Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Saint Angela Merici - Doing Something New

My paternal grandparents grew up in southeast Missouri in the decades before Great Depression (my grandfather in St. Francois County and my grandmother in Iron County). Although I don't know anything about my grandfather's early education, my grandmother was always proud that she and her siblings had been educated by the Ursuline Sisters "of the Roman Union" at the Ursuline Academy in their hometown of Arcadia.

When I was a child, I had a chance to visit the old academy with my grandparents and Great-aunt Helen. I remember meeting a few of the sisters who were still in residence, working in the preschool - all that remained of the once thriving boarding and day school.  Along with the old spring house and the Lourdes grotto, I also got to see the remarkably grand St. Joseph's Chapel in which my grandparents had been married in 1946.

It would be nearly two decades before my experience of the Ursulines grew beyond those childhood impressions. In my years as a religious, I had the opportunity to make a retreat at the motherhouse of the Ursuline Sisters of Mt. Saint Joseph and to work with some of the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville. I appreciate their work and the prophetic stance they've taken in many areas, especially with regard to women's issues and the rights of children. I also recognize that I, personally, owe a debt of gratitude to those sisters serving in Arcadia who, generations ago, formed my grandmother in the Catholic Faith.

Saint Angela Merici, the founder of the Ursulines and whose commemoration is celebrated on January 27, was born in 1470 in the Lombardy region of Italy. A member of the Third Order of Saint Francis, she brought together a group of women who established a sort of "support group" for unmarried girls in their neighborhood. This eventually led to the creation of a school and Angela was invited to do the same work in the city of Brescia. She came to recognize that God was calling her to care for poor girls. Her charitable works became widely known and she had the support of many of Brescia's influential citizens.

Angela recognized that non-aristocratic women, especially those who were unmarried, had practically no options for their lives. Their lack of education and inability to support themselves forced such women to become servants, prostitutes, or beggars. The most recent edition of Butler's Lives of the Saints praises her work, significantly noting that "she was not providing a refuge for women who had failed to find husbands, but asserting the original dignity of all women in a primary relationship to Christ." The young women she brought together formed what would eventually become a new religious community under the patronage of Saint Ursula, a virgin and martyr who was honored as the leader of a group young women who died for their faith in the fourth  or fifth century. The "Company of Saint Ursula" was one of the first communities of teaching sisters in the Church and broke with many of the conventions of religious life: the members had no formal enclosure or convents (early members lived with their families) and they had no religious habit.

Less than five years after establishing the "Company," Angela Merici died in Brescia on January 27, 1540. She was canonized in 1807 and has come to be honored as one of the patrons of those with physical disabilities.

Over the past several days I've been reading Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"), in which Pope Francis wrote:
Jesus [can break] through the dull categories with which we would enclose him and he constantly amazes us by his divine creativity. Whenever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meanings for today's world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always "new." (from paragraph 11)
These words seem especially significant as we remember this holy and courageous woman. Saint Angela Merici was one of those graced souls in the Church's history who dared to do something new. Although she had her critics (including those noble families who had once supported her became suspicious of her and feared she'd "steal away" their marriageable daughters), she saw that in order to fulfill her vocation she had to set out on new paths. For this reason, she seems an especially important witness for us today, particularly as we become more aware of how widespread human trafficking and the exploitation of women and children really is.

May Saint Angela Merici continue to inspire her spiritual daughters--and each of us--to be open to God's call and to seek out new ways of serving those who most need love: “Act, move, believe, strive, hope, cry out to Him with all your heart, For without doubt you will see marvelous things, if you direct everything to the praise and glory of his Majesty and the good of souls” (Saint Angela Merici).

A prayer in honor of Saint Angela Merici +
Gracious God, following the example of Angela Merici, we ask that you enlighten, direct, and teach us what we must do for love of you and for your people. Bless us as we walk ahead for whatever you call us this day and everyday. Amen.
(from the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland)


Monday, January 19, 2015

Saint Joseph Vaz-Persevering in Gospel Paths

Then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God. But the Apostles went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.—Mark 16:19-20

Since his election in March 2013, Pope Francis has, of course, continued the millennia-old tradition of popes canonizing saints. However, he has broken with tradition by waiving the requisite second miracle for some of these holy women and men. As he observed in his recent flight from Sri Lanka to the Philippines (on January 15), he specifically chose to move forward with the canonization of some of these saints because of their work as evangelizers. These specially chosen saints include the Counter-Reformation era Jesuit Peter Faber, the Brazilian missionary José de Anchieta, Ursuline Sister Marie of theIncarnation and the bishop François de Montmorency-Laval, who could be honored as the founders of the Catholic Church in Canada. Reflecting on these new saints, Pope Francis explained, “These are people who did a lot of evangelization and who are in line with the spirituality and theology of ‘Evangelii Gaudium’, that is the reason why I chose them.” The day before, on January 14, Pope Francis added another name to this unique list: Joseph Vaz, the “Apostle of Sri Lanka.”
Joseph was born in Goa, India, in 1651. The child of devout parents of a prominent family, he was eventually sent to study at the Jesuit College of St. Paul, in Goa, where he received degrees in both theology and philosophy. Ordained to the priesthood in 1676, he began living among the poor and acquired a reputation as a popular preacher and confessor. He soon opened a Latin school in Sancoale for prospective seminarians and began to feel drawn to serve as a missionary to the small underground Catholic community in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon).

Unable to receive the needed permission from his superiors, Joseph was sent to serve the small Christian community of India’s Canara region. Returning to Goa in 1685, he joined the Congregation of the Oratory (the “Oratorians”) and, finally, in 1686, he began his mission to the Catholics of Sri Lanka, then suffering persecution at the hands of the Dutch (Protestant) colonial authorities.  

Father Vaz conducted a clandestine ministry, working in disguise as he traveled from village to village, preaching and celebrating Mass. After spending time in a colonial prison because of his missionary work, he was eventually joined by other Oratorian priests who built upon the strong foundation laid by Father Vaz. 

Revered by Catholics and Protestants alike for his tireless works of charity, wisdom, and holiness, Joseph Vaz died at Kandy, Sri Lanka, on January 16, 1711. His commemoration is celebrated on January 16.

In his homily at the canonization of Saint Joseph Vaz, Pope Franics reminded us: “In Saint Joseph we see a powerful sign of God’s goodness and love for the people of Sri Lanka. But we also see in him a challenge to persevere in the paths of the Gospel, to grow in holiness ourselves, and to testify to the Gospel message of reconciliation to which he dedicated his life.” This challenge isn’t just the responsibility of select groups within the Church. Each of us is called to do our part to help make the message of God’s love known in our small corner of the world: within our relationships and families, in our schools and workplaces, and, of course, within our church communities. This week, pray for the grace to recognize opportunities to share the Good News of your faith and ask God to bless and protect those missionaries—like Saint Joseph Vaz—who have dedicated their lives to proclaiming the Gospel at home and abroad. 

Thought for the Week: “Humanity is loved by God! This very simple yet profound proclamation is owed to humanity by the Church. Each Christian's words and life must make this proclamation resound: God loves you, Christ came for you, Christ is for you ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (John 14:6)!”—Saint John Paul II in Christifedeles laici

A Prayer in Honor of Saint Joseph Vaz +
O God, who gave increase to your Church through the zeal for religion and apostolic labors of Saint Joseph Vaz, grant, through his intercession, that she may always receive new growth in faith and in holiness. 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: Common of Pastors-for Missionaries [2])

Originally written for Mayslake Ministries and published on their website the week of January 18, 2015.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys - "Mother of the Colony"

Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”—Matthew 19:14

Born at Troyes, France, in 1620, Marguerite was twenty years old when she felt the call to consecrate herself to the service of God. Having joined a group of pious women dedicated to good works, she immigrated to the settlement at Montreal, Canada, in 1652, to tutor the children of the French garrison.

In 1655, Marguerite rallied the people of Montreal to help her construct a chapel that would serve as a place of prayer and pilgrimage outside of the settlement; the stone chapel of Notre-Dame-de Bon-Secours was finally completed twenty years later. To help the children of the colony, Marguerite opened a school in a converted stable in 1658. Here she began teaching the basics of the faith, as well as the rudimentaries of reading and math; older girls were trained in household skills that would enable them to be successful wives and mothers. Her small school began a system of education and service that soon extended across the whole region, gaining Marguerite the title “Mother of the Colony” and “Co-foundress of the Church in Canada.”
Marguerite’s vision and personal holiness attracted other women (from both France and from among the Canadian settlers) who wished to follow her life of prayer, poverty, and service. This soon led to the formation of the Congregation of Sisters of Notre Dame of Montreal, which received canonical approval from the bishop of Quebec, Saint François Laval, in 1676. Mission-schools were also established to serve the Native American communities around Montreal and two Iroquois women sought entrance into the young congregation in 1679.  

Having dedicated the remainder of her life to governing her community and working to secure its rights, Marguerite died in 1700. Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys was canonized in 1982, becoming the first Canadian saint. The commemoration of Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys is celebrated on January 12.

Marguerite Bourgeoys was a pioneer woman of the New World who dedicated her life to the education of children. Her sole motivation was to form these children, especially young women, in a life of discipleship. Her non-traditional approach to religious life brought her into conflict with Church and government officials, but she was undeterred, confident that she was doing God’s work. C.W. Colby, an historian and biographer would later write, “when the biographer has finished his sketch of… Marguerite Bourgeoys, he had best remain content with his plain narrative. Women like [her] do not ask for eulogy. Their best praise is the record of their deeds, written without comment in the impressive simplicity of truth.”

As we enter the first span of the Season of Ordinary Time, the life and witness of Saint Marguerite stands out as a powerful example of what Pope Francis intends when he encourages every believer to go to the “peripheries” and to seek out new mission fields: “An authentic faith—which is never comfortable or completely personal—always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it" (The Joy of the Gospel, 183). How is God inviting you to live out your faith in these “ordinary” days in extra-ordinary ways?

Shrine of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys
in Montreal's Basilica of Notre Dame
A Prayer in Honor of Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys +
Lord God, you teach us that the commandments of heaven are summarized in love of you and love of our neighbor. By following the example of Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys in practicing works of charity may we be counted among the blessed in your kingdom.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Liturgy of the Hours: Common of Those Who Worked With the Underpriveleged)

This reflection was originally written for Mayslake Ministries and posted on their website on January 12, 2015.