"Catholic Saints & Feasts" offers a dramatic reflection on each saint and feast day of the General Calendar of the Catholic Church. The reflections are taken from the four volume book series: "Saints & Feasts of the Catholic Calendar," written by Fr. Mich
1567–1622Memorial; Liturgical Color: WhitePatron Saint of writers and journalistsA talented gentleman of sterling character embodies holinessIt is almost an act of rudeness to limit the life of today's saint to a page or two. Saint Francis de Sales was a religious celebrity in his own day and age. He was an erudite, humble, tough, and zealous priest and bishop. He was holy and known to be holy by everyone, especially those closest to him. He mingled easily with princes, kings, and popes, who enjoyed his charming and educated company. He incessantly crisscrossed his diocese on foot and horseback, destroying his own health, to visit the poor and humble faithful who were drawn to him as much as the high born. He embodied to the fullest that extraordinary pastoral and intellectual productivity, characteristic of the greatest saints, which makes one wonder if he ever rested a single minute or slept a single night.Saint Francis de Sales was born and lived most of his life in what is today Southeast France. His father ensured that he received an excellent education from a young age, and his son excelled in every subject. His intellectual gifts, holiness, and engaging personality made him, almost inevitably, an ideal candidate for the priesthood and eventually the episcopacy. He was duly appointed the Bishop of Geneva, a generation after John Calvin, a former future priest, had turned that deeply Catholic city into the Protestant Rome. Saint Francis was Bishop of Geneva primarily in name, not fact.In carrying out his ministry, Francis' weapon of choice was the pen. His apologetic and spiritual works brought back to the faith tens of thousands of former Catholics after they had dabbled in Calvinism. Saint Francis's works were so profound and creative, and his love of God so straightforward and understandable, that he would be declared a Doctor of the Church in 1877. In his most well-known book, Introduction to the Devout Life, he addressed himself to “people who live in towns, within families, or at court.” His sage spiritual advice encouraged the faithful to seek perfection in the mechanic's shop, the soldier's regiment, or on the wharf. God's will was to be found everywhere, not just in monasteries and convents.Many arduous pastoral trips through the mountains of his native region eventually wore him out. Saint Francis never insisted on preferential treatment despite his status. He slept, ate, and traveled as a common man would. When he lay dying, mute after a terrible stroke, a nun asked him if he had any final words of wisdom to impart. He asked for some paper and wrote three words on it: “Humility, Humility, Humility.” Saint Francis is buried in a beautiful bronze sepulchre displaying his likeness in the Visitation Basilica and Convent in Annecy, France.Saint Francis de Sales, we ask your intercession to aid us in leading a balanced life of study, prayer, virtue, and service. You were a model bishop who never expected special privilege. Help all those who teach the faith to convey doctrine with the same force, clarity, and depth that you did.
January 23: Saint Marianne Cope, Virgin (U.S.A.)1838–1918Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: WhitePatron Saint of Hawaiʻi, lepers, outcasts, and sufferers of HIV/AIDSShe learned generosity at home and lived it her whole lifeToday's saint was a model female Franciscan who emulated Saint Francis' heroic example of personally caring for the outcasts of all outcasts—lepers. Saints are not born, of course; they are made. And Saint Marianne Cope came from a specific time, place, and family. She could have developed her abundant talents in many directions and used them for many purposes, but she re-directed what God loaned her to serve Him, His Church, and mankind. The Church, the Franciscans, and Hawaiʻi were the arenas in which this elite spiritual athlete exercised her skills. She was asked for much and gave even more. She became a great woman.Marianne Cope was born in Germany and was brought to New York state by her parents when she was still a baby. She was the oldest of ten children. Her parents lived, struggled, and worked for their kids. She saw generosity in action at home every day. She quit school after eighth grade to work in a factory to financially support her ailing father, her mother, and her many siblings. The challenges inherent to immigration, a new culture, illness, a large family, and poverty turned Marianne into a serious, mature woman when she was just a teen. Marianne fulfilled her long-delayed desire to enter religious life in 1862. Once professed, she moved quickly into leadership positions. She taught in German-speaking Catholic grade schools, became a school principal, and was elected by her fellow Franciscans to positions of governance in her Order. She opened the first hospitals in her region of Central New York, dedicating herself and her Order to the time-honored religious vocation of caring for the sick, regardless of their ability to pay for medical services. She was eventually elected Superior General. In her early forties, she was already a woman of wide experience: serious, administratively gifted, spiritually grounded, and of great human virtues. But this was all mere preparation. She now began the second great act of her drama. She went to Hawaiʻi.In 1883 she received a letter from the Bishop of Honolulu begging her, as Superior General, to send sisters to care for lepers in Hawaiʻi. He had written to various other religious Orders without success. Sister Marianne was elated. She responded like the prophet Isaiah, saying, “Here am I; send me!” (Is 6:8). She not only sent six sisters, she sent herself! She planned to one day return to New York but never did. For the next thirty-five years, Sister Marianne Cope became a type of recluse on remote Hawaiʻi, giving herself completely to the will of God.Sister Marianne and her fellow Franciscans managed one hospital, founded another, opened a home for the daughters of lepers, and, after a few years of proving themselves, opened a home for women and girls on the virtually inaccessible island of Molokai. Here her life coincided with the final months of Saint Damien de Veuster. Sister Marianne nursed the future saint in his dying days, assuring him that she and her sisters would continue his work among the lepers. After Father Damien died, the Franciscans, in addition to caring for the leprous girls, now cared for the boys too. A male Congregation eventually relieved them of this apostolate.Sister Marianne Cope lived the last thirty years of her life on Molokai until her death in 1918. She was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 and canonized by him in 2012. She loved the Holy Eucharist, the Virgin Mary, and the Church. And because she loved God first, she loved those whom God loves, her brothers and sisters in Christ. She sacrificed for them, left home and family for them, put her health at risk for them, and became a saint through them.Saint Marianne Cope, help us to be as generous as you were in serving those on the margins, those who need our help, and those who have no one else to assist them. You were a model Franciscan in dying to self. Help us to likewise die so that we might likewise live.
January 22: Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children (U.S.A.) Memorial; Liturgical Color: White or VioletUnborn Children (U.S.A.)Abortion is a black eye on the handsome face of AmericaAt 3:00 a.m. on March 13, 1964, a young woman parked her car next to her apartment building in Queens, New York. She got out and started walking toward the door when, in the darkness, she spotted someone in her path. She changed direction and ran toward a police call box. The man caught up and tackled her to the ground. He stabbed her in the back. She screamed for help. Lights blinked on; windows opened. She screamed repeatedly, “I'm dying! Help me!” The attack continued. Forty-five minutes later, a neighbor called the police. Officers arrived and identified the victim as twenty-eight-year-old Kitty Genovese. At least thirty-eight neighbors heard or witnessed the attack. Not one of them came to her aid. Only one called the police, belatedly. The response to Kitty Genovese's murder was widely studied and became known as the “Genovese Syndrome” or the “Bystander Effect.” As the number of bystanders to a crime or accident increases, the likelihood of anyone doing anything about it decreases. Because everyone thinks someone else is going to intervene, no one does anything. Ironically, if Kitty's attack had been witnessed by just one person, instead of thirty-eight, her chances of survival would have increased.Moral outrage is stifled, duty is diminished, and the desire to blend in predominates in groups. Even if a group is witnessing something awful, many individuals keep quiet. January 22, 1973, marks the dark anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Roe vs. Wade and Doe vs. Bolton, which blew the moral lights out for the protection of the unborn in the United States. All right-thinking people have an obligation to name abortion for what it is, regardless of what others may say. A country is like a big group, and we tend to conform to group norms. But scientific and technological advances have erased all doubt about whether pre-born life is human life. It's a baby. When a woman is expecting, no one goes to a “fetus shower,” they go to a “baby shower.” It's not a potential human life. It's a human life with potential.Dr. Bernard Nathanson, Jewish by blood and atheist by faith, was a Canadian American doctor who not only advocated for the legalization of abortion, but who also, with his own hands, aborted two of his own children. He is considered the “father” of the legalization of abortion in America, which culminated in the judicial decisions remembered today. One day in the mid-1970s, a doctor friend invited Nathanson to hold the ultrasound imaging paddle on a woman's belly as the doctor aborted her child. Nathanson was horrified at what was displayed on the ultrasound screen. The baby was vigorously flailing, trying to avoid the doctor's instruments, pushing against the sharp objects jabbing his body. And then the baby's mouth opened in a silent scream for help. Soon after, Dr. Nathanson gave up his lucrative abortion practice. And years later, after long and painful soul searching, Dr. Nathanson bowed his head to receive the waters of baptism in the Catholic Church, a real religion that forgives real sins.Abortion corrupts all that it touches: family life, relationships between men and women, politicians, courts, doctors and nurses, and public life in general, which has become more hardened to the sufferings and vulnerabilities of those on the margins. But most of all, abortion has harmed every woman who has had one. There are psychological repercussions to the unnatural end of any pregnancy, but most especially when that end is violent, willful, and paid for by the one it harms. When the natural maternal instinct to nurture and protect is so violated, mom may never recover. The wound remains open. The healing is long and partial.In this liturgical memorial, we commemorate an anniversary. So…Happy Anniversary, Abortion. You deceive, you divide, you destroy. You are darkness, and you are death. You are the bloody nose on the beautiful face of America. We pray that someday people will only speak about you in hushed tones, behind closed doors, whispering “abortion” like a dirty word. Happy Anniversary, Abortion; you are the pride in the devil's grin.Heavenly Father and Mother Mary, today we storm heaven with our prayers, fasting, and almsgiving in the hope that all unborn children will be protected in law so that they can grow into the men and women you planned them to be.
January 22: Saint Vincent, Deacon and Martyr Late Third Century–c. 304Memorial; Liturgical Color: Red Patron Saint of vintners, brickmakers, and sailorsA Deacon's bloody witness impresses the Christian worldThere are a few famous saints who bear the name Vincent. Today's saint is the first Vincent. He was a deacon from the town of Zaragoza, Spain. Zaragoza hosts a famous shrine to Our Lady of the Pillar based on an appearance of the Virgin Mary there so ancient that it is more precisely described as a bilocation. Saint Vincent certainly knew of this devotion in his hometown. So although Saint Vincent is an early saint, he was from a city that, in 300 A.D., already boasted of a mature Christian tradition.As with so many martyrs whose names are known to us, Vincent died in the persecution of Diocletian, the last gasps of a dying paganism. Vincent and his bishop were imprisoned around 303 and taken in chains to Valencia on Spain's Mediterranean coast. The bishop was exiled, but Vincent was subjected to such cruel and varied tortures that he died of his wounds. Tradition says that the faithful came to his cell during his sufferings seeking relics, even dipping cloths into his bloody wounds.Although pious oral traditions led medieval authors to embroider some of the details of the Church's early saints and martyrs, the core facts of these narratives almost always have support. In Vincent's case, no less an authority than Saint Augustine gave homilies on Saint Vincent which have been preserved. In these, Augustine states that he has the official acts recounting Vincent's martyrdom right in front of him as he is speaking. That interesting anecdote, a kind of live shot of Augustine preaching, is a wonderful proof of how widespread devotion to Vincent was in the early Church, even far from where he died.Ordained permanent deacons disappeared from the life of the church for many centuries, only to be reintroduced in the decades after the Second Vatican Council. Yet deacons' key roles in preaching, serving the poor, evangelizing, and acting as delegates of their bishops are clear from the Acts of the Apostles and Saint Paul's letters. As early as the second century after Christ, the three Orders constituting the Sacrament of Holy Orders were already clearly identified and theologically developed, especially in the letters of Saint Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius saw each Order as participating, in a different way, in the one priesthood of the High Priest Jesus Christ.It must be remembered that Vincent was a deacon and was imprisoned along with the bishop who ordained him. He must have understood the harmony and interdependence that God intended to exist among deacons, priests, and bishops. This emphasis on Sacramental Orders underlines the fact that, although early Christians may have experienced more astounding gifts of the Holy Spirit than later Christians, it was still a living connection to an Apostle, not a personal charism, that authenticated and guaranteed one's participation in the true body of Christ. Gifts were personal and private. They came and went. They could not be verified or even shared. But each bishop was linked to an Apostolic See, and bishops publicly ordained priests and deacons to share the duty to teach, govern, and sanctify the baptized. There was nothing private about any of that. Early Christianity was not a haphazard grouping of people who loved Jesus. It received a hierarchical structure from Christ Himself and immediately perpetuated, and built upon, Jewish forms of religious community life. The Church's hierarchical community life continues today. Saint Vincent undoubtedly saw his ordination as a form of service, not power. He was undoubtedly a man of great importance to his bishop. He likely gave generous witness to the Faith before he offered up his earthly life for a richer life beyond the grave.Saint Vincent, help all deacons to know, love, and serve God with all their heart, soul, and mind. Few people are called to be tortured for the faith as you were, but suffering may come in more subtle ways. Help us to persevere in the face of all challenges so that we deepen our trust in God.
January 21: Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyrc. 291–c. 304Memorial; Liturgical Color: Red or WhitePatron Saint of young girls, rape victims, and chastityA child knows that God is a person who deserves to be lovedThe names of only the earliest saints and martyrs are embedded in the Roman Canon, Eucharistic Prayer I. Saint Agnes is among those listed (Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, etc.). Devotion to Agnes as both Virgin and Martyr is of ancient origin and is specifically mentioned by fourth-century writers, including Pope Damasus. A basilica was built as early as the reign of Constantine over the catacombs where Saint Agnes' relics were deposited. A later structure, with an ancient mosaic showing Saint Agnes, is still an active church on that exact same site today. The mobs of tourists and pilgrims who crowd the eternal city, and who shuffle through Piazza Navona today, may not realize that they are walking by the very site where Agnes was martyred. The beautiful Baroque Church of Saint Agnes on Piazza Navona reminds the discerning pilgrim that our saint met her death at that exact spot.Agnes was of a tender age when she was killed. She was just a girl. Tradition says that she was beautiful and wanted to dedicate her virginity to the Lord, despite numerous suitors desirous of her beauty. She was killed, then, both for her faith and for her steadfastness in refusing to violate her vow of chastity. It was a double martyrdom, made all the sweeter because of her youth. With poetic license and rhetorical power, Saint Ambrose imagines Saint Agnes' final moments: “You could see fear in the eyes of the executioner, as if he were the one condemned; his right hand trembled; his face grew pale as he saw the girl's peril; while she had no fear for herself. One victim but a twin martyrdom to modesty and to religion. Agnes preserved her virginity and gained a martyr's crown.”When making solemn vows at his ordination, a man marries the Church so that he can make her fruitful. But a woman's religious vows make her a spouse of Christ Himself. A man marries the Church; a woman marries Christ. This beautiful bridal imagery speaks the human language of love and commitment. God is a person, not just a prime mover or a higher power. So He loves us like a person, and we love Him back like a person. Part of this love is jealousy. God is a jealous spouse. He wants total commitment from those who have dedicated their lives to Him. He demands total fidelity. In extreme cases, even to the point of death. Little Saint Agnes understood all of this with girlish simplicity united to a will of iron. Innocence alongside maturity. Chastity alongside toughness. Beauty holding hands with death.Saint Agnes, help all young people commit themselves to Christ when young, giving Him the most fruitful years of their lives. Inspire them to say “Yes” to God and not just “No” to the world. Help all to see that although life is a gift, there are greater things than life, such as God in His glory.
January 20: Saint Sebastian, MartyrLate Third CenturyOptional Memorial; Liturgical Color: RedPatron Saint of athletes, soldiers, and victims of the plagueA Roman soldier makes a rugged convert and stoic martyrThe Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary are the most universally depicted scenes in Christian art. There is perhaps not a Catholic church the world over which does not house one or the other image, and often both. But today's saint, Sebastian, follows close behind in terms of popularity and ubiquity. The iconic presentation of the wounded Sebastian shows his hands and arms bound to a post, his head tilted, and his almost naked body filled with arrows.It is a powerfully evocative image. It suggests that the archers took their time. They were not rushed. They did not act in the heat of anger. Criminal psychologists have observed that killers only cover the faces of victims who they know. Otherwise, killers don't mind watching their victims suffer and die. It seems that with Sebastian there was no hooded executioner. No anonymous hangman. The men in Sebastian's firing squad must have gazed right into his eyes before they unleashed the tension in their bows. And when their arrows buried themselves in Sebastian's torso, the archers must have heard his low moans. Perhaps there was an element of recrimination in all of this. Perhaps it was personal.Sebastian was a soldier in the higher echelons of the Roman army. After his conversion to Catholicism, he went to Rome, around the year 300, likely seeking martyrdom. We can imagine that his fellow soldiers understood his conversion as betrayal or disloyalty to the empire and that this explains the unique manner of the assassination attempt. But, in the end, the attempt was a failure. Saint Sebastian, a rugged soldier, survived the arrows, was nursed back to health by Saint Irene, and later earned the martyr's crown after being clubbed to death.By the year 300 A.D., the Roman Emperors' attempts to eradicate Christianity were too little too late. Nobles, senators, slaves, cobblers, carpenters, men, women, foreigners, and natives had all converted. They were men and women of every class and occupation. By 300 A.D., Christians comprised a significant portion of people at every level of society, up and down and around every Roman road. When high-placed soldiers such as Saint Sebastian were willing to die for Christ, it was a sign there was no going back to Rome's pagan roots. All that was needed was a Christian Emperor to solidify the change. That would come soon enough in the person of Constantine. Sebastian's heroic death was a harbinger of a world about to change. Saint Sebastian's martyrdom was so widely known that he was honored through the construction of a Church on the Appian Way just outside of Rome. The church is still visited by pilgrims today, along with the Christian catacombs beneath it. His legacy carries on!Saint Sebastian, we ask your intercession to fortify all those who are weak in their faith. You gave heroic witness in leaving a high station to accept a near martyrdom and then returned to suffer and die once and for all. Give us the grace to face our enemies when our weak nature wants to run the other way.
January 20: Saint Fabian, Pope and Martyr c. 200–250Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: RedPatron Saint of RomeThe popes of the third century knew how to dieIn the present-day suburbs of Rome, tour buses navigate winding, narrow, tree-lined roads to carry modern pilgrims to the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. The pilgrims descend a steep staircase until they find themselves in a vast, dark, underground space. The pilgrims slowly walk by early Christian graffiti blanketing the walls to their right and to their left. Marble scraps of early Christian tombstones have etched upon them Greek and Latin epigraphs briefly describing whom they honor. In 1850 an archaeologist working in the St. Callixtus Catacombs discovered, incredibly, just such a small chunk of marble with the following simple epitaph: “Fabian, Bishop, Martyr.” The epitaph confirmed the tradition that Fabian's lifeless body was carried in procession to these Catacombs shortly after his death in 250 A.D. In the early 1700s, Pope Fabian's relics were transferred to the nearby Church of Saint Sebastian, where they can be found today.According to Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote a detailed history of the Church about fifty years after Pope Fabian's time, Fabian was a layman who went to Rome after the death of the previous pope. He was elected Bishop of Rome due to a miraculous sign. In other words, Fabian did not strive to his high office. He did not seek to be important. He accepted his role in the full knowledge that it could lead to big trouble for him. And that trouble eventually found him. A third-century letter of Saint Cyprian to the deacons and priests of Rome confirms the virtuous life and courageous death of Pope Fabian. Fabian reigned as Pope for fourteen years before being martyred in 250 A.D. The Roman Emperor Decius was his killer. Decius' persecution was vicious but not universal. He tried to kill the body of the Church by cutting off the head, and so sought the Pope's blood. But Decius' ambitious project was never realized. About sixty-five years later, one of Decius' successors, Constantine, would legalize Christianity, bringing to an end almost three hundred years of on-again, off-again persecution.We can only imagine what it would be like today if the Pope were to be imprisoned and killed by the Prime Minister of Italy. Imagine the outcry! A secular power actively persecuting a religious leader! Yet perhaps such events are not so unimaginable. Pope Saint John Paul II was shot, and almost killed, in 1981, probably due to dark communist forces rooted in Eastern Europe. Assassins still exist, and popes are still their targets. Pope Fabian's martyrdom shows why the Church survived its early and vicious persecutions—it had leaders who knew how to die. Great deaths don't follow shallow lives. The early popes didn't give up or give in. They didn't renounce the faith. They were fearless. They felt the cold, sharp metal of a knife against their neck and stood firm. A religious society with such models of courage in its highest ranks had to survive. And it did survive. We are living proof of that.Saint Fabian, your papal death proved to the faithful that their leaders personally accepted what they demanded of others. Slaves, prisoners, women, outcasts, and popes all died for the faith. Help us, Fabian, to be further links in the Church's long chain of Christian witnesses.
January 17: Saint Anthony of the Desert, Abbot251–356Memorial; Liturgical Color: WhitePatron Saint of butchers, skin diseases, gravediggers, and swineA solitary monk trades the world for the desert sandsMany extraordinary people who live heroic, path-breaking lives remain unknown to posterity for one simple reason—no one writes their biography. How many other saints, heroes, and martyrs would be known to mankind if just one witness to their actions had put pen to paper! Just one author is needed to introduce a great man to subsequent generations. Today's saint may have been forgotten forever—and may have wanted to remain unknown. But a talented and famous contemporary of his wrote what he knew. Saint Athanasius, the provocative champion of orthodoxy at the Council of Nicea, wrote a short biography of his fellow Egyptian, The Life of Saint Anthony the Great. Saint Athanasius' work was so widely shared, and so often translated, that it was never lost to history. It has preserved Saint Anthony's memory down to the present.The first three centuries of the Church saw sporadic persecutions of Christianity, which at times turned vicious. These spasms of violence against Christians produced a large class of martyrs, many of whose last words and sufferings were recorded in official Roman judicial documents or in the written testimonies of witnesses. As Christianity was legalized at the start of the fourth century, martyrdom ceased to be the primary form of Christian witness. A new form of radical Christian discipleship emerged—the witness of total isolation, fasting, prayer, and penance of the desert fathers. These monks retreated into remote places to lead solitary lives of dedication to Christ. Foremost among these desert fathers was Saint Anthony of the Desert. He was not the first ascetic, but he was one of the first to take the radical decision to retreat into the desert.Saint Anthony had money and property as a young man. But upon hearing at Mass the words of Christ to the rich young man to “...go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven," Anthony decided to seek not silver or bronze but pure gold. He sold his goods, he removed himself from all temptation except those intrinsic to human nature, he battled the devil, he fasted, he prayed, and he even actively sought martyrdom. He became famous for being holy. Saint Anthony preceded Saint Benedict by two hundred years. He offers us an example of being a monk outside of a community of fellow monks in a monastery. He sought Christ alone while living alone. Alone in the desert, without family, community, or money, listening to the howling winds at night. Alone to the world, he clung to the only person who truly mattered—God Himself. Saint Anthony's path of holiness is both radical and refined. It is for few people to walk. But he was the first to walk it so well. Anthony shows us that being alone, stripped of all worldly concerns, is a sort of rehearsal for death, where we will meet God alone, every last thread tying us to the world having been cut.Saint Anthony, we ask your intercession to help us cling to God alone. Help us to strip ourselves of those needs and concerns which stuff our lives from morning to night. Help us not to be distracted from the one thing, the only thing, the last thing—God Himself.
January 13: Saint Hilary, Bishop and Doctorc. 310–c. 367Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: WhitePatron Saint of lawyersA pagan discovers Christ, converts, and then suffers for HimToday's saint was born a pagan, to pagans, in a pagan city. But his broad and deep education brought him into contact with Holy Scripture, where he found the truth he did not know he was seeking. He became a Catholic through reading. He was to then spend his adult life defending Catholic truth with his pen. The convert converted others and preserved the orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed against the Arian heresy. Saint Athanasius called Saint Hilary a “trumpet” of orthodoxy against theological error.Saint Hilary was elected the Bishop of Poitiers, France, about 350. His learning and intelligence placed him at the center of the violent theological battles of the fourth century. The Council of Nicea in 325 had left some theological definitions open to incorrect interpretation. A man named Arius caused immense confusion by just such misinterpretation. Arius argued that the words of the Nicene Creed meant that Jesus was less than God the Father, that Jesus had a beginning in time, and that Jesus was of like substance to the Father, not of the same substance. Saint Hilary was the first theologian from the West, as opposed to the more theologically mature theologians from Egypt, Asia Minor, and the Middle East, to see what a grave threat Arianism was. Saint Hilary spent the better part of his adult life studying, writing, and arguing to ensure that the Nicene Creed was understood and adhered to throughout the Church. He was even sent into exile by the Emperor for not conforming his views to Arian teachings. But he used his time in exile to read and write extensively, eventually becoming such a thorn in the side of the Emperor that he restored Hilary to his diocese. Saint Hilary went on to attend various synods of bishops in an effort to maintain the truth of the Nicene Creed against determined opposition at the highest levels.Hilary's life proves that good theology matters. Bad theology easily leads to bad worship, bad morality, and the decline of true Christian community. To disrupt or correct bad theology is to disrupt or correct bad community. And it is sometimes the obligation of the Church to break up false ideas of the church, of marriage, of family, of government, etc. When certain things are built up, their opposites inevitably are broken up. Saint Hilary knew all of this. He knew that bad theology was not just bad in and of itself but that it also had negative repercussions in the lived reality of the Church. When Saint Hilary defended theological truth, he defended many other truths as well.Saint Hilary, through reading and study, you came to love the truths of the Catholic faith. Your love then showed itself in your willingness to suffer for that truth. Help us to know, love, and serve God by knowing, loving, and serving the instrument of His truth on earth—the Catholic Church.
Sunday after January 6: The Baptism of the LordFirst Century Sunday after January 6 or the Monday after the EpiphanyFeast; Liturgical Color: White/GoldHe humbly bowed His head as an example, not because He was imperfect Who would not want a doctor who, before he cuts, lifts his shirt a little, shows his own scar, and says to the patient, “I had the same. It's going to be alright!” What soldier would not be just a little braver, stand a little taller, seeing medals for valor on his commander's uniform? We want our heroes, our leaders, and our guides to lead through personal example. To have been there. To have done that. And we want our Savior to do the same. To empathize. To participate. To identify. To accompany. Actions resonate more than words.Our sinless God “became” sin, in the words of Saint Paul. Jesus identifies with sin but never sinned. Jesus carries sin but is not a sinner. Why? Because to become sin is to become man. In order for God to enter into human reality, He had to identify with all that sin entails. God wanted to stand with us shoulder to shoulder. He did not fake becoming man but really became man. And if God came to forgive sins and sinners, and to shed His blood for them on the cross, He had to bear the burden they bore yet retain His perfection. This is why our sinless God was baptized on today's feast. God lays to the side His perfection and dignity and bows His head in the dirty waters of the Jordan River. He lined up with sinners to receive in humility what He did not need, to attend a school whose subjects He had mastered. Our God knew the value of empathy. He knew the power of example. And He knew that His ministry to mankind had to start not on a golden throne but in the mud with other men just trying to start again and again and again.The fullness of the Holy Trinity, first revealed subtly at the Annunciation, is present and spoken for at the Lord's baptism. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, hovers. The voice of God the Father intones His favor over His Son. And the Son enters into the essential Christian pact with man—I will become like you so that you can become like me. Sins will be taken away through water and blood. I will suffer for your benefit. This is the promise. And the Church's priests will carry on the baptizing, forgiving, and consecrating until the sun sets for the last time. God comes to us most intensely through the Sacraments. Jesus' actions prove this.O Lord, You are not remote. You know sin but are not a sinner. Help us to renew our baptism through a frequent reception of confession and the Holy Eucharist. By receiving one, we strengthen the others. By receiving You, we receive God Himself.
January 6: The Epiphany of the LordJanuary 6 or the first Sunday after January 1 where this feast is not a Holy Day of ObligationSolemnity; Liturgical Color: White/GoldCatholicism did multiculturalism before anyone elseThe Feast of the Epiphany has traditionally been considered more theologically important than almost any other Feast Day, including Christmas. The early Christians had only Scripture, not the wealth of tradition we have today, to guide them in marking the great events of the life of Christ. So Holy Week and Easter, the Baptism of the Lord, Pentecost, and the Epiphany jumped off the pages of Scripture as great events which merited celebration. These few dates became fixed points on the calendar and were later surrounded over the centuries with numerous other feasts and saints' days.Two lessons from the visit of the Magi are worth considering. The first is that the wise men's gifts were given after Christmas. Many Catholic cultures preserve the ancient tradition of giving gifts on the Epiphany, not on Christmas itself. This tradition separates the birth of Christ from gift giving. When these two things—the birth of Christ and the giving of gifts—are collapsed into the same day, it causes some confusion of priorities, and the birth of Christ never wins. Waiting to exchange gifts until January 6 lets the Child God have the stage to Himself for a day. It makes people, especially children, wait—a rarity in the modern Western world. Postponing gift-giving until January 6 makes for a long, leisurely Christmas season and has the benefit of tradition and good theology as well.Another great lesson from the Magi is more theological—that a true religion must be true for everyone, not just for some people. Truth is not geographical. It climbs over borders. Truth by its nature conquers untruth. The Magi are the first non-Jews, or Gentiles, to worship Christ. They tell us that the mission field of Christ is the whole world, not just the Holy Land. The Church is forever bound, then, to teach, preach, and sanctify the world over. The Magi crack everything open. The true God and His Church must light a fire in Chinese souls, Arab souls, African souls, and South American souls. This may take until the end of time, but Christianity has time on its side. The Magi give personal testimony to the universality of the Church, one of its four marks. The Epiphany is the start of the multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, and faith-united society that the Catholic Church envisions as the only source of true human unity. Catholicism started multiculturalism and diversity without sacrificing unity and truth.Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior, your minds were prepared to receive a greater truth. You give an example of holy curiosity, of pilgrimage by light to light. When you discovered your treasure, you laid down your gifts in homage. May our search also find. May our pilgrimage also end in truth.
January 7: Saint Raymond of Peñafort, Priestc. 1175–1275Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: WhitePatron Saint of canon lawyers and medical record librariansHe wove scripture and the law into a harmonious tapestryToday's saint lived numerous lives inside of his one hundred years on earth. He was an intellectual prodigy who was teaching university-level philosophy by the age of twenty and who took degrees in civil and canon law from the premier law university of the time—Bologna. While in Bologna, he likely came to know the founder of a new religious Order who had also moved there and who would later die there—Saint Dominic de Guzman. The example of the Dominicans led Father Raymond to exchange the diocesan priesthood for the Dominicans.Saint Raymond's abilities and holiness were such that everyone seemed to want him in their service. Kings and Popes and Bishops and Orders all had plans on how to utilize him best. He was called to the Pope's service to make the great contribution for which he is still known today, the organization of a huge compendium of Church law which served as the basic reference for canon lawyers until the early twentieth century. Exhausted by his three years of effort on this project, he returned in middle age to his native Barcelona.But his life of quiet and prayer did not last long. He was shocked to learn from Dominicans sent to him from Bologna that he had been elected the second successor to Saint Dominic as the Master General of the Dominican Order. He served his Order well and dutifully as Master General but not long. He resigned due to old age when he was 65. But there was still a lot of life left to live. Saint Raymond's activities in his old age included efforts to try to convert the Muslims then occupying Spain, his rejection of an episcopal appointment, the establishment of theology and language schools dedicated to converting Muslims, and his probable personal encouragement of the young Thomas Aquinas to write an apologetic work directed at non-Catholics, the Summa contra Gentiles.Saint Raymond's life shows an admirable synthesis of traditional piety and devotion, service to the Church, obedience to his superiors, love of theology, dedication to his Order, and respect and love for the law. To know, love, and follow the law is not contrary to charity. When kept, the law promotes charity and protects the weak, the poor, and the ignorant from being taken advantage of. It takes very smart and holy people to protect simple people and bad people from themselves. Saint Raymond was smart and holy. He laid his gifts at the altar of God, and God used those gifts splendidly.Saint Raymond, teach us to see the law of God and the law of the Church as one harmonious law meant to foster true communion among men and true communion between God and men. May God's law be our law. And may the law never be an obstacle to true love and devotion.
January 4: Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, Religious (U.S.A.)1774–1821Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: WhitePatron Saint of Catholic schools, widows, loss of parentsShe had it all, lost it all, and then found it all againIn late 1803, Elizabeth Ann Seton, with her husband, left the United States for Italy, as a confident, high-born, wealthy, educated Yankee Protestant. She returned in June 1804, bankrupt, a widow, burning with love for the Holy Eucharist, tenderly devoted to Mary, and with the heart of a Roman Catholic. She was received into the Church the next year. Her upper-class friends and family abandoned her out of anti-Catholic spite.Our saint was an unexpected convert. She was, well into adulthood, a serious U.S. Episcopalian. She loved the Lord. She loved the Bible. She loved to serve the poor and the sick. Her excellent Episcopalian upbringing provided sufficient preparation for not being Episcopalian any longer. She took that faith as far as it could go. She probably never suspected her faith was lacking until she experienced the abundance of Catholicism. After her husband died of tuberculosis in Pisa Italy, Elizabeth and her daughter were taken in by family friends from nearby Livorno. In God's providence, this Italian family lived their faith with relish. Elizabeth was not only consoled and cared for by them in her grief but also saw how engrossing their faith was. The longer she stayed in Italy, the more its Catholic atmosphere enveloped her. She wept at Italians' natural devotion to Mary. She wondered at the beauty of a Corpus Christi procession through the narrow streets of her town. She understood the Holy Father's link to the early Apostles with clarity. And so she came to see the gaps in her native religion. She hadn't noticed them before. Having seen the real thing with her own eyes, she knew that she held a replica in her hands. The real presence of Christ in Catholicism is often understood only after a real absence is felt in non-Catholic Christianity.After her conversion, Elizabeth spent the rest of her short life dedicated to Catholic education. She started a Congregation of sisters in Maryland that taught girls, especially poor girls who could not afford an education. She was the first of tens of thousands of teaching sisters to operate Catholic schools in the United States. She is rightly considered in the United States as the foundress of Catholic parochial education. Besides her husband, she also lost two of her five children during her lifetime. She struggled, like all founders, to build up her Congregation. But her intelligence, charm, and drive paid off. Her Order thrived and thrives still. The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul gather each year on this feast near her tomb inside an immense Basilica in Northern Maryland to thank God for their foundress, for a life so well lived.Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, help us overcome the alienation of family due to our religious convictions. Aid us in persevering through the hardships of illness and death, and give us the same zeal for souls that you showed toward your students, seeing in each one the image of God.
January 3: The Most Holy Name of JesusOptional Memorial; Liturgical Color: WhiteNames are powerful, and none is more powerful than JesusMary and Joseph did not sit across from each other at the kitchen table in the evenings debating a name for their child. They didn't flip through the pages of a book of saints or bounce ideas off of their friends and family. The baby's name was chosen for them by God Himself. They were just taking orders. The Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary, “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (Lk 1:31). And Joseph had a dream in which the angel told him, "...you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Mt 1:21). The Gospel of Luke further relates that “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb" (Lk 2:21). Jesus was named eight days after Christmas, January 3. The New Testament is filled with incidents where the name of Jesus is invoked to drive out devils, cure illnesses, and perform miracles. The Holy Name is explicitly exalted by Saint Paul: "...at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth" (Phil 2:10). Jesus reinforces the power of His own name in St. John's Gospel: "...if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you" (Jn 16:23).“Jesus” was the given name of the Son of Mary, while “Christ” was a title. “Christ” is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Messiah,” meaning the “Anointed One.” “Jesus the Christ” was the original formula for describing the Son of Mary. But over time, “The Christ” became simply “Christ,” as if it were His last name. The name of the God of the Old Testament was holy, not to be written out, nor to be casually spoken. Invoking “Yahweh” could be so egregious a sin as to provoke the tearing of the hearer's shirt in protest and repentance. Jewish law on God's holy name is enshrined in the second commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord Thy God in vain.” This commandment prohibited the swearing of false oaths, that is, calling upon God as your witness and then making false statements. The opposite of a solemn oath is invoking the name of God to damn someone or something: a curse—the inversion of a blessing.Saint Bernardine of Siena, an electrifying Franciscan preacher of the early fifteenth century, was the saint who most spread devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. He ingeniously depicted the Holy Name with the well-known monogram “IHS,” derived from the Greek letters forming the word “Jesus.” In the sixteenth century, the Jesuits built on this tradition and utilized the “IHS” to embellish their churches, even making it the emblem of their Society. The mother church of all Jesuit churches, in Rome, is officially named in honor of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, although its name is commonly shortened to simply “The Jesus.” There is raw power in the name Jesus. It makes polite company cringe. It divides families. It floats across the dinner table, letting everyone know exactly where you stand. A comfortable, vague euphemism like “the man upstairs” or “the big guy” just won't do. “Jesus” does not convey an idea that everyone can interpret as they wish. It's someone's name. And that someone taught, suffered, died, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven.Some people don't like their names and seek to legally change them or to use a nickname instead. Names convey meanings. “Thor” sounds like a mythical god carrying a hammer, “Vesuvius” sounds like a boiling volcano about to erupt, and a “ziggurat” sounds like a zig-zaggy desert temple. The name “Jesus” sounds like a God-man beyond reproach. A child, when once asked to define love, said that “when someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. Your name is safe in their mouth.” The Holy Name of Jesus should be safe in our mouths even when we're not receiving Holy Communion.Son of Mary, may our same tongues that receive Your Holy Body and Blood prepare themselves for Your visit by saying Your Holy Name with great reverence. And may we not refrain from invoking that same Holy Name in our daily conversations with all whom we meet.
January 1: Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of GodSolemnity; Holy Day of Obligation (in USA: unless a Saturday or Monday) Eighth Day of the Octave of Christmas;Liturgical Color: WhiteNo one knew Jesus like MaryNo one falls in love with a nature. We fall in love with a person. A woman loves a man, not mankind. And a mother pinches the pudgy little cheeks of a newborn baby, not the cheeks of a newborn nature. Saint Mary gave birth to a little person, a baby, unlike any other. In that little person, a human nature united with a divine nature at the moment of conception. So Mary was the mother of the person Jesus, and the person Jesus had two natures, one fully human and the other fully divine. Saint Mary was, then, the mother of Jesus' human nature and of His divine nature. She was both the mother of a man and the mother of God.Two false extremes must be identified and rejected here. Jesus was not really and truly only a God who just faked being a man. Nor was He really a man who just pretended to be a God. The Son of God did not wear a fleshy human mask to conceal the radiance of His real divine face. And Jesus the man did not wear His divinity like a cloak that He could remove from His shoulders when He walked in the door. Jesus was fully God and fully man in a mystery of faith we call the hypostatic union. And because a woman is a mother to a person, not just to a nature, Mary is the mother of God. This has been the constant doctrine of the Catholic Church since the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D.Saint Mary has many titles under which we honor her. Today's Solemnity commemorates the utterly unique, and unrepeatable, bond she shared with Jesus, a bond no other saint can claim. Jesus and Mary probably even looked very much alike, as hers was the only human DNA in His body. What a beautiful thing that our God did not float down from heaven on a golden pillow. How good that He was not forged from a fiery anvil. How right that He did not ride to earth on a thunderbolt. Jesus could not redeem what He did not assume. So it was fitting that He was born like all of us—from a mom. We honor Mary today for her vocation as mother. If she had disappeared from the pages of the Gospels after giving birth to Jesus, she still would have fulfilled her role in salvation history. She was obedient. She was generous. She allowed God to use her, body and soul, to write the first chapter of man's true story, the story of the Church. Like all true stories, the person comes first. A life is lived, and the book comes later.God's Mother gives us our mother, Holy Mother Church, who washes our souls in the saving waters of baptism, adopting us into God's family. The Motherhood of Mary gives the world Jesus. Jesus gives us the Church. The Church then brings us into God's family where Mary is our mother, Jesus our brother, and God our Father. This is the family of the Church. What pride to be members of so noble a family!O Mother of God, you birthed the one who created all. How beautiful the mystery. How exalted your vocation that precedes and makes possible the Apostles' own vocations. At home you bounced on your knee the one who spins the world on His finger. Help us start this new year with wonder more than resolutions, with eternal gratitude more than mundane goals.
January 2: Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, Bishops and DoctorsSt. Basil: 329–379; St. Gregory: c. 329–390Memorial; Liturgical Color: WhitePatron Saints of Russia, monks, hospital administrators, and poetsObvious truths are hard to explain, but smart theologians can explain themThe persecution of the Church in the first few centuries, sometimes aggressive, more typically passive, starved her skinny biblical frame of nourishment. When the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 A.D., the Church's bones finally stretched, grew, and added muscle on muscle. Churches opened. Bishops preached. Schools taught. Theologians wrote. And, most significantly, Councils met. Three hundred years after Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, these large gatherings of bishops and theologians sought to end theological confusion, to settle thorny questions, and to establish a standard Christian doctrine. In the vast halls and churches of these councils, the great cast of theologians of the fourth century put their prodigious talents on full display. We commemorate two of the greatest of these bishops and theologians in today's memorial.Saints Basil and Gregory lived so long ago, were so prolific, and played such crucial roles in so many areas of Church life, that they could each be remembered for any number of contributions to liturgy, theology, ecclesiology, Church history, monasticism, and even popular customs, especially in the Orthodox East. Yet perhaps their greatest contributions were as theologians who defined, fundamentally and decisively, what the word Trinity actually means; how Jesus is both fully God and fully man; and how the Holy Spirit is related to God the Father. Such definitions and distinctions may seem technical, abstract, or remote. But it is always the most obvious things—the most necessary things—that are the most difficult to explain. Why do things fall down instead of up? Why does the sun rise in the east instead of the west? Why are there seven days in a week instead of nine?The most fundamental doctrines of our faith, understood now as perennial, were not always perennial. They originated in the minds of certain people at certain times in certain places. To today's saints we owe the decisive words that the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the Father and the Son. These words fall simply and familiarly from our lips. But the word “proceeds” was the fruit of intense thought and prayer. The Father generated the Son, but the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from them both. Interesting. Dozens of millions of Catholics say reflexively every Sunday that the second Person of the Trinity is “consubstantial” with the Father. Not equal in origin. Not equal in role. But “consubstantial,” or equal in nature. Thank you, Saints Basil and Gregory! Thank you, great Bishops and Doctors of the early Church! Thank you for pulling aside the veil of mystery for a peek into the Godhead. Without the teachings of the fourth century on the Trinity and Christ, there would be no Christmas trees. Think about that. Why celebrate the Christ child if He were not God? But He is God. So carols are composed, mangers are set up, lights are hung, and gifts are exchanged. Culture happens, culture flourishes, when theology makes sense. Thank you, Saints Basil and Gregory, for… everything!O noble Bishops and Doctors Basil and Gregory, we ask for your continued intercession to enlighten our minds and to remove the dark shadows that cause confusion. Assist us to recognize that good theology understands God as He understands Himself. When you gave us good teaching, you gave us God. We seek nothing more.
December 31: Saint Sylvester I, Pope c. Late Third century—335 Optional Memorial; Seventh Day in the Octave of Christmas; Liturgical Color: White Patron Saint of the Benedictines A new captain pilots the ship of the Church in calmer seas One thousand four hundred years before Christ, approximately when Moses led the Jewish people out of Egypt, a pharaoh ordered his slaves to hew an enormous obelisk out of a bank of stone. It was the largest monolithic obelisk ever cut. While it was still recumbent, craftsmen carved hieroglyphs up and down its narrow sides. Then, it was hoisted upright to adorn a temple of Aten, a sub-deity of the Egyptian sun god Ra. And there the giant obelisk stood watch over the endless desert, like a lighthouse, for a thousand years. In the mid-fourth century A.D., a pharaoh of the West, the Roman Emperor Constantius II, wanted the obelisk to grace a new city. So it was dragged out of the sands of remote Egypt and placed on a specially constructed ship. It floated down the Nile, across the Mediterranean, and up the Tiber to Rome. This colossal ancient artifact, the largest of its kind in the world, stands today ramrod straight before the Basilica of St. John Lateran. And the name of today's saint, Pope Sylvester I, is carved into its base. Little is known of Saint Sylvester, though there are legends. He succeeded to the Chair of St. Peter in 314. This was soon after the military triumph of Constantine and his Edict of Milan granting toleration to Christians. Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the Empire. This would not occur until 380. But Constantine did give the Church breathing space. The Church could now simply be herself. And so the faithful poured out of the dark confines of their house churches and into the open-aired basilicas. There were processions, statues erected in public, a new Christian calendar, sermons preached in the open, and proud bishops to lead a grateful people. Pope Sylvester led the Church as it grew by leaps and bounds, becoming the primary institution in the Roman Empire, even replacing the imperial government itself. Sylvester must have been a capable and even-handed leader. As pagan Rome slowly transformed into Christian Rome, any number of missteps could have halted the evolutionary process. But Sylvester and his successors stood confidently at the helm, kept a steady hand on the ship's wheel, and guided the Barque of Peter to harbor with great tact. Pope Sylvester did not attend the all-important Council of Nicea in 325, instead sending four legates. Constantine called the Council, kissed the palms of tortured bishops, was present at some of its sessions, and threw a large banquet at its conclusion. The Council was composed almost entirely of bishops and theologians from the East. Saints Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine, and Leo were still to come in the West. Real theology was done in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Asia Minor. Rome was in decline. Even Constantine himself fled Rome and re-established the imperial capital in Constantinople in 330. Yet…the Bishop of Rome was still the jurisdictional and symbolic head of the body of Christ. All looked to him for approbation if not enlightenment. All turned their heads and craned their necks to listen to what he said. The Bishop of Rome had no equal. It was this role that Sylvester fulfilled. He did not generate theology, but he did validate it and stiffen it with institutional force. The inscription at the base of the Lateran obelisk states that it marks the location where Saint Sylvester baptized Constantine. This is now known to be an error. The religiously ambiguous Constantine was baptized in Northwest Turkey just before he died in 337, two years after Sylvester had passed. Saint Sylvester was buried near the Catacombs of Saint Priscilla. His remains were transferred in the eighth century to a church in the heart of Rome named in his honor, San Silvestro in Capite, where his stone cathedra, or papal throne, can still be seen and his remains still venerated. San Silvestro in Capite was built over the rubble of a pagan temple dedicated to the unconquered sun (sol invictus). It was precisely this Roman god whom Constantine abandoned when he accepted Jesus Christ. And it was the sun god of Egypt who was originally honored by the Lateran obelisk. A cross now crowns the obelisk. Rome's massive Corpus Christi procession begins every year at the Lateran Basilica near the obelisk. No more pharaohs. No more emperors. No more sun gods. A new leader carries God in his hands, and His blessed people follow in solemn procession. Saint Sylvester, give to our Holy Father a measure of your steadiness and courage in guiding a people from false to true belief, from darkness to light, and from chains to freedom. Help our Pope to sanctify, shepherd, and govern well in an often hostile atmosphere.
December 29: Saint Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr c. 1119–1170 Optional Memorial; Liturgical color: Red Patron Saint of the clergy Murder in the Cathedral! Four knights hustled down the nave of England's Canterbury Cathedral, weighed down with tackle, and found the church's strong man. Eyes narrowed. Teeth clenched. Hard words were spit back and forth. Tempers. A tussle. Then the four knights brutishly struck down Thomas Becket, his blood defiling the sanctuary. People quickly flooded the Cathedral, but no one touched the dead body, none even dared go near it. The news blew like an ill wind through all of Europe. The December spilling of an Archbishop's blood in his own Metropolitan Cathedral, a sin joining martyrdom with sacrilege, was perhaps the most stunning deed of the High Middle Ages. Our saint referred to himself as “Thomas of London” and said his enemies alone styled him “Becket.” He was not of noble blood and rose in the Church primarily through the patronage of an admiring Archbishop, who dispatched Thomas to Rome several times on sensitive Church-Sate missions. Thomas was appointed Chancellor by English King Henry II, cementing their warm, personal bond. Perhaps hoping friendship had softened Thomas' resistance to the royal will, the King proposed his friend as Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the English Church. The decision was ratified by the Pope, so Thomas, who had remained a Deacon until that point, was quickly ordained a priest and then consecrated a bishop. But his appointment to high ecclesial office poisoned Thomas' friendship with Henry II, led to years of exile, and ultimately drove those four determined knights through the doors of Canterbury Cathedral. Thomas Becket was a complex man in whose soul formidable virtues swirled as one with powerful vices. He was volatile, easily provoked, and vain. He relished the magnificence of his high status and travelled with a personal retinue of two hundred servants, knights, musicians, and falconers. He fought for England on the battlefield, engaging in hand-to-hand combat while vested in chain mail. But Thomas also fasted, endured severe penances, prayed devoutly, was generous with the poor, and lived a life of purity. Being ordained a bishop helped to cool his temper, abate his pride, and refine his coarser traits. England's two strongest men were destined to clash over their exclusive loyalties to Holy Church and Holy Realm. In 1164 King Henry II demanded significant concessions from England's bishops: the abolishing of ecclesiastical courts, no appeals to Rome without the King's approval, and no excommunication of landholders without the Crown's consent. The King also imposed higher taxes on the Church and curtailed priest's rights. Thomas was aghast at the demands of his former friend and resisted the Crown's demands at every step. The wick was now lit, and the flame slowly burned its way toward the explosive murder in the Cathedral. In reaction to the King's overreach, Thomas fled to France, met with the Pope, resigned, fretted, was reinstated, and waited. The struggle between State power and Church freedom dragged on for six years as various complex intrigues played themselves out. Thomas finally returned to England on December 1, 1170, to an admixture of hostility and joy. He would not live to the end of the month, and he knew it. In a fit of incandescent rage, King Henry II asked to be rid of Thomas, vague words taken to their most violent extreme by the four killers. When they rushed into the sanctuary, the knights shouted, “Where is Thomas the traitor?” Thomas replied, “Here I am, no traitor, but Archbishop and priest of God.” Thomas' brains were soon washed over the floor. King Henry II did public penance, the Knights sought forgiveness from the Pope himself, and Becket was rapidly canonized. Saint Thomas Becket's ornate tomb became a place of pilgrimage for centuries, until it was desecrated by a later King Henry, the eighth of that name, in 1538, when royal spasms once again brought violent blows down on the Church. Saint Thomas Becket, your last few heroic minutes on earth made you a saint. Help all bishops, priests, and deacons to emulate your manly virtues in standing strong for the Church in season and out of season, whatever the cost, their whole life long.
December 28: The Holy Innocents, Martyrs c. 1 A.D. Feast; Fourth day in the Octave of Christmas; Liturgical Color: Red Patron Saints of babies No one is less deserving of death than a baby Herod the Great was not great. He was evil. Herod the Sociopath, or Herod the Devil, would be more accurate titles. Herod murdered his own wife and preserved her corpse in honey. He had two of his own sons strangled to death. He routinely liquidated anyone suspected of disloyalty. He had a harem of five hundred women, a brood of illegitimate children, and a taste for the pages who served in his palace. The Roman Emperor Augustus, Herod's patron, stood in awe of his bloodthirst. A contemporary historian wrote that Herod was “a man of great barbarity toward everyone.” Herod was simply the most ruthless king of his time. It was this Herod whose son beheaded John the Baptist. It was this Herod who frightened Joseph and Mary to flee into Egypt. It was this Herod whose fury would have hung each of the three wise men from a beam if they had not been warned by an angel to return home by another route. And it was this Herod whose savagery is commemorated today, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. He ordered the slaughter of numerous male babies in and around Bethlehem in the hope of eliminating just one. Weighed on Herod's distorted moral scales, many deaths were worth one cancelled threat. In the Old Testament, Pharaoh ordered the drowning of all Jewish baby boys in a desire to suppress the Israelite population and a possible threat to his rule (Exodus 1:22). As they grew to manhood, both Moses and Christ surely were made aware of the hard sacrifices others had endured so that they could live and fulfill God's plan of liberation for their people. Moses and Christ are united by the twin effort of harsh rulers to snuff out their lives like a candle. Moses also stands at Christ's side at the Transfiguration, which evokes Moses' own transformational encounter with God at the burning bush. In many ways, then, Christ is a new Moses, the fulfillment of Moses' prophecy that God would raise up a prophet like himself to speak all that the Lord commanded (Deuteronomy 18:15–19). Today's innocents are considered the first martyrs of the Church, although it is more precise to say that they died instead of Christ rather than for Him. In both Scripture and secular history, innocents die so that the hero survives to achieve his mission. We can only imagine mothers' faces creased with pain and fathers' eyes filled with horror as their babies were forcibly torn from their arms, never to be returned to the soft cradle of family life. Many of these Innocents never bounced on grandma's knee, took a wobbly first step toward their mother's open arms, or built castles in the sand. There is a more bitter sadness in the unknown of every “might have been” than in any “had and lost.” In dying so that Another might live, the Holy Innocents were other Christs. The fruits of many martyrs' sacrifices are harvested long after their deaths, and today is no exception. Perhaps the Holy Innocents are very close to the altar of God in heaven right now. Perhaps they were the first to welcome Christ to His throne at His Ascension into heaven. Perhaps these first buds of Christian martyrdom flowered into adults in heaven. It is a truism of justice that it is better for nine guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be punished. No one is more innocent than a baby. Yet these babies died in the ultimate hate crime so that their own redemption could be accomplished. Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, you died unnamed at the hands of a madman. May your pristine souls, washed in blood, give hope to all who suffer unjustly, that one day their sacrifice will be rewarded with triumph, if not for themselves, then for those who follow.
December 27: Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist c. Early First Century–c. 100 Feast; Third day in the Octave of Christmas; Liturgical Color: White Patron Saint of authors, loyalty, and friendship Outside of Christianity, few people believe God is love Saint Jerome, while living in Palestine in the late 300s, relates a touching anecdote still being told at that time about John the Evangelist. When John was old and feeble, Jerome recounts, and no longer able to walk or preach, he would be carried among the faithful in church and would repeat only one thing over and over again: “My little children, love one another.” Saint Polycarp, through Saint Irenaeus, tells us that Saint John's long life ended peacefully in Ephesus about 100 A.D. John was the only Apostle not to die a martyr. John's old age in Ephesus was a long way from where his life began on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Young John was sitting in his boat mending his nets alongside his brother James when an enigmatic but straight-talking teacher who lived in nearby Capernaum (Mt 4:13) walked by. Jesus saw the brothers on the water and challenged them to follow Him and become fishers of men (Mt 4:21–22). John and his brother said “Yes.” Their immediate and generous response put them at the red hot center of a movement which would change the world. From that decisive moment onward, John was at Christ's side in the quiet times and in the momentous times. Text BoxA picture containing building, window, large, womanDescription automatically generatedPeter, James, and John were the select Three inside of the Twelve. John saw Christ transfigured on Mount Tabor and wondered at what it meant. He leaned against Jesus at the Last Supper and stood under His drooping body at the foot of the cross. John was the first to reach the empty tomb on the first Easter Sunday, though he deferred to age and authority and let Peter enter the tomb first. John sees the resurrected Jesus in the upper room and then back where it all began, at the Sea of Galilee. John perseveres despite persecution, even the religiously inspired murder of his brother. John likely accompanied the Virgin Mary to Ephesus, where both shared their memories and tender faith with the Christian community there over the decades and years. John's Gospel is stylistically distinct from those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He likely wrote it in his old age. Perhaps many calm years mellowed the Gospel's tone, allowing John to draw out God's pure love more than His fight. John's Gospel, his letters, and his Book of Revelation soar. They offer a high theology of Christ, a supernatural, often mystical vision of Christ's role in salvation. John is the Apostle who best conveys God's love. It is a commonplace to say that God is love. It is also commonplace to say that any further description of God complicates His simplicity and leads to arguments, division, and violence. Yet the Christian attestation that “God is love” is like a flag snapping in the wind at the summit of a mountain of thought—complicated and nuanced theological and philosophical thought. The simplest thing we can say about God is tied to the most complex thing we can say about God. It took centuries of hard climbing to plant that flag of love at the summit. To say God is love implies a wealth of supportive truths. The harshness and apparent injustice of life does not naturally lead to the conclusion that God is love, and no one said that God was love before Christians said it. For many, God was, and is, a master, a warrior, a hero, an oak, a waterfall, or a sunrise. God was a growling earthquake, a mighty storm, a tidal wave that drowned the new colony. God took vengeance for sins and flooded the earth when the people disobeyed. He was like a hunter on the prowl, his bow arched with arrow ready to fly. Reading the history of man and experiencing daily life, it is in no way clear that God is love. We have to be told this. We have to see this. We have to experience this. And the Church tells us and shows us this constantly. That many people the world over instinctively think that God is love is a triumph of the Church and of Saint John the Evangelist. To say this and to think this is to break one's lance against the brick wall of daily life. But it is also to say the truth, a received truth. God loves Himself in the Holy Trinity first, and then that loves radiates outward to all of us. Without knowing that, we cannot know the rest. Saint John the Evangelist, you wrote of God's love for you, Christ's Beloved Disciple. Through your intercession in heaven, inspire all writers and evangelists to convey God's goodness and love, so that the entire world knows that there is one person, a divine person, who cares.
December 26: Saint Stephen, Martyr c. Early First Century–c. 36 Feast; Second day in the Octave of Christmas; Liturgical Color: Red Patron Saint of deacons, altar servers, stonemasons, and headaches Christ rises in indignation as the first martyr is brutalized The practical explanation for a historical event is normally the most convincing. Psychological analysis, guesswork, and overinterpreting frowns and whispers are best ignored. Why did the army invade on this day and not the next? Because they ran out of food. Why did the capital move from the plains to a new location in the hills? Because of flooding. And why did Christians branch out from Jerusalem and not remain attached to its temple? Because they were running for their lives. The stoning of today's saint boiled over into an anti-Christian fever on the streets of Jerusalem. Christians were hunted down, imprisoned, or killed. The very day Stephen was martyred, “a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria...Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (Acts 8:1–3). So while Jesus told his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19), early Christianity began to spread for a very practical reason—Stephen's murder. His co-religionists, especially Greek-speaking former Jews like Stephen, fled to nearby lands. And thus fresh, baby-faced Christianity was lifted out of its cradle for the first time and carried out of Jerusalem. Stephen is described as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit”(Acts 6:5) who is one of the first seven deacons of the Church, ordained into Holy Orders by the very hands of the Apostles to assist them in their priestly ministry. Stephen was “full of grace and power” and performed “great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). But his success provoked jealousy and hatred among his former fellow Jews, who slandered and distorted his words so grievously that Stephen was arrested by the Sanhedrin. What the Jewish leaders could not accomplish by argument, they would accomplish by force. Stephen gave a long and impassioned speech to the Jewish Council explaining how his belief in Christ fulfilled God's plans for the Jews as foretold by Abraham and Moses and as embodied in Solomon's temple. As Stephen's words poured out, they spilled like fuel on his enemies' burning rage. Text BoxWhen Stephen called them Christ's “betrayers and murderers,” the Jewish leaders “became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen” (Acts 7:52–54). Stephen then “gazed into heaven and saw...Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). The Lord whom the Creed describes as “seated at the right hand of the Father” seems indignant and rises from His throne at the injustice He sees unfolding below. Stephen is forcibly dragged out of Jerusalem and stoned to death, with the future Saint Paul a witness, if not a participant, to the brutal event. Stephen's last words were to beg forgiveness of God for his attackers. Stephen's death was not the result of a pogrom or mob violence. The Acts of the Apostles describes it as a quasi-judicial capital case presided over by Jewish authorities, perhaps in the power vacuum between Pontius Pilate leaving Palestine and the replacement governor's arrival. Devotion to the protomartyr Stephen was likely immediate, and he became an icon of Christian sacrifice throughout Roman times and beyond. Saint Paul continued viciously persecuting the Church until his conversion on the road to Damascus. But after his conversion, Saint Paul paradoxically carried out the mission of the man whose death he personally witnessed. Saint Paul brings the Gospel to the Gentiles, the non-Hebrews. Saint Paul goes to the Greeks, Stephen's own people, and to the Latin speakers of Rome. The blood of Stephen watered Paul's seed of faith. And the plant that grew from that seed gripped the soil the world over. Stephen died so that the faith could live. In this he emulated Christ Himself. Saint Stephen, may your courage, conviction, and knowledge of Scripture inspire all teachers and apologists to likewise convince through their education, through their passion, and mostly through their example of noble suffering.
December 25: The Nativity of the Lord (Christmas) c. 0 Solemnity Liturgical Color: White God robes Himself in flesh, and mission impossible begins Since the dawn of time the pages of pagan mythology filled men's imaginations to the brim with wondrous stories. Educated men who could read and write Latin and Greek, broad-minded men trained in philosophy, believed that the forests were thick with fairies, that the god of war launched thunderbolts across the sky, that a wise man carried the moon and the stars in a box, and that ravens prophesied. Some ancients wore a leather pouch around their necks stuffed with crystals to ward off evil spirits. Others bowed to the morning sun to thank that great ball of fire for rising. And then…it all ended. A tired world retreated as man's true story swept like fire over the earth. In 380 A.D. an imperial decree established the faith preached by the Apostle Peter to the Romans as the religion of the empire. Grass grew high in the Roman Forum. Weeds pushed through the cracked marble slabs of the ancient temples. Cows grazed where senators in white togas once offered incense to the god of this or the god of that. The priests walked away. Pagan altars crumbled. The vestal virgins found husbands. No one cared. Gorgeous marble was removed from abandoned temples and reused to clad Christian Basilicas in glory. Candles now burned before a new God-man hanging on a cross. Slowly, imperceptibly, God the Father's hands were molding and forming and shaping a new Christian culture—our culture. Christmas is the night the future began. When we hear now that a cow jumped over the moon, that a nocturnal fairy trades coins for teeth, or that a pot of gold sits at the end of the rainbow, we chuckle and slap our knee. The river of mythology had always run parallel to the river of philosophy. But in Christ these channels merge. In the Christian land, the river of truth flows into the river of the imagination. Ancient myths did not precisely disappear but were purified and fused with the new Christian reality. Magic and meaning formed into one beautiful, sacramental, compelling, intellectually satisfying force. Yet the Christian God became a man, not a book. And He did not come just to end mythology but in order to die. God came so close to us that we killed Him. God became man, paradoxically, so that He could cease to be God and taste death. Without this sacrifice, without this being-for-death, we would be unable to interpret nature, suffering, love, death, or war. We did nothing to merit such a generous, self-emptying God. There is nothing here but grace. At Christmas, then, we commemorate not our search for God but God's search for us. His searching and finding were His first mission. It is our duty to respond to this mission. God's search for us does not cease as December rolls over into January. Christ's voice never quiets and His steps never pause. Every day of every year He is walking at our side, waiting for our response: “Yes” or “No.” And with that “Yes” or “No,” our eternity hangs in the balance. A small God is an attractive God. Christmas is the day of days for this reason—it is easy to believe in God today. Christmas makes it simple to say “Yes” to God's plan for our lives. Yet that baby, like all babies, grows up. And as He grows, He will become more demanding and more specific in His expectations of us. And our responses to Him will become nuanced and more complex. He will be a bit harder to love and much more challenging to serve. Christ will not judge us from a crib at the end of time. When His eyes sparkle like diamonds and His voice crashes like thunder at the Last Judgment, He will be the towering Christ. So while we fall in love with the Babe in the manger, we must mature with Him as the years pass. There's a thousand ways to begin a story: “So, there I was”; “In a land far, far away”; “Once upon a time.” The Christian story starts, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about…” This wondrous beginning leads to a tragic middle and a rousing end. It is the story of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. He is born of Mary but is, more deeply, from the Father. The Christ Child is the wordless Word who begins His daring mission in all humility. He beckons us closer to the crib for a moment, but many stay at His side their entire lives. We stay because we have real questions that demand real answers that can be found nowhere else except in the Church. While all other stories fade, the Christ story becomes more and more true as we mature. This story alone gives meaning to death, purpose to suffering, cause for joy, and consolation to the broken. This story alone rises above any one culture, city, language, or nation. Its plot is everyone's drama, its heartbreak everyone's sorrow, and its victory everyone's prize. This is the story of Jesus Christ, and this story begins today. Christ in the manger, Your humble coming as man fills us with hope that our lives matter, that God is truly with us, and that we are never alone, even in death. You shared our human nature in every way but sin, and so give us hope that we will one day share life in heaven with You.
December 23: Saint John of Kanty, Priest 1390–1473 Optional Memorial; Liturgical color: Violet Patron Saint of Poland and Lithuania Humility, austerity, work, and intelligence unite in one man Conquering generals returning home from the rim of the Empire were awarded triumphal parades through Rome's crowded masses. The booty of war entered the city first on carts—gold plate, silver goblets, piles of aromatic spices—then came the exotic animals, the caged prisoners of war, and row after row of legionaries. Finally, the victorious general split the crowd in a chariot pulled by two white horses. Slaves waving huge plumes fanned the emperor while another slave stood behind him, continually whispering in his ear: “Thus passes the glory of the world” or “Remember you are a mere mortal.” Tertullian, a North African Christian, specifically cites this triumphal custom: “...amid the honours of a triumph, (the emperor) sits on that lofty chariot, and he is reminded that he is only human. A voice at his back keeps whispering in his ear, ‘Look behind thee; remember thou art but a man'” (Apologies Chpt. 33). Today's saint needed no such professional whisperers. Nature spoke loudly into one ear and Christ into the other, reminding him of life's fleeting nature, that the “here and now” must one day cede to the “there and then.” John of Kanty (or John Cantius) was impressively unimpressed with all that the world had to offer. Saint John's prodigious intellectual gifts could have garnished his life with a fair share of the world's riches, if he had desired them. But the only glory Saint John sought was knowledge of God, the hard floor he slept on every night, and the hunger that seasoned what little food he ate. Saint John was a gifted student at Poland's University of Krakow, who after priestly ordination became a professor of philosophy, theology, and Scripture there. Apart from a few year's interlude serving in a parish, he spent all of his adult life as a professor. John gave to the poor until he deprived himself of life's necessities. When he walked on pilgrimage to Rome, he carried his meager sack on his own back. His cassock was threadbare, he did not eat meat, and his personal sweetness and patience made his impressive theological knowledge even more impactful. He dismissed the concerns of friends that his punishing austerities would damage his health by invoking the example of Egypt's long-lived desert fathers, whose gaunt frames were draped in skin as cracked and dry as the desert itself. John's virtuous life proves the mutually reinforcing character of poverty and celibacy. Once a priest abandons his vow of poverty or simplicity and begins leading a bourgeoisie life of comfort, he risks abandoning his vow of celibacy too. He starts to imperceptibly drift downriver from where he first entered the stream of his vocation, until it's too late, and he is swept over the falls into the sea of mere bachelorhood. From an external perspective, Saint John lived a mundane, predictable existence. It is in keeping with his personal history that he is one of the most obscure saints on the Church's liturgical calendar. His life was like a flat plain, without great events jutting up like mountains from the even, everyday terrain. Saint John was a humble scholar who sought no legacy through wealth, fame, property, marriage, or offspring. Such goods were arrows that glanced off his spiritual armor. He did not want to cheat death by colluding with the desires of his fallen nature. His mind, his body, and his life would serve no one and nothing except Christ and His Church. Such a serious, mortified life is not for the many, but a few are indeed called to live it. After his death, John's holiness and academic excellence were so highly esteemed that his doctoral gown was long placed on the shoulders of the University of Krakow's doctoral graduates to ceremoniously vest them. On a pilgrimage to Krakow in 1997, Saint John's countryman, Pope Saint John Paul II, prayed at his tomb, noting that his fellow Krakovian's life exemplified what emerges when “knowledge and wisdom seek a covenant with holiness.” Saint John of Kanty, we ask your heavenly intercession to infuse the virtues of poverty, chastity, and perseverance in all students of higher education, that they may be diligent in furthering their knowledge of all things sacred and mundane for God's glory and their own sanctification.
December 21: Saint Peter Canisius, Priest and Doctor 1521–1597 Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: Violet Patron Saint of Germany A zealous Jesuit is the tip of the Counter-Reformation spear The deep impact of today's saint so shook Germany that the reverberations of his work were still being felt centuries after his death. Saint Peter Canisius composed question and answer German-language catechisms for every educational level. These catechisms were clear, scriptural, and of the purest doctrine. Hundreds of editions were printed during his own lifetime and for centuries afterwards. Pope Benedict XVI, a German, said that in his father's generation in the last half of the nineteenth century, a catechism in Germany was still known simply as “the Canisius.” This was three hundred years after Peter Canisius had died! If Saint Boniface was the Apostle of Germany in the eighth century, then Saint Peter Canisius was the Catechist of Germany in the sixteenth. Peter Canisius was born in the Netherlands and attended the University of Cologne. During his studies, he prayed at a Carthusian monastery and came to know one of the very first Jesuits. After a period of discernment, he joined the Society of Jesus. He was ordained a priest in 1546 and just one year later participated in a session of the Council of Trent in the employ of a German bishop. Soon after this experience at the highest level of Church life, Peter was sent by Saint Ignatius of Loyola to teach at a minor Jesuit college, a test of Peter's obedience. This ministry was short-lived, as Peter's erudition and skills were destined to have a wider scope. Peter was a working, teaching, preaching scholar who did all things well. He edited the works of Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Pope Saint Leo the Great, and Saint Jerome. He wrote over eight thousand pages of letters to people of every rank of society. His refinements of his popular catechisms never ceased, and he worked for years with other scholars to compose a work on Church history to counter a popular Protestant history book which twisted the truth of Catholicism's role in European history. Peter's life was spent crisscrossing Central Europe in an era fraught with religious tension. The concussive force of the Protestant Reformation stunned the cerebellum of Central Europe for decades. Shock, confusion, and violence spread outward from Germany in wave after confusing wave. Peter and many others slowly helped Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Bohemia to recover their mental health and to remain true to their historic Catholic identity. Peter was in Vienna, where the people and princes wanted him to stay and be their bishop. But Saint Ignatius, his superior, said no, Peter's skills were needed elsewhere. Then Peter was in Prague, starting Jesuit colleges, preaching to empty churches and, in the end, winning the day. Then Peter was in Bavaria, then Switzerland, and then Poland. His zeal, learning, and holiness were self-evident. He held blameless the majority of Protestants, who were such out of ignorance or apathy. He reserved his rare invective only for the heresiarchs themselves, and for other intellectuals who should have known better. He distinguished between those who were willful apostates and those who were the victims of circumstances. Peter Canisius was a perpetual storm who rained down knowledge, apologetics, books, sermons, and letters over all of Central Europe. He brought calm and moderation to a violent, fevered time. One biographer estimates Peter traveled twenty thousand miles on foot and horseback over a period of thirty years to further his apostolic labors. Peter Canisius was canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church on the same day in 1925. Saint Peter, God raised you up at the right time to save the faith in Central Europe. Your even temper, broad knowledge, life of prayer, and personal virtue brought lost sheep back into the fold. From heaven, help all priests, deacons, and teachers to do the same.
December 14: Saint John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor 1542–1591 Memorial; Liturgical Color: White Patron Saint of contemplatives, mystics, and Spanish poets A priest's love of God is purified by the blue flames of contemplation and mistreatment The Protestant Reformation sparked a purifying fire in the Catholic Church. Like a prairie fire scorches the thick grasses, thistle, and weeds, so the heat of the Counter-Reformation moved over the land, scorching the thicket of devotions, pious customs, and theological miscellania that had snagged and obscured the Church's purest growth. Besides the universal reforms of the Council of Trent, men and women such as Saint John of the Cross were integral regional players in the Catholic Counter-Reformation. This movement stripped even mighty dioceses and religious orders of all padding, of all unnecessary raiment, and then built up a lean and muscular Body of Christ that moved with purpose and vigor for the next four centuries. But for many purifiers, including Saint John of the Cross, the price of such reform was steep and personal. Needed changes to his beloved Carmelites would mean the disruption of comfortable patterns of life. John's ideas had enemies, and for his efforts he suffered exile, hunger, public lashings, imprisonment, and defamation from the hands of his own fellow Carmelites! Saint John was born into poverty and so was no stranger to need. He was raised by his mother and the Church after his father died at a young age. These two mothers imparted to his mind a solid formation in Catholic doctrine and to his soul an ardent love for the Lord Jesus. John was ordained a priest for the Carmelites in 1567. He loved solitude and contemplation and so considered entering the strictest of Orders, the Carthusians. But holy people cross paths, and a chance meeting with Saint Teresa of Ávila redirected John's vocation. Teresa's combination of charm, intelligence, and drive were difficult to resist, and John fared no better than most. He quickly joined her project to recapture the original purity of the Carmelite Order. Many customs had attached themselves to the Order over time like barnacles on a ship. Now was the moment to scrape off the barnacles. John set out to found new, reformed Carmelite houses and to reinvigorate existing ones. The reforms John and Teresa implemented were practical. The monks and nuns were to spend more hours chanting the breviary in common, to do more spiritual reading, to spend more hours in silence, to practice contemplative prayer, to abstain completely from meat and to endure longer, more radical fasts. The reformed Carmelites eventually became known after their most noticeable change. They strictly adhered to the Carmelite Rule's original prohibition against wearing shoes. So by the time they were canonically established as their own Order, distinct from the historic Carmelites, they were called the Discalced, or Shoeless, Carmelites. Saint John spent his life traveling throughout Central and Southern Spain carrying out an intense priestly ministry all while living a recollected life which his own contemporaries recognized as saintly. He was a chaplain to convents, a spiritual director to university colleges, a confessor, a preacher, a founder and a superior of monasteries. And, most distinctively, he was a contemplative who wrote with elegance and artistic flourish about falling in love with God. His Dark Night of the Soul, Spiritual Canticle, Ascent of Mount Carmel, and Living Flame of Love are, on their surface, poetic masterpieces of the Spanish language. At a deeper level, they each describe, in surprising detail and through various biblical metaphors, the soul's search for Christ and its joy in finding Him, or its pain in losing Him. For John, being authentic was not a spirituality. Being bonded to Christ was. To see through material forms into God's inner life, to contemplate God in His very nature, was prayer. The soul seeks God like the bride seeks her bridegroom. And the Bridegroom did more than manifest an image, He manifested reality. The Church is both mother and bride, and her faithful learn of Christ, and seek Him, only inside of her life. Saint John of the Cross deepened the word “mystery” to include more than its objective meaning in the Sacraments. For John, every soul had a mysterious union with God that had to be, and only could be, cultivated in silent contemplation. Saint John of the Cross, your life of prayer was deepened by your life of suffering for the good of your Order. Through your writings on the mystery of God, may we come to love Him, if not understand Him, all the more.
December 13: Saint Lucy, Virgin and Martyr c. Late third century–304 Memorial; Liturgical Color: Red Patron Saint of virgins, the blind, and Syracuse, Sicily A garden enclosed, no man would lock her in his embrace Today's saint is one of only eight women (Mary included) commemorated in Eucharistic Prayer I: “Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all the Saints…” It was Pope Saint Gregory the Great (590–604), familiar with the Christian traditions of Sicily through his family, who inserted the names of the Sicilian virgin martyrs, Agatha and Lucy, into the Roman Canon. There is no doubt that an ancient cult to a woman named Lucy is connected with the city of Syracuse, Sicily, and that this devotion spread throughout Europe in the fourth through sixth centuries. Beyond that, however, there is no near-contemporary historical record verifying any facts of Lucy's life or death. It is the preservation of her name in the Mass, more than anything else, which has secured Lucy's place in the Catholic tradition. Saint Lucy was killed during the Diocletian persecution in the early fourth century. Legends long post-dating her death state that Lucy was doomed to execution after a disgruntled pagan admirer exposed her as a Christian. A gruesome medieval addition holds that Lucy gouged out her own eyes prior to her execution to deter a suitor who delighted in their beauty. Another tradition states that Lucy could not be dragged to her execution site even by a team of oxen, so the guards piled wood all around her to devour her flesh with flames—but the kindling refused to ignite! Frustrated, one of the soldiers then thrust his sharp sword deep into her throat, bringing her brief life to a grisly end. It is likely that since Lucy was born to Christian parents, she went on pilgrimage as a child to the shrine of Saint Agatha, a fellow Sicilian, in nearby Catania. Perhaps the witness of the virgin martyr Agatha, who perished about fifty years prior to Lucy's time, inspired little Lucy to be similarly heroic when her own hour came. One legend states that Agatha appeared to Lucy in a dream, telling her that one day she, Lucy, would be the glory of Syracuse. For over a millennium, Lucy's Feast Day of December 13 fell very close to the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. But the Gregorian calendar reform of 1582 corrected a ten-day drift between the calendar and scientific reality, leaving December 13 now eight days before the Solstice. Lucy's symbolic resonance as a source of light in a dark season persists, despite the calendar correction distancing her feast day from winter's blackest hour. Somewhat curiously, Sweden's long-dormant Catholic heritage reasserts itself on December 13, a long winter night when Swedes gladly celebrate a saint whose Latin name evokes light and purity. As the age of martyrdom waned with Christianity's legalization, the untouched body of the virgin, not a bloody death, became the most potent expression of Christian sacrifice. The virgin's body was the untouched desert. It bore the wax seal of the soul's original, untarnished perfection and was a precious gift blessed by Christ. The intact flesh of all celibates, virgins, and continent men and women stood out as oases of freedom in a world otherwise enslaved by carnal desire. Virgins such as Lucy were the pride of the early Church, the unplucked harps whose self-control was a cause of wonder to the broader pagan society. The virgin's uncorrupted body was like a human votive candle, its pure flame burning through the long night of the world until Christ slowly dawned over the horizon at His Second Coming. That such a refined blue flame was so abruptly blown out by the executioner's breath was shocking and memorable. We remember it still today. Saint Lucy, you died young and innocent, unfamiliar with the world save for its savagery. May your double martyrdom, to the flesh and to life itself, inspire all youth to see Christ and His promises as worth sacrificing to attain.
December 12: Our Lady of Guadalupe (U.S.A.) 1531 Feast; Liturgical Color: White Patroness of the Americas A miracle hangs, frozen in time, in Mexico City The humble Indian Juan Diego and his wife, Maria Lucia, had accepted baptism from the Franciscan missionaries laboring in Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), the greatest city of Spain's most impressive colony, the future Mexico. After his wife died in 1529, Juan moved to the home of his Christian uncle, Juan Bernardino, on the outskirts of Mexico City. On Saturday, December 9, 1531, Juan Diego arose very early to walk to Mass. It was a quiet, peaceful morning. As he walked by the base of a hill called Tepeyac, Juan heard the gentle singing of many birds. He looked up. On the top of the hill was a radiant white cloud encircling a beautiful young woman. Juan was confused. Was this a dream? Then the gentle, bird-like singing ceased, and the mysterious young woman spoke directly to him: “Juanito, Juan Dieguito!...I am the perfect and always Virgin Mary, Mother of the True God.” Mary went on to say many beautiful things to Juan, concluding with her desire that a church be built in her honor on that very hill of Tepeyac. The Virgin Mary, a faithful Catholic, placed herself under obedience to the local bishop. She would not build the shrine herself or work directly with the nearby faithful. She required the bishop's cooperation and support, and so told Juan, “...go now to the bishop in Mexico City and tell him that I am sending you to make known to him the great desire that I have to see a church dedicated to me built here.” There followed meetings with the good but incredulous Bishop Zumárraga, more brief apparitions, and more drama until matters culminated on Tuesday, December 12, 1531. Juan was waiting patiently in the Bishop's parlour for hours. The Bishop's aids wished he would just go away. But Juan carried a secret gift for the Bishop in his coarse poncho. It was stuffed full of fragrant Castilian roses. Juan had gathered them from Tepeyac despite the cold December weather. Mary had told Juan to present the roses to the Bishop as a sign. After a long wait, Juan was finally brought into the presence of His Excellency. He recounted his conversations with Mary and then proudly unfurled his poncho. The fresh and dewy roses fell gracefully to the floor. Juan was content. But there was a gift within the gift. There was more than gorgeous roses. Everyone in the room fell to their knees in wonder. Juan was the last to see it. A gentle image of the Virgin Mary was impressed on Juan's poncho. Could it be? Who could have possibly… It was a miracle! The Bishop immediately took possession of the poncho and placed it in his private chapel. Events now moved quickly. The miraculous image was put in the Cathedral. It was then brought in holy procession to a quickly built shrine on Tepeyac. Then there were more and more miracles. Then there were more and more pilgrims. Mary is the woman who, under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe, spoke with Juan on the Hill of Tepeyac. Our Lady of Guadalupe is the woman whose image is impressed upon Juan's poncho. And it is that very same poncho which hangs to this day in the shrine built for and at the request of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The miracle first unfurled in the Bishop's office in 1531 has been frozen in time. It is perpetually 1531 in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Everyone who gazes on the image stands in the shoes of Bishop Zumárraga. The image teems with mysterious symbols and meanings. The wholesale conversion of the tribes of old Mexico, a missionary effort that until 1531 had been a struggle, was directly attributable to Mary's miraculous intercession. It was the greatest and most rapid conversion of a people in the history of the Church. It is Mary to whom we turn on this feast. She made herself a humble, indigenous, local, expectant mother to bring a good but pagan people into the embrace of her Son and His Holy Church. She models the precious gift of life and the costs required to protect it from harm. Our Lady of Guadalupe, your miraculous image was made possible because of the humble cooperation of Saint Juan Diego. May our work in the mission fields of everyday life be as fruitful as your own. May we cooperate with you just as Juan did.
December 11: Saint Damasus I, Pope c. 305–384 Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: White Patron Saint of Archaeologists A dynamic pope mentors Jerome and embellishes catacombs Damasus reigned in the era when the popes died in their beds. The long winter of Roman oppression had ended. The arenas were empty. Christians were still occasionally martyred, but not in Rome. The many popes of the 200s who were exiled, murdered, or imprisoned were consigned to history by the late 300s. The Church was not merely legal by Damasus' time but was established, by decree, in 380 as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The slow-motion crumbling of paganism was such that Christian Senators and Pope Damasus petitioned the emperor that a prominent and famed Altar of Victory in the Senate be removed. The request was granted. No more Vestal Virgins, pagan priests reading entrails, a Pontifex Maximus, or auguries either. The Church was in the ascendancy. As Rome's military prowess deteriorated and the Eastern Empire was theologically mangled by the Arian controversy, the Bishop of Rome's importance swelled. Pope Damasus rode the first wave of these historical and religious trends. He was perhaps the first pope to rule with swagger. Damasus was of Spanish origins, and his father was likely a married priest serving in Rome's church of the martyr Saint Lawrence. Damasus was probably a deacon in that same church. He was elected Bishop of Rome in 366 but not without some controversy. A rival was aggressively supported by a violent minority who defamed Damasus, though they never removed him. Damasus cared for theology and held two synods in Rome, one of which excommunicated the Arian Bishop of Milan, making way for Saint Ambrose to later hold that see. Pope Damasus also sent legates to the First Council of Constantinople in 381, which reiterated and sharpened the language of the Creed developed at Nicea in 325. Perhaps Damasus' greatest legacy is not directly his own. He employed a talented young priest-scholar named Jerome as his personal secretary. It was Damasus who instructed Jerome to undertake his colossal, lifelong task of compiling from the original Greek and Hebrew texts a new Latin version of the Old and New Testaments to replace the poorly translated Old Latin Bibles then in use. The Vulgate, as Jerome's work is known, has been the official Bible of the Catholic Church since its completion. Description automatically generatedRome's theological ascendancy made its bishop the Empire's primary source and focus of unity. This, in turn, led to accusations, first aired in Damasus' time, that Rome's prelates lived in excessive grandeur. One pagan senator said mockingly that if he could live like a bishop he would gladly become a Christian. Similar charges would hound Rome throughout history. But Damasus strictly enforced a decree prohibiting clergy from accepting gifts from widows and orphans, and he himself lived a holy life. He restored his father's house church, now called Saint Lawrence in Damasus. The church still reflects its origins and is found inside of a larger building, just where a house church would have been located in ancient times. Pope Damasus also left a beautiful legacy in Rome's catacombs, a legacy which has only been fully appreciated due to modern archeological excavations. Damasus was very devoted to Rome's martyrs and embellished many of their tombs with brief Latin inscriptions. The papal crypt in the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus still houses the original marble slab engraved with Damasus' moving eulogy to the popes and martyrs entombed nearby. The epitaph ends with Damasus stating that although he wished to be buried in that crypt, he did not want to offend such holy remains with his presence. But Damasus composed his most tender epitaph for his own tomb: “He who walking on the sea could calm its bitter waves; He who gives life to dying seeds of the earth; He who was able to loose the mortal chains of death, and after three days' darkness could bring forth the brother for his sister Martha; He, I believe, will make Damasus rise anew from his ashes.” Damasus was clearly a Christian first and a pope second. Saint Damasus, you led the Church with a mixture of theological acumen, administrative competence, holy witness, and artistic flourish. Intercede in heaven for all who exercise headship in the Church to lead Her with attributes similar to your own.
December 10: Our Lady of Loreto Optional Memorial; Liturgical color: white Patron Saint of air crews and builders Heaven will reinforce what we know of Christ and Mary When Jesus said, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock” (Mt 7:24), He likely had a specific house in mind—His own house in Nazareth where He grew up. The footings of many of Nazareth's houses are lodged, even today, into the dense bed of rock that lies under much of the town. Ancient tradition holds that the Virgin Mary was raised in Nazareth, was visited by the Archangel Gabriel in her home there, and then lived in that same home with her husband, Joseph, and her son, Jesus. Jesus would leave Nazareth as an adult for the larger, more cosmopolitan town of Capernaum, about one day away by foot, but He was always identified with His hometown. The Holy Family's house in Nazareth has a complicated and obscure history. What is known is that the knights of the First Crusade took control of Galilee in 1099 and made Nazareth their capital. The Italian Angeli family began to reconstruct the Holy Family's house when a Muslim army won a key battle in 1187 near Nazareth, forcing all the Europeans to flee. The Angelis disassembled stones of the Holy Family's house and shipped them to Italy by way of modern-day Croatia. The stones were ultimately reconstructed in 1294–95 in their present location in Loreto, where the labors of the Angelis in bringing the stones by ship turned into the legend that “angels” had scooped up the home in Nazareth and transported it through the air to Loreto. In the succeeding centuries, the small stone house was enclosed within an elaborate marble structure within an ornate papal basilica, which became one of the most visited Marian shrines in the world. Our Lady of Loreto is the title of the statue of the blackened Virgin found in the Holy House. By the 1600s, a beautiful “Litany of Loreto” enumerating Mary's biblically rich and theologically evocative titles became a popular Catholic devotion. In October 2019, Pope Francis went on pilgrimage to Loreto and announced that December 10 would henceforward be the Optional Memorial of Our Lady of Loreto on the Church's universal calendar. The formal decree instituting the change states that the new feast "will help all people, especially families, youth and religious to imitate the virtues of the perfect disciple of the Gospel, the Virgin Mother, who, in conceiving the head of the church also accepted us as her own." The unwrapped gift of the Virgin Mary conceived the Lord amid her domestic concerns in the privacy of her family home in an insignificant hamlet. God did not spare Mary the demands He imposes on every human soul. The Christian God complicated Mary's life just as He complicates every life. God is not an electric blanket or a pacifier. In satisfying His demands, we find ourselves; in imposing demands on ourselves, we find fulfillment. For the Christian, the goal of life is not happiness but meaning. And meaning is found by acquiring virtues, by attaining holy goals, by maturing through adversity, and by self-knowledge gained through prayer, among many other pathways. The dysfunctions of modernity are often the results of fools' errands, of the search for deep meaning in hobbies, activities, clubs, sports, and occupations that, though worthy in themselves, are simply incapable of satisfying the most secret longings of the human soul. It is common to ask a pregnant woman, “What are you expecting?” Mary in the silence of her holy house was expecting the Savior, but she kept this immense secret locked inside the chamber of her heart. Perhaps Mary might ask us, with mirth, when we hopefully see her crowned in heaven, surrounded by a constellation of saints, “What were you expecting?” For the Catholic, heaven will be an intensification of what we already know. Our Lady of Loreto, we ask your intercession to intercede on behalf of all who have recourse to you. Grant us the grace to respond generously to all of God's invitations to holiness, though they may disrupt our domestic duties and life's plans.
December 9: Saint Juan Diego, Hermit 1474–1548 Optional Memorial; Liturgical color: white Patron Saint of indigenous people Mary said to Juan: "Am I not here, I who am your mother?" Good things happen to those who go to daily Mass. A very good thing happened to today's saint on his long trek to daily Mass, something so extraordinary that it permanently altered a continent. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (the “Talking Eagle”) was born near present-day Mexico City in the pre-Colombian Aztec Empire, though he belonged to the Chichimec, not the Aztec, people. At the age of fifty, Juan received baptism from a Franciscan priest, about five years after those path-breaking missionaries had first walked barefoot from coastal Veracruz into the Aztec heartland. Juan must have quickly fell in love with his newfound faith, because he visited God as one visits a sturdy friend, more than just once a week. On Saturday, December 9, 1531, Juan was walking to Mass and crossed over a small hill called Tepeyac. A mysterious woman appeared to him speaking Nahuatl, the local language. The woman quickly identified herself as the “Ever-Virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the true God” and asked Juan to approach the Bishop to petition that a shrine be built in her honor on that very hill. So the humble Juan went and knocked on the door of one of the most powerful men in the new Spanish dominion. The Bishop was solicitous but cautious and requested a sign to buttress Juan's credibility and his request. A series of events then transpired which culminated on Tuesday, December 12. On that day, Juan presented the Bishop with flowers, carefully cradled in his poncho, which Mary had directed him to collect. When Juan unfurled his poncho in the Bishop's presence, everyone saw then what everyone sees now in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City—the young, pregnant Mary of Tepeyac emblazoned, in full color, on Juan's coarse poncho. An early document holds that, after 1531, Juan Diego, whose wife had died by then, spent the rest of his days living the life of a hermit near the chapel on Tepeyac housing the miraculous image. Juan likely welcomed the first waves of pilgrims who visited the primitive shrine to pay homage to Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is difficult to imagine anyone returning to his or her everyday existence after seeing, hearing, and conversing with God, Mary, or a saint. Some experiences are “before” and “after” events, their profundity divides life into halves or portions: a divorce, a dreadful medical diagnosis, a financial collapse, a child's death, a crippling accident, or, on the positive side and much more rarely, a divine locution, an apparition, or an unmistakable spiritual intervention, all divert the straight line of a life's graph. The days between December 9 and the vigil of December 12 are a kind of Mexican Triduum, when that nation celebrates founding events which have nothing to do with legal documents. Nation-building requires more than just a constitution or the winning of a key battle. Building an enduring people requires a shared language, a common history, an undivided religious outlook, and a unity of cultural expression. If there is a source of Mexican unity, it is found in the vision of the humble servant Saint Juan Diego. Millions of pilgrims endlessly process, day after day, year after year, century after century, before the miraculous image in the most visited Marian shrine in the world. These citizens don't go to Mexico's national archives to search for words on a faded parchment, but to a shrine to gaze in wonder at a young woman imprinted vividly on rough cactus fibers. The faithful arrive on pilgrimage, often on foot, to bow their heads, to light a candle, and to pray before the permanent miracle that is a simple Indian's gift to the Church. They come to visit a person, not an idea, because a person can absorb our love and love us back. Saint Juan Diego, we ask your humble intercession in heaven to assist all those who doubt the power of God and His saints. May your example of fidelity and service inspire us to holiness as much as your miraculous tilma.
December 8: The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary c. 15 B.C. Solemnity; Liturgical Color: White Patroness of Brazil, Korea, Philippines, Spain, and the United States Only one person ever chose His own mother The Ark of the Covenant was a sumptuously adorned chest housing the Jews' most sacred objects: the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a pot of manna, and Aaron's staff. Before its disappearance, the Ark was the centerpiece of the Holy of Holies, the mysterious chamber lying behind the curtain in Jerusalem's Temple. Only the high priest dared to enter this sacred chamber. Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant. She is not a gold-encrusted trunk filled with artifacts but the flesh-and-blood person whose womb nurtured Jesus Christ. Today's feast celebrates Mary's own stainless conception, the remote preparation that formed her into that vessel of honor where the living Word first sprang to life. God prepared Mary from her first instant for this great purpose—to be the perfect edifice to carry, birth, and mother the Son of God, one to whom any taint of sin would be repugnant. Mary was conceived in the natural human way by her parents, Joachim and Anne. But God had a plan and was eager to give Mary an utterly unique gift that could not wait until her childhood or adolescence to be unwrapped. The gift of the Immaculate Conception was given contemporaneously with Mary's microscopic sparking to life. If we had the chance to choose our own mother, we would not select a selfish, disordered, mean, and sinful woman. We would lovingly accept such a mother but not deliberately choose her. God could choose His own mother, though, and so logically chose a perfect one. As the author of creation, He crafted a pristine soul incapable of sin or moral disorder. Alone among all creation, Mary reaped the spiritual rewards of her Son's resurrection before its historical occurrence, saving her from death and bodily corruption, sin's cruelest punishments. Mary was simply flooded with God's grace in her very origins and has never ceased to be united with Him after that. When she is just a fetus, a woman has as many eggs as she will ever have. The ovaries of a female fetus are saturated with eggs whose numbers will only decrease over time. So half of the genetic material necessary to form an embryo has waited, latent, inside of that embryo's mother since the time that mother was herself in utero. The unbroken chain of human life is unfathomably beautiful. Grandmother, mother, and grandchild are, in a certain sense, bound together, united, in every woman expecting a daughter. When Mary was conceived in the womb of Saint Anne, then, the DNA of Jesus of Nazareth was already present in the embryonic Mary. This is a biological fact, not a statement of faith. At the Annunciation, when Mary miraculously conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, that “Lord and Giver of Life”spoke through the words of the Archangel Gabriel and sparked Christ to first stir with humanity deep inside the body where His genes had long been waiting. Everything new is experienced as a miracle—a new dawn, a new baby, a new house, a new marriage. The Immaculate Conception is celebrated with the greatest solemnity around the world because it commemorates a new, pivotal moment. In Saint Anne, God was readying the fairest flower of Israel, her most modest daughter and humble rose, for Himself. Mary's virtues of humility and obedience would straighten the path twisted by Eve's sins of pride and disobedience. By God's own choice, Mary alone would escape the grip of Adam's sin. She would be the New Eve, that Spiritual Vessel, House of Gold, and Morning Star whose Immaculate Conception was the first flicker of a greater Light to come. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, may your purity, virtue, and obedience be a perennial model for all the faithful of the humble and narrow pathways which alone lead to God. Be at our side to encourage and inspire us as we try to be ever nearer to your Son, Jesus.