contingency and its participation in the fire. He says in fact : you shall be holy, because I am Holy (cf. Lv 19: 2)” (III, 33, col. 1352 a).

After a series of references of this kind, John Damascene was able serenely to deduce: “God, who is good, and greater than any goodness, was not content with the contemplation of himself, but desired that there should be beings benefited by him, who might share in his goodness: therefore he created from nothing all things, visible and invisible, including man, a reality visible and invisible. And he created him envisaging him and creating him as a being capable of thought (ennoema ergon), enriched with the word (logo[i] sympleroumenon), and orientated towards the spirit (pneumati teleioumenon)” (II, 2, pg 94, col. 865a). And to clarify this thought further, he adds: “We must allow ourselves to be filled with wonder (thaumazein) at all the works of Providence (tes pronoias erga), to accept and praise them all, overcoming any temptation to identify in them aspects which to many may seem unjust or iniquitous, (adika), and admitting instead that the project of God (pronoia) goes beyond man’s capacity to know or to understand (agnoston kai akatalepton), while on the contrary only he may know our thoughts, our actions, and even our future” (ii, 29, pg 94, col. 964c).

Plato had in fact already said that all philosophy begins with wonder. Our faith, too, begins with wonder at the very fact of the Creation, and at the beauty of God who makes himself visible.

The optimism of the contemplation of nature (physike theoria), of seeing in the visible creation the good, the beautiful, the true, this Christian optimism, is not ingenuous: it takes account of the wound inflicted on human nature by the freedom of choice desired by God and misused by man, with all the consequences of widespread discord which have derived from it. From this derives the need, clearly perceived by John Damascene, that nature, in which the goodness and beauty of God are reflected, wounded by our fault, “should be strengthened and renewed” by the descent of the Son of God in the flesh, after God had tried in many ways and on many occasions, to show that he had created man so that he might exist not only in “being”, but also in “well-being” (cf. The Orthodox Faith, II, 1, pg 94, col. 981).

With passionate eagerness John explains: “It was necessary for nature to be strengthened and renewed, and for the path of virtue to be indicated and effectively taught (didachthenai aretes hodòn), the path that leads away from corruption and towards eternal life…. So there appeared on the horizon of history the great sea of love that God bears towards man (philanthropias pelagos)”…. It is a fine expression. We see on one side the beauty of Creation, and on the other the destruction wrought by the fault of man. But we see in the Son of God, who descends to renew nature, the sea of love that God has for man. John Damascene continues: “he himself, the Creator and the Lord, fought for his Creation, transmitting to it his teaching by example…. And so the Son of God, while still remaining in the form of God, lowered the skies and descended… to his servants… achieving the newest thing of all, the only thing really new under the sun, through which he manifested the infinite power of God” (III, 1, pg 94, col. 981c-984b).

We may imagine the comfort and joy which these words, so rich in fascinating images, poured into the hearts of the faithful. We listen to them today, sharing the same feelings with the Christians of those far-off days: God desires to repose in us, he wishes to renew nature through our conversion, he wants to allow us to share in his divinity. May the Lord help us to make these words the substance of our lives.

More from Ellyn von Huben at Word on Fire

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It is apt that people are starting to talk about Silence around the time of the feast of St. Francis Xavier, who introduced  Christianity to Japan in 1549. Here is a good, short summary of the two years he spent there. 

You can read in more detail about his time in Japan here, in the old biography and letter collection I cited in the last post. The chapter to which this link will take you contains the biographer’s summary as well as a letter from Francis Xavier to the Society back in Goa…which is well worth your time.

As I noted in the previous entry, Francis Xavier’s mission method encompassed all of the works of mercy – which is the traditional Catholic way of evangelization. These days, the a_xavier_2006sp2“instruct the ignorant” part of the works of mercy is often ignored, downplayed or disparaged, for various reasons: The specifics of religious truth are too complicated, are an obstacle to the Big Picture Truth that Jesus Loves You, or maybe even actually aren’t that true at all – not in the sense of being false but in the sense of not mattering very much, all things considered. 

But Francis Xavier, S.J., put “instruct the ignorant” front and center when it was called for – as in when those he was seeking to bring to Christ lived out of false belief systems. For him, understanding their beliefs and then relentlessly tearing them down was an essential work of mercy. Yes, he accompanied them….pointing out their errors and inviting them to the fullness of the truth with every step he took alongside them.

First, Xavier’s detailed explanation of the mission field that he found: his take on Japanese society and culture, and in particular religious practice. What he found was a system of sects, whose members were called bonze. The beliefs of these sects were rooted in Chinese beliefs and had evolved into an elaborated eternal life insurance profit-making scheme.

(Forgive the formatting – I cut and pasted from the text at the archive.org site and don’t have time to reformat. Basketball game.)

At the 
same time, the bonzes and the bonzesses, when preaching to 
the people about these laws, persuade them that profane per 
sons, occupied with worldly business, are unable themselves to- 
observe these five precepts ; but that they themselves are ready 
to make satisfaction for all the evil or inconvenience which 
may happen to them in consequence of breaking them, on con 
dition of the people giving them convents, yearly revenues, and 
money for all necessary uses : in short, of paying them every 
kind of honour and homage.

Xavier found the Japanese to be highly intellectual and interested in engaging in theological conversation – so that is what he did.

We used to preach twice a
day, and after the sermon there was always a good long dis
pute concerning religion. Thus we were continually occupied
either in preaching or in answering questions. Many bonzes
were often present at the sermons, and a great number of
others, both of the common people and of the nobility. The
house was always full of men, so full, that at times some were
shut out for want of space. Those who asked us questions
pressed them so well home, that the answers we gave enabled
them thoroughly to understand the falsehood of their own laws
and founders, and the truth of the Christian law. After dis
putes and questionings for many days, they at last began to
give in and betake themselves to the faith of Christ.

And when you read his account of the discourses, what you discover is…not much has changed. Human beings still fall into the same errors we always have, and we also have the very same questions about faith.

Xavier’s angle with the bonze – the weakness in their system he discerned – was that they had no Creation account or philosophy.

The Japanese doctrines teach absolutely nothing concerning 
the creation of the world, of the sun, the moon, the stars, the 
heavens, the earth, sea, and the rest, and do not believe that 
they have any origin but themselves. The people were greatly 
astonished on hearing it said that there is one sole Author and 
common Father of souls, by whom they were created. This 
astonishment was caused by the fact that in their religious tra 
ditions there is nowhere any mention of a Creator of the uni- 
verse. If there existed one single First Cause of all things, 
surely, they said, the Chinese, from whom they derive their 
religion, must have known it. For the Japanese give the Chinese 
the pre-eminence in wisdom and prudence in everything relat 
ing either to religion or to political government. They asked 
us a multitude of questions concerning this First Cause of all 
things ; whether He were good or bad, whether the same First 
Cause were the origin of good and of evil. We replied that 
there exists one only First Cause, and He supremely good, with 
out any admixture of evil.

And he answered their very natural questions about God’s timing: If this is so great and so true…why is this the first we’re hearing of it?

Before their baptism the converts of Amanguchi were greatly 
troubled and pained by a hateful and annoying scruple that 
God did not appear to them merciful and good, because He had 
never made Himself known to the Japanese before our arrival, 
especially if it were true that those who had not worshipped 
God as we preached were doomed to suffer everlasting punish 
ment in hell. It seemed to them that He had forgotten and as 
it were neglected the salvation of all their ancestors in permit 
ting them to be deprived of the knowledge of saving truths, and 
thus to rush headlong on eternal death. It was this painful 
thought which, more than anything else, kept them back from 
the religion of the true God. But by the divine mercy all their 
error and scruple was taken away. We began by proving to 
them that the divine law is the most ancient of all. Before re 
ceiving their institutions from the Chinese, the Japanese knew 
by the teaching of nature that it was wicked to kill, to steal, to 
swear falsely, and to commit the other sins enumerated in the 
ten commandments, a proof of this being the remorse of con 
science to which any one guilty of one of these crimes was cer 
tain to be a prey. We showed them that reason itself teaches 
us to avoid evil and to do good, and that this is so deeply im 
planted in the hearts of men, that all have the knowledge of 
the divine law from nature and from God the Author of nature 
before they receive any external instruction on the subject. If 
any doubts were entertained on the matter, an experiment might 
be made in the person of a man without any instruction, living 
in absolute solitude, and in entire ignorance of the laws of his 
country. Such a man, ignorant of and a stranger to all human 
teaching, if he were asked whether it were or were not criminal 
to kill, to steal, or to commit the other actions forbidden by the 
law of God, and whether it were right to abstain from such 
actions, then, I say, this man, so fundamentally without all hu 
man education, would most certainly reply in such a manner as 
to show that he was by no means without knowledge of the 
divine law. Whence then must he be supposed to have re 
ceived this knowledge, but from God Himself, the Author of 
nature? And if this knowledge is seen among barbarians, what 
must be the case with civilized and polished nations ? This 
being so, it necessarily follow that before any laws were made 
by men the divine law existed innate in the hearts of all men. 
The converts were so satisfied with this reasoning, as to see 
no further difficulty; so that this net having been broken, 
they received from us with a glad heart the sweet yoke of our 
Lord. 



One more:

The bonzes are persons of acute mind, and are very fond 
of studying, especially what relates to the future ; they are fond 
of considering what will happen to them, what will be their 
end, and all questions of this nature. There were some of the 
bonzes who, in the course of their meditations, had come to 
believe that there was no way of saving souls in their system. 
They argued in this way : It is necessary above all things that 
there should exist a single origin of all things ; now, in their 
books there is not a word on the subject, for there is a won 
derful silence in them all as to the creation of the universe; 
and therefore if any of their predecessors were acquainted with 
this first principle a thing not confirmed by any authority, 
written or traditional they must have kept the knowledge to 
themselves and hid it from their descendants. 

Now, men of this sort were wonderfully delighted with the 
divine law. One of them embraced the faith of Jesus Christ 
at Amanguchi, after being many years in the university of Ban- 
dou, where he had a flourishing reputation for learning. Before 
we came to Japan he had thought of becoming a bonze; after 
wards he changed his mind and married. The reason he as 
signed for this change was, that he had seen the falsehood and 
emptiness of the Japanese religions, and therefore did not be 
lieve in them at all, but he was bound to pay his homage to 
the Author and Creator of the universe. Our Christians were 
overjoyed at his accession, for he was and was thought to be 
the most learned man of the city.

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(He’s in it)

 

For an in-depth exploration, as well as a look at some of his letters, go to archive.org to this 19th century biography, in two volumes. (Of course his life and letters are published elsewhere, and in modern versions, but this is…free. )

What you will read about was a man who made tremendous sacrifices to travel across the world, endure great hardship….to teach fisherman and little kids the Creed.

Now think.

Why did he do this? Why did he think it was worth his life?

It seems, according to much of the current conversation in the air about how to spread the Good News which is not to be done by “proselytizing,” but rather by accompanying, that he was mistaken in his approach.

Was he?

Yes, the question of this encounter between Christian creed and various cultures is not uncomplicated. The question has rightly occupied Asian, African and European theologians for decades, and for literary shorthand versions, consider Black Robe and Silence.  Missionaries were not infallible. They made mistakes, they allowed themselves to become compromised, they were short-sighted.  All of that is true.

Even so – and not dismissing those questions – the 21st century observer who is anxious to diminish the importance of the particulars of belief in favor of a purportedly more pastoral engagement – who seems to believe that Jesus is more authentically and powerfully offered and encountered without much concern for the doctrine, and indeed that the specific articulation of belief functions more often than not as an obstacle to encountering Christ (for this is the essence, really of much of the direction of the current conversation ) – has a responsibility, as a Catholic, to engage this question in the context of the whole of Catholic tradition, which includes a lot of people making tremendous sacrifices, not only to live out the corporeal works of mercy, but the spiritual works as well.

Was Francis Xavier doing it wrong? What was the point – having the memorization of credal formulations and prayers, and baptism as the central focus of his missionary work? That model of “making them Christians” in this way…was it wrong?

Well, to explore the question requires us to go beyond simplistic categories, and to ask interesting, serious questions about the deeper spiritual dynamic that is engaged by this process of – dare we say it – making disciples –  the thinking behind it, and the cultural context.

It would require us to look to the past and..wait for it…engage in..dialogue, to listen and be willing to learn. It might even require…humility.

I and Francis Mancias are now living amongst the Christians of Comorin. They are very numerous, and increase largely every day. When I first came I asked them, if they knew anything about our Lord Jesus Christ? but when I came to the points of faith in detail and asked them what they thought of them, and what more they believed now than when they were Infidels, they only replied that they were Christians, but that as they are ignorant of Portuguese, they know nothing of the precepts and mysteries of our holy religion. We could not understand one another, as I spoke Castilian and they Malabar ; so I picked out the most intelligent and well read of them, and then sought out with the greatest diligence men who knew both languages.. We held meetings for several days, and by our joint efforts and with infinite difficulty we translated the Catechism into the Malabar tongue. This I learnt by heart, and then I began to go through all the villages of the coast, calling around me by the sound of a bell as many as I could, children and men. I assembled them twice a day and taught them the Christian doctrine : and thus, in the space of a month, the children had it well by heart. And all the time I kept telling them to go on teaching in their turn whatever they had learnt to their parents, family, and neighbours.

Every Sunday I collected them all, men and women, boys and girls, in the church. They came, with great readiness and with a great desire for instruction. Then, in the hearing of all, I began by calling on the name of the most holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and I recited aloud the Lord’s Prayer, the Hai/ Mary, and the Creed in the language of the country: they all followed me in the same words, and delighted in it wonderfully. Then I repeated the Creed by my- self, dwelling upon each article singly. Then I asked them as to each article, whether they believed it unhesitatingly ; and all, with a loud voice and their hands crossed over their breasts, professed aloud that they truly believed it. I take care to make them repeat the Creed oftener than the other prayers ; and I tell them that those who beUeve all that is contained therein are called Christians. After explaining the Creed I go on to the Commandments, teaching them that the Christian law is contained in those ten precepts, and that every one who observes them all faithfully is a good and true Christian and is certain of eternal salvation, and that, on the other hand, whoever neglects a single ore of them is a bad Christian, and will be cast into hell unless he is truly penitent for his sin. Converts and heathen alike are astonished at all this, which shows them the holiness of the Christian law, its perfect consistency with itself, and its agreement with reason. After this I recite our principal prayers, as the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and they say them after me. Then we go back to the Creed, adding the Our Father and the Hail Mary after each article, with a short hymn; for, as soon as I have recited the first article, I sing in their language, ^ Jesus, Son of the living God, grant us the grace to believe firmly this first article of your faith : and that we may obtain this from you, we offer you this prayer taught us by yourself^ Then we add this second invocation : ‘ Holy Mary^ Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, obtain for us from your most sweet Son that we may believe without hesitation this article of the Christian faitlu We do the same after all the other eleven articles.

We teach them the Commandments in the following way. After we have sung the first, which enjoins the love of God, we pray thus : ^ Jesus Christ, Sou of the living God, grant us the grace to love Thee above all things ; and then we say for this intention the Lord’s Prayer. Then we all sing together, ‘ Holy Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ, obtain for us from your Son the grace to observe perfectly the first of His Commandments ; and then we say the Hail Mary. So we go on through the other nine, changing the words of our little invocation as occasion requires. Thus I accustom them to ask for these graces with the ordinary prayers of the Church, and I tell them at the same time that if they obtain them, they will have all otherthings that they can wish for more abundantly than they would  be able to ask for them. I make them all, and particularly those who are to be baptized, repeat the form of general confession. These last I question after each article of the Creed as it is recited, whether they believe it firmly ; and after they have answered yes, I give them an instruction in their own language explaining the chief heads of the Christian religion, and the duties necessary to salvation. Last of all, I admit them thus prepared to baptism. The instruction is ended by the Salve Regina, begging the aid and help of our Blessed Lady.

As to the numbers who become Christians, you may understand them from this, that it often happens to me to be hardly able to use my hands from the fatigue of baptizing : often in a single day I have baptized whole villages. Sometimes I have lost my voice and strength altogether with repeating again and again the Credo and the other forms.

The fruit that is reaped by the baptism of infants, as well as by the instruction of children and others, is quite incredible. These children, I trust heartily, by the grace of God, will be much better than their fathers. They show an ardent love for the Divine law, and an extraordinary zeal for learning our holy religion and imparting it to others. Their hatred for idolatry is marvellous. They get into feuds with the heathen about it, and whenever their own parents practise it, they reproach them and come off to tell me at once. Whenever I hear of any act of idolatrous worship, I go to the place with a large band of these children, who very soon load the devil with a greater amount of insult and abuse than he has lately received of honour and worship from their parents, relations, and acquaintances. The children run at the idols, upset them, dash them down, break them to pieces, spit on them, trample on them, kick them about, and in short heap on them every possible outrage.

I had been living for nearly four months in a Christian village, occupied in translating the Catechism. A great number of natives came from all parts to entreat me to take the trouble to go to their houses and call on God by the bedsides of their sick relatives. Such numbers also of sick made their own way to us, that I had enough to do to read a Gospel over each of them. At the same time we kept on with our daily work, instructing the children, baptizing converts, translating the Cate chism, answering difficulties, and burying the dead. For my part I desired to satisfy all, both the sick who came to me themselves, and those who came to beg on the part of others, lest if I did not, their confidence in, and zeal for, our holy religion should relax, and I thought it wrong not to do what I could in answer to their prayers. But the thing grew to such a pitch that it was impossible for me myself to satisfy all, and at the same time to avoid their quarrelling among themselves, every one striving to be the first to get me to his own house ; so I hit on a way of serving all at once. As I could not go myself, I sent round children whom I could trust in my place. Tliuey went to the sick persons, assembled their families and neighbours, recited the Creed with them, and encouraged the sufferers to conceive a certain and wellfounded confidence of their restoration. Then after all this, they recited the prayers of the Church. To make my tale short, God was moved by the faith and piety of these children and of the others, and restored to a great number of sick persons health both of body and soul. How good He was to them ! He made the very disease of their bodies the occasion of calling them to salvation, and drew them to the Christian faith almost by force !

I have also charged these children to teach the rudiments of Christian doctrine to the ignorant in private houses, in the streets, and the crossways. As soon as I see that this has been well started in one village, I go on to another and give the same instructions and the same commission to the children, and go I go through in order the whole number of their villages. When I have done this and am going away, I leave in each place a copy of the Christian doctrine, and tell ail those who know how to write to copy it out, and all the others are to learn it by heart and to recite it from memory every day. Every feast day I bid them meet in one place and sing all together the elements of the faith. For this purpose I have appointed in each of the thirty Christian villages men of intelligence and character who are to preside over these meetings, and the Governor, Don Martin Alfonso, who is so full of love for our Society and of zeal for religion, has been good enough at our request to allot a yearly revenue of 4000 gold fanams for the salary of these catechists. He has an immense friendship for ours, and desires with all his heart that some of them should be sent hither, for which he is always asking in his letters to the King.

There is now in these parts a very large number of persons who have only one reason for not becoming Christian, and that is that there is no one to make them Christians. It often comes into my mind to go round all the Universities of Europe, and especially that of Paris, crying out every where like a’ madman, and saying to all the learned men there whose learn- ing is so much greater than their charity, ‘ Ah ! what a miiltiude of souls is through your fault shut out of heaven and falling into hell . Would to God that these men who labour so much in gaining knowledge would give as much thought to the ac- count they must one day give to God of the use they have made of their learning and of the talents entrusted to them ! I am sure that many of them would be moved by such considerations, would exercise themselves in fitting meditations on Divine truths, so as to hear what God might say to them,^-* and then, renouncing their ambitions and desires, and all the things of the world, they would form themselves wholly according to God’s desire and choice for them. They would exclaim from the bottom of their hearts : ^ Lord^ here am I ; send jue whithersoever it shall please Thee, even to India /’^-^ Good God ! how much happier and how much safer they would be ! With what far greater confidence in God’s mercy would they meet their last hour, the supreme trial of that terrible judgment which no man can escape ! They would then be able joyfully to use the words of the faithful servant in the Gospel : ‘ Lord, Thou gavesf me five talents; behold, I have gained beside them other five. They labour night and day in acquiring knowledge, and they are very diligent indeed in understanding the subjects which they study ; but if they would spend as much time in that which is the fruit of all solid learning, and be as diligent in teaching to the ignorant the things necessary to salvation, they would be far better prepared to give an account of themselves to our Lord when He shall say to them : ‘ Give an account of thy steiuard- ship.’^”^ I fear much that these men, who spend so many years in the Universities in studying the liberal arts, look more to the empty honours and dignities of the prelature than to the holy functions and obligations of which those honours are the trappings. It has come to this pass, as I see, that the men who are the most diligent in the higher branches of study, commonly make profession that they hope to gain some high post in the Church by their reputation for learning, therein to be able to serve our Lord and His Church. But all the time they deceive themselves miserably, for their studies are far more directed to their own advantage than to the common good. They are afraid that God may not second their ambition, and this is the reason why they will not leave the whole matter to His holy will. I declare to God that I had almost made up my mind, since I could not return to Europe myself, to write to the University of Paris, and especially to our worthy Professors Cornet and Picard, and to show them how many thousands of infidels might be made Christians without trouble, if we had only men here who would seek, not their own advantage, but the things of Jesus Christ. And therefore, dearest brothers, ‘ pray ye the Lord of the harvest that He send forth labourers into His harvest.’

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I’m over at Catholic World Report with yet another article on Women and the Reformation. Just a bit of what I wrote in the Catholic Herald piece is repeated there. Most of it is new.

Part of what I wanted to communicate in the piece concerns the Reformation narrative most of us have absorbed. It’s a false narrative, people.

Reading A Short Chronicle will open the eyes of anyone under the impression of the Reformation as a movement that coursed along powered only by the finer spiritual sensibilities. If Geneva came under the power of the Reformation at this moment, it did so less because of “seekers” finding a spiritual home, but because the citizens were threatened and bullied, a destructive battle was fought, and the Catholics lost.

But then to get to the women – when you engage with this material, it really gets you thinking, not only about the distant past, but the recent past and the present.

Plus, do get over there and read about Jeanne de Jussie and the Geneva Poor Clares, and, if you want to read more, her Chronicle is well worth your time and even your money. As I read it, I couldn’t help but envision it in cinematic terms – it could be an intense, riveting film in the right hands.

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Speaking of persecution of Catholics, as you probably know, Scorsese’s adaptation of Endo’s Silence is due to be released in a few weeks. I don’t imagine those of us in flyover country will see it until after Christmas, but here’s the trailer. 

I’m thinking that this film will inspire many to read the novel, either as individuals or as part of a book group, and so to help out, I’m going to be pulling together a study guide over the next week. I’ll have a page for it over at my website, and then will put it together as a downloadable document free for anyone to use. So look for that!

Beginning to talk about it a bit here…

 

— 3—

Alabama store in Jerusalem

Isn’t this crazy? An Alabama – themed shop in Jerusalem. (That’s Father Mark of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word). Here’s the story – the owner studied engineering at UA and lived in Tuscaloosa for ten years before returning to Jerusalem..

 

 

— 4 —

Check this out – a great resource from the Rector of our Cathedral, Fr. Jerabek: 

I am pleased to announce the release of a resource I developed several years ago, now to a wider market. It is a basic bilingual catechism (Spanish/English). This resource meets a pastoral need that I have encountered over and over again: in working with Latino immigrants, I have found that a very large number of them have little formal education in the Catholic faith. Many come to the Church as adults to make their first communion — some, even, to be baptized! When faced with pastoral situations such as this, it is helpful for the pastor or catechist to have a basic resource to put in their hands: something that can be a sort of “springboard” for learning what is needed for sacramental preparation and personal spiritual growth. I have also found that many individuals who already have their sacraments enjoy this resource for “brushing up on the basics” of their faith.

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One of my favorite blogs is A Clerk at Oxford – check out her post on an 10th-century Advent homily:

This brief fragment is full of rhetorical flourishes and ornamental prose which it’s difficult to convey in translation; it would be very effective when read aloud, as homilies are of course meant to be. There’s a particularly lovely string of parallel phrases describing Christ: ealles folces Frefrend, 7 ealles middangeardes Hælend, 7 ealra gasta Nergend, 7 ealra saula Helpend ‘all people’s Comfort, all the world’s Saviour, all spirits’ Preserver, all souls’ Helper’.

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Feast of St. Francis Xavier coming up tomorrow. St. Nicholas this week – you still have time to do some preparation -check out the St. Nicholas Center! 

And, Catholic institutions…please stop having “Breakfast with Santa.” Please.  It’s so much better, and not hard to have Breakfast with St. Nicholas instead.

Also, I’ll be in Living Faith a couple of days next week – check out the website, where they post the devotionals on a daily basis. 

— 7 —

Still hankering for a family devotional? Get this one instantly for only .99!

And don’t forget…Bambinelli Sunday.  It’s coming…

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

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Over the next few weeks and months, we will be hearing much about Shusaku Endo’s great novel Silence, and, of course, of Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation, which was screened this week in Rome.

This is a novel that is very easy to misunderstand, and I am very interested to see what Scorsese does with it. By saying “easy to misunderstand,” I am not suggesting that there is only one way to “understand” or interpret the novel, though. Not at all. I do think that Silence Endothere are unquestionable misinterpretations, however, and most of them come out of a lack of awareness of the Japanese, particular Catholic, as well as personal context  out of which Endo was writing.

In other words, you can’t fruitfully read Silence if your only frame of reference are 2016 culture wars and ecclesiastical and theological divisions. Silence is not about that. So forget it.

So yes, I’ll be writing more about it in the coming weeks – this very short piece I wrote years ago for Ligouri still stands up. As I say in the beginning, it was so short because that was the mandate from the magazine – write 540 words….oy.

Anyway, what I am working on is a study guide for the novel. I am doing this just for myself and anyone else who is interested, and I’ll make it available as soon as I finish it – hopefully next week. It will be amended once I see the film, but I did want to put something out there sooner than that. I’m sure that many parishes and other groups will be using Silence as a group study focus over the coming months, so I just wanted to join the fray and put what I hope will be a helpful resource out there. It will just be a free download – no signing up for mailing lists required!

Anyway, this is accidentally pertinent. In doing all that reading for women and the Reformation, I came across this really interesting article in a book on early modern women and religion. 

“Women Apostles in Early Modern Japan, 1549-1650” by Columbia Theological Seminary historian Haruko Nawata Ward tells stories that we don’t usually hear, as our focus on Japan during this period is, naturally enough on martyrdom. You can probably access much of the article by searching Google Books – since you probably don’t want to pay $150 for a copy..

Anyway, Ward uses documents from missionaries to tell the stories:

Working in the difficult environment of Japan, and always understaffed, the missionaries relied heavily upon laity in the work of evangelization. They quickly recognized women’s contributions and the importance of collaborating with women in their shared apostolic mission. …

…The best known of these was Naito Julia, a former abbess of a Buddhist nunnery, who was inspired by Jesuit missionaries and established a society of Christian women catechists called the Miyaco no bicuni (Nuns of Miyako). Women catechists’ success in converting people is well documented by the Jesuits; however, because of their success the government banished the Miyaco no bicuni from Japan in 1614. The Jesuits continued to record the history of these women, who became contemplatives, during their exile in the Philippines until 1656.  ….Women catechists of Julia’s society took the three vows of virginity, poverty and obedience under the supervision of two Jesuits. Following the Jesuit model, these women were active evangelists, preachers, teachers catechizers, baptizers, pastoral leaders, and religious debaters. 

The details of the community’s life were recorded by Jesuit Juan de Salazar after the group had been exiled to the Philippines. He felt it was important to preserve their history.

Usually she taught non-Christians Christian doctrine, catechizing them so that they would be converted to our holy faith and be baptized, and at the same time, she attended to the teaching of Christians, instructing them so that they would be ready to confess and receive the holy sacrament. And she was so busy with these holy ministries that regardless of her deep desire to retreat so as to make the [spiritual] exercises of our father Saint Ignatius, she was seldom able to obtain them from the fathers of our Society because they were continuously sending her to evangelize in various kingdoms, cities and private houses where our own could not go. 

Moreover, the Jesuits granted Julia full authority to baptize on their behalf. Salazar explains that Japanese noblewomen of the highest rank would not speak with men, not even Buddhist clergy. Julia opened the door for the conversion of these women: not only was she a noblewoman of royal blood which allowed her access to other noblewomen, but she was also gifted with intelligence, prudence, and versatile knowledge of Buddhist doctrine and was thus able to differentiate “false” Buddhist teachings from the “true” teachings of the Catholic faith. Julia was apparently very successful at this task: “Convinced by the reasoning of Lady Julia, many ladies of Japan with their daughters and families accepted our holy faith and received baptism by her hand because we [the Jesuits] were not able to administer it. 

Incidentally, traditional barriers between the sexes throughout Asia were a major reason that Protestant denominations began sending women as missionaries to the continent during their great missionary century, the 19th.

This cultural reality also sheds light on the purpose of female “deacons” in the early Christian church. There is certainly ambiguity about this role as it was lived out in the Church, but what is consistent is that it was not at all the sacerdotal diaconate related to the presbyterate and episcopacy, and existed so that women could be ministered to in certain ways in a culture in which the taboos against male and female interaction outside the family were strong.

In 1613, Julia and her companions were arrested, publicly humiliated (stripped naked in public) and tortured. They would not renounce their faith, so the shogunate expelled them from Japan. They arrived in Manila in 1615, and lived there, in a different way of life: enclosed now, rather than active, but dedicated to prayerful support of the Jesuit missions.

The Society saw to it that the women received adequate donations to sustain themselves, noting that they ‘only cared about the greater glory of God and obtaining the greatest happy progress for the Province and our Society of Jesus, whom they, like a sweetest mother, keep i the most intimate part of their hearts.’ 

She tells the story of many more, some martyrs and some beatified and canonized. As I said, I read this article in an anthology, but Ward has a book on the subject Women Religious Leaders in Japan’s Christian Century, 1549-1650.   

As I keep saying in my very boring way…if you want to stay sane in the Crazy Present Moment…read history. It helps. It really does. 

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Advent brings with it great saints. Over the next week, we have Francis Xavier, John Damascene, Nicholas,Ambrose, and today, St. Andrew, brother of Peter, fisherman, disciple, martyr.

Who, what, when, where, why….

The first striking characteristic of Andrew is his name:  it is not Hebrew, as might have been expected, but Greek, indicative of a certain cultural openness in his family that cannot be ignored. We are in xjf137983Galilee, where the Greek language and culture are quite present. Andrew comes second in the list of the Twelve, as in Matthew (10: 1-4) and in Luke (6: 13-16); or fourth, as in Mark (3: 13-18) and in the Acts (1: 13-14). In any case, he certainly enjoyed great prestige within the early Christian communities.

The kinship between Peter and Andrew, as well as the joint call that Jesus addressed to them, are explicitly mentioned in the Gospels. We read:  “As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men'” (Mt 4: 18-19; Mk 1: 16-17).

From the Fourth Gospel we know another important detail:  Andrew had previously been a disciple of John the Baptist:  and this shows us that he was a man who was searching, who shared in Israel’s hope, who wanted to know better the word of the Lord, the presence of the Lord.

He was truly a man of faith and hope; and one day he heard John the Baptist proclaiming Jesus as:  “the Lamb of God” (Jn 1: 36); so he was stirred, and with another unnamed disciple followed Jesus, the one whom John had called “the Lamb of God”. The Evangelist says that “they saw where he was staying; and they stayed with him that day…” (Jn 1: 37-39).

Thus, Andrew enjoyed precious moments of intimacy with Jesus. The account continues with one important annotation:  “One of the two who heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon, and said to him, “We have found the Messiah’ (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus” (Jn 1: 40-43), straightaway showing an unusual apostolic spirit.

Andrew, then, was the first of the Apostles to be called to follow Jesus. Exactly for this reason the liturgy of the Byzantine Church honours him with the nickname:  “Protokletos”, [protoclete] which means, precisely, “the first called”.

(more…)

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Dom Prosper Guéranger, OSB was a towering figure in 19th century liturgical studies. The following is taken from the section on Advent from The Liturgical Year. 

Gueranger discusses what he understands of the history of the season, and then how Advent informs the shape of the liturgy. In the third portion of his discussion, he turns to the individual believer: the various stances towards Christ human beings have, and how Christ seeks to meet each of us, no matter where we are, and how that meeting will change our life.

For this glorious solemnity, as often as it comes round, finds three classes of men. The first, and the smallest number, are those who live, in all its plenitude, the life of Jesus who is within them, and aspire incessantly after the increase of this life. The second class of souls is more numerous; they are living, it is true, because Jesus is in them; but they are sick and weakly, because they care not to grow in this divine life their charity has become cold ! 18 The rest of men make up the third division, and are they that have no part of this life in them, and are dead; for Christ has said: ‘I am the Life,’

Now, during the season of Advent, our Lord knocks at the door of all men’s hearts, at one time so forcibly that they must needs notice Him; at another, so softly that it requires attention to know that Jesus is asking admission. He comes to ask them if they have room for Him, for He wishes to be born in their house. The house indeed is His, for he built it and preserves it; yet He complains that His own refused to receive Him ;  at least the greater number did. ‘But as many as received Him, He gave them power to be made the sons of God, born not of blood, nor of the flesh, but of God.

One of the reasons I want to share this with you is that Gueranger, not surprising for a liturgical scholar, presents the individual believer’s spirituality in the context of the Church’s liturgy. I think this is very important for us to understand, in a culture – even a church culture – in which we are encouraged to shape our lives in response to the proddings of the Holy Spirit.

What is often forgotten, however, is that when Jesus promised the presence of the Spirit, he did not take individuals aside and say, “I’m sending you the Paraclete. And you – over there, let me talk to you. I’m sending you the Paraclete as well.”

No. He made this promise to the apostles, as a body – as the People of God, as the Church.

So when I, as an individual baptized Christian, seek to live my life in accordance with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the first place I look is the Church.

Living by the promptings of God’s spirit can involve complex dynamics and careful, even painful discernment. It may indeed put one in conflict with various elements of Church authority or tradition as it is being understood or misunderstood at a particular point in time. There is nothing new or radical about this, and anyone with an atom of understanding of church history understands this, and countless women and men we now honor as saints endured, usually painfully, these struggles of discernment as they were moved to serve in one direction, while bishops or other authorities told them to just stop.

But it all seems to shake out in the end, as we push and pull and move and serve.

And so it is with our prayer life and our individual spiritual lives. The Spirit dwells in the Word of God and in the prayer of the Church. Paul says, Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 

So, Dom Gueranger picks it up:

He will be born, then, with more beauty and lustre and might than you have hitherto seen in Him, O ye faithful ones, who hold Him within you as your only treasure, and who have long lived no other life than His, shaping your thoughts and works on the model of His. You will feel the necessity of words to suit and express your love; such words as He delights to hear you speak to Him. You will find them in the holy liturgy.

You, who have had Him within you without knowing Him, and have possessed Him without relishing the sweetness of His presence, open your hearts to welcome Him, this time, with more care and love. He repeats His visit of this year with an untiring tenderness; He has forgotten your past slights; He would ‘that all things be new.’  Make room for the divine Infant, for He desires to grow within your soul. The time of His coming is close at hand: let your heart, then, be on the watch; and lest you should slumber when He arrives, watch and pray, yea, sing. The words of the liturgy are intended also for your use: they speak of darkness, which only God can enlighten; of wounds, which only His mercy can heal; of a faintness, which can be braced only by His divine energy.

So….how to observe Advent with yourself, your family, your kids? Don’t stress. Just keep it simple.

Start with the liturgy. With the daily Mass readings, and whatever else you can manage. It is worth the time, it is worth the awkwardness, it is worth the struggle. I have never looked back on that time on the couch, sometimes so painfully won from other commitments and distractions, and thought, “Well, that was a waste of time,” while I always look back at a day when I just gave up and gave in to Everything Else and said, “Well, that wasn’t worth it. I should have tried a little harder.”

Yes, when I make what I see, in hindsight, is just a small sacrifice, and open myself and try to help my family open up, I see that even a little bit is enough, for I know that all of our yearnings are met here, in the tiniest opening: The Spirit helps us in our weakness. 

Image source.

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