The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
"[God] has made everything beautiful in its time" (Eccl 3:11) says the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, and he has said there is a time for everything, both good and ill, even war, mourning and dying. But is war and destruction beautiful? Yes, if we understand ‘beautiful’ to mean that something is proper and right and meant-to-be. All things have their purpose and are ordered to a good end because God is good and desires our final flourishing in grace and virtue. Hence, St Thomas citing St Augustine says: "Almighty God would in no way permit any evil in His works unless he were so good and powerful that he could bring good even out of evil". For God desires, ultimately, that we should be sanctified and so, be eternally united with him in love. So in God’s Providence, even ill events contribute to bringing about our sanctification if we have a firm trust in God and hope in his salvation.
We see this in today’s Gospel too. Jesus says that he “must suffer many things, and be rejected… and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Lk 9:22). In what sense ‘must’ Jesus do this? Is he compelled? Does he not have freedom? One can read Ecclesiastes and its profound and poetic meditation on divine Providence and think that things just happen and must happen and there is no human freedom or choice about their happening. And yet, this is not a correct understanding of Providence just as it is not correct to think that Jesus is compelled by ‘destiny’, so to speak, to undergo the Cross and Resurrection. No, Providence respects our human free will so that our acts are not pre-determined even if they are already known and seen by God who is eternal – we act in time and so happenings unfold in times and season, as Ecclesiastes says, but God, who is outside of time and sees all ‘at once’ already knows what we will freely choose to do.
So, when Jesus says he “must” undergo the Passion, Death, and Resurrection, he means that he wills to act according to God’s Providence, he places his trust in God’s good purpose and plan for him. It is in the light of Christ and his example, then, that we can understand our own lives, that we can look at Providence in human history. For there are the evils of rejection, death, violence and so on, but, with Christ, we can say that we will also be raised. The pattern of the Son of Man’s life becomes our pattern if we trust in Christ and keep faith with God who we know is good and who desires our flourishing and salvation. Hence St Paul said that “to them that love God, all things work together unto good”, which is to say that when we look at the totality of events both good and ill, they work together for the good. Only God has this perspective, and we in our time and place cannot see or know how this is happening. Ecclesiastes thus says that “[Man] cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Eccl. 3:11).
What we can do, then, is to follow Christ by abandoning ourselves to divine Providence and trusting in our good and loving God. As the 18th-century French Jesuit, Jean Pierre de Caussade wrote: “The designs of God, the good pleasure of God, the will of God, the operation of God and the gift of His grace are all one and the same thing in the spiritual life. It is God working in the soul to make it like unto Himself. Perfection is neither more nor less than the faithful co-operation of the soul with this work of God, and it is begun, grows, and is consummated in the soul unperceived and in secret”. Truly God has made everything beautiful in its time: his grace is quietly at work making us beautiful as his beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
Jesus truly died, was buried, and rose again from the dead. And the risen Lord Jesus was seen by hundreds of people, individually and in large crowds. Although the actual event of Christ’s resurrection wasn’t seen by anyone, the person of the risen Christ was seen by many including St Paul; he is an eyewitness. Some eyewitnesses had already died but many of these eyewitnesses would go on to become witnesses in another sense: they would become martyrs, a word which comes from the Greek marturia meaning ‘witness’. By willingly suffering and dying rather than to deny the truth they’d seen – the truth that Jesus Christ died and rose again – the eyewitnesses witnessed to the fact of Christ’s Resurrection and their belief in the word of the risen Lord Jesus. For he promised that all who believe in him and receive his Body and Blood will also, at last, rise from the dead and share in the glory of his Resurrection.
This is the Gospel which was preached to the Corinthians, and which was preached to us, and it is for ever true and valid no matter how long ago it happened. Like the Christians of Corinth, we today, and Christians down the ages and in every place, have always needed faith. Faith, as St Thomas says, is belief in the testimony, the witness, of some human being. This means that it requires that we trust what others have told us they’ve seen and experienced. Ultimately, St Paul appeals to the Corinthians to trust in the hundreds of eyewitnesses including himself, which is why he says that some of those eyewitnesses are still alive, implying that if one wanted to one could check with them.
But St Thomas, following St Paul, makes a distinction between believing through faith and knowing by sight. The latter is more certain knowledge, and only some have seen the risen Lord; the rest of us have to believe them, we have to put our faith in what they’ve seen and what they’ve told us. In short, we believe what we receive through the proclamation of the Church, the community of believers who can trace their lineage in unbroken continuity to the apostles, the eyewitnesses of the Resurrection, and also to the saints and martyrs, the witnesses of Christ’s promises.
The Church, therefore, is essentially a community built on trust, on faithfully handing on what we’ve received; this is the dynamic of faith. But we’re not passive recepients of the faith, either. For faith is a divine gift, and the Holy Spirit also stirs up in us charity, which is how our faith in the risen Lord is lived. Charity, after all, is a participation in the vibrancy of the living God, and it is Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, who thus makes it possible for us Christians to rise from the deadliness of sin through forgiveness, through loving our enemies, and to find new life through repentance and good works. Which ever country we come from, or live in, we Christians are called to witness to this; to live our faith.
Today’s saint, John Macias, a Spainiard who travelled to Peru and joined the Dominicans there, is an outstanding example of this. As a lay brother, he was the porter of his convent, and he spent his days welcoming the destitute, feeding the hungry, and praying for the most needy, especially the souls in Purgatory that they might soon enjoy the glory of the Resurrection. As such, St John witnessed to the truth testified by St Paul and the eyewitnesses – he bore witness to the Church’s faith in the Risen One. Through his life, then, and by his works of charity, he witnessed to the fact that the Church is a community built on trust – faith in the word of another –; a community founded on personal relationships of love and kindness, and he added his voice to the countless saints and martyrs of every nation and age who bear witness to the power of the risen Lord.
This is the democracy of the communion of saints; the power of charity that is made available to us through Christ’s Church and her sacraments, the true meaning of freedom which is the choice to love and live as Christ did. Ultimately, this is the only Yes or No choice that matters. With St John Macias and all the saints, let us always bear witness to our faith in the risen Lord and live in the hope of eternal life.
The sorrowful Mother of God is ever-present in our world. In Gaza, Iraq, Syria her icon comes alive in those images on our screens of hundreds of women veiled in black, their faces contorted with grief at the death of their children. In Nigeria, her sorrowful face is seen again in the anguished faces of those mothers pleading for the return of their girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. In our own community, she stands alongside those mothers who have lost a child, or have a child who is suffering a terminal illness. Sorrow, distress, death – such is the human condition; such is living and loving in a fallen world.
All of us will know or have encountered death and disease. And for some, the experience of having a loved one suffer and die – nursing them and holding them – is extremely hard to endure. One suffers with the one who is sick or dying, and such experiences can shake one’s faith. Such is the pain of human compassion, literally, suffering with the other. So, today we recall that Our Lady is the compassionate mother who suffers with her Son on the Cross. As she is also our mother, so she suffers with us and shares our sorrows and pain.
Because Mary shares in the redemptive suffering and death of Our Lord on the Cross, Our Lady of Sorrows is Queen of Martyrs. Hers is the martyrdom, that share in the Passion of Christ, that comes from the union of love that is uniquely hers: the union of her Immaculate Heart to the Sacred Heart of her Son. But as a martyr she witnesses, also, to how a Christian lives and copes with sorrow and grief; as our mother, she teaches us by her example.
So we see that throughout her martyrdom, as she stands at the foot of the Cross, she looks to Christ and is turned towards him in love and in faith. So, too, in our hard times, in the loneliness of our grief and distress, let us turn to God and not away from him. We look to the Cross and are saved, as we were reminded yesterday. For in turning to Christ who suffers on the Cross with us, we are opened to the grace and strength that he gives us to carry the Cross of our discipleship. And our turning to God is a sign of faith, of confident hope that he will, at last, turn our sorrows into joy, as happened to Our Lady. Hence Catholic tradition tells that Our Lady was the first to see the risen Lord, even before St Mary Magdalene and the other apostles as the Bible recounts, because Our Lady, who shared most deeply in Christ’s sorrow, merited this honour of being the first to experience the joy of the Resurrection.
Countless Christians throughout the world, very many of whom are women and mothers, are themselves mothered by Our Lady of Sorrows. This is the beauty of what Christ does on the Cross: he establishes a relationship of love, compassion and care between his Blessed Mother and all the baptised. So in our suffering and grief – a daily martyrdom for many people – Mary holds us and leads us to to her Son, to hold to Christ in faith and hope. Thus we share in Christ’s redemptive sufferings on the Cross, we share the pain of love and compassion, but Our Lady assures us that we will also share in the joy of Christ’s Resurrection and glory. Today’s feast, then, confirms us in our Christian faith and hope.
One of my sisters has spent the past summer working in Berlin, and my mother, who lives in Germany also mentioned Berlin to me this past week. I’ve never been to Berlin, but I am told that while most cities build monuments celebrating their nation’s great deeds in Berlin we see another kind of monument – they erect sculptures and public exhibits that commemorate the sins of past generations, of the Nazi Holocaust, for example. And they do this because it is cathartic, because it is healing to face one’s sins and mistakes, and so, to seek forgiveness and find new life.
Something similar happens with the monument or totem that Moses is told to erect – a serpent mounted on a pole that reminds the people of Israel of their sins. They are to confront their sins, and so, be healed. When Christ is lifted up and mounts the pole of the Cross, sinful humanity is also called to confront its wickedness; you and I are called to look at what our sins do to one another, and also to ourselves, and to God in Christ. For sin wounds and disfigures us, it makes us barely recognizable as human, it causes human misery and suffering which Jesus takes on himself.
But “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world” (Jn 3:17). So, when our God hangs on the Cross and we look at him, it’s not with an accusatory gaze that we’re called to do so. Nor do we look at the Cross to increase our feelings of guilt. Rather, we look at the Cross and acknowledge our sins and our brokenness, and simultaneously we look at Christ who is our forgiveness and our salvation and our healer. Hence, St Paul can say to the Galatians, as we heard in the Entrance antiphon: “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered” (cf Gal 6:14). So, too, so many people hold on to the Cross, or wear it on their bodies, and it is a source of comfort and of hope; we glory in the Cross.
For the suffering Christians of Iraq and Syria, and for countless Christians around the world the Cross is their glory, their hope, their comfort, their boast. Not only because they can see that Christ is with them in their catastrophe and pain and in their dying, but, more importantly, because they know, with Faith, that, as St Paul said, the Cross of Christ is our salvation, life and resurrection.
So, not unlike those monuments in Berlin, a feast like today’s is cathartic. It focusses us on the Cross of Christ so that we can look at the consequences of our sins and be healed and purified of them. But unlike a civic monument, the Cross is not just self-therapy or auto-salvific. It is much more than that because the Cross saves us for it is the instrument with which the God of our salvation acts. For we could not possibly atone for our own sins because they are so grave. Rather, we sinners stand in need of a Saviour. So, when we focus on the Cross, we glory in God’s goodness, his mercy and his forgiveness; we look at the God who became Man, and who lovingly offered himself on the Cross to atone for Mankind’s sins. As St John says, then, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16).
And this is the crux of the Gospel. In this past Fresher’s Week a number of Chinese students have made their way to our CSU Common Room. And we discovered that a few of them had no knowledge of the Gospel at all. So, in the brief time that we had, our students had to summarise the Gospel, to present its joy and its novelty as Pope Francis challenges us all to do. I would suggest that John 3:16 is a good place to start. And that verse continues: “That whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16). This is to say that all anybody needs to do to be saved is to look at the Cross; to see Christ Crucified for Mankind’s salvation, and believe.
It is as simple as that, though faith is not always easy. Nevertheless, like the people of Israel in the desert who looked at the bronze serpent and lived so we, the people of God, need only look at Christ – look to Christ – and live in his grace. Faith and belief in Christ is as simple as that. The rest – our life in Christ – is essentially, then, about being lifted up with Christ following the movement of the great Philippians hymn which we heard in our Second Reading. So, as disciples we are lifted up onto the Cross with Jesus; we take up our crosses and follow Christ, as we heard two Sundays ago. But, following this trajectory, we are also lifted up to heavenly glory with Christ.
And it all begins here at the foot of the Cross, as we look up at it and see on it the Victim of our sins, who dies so that we might live. Here in the Mass, we stand on Calvary. And on this feast, in particular, we come and we “behold the wood of the Cross on which hung the Saviour of the world”; by its lifting-up we, too, are uplifted!
Daily we are reminded of the powers of death and destruction, of the havoc and horror wrought by wicked people. The evils of the Islamic State; the likelihood that terrorists could strike with similar brutality in our homeland; the threat of the Ebola virus: this has been a summer of death and anxiety. So one line in today’s Gospel, one promise, drew my attention. Jesus assures us: “The powers of death shall not prevail against” his Church.
This is not a promise that life will be easy, or even that we will not suffer or know pain. Nor is it a promise that we will not die. This is impossible since these are essential to our mortal human condition. However, it is a promise that the powers of death shall not prevail. What does this mean? For many death is simply the end; the power of death is precisely its finality. But Jesus assures Peter and thus, his whole Church – you and me – that death is not final. Death has been robbed of its dreadful power. And this is because of who Jesus is and what he has done for Mankind, for you and me, for his Body the Church.
With a divine insight, St Peter acknowledges that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. This is to say that Jesus is Anointed with divine power and authority, and that he is truly the Living One. So, guided by the Holy Spirit, St Peter is able to proclaim faith in the Resurrection. And today we’re being asked if we can do likewise. Indeed, every day we’re being asked to share this faith by affirming in our hearts who Jesus is. For even if the headlines were not as dire as they are, we are still tested by the trials of our frail and changeable human condition – by illness, cancer, emotional anguish, depression, crushing loneliness. Our faith is challenged by these as Peter’s was.
If we look at the next few verses right after today’s Gospel passage, we read that Jesus explains to his disciples that he will need to go to Jerusalem and there “suffer many things… and be killed” (Mt 16:21). Peter takes Jesus aside and says “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Mt 16:22). And Jesus famously rebukes Peter saying: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mt 16:23). What does all this mean?
It tells us that like Christ and with Christ we human beings will still need to suffer and die. Peter wants to avoid this, which is why Jesus rebukes him. Why is mortality necessary? Why? We do not know, but as St Paul says to the Romans: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33). That is one response of faith: faith in God’s wisdom and goodness. But faith gives us another more powerful response which we see in the courage and steadfastness of the Christians of Iraq and of countless martyrs over the centuries. It is faith in the Resurrection, faith that Jesus is the “Son of the Living God”. For by his death and resurrection, Jesus has overcome the powers of death; death’s terrible finality shall not prevail against Christ’s Body, the Church. Instead, the Body of Christ – that is, you and me – will be raised from the dead just as Jesus, our Head, was raised to eternal life and unending joy. This is the faith St Peter proclaims today, this is the faith of the Church and her martyrs, and this is our faith through baptism. Hence one of the Memorial Acclamations in the Mass says: “Save us, Saviour of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free”. Yes, Jesus has saved us and freed us from the powers of death. So our faith rests on the rock of who Jesus is: he is the Saviour of the world.
What would it mean if Jesus were not the Living One revealed by the Holy Spirit to St Peter and the Church? What does it imply to think that Jesus was Jeremiah or one of the prophets, or John the Baptist, or Elijah?
Today’s first reading is taken from the continuous readings of Jeremiah that we have been following during the week. And it is most fitting at this time. The lamentation of God’s people could well be found on the lips of the countless Christians who are currently being persecuted and ruthlessly murdered all over the world. “Let my eyes run down with tears night and day,
and let them not cease… If I go out into the field, behold, those slain by the sword!… We looked for peace, but no good came; for a time of healing, but behold, terror” (Jer 13:17–19). So, the prophet gives voice to the suffering of the Christians of Iraq, of Nigeria, of Syria, the Central African Republic, Pakistan, China, and many other places.
At the same time, the prophet also lends his voice to the suffering of peoples throughout the world who endure disease, famine, sickness. He says: “If I enter the city, behold, the diseases of famine!… Why hast thou smitten us so that there is no healing for us?” (Jer 13:18f). Death and illness: this is the lot of humanity labouring under the sin of Adam; thus is our mortality. Hence Jeremiah says: “We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, and the iniquity of our fathers, for we have sinned against thee”.
So in the Gospel we see that St Martha and her family have shared in this, the common fate of sinful Man. Her brother has fallen ill and died, and Martha and Mary are grief-stricken. However, Martha knows that God has the cure to Mankind’s mortal condition; Christ is the cure for death.
Thus she goes to him, and she says with faith: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27); she believes that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, that he will put an end to sickness and death. And so, St Martha speaks for us Christians, for every Christian who suffers and grieves, for the Christian martyrs and those who are persecuted, for the sick and for you and me. She says: “Yes, Lord, I believe”.
I believe, you believe, that Jesus will raise us from the dead, so that even “though [we] die, yet shall [we] live” because “whoever lives and believes in [Christ] shall never die” (Jn 11:25). So, today’s Gospel and this feast invites us to renew our faith in Christ, the Resurrection and the Life. Whatever ails us, however we may lament and grieve, we’re invited to share the faith of St Martha, and to trust in Christ, “he who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27). He comes to suffer alongside us. He comes to die with us, and to raise us to new life. He comes to give us a share in his final victory over sin, death, and evil. He is with us now, and feeds us with himself, the Living Bread. He promises: “Whoever eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:51).
So, with St Martha and all the saints and martyrs with whom we are united in one holy communion, we cry out: “Come, Lord Jesus” (Apoc 22:20).
God marvels that Solomon, although he was “but a little child” (1 Kgs 3:7), did not ask for riches, or the other kinds of things that young men are wont to ask for. But I was a rather typical youth! For when I was a child my annual birthday wish until I stopped believing in birthday wishes was that I would become the richest man in the history of the world. It was a childish wish, but perhaps the kind that is still common today, and not just among the young.
But as St Paul says: “in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Rom 8:28), and so, God granted my juvenile prayer in the best way possible, that is, according to his wisdom, to bring about my greatest good. So, at the age of 16, I received baptism as a Catholic Christian. And then at the age of 28 I became a Dominican. On the day of my Solemn Profession in 2009, I recalled my childhood wish and I realized it had come true. Because, given who I am, there is no greater joy than loving and serving God in the consecrated life; no greater treasure than the Gospel of salvation – treasure both ever new and old (cf Mt 13:52) – which I am privileged to bring out and share with others through preaching; no riches better than the grace given to me at baptism and which makes every Christian a child of God, “conformed in the image of his Son” (Rom 8:28). All this sounds rather pious, but it isn’t thereby less true. When my parents and friends ask me if I am happy, I can honestly say I can’t think of anything I’d rather do, and I thank God for the grace of a Dominican vocation. And my friends often remark on how rare a joy it is in this life to have a ‘job’ you enjoy, which I evidently do. So, I am grateful for the joy I have found in having been consecrated to Jesus Christ as a Christian, a Dominican brother, and a priest.
A few months before I entered the Order, people tried to warn me of the many sacrifices I’d have to make, and what a deprivation religious life was. In some sense this is true. There are things we give up, and many people focus on these, especially the giving up of the goods of marriage and family life, material wealth, and self-determination. Initially, I’d focussed on these losses too. And then, I saw the riches I’d gained.
Hence in these parables of the treasure and the pearl the focus isn’t on what the treasure-hunter or the merchant had to sacrifice. What is emphasized is the worth of the Kingdom, that is, the supreme good that comes from knowing and loving Jesus Christ. Once we recognize the riches that Jesus brings we would give up all we owned – everything – to possess him. Or rather we do not possess Christ – it is he who embraces and possesses us with his love but first we have to let go of all the other things we cling on to so that we can hold to him. The key phrase in the Gospel which motivates this letting go of all else is this: “in his joy” (Mt 13:44). For without joy, the man would not have been motivated to sell all for the field and its treasure. So, too, without joy it’s hard to be a Christian, or a poor, chaste and obedient religious, a celibate priest. Without joy, the Christian life becomes drudgery, an obligation, and not worth living or, indeed, dying for.
At this time, this truth becomes ever more apparent. For ours is a time when more Christians are being persecuted and killed for their Faith in Christ than ever before. While I had willingly dispossessed myself of goods, last weekend the Christians of Mosul were forcibly stripped of all they had, and many have lost their lives. They made the ultimate sacrifice. And what motivates someone to offer their lives in Christian martyrdom if not the joy that comes from having been possessed by Christ who is the Resurrection and the Life?
Thus Pope Francis has said, “those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew” (Evangelii Gaudium, 1). This joy comes from being held in God’s love, through a daily personal encounter with Jesus Christ who is our treasure and our pearl of great price. For him, we would joyfully give up all without counting the cost.
The example of the martyrs inspires all Christians to seek this radical joy, and so, too, does the authentic witness of a consecrated life. For as Pope Francis said: “This is the beauty of consecration: it is joy!” Hence the Holy Father followed his letter on the Joy of the Gospel by calling for a Year for Consecrated Life from October 2014. So, today’s Gospel invites all peoples to find anew the joy of loving and serving Christ, but, in particular, perhaps he is calling some of you to the consecrated life, and so to especially enact through your vocation stories the Gospel parables we hear today. Is God calling you, too, to riches beyond your childhood wishes?
If you would like to find out more about the Dominican religious vocation, please visit our website, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s sometimes said that children should be left to decide about their religion when they grow up; anything else, it is polemically said, is tantamount to child abuse. Such nonsense, not least because it utterly fails to grasp what faith is. For such people, religion comes across as a bunch of abstract principles and faith is something private. Today’s feast challenges this.
Faith, as we Christians know it, is relational. As such, faith is rooted in personal relationships; in the histories and stories that people tell especially within families and societies; and it is expressed in social culture, in our human ways of relating and doing things together. Religion, properly understood, then, is the expression of one’s faith, particularly faith in God, who is thus to be worshipped and adored and thanked. But religion, then, is not something one picks up later in life, like a commodity or basket of private practices. Rather, it is directly related to one’s faith, to who God is revealed to be; it is founded on a living relationship with him.
And today’s feast recalls that this relationship with God, especially our incarnate and personal God, is rooted in personal and incarnational ways: in the family, in a community. For today we honour St Anne and St Joachim, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, grandparents of our Lord Jesus Christ, and hence, our grandparents too. In honouring them, we also remember and are grateful to all who have handed on the Faith to us: our families, teachers, priests, nuns, religious brothers, and fellow parishioners and friends – the wider family. As Pope Francis has said: “Faith is not a private matter, a completely individualistic notion or a personal opinion… Faith is necessarily ecclesial; it is professed from within the body of Christ as a concrete communion of believers. It is against this ecclesial backdrop that faith opens the individual Christian towards all others” (Lumen Fidei, 22). In the community, then, we learn that faith is relational and incarnational; that the Word became flesh in a human family, culture, and social network. And, so, faith culminates in love.
Cut off from this relational context, children don’t just decide on a religion when they grow up. Rather, they often don’t decide at all. How can they, when they have no existing relationship with God? When they don’t know Christ? People who have come to know Christ later in life are largely drawn by the friendships they have with other Catholics, which is why we each need to introduce Christ, our greatest and truest Friend, to our friends. But this assumes, of course, that we indeed know and love him. I’ll never forget a best friend of mine who became a Christian several years after she left university, but I’d known her for years, and never really mentioned my faith to her. She asked me: “Was I not enough of a friend to you for you to introduce me to Christ?”
The wisdom of the Catholic Church, then, coming from centuries of lived experience is to baptise children, as I did this morning. We wash children in the sacred waters of baptism not to brainwash them, as some ignorant people think, but to introduce them into a living relationship with Jesus Christ who is the fountain of life; who is the Truth and the Source of human happiness. We do so within the embrace of two families: the natural family from which the child is born, and the supernatural family of the Church into which the child is re-born. Held within the Church and together with one’s grandparents, parents and relatives, our relationship with God – the life of grace – grows and we journey together to our heavenly motherland. We journey as a communion of saints into that holy communion of Love that is God: the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Today’s saint was the only woman to have founded a religious Order, that is a family of consecrated life with both men and women. The Bridgittines were established in Vadstena in 1346 which became the heart of Swedish Catholicism. She was a mystic and received revelations of Christ’s Passion known as the ‘Fifteen Prayers of St Bridget’. She was consulted by theologians and kings, and like St Catherine of Siena, wrote to the popes in Avignon to try and persuade them to return the Papacy to Rome. She travelled the breadth of Europe, going on pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela, Jerusalem, and finally to Rome where she died in 1373 at the age of 70.
For these reasons, St Bridget is a worthy Patron of Europe; one of six. But most of this St Bridget did in her years of widowhood from 1344, what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “second period” of her life. Today I wish to just draw attention, instead, to the first period of her life, which is no less saintly, no less worthy of emulation by Christians today.
St Bridget had been happily married for 28 years to Ulf Gudmarsson, a governor of an important district of the Kingdom of Sweden. So, she lived a courtly life, and she had been born into the Swedish royal clan. With the wealth and influence at her disposal she built a hospital, engaged in charitable works for the good of the poor, and was invited by the Swedish king to go to court and introduce his French queen to Swedish culture. We often see this pattern of holiness for courtly women of this time. St Margaret of Scotland, St Elizabeth of Hungary and other such royal saints follow the same pattern. What they teach us today is that money and power are not obstacles to holiness. Rather, they can be a means to sanctity if we use what we have for the good of others, for God’s work. I am reminded of Mrs Charlotte Jefferson-Tytus, for example, who in her widowhood was encouraged by fr Bede Jarrett OP to become benefactress to the Order. Together with him she was the foundress of Blackfriars Oxford, and even of this Edinburgh priory.
However, charity begins at home. Hence, St Bridget’s goodness also had a positive effect on her husband and children. Through her influence, Ulf began to take his faith more seriously and with her he became a Franciscan tertiary. They went on pilgrimage to Compostela, and towards the end of his life, he retired to a Cistercian monastery, having agreed with Bridget to live as ‘brother and sister’. In the context of its time, this is seen as a deepening of one’s desire for God, and so St Bridget offers us an example of a Christian wife, who thus helps her husband to grow in holiness. In this way she loves God and her first neighbour, her spouse, and she shows us how the vocation of marriage is a path of sanctification.
St Bridget was also a mother. With Ulf, she had four boys and four girls. One of her daughters, Catherine (Karin) would travel with her to Rome and is also a canonized saint, and this can be seen as a mark of how effective a teacher she was, how positive the influence of this saintly woman. From St Bridget, then, we learn how beautiful and important the work of a mother and a wife is; how vital mothers are for handing on the Faith, for their civilizing effect, and making a domestic Church, a home. We are grateful!
But all this can make St Bridget’s life seem quite charmed and fortunate. However the lady who founded the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, with a special devotion to the Lord in his Passion, and who first received a vision of the Crucified Lord when she was just 7 was no stranger to suffering. At the age of 12 her mother died, so she had to be given into the care of an aunt. Her four sons died young, two of them while on Crusade. And when her husband died, when she was just 41, she grieved deeply for the one whom she said she’d loved “like my own body”. So many wives endure widowhood, and so many mothers know the pain of losing a child. St Bridget, then, shares their experience and sorrow. How did she cope? By abiding in Christ’s love. As we hear in St Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20). Thus, as the Gospel says, we are filled with Christ’s joy, with faith in the Resurrection which St Bridget knew would follow on after she’d suffered the Cross with Christ.
This year marks the 740th anniversary of the death of St Bonaventure, and also, incidentally of St Thomas Aquinas who was a good friend of his. There is much that these saints share in common. Both died in connection with the Council of Lyons: St Thomas had died on the way to the Council; Bonaventure, who was instrumental in preparing for the Council as a bishop, theologian and cardinal died during it. Both were mendicant friars and had defended the friars movement in Paris; both had studied and taught in the University of Paris. However, one incident (which echoes a similar one in the life of St Thomas Aquinas) shows us St Bonaventure’s priorities. When asked by St Thomas what was the source of his learning and insight, he pointed to an image of the Crucified One, and said: “This is the library, wherein I find all that I teach to others”. Thus, St Bonaventure, a Doctor of the Church, says to us: “If you learn everything except Christ, you learn nothing. If you learn nothing except Christ, you learn everything”.
The primacy of Christ in all things, and thus, the priority given to the Word of God, is central to St Bonaventure’s thought. As Minister General of the Franciscans he’d had to grapple with notions that St Francis had inaugurated a new, more spiritual and charismatic age for the Church. But St Bonaventure insisted that Jesus Christ is God’s final Word to humanity. There can be no further new revelation for in Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh, God had said all, giving himself entirely to humanity, even giving us his Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
Hence, Bonaventure said that if we seek truth, especially concerning eternal salvation, we needed to look to Christ in faith, to love him through prayer, and only then can we truly understand God’s words in Sacred Scripture. As he says: “This faith is the foundation of the whole Bible, a lamp and a key to its understanding”. And this faith, of course, comes to us as a gift from Jesus Christ; it is an ecclesial faith that we receive from Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church. Thus, as Minister General, St Bonaventure strived to unite the Franciscans more closely to the hierarchy of the Church. For this reason, I think, Bonaventure (unlike St Thomas) accepted being made Archbishop of York and a cardinal.
As a Scholastic, St Bonaventure (like St Thomas) firmly believed in the unity of faith and reason in the human quest for true knowledge. For, ultimately, God is the source of all wisdom; Jesus is Truth itself. Therefore, as a theologian, Bonaventure stressed that if we desired to know truth concerning our salvation, we needed to depend on God’s Word, and to learn from Christ. As he says: “The source of sacred Scripture was not human research but divine revelation”. For Bonaventure, then, the motivation for genuine theology was a love for Christ and a desire to know him better. Against this, he warned of the danger of intellectual pride which subjected the Scriptures to merely human reasoning and research. St Thomas, likewise, warned that “in knowledge and in every other endowment that belongs to greatness, Man finds occasion to trust in himself rather than to give himself over completely to God”.
The sanctity of these men, then, came not from their learning or formidable intelligence, as such, but from their humility and love for the Word of God. This enabled them to use their human reason to understand divine revelation, to accept God’s Word in faith and to conform their lives to it rather than to rationalize the Faith away or relativize God’s Word. This intellectual pride is the temptation in every age. Currently, we must wonder if some churchmen have not fallen into such temptation through arguing in support of the Assisted Dying Bill, or in favour of divorce and remarriage, or allowing for the ordination of women – positions which all contradict the teaching of Scripture and of sacred Tradition. The positions they advance all sound reasonable but we must always beware, as St Bonaventure teaches us, that the pride of human reason does not take precedence over the Word of God; over the divine Wisdom and knowledge that is only known through the grace of the Holy Spirit – that same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures and continues to guide, inspire, and animate Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. As such, her Magisterium cannot teach error in matters of faith and morals when it concerns our salvation.
St Bonaventure, therefore, said that only “the pious and the humble, the contrite and the devout” can learn from divine Wisdom. So, let us imitate his docility to the Word of God, and so, by God’s grace grow closer to Jesus Christ, the “Way, the Truth, and the Life”.