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.
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.
In an age, and particularly at this time, perhaps, when we are enundated by words – by political spin, politically-correct jargon, advertising slogans, and professionally-managed speeches – we can, perhaps, become wary of words and eloquence. The worth of fine words and orations that promise so much is more like pyrite, fool’s gold, than true gold. So, we look for integrity in the speaker – can he live as he preaches, and deliver what he promises?
Hence today we honour a 4th-century bishop of Constantinople who was not only hailed as chrysostom, the golden-mouthed one, because of his eloquence and great sermons, but more importantly he lived a life of integrity and steadfastness to Christ. Thus, we hail him as a saint. For as Christ says in today’s Gospel: “the good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good… for out of the abundance of his heart his mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45).
For beautiful words and clever thoughts are not what brings one closer to the Lord but rather a life lived in obedience to his Word, in conformity with the one who is Good. As we would say, “actions speak louder than words”. So, the integrity of St John’s life is shown in “the experience of suffering” he endured for preaching the truth, and for his “invincible patience” in exercising his duties as a bishop, as today’s Collect says.
So, as Patriarch of Constantinople, the corrupt and lavish imperial capital of the Byzantine empire, St John called on the courtiers and the rich to turn from vanity and ambition and to have a care for the poor. He also reformed the clergy and reprimanded them for their moral laxity, and he disciplined the monks who wandered the streets and made a nuisance of themselves. As bishop, he lived an austere and simple life, and fed the homeless and cared for the sick. But his sermons won him enemies among the powerful and rich – both in the Church and in the court. In particular the Empress Eudoxia was disturbed by his moral exhortations, and so she conspired to have him deposed as bishop, and finally exiled. Despite attempts by the Pope to save him, St John was exiled on a long march to the furthest end of the empire where he finally died of exhaustion in 407, a martyr for preaching and teaching the truth.
But St John never relented, never sought the expedience of keeping his mouth shut even in the face of such formidable opposition. Why? Because his heart was filled with Christ’s Word – this was the good treasure of his heart – and from this abundance he spoke. It was an abundance of love for the salvation of souls that moved him to rebuke clergy and courtiers for their immorality; an abundance of love for the poor that moved him to speak up for the vulnerable and forgotten destitute, but above all, an abundance of love for Jesus Christ and his will. Hence in one of his most famous sermons, St John Chrysostom says: “Let us learn, therefore, to be men of wisdom and to honour Christ as he desires. For a person being honoured finds greatest pleasure in the honour he desires, not in the honour we think best”. Or as Our Lord says in today’s Gospel: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and not do what I tell you?” (Lk 6:46).
So, let us do as Jesus tells us. We do this today by celebrating the Eucharist which he tells us to do in memory of him. As we do so, and receive Communion worthily, we are filled with the abundance of his grace, a great treasure is laid in our hearts. As it did for St John Chrysostom, so too may this grace transform our hearts that it may produce good – both in deed and in word – making us more like Christ who alone is Good.
If St Paul were to ask Christians today: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” (1 Cor 6:2); “Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” (1 Cor 6:3); I suspect the answer would be “No”. Indeed, he’d be told that we’re not to be judgemental. “Who am I to judge?” So, what does St Paul mean?
It seems to me that what Paul is objecting to, most of all, is disunity among the Christian community in Corinth, and a public show of disunity in which Christians charged other Christians before a civil and secular court. For him this is scandalous because it offends against the fundamental unity that binds Christians together in Jesus Christ. As he says: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). For through the grace of baptism, we have become one with Christ; the Holy Trinity dwells in us, and it is a union that only mortal sin – the sins he lists verses 9 to10 – can disrupt. So, St Paul is expressing here the central mystery of our Faith, that we are called to become partakers in the divine life, one with God through sanctifying grace. And the Holy Eucharist, the sacrament of unity, expresses this holy communion between God and Man. As we pray in the Third Eucharistic Prayer: “Grant that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son, and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ”.
And the Spirit, St Paul understands, will give those gifts of prudence, wisdom, and right judgement which should enable us to sort out our differences among ourselves. His worry is essentially theological: as we’ve been given the Spirit of truth, why should we need recourse to those who have not received grace through baptism, and who thus do not have these supernatural gifts and Spirit-filled virtues?
It’s St Paul’s ecclesiology, his theological vision of what God’s grace does for us that also underlies what he says about judgement. For it is precisely a graced union with Christ that enables the saints to judge the world and judge the angels, that is, the earthly and heavenly realms and their inhabitants. Such startling powers are only possible because what grace accomplishes for Christ’s saints is also startling: nothing less than union with God, divinization.
As God is the just Judge of all creation who alone can and will judge truly, so the saints in heaven, who are united to the Godhead in love, and so, share in the divine nature, will also share in God’s just judgements; they will rejoice to see divine justice done.
"They left everything and followed him" (Lk 5:11). So it was that today’s saint, the 7th-century Apostle of the North, left his life first as a shepherd near Melrose, then as a soldier for the Christian kingdom of Northumbria which was being attacked by the neighbouring pagan king, and he became a monk of Melrose Abbey.
When a monastery was established in Ripon, Cuthbert was sent there as guest-master but he returned to Melrose Abbey because the monks at Ripon decided to adopt the Roman liturgical customs rather than the Celtic customs that he had grown up with. Even so, when the Synod of Whitby decided in 664 to adopt the Roman customs, St Cuthbert accepted the decision and saw the wisdom of the Synod’s decision. So he was sent to be Prior of Lindisfarne, a great monastery which had been established from the great Celtic Christian centre of Iona. His task in Lindisfarne was to ease the community there into celebrating and living the monastic life according to the Roman discipline. St Bede the Venerable says there was some resistence to this change but “he got the better of these by his patience and modest virtues, and by daily practice at length brought them to the better system which he had in view”. His holiness of life not only drew the monks in his care to his side, but the people around Lindisfarne Abbey also flocked to him to hear his teaching, and many were converted to the Faith.
Thus, St Cuthbert was not just a shepherd but also a “fisher of men” (Lk 5:10), and he did both these tasks so well because he “put out into the deep” (Lk 5:4) through fervent prayer, through austere living, and through obedience to Christ. As St Paul said, the apostle, the disciple, “belong[s] to Christ and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor 3:23), and so, he is used by our Lord to draw people to himself.
But for a lover of God, closeness to God stirs up a desire for still greater intimacy. So, in 676 St Cuthbert was allowed to retreat to one of the Farne Islands as a hermit so that he could spend more time in prayer and contemplation. However, holiness attracts people for Mankind is made for God, and delights in the beauty and goodness of divine things. Hence St Cuthbert could not be left in peace but was called to become Bishop of Lindisfarne; he was consecrated in York at Easter in 685.
Two years later he died on one of the Farne Islands, and after his death many miracles took place at his tomb; he became called the ‘Wonder-Worker’ and his body was discovered to be incorrupt. In 875, his relics were carried onto the mainland as the monks fled Lindisfarne which was being attacked by the Vikings. They moved to Chester-le-Street, then Ripon, and finally to Durham where a great cathedral was raised over his shrine. Here he is believed to rest behind the High Altar, with St Bede at the other end of the cathedral.
The ease with which this 7th-century saint moved between what we now call Scotland and England as he carried out Christ’s saving mission, and the patient and gentle manner with which he reconciled and mediated between two Christian cultures are worth keeping in mind at this time. As arguments and debates proliferate about the political future of the United Kingdom, perhaps we Christians can keep in mind who we belong to first of all: Jesus Christ. So, St Paul says: “God is not convinced by the arguments of the wise. So there is nothing to boast about in anything human: Paul, Apollos, Cephas, the world, life and death, the present and the future, are all your servants; but you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor 3:19-23).
So, whatever happens, this is of paramount importance: that we belong to Christ, and show this to be true by what we say and do. Then, like St Cuthbert, we too can be fishers of men. May he pray for us.
The 6th-century Pope who was called magnus, ‘the Great’ was also the first Pope to call himself servus servorum Dei, ‘servant of the servants of God’, an appellation that the Pope still uses. And humility in service was one of the hallmarks of a bishop as St Gregory wrote in the most famous of his writings, the ‘Book of Pastoral Care’, written c. 590 in the early years of his pontificate. The book was subsequently copied and read in Spain, Gaul, Italy, and even translated into Anglo-Saxon; St Augustine would be sent by Gregory the Great in 597 to evangelize the English.
St Gregory’s humility can be seen in the service he gave to Christ’s Church. He was born into a noble Roman family and educated for public office. He would become Prefect of Rome when he was just 33 years old. However, he had no taste for power, and after his father’s death he converted the family home – still visible on the Caelian hill – into a monastery. He named the monastery in honour of St Andrew, so we might say that he had not just an English but also a Scottish connection! He sold the rest of the family’s estates and distributed the money to the poor, and then retired to his monastery for a life of contemplation and prayer, reading and studying the Scriptures and Fathers of the Church.
But Pope Pelagius called him out of the cloister and back into the world to serve the wider Church. And so, with humility, he agreed to be ordained a deacon, and was sent to Constantinople as a papal ambassador to seek help from the Byzantine Emperor against invasions by the Lombards in Italy. Then he was made the Pope’s secretary and recalled to Rome which was then struck by famine, floods, and plague – these were turbulent times indeed! In 590, Gregory was elected Pope and he tried to resist and even run away but at last, with humility, he took on the papal office.
Because he saw this as the will of God, he dedicated himself whole-heartedly to the mission God has given him. Something of his humility and desire to do more for Christ and his Church – a desire born of love – can be seen in this sentence from his ‘Book of Pastoral Care’. He says: “When one is pleased to have achieved many virtues, it is well to reflect on one’s own inadequacies and to humble oneself: instead of considering the good accomplished, it is necessary to consider what was neglected”. This outlook spurred St Gregory on to reform the clergy, negotiate peace treaties with invaders, protect the Jews from persecution, feed the hungry, write many sermons and letters, and develop the Liturgy. Thus, he was called Magnus and named a Doctor of the Church.
However, Pope Gregory’s greatness is seen, above all, in his zeal for souls, in his desire to preach salvation to all peoples for there can be no greater mercy or love than to bring Christ and eternal salvation to people. Indeed, what Christ says in today’s Gospel can be applied to Pope St Gregory too: “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Lk 4:43). Hence, he sent St Augustine and several bands of monks to evangelize England, and it was from England that missions were sent to Germany and the Netherlands. At the time, Pope Gregory wrote to the missionaries, saying: “do not let the toil of the journey or the tongues of men discourage you, but with all earnestness and by God’s guidance fulfill what you have started, knowing that great labour is followed by the greater glory of an eternal reward”.
After all his labours, Pope Gregory died in 604, and so, received an eternal reward from the divine Master for his humble service. We thank God for his life, his writings and example, and let us pray for our bishops, for the Church in England, and for our Holy Father Pope Francis, and especially for the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who, like St Gregory the Great, was also called to give up a life of study and prayer, in order to become a “humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord”.
Today the lectionary begins its readings from St Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, one of the shorter Pauline epistles. The introduction opens with a standard greeting to the Christians in Thessalonica, and then we’re given the context in which the letter is written. It goes out to a community that is suffering persecution.
This context gives the letter a very contemporary tone, as we hold in our hearts all those Christian communities around the world, particularly in Iraq, who are suffering persecutions and afflictions. And recently, the charity, Aid to the Church in Need reported with pride, much as St Paul had for the Thessalonians, about the steadfast fidelity of the Christians of Iraq who hold on to their faith in Christ and practice charity even in such difficult times. With a similar pride, we are grateful to our Dominican sisters in Iraq for their witness of charity and faith.
Indeed, among the Thessalonions, St Paul finds all three of the theological virtues: their “faith is growing abundantly” and their “love… is increasing” (2 Thess 1:3), we’re told. And as for hope, it is implied in the “steadfastness and faith” that the Thessalonians show under persecution. But hope implies awaiting something, or someone. What are the Thessalonians hoping for?
Unfortunately, the editors of the Lectionary have cut out 5 verses from this opening section of St Paul’s letter, that is to say, almost half of the section. And this missing section tells us what the Thessalonians hoped for, which is to see God’s “righteous judgement” done. Verse 5 tells us that God’s justice will reward those who suffer for the sake of the Kingdom so that they will enjoy God’s presence. But what about those who are inflicting the suffering, who are persecuting God’s Church, and afflicting the Thessalonians?
Perhaps it is deemed un-politically correct to consider the righteous judgement of God which is due them, and that is a great shame. For the Scriptures are inspired in their entirety so the missing section of second Thessalonians ought to be heard and thought about; it is not for us to correct and censor the Word of God. So, here’s what verses 6-10 say.
"…Since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed" (2 Thess 1:6-10).
Now we can see clearly what it is that the persecuted Christians hoped for: they awaited God’s justice and deliverance. And so St Thomas says that while the saints do not enjoy the punishment of the wicked, they do rejoice in their deliverance and in God’s divine justice even if that entails the punishment of the wicked. But that, of course, is God’s righteous judgement. What befalls the wicked is, therefore, just and good and right. Who are we to judge and correct God?
If this situation worries us then we ought not to avoid thinking about it, as the editors of the Lectionary seem to want, but rather consider how it challenges us. Given that St Paul himself was once a persecutor of the Christian people, his life bears witness to the fact that those who afflict God’s Church can, by God’s grace, be converted and repent. So we should pray for the conversion of those who persecute Christians, and we should read this passage and make it known so that those who are tempted to do evil against God’s Church do not think, wrongly, that they can do so with impunity. Let all, therefore, turn from their wicked ways and seek God’s mercy and justice.
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.