Category Archives: News

St. Bernard of Clairvaux – Promoter of the Religious Life Par Excellence

St. Bernard of Clairvaux inspired many vocations to the newly founded Cistercian Order. Famously, he managed to bring his uncle, his brothers, and a group of young nobleman to the same vocation. He even convinced his sister to leave her husband and become a nun. His charisma transformed Europe in the 12th Century. Benedictine Jean Leclercq, O.S.B. (1911-1993), known for his magisterial The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, wrote this informative paragraph as part of an introduction to Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works (this paragraph shows you how much a contemplative can do):

“In 1115, just three years following his arrival at Citeaux, Bernard was sent to found a monastery at Clairvaux in Champagne, to which he led his brothers and companions, and attracted many other young men as well. Soon he was in a position to make other foundations, in 1118, 1119, 1121, and almost every year after that. He made 68 foundations in thirty-five years and was the principal promoter of his Order, which, at the time of his death, comprised some 350 houses, of which 164 were answerable more or less directly to his authority. They extended across the whole of Europe, from Scandinavia to southern Portugal, from northern England to central Europe. A spiritual motivation had to be ensured in each monastery, beginning with the motherhouse. It has been estimated that between 800 and 900 monks had been part of the community of Clairvaux before Bernard’s death. Some of them were sent to daughterhouses that, in turn, made other foundations. Thus, there were thousands of men, generally young, who left society and often a military career to take up cloistered life. If to this number one adds the members of some 290 other Cistercian monasteries founded during Bernard’s lifetime, one has some idea of the tremendous peace corps, with tens of thousands of members, that Bernard helped to establish. What architect of peace has played such a role in his century or in any other?”

A Moment of Catechesis

Many people have a vocation to the religious life but simply do not know that the religious life exists or what it is. I find that many of my students never heard of the religious life. They think that everyone gets married with the exception of the parish priest, and once they learn that it is not that narrow they are confused why anyone would live that way. This is why now is moment to catechize the young on the nature of the religious life and give them resources to help them discover an order suited to their vocation.

Many youth sense that they are not called to marriage and family. Most girls sense that that is their only option, other than single life. Boys know about the diocesan priesthood but do not know where to look if they feel called to something more. I try to present the religious orders to my students to make sure that they know all the charisms to which they may be called. Soren Kierkegaard grew up in a Protestant country that did not have active religious orders. Famously, Kierkegaard called off his marriage. He sensed that he was not called to the married state. Most likely, if he lived in a Catholic culture he would have become a religious. However, that was not available to him. While America has religious orders, the Catholicism most American teenagers grow up in is without religious. In order to serve them and them find their place in the Church, we must introduce them to the religious life. That is partially why the Institute on Religious Life exists. Consider becoming a member of the Institute to help us foster a growing awareness of religious life, especially amongst the young.

First Federation of the Visitation Order Elect New President & Council

We have just celebrated the Feast Day of St. Jane Frances de Chantal on Saturday, so it is wonderful to learn of the recent election results from the Assembly of the First Federation of the Order of the Visitation held  on July 26-28, 2017.

Meeting at the Visitation Monastery in Rockville, Virginia, the Assembly participants elected a new Federation President and Council. Sister Sharon Elizabeth (Toledo, OH) was elected Federation President. She will be assisted by her Council comprised of Mother Rose Marie (Mobile, AL), Mother Marie de Sales (Toledo, OH), Sr. Mary Emmanuel (Tyringham, MA) and Sr. Frances Marie (Rockville, VA). Mother Miriam Rose (Tyringham, MA) and Mother Teresa Maria (Snellvile, GA) were elected as alternate councilors.

St. Jane Frances was the co-foundress of the Order of the Visitation along with St. Francis de Sales. Founded in 1610,  in Annecy, Savoy (France), their desire was “to give to God daughters of prayer, and souls so interior that they may be found worthy to serve His infinite majesty and to adore Him in spirit and in truth.”

The Visitation Order was founded for women who could not handle the austerities of the traditional cloistered life but who truly had a call from God to give themselves entirely to God as a spouse of Christ. They also traditionally accept belated vocations (check each community for the information).

It is sometimes forgotten that St. Thérèse of Lisieux had a fifth sister, Léonie, who was not a Carmelite. Léonie was a difficult child and a poor student who nevertheless desired to enter religious life. Her mother once wrote that unless a miracle was worked, “my Léonie will never enter a religious community.” St. Thérèse predicted that after her death, Léonie would enter the Visitation Order and take her name and that of St. Francis de Sales. Indeed it came to pass. Léonie’s name in religion was Sr. Françoise-Thérèse  and her cause for canonization was opened in  Caen, France on July 2, 2016, the anniversary of her profession (1900).

The six monasteries of the First Federation (which are cloistered) are located in Mobile, AL, Snellville, GA, Rockville, VA, Philadelphia, PA, Tyringham, MA and Toledo, OH.  The four highlighted are IRL affiliates.

 

St. Dominic and the Salvation of the City

The major religious orders of the first millennium of the Church were monastics. They sought stability outside the false order of the city. Hence, they did not live in cities. But mendicant orders did. They sought to transform the order of the city into the order of Christ, something they witnessed to in radical poverty and preaching. Instead of leaving the City of Man to itself, they would bring the City of God to the City of Man, transforming it from within.

My wife and I were recently in Krakow. At the heart of the city are the Dominicans and the Franciscans (two mendicant orders), which is fitting because the city was founded around the rise of the Mendicant Orders. Maybe that is why the city seems to be alive with Christ. The orders were there to help guide the development of the city. A city is like an organism. It informs its many parts. Its laws, customs, and beliefs lead individuals to the way of life or the way of death. Today we are so accustomed to thinking of ourselves as atomic individuals artificially brought under the influence of the city and its ways. However, this was not so to the medieval mind. For them, everything was interconnected within a natural hierarchy. Some things took precedence to others just as, using an organic analogy, the heart is more important than the limbs. For them, the beliefs of the city were very important, for at issue was its salvation (life) or damnation (death). The spread of heresy within a city was like the spread of a disease. Experts needed to be brought in to help with a cure. The Dominicans answered such a need.

When St. Dominic came to Toulouse in Southern France he was amazed and saddened by the spread of the Albigensian heresy. The lavish lives of the Catholic preachers offended many people, prompting them to turn to the austere heretics. This experience prompted St. Dominic to found the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) who would live austere lives yet preach true Orthodoxy. They would combat heresy with great learning. This was not for the sake of superiority and dominance but the truth. Life lived in the truth is always better than life based on a lie. On this Feast of St. Dominic, let us pray for zealous, well-informed religious who can preach and witness to the Gospel in the heart of the city. The conversion of a city may just happen to begin from the houses of the mendicants like the Dominicans. Theologian C.C. Pecknold agrees. He wrote a great little piece in First Things on what he calls the “Dominican Option”, an alternative to the popular “Benedict Option.” Here is a part of his piece:

Better to speak of the Dominican Option. When I see them in the white habits at prayer, or giving lectures, or playing guitars and banjos on the subway, I have a plausible image of a “contrast society” that is very much engaged with the world—an evangelistic witness which is joyful, intellectually serious, expansive, and charitable.

St. Dominic founded the Order of Preachers after a long contemplative season which, in the words of one biographer “burst into flame” when he encountered Albigensians (ancient Manichean dualists) on travels through southern France. Dominic stayed up all night arguing with one Albigensian, and by morning the man turned away from his heresy and turned towards the Catholic faith. Dominic’s missionary zeal flowed directly out of cloistered contemplation, but it convinced him of the need for a new evangelistic order.

Dominic told his men to go into the world without fear. They should study, they should pray, and they should preach. His Order harmonized the life of a contemplative with the activity of an evangelist. This meant intellectual training. One only needs to think of St. Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris to understand the impact this had. Dominicans studied other languages, and other religions, in order to preach more effectively. Aquinas himself wrote the Summa Contra Gentiles precisely to assist the brothers’ preaching to Muslims.

This is what we need today as well: the right pattern of formation and evangelistic witness. Not every Christian will be a Dominican, of course. But we all have something fundamental to learn from the Dominican pattern of life. 

 

Feast of the Transfiguration: The Primacy of Prayer

Right after the announcement of his resignation, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reflected on the role of Peter at the Transfiguration. The lesson of the Transfiguration is the primacy of prayer and communion, the center of all activity. All this comes prior to activity. Contemplative religious are witnesses to this hierarchy. On this Feast of the Transfiguration, let us not lose sight of this ordering. Here is part of the Pope’s address:

Peter’s words “Master, it is well that we are here” represent the impossible attempt to put this mystical experience on hold. St Augustine commented: “[Peter]… on the mountain… had Christ as the food of his soul. Why should he have to go down to return to his hard work and sorrows while up there he was filled with sentiments of holy love for God and which thus inspired in him a holy conduct? (Sermon 78,3: pl 38, 491).

In meditating on this passage of the Gospel, we can learn a very important lesson from it: first of all, the primacy of prayer, without which the entire commitment to the apostolate and to charity is reduced to activism. In Lent we learn to give the right time to prayer, both personal and of the community, which gives rest to our spiritual life. Moreover, prayer does not mean isolating oneself from the world and from its contradictions, as Peter wanted to do on Mount Tabor; rather, prayer leads back to the journey and to action. “The Christian life”, I wrote in my Message for this Lent, “consists in continuously scaling the mountain to meet God and then coming back down, bearing the love and strength drawn from him, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God’s own love” (n. 3).

St. Ignatius of Loyola and Transformation

 St. Ignatius of Loyola learned from the lives of the saints, and the concrete witness of their lives transformed him. He saw that Christ was the center of their particular lives, and he started to see the narrative of his own life in such a way. In The Grammar of Assent, Bl. John Henry Newman distinguishes between notional assent and real assent. In a nutshell, notional assent is the acknowledgement we give to the truth of abstract propositions. It is not an assent grounded in concrete experiences, and it often makes little difference in the way we live. One can see this in arguments for the existence of God. Often times, the argument from contingency doesn’t transform us. However, as Newman points out, the argument from conscience does have this effect. Many have the real experience of the pangs of conscience, and the intuition of a supreme moral authority. We sense this to be the voice of God. Newman says that religion must have both. However, if you want to transform men real assent is necessary. Newman says, “Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion…No one, I say, will die for his calculations: he dies for realities.” Real assent is grounded in real objects that have a force on a person unlike notional assent. It is grounded in experience. As a Brit, Newman resisted the abstractions of continental philosophy. However, he didn’t lead us down the equally abstract empiricism of Hume but to the true experience we all have, i.e. the intuition of the real world and the sense of God that is written on our hearts. Ignatius is an example of the transformation real assent can influence not only one life but the whole world.

St. Ignatius was a warrior. His life centered around glory on the battlefield. However, after his injury he came to see the folly of such ways. His desire was misdirected. He read the lives of the saints and was transformed into a disciple of Christ. The lives of the saints were a concrete witness to him of the glory of martyrdom (witness). This conversion probably wouldn’t occur if he happened to pick up Aquinas’ De Potentia. We need to keep this in mind when we want to evangelize the youth, encouraging them to consider a religious vocation. This will not happen by abstraction, but by the heroism of the saints. In an age of the crisis of reason, abstract arguments will not hold. We need to relearn the art of inspiring real assent, and a good way of doing this is by telling the lives of the saints. On this Feast of St. Ignatius, let us recall the heroism of Ignatius and the early Jesuit saints, calling on them for a renewal in religious life around the world. May people find their vocation by hearing the stories of how the saints found theirs.

Krakow: A City of Saints

While in Krakow I read George Weigel’s book on the city entitled City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Krakow.  I cannot think of a more fitting title about a city that has the ethos of sanctity emanating from its streets. Like a fountain, waters of sanctity and history flow from Wawel Hill meandering into the Main Square, thereby soaking into the lives of its people. I hope I do not sound like Krakow is the New Jerusalem; it is a city of sinners and saints. However, from what I witnessed it seems to me that a city can do an awful lot in shaping a man in either direction. Krakow concretely orders man to his destiny of communion with God in Christ. That is partially why no atheistic regime that denied such a destiny could triumph there. Sanctity haunts Krakow.

Many saints lived and died in Krakow. Their monuments are all over the city. Little shrines surprisingly pop up everywhere, even next to a McDonalds by the city’s main gate. A huge crucifixion scene dominates a street that is also littered with clubs and bistros. Nowhere else besides Rome have I seen so many religious. Christ shines everywhere.

Instead of secular skyscrapers, Churches dominate the city’s skyline. Streets from the main square, with names of saints, apostles and evangelists, lead to the façade of Churches and other institutions of importance. An enormous shopping mall fittingly sits on the outskirts of the city, allowing the city’s hierarchy of importance, derived from a Christian vision of things, to be unambiguously expressed. This was revelatory to me. I grew up in a centerless suburb, dominated by a lifeless shopping mall, an inversion of the order expressed in Krakow.

My wife and I met a close friend of John Paul II, the poet/philosopher Stanislaw Grygiel, in the Main Square. Commenting on the different ethos we noticed between Warsaw and Krakow, Grygiel said, “People in Warsaw talk politics. The people of Krakow talk about the Bishop’s homily.” The city had a long history of being Poland’s political center, but it no longer has that role; perhaps, for the better. Yet even when it did have that role, a different vision shaped politics than the one we have today. For the past century, politics has been dominated by a liberal secularism, anything outside its framework seen as an obstruction of justice. Krakow was the center when a noble culture was present that could state in the Preamble to the Act of Horodlo (1413): ‘Whoever is unsupported by the mystery of Love…shall not achieve the Grace of salvation…For by Love, laws are made, kingdoms governed, cities ordered, and the state of the commonweal is brought to its proper goal. Whoever shall cast Love aside, shall lose everything.’ You can see this ordering principle governing the streets of Krakow and the lives of its inhabitants. I only notionally understood ta city was so essential to the shaping its citizens, but now, after walking the streets of Krakow and meeting many Krakowians, I really understand why a city is a major factor in sanctity. Weigel remarks that you cannot fully understand John Paul II without Krakow. He is right. The love that orders the streets of Krakow is the same love that ordered the life of St. John Paul II. We all have much to learn from cities like Krakow, and I do not think it is nostalgic to think that such an order can reestablish cities and the lives of people longing to live the holiness of God. Perhaps, urban planners, politicians, and religious should get together to lay the foundation for cities open to God. This may be one of the reasons why Krakow historically was the home of many vocations.

For more on the urban planning of Krakow, watch Dr. Denis McNamara’s video on the city.

 

Parents of Vocations Forum

The Kissel family with Sr. M. Gemma, FSGM

One of the little talked about issues surrounding religious vocations is the impact it can have on the parents of a young man or women entering religious life. The process of discernment can be challenging enough but  it is often complicated by the reaction of the parents.

Even in the most supportive of families, the thought of your child entering religious life can bring heartache, questions, sorrow, puzzlement and even anger—the whole gauntlet of emotions. Since religious communities are quite invisible in our culture, parents today typically do not have an aunt or uncle who is in religious life and thus a level of comfort and familiarity with the vocation. They have many questions, and understandably, want the best for their children.

The Blessed Mother & St Joseph present Mary to the Temple

That is why Tom Kissel developed this new website—to have a forum where parents can ask questions, share experiences and network. Tom’s only daughter is in an active Franciscan community (The Sisters of St Francis of the Martyr St. George) so he is familiar first-hand with the path that parents walk along with their son or daughter and the stages of grief and joy.

The website has just been launched but do not hesitate to jump on and participate in this much-needed initiative in the Church.

Please visit parentsofvocations.com to join the conversation!

 

St. Benedict and the WOW Factor

Contemplation of the vastness and purity of the innate beauty of nature is medicine for the soul that draws us out of ourselves and closer to our loving God. Through this, we can experience what Br. Daniel Sokol, OSB, call, the “WOW Factor”:

We magnify this “WOW Factor” within by prayerfully appreciating passages of sacred scripture or the writings of the saints….When we deliberately engage the “WOW Factor” we build up our appreciation of God, and come to a more abundant sharing of His beneficent and healing graces.  …We keep in mind that heaven will be filled with grateful people.

Here are some examples from the Rule of St. Benedict of how we can recognize and appreciate the multiform “WOW Factors” and holy powers contained therein.  Each word or phrase has a powerful capacity to help us become more aware of, and engaged in the healing graces that God always offers to us, His beloved children.

Some of the “WOW” Factors found in the Rule of St. Benedict are:

  • God’s Presence: When (a man) is to be received, he comes before the whole community in the oratory and promises stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience.  This is done in the presence of God and his saints to impress on the novice that if he ever acts otherwise, he will surely be condemned by the one he mocks (RB 58:17-18).
  • The Lord’s Power: These people fear the Lord, and do not become elated over their good deeds; they judge it is the Lord’s power, not their own, that brings about the good in them.  They praise (Ps 14[15]: 4) the Lord working in them, and say with the Prophet: Not to us, Lord, not to us give the glory, but to your name alone (Ps 113[115: 1]: 9) (Prol 30).
  • Delightful Lord: What, dear brothers, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us?   See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life  (RB Prol 19-20)?
  • Thankfulness: Thanks to the help and guidance of many, they are now trained to fight against the devil (RB 1:4).
  • Forgiveness: Reciting the entire Lord’s Prayer at the end [of Lauds and Vespers] for all to hear, because thorns of contention are likely to spring up.  Thus warned by the pledge they make to one another in the very words of this prayer: Forgive us as we forgive (Matt 6:12), they may cleanse themselves of this kind of vice (RB 13:12-13).
  • God’s Grace: What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace (RB Prologue  41).
  • Reason and Humility: If any brother happens to make an unreasonable demand of him, he should not reject him with disdain and cause him distress, but reasonably and humbly deny the improper request (RB 31:7).
  • Glory to God: They praise (Ps 14[15]: 4) the Lord working in them, and say with the Prophet: Not to us, Lord, not to us give the glory, but to your name alone (Ps 113[115: 1]: 9) (RB Prol 30).
  • Good Works and Humility:   Only in this are we distinguished in his sight: if we are found better than others in good works and in humility (RB 2:21).
  • Sufficiency: Whoever needs less should thank God and not be distressed,  but whoever needs more should feel humble because of his weakness, not self-important because of the kindness shown him  (RB 34:3-4).
  • Delight in Virtue: Through this love, all that he once performed with dread, he will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit, no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue  (RB 7:68-69).
  • Zeal for God’s Honor: They may be sure that they will receive a generous reward for this, if they do it with pure motives and zeal for God’s honor (RB 72:3-6).
  • Restraint of Speech: I said, I have resolved to keep watch over my ways that I may never sin with my tongue.  I have put a guard on my mouth.  I was silent and was humbled, and I refrained even from good words (Ps 38[39]:23)  (RB 6:1).
  • Genuine Peace: Never give a hollow greeting of peace  or turn away when someone needs your love (RB 4:25-26).
  • Sense of the Sacred:   He will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar  (RB 31:10).
  • Everlasting Life:  Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire (RB 4:46).
  • Heartfelt Devotion: Pray, not in a loud voice, but with tears and heartfelt devotion (RB 52:4).
  • Blessings for Hardships: In truth, those who are patient amid hardships and unjust treatment are fulfilling the Lord’s command: When struck on one cheek, they turn the other; when deprived of their coat, they offer their cloak also; when pressed into service for one mile, they go two (Matt 5:3941).  With the Apostle Paul, they bear with false brothers, endure persecution, and bless those who curse them (2 Cor. 11:26; 1 Cor 4:12) (RB 7:42-43).

From Br. Daniel Sokol, OSB, Prince of Peace Abbey, Oceanside, CA (danielsokolosb@gmail.com )