Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Kingdom of God: Thanksgiving, English Martyrs, and Ferguson

I, John, saw in heaven another sign, great and awe-inspiring:
seven angels with the seven last plagues,
for through them God’s fury is accomplished.

Then I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire.
On the sea of glass were standing those
who had won the victory over the beast
and its image and the number that signified its name.
They were holding God’s harps,
and they sang the song of Moses, the servant of God,
and the song of the Lamb:

“Great and wonderful are your works,
Lord God almighty.”
—Revelation 15:1-3b

In these final days of the Church Year, the daily Readings present images of plagues, persecution, and parousia. They certainly stand in stark contrast with the festive Thanksgiving spirit that we try to claim as a nation, even as families hurry through their holiday meals to rush out for Black Friday deals… on Thanksgiving.  

The mix of the end-of-times language and imagery presented by our liturgy and the abundance of Thanksgiving reflects the very real tensions that exist in each of our lives. We have much to be grateful for, but we live in an imperfect, often unjust world. But the imperfection and injustice are not the end of our story. We have hope in a God who is always guiding history and who has given each of us a role to play in the salvation of the world. 

November 26 marks the anniversary of the execution of two English martyrs: Blessed Hugh Taylor and Blessed Marmaduke Bowes. Little is known of these two men, who were beatified with 83 other martyrs from England, Scotland, and Wales in 1987. But, as I was reflecting on these two holy men, I was struck by how their witness captures the tensions of this time of year, especially in these days when so many in America are protesting unjust systems and government processes. 

Hugh Taylor, a priest, had been born in Durham, England, around the year 1559. Because of the deadly persecution of English Catholics under King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, he had studied for the priesthood at the English seminary in Reims, France. Ordained in 1584, he was immediately sent to work in secret among England’s recusant Catholics. 

Little more than a year later, he encountered Marmaduke Bowes. Bowes was a husband and father who had outwardly conformed to the laws that demanded that English Christians take part in the services of the government-sanctioned Church of England. It is unclear if Father Taylor had actually stayed in Bowes home, or if he had simply been given a drink at the door. 

A short time later, Taylor was arrested and, upon hearing the news, Bowes went to York to see if there was something he could do to help free the priest. As a result of his efforts, he too was thrown into prison. Together, Taylor and Bowes were hanged, drawn, and quartered in York on November 26, 1585. They were the first to lose their lives under the newly passed “Act Against Jesuits, Seminary Priests and Other Suchlike Disobedient Subjects.” This law made it high treason for any priest ordained since the first day of Elizabeth’s reign to return to or remain in England and Wales, and for anyone to harbor or help such a priest.
"Christ in Majesty"
Stained glass window by John Piper
St. John's Hospital, Litchfield, UK

When I think about those Christians who have lived during times of persecution, I often wonder if they thought of passages like those chosen for the end of the Church Year. In the Gospel for today (Wednesday of the 34th Week of Ordinary Time), we hear Jesus warning his disciples of coming persecution, but also assuring them: “You are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute… they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

For those Christians, the dark days they lived through may have seemed to be the end of time—just like many people we know might compare the disturbing images in Scripture with terrible things happening in the world today. But, we often forget that the harsh images used in Jesus’ teachings and texts like the one from Revelation quoted above were originally intended to build up the suffering believers’ hope and trust in God’s ultimate triumph. God was with them, regardless of what they were experiencing. (And, of course, we can also think of those Christians who are suffering for their faith today, especially in the Middle East.)

As Sr. Katherine Howard, O.S.B., observed in a reflection on these readings: “Our world, our neighborhoods, and our own lives confront us with many deeply troubling events. People suffer oppression and violence, as does the earth and sea and all their creatures. Our faith, hope, and love are tested. The good news is that God’s reign of justice and love will triumph in Christ who is with us and in us bringing ‘the divine work to fruitful completion,’ as we pray in today’s Collect. Our part is to stay faithful in prayer and to live in such a way as to make this a reality” (from Give Us This Day, November 2014). 

We can look to the great saints of the past for inspiration and encouragement—including Blessed Marmaduke Bowes, who, like one of the righteous in this past Sunday’s Gospel, welcomed the thirsting Christ and offered him refreshment and rest. Jesus assures us that he will always be with us and whatever challenges and trials we might be experiencing, suffering and death will never have the final say.

This is an important lesson for us this Thanksgiving, especially as we watch the tragedy of Ferguson, Missouri, continue to unfold. For the grieving families and citizens of that city—and so many like it across our nation—this Thanksgiving will be marred by the darkness of grief, loss, anger, fear, and a sense of betrayal. Only time will tell how true justice can come from this sad situation. But, like Blessed John Thayer and Blessed Marmaduke Bowes, we must also place our trust in Providence, commending all things to God’s Wisdom, while doing our part  to help make the healing power of the Kingdom of God more present in every corner of our broken world.

In a letter written days before his last missionary journey, Blessed John Mazzuconi, a priest of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (P.I.M.E.) who was martyred in 1855 on Woodlark Island in Papua New Guinea, wrote these words: “I only know one thing: that God is good and that He loves me immensely. All the rest, calm and storm, danger and security, life and death, are nothing more than momentary and changing expressions of the eternal and unchanging love.”

These reflections should remind us that we always have reasons to give thanks for all the blessings we’ve been given. Even when the world seems to be spinning out of control or when it seems the darkness will prevail, we do not have to be afraid. “The Lord has made his salvation known: in the sight of the nations he has revealed his justice… Let the sea and what fills it resound, the world and those who dwell in it; / Let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains shout with them for joy. / Before the Lord, for he comes, for he comes to rule the earth; / He will rule the world with justice and the peoples with equity” (Psalm 98:3a, 7-9).

A prayer for the end of the Church Year +
Stir up the will of your faithful, we pray, O Lord,
that, striving more eagerly
to bring your divine work to fruitful completion,
they may receive in greater measure
the healing remedies your kindness bestows.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal,
Collect for the 34th Week of Ordinary Time)


Monday, November 24, 2014

Blesseds Luigi and Maria: Holding on to What Is Good

Let love be sincere;
hate what is evil, hold on to what is good;
love one another with mutual affection;
anticipate one another in showing honor.
Romans 12:9-10

During the Entrance Procession of the opening Mass of the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family, Pope Francis stopped for a moments to pray before three reliquaries that had been placed in St. Peter’s Basilica especially for the Synod. Two of the reliquaries were quite large and decorated with detailed figures and inscriptions—these reliquaries held the remains of Saint Thèrése of the Child Jesus and her parents, Blesseds Louis and Zelie Martin. The 2008 beatification of the parents of the beloved “Little Flower” was a widely publicized event and was celebrated as a time to reflect on the holiness that is possible for married women and men. Placed alongside these ornate reliquaries, however, was a smaller, simpler one containing relics of another husband and wife who had been beatified seven years before the Louis and Zelie Martin: Blesseds Luigi and Maria Quattocchi. Like the Martins, Luigi and Maria have been held up by the Church as models for married couples.

Born in Catania, Italy, in 1880, Luigi Quattrocchi married Maria Corsini (who was born in 1881) on November 25, 1905.  Although Maria was initially the more devout of the two, she soon convinced her husband to accompany her to daily Mass. The couple eventually had four children with one son becoming a diocesan priest and the other a Trappist monk, while their elder daughter became a Benedictine nun. 
Luigi was a successful lawyer and he served as Deputy Attorney General of Italy. Maria, who was remembered for her love of education and music, volunteered with the Red Cross during the First World War and was a prominent member of Women’s Catholic Action. During the Second World War the couple opened their apartment to refugee families. 

Luigi died on November 9, 1951, and Maria followed on August 26, 1965. The couple had been married for forty-three years. As devotion to the couple began to spread among the faithful, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints decided that their causes would be considered jointly because, “It was impossible to distinguish their experience of sanctity, lived together so intimately.”  At the time of their beatification in 2001, it was decided that their commemoration would be celebrated on November 25—the anniversary of their marriage. Of their children, three were present for the ceremony, with their two sons concelebrating the Mass.

In his homily at the beatification of Blesseds Luigi and Maria, Pope Saint John Paul II declared: “Drawing on the word of God and the witness of the saints, the blessed couple lived an ordinary life in an extraordinary way. Among the joys and anxieties of a normal family, they knew how to live an extraordinarily rich spiritual life. At the center of their life was the daily Eucharist as well as devotion to the Virgin Mary, to whom they prayed every evening with the Rosary, and consultation with wise spiritual directors… The riches of faith and love of the husband and wife Luigi and Maria Beltrame Quattrocchi, are a living proof of what the Second Vatican Council said about the call of all the faithful to holiness, indicating that spouses should pursue this goal, "propriam viam sequentes—following their own way" (Lumen gentium, n. 41). Today the aspiration of the Council is fulfilled with the first beatification of a married couple: their fidelity to the Gospel and their heroic virtues were verified in their life as spouses and parents.”
A photo taken of the Blesseds Luigi and Maria
near the end of Luigi's life.
The recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family highlighted the challenges that married couples and families face in our day, including a culture that seems to place little value on permanent commitments. Luigi and Maria Quattrocchi faced the challenges of marriage and parenthood as they also fulfilled their religious and professional obligations during two world wars, the rise of fascism in Italy, and, ultimately, failing health, and the separation that comes with death. They were not cookie cutter saints and their lives serve as a powerful reminder that holiness is available to us, whatever our state of life might be. As Pope Francis reminded all of us at a recent General Audience: “Holiness is not just for bishops, priests or religious... No. We are all called to become saints! So often, we are tempted to think that holiness is granted only to those who have the opportunity to break away from the ordinary tasks, to devote themselves to prayer… Indeed, it is by living with love and offering Christian witness in our daily tasks that we are called to become saints.”

A Prayer in honor of Blessed Luigi and Maria Beltrame Quattrocchi +
Grant, we pray, almighty God,
that the example of your Saints may spur us on to a better life,
so that we, who celebrate the memory of blessed Luigi and Maria,
may also imitate without ceasing their deeds.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Living in the Kingdom

Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for years to come.
—Psalm 23:5-6

When Pope Pius XI instituted a special feast honoring Christ “the King” in 1925, he lamented a world that had been ravaged by the First World War and which had begun to bow down before the lords of exploitative consumerism, nationalism, secularism, and new forms of injustice. The old power structures in Europe and the Middle East were fading into memory (including the colonial system that allowed European nations to claim holdings in Africa, South East Asia, and South America) and a new and uncertain world was rising in their place.

Pope Pius XI opening the "Holy Door"
for the 1925 Jubilee Year,
during which he instituted
the Feast of Christ the King
It would seem that Pope Pius began to understand that, for the Christian, the passing empires and colonies did not define who or whose they were. Instead, he reflected that the kingdom to which Christians belong is “spiritual and concerned with spiritual things… it demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross” (from the Enclyclical Quas primas, 15). Pope Pius envisioned “a dominion by a King of Peace who came to reconcile all things, who came not to be served but to serve.” (20) The reign of Christ embraces all people (cf. Daniel 7:14; Revelation 5:9-10).

Although the annual celebration of the Solemnity of Christ the King on the last Sunday of Ordinary Time has been part of my life for many, many years, last year I had an opportunity to experience this celebration in a very different context: with a Protestant community celebrating “Reign of Christ” Sunday. Their celebration provided a new perspective on what Pope Pius XI intended when he created this feast and for what it can mean for all of us today.

The idea of a “king” is very foreign to most people. In fact, there are only 29 sovereign monarchs in the world today. (This number would be 30, if we include Pope Francis as the sovereign head of Vatican City.) And yet, in our communities, many of us will sing great hymns like “To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King” and “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” By limiting the focus of this feast to the kingship of Christ, we risk losing the broader view of what we are really celebrating today: our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. And the message that we hear today is that we can no longer identify simply ourselves as “American,” “Navajo,” “Italian,” “Dutch,” “Sudanese,” or “Thai.” We have been claimed by and for Christ in our baptism and our true home is in the Reign of Christ—a reality that surpasses the limits of boundaries, ethnicities, and even time itself. We are co-citizens of God’s Kingdom with all of the communion of saints.

The image of the Shepherd-King that we find repeated in the Readings for this year’s celebration of the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe give us a wonderful perspective not only on the reign of Christ, but also on our place within his Kingdom. As our shepherd, Christ claims each of us as a member of his flock.
I was struck as I reflected on this reading by the huge amount of press Pope Francis received last Holy Thursday when he reminded the Church’s pastors that they should have the smell of their sheep (after all, pastor is the Latin word for “shepherd”). But, as I reflected on this further, I realized that it isn’t just that the pastor should have the smell of the sheep… the sheep also smell like one another. Each of us, regardless of who we are, shares a common humanity and dignity. None of us can ever be separated from or placed above any other member of the human flock. That is what today’s celebration is about. We have one home and one identity—we are Christ’s and our true home is in the reign of our Shepherd-King. The celebration of the Solemnity of Christ the King is also a celebration of who we are as a people of faith, obedient to the One who rules all of creation in justice and mercy.

In a commentary on this Sunday’s celebration, Dr. John W. Martens observed:
Part of what made the shepherd-king imagery resonate is that sheep were not primarily intended for slaughter. Although sheep were food, their true economic value was found in their wool, a renewable resource. As a result, the shepherd was concerned not only to feed, care for and protect his sheep from predators but to increase his flock. So a shepherd had to know his flock intimately and had to protect the weak and the vulnerable in his flock from internal and external threats.

This intimacy with this flock is celebrated in the texts from Ezekiel and Matthew chosen for this feast. This is the reason why the Shepherd-King can also stand in judgment, separating the sheep from the goats. As we read in Matthew, the sheep will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” and the goats will be told to depart “into eternal fire.” Regardless of how we might understand words like “kingdom” and “fire,” the point is clear: those who will be rewarded are those who cared for the hungry and thirsty, who welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and cared for the sick and those imprisoned. Our Shepherd-King knows what is in the heart of each of us, including not only the times when we have lived up to our commitment as disciples, but also the times when we have failed to do the work that has been entrusted to us.  

"The Last Judgement"
in Ravenna's Basilica of Sant'Apollinaire in Classe (6th century)

In his book, The Dwelling of the Light, Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, shared these words:
To be in relation with Jesus is to be “in the truth,” even when we cannot formulate this in tidy philosophical language. And this also tells us that there is something in the being of God that is appropriately expressed in a vulnerable life, in the self-forgetfulness that brings ultimate truth to us in the limits of suffering and mortality. The nature of God is both irreducibly mysterious and completely expressed in God’s putting himself unreservedly at our disposal and our mercy in becoming embodied in human life.

The vulnerability and self-forgetfulness that Williams describes are the qualities of those who live in Christ’s Kingdom—his Reign—not in a hypothetical way or in some far-off future. Instead, the citizens of this Kingdom live lives that follow the pattern of the Shepherd who took on the “smell” of his sheep and who walked among them and who still walks among us.

As for the judgment and the time of separation…Saint Robert Bellarmine summarized all we need to know: “On the last day, when the general examination takes place, there will be no question at all on the texts of Aristotle, the aphorisms of Hippocrates, or the paragraphs of Justinian. Charity will be the whole syllabus.”

Prayer for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe +
Almighty ever-living God,
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the King of the Universe,
grant, we pray,
that the whole creation, set free from slavery,
may render your majesty service
and ceaselessly proclaim your praise.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)