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 of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
God the Holy Trinity is essentially relational, and the relationship of Jesus Christ to God the Father is, from all eternity, that of Son; a relationship of child-hood. Hence, as the noted 20th-century theologian Von Balthasar put it, Jesus is “the archetypal Child who has his abode in the Father’s bosom”. So, we can understand Jesus’ teaching that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mk 10:15) from a Christological point of view; from the perspective of who Jesus is.
Jesus has always dwelt in God, and even as Man, the Son remains one with his Father, eternally dwelling in God. We might say, then, that the Son is always the Child who lives in God’s kingdom, or more properly understood, God’s reign, God’s presence and being; the Son eternally shares divine life with his Father.
Therefore, for us to enter the kingdom of God means that we, too, will live in God and dwell in the Father’s bosom. And we do this by becoming like a child, indeed like Christ, the “archetypal Child”, and so we participate in the eternal relationship of Jesus to the Father. In Christ, the Christian becomes a child, becomes Son to the Father. And what characterizes this filial relationship, as is evident in the life of Jesus Christ, is obedience and trust. Hence, when today’s saint, the Venerable Bede comments on this passage of the Gospel, he says that it is the openness and trust of a little child that is praised and blessed by Christ in today’s Gospel, and this kind of openness to truth and trust in God’s Word is what is required of us, if we’re to have faith that leads us to God’s kingdom.
However, what binds Father and Son together in this filial relationship of obedience and trust is mutual love. Christ obeys and trusts his Father because he loves him, and he, as Son, knows the Father’s love for him. So, for us to enter the kingdom of God, to become like the Christ Child is to be caught up in the mutual love of Father and Son. This means that we need to be caught up in the Holy Spirit, inflamed with divine charity so that we can become, like Christ, true children of the Father, daughters and sons in the Son. We are Child by adoption and not by nature as Christ is, but nevertheless, truly children of God, and so, heir to all that Christ is, including the kingdom.
Hence St Paul says: “You have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:15b-17a).
Was it not fitting, then, that as Saint Bede died in 26 May 735, he prayed the ‘Glory be’ that expressed both a love and trust in God like the Christ Child’s, and also his faith in the Holy Trinity? For through his holy death, he was now passing over from the reign of this world into the kingdom of God to share in the glory of the Trinitarian life, to participate in the filial relationship of the Son to the Father, united for ever in the love of the Spirit.
So, let us pray with Saint Bede: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
preached during a Mass with the Confirmation & First Communion of a student
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit” (Jn 15:16). For the Lord chose us even before we were born, he called us into being, and then, in our baptism and confirmation he appointed us to go and bear fruit. He called us, just as St Matthias was, to be a witness to the whole world of the resurrection; to be his friend, able to delight in his company and have the joy of eternal life. We get a foretaste of these heavenly delights in the Eucharist, and through the sacraments of the Church, we encounter the living Lord Jesus.
St Matthias was not one of the Twelve to begin with, but he was one of Christ’s disciples who followed him, who knew and saw Jesus; he walked in the company of Christ and his apostles. So, in a similar way, through our communion with the holy Catholic Church, in which the preaching and teaching of the Twelve apostles continues in an unbroken Tradition to this day, we also become one of Christ’s disciples. We follow Jesus, and we come to know and see him with the eyes of faith, in the faith of the apostles.
For it is within the community of the Church, as sharers in the living memory of the Church, that we experience and see the Lord Jesus, that we abide in his love (cf Jn 15:9). As we read the Church’s Scriptures, listen to her teaching and reflection of the Word of God, and are nourished by her sacramental and liturgical life, we come to know and see the authentic Jesus Christ, the Living One whom the apostles knew and saw, and to whom they bore witness, down to us today.
But if we dwell in the Church, we don’t just know and see Christ, we also learn to love him. For although faith precedes charity, because we cannot love what we do not know, love is more important, because charity takes us right into the heart of God to participate intimately in the life of God who is love. So, the apostolic faith that we receive in baptism, is strengthened by the personal gift of God’s Love, his Holy Spirit, in the sacrament of confirmation. And our faith bears fruit when we receive the Eucharist with proper dispositions. For through this sacrament, which is the beating heart of the Church, we can come to know, see and experience God’s love for us. We will receive his love, given to us abundantly in Holy Communion, so that we, in turn, can love one another as Christ has loved us (cf Jn 15:12b) – with a self-giving sacrificial love for others. This is our mission in the world, given to us in Confirmation, that we should be witnesses of God’s love to all peoples, calling them to become God’s friends, loving others as Jesus does.
We’re called, in other words, to be true icons, faithful images, of Christ to the world. Which is what your Confirmation name, Veronica, means. Indeed, every Christian is called to be a veronica, a true image and likeness of Jesus Christ in the world. And if we are like Christ, loving as he does, and united to him in love, then we shall bear fruit: the fruit of everlasting life in communion with the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
One word recurs in our readings today: glory, from the Latin gloria. But what, really, do we mean by glory? Usually, I think this word evokes light, brilliance, and splendour. And these are related to the Greek word for glory, which is doxa. But if we look at the Scriptural origins of glory from the Hebrew word kabod we find something rather unexpected. Glory, coming from kabod is related to weight. So, in contrast with our association of glory with soaring flights of angels, light, and uplift, glory, coming from the Hebrew kabod, denotes a quality of being heavy with weight, wealth or nobility, or with exceptional goodness. Glory, in this sense, implies the wealth and power of the king, his riches and worth, because of what he has done. Or we can think of an Olympian or a soldier who has achieved glory in athletics or combat, and is weighed down with medals; their weightiness proclaim what he has achieved, they glorify him.
If we translate this idea to God, then kabod, glory, signifies the wonderful work that God has done in creating all that is, and it tells of what Christ has achieved in dying, rising again and ascending into heaven. For God’s greatest work, his heaviest impact, his glory is seen in the salvation of sinful humanity; in our being brought from the death of sin to the fullness and abundance of new life in the risen Lord Jesus. Thus St Irenaeus said that “the glory of God is Man fully alive”. The glory of God is you and me, being re-born through grace as sons and daughters of God, sharing in the divine life of Christ, being one with him in the communion of love that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (cf Jn 17:26).
This tremendous work of God’s grace that lifts up a sinner to become a saint, beckoning Mankind to “Come” and enjoy freedom and life in the Trinity (cf Apoc 22:17), brings about the glory of God. And the effect of God’s grace is glorious, and this is probably why the word ‘glory’ has come to connote light, brilliance and uplift, because the effect of what God has done for us, what his grace causes, is to raise sinful Man up to share in God’s light and divine life.
However, the idea of God’s glory, kabod, is still related to weightiness because each saint is like a shining medal glorifying God, signifying who he is – our Creator and Redeemer – and what he has done – united the saint to God’s self through grace. For each and every saint, beginning with St Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, witnesses to the triumph of God’s grace. Stephen’s life and death testifies to what God has done for weak, frightened and sinful humanity through Jesus Christ, which is to re-make each human person in Christ’s image, strengthened with his virtues. Thus, Stephen’s death, which completes and seals his life’s work, is deliberately portrayed by St Luke as mirroring Jesus’ death: both innocently condemned, executed outside the city, and died forgiving their killers.
The work of God’s grace that re-fashions us in Christ’s image is weighty, heavy business; the work of our sanctification and our salvation is impressive, world-impacting, life-changing. As such, it’s also glorious. And kabod does carry this notion of being heavy with goodness. In this sense, we might speak of the weight of our vocation as Christians. For we’re called to be holy, we’re made for glory, and this will involve a certain expectation of what we’re called to do. This gives a certain weightiness to the moral choices we make, and heavy sacrifices will be necessary. For love demands sacrifice, as the life of Christ and of St Stephen shows us, but it is only through love that we become like Christ, that we are united and become one with God who is love.
In 1970, Pope Paul VI did an unprecedented thing. He declared not one but two women saints to be Doctors of the universal Church, and we celebrate the feast of one of those women today: the lay Dominican saint and mystic, Catherine of Siena, who is also patroness of Europe.
St Catherine lived in the turbulent 14th-century when there was much warfare among the Christian states of Europe, and under the influence of the powerful French monarchy, the pope no longer lived in Rome but in Avignon. This came to a climax in 1377 when French and Italian factions competed for the papacy and cardinals under their influence ended up electing two popes, thus bringing about the Great Western Schism that lasted until 1417. But this schism could only have happened because the Church was in serious need of reform: the clergy was corrupt, beset by scandals, and the laity were morally and doctrinally lax.
Hence, through deep prayer, penitential austerity and mystical experiences, Catherine was called by God in 1370 to care for the spiritual sickness that was then afflicting the Body of Christ. She was to be a doctor to the Church, called to heal the Church’s disunity and corruption which, in her words, disfigured the beautiful face of Christ’s Bride with leprosy. The disunity of the Church and the sins of her members – lay and clerical alike – were a great wound to Christ’s Body, and St Catherine bore this wound in her own body. For in 1375 she received the stigmata – the wounds of Christ – and she bore these invisibly until her death in 1380, when she would die at the same age as Christ, thirty-three.
For the last decade of her life, Catherine wore herself out travelling throughout Italy and France speaking and pleading with influential people, writing almost 400 letters to urge Christians to seek peace and unity, and imploring the pope to reform the clergy and to return to Rome – the symbol of the Church’s unity – which Gregory XI did in 1377. But his death shortly afterwards led to the schism, which weighed heavily on St Catherine.
So, she’d laboured to heal the Church’s disunity but she seems to have failed at the end of her short life. Yet, she is a Doctor of the Church because in her saintly life she taught us a most important lesson, and one which is ever relevant, especially today.
St Catherine knew that the reform of the Church was not primarily about politics and structures and bureaucracies. Rather, the Church is animated by the Holy Spirit, and so, she has to be healed spiritually, made whole by God’s love first. Hence, St Catherine offered her whole life of austerity, penance, fasting and prayer, as well as her ministries out in the world, for the love of God’s Church. So, Jesus promised her that “With these prayers, sweat and tears, I shall wash the face of my spouse, the holy Church”.
For Catherine knew, too, that reform was not ‘out there’ or the problem of the Roman Curia, or the warring cardinals. There can be much hand-wringing about the need for institutional reform, but St Catherine knew, rather, that the problems were also very much hers. As she put it “I have slept in the bed of negligence. This is why so many evils and ruins have befallen your Church”.
Thus, Doctor saint Catherine’s remedy for the sins of the Church was to look to her own sins, and to repent and change her ways. Because she knew that the only soul she could change and cause to co-operate with God’s grace, to conform to Christ’s will, was her own. So, reform of Christ’s Church comes through each of us as members of the Body of Christ striving to be faithful to Christ and our Christian vocation; each of us allowing Christ the divine Doctor to heal us so that we can play our proper part within his holy Body. Hence, through the “prayers, sweat and tears” of the saints, Christ himself will purify and reform his Bride; it is his Church.
With this fundamental knowledge and faith in Christ, and love for Christ’s Mystical Body, St Catherine became a saint, and so can we today. May she pray for us, for God’s Holy Church, especially in Europe, and for our lay Dominicans for whom she is patroness.
The name ‘Montepulciano’ makes me think of wine because when I was in my early teens I remember touring the vineyards of Tuscany with my parents, and being told that the wine from the town of Montepulciano, the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was especially fine – not that I was allowed to taste any of it! And today we celebrate and honour another fine vintage from that town, dating to the 13th-century: Saint Agnes of Montepulciano.
At the age of just 9, St Agnes entered a convent in Montepulciano. In fact, she’d been begging her parents to allow her to become a nun since the age of 6. This is a recurring theme in the life of many saintly nuns. They all knew from a very young age that they would only find happiness in giving their lives entirely to Christ. In this way, St Agnes lived up to her name: innocent and pure as a lamb, giving her whole life as a sacrificial offering to God.
However, we probably wonder what it is that enables such a young person to dedicate her life to God. If we live according to the flesh, seeing things from a worldly perspective, then the religious life, and especially the hidden contemplative life of a cloistered nun like St Agnes doesn’t make sense. But as the Lord says: “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail”. So, it is the Spirit who inspires the religious vocation and gives it life and meaning. It is as though one were intoxicated with love for Jesus Christ, drunk on the new wine of the Gospel. Just as wine gives one boldness or folly, so the saint who is filled with the Spirit, as Agnes was from her youth, is emboldened to live a life of heroic virtue, a life of prayer that seems like a folly to the world.
In the convent, Agnes lived a life of ardent prayer that was an expression of her love for the world. And this is the heart of the contemplative vocation and its beauty: a humble withdrawal into prayer because of one’s Christ-like love for the salvation of souls and of the world. Hence, St Catherine of Siena wrote concerning today’s saint: “She had a taste and a hunger for souls. She was always assiduous at keeping vigil in prayer. There is no other way of acquiring the virtue of humility, because there is no humility without charity; the one nourishes the other”.
The Montepulciano wine is said to have a strong bouquet of violets, and I might allude to the witnesses who said that violets, roses and lilies blossomed about St Agnes’ feet as she prayed. But, the wine is also one that matures beautifully, aging from a good young wine into a truly fine and noble vintage. Might I suggest, not too cheekily I hope, that this is reflected in St Agnes’ life too? Because, I was amazed to discover that the convent she entered at the age of 9 was a kind of primitive Franciscan convent, and at 15 she was called (with papal approval) to set up and head a new Franciscan convent in Proceno. She was prioress there for 20 years. But in 1306 she had a vision. The Lord called her to establish a new house in Montepulciano itself, but it was to be a Dominican convent. Thus, this young wine of Montepulciano, as it were, first laid down in the cellars of the Franciscans matured into a saintly Dominican vintage. St Agnes would live out the last 11 years of her life as a Dominican, and so today, our Order honours her.
May she pray for our Dominican nuns, that a new monastery might be established in our Province, and for the Order worldwide. And may she pray, too, for us, the holy Church of Christ.
In recent days, the virtue of humility has been mentioned frequently, especially with regard to Pope Francis and his patron saint, Francis of Assisi. And today, as the Pope officially began his ministry, we celebrate the Solemnity of the saint of humility, St Joseph. So, let us look to his example, and consider what, really, is humility?
St Joseph’s humility is shown in his openness to the angel’s word and his willingness to do as the angel told him. Through the humility of faith, St Joseph was willing to change his plans, ideas and behaviour so as to accommodate God’s revelation, God’s loving plan for him. So often we struggle to believe, to trust in God’s Word and teaching; we hang on to our intellectual pride. But with humility, which recognizes our human limitations, not least the limits of our poor reasoning and intellect, we open ourselves to be taught by Him who is Truth; we come closer to God.
St Joseph’s humility is also shown in his silence. He doesn’t say a word in the Gospels, but he listens, observes, learns. Our noisy, Media-led world adulates humility but does not seem to know what it is. For humility is found in silence, in a pondering, patient, chaste silence which includes admitting that oftentimes we just do not know. But from this humility comes an openness to Truth, to the mystery of another person, and above all, the mystery of God. As St Thomas says: “We cannot know the essence of God”, but what we can say about God is first given to us by the divine Word, we’re taught by Another, enlightened by divine revelation. A humble openness to Truth, as such, is the basis of all science and also of theology, of a brave and committed friendship with God through faith and reason. In such silence, St Joseph cradled and gazed upon the face of God in the Christ Child.
Our world is full of questions but in fact it lacks this silent and receptive humility that is necessary if we’re to hear a genuine honest answer. For the temptation of our modern communications-driven world is for us to always try and give quick answers, snappy judgements, and people expect analysis and commentary on everything. So, this morning on the BBC’s coverage of the papal Mass in Rome, one commentator said: “Nobody knows what to expect from this pontificate”, and the next moment, the group of commentators in the BBC studio had ready answers, speculations and opinions, pontificating on what the Supreme Pontiff should do… But we could all do well to emulate St Joseph’s humble silence, especially in the face of ignorance.
However, as St Joseph also shows us, humility doesn’t mean false modesty or mere agnosticism or simple passivity. This strong fatherly saint also acts with prudence and wisdom and uses the gifts he has from God. This, too, is humility: that we recognize what God has given us and act accordingly. As a Church this means we have a duty to preach the Truth of the Gospel which we’ve been taught, to speak up for those who are persecuted and oppressed, poor and marginalized, and to love them. By preaching Christ and being his Body on earth, we love our world, we love one another, and indeed we love God’s Word. Can preaching the truth be arrogance, as some say? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin put it this way: “the fact that we have greater abilities than another does not mean that we are greater in God’s eyes… but only that we have greater responsibilities. Thinking about how much we can do in comparison to what we have done… serves as a corrective against pride and arrogance”. And there’s no arguing that there is still so much we can do to become more truly like the One whom we preach and serve: Jesus Christ, who loved us so much that he accepted death on a Cross.
Like St Joseph, may we fix our gaze on Christ, and may St Joseph pray for us, and for our Holy Father, Francis.
We’ve been instructed to call God ‘Abba’, to pray insistently and boldly with the confidence of a child asking for good things from his loving Father, and today Christ continues in a similar vein. He teaches us how a son and daughter of God behaves: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven”.
So it is that when he, the Son of God, is crucified, he prays: “Father, forgive them”. And Christ’s death on the Cross wins salvation for all humanity, both the “evil and the good… the just and the unjust”. All are reconciled to the Father by this one sacrificial act of the Son’s perfect love and obedience. Thus Christ shows his sonship of our loving and merciful Father, by praying for his persecutors, and by loving them to the end upon the Cross.
We, who have been baptised into Christ, and so, share in his death, are also given a share in Christ’s sonship, in his perfection. By God’s grace, this sometimes means enduring martyrdom with the willingness, courage and sacrificial love of today’s saint Polycarp who was the first martyr of the Church not mentioned in the New Testament. He was a disciple of St John the Evangelist and the octagenarian bishop of Smyrna in Turkey, one of the persecuted churches mentioned in the Apocalpyse. And his death was a witness of love, following in Christ’s footsteps. As contemporaries said, Polycarp’s martyrdom was “a sign of love to desire not to save oneself alone, but to save also all the Christian brothers and sisters”. Here, then, was a son of the Father.
But most of us, it is hoped, will not be called to such dramatic acts of love. Rather, there are the daily mortifications and little acts of love that we’re called to; these express that we are children of a loving and merciful, a humble and crucified God. Recently, I was struck by these examples from St Josemaria Escrivá, which I end with. He said: “the cheerful smile for those who annoy you; that silence when you’re unjustly accused; your friendly conversation with people whom you find boring and tactless; the daily effort to overlook one irritating detail or another in the persons who live with you… this, with perseverance, is indeed solid interior mortification. Don’t say: ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me.’”
St Agatha, a 3rd-century martyr of Sicily, is one of that great “cloud of witnesses”, who persevered in “the race that is set before us” of Christian perfection in the faith. Looking to him alone, she was steadfast in her faith, refusing to deny Christ and sacrifice to pagan idols. Thus, as a martyr she shares in his victory over sin and death. But, more than this, as a virgin who had consecrated her whole self – body and soul – to God, St Agatha also bears witness to a life that is completely dedicated to the love of God, preferring Him, the greatest Good, before all else. So, when the cruel senator Quintianus made sexual advances on her, she refused to give up her virginal integrity, remaining pure in intention, in soul, and in body despite the most gruesome and cruel tortures. Thus she died for the integrity and purity of her love, totally given up for God alone.
Agatha’s purity and goodness were so widely recognized that, after her death c. 253, she came to be universally venerated by Christians, pagans and Jews – a sign that sanctity and goodness attracts and unites all people of good will. And in the 5th century, St Agatha’s name was inserted into the Roman Canon as a sign of the Church’s esteem for her, and for the gift of consecrated virginity, which itself mirrors the consecration of the Church to Christ, her divine Bridegroom.
For consecrated virginity is not, as some make it out to be, a fear of sex or a denigration of marriage; on the contrary, it highlights their sanctity as great goods that are sacrificed for the sake of an even greater good, namely, for love of God alone. As Pope Pius XII explains: “This then is the primary purpose, this the central idea of Christian virginity: to aim only at the divine, to turn the whole mind and soul to God; to want to please God in everything, to think of Him continually, to consecrate body and soul completely to Him” (Sacra Virginitas, 15).
In an age when virginity has been stigmatized and sex is trivialized, when the human body has become objectified, the virgin martyr points to the integrity of the whole human person - body and soul. Because of concupiscence and sin, we are often so disintegrated and fragmented, professing one thing and doing another, barely able to keep body and soul together, seduced by the dualism of our contemporaries. But the witness of the virgin martyr challenges this mindset, and encourages us by demonstrating what faith can accomplish when we look to Christ alone. For faith in Christ saves, heals and reintegrates us, both soul and body, as today’s Gospel reminds us. Thus, if we belong to Christ, then we belong to him not just in mind and in spirit, but also, and always, in our own bodies too. Such is holiness – wholeness of life and love. As such, what we do with our bodies, our bodily posture in prayer, and our care for the health and integrity of our body matters. The body speaks of our love for God, for ourselves, and for others. And, incidentally, this is what the ‘500 Miles’ charity that our parish is supporting this coming Lent bears witness to.
Therefore, St Paul exhorts us: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). May St Agatha and all the virgins of the Lord pray for us.
Today’s saint, Catherine de Ricci, is representative of the mystical tradition of the Dominican Order, and in this respect, her life mirrors that of her namesake, the great 14th-century Dominican saint, Catherine of Siena. Both saints were Italians, and both had a great love for Christ from their youth. At the age of just 14 in the year 1535, St Catherine, born of the noble and wealthy Florentine family of Ricci, entered a Dominican convent in Prato in Italy. Like the former St Catherine, today’s saint had spiritual visions of the Lord, and on Easter Sunday in 1542, she received a ring from Christ as a sign of his mystical union with her. This ring manifested itself as a red circle in her flesh on her ring finger. Like St Catherine of Siena, today’s saint loved to meditate on Christ Crucified, and, because she was united with Christ, she also bore the stigmata, physical wounds of Christ’s Passion on her own body from Easter of 1541.
From 1542 until 1554, St Catherine de Ricci received weekly ecstasies of the Lord’s Passion in which she physically shared in Christ’s suffering. For 12 years, every week, from noon on Thursday until 4pm on Friday, she experienced the Lord’s Passion, sharing in Christ’s emotional and physical anguish. Those who saw St Catherine at the end of these weekly mystical experiences would say: “It looks as if she has just been taken down from the cross” because her own body bore the marks of the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion. She would later also receive the wounds of the crown of thorns, and her shoulder became indented with the weight of the Cross. As you can imagine, such a spectacle aroused much curiosity and disturbance to her community, so she begged the Lord to “deliver” her from these visible signs, so her stigmata became invisible although she bore the pain of them until she died on 2 February 1590.
Like St Catherine of Siena, today’s saint lived at a time of upheaval in the Church, for the 16th-century saw the Protestant fracture of the Church and the Catholic reforms of the Council of Trent. So, too, like her namesake, St Catherine de Ricci was a mystic dedicated to reforming the Church, and she wrote many letters, and saints, popes, and statesmen flocked to her for her prudent advice and counsel. Between 1552 and 1590, St Catherine herself was elected prioress of her community seven times, and she bore the burden of leadership in very turbulent times as a “martyrdom” she said. Her task, she said, was to make peace “in a world where everything is turned upside down”, and perhaps, we, too, can sometimes feel that our world or even, life in the Church, is turbulent and inverted. But St Catherine’s advice to the Dominican Provincial was that, “with patience we can overcome everything”.
Thus, today’s saint was seldom anxious, or much upset by her sufferings. For not only did she share the Lord’s Passion, but she also endured terrible sickness for much of her life. But despite all this, St Catherine was renowned for her joy. As a contemporary of hers said: “This blessed virgin is the source of immense happiness for the good and upright hearts that know her and of great joy in the Lord”. What is the source of such joy? Union with Christ which was manifest in her mystical experiences, so that even in the midst of great suffering, she had peace and joy, and a patient confidence in God’s love and goodness. Hence her great and simple lesson was this: “We must be content with everything it pleases our Creator to ordain”… “One must surrender oneself joyously to God” just as Christ willingly chose to endure the Passion for love of us sinners.
Perhaps these words of St Paul sum up St Catherine’s life, and can help us make sense of her experience and witness: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control… And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 6:22-24).
When today’s saint was ordained in 1593, he was assigned to Annecy, in south-eastern France, just 35 km south of Geneva. The area was staunchly Calvinist, but the young priest set out to bring people back to the fullness of revelation found in the Catholic and Apostolic Faith.
Risking his life among hostile Protestants, he journeyed through the entire district of Savoy, preaching constantly. Gradually, people were won over and many converted. But it wasn’t just his zeal and learning that won people over - it was his gentleness, his cheerfulness, and his kindness; all qualities which are evident in his writings, some 27 volumes in total. He said he’d struggled for twenty years with a short temper, but none of this is evident in his writings. Instead, many spoke of his meekness and sunny disposition, and he was called the ‘Gentleman Saint’. The Protestants he argued with were simply won over by his respectfulness and courtesy towards everyone, as well as by his simple but profound sermons, which often used images drawn from animals and nature. He was so loved that one Calvinist pastor said: “If we honoured anyone as a saint, I know of no one since the days of the Apostles more worthy of it than this man”.
So, in this Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, we could learn from St Francis’ example of sweetness and gentleness. In his beautiful Introduction to the Devout Life (a book which I try to review once a year and recommend to you) he said: “You attract more flies with a drop of honey than a barrel of vinegar”. For it’s not enough to speak the truth and know our Faith. That’s just the start. If we wish to attract people to Christ, to the beauty of truth, then we also need to be loving and kind, meek and humble as Christ was, as today’s saint shows us.
And I think the key to this is his optimism and hope, his trust in God’s love and goodness. It was this same optimism that led him, as bishop of Geneva, to write his Introduction to the Devout Life in 1609. It was the first book of lay spirituality, in which he said that a life of devotion to God was open to everyone, whatever their state in life, and one did not need special graces and mystical experiences to become a saint. These graces, he said “are in no way necessary for loving and serving God well, which should be our only aim”. Neither did he think that any special spiritual exercises and penances were necessary for the devout life. He said: “For me, I neither know nor have experienced any other Christian perfection than that of loving God with all our heart and our neighbour as ourselves”. So, St Francis says, true devotion is found in loving God so that we do good deeds – acts of kindness and love – “carefully, frequently, and promptly”. Essentially, this sounds like what St Thomas would call a virtue because kindness and love, devotion, have become part of who we are, so that we do these things naturally.
As St Francis says, then, “True devotion… never causes harm, but rather perfects everything we do… Aristotle tells us that the bee sucks honey from the flowers without injuring them, leaving them as whole and fresh as when it found them. Devotion goes further, not only is it unharmful to any state of life, it adorns and beautifies it”. In other words, anyone, motivated by love of God, can do good and loving things, can be kind, gentle and sweet in whatever they do, and so, live beautiful attractive lives. St Francis’ own life bears this out.
And how might we grow in devotion? By meditating on God’s love for us. In his Treatise on Divine Love he says: “Meditation involves thinking but not all thinking is meditation. Our random thoughts are like flies in a flower garden. They gather no honey… The purpose of meditation is not education but appreciation and love. Rather than satisfying an intellectual hunger, meditation visits the flowers of holy mysteries to gather divine love’s honey”.
St Francis must have had quite a sweet tooth, I think, for many of his examples involve bees and honey! But how fitting for this sweet saint! So, we pray that we too, who taste the sweetness of the Lord’s love in the Eucharist will also become sweet in what we say and do.