Saints: November 2011 Archives

Gone and Back Again

Filippino Lippi shows the mystical espousal of Saint Catherine of Alexandria with the Infant Christ. The Mother of God, Saint John the Baptist, Saints Peter and Paul, and Saint Sebastian are there as witnesses.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria vanished from the reformed Roman Calendar in the reform of 1969 and, Deo gratias, reappeared in 2002. Why? Part of the answer can be found, I think, by comparing the lovely old Collect for Saint Catherine with the one newly composed for the 2002 edition of the Roman Missal.

In the traditional liturgy, which we celebrate here at Our Lady of the Cenacle, on November 25th the Church prays:

O God Who gavest the Law to Moses on the summit of Mount Sinai,
and didst miraculously place the body of Thy blessed virgin-martyr Catherine
in the selfsame spot by the ministry of Thy holy angels,
grant, we beseech Thee, that her merits and pleadings
may enable us to reach the mountain which is Christ.

The Collect focuses on the image of Mount Sinai, the sacred mountain which prefigures Christ himself. The first phrase of the prayer takes up Exodus 31:18, the inspiration of the Great O Antiphon that we will be singing on December 18th:

O ADONAI, and Ruler of the House of Israel, who appeared unto Moses in the burning bush and gave him the Law on the summit of Sinai: come to redeem us with an outstretched arm!


Of Monks and Angels

The only problem (although not for me) with the fine old Collect, it would seem, is that it hinges on the legendary miraculous translation by angels of the body of Saint Catherine to Mount Sinai. Ah, but look again! In the Eastern tradition consecrated monks are designated "of the Angelic Habit."

Given that the life of monks, dedicated to the ceaseless praise of the Thrice-Holy God, has often been compared to that of the Angels, monks have, at various times, been called "angels." (See Père Louis Bouyer's classic book, The Meaning of the Monastic Life.) The translation by "angels" may have been carried out by monks!

Unity Among the Churches

The newly composed Collect for Saint Catherine does not make use of the biblical mountain imagery; instead it focuses on the work of Christian unity. Saint Catherine, cherished and greatly venerated in the East, becomes in the new Collect an intercessor for the unity of the Church.

Almighty and eternal God,
who gavest to Thy people the invincible virgin and martyr Saint Catherine,
grant that, by means of her intercession,
we may be strengthened in faith and constancy,
and spend ourselves unsparingly
in working for the unity of Thy Church.

The Patrimony of a Pilgrim Pope

The significance of Saint Catherine's reappearance in the pages of the Roman Missal cannot be understood apart from the historical pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai in Egypt on February 26, 2000. Today's feast of the Virgin Martyr of Alexandria recalls the commitment of the Church of Rome to the arduous work of unity with the Churches of the East through prayer and humble dialogue. In the Collect of the 2002 edition of the Missale Romanum we ask that, through the intercession of Saint Catherine, "we may be strengthened in faith and constancy, and spend ourselves unsparingly in working for the unity of the Church."

The homily that Pope John Paul II preached at the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai is, in its own way, a prophetic word to the churches:

Here He Revealed His Name

Our faith leads us to become pilgrims in the footsteps of God. We contemplate the path He has taken through time, revealing to the world the magnificent mystery of His faithful Love for all humankind. Today, with great joy and deep emotion, the Bishop of Rome is a pilgrim to Mount Sinai, drawn by this holy mountain which rises like a soaring monument to what God revealed here. Here He revealed his name! Here he gave his Law, the Ten Commandments of the Covenant!


Holy Ground

How many have come to this place before us! Here the People of God pitched their tents (cf. Ex 19:2); here the prophet Elijah took refuge in a cave (cf. 1 Kgs 19:9); here the body of the martyr Catherine found a final resting- place; here a host of pilgrims through the ages have scaled what Saint Gregory of Nyssa called "the mountain of desire" (The Life of Moses, II, 232); here generations of monks have watched and prayed. We humbly follow in their footsteps, to "the holy ground" where the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob commissioned Moses to set his people free (cf. Ex 3:5-8).

Adore Him

God shows Himself in mysterious ways - as the fire that does not consume - according to a logic which defies all that we know and expect. He is the God who is at once close at hand and far-away; He is in the world but not of it. He is the God who comes to meet us, but who will not be possessed. He is "I AM WHO I AM" - the name which is no name! I AM WHO I AM: the divine abyss in which essence and existence are one! The God who is Being itself! Before such a mystery, how can we fail to "take off our shoes" as He commands, and adore Him on this holy ground?

Listening to the Word

Pope John Paul II went on to acknowledge the age-old monastic presence on Sinai:

The monks of this Monastery pitched their tent in the shadow of Sinai. The Monastery of the Transfiguration and Saint Catherine bears all the marks of time and human turmoil, but it stands indomitable as a witness to divine wisdom and love. For centuries monks from all Christian traditions lived and prayed together in this Monastery, listening to the Word in whom dwells the fullness of the Father's wisdom and love. In this very Monastery, Saint John Climacus, wrote The Ladder of Divine Ascent, a spiritual masterpiece that continues to inspire monks and nuns, from East and West, generation after generation.

The Things That Unite Us in Christ

The Pope concluded by praying that,

. . . in the new millennium the Monastery of Saint Catherine will be a radiant beacon calling the Churches to know one another better and to rediscover the importance in the eyes of God of the things that unite us in Christ.

The Catholic "Both And"

This, it seems to me, enriches the ancient feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria with another perspective: "the importance in the eyes of God of the things that unite us in Christ." So then, which Collect should we use today? I would suggest that we do a very Catholic thing and use both of them. My preference would be to retain the traditional prayer at Holy Mass and the major Hours and use the new one at the Little Hours and, perhaps, to conclude the General Intercessions where these are done.

Though It Be Night

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John of the Cross: A Saint for Advent

Saint John of the Cross comes to us just before the First Sunday of Advent; he announces that the longest night of the year is not far off. He comes exhorting us to heed the voice of God, who says, "I am the Lord, there is no other; I form the light, and create the darkness" (Is 24:6). Saint John of the Cross comes to guide us through the night; he is familiar with all its secrets.

Blest night of wandering
In secret, where by none might I be spied,
Nor I see anything;
Without a light to guide,
Save that which in my heart burnt in my side.

That light did lead me on,
More surely than the shining of noontide,
Where well I knew that One
Did for my coming bide;
Where he abode, might none but he abide.

(In an Obscure Night, trans. by Arthur Symons)

Poetry, the best poetry, is born of suffering and forged in the crucible of life. Though I find in the poems of Saint John of the Cross a fire that unfailingly warms and illumines, I have, over the years, come to rely more and more on his Precautions, an incomparable guide for the terrible quotidian, wise rules for coping with the struggles and stress of living with oneself and others.

The Heartless and Pitiless Celibate

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I have written several posts on Saint Cecilia in past years. You will find them here, and here, and here.

The title of today's entry comes not from me, but from Saint John Chrysostom's homily at Matins. He is preaching on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, Matthew 25:1-13. Amazing! Would that all priests could preach as he did! My own comments are in italics.

Virginity then, being a thing in itself so great and so much esteemed among many, lest any man having attained unto it, and kept it undefiled, should think that he hath done all, and so leave the rest undone, the Lord putteth forth this parable, in order to show that if virginity, though it have all else, lack mercy, its owner will have his portion without among the fornicators, among whom Christ doth justly place the heartless and pitiless celibate.

Note the allusion to Matthew 23:23:

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you tithe mint and anise and cummin and have left the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and faith. These things you ought to have done and not to leave those undone."

And to 1 Corinthians 1:2-3:

And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

The lust for bodies and the lust for money are two very different things, whereof the flesh is by far the keener and the stubborner appetite. They that strive with the weaker enemy are therefore much less excusable if they fall. Wherefore the Lord hath called such virgins "foolish," for having first won the stern battle, and then been destroyed in the light one.
By the "lamps" spoken of in this parable, the Lord signifieth the actual gift of virginity and holy continency, and by the "oil" gentleness, almsgiving, and helpfulness toward the needy.

A haughty and coldhearted chastity is an affront to the King of Virgins. Purity of heart disposes one to receive the living flame of divine love, a love that manifests itself above all in mercy, in gentleness, and in humility.


In this regard, I cannot help but think of Father Lev Gillet -- the "monk of the Eastern Church" -- who synthesized in his very person a childlike purity and a boundless compassion in the face of every weakness and sin. In one of his dialogues with Our Lord, Father Lev hears Him say:

Take to thyself everything in the sinner which, however deviously, comes from Me and continues to be Mine. Discover in the midst of the visible impurities and egoisms the secret action of My absolute Purity, and of the generosity of Love. Unite thyself to My effort to transfigure what is not of Me. By thy brotherly prayer, by thy sympathy, not for the sin but for the sinner, join in My work of purification (In Thy Presence, p. 64).

Offering ourselves to be set ablaze

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We had the Saturday Mass de Beata today but, following our Benedictine calendar, also commemorated Saint Theodore Studite with the following Collect:

O God, who through the blessed abbot Theodore didst restore the beauty and order of the cenobitic life, grant, we beseech Thee, that by his example and help, we may be configured by the Holy Ghost to the sufferings of Christ through patience, and so be found worthy of a share in His kingdom.
We make our prayer through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the same Holy Ghost, God forever and ever.

Two Saints of the East

The calendar is charged today with a double "weight of glory" (2 Cor 4:17), for while the Roman calendar commemorates Saint Josaphat, bishop and martyr, the Benedictine calendar offers us the memorial of Saint Theodore the Studite, abbot. In commemorating the two saints, there is not dissonance, but a profound resonance. Theodore and Josaphat are both Eastern Orthodox saints. Theodore, abbot and reformer of the great Stoudion monastery in Constantinople, belongs to the undivided Church. He died in 826, well before the Great Estrangement of East and West. Josaphat, bishop in Ukraine, suffered the effects of that estrangement. While remaining theologically, culturally, and liturgically Orthodox, he brought his flock into communion with the See of Peter in 1623, and paid with his own blood for the partial unity he achieved.

Blessed John Paul II's Passionate Longing

"The Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole world" (Wis 1:7) but, for centuries, Roman Catholics acted as if the Spirit was given to them alone. Eastern Orthodox Christians, from their side, were more than reticent to admit of any stirrings of the Holy Spirit in the West. When, on May 2, 1995, Blessed Pope John Paul II promulgated his Apostolic Letter, "The Light of the East," he bared his Slavic soul and, in some way, brought to a new level of fruitfulness the historic embrace of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras on January 6, 1964.

Blessed John Paul II's words are clear:

Since the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ's Church , the first need for Catholics is to be familiar with that tradition. . . . The members of the Catholic Church of the Latin tradition must be fully acquainted with this treasure and thus feel, with the Pope, a passionate longing that the full manifestation of the Church's catholicity be restored to the Church and to the world" (Orientale Lumen 1).

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The Church Hierarchical and Charismatic

Among the riches offered by the Eastern Churches is a level of balance and reciprocity between the hierarchical and the charismatic elements of the Church. Today's saints illustrate both.

Saint Theodore is the prophet, fascinated by the Beauty of God, restoring a desert in the heart of Constantinople.

Saint Josaphat is the servant of visible communion with his brother bishops, and with the bishop of Rome.

For the Eastern Churches, monks and nuns are Spirit-bearing fathers and mothers living on the margin of the institutional Church and yet, paradoxically, speaking wisdom from the heart of the Church. If monastics need to listen to their bishops; bishops need to listen to the "voice of one crying in the wilderness" (Mt 3:3).

Fire from the Altar

If the torch is to be kept burning, and is to burn here in this fledgling monastery, and in other monasteries the world over, we must draw fire daily from the holocaust of charity that is the the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, offering ourselves to be set ablaze, for when the torch entrusted to monks grows dim, the entire Church becomes a darker place.

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The title of today's entry is from the Magnificat Antiphon: "O how blessed a bishop was he! His inmost heart of hearts yearned on the King Christ, and he had no dread for the power of the Empire! O how holy a soul was his, which passed not away by the sword of the persecutor, and yet lost not the palm of martyrdom."

This wonderful painting, so rich in liturgical details -- look at the gorgeous chasuble -- depicts a famous episode in Saint Martin's life. One day, as he prepared to offer the Holy Sacrifice, Bishop Martin caught sight of a poor beggar in need of clothing. Immediately, he ordered his attending deacon to provide the beggar with a suitable garment. Seeing that the deacon was in no hurry to obey his order, Martin removed his tunic and gave it to the beggar. Later, at Holy Mass, a globe of fire appeared above his head. At the elevation of the Sacred Host, the sleeves of Bishop Martin's alb fell back baring his arms. Straightaway two angels appeared and, with a precious cloth, covered the prelate's arms for the duration of the elevation. The beggar (in the foreground, clothed in Martin's black tunic) and the other faithful looked on in wonder.

The Soldier Announces the Advent of the King

Today's Holy Gospel, focusing on judgment and on the arrival of the Bridegroom-King in glory with all his angels, is perfectly adapted to the eschatological impetus given to the liturgy between All Saints Day (November 1st) and the First Sunday of Advent. In other parts of the Catholic world, a six-week Advent begins on the Sunday following the feast of Saint Martin. This is the tradition of the Church of Milan, for example. The arrival of Martin the soldier announces the arrival of Christ, the true King, the Lord of glory.

The Confession of Saint Martin

Saint Martin of Tours was the first non-martyr to be honoured with a liturgical cult, the first of a long line of "confessors" to make their way into the Church's calendar. The Invitatory Antiphon refers to today's feast as "Saint Martin's confession." Confession here refers both to the saint's profession of the Catholic faith unto death, and to his praise of God. The Magnificat Antiphon will have us sing: "Though he did not die a martyr's death, this holy confessor won the martyr's palm." The magnificent hymn Iste Confessor, sung today at Matins and Vespers, was composed for the feast of Saint Martin.

Benedictines have a tradition of devotion to Saint Martin: Holy Father Benedict dedicated a chapel to Saint Martin at Monte Cassino. Franciscan liturgists of the Middle Ages borrowed from the Office of Saint Martin in composing the liturgy for the feast of Saint Francis, in many cases simply changing Martinus to Franciscus.

The Holy Ghost guided Saint Martin through a succession of states of life. There is Martin the soldier, Martin the catechumen, Martin the monk, and finally, Martin the bishop. this may account for his astonishing popularity. While in North America, Saint Martin is often forgotten, in France, over five hundred villages and over four thousand parishes bear his name and witness to the enthusiastic piety stirred up by his memory. In France and in Italy, Martin (the name of Saint Thérèse), and Martino (my grandmother's name), are common surnames.

Martin the Merciful

The lesson from the prophet Isaiah presents Saint Martin as one filled with the Holy Spirit, as one anointed and sent to bring good news to the poor. Martin binds up broken hearts, comforts those who mourn. He puts praise in the mouths and hearts of the despondent. The Life of Saint Martin by Sulpicius Severus recounts Martin's miracles of compassion, conversion, generosity, and healing. Together with Saint Athanasius' Life of Saint Antony, the Life of Saint Martin became the standard reference for the biographers of holy men.

The Poor Christ

Saint Paul had his blinding light on the road to Damascus; Saint Martin encountered Christ in the person of a poor beggar. Drawing his sword, Martin cut his ample military cloak in two and covered the beggar with half of it. The following night he was rewarded with an apparition of Our Lord, clothed in the same half- cloak.

The whole liturgy today evokes the cloak divided by a sword and given to Christ. A wondrous exchange! Saint Martin clothes the poor Christ with his cloak; Christ clothes the poor Martin with glory. "You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich" (2 Cor 8:9). The words of the holy gospel: "I was naked and you clothed me" become "You, Martin, were naked and I clothed you." We celebrate Martin, clothed with grace and with glory by the humble beggar, Christ, whom he had clothed by cutting his prestigious Roman military cloak in half with his sword: the sacrifice of his pride.

Divinely Disproportionate

The naked Christ is all around us waiting to be clothed in whatever remnants our pride will yield to the sword of sacrificial love. In the absence of a sword, a mere pin will do! The paradox is that in clothing the Beggar, we become the beggar, and the Beggar becomes the one who clothes us in a mantle of justice, of grace and of glory. Is not the teaching of that other Martin, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face? The smallest gesture of sacrificial love on our part unleashes a torrent of transforming love on the part of God. There is no equality here; there cannot be. Fair exchange is utterly foreign to the Kingdom of God. "If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned" (Ct 8:7). The divine response is always magnificently disproportionate to the tiny human gesture.

The Holy Sacrifice

Nowhere is this truer than in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Mass of the Catechumens (Liturgy of the Word) stirs us to respond in some way to God, Who, in speaking, already gives Himself, and communicates to us His life, His love, and His light. Is this not the prayer of the priest before receiving the Precious Blood: "What shall I render to the Lord for all His bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord" (Ps 115:12-13)?

Suscipe Me

How do we respond? What do we bring to the altar? A little bread, a little wine, a drop of water: poor and humble symbols of ourselves, our life, our work, our joys, and our sufferings, but especially of our desire to, as Blessed Michael Iwene Tansi put it, "to belong entirely to God." What is the bread on the paten, the wine mixed with water in the chalice, if not a silent cry to the living God: Take me! Suscipe me? I surrender to the priestly hands of the Son; I yield to the mysterious action of the Paraclete. I offer myself to the two hands of the Father -- the Son and the Holy Spirit -- that by them, my poverty might become an oblation pleasing in the Father's sight.


Blessed Elizabeth in the Catechism

Opening the Catechism of the Catholic Church one morning, I discovered that among the ecclesiastical writers cited in the text, there are fifty-nine men and eight women. Three of the eight women cited are Carmelites, and one of the three is Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity: an outstanding honour for a young nun who died, hidden in her Carmel at Dijon, at twenty-six years of age on November 9, 1906.

Light, Love, Life

Faced with death, Blessed Elizabeth said, "Je vais à la Lumière, à l'Amour à la Vie -- I am going to the Light, to Love, to Life." The influence of the young Carmelite has grown prodigiously all over the world. Her Prayer to the Holy Trinity has been translated into thirty-four languages.

Her Mission

Before her death, Elizabeth sensed that she would be entrusted with a mission in heaven. "I think," she said, "that in Heaven my mission will be to draw souls by helping them go out of themselves to cling to God by a wholly simple and loving movement, and to keep them in this great silence within that will allow God to communicate Himself to them and transform them into Himself."

God at Work in Us

Saint Paul, whose Epistles were the young Carmelite's daily nourishment, says: "God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil 2:13). Blessed Elizabeth's secret of holiness was total surrender to God at work in her for his good pleasure, transforming her into the Praise of His Glory (cf. Eph 1:6). Believing this, one dares to pray, "I trust, O God, that you are at work in me, even now, both to will and to work for the praise of your glory."

For the Praise of His Glory

The Catechism says that, "even now we are called to be a dwelling for the Most Holy Trinity: 'If a man loves me," says the Lord, 'he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home with him'" (Jn 14:23). And as a kind of commentary on the mystery of the indwelling Trinity, the Catechism gives us Blessed Elizabeth's magnificent prayer. I know souls who by dint of repeating that prayer day after day have learned it by heart; God alone knows what changes it has wrought in them . . . for the praise of His glory.


Showing Forth His Face

In the Ordinary Form, the Collect for today's memorial of Saint Charles Borromeo contains an extraordinary phrase. We beseech (quaesumus) the Father that the Church, being ceaselessly renewed, and thus conformed to the image of Christ, may show forth His Face to the world: Christi se imagini conformans, ipsius vultum mundo valeat ostendere.

The Face Reveals the Heart

This is the mission of the Church: to show forth the Face of Christ to the world. In showing forth the Face of Christ, the Church invites all peoples to discover the merciful love of His Heart.

Saint Charles and the Holy Shroud

It is no coincidence, I think, that Saint Charles Borromeo, who venerated the Holy Shroud in Turin on October 10, 1578 was profoundly affected by the experience. Could not the allusion to the Face of Christ in today's Collect be a discreet allusion to the great reforming bishop's encounter with the mysterious Face of the Shroud?


Editio Typica

Custodi, quaesumus, Domine, in populo tuo spiritum,
quo beatum Carolum episcopum implevisti,
ut Ecclesia indesinenter renovetur,
et, Christi se imagini conformans,
ipsius vultum mundo valeat ostendere.

My Translation

Preserve in Thy people, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the spirit with which Thou didst fill the bishop Saint Charles;
that the Church may be ceaselessly renewed, and, in conforming herself to the image of Christ, be able to show forth His face to the world.

ICEL 1973

The flawed 1973 ICEL text, used today for the last time in the United States, is as follows:

Father, keep in your people
the spirit which filled Charles Borromeo.
Let your Church be continually renewed
and show the image of Christ to the world
by being conformed to his likeness.


What is wrong with the old ICEL text? First off, you will note that quaesumus is simply omitted. In the 1973 translation one does not beseech God, one rather baldly tells God what to do.

The Infusion of a Charism

In the Latin text, it is the Lord (God the Father) who fills Saint Charles with the spirit, meaning a particular infusion of the grace of the Holy Spirit. In the old ICEL text implevisti is not translated; it states, rather vaguely, that the spirit filled Charles Borromeo. "Spirit" here does not refer to the Holy Spirit; it refers to the grace of the Holy Spirit by which Saint Charles worked for the reform of the Church, a Divine inbreathing in view of his mission, a charism.


The Latin text refers to the saint as the bishop Charles; the old ICEL text eliminates the reference to his hierarchical order, and replaces it with his surname! This reflects the casual, democratizing approach to hierarchical order of the framers of the old ICEL texts in 1973, an approach still prevalent, alas, in certain sectors of the Church in the United States.

A Theological Deconstruction

Finally, the old ICEL text, by eliminating the subordinate ut clause, completely deconstructs the theology of the prayer. In the Latin text:

(A) we beseech the Lord (God the Father) to preserve the spirit (i.e. grace or charism) of Saint Charles Borromeo in the Church --

(B) ut, SO THAT, or in such wise that, the Church may be ceaselessly renewed --

(C) and, being conformed to the image of Christ,

(D) may be able to show His Face to the world.

The irrefutable logic of the prayer, correctly translated, is this: the Church is able to show the Face of Christ to the world because she has been conformed to His image as result of the spirit (reforming charism or grace) given by God to the bishop Saint Charles, and preserved in the Church in response to her humble supplication.

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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