Tuesday, 29 April 2014

St Catherine of Siena

Born at Siena, 25 March 1347, Catherine died at Rome, 29 April, 1380. She was the youngest but one of a very large family. Her father, Giacomo di Benincasa, was a dyer; her mother, Lapa, the daughter of a local poet. They belonged to the lower middle-class faction of tradesmen and petty notaries, known as "the Party of the Twelve," which between one revolution and another ruled the Republic of Siena from 1355 to 1368. From her earliest childhood Catherine began to see visions and to practice extreme austerities. 

At the age of seven she consecrated her virginity to Christ; in her sixteenth year she took the habit of the Dominican Tertiaries, and renewed the life of the anchorites of the desert in a little room in her father's house. After three years of celestial visitations and familiar conversation with Christ, she underwent the mystical experience known as the "spiritual espousals," probably during the carnival of 1366. She now rejoined her family, began to tend the sick, especially those afflicted with the most repulsive diseases, to serve the poor, and to labour for the conversion of sinners. 

Though always suffering terrible physical pain, living for long intervals on practically no food save the Blessed Sacrament, she was ever radiantly happy and full of practical wisdom no less than the highest spiritual insight. All her contemporaries bear witness to her extraordinary personal charm, which prevailed over the continual persecution to which she was subjected even by the friars of her own order and by her sisters in religion. She began to gather disciples round her, both men and women, who formed a wonderful spiritual fellowship, united to her by the bonds of mystical love. 

During the summer of 1370 she received a series of special manifestations of Divine mysteries, which culminated in a prolonged trance, a kind of mystical death, in which she had a vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, and heard a Divine command to leave her cell and enter the public life of the world. She began to dispatch letters to men and women in every condition of life, entered into correspondence with the princes and republics of Italy, was consulted by the papal legates about the affairs of the Church, and set herself to heal the wounds of her native land by staying the fury of civil war and the ravages of faction. 

She implored the pope, Gregory XI, to leave Avignon, to reform the clergy and the administration of the Papal States, and ardently threw herself into his design for a crusade, in the hopes of uniting the powers of Christendom against the infidels, and restoring peace to Italy by delivering her from the wandering companies of mercenary soldiers. 

While at Pisa, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, 1375, she received the Stigmata, although, at her special prayer, the marks did not appear outwardly in her body while she lived.

Mainly through the misgovernment of the papal officials, war broke out between Florence and the Holy See, and almost the whole of the Papal States rose in insurrection. Catherine had already been sent on a mission from the pope to secure the neutrality of Pisa and Lucca. In June, 1376, she went to Avignon as ambassador of the Florentines, to make their peace; but, either through the bad faith of the republic or through a misunderstanding caused by the frequent changes in its government, she was unsuccessful. Nevertheless she made such a profound impression upon the mind of the pope, that, in spite of the opposition of the French king and almost the whole of the Sacred College, he returned to Rome (17 January 1377). Catherine spent the greater part of 1377 in effecting a wonderful spiritual revival in the country districts subject to the Republic of Siena, and it was at this time that she miraculously learned to write, though she still seems to have chiefly relied upon her secretaries for her correspondence. 

Early in 1378 she was sent by Pope Gregory to Florence, to make a fresh effort for peace. Unfortunately, through the factious conduct of her Florentine associates, she became involved in the internal politics of the city, and during a popular tumult (June 22nd) an attempt was made upon her life. She was bitterly disappointed at her escape, declaring that her sins had deprived her of the red rose of martyrdom. Nevertheless, during the disastrous revolution known as "the tumult of the Ciompi," she still remained at Florence or in its territory until, at the beginning of August, news reached the city that peace had been signed between the republic and the new pope. Catherine then instantly returned to Siena, where she passed a few months of comparative quiet, dictating her Dialogue the book of her meditations and revelations.

Meanwhile, the Great Schism had broken out in the Church. From the outset Catherine enthusiastically adhered to the Roman claimant, Urban VI, who in November 1378 summoned her to Rome. In the Eternal City she spent what remained of her life, working strenuously for the reformation of the Church, serving the destitute and afflicted, and dispatching eloquent letters on behalf of Urban to high and low in all directions. Her strength was rapidly being consumed; she besought her Divine Bridegroom to let her bear the punishment for all the sins of the world, and to receive the sacrifice of her body for the unity and renovation of the Church; at last it seemed to her that the Bark of Peter was laid upon her shoulders, and that it was crushing her to death with its weight. 

After a prolonged and mysterious agony of three months, endured by her with supreme exultation and delight, from Sexagesima Sunday until the Sunday before the Ascension, she died. Her last political work, accomplished practically from her death-bed, was the reconciliation of Pope Urban VI with the Roman Republic (1380).

Among Catherine's principal followers were Fra Raimondo delle Vigne, of Capua (died 1399), her confessor and biographer, afterwards General of the Dominicans, and Stefano di Corrado Maconi (died 1424), who had been one of her secretaries, and became Prior General of the Carthusians. Raimondo's book, the Legend was finished in 1395. A second life of her, The Supplement, was written a few years later by another of her associates, Fra Tomaso Caffarini (died 1434), who also composed the Minor Legend, which was translated into Italian by Stefano Maconi. Between 1411 and 1413 the depositions of the surviving witnesses of her life and work were collected at Venice, to form the famous "Process." 

Catherine was canonised by Pius II in 1461. The emblems by which she is known in Christian art are the lily and book, the crown of thorns, or sometimes a heart - referring to the legend of her having changed hearts with Christ. The works of St Catherine of Siena rank among the classics of the Italian language, written in the beautiful Tuscan vernacular of the fourteenth century. Notwithstanding the existence of many excellent manuscripts, the printed editions present the text in a frequently mutilated and most unsatisfactory condition. 

Her writings consist of:

  • the Dialogue, or Treatise on Divine Providence;
  • a collection of nearly four hundred letters; and
  • a series of Prayers.

The Dialogue especially, which treats of the whole spiritual life of man in the form of a series of colloquies between the Eternal Father and the human soul (represented by Catherine herself), is the mystical counterpart in prose of Dante's Divina Commedia.

A smaller work in the dialogue form, the Treatise on Consummate Perfection, is also ascribed to her, but is probably spurious. It is impossible in a few words to give an adequate conception of the manifold character and contents of the Letters, which are the most complete expression of Catherine's many-sided personality. While those addressed to popes and sovereigns, rulers of republics and leaders of armies, are documents of priceless value to students of history, many of those written to private citizens, men and women in the cloister or in the world, are as fresh and illuminating, as wise and practical in their advice and guidance for the devout Catholic today as they were for those who sought her counsel while she lived. Others, again, lead the reader to mystical heights of contemplation, a rarefied atmosphere of sanctity in which only the few privileged spirits can hope to dwell. The key-note to Catherine's teaching is that man, whether in the cloister or in the world, must ever abide in the cell of self-knowledge, which is the stable in which the traveller through time to eternity must be born again.

A relic of Saint Catherine of Siena held at the Holy Grail Retreat.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Easter Day

An outline of the Evangelists' account concerning the principal events of Easter Sunday:

The harmony of the other appearances of Christ after His Resurrection presents no special difficulties.

Briefly, therefore, the fact of Christ's Resurrection is attested by more than five hundred eyewitnesses, whose experience, simplicity, and uprightness of life rendered them incapable of inventing such a fable, who lived at a time when any attempt to deceive could have been easily discovered, who had nothing in this life to gain, but everything to lose by their testimony, whose moral courage exhibited in their apostolic life can be explained only by their intimate conviction of the objective truth of their message. Again the fact of Christ's Resurrection is attested by the eloquent silence of the Synagogue which had done everything to prevent deception, which could have easily discovered deception, if there had been any, which opposed only sleeping witnesses to the testimony of the Apostles, which did not punish the alleged carelessness of the official guard, and which could not answer the testimony of the Apostles except by threatening them "that they speak no more in this name to any man" (Acts 4: 17). Finally the thousands and millions, both Jews and Gentiles, who believed the testimony of the Apostles in spite of all the disadvantages following from such a belief, in short the origin of the Church, requires for its explanation the reality of Christ's Resurrection, for the rise of the Church without the Resurrection would have been a greater miracle than the Resurrection itself.

The Resurrection of Christ has much in common with the general resurrection; even the transformation of His body and of His bodily life is of the same kind as that which awaits the blessed in their resurrection. But the following peculiarities must be noted:

  • Christ's Resurrection is necessarily a glorious one; it implies not merely the reunion of body and soul, but also the glorification of the body.
  • Christ's body was to know no corruption, but rose again soon after death, when sufficient time had elapsed to leave no doubt as to the reality of His death.
  • Christ was the first to rise unto life immortal; those raised before Him died again (Colossians 1: 181 Corinthians 15: 20).
  • As the Divine power which raised Christ from the grave was His own power, He rose from the dead by His own power (John 2: 1910: 17-18).
  • Since the Resurrection had been promised as the main proof of Christ's Divine mission, it has a greater dogmatic importance than any other fact. "If Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain" (1 Corinthians 15: 14).
Besides being the fundamental argument for our Christian belief, the Resurrection is important for the following reasons:

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday is sacred as the day of the Lord's rest; it has been called the "Second Sabbath" after creation. The day is and should be the most calm and quiet day of the entire Church year, a day broken by no liturgical function. Christ lies in the grave, the Church sits near and mourns. After the great battle He is resting in peace, but upon Him we see the scars of intense suffering. The mortal wounds on His Body remain visible. Jesus' enemies are still furious, attempting to obliterate the very memory of the Lord by lies and slander.
Mary and the disciples are grief-stricken, while the Church must mournfully admit that too many of her children return home from Calvary cold and hard of heart. When Mother Church reflects upon all of this, it seems as if the wounds of her dearly Beloved were again beginning to bleed.
According to tradition, the entire body of the Church is represented in Mary: she is the "credentium collectio universa"(Congregation for Divine Worship,Lettera circolare sulla preparazione e celebrazione delle feste pasquali, 73). Thus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as she waits near the Lord's tomb, as she is represented in Christian tradition, is an icon of the Virgin Church keeping vigil at the tomb of her Spouse while awaiting the celebration of his resurrection.
The pious exercise of the Ora di Maria is inspired by this intuition of the relationship between the Virgin Mary and the Church: while the body of her Son lays in the tomb and his soul has descended to the dead to announce liberation from the shadow of darkness to his ancestors, the Blessed Virgin Mary, foreshadowing and representing the Church, awaits, in faith, the victorious triumph of her Son over death. — Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy
There are no liturgies celebrated this day, unless the local parish priest blesses the food baskets. The Easter blessings of food owe their origin to the fact that these particular foods, namely, fleshmeat and milk products, including eggs, were forbidden in the Middle Ages during the Lenten fast and abstinence. When the feast of Easter brought the rigorous fast to an end, and these foods were again allowed, the people showed their joy and gratitude by first taking the food to church for a blessing. Moreover, they hoped that the Church's blessing on such edibles would prove a remedy for whatever harmful effects the body might have suffered from the long period of self-denial. The Easter blessings of food is still held in some churches.
If there is no blessing for the Easter foods in the parish, the father of the family can pray the Blessing over the Easter food.
It is during the night between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday that the Easter Vigil is celebrated. The service begins around ten o'clock, in order that the solemn vigil Mass may start at midnight.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Good Friday

Good Friday at 3 pm (when Jesus died on the cross) there is the narrative of the Passion, and veneration of a relic of the True Cross. Jesus agonised on the cross for six hours. During his last three hours on the cross, from noon to 3 pm, darkness fell over the entire land. With a loud cry, Jesus gave up His spirit. There was an earthquake, tombs broke open, and the curtain in the Temple was torn from top to bottom. The centurion on guard at the crucifixion declared: "This Man truly was the Son of God!"
Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin and secret follower of Jesus, who had not consented to His condemnation, went to Pilate to request the Body of Jesus. Another secret follower of Jesus and member of the Sanhedrin named Nicodemus brought about a hundred pound weight mixture of spices and helped wrap the Body of Christ. Pilate asked confirmation from the centurion whether Jesus was dead. A soldier pierced the side of Jesus with a lance causing blood and water to flow out, and the centurion informed Pilate that Jesus is dead.
Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus' Body, wrapped it in a clean linen shroud, and placed it in his own new tomb that had been carved in the rock in a garden near the site of crucifixion. Nicodemus also brought seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes, and placed them in the linen with the body, in keeping with the burial custom. They rolled a large rock over the entrance to the tomb.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Holy Thursday

Holy Thursday is the most complex and profound of all religious observances, saving only the Easter Vigil. It celebrates both the institution by Christ himself of the Eucharist and of the institution of the sacerdotal priesthood (as distinct from the"priesthood of all believers") for in this, His last supper with the disciples, a celebration of Passover, He is the self-offered Passover Victim, and every ordained priest to this day presents this same sacrifice, by Christ's authority and command, in exactly the same way. The Last Supper was also Christ's farewell to His assembled disciples, some of whom would betray, desert or deny Him before the sun rose again.

Around the world, bishops and priests come together at their local Cathedrals on Holy Thursday morning to celebrate the institution of the priesthood. During the Mass, the bishop blesses the Oil of Chrism that will be used for Baptism, Confirmation, and Anointing of the sick or dying.

At this Mass, the bishop washes the feet of twelve priests to symbolise Christ’s washing of his twelve Apostles, our first bishops and priests.

Later that night, after sundown – because Passover began at sundown  the Holy Thursday Liturgy takes place, marking the end of Lent and the beginning of the sacred "Triduum,” or three, of Holy Week. These days are the three holiest days in the Catholic Church.

This Mass stresses the importance Jesus puts on the humility of service, and the need for cleansing with water, a symbol of baptism. Also emphasised is the critical importance of the Eucharist and the sacrifice of Christ’s Body, which we now find present in the consecrated Host.

At the conclusion of the Mass, the faithful are invited to continue Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament throughout the night, just as the disciples were invited to stay up with the Lord during His agony in the garden before His betrayal by Judas.

After Holy Thursday, no Mass will be celebrated again in the Church until the Easter Vigil celebrates and proclaims the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

St Bernadette

On 16 April 1879, Bernadette - or Sister Marie-Bernard, as she was known within her Order - died in the Sainte Croix (Holy Cross) Infirmary of the Convent of Saint-Gildard. She was thirty-five.

Born into a humble family which little by little fell into extreme poverty, Bernadette had always been a frail child. Quite young, she had already suffered from digestive trouble, then after having just escaped being a victim of the cholera epidemic of 1855, she experienced painful attacks of asthma, and her ill health almost caused her to be cut off for ever from the religious life. When asked by Monsignor Forcade to take Bernadette, Louise Ferrand, the Mother Superior of the Sisters of Nevers, replied: "Monsignor, she will be a pillar of the infirmary."

At least three times during her short life-time, she received the last Sacraments. She was gradually struck by other illnesses as well as asthma: among them, tuberculosis of the lung and a tubercular tumour on her rightknee. On Wednesday, 16  April 1879, her pain got much worse. Shortly after eleven she seemed almost to be suffocating and was carried to an armchair, where she sat with her feet on a footstool in front of a blazing fire. She died at about 3:15 in the afternoon.

The civil authorities permitted her body to remain on view to be venerated by the public until Saturday, April 19th. Then it was"placed in a double coffin of lead and oak which was sealed in the presence of witnesses who signed a record of the events." Among the witnesses were "inspector of the peace, Devraine, and constables Saget and Moyen."

The nuns of Saint-Gildard, with the support of the bishop of Nevers, applied to the civil authorities for permission to bury Bernadette's body in a small chapel dedicated to Saint Joseph which was within the confines of the convent. The permission was granted on 25 April 1879, and on April 30th, the local Prefect pronounced his approval of the choice of the site for burial. Immediately they set to work on preparing the vault. On 30 May 1879, Bernadette's coffin was finally transferred to the crypt of the chapel of Saint Joseph. A very simple ceremony was held to commemorate the event.

St Bernadette was born at Lourdes, France. Her parents were extremely poor and she herself was in poor health. One Thursday, 11 February 1858, when she was sent with her younger sister and a friend to gather firewood, a very beautiful Lady appeared to her above a rose bush in a grotto called Massabielle. The beautiful Apparition was dressed in blue and white. She smiled at Bernadette and then made the sign of the cross with a rosary of ivory and gold. Bernadette fell on her knees, took out her own rosary and began to pray the rosary. The beautiful Apparition was God's Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. She appeared to Bernadette seventeen other times and spoke with her. She told Bernadette that she should pray sinners, do penance and have a chapel built there in her honour. Many people did not believe Bernadette when she spoke of her vision. She had to suffer much. But one day Our Lady told Bernadette to dig in the mud. As she did, a spring of water began to flow. The next day it continued to grow larger and larger. Many miracles happened when people began to use this water. When Bernadette was older, she became a nun. She was always very humble. More than anything else, she desired not to be praised. Once a nun asked her if she had temptations of pride because she was favoured by the Blessed Mother. "How can I?" she answered humbly and quickly. "The Blessed Virgin chose me only because I was the most ignorant." 

Her feast day is April 16th.