For more information, please visit the Apostleship of Prayer.
For more information, please visit the Apostleship of Prayer.
Today the Church celebrates two of its most feisty saints: Peter and Paul. The lives of these two pillars of the Church show the dynamics of vocation. They both experienced the love of Christ and were transformed through Him into their true identities. Such transformation is signaled in the change of their names. Formerly Simon, now Peter; Saul, now Paul. In the Bible, name change signals identity change, not superficially but substantially, as one’s relationship to God deepens. They are models for us on how to respond to the call of God and where we belong: in the Lord Jesus Christ. They were sinful, yet they responded to the call of the Lord. Here are three points to keep in mind when thinking about the vocations of Peter and Paul:
“It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you…” (John 15:16). This flies in the face of absolute self-determination. We often think we are the masters of our own destiny and the ultimate possessors of ourselves. However, the Bible has a different view. One’s identity is a gift from God. That is why identity is related to vocation. You are a gift and response to God. Peter and Paul found themselves in God’s mind made manifest to them through Jesus Christ. This was an unveiling of their true identities, not something alien. Very often we get stuck in trying to mold ourselves into an image we conceive, but this becomes futile when it comes up against God. Idols will collapse; an identity separated from God will collapse. Follow Saints Peter and Paul and belong to the Son who belongs to the Father, and remember it is not you who has done this but God.
“Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). When Peter distanced himself from the Lord he was a coward, but when he grew closer to the Lord he became very courageous. Paul does not immediately strike us as a coward. There is no mention of the tears of Paul or his abandonment of the Lord like Peter. However, he indeed was a coward in the face of the nascent Church. He could not just let it be as his mentor Gamaliel suggested. Instead, he actively persecuted it: the mark of fear. However, we see how Paul became a courageous man after his encounter with the Risen Christ. Just read the Acts of the Apostles to see this. Paul inserts himself in dangerous situations to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He would not have put himself on the line like this prior to his conversion. Courage is the act of giving oneself in the face of danger. When one grows close to the Giver they will courageously give despite the circumstance.
“For we do not proclaim ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord” (2 Cor. 4). Unlike most careers, vocation is not centered on the self but on Jesus. The vocation of Peter and Paul was to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus as widely as possible, bringing all into the power of the name of Jesus. In the Bible, names have power. Those who were gathered in the Name were gathered in the Lord, and this Name had the power of healing and reconciliation with God. In a vocation the Lord calls you by name so as to proclaim his name. We clearly see this in Peter and Paul who spread the Name of Jesus throughout the earth.
This week we celebrate two bishop saints of the Early Church, i.e. Saints Cyril and Irenaeus. Both are from the Near East, once the home of a vibrant Christian culture. While most of that culture has passed away in the last millennium, the remaining small Christian communities have been destroyed practically overnight by radical Islam. That culture must be defended, and like Remi Brague, I feel I have a responsibility, to the best of my abilities, of rescuing the cultural heritage of Christianity in the Near Eastern world. Consecrated life finds its beginnings there, and we can learn much it, especially its emphasis on asceticism. The Church Fathers, in our case Saints Irenaeus and Cyril, saw asceticism as necessary for all Christians, and this is what I would like to focus on.
Saints Irenaeus and Cyril were from regions that are now Muslim. Cyril was from Alexandria in Egypt, and Irenaeus was from Smyrna, now Izmir, Turkey. Both were Greek speaking cities in the Roman Empire. During these early centuries of Christianity, the East was more cultured than the West. While that seems odd to us we must remember that even the Romans considered the East to be more civilized than the West. So Irenaeus was not moving up when he went to Lyon to preach the Gospel. We no longer make a concerted effort to remember the past, and in order to appreciate the consecrated life we must not forget the cultural treasures of Christianity in the East, particularly asceticism. Cyril and Irenaeus are among the greatest figures of the Church and they both practiced asceticism, encouraging all Christians to do likewise. This short essay will focus on asceticism in the East.
St. Paul, who founded many Christian communities in the East, preached life in Christ or life according to the Spirit. A recurring theme in many of his epistles is adoptive sonship, i.e. our means of participation in the true spiritual worship of the Trinity, the source of all life. For participation in the divine life, Paul encouraged the unmarried and widows not to marry (1 Cor.7), since he thought marriage was bound up with many troubles in this life. Such advice, while not denigrating marriage – Paul had a very high view of marriage, calling it a great “mystery” in his Letter to the Ephesians, played a role in the origins of the consecrated life. Monasticism was an aspect of this. Monks did not leave the world behind but entered the true depth of reality, i.e. God. They became living icons of the divine life, something many people sensed, inspiring many to live like them. This gave rise to communal monasticism. Let’s take St. Anthony the Great from Egypt as an example: he encountered the beauty of Christ in the Gospel story of the Rich Young Man and was inspired to leave everything to seek God and find union with Him in the desert. As creatures with unruly passions, union with God was only required through discipline. Cyril’s predecessor, St. Athanasius, popularized Anthony’s asceticism throughout the Christian world by his book The Life of Anthony the Great. This book inspired many young men to set out to become ascetics like Anthony.
Irenaeus was taught by the bishop and martyr Polycarp, a disciple of John the Apostle. From leaning on the heart of Christ to remaining with Christ during his Passion, John was radically intimate with the Lord. This experience was handed on to Polycarp who, in turn, handed it on to Irenaeus. Irenaeus’ lifelong enemy were the Gnostics, a heretical group that saw creation as evil and something to be cast off. In his great work Adversus Heresus, Irenaeus defended the goodness of creation and a healthy form of asceticism. While Irenaeus lived a century before Anthony the Great he was already laying the foundations for Christian asceticism. He saw it as a remedy for the waywardness of creation, realigning the passion back into unity with God. This was something all Christians were called to do and not just monks.
St. Cyril of Alexandria agreed. While he is mostly known for his conflict with Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus (431), his works on asceticism need to be revived. He applied asceticism to scriptural exegesis. For him, exegetes must be ascetics. Such discipline would clear the mind, allowing the exegete to truly live in the Spirit so as to correctly discern the meaning of Scripture. Only the Spirit can unveil the meaning of the text, and discipline is necessary to be attuned to the Spirit. There is evidence that Cyril spent significant time in the Egyptian desert, living with the monks. As a bishop he called his flock to practice bodily and spiritual disciplines. In a culture that encourages license in practically everything but work, athletics and finance, it might be worthwhile to look at the writings of these early Church Fathers and study the lives of desert monks so as to better appreciate the value of asceticism for all the baptized.
Father James Kubicki, S.J. provides rich reflections on why devotion to the Sacred Heart is not one devotion among many, nor the particular charism of a few, but an essential element for those seeking to be closely configured to Christ through the profession of the evangelical counsels. He also offers practical considerations and practices on how to live this configuration to the Sacred Heart so that one can truly grow in the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
St. Thomas More is a model of prudent discernment. In his early life, he seriously considered the priesthood. After he became a lawyer, he discerned becoming a Carthusian, living near the London Charterhouse to join the monks in their spiritual exercises. But More discerned not to become a religious. This was not out fear or neglect but prudence – at least according to fellow Christian humanist and dear friend, Erasmus. He said More “proved himself far more prudent than most candidates who thrust themselves rashly into that arduous profession (religious life) without any previous trial of their powers.” More went on to be a chaste husband and a good father, but he never lost his admiration for the religious life. Most of us mistake cowardice for prudence. But based on the observations of friends and later discoveries, this did not apply to More. He died a martyr’s death which was not the result of spontaneity but the fruit of faithful servitude to Christ. On this feast of St. Thomas More, may we have the prudence to discern God’s call and the strength to follow Him.
Now some insights into Aloysius’ spirituality. To the one virtue which the Church has chosen, and on account of which has chosen him ‘the universal patron of youth’, was his chastity. All the evidence we have indicates that he had very strong sexual passions. We know that from his own writing; we know that from people who knew him and we know that from what is called penance from one view-point, what is really, you might say ‘preventive austerity’ from another. He simply believed that unless he mortified his body, and I didn’t tell you one tenth of what he did, he just would not get that passion under control. The lesson for us, in a sex-mad world, is obvious. You do not control that passion without mortification, you just don’t. As a result, the Church has held him up as a model of what even the most passionate personality can achieve, always with God’s grace, but not as we’ve said, more than once. We may not be able to, given our temperament of the circumstances in which we are living, we may not be able to cope with temptation–we need grace, very well, how do you get the grace? –through prayer and mortification. And Christ’s words, remember? about a certain demon, not being able to be driven out except, remember? through penance. Well, it’s a non-title to give the devil, but, he is the demon of lust; though being without a body himself, he knows, he knows, how by stirring this passion, he can lead people into any kind of sin. That’s the first and towering lesson of the life of St. Aloysius.
That chastity is not easily preserved in any age and in our day, is humanly impossible without grace merited through prayer and penance. A good reason, a very good reason, for becoming a religious these days, I mean, of course, a good religious, a real religious, is to preserve oneself from the lust that we breath in a country like ours like the atmosphere.
Second feature of his spirituality. His profound humility shown in the fact that as you know in certain cultures, notably the Italian and Spanish nobility, is highly prized. And after four hundred years, for example, in Latin America, the cleavage between, call them the nobility, and the rest of the people, Aloysius, under divine inspiration from early boyhood, recognized that if he is to even save his soul, he cannot pride himself on his rank or social state. In the United States we don’t have, I suppose I can say, “thank God”, nobility. We don’t have a lady this and a sir that or counts and countesses, but, my friends, we sure have status. The books that I’m not recommending to your reading, but just to know that it exists. It’s a good book to read, called “Status Secrets” by Vance Packard. In the United States, Packard describes with great detail how status conscious Americans are. I live on 83 and Park Ave. All I have to do is walk up Park Ave. to 96th Street and then it’s a different world. In other words, you might say the barbarians of New York live beyond 96th. Where people live, how they dress, even the names of the streets, ‘Aw, you can live on such and such a drive or such and such a lane or you have not a cheap, pardon me, Chevrolet or Ford, but a Buick or a Cadillac. Aloysius hated pretense–a lesson for everyone of us–putting on, and let me tell you, this has infested every rank and every state of life. I won’t dare identify the diocese, but I called up … I was in the city on some great problem affecting the large community of the diocese and I wasn’t just a private individual because I do work for the Congregation for Religious, so I called up to make an appointment with a Vicar for religious in that diocese and he invited me, 12 o’clock noon, I thought to myself, “how kind of him, we’ll have lunch together”, so I showed-up at the Chancery, few minutes before 12 and a receptionist said, ‘sit down’ so I sat down. And a telephone call from the priest was “Vicar, call the office”, he was in the building, ‘would you tell Father to wait while I have my lunch’. I waited over an hour. He came back smiling. All I can tell you, it took a lot of grace, but I smiled, too. He wanted to make sure I knew who was in charge, because he knew the message that I had to share with him would somehow touch on his authority. That’s the second feature of Aloysius’ spirituality–a humility without pretense and he didn’t have to pretend because he was of the highest nobility.
Third feature of his spirituality, we may call it casually, penance, but it is much more refined. Under divine guidance, Aloysius recognized that we all have powerful drives in our fallen nature, called the ‘capital sins’, the more sophisticated name is our concupiscence. We all have these drives–there are seven. You know them by heart, don’t you? you know them by memory, don’t you? places g … well, this is an insight into the meaning of penance that only a person as totally innocent as Aloysius could teach us … one reason he was canonized. For even though we have not personally sinned, we commonly and correctly associate doing penance for our own past mistakes. In Margaret of Cortona, all right, she had a sinful past, and Augustine, you better believe it, had a sinful past but not Aloysius. So what’s all this penance about. There are a few things I will share with you during these conferences on the Jesuit saints, more important than this one. The insight that he gave the Church was that even though we have not personally sinned, either we do, and the word is violence to our sinful nature or concupiscence will do violence to us. Now in some people, they are just stronger than in others. Mothers tell me, they can tell when, for example, a child, a girl of three … “Father” the mother tells me, “Mary is going to have trouble with humility for the rest of her life.” Have you seen it in youngsters? or temper, or, and this is the easiest, sloth. We all have these drives, some are stronger than others, depending on who the person is and how much we have given in to a particular tendency. With Aloysius, it was lust, he knew it and in order to teach the world the need for penance, not just to expiate sins committed but in order to master our sinful desires what we still call penance, is something that we should all learn from Aloysius to practice, to ask ourselves, what is my predominant passion? and then, what am I doing? Ignatius famous phrase ‘Hacer contra’ act against, do the opposite of that which you have a tendency to do.
Fourth feature of his spirituality. Aloysius had a profound understanding of the gravity of sin. In his own life, in the life of others and in how dreadful a thing it is to offend the good God. If there is one mystery of our faith that needs strengthening in these days, it is the fact of sin. Who talks about it? He was not a theologian, but one of the ranking American psychiatrists who wrote a book not too long ago on “What ever happened to sin?” People have simply lost their sense of guilt.
Fifth feature. Already from childhood, Aloysius looked forward to going to Heaven, the mystery of Heaven. No doubt one reason that he performed extraordinary penance, and that remember in addition to all of his physical disabilities which he already experienced from childhood, one reason was that he just looked forward to a day and all of this would end. No wonder when he caught the plague in Rome, from which he briefly recovered then shortly after got a fever and died, he confessed impatience with wanting to die. It wasn’t death that he welcomed, it was the aftermath of death, namely Heaven. May I recommend a daily looking forward to Heaven and to ask God to give us some foretaste of what awaits us. It will make this world, seem by comparison, very cheap and dreary, indeed.
Another feature of Aloysius spirituality is charity in the practice of mercy so much so that we can call him a ‘martyr of charity.’ Sometime when we read Christ’s statement which he made by our loving our neighbor even to laying down our life for the neighbor, we don’t really mean this, but, we think, well, it must be some theological exaggeration, Christ didn’t really mean it. He not only meant it, He lived it, or you could make a transitive verb-He died it. That’s what the crucifixion is all about. One meaning of Calvary that can be lost on us–this is a voluntary sacrifice of His life as an act of charity. Most of us find enough difficulty, I don’t say in dying for people, but in living with people. I get some idea of how this charity can be very costly. If in God’s providence He gives us the opportunity of laying down literally our lives for another person, God be praised. Whom is the Holy Father canonizing this year who is a martyr of charity, Maximillian Kolbe. Another one, Aloysius. Charity, in other words, means not only doing good, but giving up self including the dearest possession we have, naturally speaking, our lives.
And finally, Aloysius spiritual joy. As we look at the short life of Aloysius, depending on the person’s view point, it may seem oppressive, it shouldn’t be, but, in modern jargon, it has so much (pardon the expression) so much of the negative, you know, penance, mortification, sin–and a world that has gone mad, drunk with sin, doesn’t realize that already this side of eternity, we are to be an Aloysius was literally; we are to be, if it is God’s will, ecstatically happy of that. We are not to be sad. We are not, God forbid, to be unhappy. The secret, and what an open secret it is in the life of Aloysius, the secret is to find the happiness in the right place. That’s all, yes, but that’s everything. In other words, as a closing observation, Aloysius showed that’s why the Church canonized him, that when Christ gave us the eight Beatitudes, which are eight promises of happiness, He meant it. The condition for being happy, well, that’s part of the Covenant, that’s what we do, but if we do our part, God comes through.
Saint Aloysius, pray for us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the history of monasticism, Saint Romuald and the Camaldolese appear as a bridge between the Desert Fathers’ eremitic tradition and the Benedictine monastic way of life. A precursor to the Carthusians, Romuald battled abuses and laxity in the Church, reforming existing monasteries and establishing new ones faithful to the Rule of St. Benedict. A biographer deemed him “the solitary to the solitaries,” yet he was an incessant traveler, spurred on by the intense desire to bring souls to Christ.
Romuald was born to a noble family around the year 952 in Ravenna, Italy. The few facts we know about his life come from two principle sources: The Life of the Five Hermit Brothers by St. Bruno of Querfort and The Life of Blessed Romuald by St. Peter Damian (1007-1072). Peter Damian, too, founded and reformed many monasteries in the Romualdian tradition.
The abuses in the Church at the time were deep-rooted. When men could purchase or sell positions or spiritual goods in the Church (the sin of simony, cf. Acts 8:9-24), it is not surprising that sexual mores among the clergy also became lax. During his youth, Romuald too “felt drawn to the carnal sins popular in his day.” Yet, he was also drawn to solitude and was sincere in trying to amend his ways. Romuald’s monastic life began when his father Serge killed a distant relative in a duel over a land dispute. Romuald fled to the monastery of St. Apollinaris in Classe to do forty days’ penance for his father’s sin. There he was enkindled with the “fire of divine love” and asked for the monastic habit.
Romuald, who lived with the monks for three years, “perceived that some of the monks were living in laxity, walking along the broad way, while he was not allowed to take the narrow as his heart was urging him.” They took offense at his attempts to draw their attention to the Rule and plotted to kill him, though Romuald successfully avoided the trap. He received permission to live near Venice under the spiritual leadership of a venerable hermit named Marino. Romuald was almost illiterate and when he was unable to sing the psalms, suffered raps on the head from Marino who admired his forbearance.
Through the Doge of Venice, Romuald and Marino were introduced to an abbot who was returning to his monastery in southern France. The two solitaries and others joined the abbot on his journey home where they began to live an eremitical life in the woods near the monastery. Soon the disciple became the master. Romuald “grew wondrously in virtue and surpassed the others on the journey of monastic life.” An elder monk later said of him, “This Romuald, the greatest in our times, lives sublime realities with great humility, not out of his own presumption but according to the Conferences of the hermit fathers, and taught us the right way.” Romuald’s regimen was severe. He once fasted for fifteen years, eating substantial meals only occasionally.
Romuald eventually returned home to help his father persevere in a monastic vocation. This was the start of a lifelong whirlwind of travel punctuated by long periods of solitude. He befriended the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto III, who became his devoted follower. Otto forced him to become abbot of his old monastery, St. Apollinaris in Classe, where the monks proved to be as obstinate as ever. After fruitless efforts at reform and “seeing that he now had less quiet and purity,” Romuald dramatically threw down his abbatial staff and went to Monte Cassino, the home of the Benedictines. During a grave illness, he was nursed to health by a fervent young disciple named Benedict.
After building a monastery in Pereo near Ravenna, Romuald was persuaded by St. Bruno of Querfort to promote an evangelization mission to the Slavs. From this endeavor came a “threefold good: a nice cenobium for those newly come from the world, golden solitude for mature members thirsting for the living God, and the preaching of the Gospel to the pagans for those eager to depart and be with Christ (martyrdom).” This became the model for the later foundation at Camaldoli.
The scattering of Romuald’s disciples resulted from the collapse of the foundation at Pereo that some unfairly blamed on Romuald. In truth, though he founded many foundations, Romuald “thought of himself more as an abbot of souls than of bodies.” He had a “propensity to do the opposite of what people wanted, respecting himself and preserving his own virtuousness while succeeding in having others scorn, insult and defame him.”
Romuald moved to Istria (Dalmatia) where he lived in solitude for several years. Over time, he received the spiritual gifts of prophecy, tears, and the profound knowledge of Scripture. He preferred to celebrate Mass in private because he could not contain his emotions. When he learned that Bruno and Benedict had been martyred, he went to central Europe with a “tremendous desire to shed his own blood for Christ.” Illness forced him to turn back in Germany though there were many conversions.
Though Romuald desired this martyrdom of blood, the real life and death battle was fought in the monastic cell. Here the devil and his temptations were confronted. Here the riches of the world, the battles that lay ahead, and his life of “petty, worthless activity” were presented to entice and discourage him. One night, a brother heard him say, “They have cast you down from heaven; what are you looking for in a hermitage? Go away filthy dog; clear off, you old snake!”
Whenever Romuald encountered monks resistant to reform, he “left in search of earth apt for bearing the fruit of souls.” One place was Val di Castro where he built a hermitage for his followers and a monastery for women. Here, “the blessed man was like one of the seraphim, divine fire beyond any comparison burned within him, and wherever he went he lit the torches of others with his holy preaching.” He also reprimanded secular priests and bishops who had purchased their offices through simony. So entrenched were abuses that Peter Damian wrote, “It is doubtful that the saint during his entire lifetime could really convert a bishop!”
Romuald’s reform embodied rigorous fasting, solitude and silence yet also brotherly love in community. His gift to the Church was to provide hermits with a structured, semi-eremitic life under a superior and a Rule. The Little Rule of Romuald, recorded by Bruno c. 1006, begins: “Sit in the cell as in paradise. Cast all memory of the world behind you.” Use the Psalms to focus your attention. “Above all, place yourself in the presence of God with fear and trembling, as one who stands in the sight of the emperor. Completely destroy yourself and sit like a little bird content with the grace of God. For unless its mother gives it something, it neither tastes anything nor has anything to eat.” The hermit’s principal ideal, aim or task, said Pope Benedict XVI, “is continual prayer (Lk 18:1), that is, constant union with God. There is no fixed time for mental prayer in the eremitic life, unlike other religious institutes, because prayer is to be unceasing, a kind of spiritual equivalent to breathing.”
A solitary once told Romuald that he was under no authority, that he alone decided what was best. Romuald told him, “If you are carrying the cross of Christ, you cannot forget the obedience of Christ. Go, then, get your abbot’s permission. Then come back and live humbly in obedience to him. Thus the building of your holy work, constructed with good will, will be built on humility and raised by the virtue of obedience.”
Peter Damian said that to be in Romuald’s presence was to feel as though you were standing before the majesty of God. The marquis of Tuscany said, “Neither the emperor nor any other mortal can frighten me equal to the terror that Romuald’s gaze gives me.” He was regularly besieged by people seeking guidance or healing. It was well known that a piece of bread blessed by him could cure the sick of mind or spirit. Nevertheless, this awe did not prevent an abbot who had purchased his office through simony from trying to strangle him.
Often, his own followers rebelled against him. One time, his monks were furious that he gave money to the needy that they wanted for themselves. They beat him with clubs and threw him out of the monastery. When a disciple who had been chastised for serious sins accused Romuald of the same, Romuald was forbidden to say Mass for six months. During his first Mass after this unjust sentence, the radiance of his face startled those present. He was inspired to write a commentary on the psalms, no longer extant, containing grammatical inaccuracies in form, but none in spirit.
At one point, he remained in solitude for seven years, “observing perpetual silence without exceptions. Still, with a silent tongue and preaching with this life, he was able to do more than ever.” His last foundation was built at Camaldoli (c. 1023), where he established a hermitage and a separate monastery to receive guests. This hermitage “from its very onset was established by our fathers as lord and master over the guesthouse.” The owner of the land told Romuald that in a dream he saw, like the prophet Jacob, men in white ascending a ladder to heaven.
When his end was near, he went back to Val di Castro, where for six months he suffered greatly from diseased lungs. He died in 1027, yet fifteen years later, people still flocked to his tomb “to see the miracles God works through him. “Now,” wrote Peter Damian, “he shines in an inexpressible way among the living stones of the heavenly Jerusalem.”
It is believed that Romuald founded or reformed nearly a hundred monasteries and hermitages during his life. Today, there are two Camaldolese branches: the Camaldolese Benedictines and the Camaldolese Hermits of Monte Corona. Founded in 1520 as a reform by Bl. Paul Giustiniani, the Monte Coronese have hermitages only. The lone hermitage in the United States is in Bloomingdale, Ohio, where the silence is not disrupted by television or the internet. Its nine solitary cells stand, in original fashion, in a semicircle about the Church, the true center of the hermitage.
In 1960, Bishop Fulton Sheen wrote: “Their silence will make atonement for vain verbiage where so many talk, but few listen; their lives as hermits will repair for those human alliances where men communize to be anti-God. And for those who always want to be ‘alone,’ these saintly men will prove that the only aloneness is being without God.”
For more information, visit camaldolese.org. The book Camaldolese Spirituality: Essential Sources by Peter-Damian Belisle contains the five ancient texts of Romualdian spirituality. Camaldolese Extraordinary by Dom Jean Leclercq and Bl. Paul Giustiniani is a detailed look at the Monte Corona founder and his spirituality.
Born: c. 952 in Ravenna, Italy
Founding of the Camaldolese Order: 1023 in Camaldoli, Italy
Died: 1027 in Val di Castro, Italy
Establishment of the Camaldolese Congregation: 1105 by Pope Paschal II
Spirituality: “Prefer nothing, absolutely nothing, to the love of Christ.”
Motto: Ego vobis, vos mihi (I am Yours, You are Mine)
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has been called the Mozart of Theology. Like Mozart’s music, his writings charm and delight, transporting the soul to heavenly spheres. He can effortlessly intone a piercing chord that strikes at the heart of reality, moving the reader to greater devotion to God. But sometimes he often focuses our gaze on unseemly realities: for example, the crisis of Modernity. Nevertheless, he always ends his addresses on an encouraging note. In particular, my favorite address is one he delivered at a meeting with Representatives from the World of Culture in Paris on September 12, 2008. Unfortunately, this address did not receive much publicity; it was not controversial like the Regensburg Address. And while the media – the paragon of superficiality -mostly overlooked the substance of the Regensburg Address to focus on a section that seemed Islamophobic, the Regensburg Address and the Address in Paris contain gems that are worth reflecting on to this day. The Address in Paris is about culture. But instead of generically talking about culture, Benedict XVI simply described– a brilliant move on his part – the ancient monks’ search for God (quaerere Deum) and the culture that sprang from that. He says,
“It was not their intention to create a culture nor even to preserve a culture from the past. Their motivation was much more basic. Their goal was: quaerere Deum. Amid the confusion of the times, in which nothing seemed permanent, they wanted to do the essential – to make an effort to find what was perennially valid and lasting, life itself. They were searching for God.”
At a time of cultural crisis – something, I think, all faithful Christians should recognize – it is fitting to reflect on the example of those who set out to find God and give up everything to follow Him, finding in Him their very all. While it is good to desire the creation of a robust, God-centered “culture”, too often this gets caught up in talk and no action. Theory is good but that must be translated into flesh and blood. Some concrete order (arrangement) in-forms individual lives. It might be good to look and see what informs you.
Culture stems from the specific actions and beliefs of its individuals that ultimately stem from one’s relation to God. True culture comes about inadvertently. Culture can never really be set up but must come about through values beyond oneself. That is why the quaerere Deum is at the root of culture. In the Bible, Israel either worship the true God or an idol. This tension informs its culture. The Consecrated Life is focused on giving up all so as to better worship the true God. It translates itself into particular rules (ordos) that bring about a specific culture. These specific orders need to be appreciated and taken up if Catholics want to be serious about a truly living culture.
Narratives of decline are very popular in the West, and while they can help us better understand our current situation, a temptation to lose the virtue of hope arises. Many people question whether a genuine Christian culture exists, seeing nothing but a culture of death. Some social commentators see themselves as writing the obituary of a Christian West. If you find yourself caught in such a condition, it would be helpful to read an early-twentieth century French poet, Charles Péguy.
For Péguy, hope was the most precious of all God’s gifts. In his famous poem The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, Péguy depicts hope as a little child between her two older sisters, faith and charity. Hope is small and vulnerable, needing protection. God delights the most in such a little child.
Péguy died at the beginning of World War I. This devastating war seemed to crush all hope, at least according to secular humanism’s understanding of it. Péguy intuited that Christian hope, more than ever, needed to be protected. A century later, Benedict turned our attention, once again, to Christian hope. He wrote an encyclical on it, but he also integrated that theme into many of his addresses. Benedict knew that Christian hope stems from the Resurrection and the radical decision to give one’s all to belong to the Lord. His General Audiences focused on the lives of great saints, inspiring people to set out on the same path to sanctity, particularly as lived in the Consecrated Life. For our purposes, the Consecrated Life is Péguy’s little child that needs to be protected at all costs, for the seed from which a genuine Christian culture will grow.
In Spe Salve, Pope Benedict wrote, “The one who has hope lives differently; the one who has hope has been granted the gift of new life” (§2). This new life is the gift of God. It is a participation in His Communion, the source of all life. But this does not arise automatically. It must be sought for. Not in order to create a new culture but in order to find God and rest in Him. I encourage you to read the Pope Emeritus’ address to have a deeper appreciation for the monks’ desire for God and the beautiful way of life that sprang from it. After that, watch Into Great Silence and just look at the silent hope and joy on each monk’s face. They see the hope that remains in God.
It is impossible to exaggerate the close relation between the Holy Eucharist and vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
This is only to be expected once we realize that every vocation is a special grace from God, and the greatest source of grace we have is the Eucharist as Presence, Sacrifice, and Communion.
Faith tells us that Christ is really present on our altars, that He really offers Himself in the Mass, and that we really receive Him in Holy Communion. In each case, the Living Christ is now inspiring men and women to give themselves to Him with all their hearts and follow Him in the extension of His Kingdom.
The Eucharist, therefore, is the best way to foster vocations. This means that persons who attend Mass, receive Communion and invoke Christ in the Blessed Sacrament obtain light and strength that no one else has a claim to.
The Eucharist is finally the infallible way of preserving one’s vocation. This is especially true of devotion to the Real Presence. Is it any wonder that saintly priests and religious over the centuries have been uncommonly devoted to the Blessed Sacrament? They know where to obtain the help they need to remain faithful to their vocations. It is from the same Christ Who called them and Who continues to sustain them in His consecrated service.
Vocations begin with the Eucharist; they are developed through the Eucharist; and they are preserved by the Eucharist. All of this is true because the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, still on earth, working through men and women whom He calls to share His Plan for salvation.
On May 29th, the Prime Minister of Poland, Beata Szydlo, and her husband, Edward, had the unique privilege of attending the first Mass of her newly ordained son, Fr. Tymoteusz Szydlo, at their home parish of Our Lady of Częstochowa in Przecieszyn in southern Poland. Father Szydlo is a member of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, an order founded in 1988 and known for celebrating Mass in the Extraordinary Form. “Human words are unable to express the gratitude I owe You, my God,” Father said. “Therefore, I humbly ask You to keep me in Your holy service.”
The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter was founded at the Abbey of Hauterive in Switzerland by a dozen priests and a score of seminarians. Their mission is the formation and sanctification of their priests, using the traditional liturgy of the Roman Rite to worship Our Lord and to serve the Church across the world. Shortly after their foundation, they moved to Germany, which is now the location of their European seminary. They also have a house of formation in Denton, Nebraska. Currently, there are 270 priests and 132 seminarians in the Fraternity serving in 124 dioceses including 34 in the United States.
“This is not an easy road,” the Prime Minister said. “especially these days I think young people like them have an extremely important mission to fulfill. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for … all of my son’s fellow seminarians and for my son. I hope they will persevere and do a lot of good for everyone, for all of us. They are wonderful young people.”
Using the ancient liturgy as our well-spring, we form our priests in the traditions of the Church to serve at the altar and in the parish so that the fullness of Christ might enter the emptiness of the world.