Imitating Pope St John Paul II

Imitating Pope St John Paul II

Today is the feast day of Pope St John Paul II. He is the only saint (so far) who directly impacted me in his own lifetime.

I met him once. Sort of. I was in St Peter’s Square on 6 October 2002, when he canonised St Josemaría Ecrivá. I was one pilgrim among half a million, but it was an exhilarating moment. He was my Holy Father. I loved him then, and I love him now.

Maybe my faith would be weaker without his influence. Maybe I wouldn’t love our Lord so much. Certainly, I wouldn’t be a priest. JP2 was a big factor in the discernment of my vocation.

I think John Paul impacted me because he was a saint. But not only that. He impacted me because we had a relationship, however remote.

I have many relatives and friends who weren’t impact the same way. Why? I think it’s because they weren’t in a relationship with him. Wojtyla was like a third grandfather to me, so his words and gestures and witness had a profound influence.

That’s the thing about saints. They’re not magic. Relationship is key. That’s why it’s important for you and I to become saints. JP2 may have had little or no impact on some family and friends, but we can have an impact, precisely because we are in relationship with them.

John Paul II was a rockstar pope, with a name and face recognised by millions. He was also a mystic, who apparently received extraordinary graces. In one sense he’s not the easiest guy to imitate. But in another, more important sense, we can follow his lead.

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Polish pope’s press secretary, tells the story of the first time they prayed the rosary together. When they reached the first Our Father, and Navarro started reciting it, the pope raised a hand to quiet him, and explained apologetically that he liked to chant the Lord’s Prayer. Would that be okay? (Navarro, of course, consented.)

Navarro began by praying each Hail Mary at the normal pace he was accustomed to. But gradually, he fell into a much slower pace, following the lead of the pope, who almost relished each syllable. A prayer he normally prayed in 20 minutes took twice as long when he prayed it with John Paul II.

Bishop John Magee, the Irish bishop who was ‘secretary to three popes’ (Paul, JPI and JP2), relates a story which occurred just a few days after Wojtyla was elected pope. It was early in the day, before normal working hours, when Magee received an urgent request from some VIP to see the pope. He checked the chapel, then the pope’s office, the private sitting room, the dining room, and the pope’s bedroom, but the pope was nowhere to be found. In a state of mild panic, he told the pope’s Polish secretary, “We’ve lost the Holy Father!”

His Polish counterpart was dubious. “Did you check the chapel?”

“It was the first place I looked.”

“Look again. More carefully.”

Magee returned to the darkened chapel. The pope was not at his seat, or his at prie-dieu. But he was in the chapel after all: at the altar, embracing the tabernacle, crooning a Polish lullaby.

Now I’m not advocating slavish imitation of these practices. But it’s something we can adapt to our situation.

I spend a lot of time in the car, and I usually pray the rosary there. Mostly attending to the road (and kangaroos); only partly attentive to the mysteries I’m contemplating and words I’m praying. If your rosary is something similar, keep it up. It’s better than not praying the rosary.

But it’s not so hard to pray an extra decade some other time during the day, more closely imitating John Paul II’s way of praying. It must please our Lady very much.

I’m not in the habit of hugging the tabernacle — and I’m a priest, with after-hours access to churches, when no one else is around! If I had only normal access, I’d be even less eager to approach the sanctuary and make a spectacle of myself.

But still we can pay a short 5 minute visit to the Blessed Sacrament, and sing a song to the Lord under our breath, sitting in the pew. We can bring our smart phone, and show him the interesting photos we took this morning. We can repeat the exciting news a friend told us, or complain about the lousy customer service we experienced this afternoon.

I think our Lord craves that sort of easy familiarity. It’s not uncommon to speak to our closest friends for a just a few minutes, but every day, and about the every day. Why not Him?

I think if we live this way, coupling small acts of affection with more pious practices (not least frequent communion and frequent confession), we can have the impact of a JP2 on our circle of family and friends. The ‘orbit’ is much smaller, but the love of God is not.

Beatification of Don Alvaro

Beatification of Don Alvaro

Pope Francis has announced the beatification of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, St Josemaría’s closest collaborator and Opus Dei’s first prelate.

Don Alvaro will be beatified in Madrid on Saturday 27 September. Maybe I will go. Who knows? My first trip to Europe was in 2002, to attend the canonisation of St Josemaría. I wasn’t in Opus Dei back then, but I owed a lot to Josemaría, and I was happy to celebrate his canonisation! My other trip to Europe was the 2011 World Youth Day, in Madrid. Can you see a Spanish theme emerging?

On the other hand, I intend to go to Rome next January for the CCC’s international clergy conference. Diocesan priests don’t take a vow of poverty, but we do try to foster simplicity. An advisable model is the father of a large family, scraping to get by. In other words, I imagine my own Dad’s spending habits back when I was in primary school. I remember it being a big deal when he bought a new suit. I don’t recall him jetting off to Europe twice in three months!

Whatever of that, here’s a few interesting anecdotes about Don Alvaro, taken from Alvaro Del Portillo, by Salvador Bernal:

On the Spanish Civil War

Don Alvaro spoke about that period of his life only on rare occasions. One such occasion took place in the Filipino city of Cebu, at the end of January 1987. He was trying to get across how necessary it is to love and to foster peace, and this brought to his mind the persecution against the Church which had been unleashed in Spain during the civil war.

“I had never been involved in any political activity,” he said, “and I was not a priest, or a religious, or even a seminarian; I was just an engineering student. I got thrown in jail just because I came from a Catholic family. By then I was already wearing glasses, and one day one of the guards came up to me—his name was Petrof, it’s a Russian name—and he put a pistol to my temple and said, ‘You’re wearing glasses—you must be a priest.’ He could have killed me at any moment. I think the only reason he didn’t was because God thought I still had a lot of fighting to do against the devil, or because I was not worthy of heaven. It was terrifying.”

On hearing his first confession (I can relate to this one!)

After his ordination, Don Alvaro became an even firmer support, so to speak, for the founder of Opus Dei. The overwhelming avalanche of supernatural gifts which God was pouring out on Father Josemaría made it necessary for him to have at his side an intelligent and humble priest who was truly close to him. The founder had a responsibility to discern and to get confirmation of the paths which the Holy Spirit was opening in his ardent and vibrant soul, and to distinguish, when necessary, between what had to do with his interior life and what had to do with the foundation. And the reality is that he only went ahead with complete peace of mind when he began to open his heart and soul to Don Alvaro not only as his closest associate, but as his confessor as well.

Despite the openness and ease that characterized their relationship, that first confession was one of the few times in his whole life when Don Alvaro became noticeably nervous. The confession took place on June 26, 1944—the very day after Don Alvaro’s ordination. The two of them were at the Villanueva Street center, in Madrid. Father Josemaría asked Don Alvaro if he’d heard any confessions yet, and when he said no, the founder said that he would like to make a general confession to him.

The confession had hardly started when Don Alvaro began to worry that he might forget the words of absolution. He knew the prayer by heart, but, as he himself had just said, he had not as yet given anybody sacramental absolution. This was so much on his mind that as soon as Father Josemaría got finished confessing his sins, Don Alvaro started saying the prayer of absolution. The founder had to interrupt him. “My son,” he said, “I can understand it if you don’t want to give me any advice, but you do need to at least give me a penance!” So Don Alvaro gave him one, but then when he started the prayer of absolution again, he forgot how it went. He had to repeat it after the founder!

On ecumenism

On another occasion, a German fellow named Mathias, who belonged to some evangelical denomination, addressed Don Alvaro publicly, not long after the death of Mgr Escriva. “How can I find out the will of God for my life? How can I know what direction I should take?”

Don Alvaro spoke to him about the Gospel, about freedom of conscience, and about the one Church founded by Jesus Christ: the Catholic Church. “In the sixteenth century,” he said, “pieces were chipped off of that great Church of Christ, but those pieces still have something of that divine richness. Pope Pius XI used to say that it was like splinters from a gold-bearing rock—even the tiniest piece has a few grains of gold. You have a lot of gold in your faith. You believe in the Father, in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. You believe in so many things… But I would be a hypocrite if I were not to tell you that you’re still missing something of the true faith, the faith that your ancestors had before they separated themselves from the one Church of Jesus Christ. The only thing I can do is ask you for permission to pray for you, that the Holy Spirit will give you the fullness of faith . . .  In return, I ask of you one thing: that you pray for me. Let’s make between us a kind of pact—you pray that I be a worthy successor of a saint, because I am a poor man, a poor priest of Jesus Christ.”

His death

Death took him by surprise in March 1994, just after his return from the Holy Land. On March 23, 1994, Don Javier Echevarría made this announcement: “Last night a heart attack ended the life of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, Prelate of Opus Dei. A little before four in the morning, he called me to tell me he was feeling bad. While the doctor was tending to him, I myself gave him the last sacraments, in accord with his explicitly and often stated wish.”

At 6pm that evening, Pope John Paul II went in person to pray in the funeral chapel, accompanied by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State. And before and after that extraordinary visit, many cardinals and prelates of the Roman Curia and superiors of religious orders went to pay their last respects.

John Paul was especially touched by the fact that the Lord had called Don Alvaro home upon his return from the Holy Land. He put a lot of emphasis on this in the audience that he gave to the participants of the 1994 UNIV Congress, which, as usual, took place in Holy Week. “At this time,” he said, “the thought of the Holy Land is for you very tied in with the person of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo. Just before calling him to himself, God allowed him to make a pilgrimage to those places where Jesus spent his life on earth. Those were days of intense prayer which united him very closely to Christ and, in fact, prepared him for his final meeting with the Blessed Trinity.”

All Saints, web saints

All Saints, web saints

When you follow the link to www.miracolieucaristici.org, you may well be seeing the first website developed by a saint.

Miracoli Eucaristici documents eucharistic miracles which have occurred all over the world. I’m not fluent in Italian, so I can’t comment on the content, but I do know web design, and this is very good web design. All the more so, considering it is nearly ten years old, but still “feels modern.” (Most websites don’t age so well!)

miracoli-website

The website was created by Carlo Acutis, who died of leukemia in 2006 at the age of 15. And now, according to Rome Reports, his cause for canonisation is under consideration:

Even if Carlo doesn’t pass the rigorous standards exacted by the Church’s canonisation process, his life and legacy remind us that we’re all called to be saints, and that sanctity is attainable.  It can be and should be our daily goal — remembering that holiness is achieved in the little things of today, not in the great maybes of tomorrow.

(Another lesson: somewhere on the web, there is a website that has been developed by someone who will one day be canonised. Hopefully there are many such websites, and many canonisable saints in our midst!)

The quotable St Teresa

The quotable St Teresa

Today is the feast of St Teresa of Ávila, one of the Church’s greatest theologians and greatest mystics.

Teresa is also unusual, I think, for her eminent common sense, which really isn’t common at all. I quote her often in the confessional and in spiritual direction, and occasionally in my preaching too. I think her insights might be helpful to others only because I find them so helpful myself.

For example, when Teresa was afflicted with one too many crosses, she lamented to God:

“If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so many enemies.”

This demonstrates not only a supernatural attitude to suffering, but also a good sense of humour, and an easy familiarity with God. That’s three characteristics, right there, that I aspire to in my own spiritual life.

On another occasion, Teresa was very impressed by one of her sisters’ heroic penances, and wished to do something similar. Her spiritual director, however, forbade her from doing so. Teresa complained to the Lord, and apologised. His reply, which she not only recorded but also interiorised, is one worth remembering and repeating:

“I prefer your obedience to her penances.

Teresa was a great ascetic, but she was also a person of attractive and contagious joy. So she also showed in deed what she expresses here in words:

“God save us from gloomy saints!”

(This is the sort of thing I can easily imagine Pope Francis saying.)

Long before I was in the seminary, but perhaps when I was discerning my vocation (I forget the precise context), my spiritual director, whose patience was probably tested, exclaimed:

“The closer you get to God, the simpler you become.”

I remembered this and prayed on it often. (I still do.) Much later I learnt that it came from St Teresa.

I’ll finish with one of my all-time favourite quotes, which speaks for itself:

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Spiritual childhood

Spiritual childhood

Today is the feast of St Thérèse. What a great saint! What a powerful intercessor!

Apparently, Pope Francis employs Fr Putigan’s Novena to St Thérèse. On the one hand, this doesn’t surprise me, since Fr Putigan was a Jesuit priest, and it’s easy to imagine his novena is popular within the Society of Jesus. On the other hand, I am surprised that Francis would pray 24 Glorias every day for nine days. Bear in mind, he’s not a fan of numerical pedantry:

There are some restorationist groups. I know some, it fell upon me to receive them in Buenos Aires. And one feels as if one goes back 60 years! Before the Council… One feels in 1940… An anecdote, just to illustrate this, it is not to laugh at it, I took it with respect, but it concerns me. When I was elected, I received a letter from one of these groups, and they said: “Your Holiness, we offer you this spiritual treasure: 3,525 rosaries.” Why don’t they say, ‘we pray for you, we ask…’, but this thing of counting…

Still, it is evident that the Holy Father certainly does call on St Thérèse for favours, and even dares to ask for the sign of a white rose.

Apart from her intercessory apostolate, St Thérèse is also a great spiritual master. A Doctor of the Church, no less. If you aren’t a student of hers already, it’s time to become one!

I have helped a friend of mine develop a website relating her Little Way of Spiritual Childhood. The site is a veritable goldmine of open domain texts about spiritual childhood and “the little things.”

www.spiritualchildhood.info

spiritual-childhood

In addition to texts from and about St Thérèse, the site draws from St Josemaría Escriva, Fr Joseph Kentenich, and several others. Check it out and bookmark it. It certainly deserves more than one visit!

Seeking favours from the saints

Seeking favours from the saints

Studying the saints is a good thing. Read their biographies. Read their writings. Be inspired to imitate them.

But the best thing about the saints is that we can foster relationships with them. Talk to them. Ask them for favours. We can approach them the way a small child approaches a favourite aunt or uncle: boldly and sincerely.

Pope Francis gives us a good example of this. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio made no secret of his devotion to St Thérèse — perhaps the greatest of our modern saints; certainly the most popular!

From “El Jesuita” (“The Jesuit”), a book interview written by Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti:

We pause before a vase full of white roses standing on a shelf in the library. In front of it is a photograph of Saint Thérèse.

“Whenever I have a problem,” Bergoglio explained, “I ask the saint not to solve it, but to take it into her hands and to help me accept it and I almost always receive a white rose as a sign.”

Lo and behold:

On Sunday 8 September, the day after the long prayer vigil for peace in Syria – when some passages from texts written by Saint Thérèse of Lisieux were read out – Pope Francis received a white rose as a surprise.

The Archbishop of Ancona and Osimo, Edoardo Menichelli broke the news, with Francis’ authorisation.

“The Pope told me he received the freshly-picked white rose out of the blue from a gardener as he was taking a stroll in the Vatican Gardens on Sunday 8 September,” Mgr. Menichelli said.