Wednesday, May 23, 2012 - St. Felix of Cantalice - (1515-1587)
Felix was the first Capuchin Franciscan ever canonized. In fact, when he was born, the Capuchins did not yet exist as a distinct group within the Franciscans.
Born of humble, God-fearing parents in the Rieti Valley, Felix worked as a farmhand and a shepherd until he was 28. He developed the habit of praying while he worked.
In 1543 he joined the Capuchins. When the guardian explained the hardships of that way of life, Felix answered: "Father, the austerity of your Order does not frighten me. I hope, with God’s help, to overcome all the difficulties which will arise from my own weakness."
Three years later Felix was assigned to the friary in Rome as its official beggar. Because he was a model of simplicity and charity, he edified many people during the 42 years he performed that service for his confreres.
As he made his rounds, he worked to convert hardened sinners and to feed the poor–as did his good friend, St. Philip Neri, who founded the Oratory, a community of priests serving the poor of Rome. When Felix wasn’t talking on his rounds, he was praying the rosary. The people named him "Brother Deo Gratias" (thanks be to God) because he was always using that blessing.
When Felix was an old man, his superior had to order him to wear sandals to protect his health. Around the same time a certain cardinal offered to suggest to Felix’s superiors that he be freed of begging so that he could devote more time to prayer. Felix talked the cardinal out of that idea. Felix was canonized in 1712.
Thursday, May 24, 2012 - St. Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi - (1566-1607)
Mystical ecstasy is the elevation of the spirit to God in such a way that the person is aware of this union with God while both internal and external senses are detached from the sensible world. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi was so generously given this special gift of God that she is called the "ecstatic saint."
She was born into a noble family in Florence in 1566. The normal course would have been for Catherine de Pazzi to have married wealth and enjoyed comfort, but she chose to follow her own path. At nine she learned to meditate from the family confessor. She made her first Communion at the then-early age of 10 and made a vow of virginity one month later. When 16, she entered the Carmelite convent in Florence because she could receive Communion daily there.
Catherine had taken the name Mary Magdalene and had been a novice for a year when she became critically ill. Death seemed near so her superiors let her make her profession of vows from a cot in the chapel in a private ceremony. Immediately after, she fell into an ecstasy that lasted about two hours. This was repeated after Communion on the following 40 mornings. These ecstasies were rich experiences of union with God and contained marvelous insights into divine truths.
As a safeguard against deception and to preserve the revelations, her confessor asked Mary Magdalene to dictate her experiences to sister secretaries. Over the next six years, five large volumes were filled. The first three books record ecstasies from May of 1584 through Pentecost week the following year. This week was a preparation for a severe five-year trial. The fourth book records that trial and the fifth is a collection of letters concerning reform and renewal. Another book, Admonitions, is a collection of her sayings arising from her experiences in the formation of women religious.
The extraordinary was ordinary for this saint. She read the thoughts of others and predicted future events. During her lifetime, she appeared to several persons in distant places and cured a number of sick people.
It would be easy to dwell on the ecstasies and pretend that Mary Magdalene only had spiritual highs. This is far from true. It seems that God permitted her this special closeness to prepare her for the five years of desolation that followed when she experienced spiritual dryness. She was plunged into a state of darkness in which she saw nothing but what was horrible in herself and all around her. She had violent temptations and endured great physical suffering. She died in 1607 at 41, and was canonized in 1669.
Friday, May 25, 2012 - St. Venerable Bede - (672?-735)
Patron Saint of:
Bede is one of the few saints honored as such even during his lifetime. His writings were filled with such faith and learning that even while he was still alive, a Church council ordered them to be read publicly in the churches.
At an early age Bede was entrusted to the care of the abbot of the Monastery of St. Paul, Jarrow. The happy combination of genius and the instruction of scholarly, saintly monks produced a saint and an extraordinary scholar, perhaps the most outstanding one of his day. He was deeply versed in all the sciences of his times: natural philosophy, the philosophical principles of Aristotle, astronomy, arithmetic, grammar, ecclesiastical history, the lives of the saints and, especially, Holy Scripture.
From the time of his ordination to the priesthood at 30 (he had been ordained deacon at 19) till his death, he was ever occupied with learning, writing and teaching. Besides the many books that he copied, he composed 45 of his own, including 30 commentaries on books of the Bible.
Although eagerly sought by kings and other notables, even Pope Sergius, Bede managed to remain in his own monastery till his death. Only once did he leave for a few months in order to teach in the school of the archbishop of York. Bede died in 735 praying his favorite prayer: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As in the beginning, so now, and forever.”
His Ecclesiastical History of the English People is commonly regarded as of decisive importance in the art and science of writing history. A unique era was coming to an end at the time of Bede’s death: It had fulfilled its purpose of preparing Western Christianity to assimilate the non-Roman barbarian North. Bede recognized the opening to a new day in the life of the Church even as it was happening.
Saturday, May 26, 2012 - St. Philip Neri - (1515-1595)
Philip Neri was a sign of contradiction, combining popularity with piety against the background of a corrupt Rome and a disinterested clergy, the whole post-Renaissance malaise.
At an early age, he abandoned the chance to become a businessman, moved to Rome from Florence and devoted his life and individuality to God. After three years of philosophy and theology studies, he gave up any thought of ordination. The next 13 years were spent in a vocation unusual at the time—that of a layperson actively engaged in prayer and the apostolate.
As the Council of Trent was reforming the Church on a doctrinal level, Philip’s appealing personality was winning him friends from all levels of society, from beggars to cardinals. He rapidly gathered around himself a group of laypersons won over by his audacious spirituality. Initially they met as an informal prayer and discussion group, and also served poor people in Rome.
At the urging of his confessor, he was ordained a priest and soon became an outstanding confessor, gifted with the knack of piercing the pretenses and illusions of others, though always in a charitable manner and often with a joke. He arranged talks, discussions and prayers for his penitents in a room above the church. He sometimes led “excursions” to other churches, often with music and a picnic on the way.
Some of his followers became priests and lived together in community. This was the beginning of the Oratory, the religious institute he founded. A feature of their life was a daily afternoon service of four informal talks, with vernacular hymns and prayers. Giovanni Palestrina was one of Philip’s followers, and composed music for the services.
The Oratory was finally approved after suffering through a period of accusations of being an assembly of heretics, where laypersons preached and sang vernacular hymns! (Cardinal Newman founded the first English-speaking house of the Oratory three centuries later.)
Philip’s advice was sought by many of the prominent figures of his day. He is one of the influential figures of the Counter-Reformation, mainly for converting to personal holiness many of the influential people within the Church itself. His characteristic virtues were humility and gaiety.
Sunday, May 27, 2012 - St. Augustine of Canterbury - (d. 605?)
Patron Saint of: England
In the year 596, some 40 monks set out from Rome to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons in England. Leading the group was Augustine, the prior of their monastery in Rome. Hardly had he and his men reached Gaul (France) when they heard stories of the ferocity of the Anglo-Saxons and of the treacherous waters of the English Channel. Augustine returned to Rome and to the pope who had sent them—St. Gregory the Great (September 3 )—only to be assured by him that their fears were groundless.
Augustine again set out. This time the group crossed the English Channel and landed in the territory of Kent, ruled by King Ethelbert, a pagan married to a Christian. Ethelbert received them kindly, set up a residence for them in Canterbury and within the year, on Pentecost Sunday, 597, was himself baptized. After being consecrated a bishop in France, Augustine returned to Canterbury, where he founded his see. He constructed a church and monastery near where the present cathedral, begun in 1070, now stands. As the faith spread, additional sees were established at London and Rochester.
Work was sometimes slow and Augustine did not always meet with success. Attempts to reconcile the Anglo-Saxon Christians with the original Briton Christians (who had been driven into western England by Anglo-Saxon invaders) ended in dismal failure. Augustine failed to convince the Britons to give up certain Celtic customs at variance with Rome and to forget their bitterness, helping him evangelize their Anglo-Saxon conquerors
Laboring patiently, Augustine wisely heeded the missionary principles—quite enlightened for the times—suggested by Pope Gregory the Great: purify rather than destroy pagan temples and customs; let pagan rites and festivals be transformed into Christian feasts; retain local customs as far as possible. The limited success Augustine achieved in England before his death in 605, a short eight years after he arrived in England, would eventually bear fruit long after in the conversion of England. Augustine of Canterbury can truly be called the “Apostle of England.”
Monday, May 28, 2012 - Venerable Pierre Toussaint - 1766-1853
Born in modern-day Haiti and brought to New York City as a slave, Pierre died a free man, a renowned hairdresser and one of New York City’s most well-known Catholics.
Pierre Bérard, a plantation owner, made Toussaint a house slave and allowed his grandmother to teach her grandson how to read and write. In his early 20s, Pierre, his younger sister, his aunt and two other house slaves accompanied their master’s son to New York City because of political unrest at home. Apprenticed to a local hairdresser, Pierre learned the trade quickly and eventually worked very successfully in the homes of rich women in New York City.
When his master died, Pierre was determined to support his master’s widow, himself and the other house slaves. He was freed shortly before the widow’s death in 1807.
Four years later he married Marie Rose Juliette, whose freedom he had purchased. They later adopted Euphémie, his orphaned niece. Both preceded him in death. He attended daily Mass at St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street, the same parish that St. Elizabeth Seton attended.
Pierre donated to various charities, generously assisting blacks and whites in need. He and his wife opened their home to orphans and educated them. The couple also nursed abandoned people who were suffering from yellow fever. Urged to retire and enjoy the wealth he had accumulated, Pierre responded, “I have enough for myself, but if I stop working I have not enough for others.”
He was originally buried outside St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, where he was once refused entrance because of his race. His sanctity and the popular devotion to him caused his body to be moved to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue.
Pierre Toussaint was declared Venerable in 1996.
Tuesday, May 29, 2012 - St. Madeleine Sophie Barat - (1779-1865)
The legacy of Madeleine Sophie Barat can be found in the more than 100 schools operated by her Society of the Sacred Heart, institutions known for the quality of the education made available to the young.
Sophie herself received an extensive education, thanks to her brother, Louis, 11 years older and her godfather at Baptism. Himself a seminarian, he decided that his younger sister would likewise learn Latin, Greek, history, physics and mathematics—always without interruption and with a minimum of companionship. By age 15, she had received a thorough exposure to the Bible, the teachings of the Fathers of the Church and theology. Despite the oppressive regime Louis imposed, young Sophie thrived and developed a genuine love of learning.
Meanwhile, this was the time of the French Revolution and of the suppression of Christian schools. The education of the young, particularly young girls, was in a troubled state. At the same time, Sophie, who had concluded that she was called to the religious life, was persuaded to begin her life as a nun and as a teacher. She founded the Society of the Sacred Heart, which would focus on schools for the poor as well as boarding schools for young women of means; today, co-ed Sacred Heart schools can be found as well as schools exclusively for boys.
In 1826, her Society of the Sacred Heart received formal papal approval. By then she had served as superior at a number of convents. In 1865, she was stricken with paralysis; she died that year on the feast of the Ascension.
Madeleine Sophie Barat was canonized in 1925.
Wednesday, May 30, 2012 - St. Gregory VII - (1020-1085)
The 10th century and the first half of the 11th were dark days for the Church, partly because the papacy was the pawn of various Roman families. In 1049, things began to change when Pope Leo IX, a reformer, was elected. He brought a young monk named Hildebrand to Rome as his counselor and special representative on important missions. He was to become Gregory VII.
Three evils plagued the Church then: simony (the buying and selling of sacred offices and things), the unlawful marriage of the clergy and lay investiture (kings and nobles controlling the appointment of Church officials). To all of these Hildebrand directed his reformer’s attention, first as counselor to the popes and later (1073-1085) as pope himself.
Gregory’s papal letters stress the role of bishop of Rome as the vicar of Christ and the visible center of unity in the Church. He is well known for his long dispute with Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV over who should control the selection of bishops and abbots.
Gregory fiercely resisted any attack on the liberty of the Church. For this he suffered and finally died in exile. He said, “I have loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore I die in exile.” Thirty years later the Church finally won its struggle against lay investiture.
Thursday, May 31, 2012 - Visitation
This is a fairly late feast, going back only to the 13th or 14th century. It was established widely throughout the Church to pray for unity. The present date of celebration was set in 1969 in order to follow the Annunciation of the Lord (March 25) and precede the Nativity of John the Baptist (June 24).
Like most feasts of Mary, it is closely connected with Jesus and his saving work. The more visible actors in the visitation drama (see Luke 1:39-45) are Mary and Elizabeth. However, Jesus and John the Baptist steal the scene in a hidden way. Jesus makes John leap with joy—the joy of messianic salvation. Elizabeth, in turn, is filled with the Holy Spirit and addresses words of praise to Mary—words that echo down through the ages.
It is helpful to recall that we do not have a journalist’s account of this meeting. Rather, Luke, speaking for the Church, gives a prayerful poet’s rendition of the scene. Elizabeth’s praise of Mary as “the mother of my Lord” can be viewed as the earliest Church’s devotion to Mary. As with all authentic devotion to Mary, Elizabeth’s (the Church’s) words first praise God for what God has done to Mary. Only secondly does she praise Mary for trusting God’s words.
Then comes the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Here Mary herself (like the Church) traces all her greatness to God.
Friday, June 01, 2012 - St. Justin - (d. 165)
Justin never ended his quest for religious truth even when he converted to Christianity after years of studying various pagan philosophies.
As a young man, he was principally attracted to the school of Plato. However, he found that the Christian religion answered the great questions about life and existence better than the philosophers.
Upon his conversion he continued to wear the philosopher's mantle, and became the first Christian philosopher. He combined the Christian religion with the best elements in Greek philosophy. In his view, philosophy was a pedagogue of Christ, an educator that was to lead one to Christ.
Justin is known as an apologist, one who defends in writing the Christian religion against the attacks and misunderstandings of the pagans. Two of his so-called apologies have come down to us; they are addressed to the Roman emperor and to the Senate.
For his staunch adherence to the Christian religion, Justin was beheaded in Rome in 165.