Today is the feast of St John Fisher and St Thomas More, perhaps the two most famous martyrs of the English Reformation. Longterm readers will know already how much I admire St Thomas.
Today’s feast coincides with a tour of the martyrs’ relics around the United States. To celebrate the tour, Scepter Publishing has made freely available for download two booklets about St Thomas More.
One of the interesting things about both men is that they are unlikely heroes and reluctant martyrs. They differ from St Edmund Campion, for example, who was born into an age of persecution and always knew the potential cost of proclaiming the Faith. In contrast, Cardinal Fisher and Sir Thomas had persecution and martyrdom unexpectedly thrust upon them. They met their fate with poise and good humour.
Cardinal Fisher’s final request, prior to his execution on 22 June 1535, was time for a siesta. He slept soundly for two hours. I suppose he had been deprived of decent sleep for some time, so the request was very practical. But it also demonstrates the serenity which God granted him in his final hours.
Two weeks later, on 6 July 1535, when Sir Thomas endured his own final moments, he famously joked with the axeman. More had been clean shaven throughout the divorce controversy which led to his trumped up charges, but during his years of imprisonment he had grown a long beard. As he laid his head on the chopping block, he removed his beard away from the path of the blade, for “This hath not offended the king.”
Hopefully we will never personally encounter the persecution and martyrdom which was thrust upon Fisher and More. But still they are outstanding models for us when we endure smaller trials and occasional enmity. I think their serenity and good humour are as important as their integrity and charity.
During his imprisonment More composed and prayed a beautiful prayer for his enemies. A prayer we can make our own.
Almighty God, have mercy on N. and N., and on all that bear me evil will, and would me harm, and their faults and mine together by such easy, tender, merciful means as thine infinite wisdom best can devise; vouchsafe to amend and redress and make us saved souls in Heaven together, where we may ever live and love together with thee and thy blessed saints, O glorious Trinity, for the bitter passion of our sweet Saviour Christ. Amen.
Lord, give me patience in tribulation and grace in everything, to conform my will to thine, that I may truly say: “Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in cælo et in terra.”
The things, good Lord, that I pray for, give me thy grace to labour for. Amen.
In April 2005, at the time of Pope John Paul II’s death, I was only a few months into my seminary studies. The whole College assembled in the refectory to watch his funeral, but I have no memory of it.
I can picture the Book of Gospels on his coffin, blown open by the wind. And I can recall then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s evocative homily, describing the late pope standing at the window of his room in the Father’s house, bestowing a blessing upon us. But those moments are easily relived on Youtube, so it may be repeated viewings that engrained them in my memory, not a recollection of the funeral itself.
A few weeks later, the seminary cohort again assembled in the Cluny refectory, again around the big screen, to watch the inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI. I remember that occasion much better, if only because a wide selection of German beers were available at the bar!
It’s hard to believe this all happened ten years ago. Some of the current crop of seminarians were still in primary school. That may not be the case for first year seminarian Andrew Kwiatkowski. I think he was already in secondary school — but only just! In this latest instalment of Corpus Christi College’s video series on the saints, Andrew recalls his own memories of the pope’s funeral, and the impact the great man had on him.
Andrew’s reflections remind me of a newly published book that one of the third year seminarians, James Baptist, has highly recommended to me: St John Paul the Great: his five loves, by Jason Evert. It is especially suited to young people, most of whom have a limited memory of John Paul II, and no attachment to him.
This book, James tells me, changes that. It fosters in a new generation of Catholic youth the sort of love and affection which my own generation had for our dear Holy Father. It’s on my reading list; add it to yours!
Meditatio is the second step in praying with the scriptures. The word is most obviously translated as meditation.
But the popular conception of ‘meditation’ is an Eastern conception which evokes ‘mindfulness’ or some other variation of emptying the mind. St Teresa of Avila warns against such practices:
“Some books advise that as a preparation for hearing what our Lord may say to us we should keep our minds at rest, waiting to see what He will work in our souls. But unless His Majesty has begun to suspend our faculties, I cannot understand how we are to stop thinking, without doing ourselves more harm than good.”
The Interior Castle, chapter 3
Christian meditatio is almost the direct opposite of Eastern meditation.In meditatio, the mind seeks to understand the mysteries of God. Far from emptying the mind, we engage with our reason and our imagination.
Scriptural meditatio is, I think, rather straightforward and easy for us moderns. It’s not much different to reading a newspaper and thinking about what we’ve read. Analysing it. Contemplating consequences. That’s engaging reason.
Or we can engage the imagination. The most famous proponent of imaginative meditatio is St Ignatius of Loyola. In more recent times, another Spanish saint — a compatriot of St Ignatius and St Teresa — and like them a holy founder, also practiced and encouraged imaginative meditatio. Here is St Josemaría Escriva’s description of meditatio:
“My advice is that, in your prayer, you actually take part in the different scenes of the Gospel, as one more among the people present. First of all, imagine the scene or mystery you have chosen to help you recollect your thoughts and meditate. Next apply your mind, concentrating on the particular aspect of the Master’s life you are considering — his merciful Heart, his humility, his purity, the way he fulfils his Father’s Will. Then tell him what happens to you in these matters, how things are with you, what is going on in your soul. Be attentive, because he may want to point something out to you, and you will experience suggestions deep in your soul, realising certain things and feeling his gentle reprimands.
“Make it a habit to mingle with the characters who appear in the New Testament. Capture the flavour of those moving scenes where the Master performs works that are both divine and human, and tells us, with human and divine touches, the wonderful story of his pardon for us and his enduring Love for his children. Those foretastes of Heaven are renewed today, for the Gospel is always true: we can feel, we can sense, we can even say we touch God’s protection with our own hands; a protection that grows stronger as long as we keep advancing despite our stumbles, as long as we begin again and again, for this is what interior life is about, living with our hope placed in God.”
Friends of God, 253, 216
Whether you’re more analytical or more imaginative, I think meditatio is very attractive and easy way for us to pray. It leads directly into the third step, oratio, but that’s a post for another day.
It’s significant, I think, that the miracle we hear about in today’s Gospel is the only miracle (apart from the Resurrection!) which is related by all four evangelists. This is clearly an important event in the Lord’s ministry, and it contains lessons for us.
Some Christians cite this gospel to support the so-called ‘prosperity gospel.’ This is a doctrine, with roots in the Old Testament, which suggests that material prosperity can be a measure of God’s blessing. More importantly, if a person is faithful to Christ, and lives according to Gospel values, then God will bless them with material wealth. The feeding of the 5,000, it is argued, demonstrates this. Our Lord responds to the people’s needs, and then some. The twelve baskets of left over foods is testament to God’s super-abundance.
The experience of the saints, however, tell us something different. Miracles which impacted St Jean-Marie Vianney and St John Bosco come to mind, but instead I’ll cite a much more local example. This is one of many similar stories I’ve heard from many people.
A couple I know in Hamilton have many children of their own, and they’ve fostered a great many more – some temporarily, others permanently. For many years the household has included ten children or more. A few years ago, the mother of all these children resolved it was time for a holiday. People were tired, tempers were short, and relationships were frayed. As you might imagine, the household is seldom flush with cash, but that didn’t concern her. A holiday was needed, and she prayed that God would provide.
So the holiday was booked a month in advance, on the hope and prayer that the funds would accumulate in time. As time passed though, the money was not found to pay for the holiday accommodation. The family forged ahead anyway, putting their faith in Providence. On the very morning of the holiday, as the family drove off the farm, they stopped at the mailbox. There they found a cheque whose amount coincided precisely with the sum needed to pay for their holiday accommodation.
This, it seems to me, is precisely how God works. We can ask for material blessings just as we ask for spiritual graces, but where God will give a thousand times the spiritual favours we request, God’s material generosity is more circumspect. God gives material blessings as needed, and no more. The reason is self-evident. We humans are susceptible to material attachments which are deadly to the life of faith. Material abundance typically does us more harm than good, and God will never harm us.
Today’s Collect acknowledges this very point:
O God, protector of those who hope in you,
without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy,
bestow in abundance your mercy upon us
and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide,
we may use the good things that pass
in such a way as to hold fast even now
to those that ever endure.
Besides, it’s notable that our Lord instructs the disciples to collect the left-overs, “so that nothing gets wasted.” Jesus has no intention of permitting the crowds to be gluttonous, taking more than needed. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the prosperity gospel!
So what lessons can we learn from this miracle?
Firstly: God is sensitive to our material and spiritual needs. We can trust in Him whenever our resources fall short. We should use whatever resources we do have — even if they are plainly inadequate. God will supply what is lacking.
Secondly, God will recruit us to do his work, if we are willing. Our Lord could have worked this miracle without any input from others, but he deliberately collaborated with the disciples, despite their poverty of resources. This is true for us also. We think we don’t have the words or the eloquence to spiritually nourish others. Or we don’t have the goodness or authority to speak about God. After all, who are we?
The answer is one we easily forget. We are children of God, baptised into the Body of Christ, and nourished by His Word and his Sacred Body and Blood. The Holy Spirit dwells within us, ready to infuse our words and actions with God’s grace.
Our own apostolates, unlike our Lord’s, are rarely spectacular. We serve God in simple and mundane ways — in our kindness towards strangers; friendliness towards acquaintances; and our dedication to family and friends. Let’s not neglect the material: our punctuality; our temperance and self-denial; our care for books and computers and tools. But by our habitual, day-to-day struggle to do the small things well, we grow in virtue. And by doing that, we draw closer to the Lord.
So let’s pray today that we make use of the resources the Lord gives us, even if they seem inadequate, so that we can attend to the spiritual and material needs of those people whom God puts on our path.
Over the years, I have discerned certain patterns in confession. Some days of the week are consistently busier than other days. Extreme weather — hot or cold — will reduce the length of the queue. School holidays will increase the length of the queue.
But there is one variable which impacts not only quantity, but also quality. Sometimes, the queue at the confessional contains an unusual number of ‘big fish.’ Grois poisson is a term St Jean-Marie Vianney used, which denotes penitents who have returned to confession after years of complacency or indifference.
I have noticed that ‘big fish’ confessions often coincide with particular feast days. For instance, I recall hearing an unusually moving calibre of confessions on the feast of St Pio of Pietrelcina and on the feast of Bl Jacinta and Francisco Marto. I can add another saint to the list. Today is the feast of St Maria Goretti, and today I have heard very many ‘big fish’ confessions.
I often ask such penitents what brought them back to the sacrament. How did the Holy Spirit move you? Why today? Usually the answer is vague. So I advise them to learn about the saint who (it seems to me) has prayed for them.
Often the penitent is completely unfamiliar with the saint in question. This is very comforting to me. It suggests that just as we foster devotion to certain saints, and single them out, the saints can foster particular interest in us, their little brothers and sisters. They single us out too.
The celebration of saints’ feast days is a great tradition. It keeps the lives and the example of the saints before us. But the real genius of saints’ feast days lies in the graces which are available. Saints aren’t there only to inspire us; they also pray for us. Deo gratias.
Tomorrow — Friday 26 June — is the Feast of St Josemaría Escrivá. The saint whose life and legacy has most shaped my own.
I am nearly certain — as certain as one can be of an unverifiable hypothetical — that if not for Josemaría, I would not be a priest. Without Opus Dei’s impact during my university years, there is no way I would have contemplated a priestly vocation.
I may not even be a believing Catholic. At that critical time of young adulthood, when I was forging a newly-independent identity, Opus Dei nourished my faith, both intellectually and spiritually. Without that influence, it is conceivable that I would have abandoned Catholic practice.
More likely though, I would still be a Catholic, but one who is more critical, more worldly, more pessimistic. Someone, probably, who was excoriating of Vatican II and dismissive of the mainstream Church in Australia. But whatever my faults, I’m none of those things. Instead, St Josemaría taught me to pray for and consciously foster humility, joy, and above all supernatural outlook.
Thanks to Josemaría, although I am conscious of the grave crisis of faith which afflicts the Church in our time, I do not despair. The Church has survived worse, and grace will prevail.
Thanks to Josemaría, although I value orthodoxy, I value personal holiness more. The two are not opposed of course, but they can be mutually exclusive.
Thanks to Josemaría, I am conscious that more than anything, the Church — and the world — needs saints. It can be argued — very soundly! — that despite this insight, I haven’t progressed much over the past 15 years. But to paraphrase Evelyn Waugh, without Opus Dei, “just think how much worse I would be.”
In short, I owe St Josemaría a lot. It’s a joy to celebrate his feast day, which I will do by attending a Mass in his honour Friday night, at St Mary Star of the Sea, West Melbourne. If you’re in town, please come!
It’s also an occasion for Archbishop Hart to bless a new statue of the Holy Family which has been installed in the throne of the high altar. This beautiful statue, which I was able to see in the Granda workshop during my trip to Madrid last year, signifies St Mary’s status as Archdiocesan Shrine of the Holy Family.