Archive for the 'Saints' Category

A Summary Defense of John Paul II

… and why he should be canonized a saint.

JPII In PrayerIt is practically a foregone conclusion that John Paul II will be canonized a saint in the coming years. This makes some quite uncomfortable, and others downright angry. In fact, the whole idea of sanctity is rather antiquated in our culture. We don’t like to single others out. It’s not polite. And anyway, who’s to say you’re holier than I? Because of the  very public nature of the papacy, not all will be happy with the canonization of Pope John Paul II; and this is perhaps the reason that less than a quarter of all Popes have been canonized. No public office holder, secular or religious, holds a 100% approval rating; but this should not be an impediment to canonization, nor will it be.

The arguments against John Paul II’s canonization come down to one thing: He was a bad Pope. The arguments may not state that explicitly (some do), but it is certainly the conclusion to be drawn. Just take a look what happened to the Church on John Paul II’s watch. The number of priests and religious have dwindled. Known sexual deviants among the clergy were “protected”. Catechesis among the faithful was almost non-existent. Catholic politicians at odds with Church teaching (usually regarding abortion and contraception) were allowed to receive communion without retribution. In a similar fashion, “liberal” theologians, with few exceptions, were allowed to continue teaching at Catholic universities and receive communion without penalty. And so it goes. Basically, everything that is wrong with the Church happened, and indeed flourished, under John Paul II’s watch. But this cannot be a serious argument against his canonization.

It is rather unfair to blame all the ills of the Church on a Pope that was elected in 1978. As most would agree, it is empirically evident that all of the aforementioned ills were present, at least in seed form, in the period between the closing of Vatican II and John Paul II’s election as Pope. Besides that, the entire line of argumentation is premised on a false perception of papal power. It is said that John Paul II “didn’t do enough”, as if the role of the papacy is to force, from on high, orthodoxy on the rest of the Church. This is not how John Paul II saw his role as Pope, and, I might add, that is not how Benedict XVI envisions his role either. What many see as the job of the Pope to “fix” whatever problems are existent in the Church is primarily the job of local Bishops. It is the local Bishop who is to foster vacations within his diocese. It is the local Bishop who is to ensure his faithful are catechized; and it is the local Bishop who is to discipline sexually deviant priests, and heterodox politicians and professors. Sure, the Pope can and, arguably, should step in when a Bishop is not doing his job; but now the argument against John Paul II has been narrowed from “he was a bad pope” to “he was a bad disciplinarian”. Fine. John Paul II even admitted as much in his book Gift and Mystery (his reflections on the 50th anniversary of his ordination). But is this reason to doubt his personal sanctity? I think not.

Being non-confrontational and a bad disciplinarian no more speaks against one’s personal sanctity than does being confrontational or a good disciplinarian. These are character traits, not marks of virtue (or non-virtue). It can be argued that, as Pope, it was John Paul II’s job to discipline those who erred. Besides the fact that this is primarily the role of the local Bishop, let us remember that the papacy was not something for which John Paul II volunteered. In fact, he wanted more than anything to go back to his beloved Poland upon completion of the 2nd conclave of 1978. However, the Holy Spirit had other plans, and he accepted his new role as an obedient son of the Church. Is it reasonable to expect that someone as non-confrontational as Pope John Paul II would spontaneously exhibit disciplinary vigor after his election as Pope? Of course not. After all, he was human and putting on the papal mitre in no way changes this fact.

Was John Paul II a good Pope? Maybe not, depending on your view of the role of the papacy or your political leanings. But the real question is, throughout his life did those who knew him see John Paul II as one exhibiting exceptional virtue, personal holiness, and singular devotion to God and man? By all accounts, the answer is a resounding yes! And is this not the reason for canonization, to provide the (Catholic) faithful a model of virtue and holiness to be imitated? If John Paul II were not to be canonized, it would simply be because he is a public figure, and thus controversial. I’d hate to think that on such grounds the Church could be robbed of such a model of sanctity. No matter how you slice it, the arguments against the canonization of John Paul II come down to what this or that person dislikes about his papacy. He was too lenient. He was too liberal. He was too conservative. Blah, blah, blah. It’s a shame that someone who is otherwise a saint can be denied canonization for being a crummy administrator or not amiable to your political or theological agenda.

In closing I will state the very obvious fact that every canonized saint had flaws of character, no matter what the hagiographers may tell us. And every saint was a sinner, like the rest of us; but, unlike most of us, they exhibited in an exceptional way personal holiness and devotion to God and his people. It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that John Paul II should be canonized. I am of the opinion that St. Francis of Assisi is perhaps the greatest saint (regarding personal holiness) in the history of the western Church, but I am quite sure that he would have made an awful Pope. Thank God he was never put in such a position, or we may have been deprived of one of the Church’s great saints.


Thomistic Distinctions

The medieval canon lawyers placed the natural law in divine revelation as testified to in the two Testaments of Scripture. Thomas Aquinas, while not denying the position of the canonists, placed the natural law in creation itself. Aquinas distinguishes between the divine law found in Holy Scripture, and the natural law found in creation. This distinction is an important one. By placing the natural law in Scripture, its reach is limited to a particular time and place. However, if the natural law is placed within creation itself, this particular imprint of God on the human person is and has been available to the whole human race in every age.

Note, then, that whereas for the canonists the Scriptures are the first location of the natural law, for Thomas, of course, without denying the ultimate origin of the ius naturale in God, the order of nature has been distinguished from revelation, and, so far as we are concerned, is the first locus of the natural law. We might say that the canonists’ conception was more dominantly theological or undifferentiated, and in this sense we can see that Thomas’s view allows for a universe in which a natural order has sufficient integrity to be read by man without immediate recourse to revelation.

Far from unlinking natural law from the God of revelation, however, Thomas’s distinction between divine law and the natural law brings to full articulation an idea that had long been developing, namely that the path to holiness revealed in Scripture is not a positivistic decree only fideists can accept, but has a purchase on the inner rational structure of human nature. Thomas’s account of the relation between natural and divine law, it seems to me, reveals its deepest meaning when read against the background of his doctrine, rediscovered in our day by Henri de Lubac, that nature, as such, desires a fullness that it can attain only within the context of gracious elevation to the visio beatifica.

— Glenn W. Olsen, “Natural Law: The First Grace,” Communio XXXV (Fall 2008)

Aquinas on Happiness

thomas-aquinasThe greatest benefit to owning the Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas is not that you get to read it from front to back; cover to cover as it were. I can’t imagine a more grim prospect. I mean Aquinas is great, but that’s some fairly dense reading for a layman such as myself. No, the great benefit of owning the Summa is to have it as a handy reference anytime you want to see what Aquinas has to say on a particular subject. And what Aquinas has to say on any subject is worth reading.

This morning as I was perusing what Aquinas has to say on the subject of virtue, I was lead to see what he had to say on the subject of happiness. For virtue is that by which we fulfill our potential as man created in God’s image, and in practicing virtue man finds himself in a state of happiness as he slowly progresses toward that which is his final happiness – what Aquinas calls “perfect happiness.” So the question may be posed. In what does man’s happiness consist? What do we mean by a final state of perfect happiness? Here is how Aquinas answers (PII, Q3, A8):

Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence. To make this clear, two points must be observed. First, that man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek: secondly, that the perfection of any power is determined by the nature of its object. Now the object of the intellect is “what a thing is,” i.e. the essence of a thing, according to De Anima iii, 6. Wherefore the intellect attains perfection, in so far as it knows the essence of a thing. If therefore an intellect knows the essence of some effect, whereby it is not possible to know the essence of the cause, i.e. to know of the cause “what it is”; that intellect cannot be said to reach that cause simply, although it may be able to gather from the effect the knowledge of that the cause is. Consequently, when man knows an effect, and knows that it has a cause, there naturally remains in the man the desire to know about the cause, “what it is.” And this desire is one of wonder, and causes inquiry, as is stated in the beginning of the Metaphysics (i, 2). For instance, if a man, knowing the eclipse of the sun, consider that it must be due to some cause, and know not what that cause is, he wonders about it, and from wondering proceeds to inquire. Nor does this inquiry cease until he arrive at a knowledge of the essence of the cause.

If therefore the human intellect, knowing the essence of some created effect, knows no more of God than “that He is”; the perfection of that intellect does not yet reach simply the First Cause, but there remains in it the natural desire to seek the cause. Wherefore it is not yet perfectly happy. Consequently, for perfect happiness the intellect needs to reach the very Essence of the First Cause. And thus it will have its perfection through union with God as with that object, in which alone man’s happiness consists, as stated above (AA[1],7; Q[2], A[8]).

Feast of Saint Francis Xavier

As the title of this post indicates, today the Church celebrates the Feast of Saint Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit missionary to the East. From this morning’s Office of Readings, we read:

Francis Xavier was born in Spain in 1506. While studying the liberal arts at Paris, he became a follower of Ignatius Loyola. In 1537 he was ordained at Rome, and there devoted himself to works of charity. Francis went to the Orient in 1541 where for ten years he tirelessly proclaimed the Gospel in India and Japan, and through his preaching brought many to believe. He died in 1552 near the China coast on the island of Sancian.

In honor of this Feast, the second reading of the Office of Readings is a very interesting excerpt from a letter by Saint Francis Xavier to Saint Ignatius Loyola, apparently written while Francis Xavier was on one of his missionary journeys. Here is today’s second reading, and I think it well worth the read:

From the letters to Saint Ignatius by Saint Francis Xavier, priest

Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel

We have visited the villages of the new converts who accepted the Christian religion a few years ago. No Portuguese live here the country is so utterly barren and poor. The native Christians have no priests. They know only that they are Christians. There is nobody to say Mass for them; nobody to teach them the Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Commandments of God’s Law.

I have not stopped since the day I arrived. I conscientiously made the rounds of the villages. I bathed in the sacred waters all the children who had not yet been baptised. This means that I have purified a very large number of children so young that, as the saying goes, they could not tell their right hand from their left. The older children would not let me say my Office or eat or sleep until I taught them one prayer or another. Then I began to understand: “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

I could not refuse so devout a request without failing in devotion myself. I taught them, first the confession of faith in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, then the Apostles’ Creed, the Our Father and Hail Mary. I noticed among them persons of great intelligence. If only someone could educate them in the Christian way of life, I have no doubt that they would make excellent Christians.

Many, many people hereabouts are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again I have thought of going round the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity: “What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!”

I wish they would work as hard at this as they do at their books, and so settle their account with God for their learning and the talents entrusted to them.

This thought would certainly stir most of them to meditate on spiritual realities, to listen actively to what God is saying to them. They would forget their own desires, their human affairs, and give themselves over entirely to God’s will and his choice. They would cry out with all their heart: Lord, I am here! What do you want me to do? Send me anywhere you like – even to India.

1st Week of Advent

advent_wreath-week-1In honor of this first week of the Advent season, here is the 2nd Reading from today’s Office of Readings:

The Season of Advent, from a pastoral letter by Saint Charles Borromeo, bishop

Beloved, now is the acceptable time spoken of by the Spirit, the day of salvation, peace and reconciliation: the great season of Advent. This is the time eagerly awaited by the patriarchs and prophets, the time that holy Simeon rejoiced at last to see. This is the season that the Church has always celebrated with special solemnity. We too should always observe it with faith and love, offering praise and thanksgiving to the Father for the mercy and love he has shown us in this mystery. In his infinite love for us, though we were sinners, he sent his only Son to free us from the tyranny of Satan, to summon us to heaven, to welcome us into its innermost recesses, to show us truth itself, to train us in right conduct, to plant within us the seeds of virtue, to enrich us with the treasures of his grace, and to make us children of God and heirs of eternal life.

Each year, as the Church recalls this mystery, she urges us to renew the memory of the great love God has shown us. This holy season teaches us that Christ’s coming was not only for the benefit of his contemporaries; his power has still to be communicated to us all. We shall share his power, if, through holy faith and the sacraments, we willingly accept the grace Christ earned for us, and live by that grace and in obedience to Christ.

The Church asks us to understand that Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again. When we remove all obstacles to his presence he will come, at any hour and moment, to dwell spiritually in our hearts, bringing with him the riches of his grace.

In her concern for our salvation, our loving mother the Church uses this holy season to teach us through hymns, canticles and other forms of expression, of voice or ritual, used by the Holy Spirit. She shows us how grateful we should be for so great a blessing, and how to gain its benefit: our hearts should be as much prepared for the coming of Christ as if he were still to come into this world. The same lesson is given us for our imitation by the words and example of the holy men of the Old Testament.

Protectors of the Flock

From today’s second reading of the Divine Office; some pastoral advice by Pope Saint Gregory the Great:

A spiritual guide should be silent when discretion requires and speak when words are of service. Otherwise he may say what he should not or be silent when he should speak. Indiscreet speech may lead men into error and an imprudent silence may leave in error those who could have been taught. Pastors who lack foresight hesitate to say openly what is right because they fear losing the favour of men. As the voice of truth tells us, such leaders are not zealous pastors who protect their flocks, rather they are like mercenaries who flee by taking refuge in silence when the wolf appears.

The Lord reproaches them through the prophet: They are dumb dogs that cannot bark. On another occasion he complains: You did not advance against the foe or set up a wall in front of the house of Israel, so that you might stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord. To advance against the foe involves a bold resistance to the powers of this world in defence of the flock. To stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord means to oppose the wicked enemy out of love for what is right.

When a pastor has been afraid to assert what is right, has he not turned his back and fled by remaining silent? Whereas if he intervenes on behalf of the flock, he sets up a wall against the enemy in front of the house of Israel. Therefore, the Lord again says to his unfaithful people: Your prophets saw false and foolish visions and did not point out your wickedness, that you might repent of your sins. The name of the prophet is sometimes given in the sacred writings to teachers who both declare the present to be fleeting and reveal what is to come. The word of God accuses them of seeing false visions because they are afraid to reproach men for their faults and thereby lull the evildoer with an empty promise of safety. Because they fear reproach, they keep silent and fail to point out the sinner’s wrongdoing.

The word of reproach is a key that unlocks a door, because reproach reveals a fault of which the evildoer is himself often unaware. That is why Paul says of the bishop: He must be able to encourage men in sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. For the same reason God tells us through Malachi: The lips of the priest are to preserve knowledge, and men shall look to him for the law, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. Finally, that is also the reason why the Lord warns us through Isaiah: Cry out and be not still; raise your voice in a trumpet call.

Anyone ordained a priest undertakes the task of preaching, so that with a loud cry he may go on ahead of the terrible judge who follows. If, then, a priest does not know how to preach, what kind of cry can such a dumb herald utter? It was to bring this home that the Holy Spirit descended in the form of tongues on the first pastors, for he causes those whom he has filled, to speak out spontaneously

Let us pray for such pastors who will be fearless in protecting the sheep from the wolves.

Intercessory Prayer

Taken from today’s second reading of the Divine Office: Saint Catherine of Siena from her Dialogue on Divine Providence,

My sweet Lord, look with mercy upon your people and especially upon the mystical body of your Church. Greater glory is given to your name for pardoning a multitude of your creatures than if I alone were pardoned for my great sins against your majesty. It would be no consolation for me to enjoy your life if your holy people stood in death. For I see that sin darkens the life of your bride the Church – my sin and the sins of others.

It is a special grace I ask for, this pardon for the creatures you have made in your image and likeness. When you created man, you were moved by love to make him in your own image. Surely only love could so dignify your creatures. But I know very well that man lost the dignity you gave him; he deserved to lose it, since he had committed sin.

Moved by love and wishing to reconcile the human race to yourself, you gave us your only-begotten Son. He became our mediator and our justice by taking on all our injustice and sin out of obedience to your will, eternal Father, just as you willed that he take on our human nature. What an immeasurably profound love! Your Son went down from the heights of his divinity to the depths of our humanity. Can anyone’s heart remain closed and hardened after this?

We image your divinity, but you image our humanity in that union of the two which you have worked in a man. You have veiled the Godhead in a cloud, in the clay of our humanity. Only your love could so dignify the flesh of Adam. And so by reason of this immeasurable love I beg, with all the strength of my soul, that you freely extend your mercy to all your lowly creatures.

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