Vocations: July 2012 Archives

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Three Saints

Three saints -- all three educators, founders, and spiritual fathers to children and young men -- share a common feastday on July 20th in the Benedictine calendar: Saint Jerome (Girolamo) Emiliani, 1481-1537; Saint Joseph Calasanctius (José de Calasanz), 1557-1648; and Saint Jean-Baptiste de LaSalle, 1651-1719.

Saint Jerome Emiliani

The first of these, Saint Jerome (Girolamo) Emiliani, was born in Venice. After a military career that included imprisonment and a miraculous liberation, he went on pilgrimage to the Madonna of Treviso in fulfillment of a vow and, for a time served as a local magistrate, all the while attending to the education of his nephews and studying theology on his own.

Father of the Poor

In 1528, a year marked by plague and famine, Jerome discovered his true vocation: total fatherly devotion to the poor, the sick, and orphans. He established orphanages, administered one hospital, and saw to the building of another. In 1532, together with two priests, Saint Jerome founded a religious congregation, the Servants of the Poor, at Somasca in northern Italy; members of the congregation came to be called Somascans, after the place of this first house. The principal mission of the Somascan Fathers is the fatherly care of orphans, of the poor, and of the sick.

The State of Holiness

As a member of the Oratory of Divine Love -- a veritable school of holiness inspired by Saint Catherine Fieschi Adorno (+1510) in Genoa -- Saint Jerome entered into the Counter-Reformation's renewal of the Church with a burning zeal. He longed to see the faithful of Christ restored to the state of holiness that marked the Church in the time of the Apostles, and even composed a prayer to this end:

O our gentle father, Lord Jesus Christ,
we pray Thee, of thine infinite bounty,
to reform the Christian people in that state of holiness
that was theirs in the time of Thine Apostles.
Hear us, O Lord, because Thy mercy is kind,
and in Thine immense tenderness, turn Thyself towards us.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on us.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on us.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on us.

May I be guided and protected in the way of peace, of charity, and of prosperity
by the power of God the Father, the wisdom of the Son,
and the strength of the Holy Spirit, and of the glorious Virgin Mary.

May the Angel Raphael, who was always with Tobias
also be with me in every place and road.

O good Jesus, O good Jesus, O good Jesus,
my love and my God,
in Thee do I trust, let me not be disappointed.

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Religious Life Today

As I offered Holy Mass this morning, I thought of the need here in Ireland for religious congregations that are reformed, revitalized and ready to engage in the restoration of the faithful to "a state of holiness." When one takes the measure of the bountiful harvest of holiness, priestly discipline, monastic reform, liturgical consolidation, service of the poor, instruction of the ignorant, care for the sick, and zeal for the glory of God that renewed the Church of the Counter-Reformation after the Council of Trent, and compares it with the paltry, disappointing, and bitter fruits that mark the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, one is left with the impression of a massive failure at many levels.

Outdated Religious

It is paradoxical that the very religious congregations that resolutely embraced "renewal" fifty years ago have become outdated, sterile, and moribond. Their one common characteristic appears to be an unwillingness to change (again) and an irrational attachment to the failed experiments of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

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Heritage Rooms

The 2009 C.A.R.A. report on religious life documents what young people of the Benedict XVI generation are looking for in religious life: community life; daily liturgical prayer (Divine Office), Eucharistic adoration, and Marian devotions; a common unified apostolate; the clear visibility of the religious habit, etc. Aging protagonists of the Vatican II generation, in Ireland, in the U.S.A., and elsewhere, wring their hands about the dearth of vocations to their congregations and, at the same time, would rather die than embrace corporate reform, renewal, and revitalization. Their opportunity for reform -- and for choosing life -- will soon have passed them by, leaving their spiritual patrimony sealed in "heritage rooms."

The People in Charge Now

It would seem, at least from anecdotal evidence, that the greatest (and often most strident) resistance to the reform of religious life comes, not from those who made profession sixty, or seventy years ago, but from those who made profession early in the late 1960s, and in the 1970s and 80s. These would be people who entered religious life and committed themselves to it shortly after or during the seismic changes of the 1960s and 70s. They adjusted, sometimes with heroic generosity, to the changes imposed or legislated by their elders, and were, for the most part, content to serve Christ and His Church in a kind of hybrid model of religious life marked more by compromise with the world than by the resolve to reform. Having attained positions of responsibility and, often, of power, they are unwilling to risk a new wave of change that would, necessarily, call into question the very principles that they suffered and worked hard to implement and maintain.

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Reform and Revitalization?

Will the people currently in charge of the great apostolic congregations of men and women that were founded in the 19th century, and came to maturity in the 20th, rise to the challenge of a vigorous reform? Or will they stay the course taken over the past 50 years and await the inevitable extinction of their species? These are questions that go beyond than the internal affairs of aging religious communities; they pertain to the present and future revitalization of the Church, especially here in Ireland.

Not Too Late to Choose Life

It may be the Eleventh Hour, but it is not the Twelfth; it is not too late for a few brave religious to choose life and, like Abraham and Sarah, to revel in the joy of a wondrous generativity. Saints like Jerome Emiliani make me long to see this happen. The "state of holiness" that he saw in the Church of the Apostles can yet be restored to the faithful of Ireland, and may be coming soon to a monastery or convent near you.

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This is the view tonight from my window at the Monastère Sainte-Anne-de-Montmahoux in France. Although I planned to remain until Friday, I received news this morning of the death in County Leitrim of my dear old Cousin John McKeon. I last saw John on the occasion of his 89th birthday only a few weeks ago. I am John's next-of-kin in Ireland, and so must return there tomorrow to make arrangements for his funeral and burial. I would ask the readers of Vultus Christi to say a prayer for the happy repose of his soul.

Meeting the Saints

How and when did Saint Benedict come into my life? He was not among the saints whom I came to know as a small boy in my parish church. Little children readily engage with images. The statues that graced my parish church -- I can still see them in my mind's eye from left to right -- were of Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Patrick, Our Blessed Lady, the Sacred Heart, Saint Joseph, Saint Thérèse, and Saint Anne. There were five stained glass windows: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Stigmatization of Saint Francis. These were the images that, at a very early age, drew me into the mysteries of the faith, bringing heaven very close to earth, and making it possible for me to hold conversation with the saints in glory.

Enter Abbot Marmion

Saint Benedict came into my life when I was about fifteen years old. The monastic ideal had already laid hold of my soul, and my search was well underway. Visiting Saint Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, U.S.A., I was introduced to Christ, the Ideal of the Monk, by Blessed Abbot Columba Marmion. Heavy reading for a fifteen year old in the torment of the 1960s! I remain grateful to Father Marius Granato for putting Dom Marmion's classic into my hands, It was in Christ, the Ideal of the Monk that I came to know Saint Benedict in the best way possible: by coming to know his Holy Rule.

Saint Benedict and the Holy Rule

Blessed Abbot Marmion and Saint Benedict joined me on my journey, then, at the same time. I still remember the fire that burned in my heart as I turned the pages of Christ, the Ideal of the Monk, and received the impression of its teaching, like letters engraved on a clean wax tablet. In reading Saint Benedict, as transmitted by Blessed Abbot Marmion, I could almost hear the sound of the Master's voice. The Rule began to fascinate me and to fashion me. For me, as for Bossuet, it was un mystérieux abrégé de l'Évangile, "a mysterious abridgment of the Gospel".

Stormy Years

By the time I had turned eighteen -- a mere three years later -- I had resolved to become a monk, a son of Saint Benedict. These were, of course, frightfully stormy years in the Church: not at all a good time for a young man desirous of engaging with an ideal in all its shining purity. The very things that I thrilled to discover in my reading were, at the same time, being contested and rejected by those to whom they had been given in heritage.

The storms unleashed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and by the tumultuous events of 1968, tore through the cloisters of nearly every monastery in North America and, in so doing, tore through the very hearts of those who dwelt in them. One had the impression that nothing was absolute, nothing immutable, nothing sacred. The tyranny of relativism replaced the tyrannies of legalism and rubricism that the reformers decried so bitterly. Things happened and attitudes prevailed that were in no way compatible with the vocation that Thomas Merton had described so eloquently in The Silent Life.

Stranger in Babylon

These years corresponded, as well, with the emergence of the charismatic renewal among Catholics. It was, as I remember it, rather Protestant in ethos and in sensibility. While I saw many souls opened to a deeper experience of prayer, I saw just as many distance themselves from the sacraments, from the liturgy in all its richness, and from devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and to Our Lady. (Some of these elements later came back into focus in charismatic circles.) Having found my soul's true voice in Gregorian Chant as a small boy, and having been nourished from my adolescence on the Divine Office in English, and on Pius Parsch's The Church's Year of Grace, the experience of the charismatic renewal left me feeling like a stranger in Babylon. I was far more interested in the grace that, for me, seeped out of the antiphons at First Vespers of a particular feast than in what I experienced at prayer meetings. It was all very disconcerting.

The Threshold Once Crossed

At nineteen I had my first experience of Benedictine life, completing a novitiate of two years, wrestling, like Jacob, with angels in the night, and humbled by recurrent health problems. During that time my love for Saint Benedict and the Holy Rule grew exponentially. It was clear, in spite of all the halts and detours, that Saint Benedict had taken me into his family, that he recognized me as his son, and that he would not abandon me.

Gratitude

All these many years later, I can say that Saint Benedict has been a patient companion and loving father through my life. Amidst the choices, changes, and challenges that have marked my route, one phrase from the Holy Rule, the last of the Instruments of Good Works in Chapter IV has kept me on course: Never to despair of the mercy of God. For this alone I am grateful to Saint Benedict this evening, and for this I hope to thank him one day in paradise.

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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