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.
On 20 August 1914 – 100 years ago – Pope Pius X died, and he would become the first pope to be canonized since the 16th-century Dominican Pope St Pius V. In his 11 year pontificate, St Pius X set out to “restore all things in Christ” – that was his motto. With his many years of pastoral experience in parishes and seminary, in diocesan offices and finally as bishop and cardinal, Pope Pius X saw the need to reform the Church. So, he initiated reforms in papal elections, seminary life, Eucharistic practice, sacred music, Biblical studies, the breviary, catechesis, the organization of the Roman Curia, and Canon Law.
Now, the work of reforming the Church so that she can more faithfully carry out the mission given her by Christ is a graced work. For what is the task, indeed, the raison d’être of the Church? Pius X said in his first speech as pope in 1903: “The way to reach Christ is not hard to find: it is the Church… It was for this that Christ founded it, gaining it at the price of His blood, and made it the depositary of His doctrine and His laws, bestowing upon it at the same time an inexhaustible treasury of graces for the sanctification and salvation of men”.
Consequently, one can see in the labours of Pope St Pius X, then, a certain fulfillment of Ezekiel’s promise. “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Eze 36:25). So, through his Vicar on earth, Christ is at work, cleansing, reforming, renewing his Church so that she may lead souls to himself. And the reform of spiritual practices, of Canon Law, and liturgical law, as it were, enables what Ezekiel says in verse 27: “I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances”.
St Pius X is often called the ‘Pope of the Eucharist’ because he lowered the age of first Holy Communion to 7 and he promoted frequent and daily Communion for those who were properly disposed, that is to say, “in a state of grace and approaches with a right intention”. Why did he encourage this practice? Because, like Pope Francis in our time, Pope Pius X said that the Eucharist is not a reward but a “remedy for human frailty… an antidote whereby we may be freed from daily faults and be preserved from mortal sins”. Through the worthy reception of Holy Communion, then, we can say with Ezekiel that God puts a new heart and a new spirit in us. Indeed, God takes out of our flesh the heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh (cf Eze 36:26) – the Eucharistic flesh of his own Son, taken from Christ’s Sacred Heart – thus conforming us to Christ and uniting us more closely to him. The human person himself, then, becomes restored in Christ. We can see why the frequent and even daily reception of the Eucharist was such a key part of Pope St Pius X’s vision of reform and restoration.
But even as the soul is renewed, so must the mind be restored in Christ through a sound grasp of divine Truth, of revelation entrusted to the Church and contemplated in theology. Only with a good understanding of right doctrine can one reach Christ in and with his Church. Writing at the time of his death in 1914, The Tablet thus said that “The primary function of St Peter is to confirm his brethren [in the Faith]. It was in this, the highest and most essential of his duties — the defence of the Catholic faith — that Pius X stood before the Christian world as the vigilant and invincible guardian”.
So well did St Pius X carry out his vocation that he was canonized in 1954, and he was said by The Tablet to have been a “singularly lovable personality” who was “a man of God in whom we beheld all the power and the charm of apostolic honesty and simplicity”. May he pray for us, that we may be restored and reformed in the image of Christ and thus come to the eternal marriage feast of the Lamb with our wedding garments, that is, our baptismal faith, unstained (cf Mt 22:11-12).
Today we give thanks to God for one of the most influential saints of the 12th-century. An austere and reform-minded monk who galvanized the Cistercian Order; an eloquent preacher who wrote extensively to pope and kings; a mystic whose spiritual writings and Marian theology radiate warmth and beauty and sweetness so that he is called the ‘Mellifluous Doctor’; a man called the ‘Last of the Fathers’ because he drew so deeply on the thought of the Fathers of the Church.
And yet, one major event in his life seems to cast a shadow over him. St Bernard was also the great preacher of the Second Crusade, whose preaching tour undertaken for this cause throughout Europe gathered the largest international coalition of its time under kings and knights. But for many in our times the very idea of a crusade is anathema, and ultimately the Second Crusade failed.
However, recent events in our own times can help us, I think, to appreciate what motivated St Bernard. It’s not greed or bloodlust or warmongering. It is, rather, a shepherd’s heart; a deep love for the Church and for God’s suffering people. In the first reading, Ezekiel says: “My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them” (Eze 34:6). And in the 12th century this was the case. In December 1144 Edessa had fallen to the Turkish forces led by one Zengi, ruler of Mosul and Aleppo, dubbed “tamer of the infidels and the polytheists”. The entire population of the district of Edessa was either massacred or sold into slavery. This greatly alarmed the Christian world; they feared the subsequent loss of the Holy Land and the fall of Jerusalem to the Turks, with the subsequent slaughter of still more Christians.
History has a tendency to repeat itself. And so, once again today Christians are slaughtered by Islamists and the flock of God has scattered and fled to the mountains. Who will shepherd God’s people today? If we want to understand St Bernard’s stance, then we need to appreciate that sometimes a shepherd has to take strong, firm, and decisive action to protect his flock from the attack of the wild beasts, to stop them.
Hence, as is widely reported, on Monday Pope Francis said: “In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor”. The Holy Father is not advocating war, as such, nor unilateral action on the part of one nation, but he knows that the evil being done in Iraq must be stopped. And if necessary, force will need to be used. As the Vatican ambassador to the UN has said: “Maybe military action is necessary at this moment.” More recently, our Dominican brother in Cairo, fr Jean-Jacques Pérennès, who has great love and respect for Islam and who has expended his life working for dialogue with Muslims, said this: “The respresentatives of the Church have evolved on this very question lately, and fatal blows must be administered to the Islamic State. The very idea of talking is not an option with people who impose either conversion to Islam, or exile, or death. And the Islam they preach is far from traditional Islam which the majority of Muslims denounced. One is not into war-mongering, but sometimes force is the only solution left”. At this desperate time, then, our shepherds are calling for action to stop the evils being done for “my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts” (Eze 34:8).
In the abbot St Bernard, then, we remember today a shepherd who stepped up and who “strove to bring order and concord” to Christ’s Church, as we say in the Offertory prayer. It’s always easier for us in retrospect to judge the actions of our forebears, and with hindsight we are now not in favour of the Crusades which was prone to the greed and sinfulness of individual crusaders. But the terrible actions of the Islamic State in these days bring to the fore the dilemma faced by Christians in the 12-century. Given that God’s flock was being devoured by “wild beasts” what is a shepherd to do? As Pope Francis has said: “It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor”. And in St Bernard’s time this meant preaching the crusade to protect the Church in the Holy Land.
So, when we consider this aspect of St Bernard’s life we should consider, truly, his motivations: his love for God’s people, his shepherd’s heart, his saintly “zeal for [God’s] house” and the good of God’s people. And on his feast day, let us ask his intercession for our leaders today, for the persecuted Church, and for the prudence to make just decisions in these difficult times. May the sweet Virgin Mary, Queen of Peace and Help of Christians, pray for us all.
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).
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.
As we heard in yesterday’s first reading, king Joash, in his youth, was quite a rebel. Indeed, he made possible the overthrow of the idolatrous queen Athaliah and, together with the priest Jehoida, returned Judah to the worship of God. But now, decades later, Joash has lost the rebelliousness of youth, and he goes with the flow. Despite the advice from another young rebel, Zechariah ben Jehoida, the king capitulates to the majority view, wrong though it is, and so, Judah lapses back into idolatry which is the cause of its downfall.
Today’s saint who died at the young age of 23 in 1591, also tells of the rebelliousness of youth. Like the young king Joash he rebelled against the spirit of his age to turn to God, to truth and a life of virtue. As the heir to a Mantuan noble family, he was being prepared for warfare and political intrigue even from the age of 4. But from the age of 7 he would rise early to say the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and many other prayers and devotions which he’d learnt from St Charles Borromeo and St Robert Bellarmine, both great reforming saints of his time whom he’d met. Soon, he began teaching catechism classes to younger children, and it was clear that he disliked the courtly life of his time. So, he rebelled against his parents’ wishes; he rebelled against the military life and politicking that was expected of a nobleman; he rebelled against the sinful conventions of his time and embraced God and virtue. He told his family he wanted to become a missionary priest. Thus he wanted to serve God alone, and not money or any other worldly thing (cf Mt 6:24f).
But his parents tried all kinds of ways to persuade him otherwise, including getting bishops to try and dissuade him, and sending him on an 18-month tour of Europe so he could see what he was missing out on. But St Aloysius was adamant, and at the age of 17 he renounced his inheritance and went to Rome to join the Jesuits. His father gave in, and said in his letter to the Jesuit Provincial that he was handing over “the most precious thing I possess in all the world”.
However, St Aloysius’ rebellion was not only societal, and did not only challenge the mindset of his times. His rebellion was also personal, and it touches humanity in every age because it was about our passions. From the age of 9, St Aloysius vowed perpetual virginity to God. Now, every adolescent knows the temptations of the flesh, and St Aloysius, it seemed, was no exception. His own writings showed that, like any teenager, he experienced strong sexual passions, but unlike most adolescents, he did not give in to them. The majority in our world would have us think that abstinence and virginity and chastity is impossible. But this is what St Paul, in his letter to another young man, St Titus, called being “slaves to various passions and pleasures” (Titus 3:3). In our time, especially, many young people – and the not so young – experience enslavement to pornography. And this, too, is a serving of a master other than God.
St Aloysius, then, inspires all with his youthful rebelliousness against the slavery of sin and unchastity. For true freedom comes from having the courage and strength to go against one’s own sinful desires and to do what is right and pleasing to God; to have God alone as Master. Hence, St Aloysius undertook significant acts of penance like fasting and sleeping in a cold room on the hard floor, and he continued a life of deep prayer. For the work of sanctification, of giving one’s whole life and being to God, is only possible through discipling one’s will so that one co-operates with God’s grace, and learns to live a life worthy of our Christian vocation. For this reason, St Aloysius is patron saint of youth who teaches us that penance – the disciplining of our desires – is necessary if we’re to live chastely, that is, if we’re to love whole-heartedly and purely.
Hence, unlike king Joash, St Aloysius never turned away from God but through penance clung to God and his ways. Thus, he did not suffer a tragic downfall but rather rose to heights of holiness through works of charity and self-sacrifice. For St Aloysius eventually died as a result of heroically nursing plague victims in Rome. For this reason he is also patron saint of both of AIDS sufferers and their caregivers.
So, St Aloysius’ is the kind of holy rebelliousness that I think Pope Francis had in mind when he told millions of youth at World Youth Day last summer to make a “lìo”, a disturbance, a noise in our society. May he pray for us, for all young people, and for his brother Jesuits that we may rebel against sin and serve God as our one Master.
One of the translations for the Sequence hymn of Easter, Victimæ Paschali laudes, has this line: “Death with Life contended… Life’s own Champion, slain, yet lives to reign”. And this caught my eye because, at first, ‘champion’ seemed to me a rather unusual translation for dux, until I considered how dukes were initially military leaders who were honoured because they had been successful on the battlefield. But Christ is a rather odd military leader because he doesn’t fight. Or rather, he fights by becoming a Victim, suffering heroically and taking up the weapon of the Cross to defeat sin and evil with his sacrificial love. So, by dying Jesus conquers death, and by rising from the dead, he becomes our victorious Champion over sin and death.
Now, champions are typically decked with medals, and the shinier the better. Likewise, every success on the battlefield is matched by a bright medal on one’s chest. When we think of these shiny medals and what they stand for – success on the field of battle or of sport – then we begin to understand what the word ‘glory’ means.
For this word occurs repeatedly in today’s readings, and the word usually evokes shiny brilliance, light, and splendour. This understanding of ‘glory’ comes from the Greek word doxa which is what is being translated in our readings. However, if we look deeper, we find that doxa is often a Greek rendering of the Hebrew word kabod. And here we discover something unexpected. The word kabod is related to weight, whether because of wealth, or nobility or even moral excellence. So, rather than the idea of glory as something bright, light and soaring splendidly to the heavens, we have the sense of something being heavy and weighty, substantial.
Hence, the Scriptural understanding of glory doesn’t connote so much the shininess of the medals as their weightiness. The idea, then, is that the more one achieves on the field, the more one is weighed down by medals. The champion, then, is one who is glorified when he is bedecked with so many medals that they weigh him down and thus proclaim the weighty import and substance of what he has accomplished.
Christ our champion, then, has conquered sin, death, and evil. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, this is “the work” which the Father gave him to do, and which he has accomplished (cf Jn 17:4). So, having won the salvation of Mankind and having freed us from Satan’s grasp, Jesus asks that the Father “glorify him” (Jn 17:1); the champion is victorious, and now awaits his medals to be awarded by God the Father. It’s a rather striking image but what are the medals? How is the Son glorified?
Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit so that his disciples might become witnesses to the truth even in the face of persecution and opposition. And today we celebrate the feast of one such witness who was filled with the Holy Spirit and rekindled the faith in Rome itself. For the problem he faced in 16th-century Rome wasn’t mainly violent opposition, but lukewarm indifference to the truth of the Christian faith. Then, and again in every age including our own, it is not passionate opposition that destroys the faith so much as lukewarmness.
In his time, St Philip Neri prayed many times for the Holy Spirit to come and heat up that which was lukewarm. And on the eve of Pentecost in 1544 something unique happened to St Philip; today’s Collect alludes to it. While he was praying in the catacombs near Rome, St Philip was suddenly filled with great joy, and had a vision of the Holy Spirit, who appeared to him as a ball of fire. This fire entered into his mouth, and descended to his heart, causing it to expand to twice its normal size, and breaking two of his ribs in the process! St Philip said that this filled his whole body with such joy and consolation that he finally had to throw himself on the ground and cry out, “No more, Lord! No more!” From that day onwards, St Philip often felt the fire of the Spirit warming his heart, so much so that he often had his cassock unbuttoned at the chest, and his heart used to beat violently and loudly when he prayed or preached!
From that day onwards, St Philip was constantly aware of the Holy Spirit’s presence in his life, and he remained open to God’s Spirit and co-operative with his grace. He became a “vessel of the Holy Spirit” as Blessed John Henry Newman, a son of St Philip’s as an Oratorian, once called him. One of the fruits of the Spirit is joy, and St Philip was renowned as a most attractive saint, cheerful and full of joy, drawing many to Christ even today.
Like us, St Philip lived at a time that was said to be “captivated by beauty, freed from all control, and suspicious of any restraint…” but the effect of St Philip’s Pentecostal experience, we might call it, made him a “Second Apostle of Rome”. He and his Congregation of the Oratory which he founded initiated a new evangelization for a city that had become lukewarm in its Christian faith. Quite simply, people were drawn to the radical freedom he showed, the freedom and joy of a child of God, who was liberated by the Spirit from the bondage of sin so as to be truly free to love, to enjoy the good, and to serve Christ in others.
So, too, in our time, if there is to be a new evangelization, a heating up of the lukewarm in faith, we need to pray that Jesus will send the Holy Spirit not just abstractly to the Church but into your heart, my heart. All too often I hear people pray that God will reform the institutions of the Church – the Roman Curia and so on. But St Philip knew, rightly, that any true reform of the Church happens only if the individual person, one’s own heart, is reformed.
Hence St Philip had a reverent love of the Mass and of Christ in the Eucharist, he valued frequent Confession, especially in order to advance in purity of heart, and he prayed that every day might be another Pentecost. As St Philip Neri said: “The Holy Spirit is the master of prayer and causes us to abide in continual peace and cheerfulness, which is a foretaste of Paradise. We ought to pray God fervently to increase in us every day the light and heat of his goodness”.
So, too, if we desire true reform in the Church and of our world, let us pray that the Spirit will come and enlarge our hearts with love.
What does joy have to do with commandments? On a day when many will have taken to the polls to elect MEPs, we may well be pondering this question. Will our law-makers and their European laws and dictates and commandments give us any joy? And many, having seen the candidates on offer, may well have decided not to vote since none of them can be trusted to enact laws that bring us much joy! These are some of the arguments I have heard today.
And yet, we must beware lest we think likewise about God’s commandments. All too often we can think of laws and commandments as restrictions on our freedom and happiness. Underlying this is the idea that I know best what would make me flourish. And I suppose this is true in most circumstances where the law-giver is as human and fallible as the next one. But that is not the case with Christ. The Divine Law-giver is not only Wisdom incarnate, but he is our Maker. And so, as St Augustine says, God is “more intimate to me than I am to myself”. Moreover, Christ is true Man, which means he is most fully human – thus, he is without sin. As one who is fully human, then, Jesus teaches humanity how to be most truly human; to be free of the dehumanizing effects of sin and the slavery of just doing whatever we want or feel like doing. The warped sense of freedom and happiness that predominates our common mentality these days are the very things that dehumanize us, and so make for societal and individual restlessness, and a profound depressive lack of joy.
Jesus, then, comes to save us from all this. He comes to bring joy, and he sends the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. For only a life built on Truth, that is, on God, will bring joy. Only a life shaped according to Christ’s commandments will bring complete joy. This is what Jesus promises us in today’s Gospel.
But do we trust the Divine Lawgiver? Often, we distrust commandments because we distrust the authority from which they emanate, whether it is the European Parliament, or governments, or, indeed, even the Bishops’ Conference. And often we nurse this distrust because we suspect that these bodies may not have our best interests at heart; they do not love us, we think.
Hence Jesus links the keeping of his commandments to who he is. He, the divine Lawgiver, is the Lover of humanity. He has loved us as the Father has loved him, meaning eternally, infinitely, fruitfully. Jesus could not love Mankind any more or less than he already does because his love for us is infinite. As St Peter noted, God “made no distinction between” Jews and Gentiles (Acts 15:9), and God continues to love all people indiscriminately, whether they are baptised or not, whether they are black or white, male or female, whatever their sexual orientation or political convictions. God’s love is indiscriminate and what he desires for us is our flourishing; that we may become fully alive as human beings, be truly free, and live according to our rational human natures. This alone brings joy.
As such, God’s commandments are directed towards this end; to making us as fully human as Jesus so that our joy will be complete. So, when God is the Lawgiver his commandments have everything to do with our joy. Thus, when we decide whether or not to follow God’s commandments we are in fact going to the polls, and our actions are our vote.
We are voting whether or not to trust the law-maker. Does God truly have my best interests at heart, and does Jesus really know what will bring me joy? Does this loving God still act in the world, entrusting his infallible authority and his Spirit to the Church, his Body on earth, so as to lead all humanity into all saving truth? Is Jesus really with his Church until the end of time, to shepherd us into the complete joy and peace of heaven? All these he has promised us; the Word has given his word. The question is, do we believe him? Do we love him? Do we, therefore, choose to abide in Christ’s love? Léon Bloy answers thus: “There’s only one real sadness in life: not to be a saint”. Let this be our electoral slogan too.
7 April is the feast of St John Baptist de la Salle who, in 17th-century France, transformed the state of education for poor Catholic boys. Always recalling that we are in the holy presence of God, the saint worked in Rheims to teach the boys under his care the ways of virtue, for the education of the child does not just mean imparting knowledge of the sciences but knowledge of God, the highest Truth, and of how one lives as a child of God. A band of brothers formed around him in this work, and they were called the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, or more commonly, the De La Salle Brothers.
I will always have a special love for St John Baptist de La Salle and his brothers because at the age of 13 my parents entrusted me to a De La Salle school in Singapore, St Joseph’s Institution. I recall with fondness the celebrations of Founder’s Day, and the gentle pedagogy of the brothers and all Lasallian teachers; they taught me to be a friar, a brother, to the students who I work with today. Through the brothers’ and teachers’ example and encouragement, I discovered the Catholic Faith, and thus grew in love and friendship with Jesus Christ. Because of my time in this Lasallian school, I asked to be baptized as a Catholic at the age of 16. And so began an adventure that continues to this day! I am ever grateful to them. On my ordination day in 2011, a La Salle brother in Oxford gave me a medal of St John Baptist de La Salle; it hangs on my habit rosary and I carry it with me daily.
On this feast day I recall a verse from the hymn we sang to our Founder:
“Model of the Christian teacher! Patron of the Christian youth! Lead us all to heights of glory, As we strive in earnest ruth. Saint La Salle! Oh, guard and guide use, As we spread afar the Truth!”
The photo above is part of a window in the school Library of St Joseph’s Institution, Singapore.
Today’s Gospel speaks of Christ’s mission to his apostles, sending them out to preach the Gospel and to bring God’s healing and saving grace to all peoples. From that moment countless others have followed in their footsteps as missionaries, and many have endured hardship and persecution, rejection and even death for the sake of the Gospel. And this is still a reality in these days.
But today we’re honouring the first martyrs of the Far East. In 1549, the great Jesuit missionary, St Francis Xavier had brought the Faith to Japan, and Christianity received a welcome so that by 1587 there were around 200,000 Catholics in Japan. That’s about 5,263 converts a year, or 14 a day! But in that same year the Emperor outlawed the Faith. However, numbers kept increasing so that in 1596 when a violent persecution began there were almost half a million Catholics in Japan. The 5th of February 1597 saw the sacrifice of Japan’s first Christian martyrs: 17 Japanese and Korean catechists, 6 Spanish Franciscans, and 3 Japanese Jesuits; 26 in total. The most prominent among them was St Paul Miki who was aged around 30 and who was being trained as a Jesuit priest.
The martyrs were all executed in Nagasaki, and they were disfigured, then paraded through the streets to terrify the local people into abandoning Christianity. But the 26 sang the Te Deum, an ancient hymn of thanksgiving and victory as they walked to their death. Then they were crucified, and killed with a lance in their sides. Even then, the martyrs continued to sing, and they sang the Benedictus which we sing every morning at Morning Prayer. Thus, they offered to the Christians of their time and to us today a brave witness to their faith in Christ as the Saviour of all; to their hope of his resurrection; and to their love for God and their fellow Japanese.
As St Paul Miki said: “The only reason for my being killed is that I have taught the doctrine of Christ. I thank God it is for this reason that I die. I believe that I am telling the truth before I die. I know you believe me and I want to say to you all once again: Ask Christ to help you become happy. I obey Christ. After Christ’s example, I forgive my persecutors. I do not hate them. I ask God to have pity on all, and I hope my blood will fall on my fellow men as a fruitful rain”.
In order for the blood of these martyrs to be fruitful, let us today hold fast to the one true Faith they preached: that Christ alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And let us be inspired by them and their love for Jesus, and ask for the grace and courage to preach the Gospel to our fellow countrymen today, and to be faithful in our daily living out of the Faith. It is unlikely that we will be killed for doing this as the Martyrs of Nagasaki were, and as so many other missionaries around the world currently are, but the New Evangelization and being a faithful Christian will involve a sacrifice; it will cost us. So, we look to the martyrs to encourage us and to pray for us.
As Pope Francis says: “We do well to keep in mind the early Christians and our many brothers and sisters throughout history who were filled with joy, unflagging courage and zeal in proclaiming the Gospel… Every period of history is marked by the presence of human weakness, self-absorption, complacency and selfishness… These things are ever present under one guise or another; they are due to our human limits rather than particular situations. Let us not say, then, that things are harder today; they are simply different. But let us learn also from the saints who have gone before us, who confronted the difficulties of their own day.” (Evangelii Gaudium, §264).