Thursday, August 27, 2015

Blessed Dominic of the Mother of God: A Faithful Priest and Religious

Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you; consider how their lives ended, and imitate their faith.
—Hebrews 13:7

The past several years have seen a decline in the number of priests and, sadly, the actions of some priests have eroded the reputations and respect of priests everywhere. However, the priesthood—and religious life—remain great gifts for the Church, and there have been countless priests and religious who have courageously and faithfully offered their lives in prayer and service.

The recent “Year of the Priest” (2009) and the current “Year for Consecrated Life” have provided us with opportunities to pray for and celebrate faithful priests and religious and to also pray for and promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

The Church’s calendar of saints also provides us with frequent opportunities to offer prayers of thanks for the witness of so many holy priests, deacons, and religious from past generations. Included alongside the saints whose names we immediately recognize—Saint Augustine, Saint Benedict, Saint Clare, Saint Francis, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux—are thousands of lesser-known saints and blesseds who have much to say to us about prayer and ministry.

One of these—Blessed Dominic “of the Mother of God”—is celebrated on August 27.

Dominic Barberi was born into a poor Italian family in 1792. As a boy, he worked as a shepherd and taught himself to read and write. During his childhood, he had the opportunity to meet several Passionist priests who were living in exile because their houses had been closed during the Napoleonic War. He felt called to join their community and a vision of Saint Paul of the Cross, the community’s founder, left him with a strong desire to serve in the Catholic missions in England.

Dominic finally entered the Congregation of the Passion (the Passionists) in 1814, receiving the religious name Dominic “of the Mother of God”; he was ordained a priest four years later. Although he had received no formal education in his youth, he proved himself to be a gifted student and, following his ordination, he taught theology and philosophy.  For nineteen years he served in various Passionist houses in Italy and he published a number of books on theology and prayer, but he never lost his desire to serve in England. Then, in 1830, he made the acquaintance of some prominent English Catholics and his hopes of serving as a missionary were strengthened. Finally, in 1840, it was decided that Dominic should travel to Belgium where he and three companions would establish a mission that might become a starting off point for an English mission. While in Belgium, Dominic received Saint Charles of St. Andrew into the Passionist Congregation.

In 1842, Dominic saw his dream realized. Establishing the first Passionist community in England, one of his first ministries was the celebration of the Holy Week Services in the parish at Lane End in Staffordshire.

Although he initially met with little success in his ministry—in large part because of his heavy accent, broken English, and simple appearance—he eventually won the love of his people, especially through his simplicity and faith in the face of persecution. Dominic also developed a reputation as a miracle worker and soon people began to fall silent when he passed them on the street. One account of his life records, “children knelt to receive his blessing, and mothers held their babies out to be blessed. He himself attributed his success rather to the example of poverty he gave and to the fact that despite his poverty he was endlessly giving alms.”

One of the great contributions Dominic made to the Universal Church was the assistance he offered to Blessed John Henry Newman. Years later, in his autobiographical Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Newman recalled Father Dominic:
On October the 8th I wrote to a number of friends the following letter:
“Littlemore, October 8th, 1845. I am this night expecting Father Dominic, the Passionist, who, from his youth, has been led to have distinct and direct thoughts, first of the countries of the North, then of England. After thirty years’ (almost) of waiting, he was without his own act sent here. But he has had little to do with conversions. I saw him here a few minutes on St. John Baptist’s day last year.
He is a simple, holy man; and withal gifted and remarkable powers. He does not know of my intention; but I mean to ask of him admission into the One Fold of Christ…”
Father Dominic received Newman (later Cardinal Newman) into the Church that same night.

Dominic had the pleasure of establishing two other Passionist communities in England and of clothing his friend George Spencer in the Passionist habit. (The cause for the canonization of Venerable George Spencer is now being promoted.) He also established three churches and several chapels and he preached countless missions throughout the country. He is also credited with receiving hundreds of converts into the Church, making him one of the most significant Catholic missionaries in England in the 19th century.

Blessed Dominic of the Mother of God died at Reading, England, on August 27, 1849. Blessed Pope Paul VI beatified him in 1963. His relics are enshrined in the church of St. Anne and Bl. Dominic in St. Helens, Lancashire, England. Buried near him are Venerable George Spencer and the Servant of God Elizabeth Prout, the foundress of the Passionist Sisters.

As we celebrate the memory of Blessed Dominic Barberi, pray for those priests and religious who have touched your life in a special way. Ask Blessed Dominic to pray for priests and religious who are struggling to live their vocation and to be a special patron for all those discerning God’s will for their lives.

A prayer in honor of Blessed Dominic of the Mother of God +
Lord, you sent Blessed Dominic to seek out the lost sheep of your flock by preaching your truth and witnessing to your love. May we follow his example and build up the unity of your Church as a sign of faith and love. We ask 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 Passionist Supplement to The Roman Missal)

Originally written for Mayslake Ministries and posted on their website on August 27, 2015.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Piarist School

On August 25, we celebrate the memory of Saint Joseph Calasanz, an Italian priest who founded a teaching order that is now known as the Piarists. St. Joseph believed that education was a basic human right and he was one of the first to insist that education should be free and available to everyone, especially the poor. Today, Saint Joseph Calasanz is honored as one of the patron saints of teachers.

Today, the Piarist Fathers and Brothers minister around the world, including here in the United States. One of their missions is the Piarist School in Floyd County (Southeast Kentucky). This school serves as a tuition-free high school that makes a college-prep education available to youth from one of the poorest parts of the United States, regardless of their faith tradition.

The Piarist Fathers and their associates are trying to buy and renovate new property for the growing school. To learn about the school, the mission of the Piarists, and the Piarist School Outreach, click here. I especially encourage you to view the video from Bishop Gainer of the Diocese of Lexington, which can be found in the "Video" section.

We certainly celebrate the Piarist community during this Year of Consecrated Life. So, on this feast of St. Joseph Calasanz, please remember the Piarists and their students in your prayers and consider making a donation to continue their work in SE Kentucky. I had the privilege of visiting the school several years ago and truly hope you'll consider offering them a gift.


Saturday, August 22, 2015

Gospel Reflections

Several weeks ago, I was asked to begin writing a weekly series of reflections on the Sunday Gospels for Aleteia and, I'm happy to report, it seems to be going well.

Here is a snippet from this Sunday's reflection:
Like the women and men in that crowd, our lives are filled with choices. This holds true of our faith-life, as well. Although we might not think much about it, choices are a difficult reality because with every choice comes consequences. By committing ourselves to one choice—like extending or accepting a marriage proposal, being open to the gift of children, entering religious life, or simply making prayer a part of our daily lives—we are also choosing let go of other options. This happens in countless ways—big and small—throughout our lives.
The most serious choice we can make in life, however, is our decision to follow Christ. And this choice, like every other, also has consequences for the way we live our lives.
Jesus im Kriese Seiner Junger by Rembrandt

If you are interested in reading the full reflection (for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 23, 2015), please click here.

I share these weekly reflections, news items, and upcoming events (retreats, workshops, etc.) on Facebook, so if you aren't following me on Facebook yet, you can find me here.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Blessed Victoria Rasoamanarivo: Honoring Faithful Women

We know that God makes all things work together for the good of those who have been called according to his decree.
—Romans 8:28

When many of us think of saints, our minds most often go to European or American models of holiness. However, recent years have seen an explosion in the number canonizations and beatifications of women, men, and children from Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Pacific Islands.

The small country of Madagascar (off the southeastern coast of Africa) has given the Church three new models of holiness since 2002, including Saint Jacques Berthieu, a French Jesuit missionary who was martyred in Ambiatibe in 1896, Blessed Jan Beyzym, a Jesuit missionary from Ukraine who died in Marana in 1912,  and Blessed Raphaël-Louis Rafiringa, a native-born Christian Brother who died in Fianarantsoa in 1919. But honored alongside these male religious is a remarkable laywoman and Church leader who was beatified more than a decade before her male counterparts: Blessed Victoria Rasoamanarivo.

Born into a leading family of the Hova or Merina “tribe” in 1848, Victoria was brought up in the traditional religion of Zanahary, which honored a creating God but which was based on ancestor worship. She was raised by her father’s elder brother, a respected military leader.

Although Catholic missionaries had tried to establish a Catholic presence in Madagascar in the 19th century, only Protestant missionaries had any level of success. In 1836, the country’s anti-Christian queen had more than two thousand Christians killed and ordered the missionaries to leave her country. (Records indicate that more than 1 million individuals died as a result of the queen’s religious persecutions, military initiatives, and forced starvation of perceived enemies.) Only in 1861, the year of the queen’s death, did missionaries return. To their surprise, the missionaries discovered that the Christian Faith had endured and there were around five thousand Christians. That same year, Jesuit missionaries and Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny also began establishing missions, focusing on the southern and coastal areas, working primarily among the poorer communities (although they has some success winning converts among the upper classes). They were successful in their efforts and there were about fifteen thousand Catholics in Madagascar by 1875.

Victoria became one of the first students enrolled in the sisters’ mission school and she asked to be baptized in 1863. However, she immediately met with resistance from her relatives, many of whom had held high positions in the persecuting queen’s oppressive reign. Her decision to receive the sacraments and stand outside her family traditions testifies to her deep faith and independent spirit. At the time, she told her mother, “I will no longer be the way I was before. I will be a daughter of God, because I want to receive Baptism. I will have the seal of the Holy Spirit.”

Although Victoria had expressed her desire to enter religious life, her family promised her in marriage to the son of the chief minister, a man named Radriaka. The Jesuit missionaries convinced her that she could do more good for the Church at court by marrying the man her family had chosen. Sadly, Radriaka was a drunk and a womanizer who often brought other women into their home despite Victoria’s presence. Although his father, the ruling queen, and many others advised Victoria to leave him, she thought that would contradict her wedding vows and set a bad example for the other Christians. Victoria stayed with her husband for twenty-two years, until his death in 1887. For years she had prayed for his conversion and she had the joy of seeing him baptized shortly before he died.

A new persecution of Catholics erupted on May 25, 1883, with the outbreak of the Malagasy-French War. All the missionaries were forced to leave the country and all the church buildings were locked. As the missionaries left, they entrusted Victoria with the task of protecting the Catholic community. She was courageous in her opposition to the government’s policies, declaring, “You can put me to death, but you have no right to shut the church.” She visited and corresponded with Catholics all over the island and defended the Catholic parishes and schools in court. Because of her persistence, the churches were eventually reopened. Victoria made sure that religious instruction and Sunday prayer services took place and that lay catechists were able to continue their own ministries.

In 1886, when the missionaries were able to return, they found that the institutions they had established had been largely dismantled, but the faith had remained vibrant, thanks, in large part, to Victoria’s courage and leadership.

Throughout her life, Victoria had exemplified the Christian life. She attended Mass daily (when that was possible), recited the rosary and Angelus, and spent time in meditation each day. Beyond her habits of prayer, however, she was beloved because of her care for the poor. Despite her wealth and status, she had a hands-on approach to ministry and visited the sick, showing special concern for lepers. One early account of her life recalls that, “she made herself the servant of others and it was for this above all that one had so much veneration for her.” She was always available to any who needed her care and assistance.

This happy and peace-filled woman died after a brief illness on August 21, 1894, at the age of forty-six. She was honored in death by both Catholic and Protestant Christians and by members of all parts of society. Victoria was beatified by Saint John Paul II in Madagascar in 1989. The Church celebrates her memory on August 21.

Throughout the Church’s history, courageous women have nurtured and handed on the faith. From those first women who followed Jesus, providing for his needs out of their own wealth (cf. Luke 8:2-3), to medieval abbesses like Saint Hildegard of Bingen and Saint Gertrude the Great, to reformers such as Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Bridget of Sweden, to missionaries like Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne, Saint Marianne Cope, and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, and to wives and mothers like Saint Monica, Blessed Zelie Martin, and Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, the role of women in the life of the Church can never be overestimated.
In his Letter to Women, Saint John Paul II reflected on this, when he wrote:
In this vast domain of service, the Church's two-thousand-year history, for all its historical conditioning, has truly experienced the "genius of woman"; from the heart of the Church there have emerged women of the highest caliber who have left an impressive and beneficial mark in history. I think of the great line of woman martyrs, saints and famous mystics… And how can we overlook the many women, inspired by faith, who were responsible for initiatives of extraordinary social importance, especially in serving the poorest of the poor? The life of the Church in the Third Millennium will certainly not be lacking in new and surprising manifestations of "the feminine genius."

As we recall the life and witness of Blessed Victoria, offer a prayer of thanks for those faith-filled women who have handed the faith on to you. Perhaps you might remember your grandmother or mother, a religious sister, or a woman of prayer who has touched your life. Regardless of whom you think of, know that the Faith that has been passed down to us is gift of countless women—and men—of faith whose courage and fidelity have seen the Gospel spread to every corner of the globe. Today, reflect on how you are continuing that legacy by how you are handing the Good News on to others.  

A prayer in honor of Blessed Victoria Rasoamanarivo +
O God, the exaltation of the lowly, who willed that blessed Victoria should excel in the beauty of her charity and patience, grant, through her merits and intercession, that, carrying our cross each day, we may always persevere in love for you. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

This post was originally written for Mayslake Ministries and published on their website on August 20, 2015

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Thinking Outside the Box

A few days ago, I began reading Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia for All That Is, a book co-authored by Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B., and Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

While the premise of the book is fairly straightforward, it provides a perspective on life that hasn't been explored often before: 
Life itself is an exercise in learning to sing alleluia here in order to recognize the face of God hidden in the recesses of time. To deal with the meaning of alleluia in life means to deal with moments that do not feel like alleluia moments at all... alleluia is not a substitute for reality. It is simply the awareness of another kind of reality--beyond the immediate, beyond the delusional, beyond the instant perception of things.
One of the oldest anthems of the church, alleluia simply means "All hail to the One who is." It is the archhymn of praise, the ultimate expression of thanksgiving, the pinnacle of triumph, the acme of human joy. It says that God is Good--and we know it.

I think that, like a lot of people today, I'm trying to make sense of so much that is sense-less in the world and, in my reading, I have been especially struck by two chapters: "Differences" and "Divisions." In these chapters, Chittister reflects on the fact that differences are not only important for forming a sense of individuality, they are essential for a healthy culture and worldview.
Differences, I learned, were there to broaden us, to make us bigger people than we could ever have been had we stayed locked in our tiny little intellectual ghettoes. They make us think differently about the world. They make us ask questions about our world that cannot be answered on this side of that world's horizons. What else is education, in fact, if not an experience of differences that enlarges our perspective and increases our understanding?
The learnings that come from knowing the values of another people can easily reshape our own...
The new sense of self that comes from respecting the worldview of other peoples--about money, about moral standards, about social systems, about democracy--is both a humbling one and a freeing one. The West is not the center of the universe. Ours is not the only acceptable form of government or the only possible way of life. We do not have an obligation to impose one to avoid the other.
Differences not only teach us new ways of doing things; they also make us ask new questions of ourselves about what is really important in life, what really must have priority, what is really happiness, success, unity?
Differences are a challenge to our small assumptions about the way the world really goes together. An American world, a white world, a male world, a Western world are all simply small slices of reality attempting to be the whole. Only the respect for the Muslim veil, the Chinese smile, the African tribe, the South American campesino can stretch us beyond ourselves, beyond a political imperialism that sets out to corrupt whole peoples in the name of globalization and, in the end, deprives us of the richness of the world community.  
But that is the glorious burden of real Christianity: to follow the one who talked to Samaritan women and Roman soldiers, all the time allowing them to be who they were. Clearly, differences were not make to be homogenized; differences were made to be respected, to be honored, to be cherished. Alleluia.
These are powerful words from a writer far more gifted than I. But, sadly, there is a prophetic wisdom in her observations that our society doesn't seem to be able to accommodate.

In our post-September 11th world, we've become increasingly afraid of differences. But, this fear isn't only limited to political ideologies or governmental policy. This fear and suspicion extends to other cultures, faiths, races, sexual orientations, and classes. Rather than celebrate the amazing diversity that exists all around us, too many are trying to insulate themselves against (or outright reject) those who are different or have other ways of expressing themselves or engaging the world. And, when something happens that we might night not like, we quickly place blame and the ideological trenches of "Us" and "Them" widen. This reality is made all the worse when these judgments and rejections are justified by using God and faith as weapons.

One of the ways that this plays out is in our inability to talk to one another. Recently, Tom Nichols published a wonderful article entitled "The Death of Expertise," in which he explores the notions of equality and opinions. He writes:
Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.” And yet, this is now enshrined as the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense...
Critics might dismiss all this by saying that everyone has a right to participate in the public sphere. That’s true. But every discussion must take place within limits and above a certain baseline of competence. And competence is sorely lacking in the public arena. People with strong views on going to war in other countries can barely find their own nation on a map; people who want to punish Congress for this or that law can’t name their own member of the House. 
As the United States begins to look toward the next presidential and congressional elections, we're going to become increasingly bombarded with critiques, complaints, calls for action, and appeals to faith and morality that will, I fear, have little to do with the common good or "justice for all." This has already been demonstrated in the recent Republican debates and there is more--much more--to come.

The wounds that we have suffered as communities and as a country are deep and, in a way, we all feel helpless. Recent months have seen news outlets and social media explosions over the murders in Charleston, police brutality, racial injustice, marriage equality, the Confederate flag, the Pope's encyclical on "the Care of Our Common Home," Iran, Cuba, gun restrictions, immigration, nuclear weapons, dogs and children in hot cars, Planned Parenthood... the list goes on and on. And it's too much. It's too much to process and it's virtually impossible to discern a middle path. Sadly, these are also issues that Americans have been contending with for decades and, in many cases, we've not come very far in our discussions. That says so much.

With so much tragedy and fear and with waves of sound bites and news continually washing over us, it makes sense that people would dig in and try to find solutions and security in a political and economic system that is collapsing under its own weight. Others just walk away and trust that someone else will take care of the issues... as long as inconveniences and changes are kept at a minimum.

As I think about all of this, I'm convinced that Sister Joan Chittister's reflections are correct. Unless we learn to celebrate our differences and diversity and allow our small worlds to be broken open, we aren't going to succeed as individuals or as communities and a nation. This means learning to think outside of the box.

Rather than make grandiose gestures that are really only about window dressing (like removing Confederate flags while ignoring systemic racism or calling to defund Planned Parenthood without working to provide effective and truly pro-life alternatives for women's health, prenatal care, and reasonable processes for adoption), a time has come for new kinds of dialogue that respect the realities of our time and place but which look toward new kinds of solutions that are more expansive than party lines and political rhetoric. And this means compromise and sacrifice. It means using our imaginations. It means trusting one another. And listening.

We don't have any other choice. The status quo isn't working.

In his book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Father James Martin, S.J., shares these insights:
Many of us live in fear of being seen as uncool, foolish, gullible, unsophisticated, and consequently rejected. But why not be foolish for Christ? You could be foolish about forgiveness and offering reconciliation to some against whom you’ve held a grudge—even though others tell you to write him off. You could be foolish about humility and refuse to seek acclaim—in a culture that prizes it. You could be foolish by living simply—in a world of materialism. You could be foolish about your relationship to God and set aside time for prayer—in a society that prizes nothing more than activity. You could do all this even though people disdain you... 
You can be like those in the crowd, keeping people down, laughing at those who want to change their lives, praying that people are punished, not forgiven. Or you can be like those in the crowd who want to do the Christian thing, who want to be compassionate, but are kept back for fear of looking foolish or being rejected. 
There's so much pain and injustice in the world, but none of us is helpless. Every person has the power to effect change and to contribute to public debates. But, for any real and lasting change to take place, each of us, I believe, must also begin from a place of compassion and hospitality rather than from a place of judgment, simply seeking to protect our selves and what we think we have a right to. We have to risk imagining a different world.

This was the message that Jesus proclaimed two millennia ago and, especially for us Christians, we must allow our hearts and worldviews to expand to embrace others. This means being informed and formed by our differences and diversity and seeing the needs and opportunities around us with new eyes. This also means risking change and even vulnerability. But, how beautiful would it be if, in the end, we are able to create something new--a new way of being together, a new way of promoting justice and life, a new way of ensuring that all God's children have what they need to truly live and sing their own Alleluia?