Category Archives: Franciscan

Saints who touched me – Benedict the Moor

November 1 is the feast of all saints. I’d like to share a few of the saints who have touched my life.

I grew up in the midst of the piety of the 1950s where we said the Rosary in the family during October, where we learned about the saints in Catholic school, and where there was a large statue of Saint Therese of Lisieux in our parish church.

I had an attraction to the Franciscans at this time, which continues to this day. I even got to the first Mass of Father Cyprian Harkin, ofm, the nephew of a woman who worked with my Dad.

Somehow I learned of the Franciscan Saint Benedict of Sicily or, as he was known then, Saint Benedict the Moor – now called Saint Benedict the Black, who lived in Sicily from 1526 to 1589.

Born in Sicily of parents who had been freed from slavery, he joined a group of hermits living under St. Francis’ Rule for hermits. Shortly after, the pope disbanded all small groups of hermits, and Benedict joined the Franciscans.

Benedict, though illiterate and a lay brother, was chosen novice master and later guardian of the friary. But he finally asked to return to the kitchen to do what he loved – cook.

Father Cyprian found a statue for me which I had stored with friends when I left for Honduras in 2007. On my recent trip to Ames, I found the statue and it is now in my prayer room – next to a Guatemalan statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe and a Bolivian angel.

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Why did St. Benedict mean so much to me in the late fifties?

This was the time of the civil rights movement and Benedict was obviously an example of holiness that is not limited to whites.His holiness also reinforced my concern for civil rights and racial equality.

Looking back, there are several other aspects of his life that touch me even now.

He was illiterate but that did not stop him from being holy or from being an example and guide for others. God does not need education to work wonders of holiness – though education helps.

In addition, he found holiness amid the pots and pans, preparing food for his brothers. He was a real servant.

I am so happy to have his statue here – as I try to be of service to the poor and to the faith community here.

I ask God for the grace to be loving and humble as Benedict was and be open to the poor.

The poor woman Clare

In the height of the Middle Ages, a woman from Assisi held out against the powers that be so that her community of sisters could live a life of poverty. Two days before her death on August 11, 1253, the approved Rule of Life of the Poor Ladies arrived at the convent of San Damiano outside Assisi.

Saint Clare was the first woman to follow Francis in imitation of the poor Christ. She left her family of power and wealth and promised to live a life of evangelical poverty on Palm Sunday, 1212.

Clare Assisi

It was not easy. Her brothers tried to drag her away. But once she showed them her shorn hair, they left. Later, two sisters and her mother joined Clare.

In a letter to Saint Agnes of Prague who had joined the Poor Clares in Bohemia, Clair wrote about their way of life as a mirror.

In this mirror by the grace of God you will be able to observe blessed poverty, holy humility, and love beyond the power of words to describe. As you gaze into it, you behold the poverty of Him who was laid in the manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes. What wondrous humility! What astounding poverty! The King of angels, the Lord of heaven and earth, is laid in a manger.

The mystery of the God who comes among us as a poor child moved Clare, Francis, and many others. They felt called by a God made vulnerable to be poor and vulnerable as He was. They sought to live open to the loving care of God.

How easy it is to look on our talents, our possessions, our connections to provide a fortress of safety against vulnerability.

But Clare and others were willing to put these aside – not because they are bad, but because they can detain us on our way to God if we cling to them.

Today, I pray that God – through the intercession of Clare and Francis – help me to become empty and welcoming, holding on to God. In that way I might be able to be more available to those most in need.

Standing with the Crucified

Do you want to be totally united to the Crucified?
If you are serious about this,
you will be present, by the power of His Cross,
at every front, at every place of sorrow,
bringing to those who suffer, healing and salvation.
St. Teresa Benedicta a Cruce

Today is a day filled with challenges for me.

Nagasaki crucifix

Nagasaki crucifix

On August 9, 1945, the US dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki and used the Catholic Cathedral as a point to help them determine the spot to drop the bomb.

Nagasaki was one of the great center of Catholicism in Japan, even preserving the faith after all the priests had left. On the day of the bombing, Catholics were gathered in the cathedral at Mass. There and throughout the city many innocent people were killed.

On August 9, 1943, Franz Jägerstätter, a Austrian peasant, was beheaded in Germany as “an enemy of the state.” Blessed Franz refused to serve in Hitler’s army because of his faith – despite the advice of priests, and bishop, and many others. He saw Nazism as a “train headed for hell” and refused to have part in it. For that decision of conscience he was executed by the state.

On August 9, 1942, Sister Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, Teresa blessed by the Cross, was killed in the gas chamber at Auschwitz. Born Edith Stein, a German Jew and philosopher, she became a Catholic after reading St. Teresa of Avila and later joined the Carmelites. She was sent from her Cologne to a Dutch convent for her safety. But after the Dutch bishops and other religious leaders spoke up against Nazi racial policies, she and her sister were deported to Auschwitz. Though she had a chance to escape to Switzerland, she refused to flee but sought to be with her people.

On August 9, 1991, two Polish Conventual Franciscan Friars Michał Tomaszek and Zbigniew Strzałkowski were killed by the Sendero Luminoso in the Andean parish where they ministered to and with the poor. As Father Michal (Miguel), wrote to a friend a few months before his killing: “You are not where you are now to understand the world, but to understand what the will of God is for you. It is a matter of being where you are supposed to be.”

Recalling these persons and these events, I feel a renewed calling to be a witness to the Crucified Christ and the crucified peoples of the world – by being here in their midst. May God give me the courage and gentleness to persevere.

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The quotation from St. Edith Stein comes from Robert Ellsberg’s  All Saints.

Our Journey

In the prologue to his mystical masterpiece, The Journey of the Mind into God, Saint Bonaventure warns the reader who believes certain things are sufficient:

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Tree of Life, Santa Croce, Florence

reading without unction,
speculation without devotion,
investigation without wonder,
observation without joy,
diligence without piety,
knowledge without love,
understanding without humility,
study apart from divine grace,
gazing apart from
divinely inspired wisdom.

For Bonaventure it was not enough to think things through and “know” them with one’s intellect. One must move to the affective aspect of our lives, where one can encounter Christ.

It’s not enough to think about God. God calls us to let Him come and meet us, open our hearts to a loving encounter with a Person.

God is not an idea. God is a person and God wants us to be the person we are called to be by God’s love.

It’s so easy to just try to “think” about God, to see moral messages. It’s no so easy to open oneself to the Ultimate Other – God.

But we are called to start over each day, each moment, to let our hearts be opened to the Love of God.

Patron of the homeless

One of the churches I visited in Rome two years ago was Santa Maria ai Monti, where St. Benedict Joseph Labre is buried. He fainted there on April 16, 1784, and died soon after in a nearby house at the age of 35. He is buried there.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre

Deemed too frail or talentless by several religious orders, he became a wandering pilgrim. The Franciscan claim him as a Cordbearer, a Franciscan confraternity.

He lived among the poor and beggars, noted for his piety, especially his devotion to the Eucharist, and for sharing his food with the poor.

I read of St. Benedict Joseph many years ago and a friend told me of his devotion to this unlikely saint.

The visit to his tomb was for me a blessing – especially since the tomb and the church were bathed in sunlight.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre

Benedict Joseph shows us that holiness can be lived anywhere – and that we need to open our eyes and our hearts to those who appear the least likely to reflect the presence of the holiness of God.

Treading lightly

Do not depart from your course….
Let no dust gather on your feet.
Letter of St. Clare of Assisi to St. Agnes of Prague

Today the Franciscans remember a thirteenth century Poor Clare nun who lived many years in a convent in Bohemia. Agnes was born to a noble family but refused marriage – even from the Emperor – to devote herself to God.

St. Clare considered St. Agnes her spiritual daughter and wrote some beautiful letters to her. A part of one of these is used in today’s Vigils in the Franciscan Liturgy of the Hours.

With swift pace, light tread, and unswerving fidelity
proceed safely with joy and gladness
along the way that leads to salvation.

How do we tread lightly?

I’ve not run for several years, but in Ames I would occasionally run around a field on the Iowa State University campus near where the Towers used to be.

When I ran I didn’t feel as if I were marching along with a heavy step. I guess that sometimes I felt as if I were gliding along, over the earth.

Of course, I had no baggage with me – just a key to the house in my pocket.

Does treading lightly mean living with little, at least with few things to burden me, to weigh me down?

Does treading lightly mean that I do not get too settled and let myself move on – when God calls?

Does treading lightly mean keeping my eyes on the prize – the Reign of God – and letting myself me led there by God’s love?

Lord, help me tread lightly and run swiftly – in your love and by your grace, as I walk the way.

The merciful power of the Name

Put aside, I beg you, any name implying political power;
let there be no mention of vengeance, no mention of justice.
Give us the name of mercy.
St. Bernardine of Siena

 Today the church, especially the Franciscans and the Jesuits (the Company of Jesus), celebrate the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.

In the fifteenth century, the Franciscan reformer, Bernardine of Siena, revived the devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. He popularized a medallion with IHS, the first three letters of the name of Jesus in Greek capital letters: ´ΙΗΣΟΥΣ.

The Jesuits also have a special devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus and their main church in Rome, the Gesù, bears the medallion over the main door.

Jesus

Names have power.

When you call out someone’s name, how often does that person turn around.

When someone gives you a nickname, how often does that in some way “define” you – for good or for ill.

In the first days of the Christian community, Peter healed the beggar at the temple gate “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (Acts 3:6).

The name Jesus means “the Lord is salvation” – a reminder that we are not completely in charge, but also that God made flesh in Jesus is a God who reaches out to save in mercy.

And thus St. Bernardine’s admonition in this morning reading from the Office of Vigils makes a lot of sense.

The salvation of Jesus is not a political power – though it has political implications. Thus, politics must be put into context.

The salvation of Jesus is not vengeful; the God of Jesus is not a vengeful God, seeking recompense.

Nor is the salvation of Jesus mere justice – tit for tat. It is a manifestation of the deeper Justice of God which brings health and healing.

The salvation of Jesus is the salvation of mercy.

So today, I pray that the mercy of God may penetrate the hearts of all the world, especially political leaders and those who live by violence.

Mercy upon mercy…

Bearing the marks of the crucified

From now on, let no one trouble me;
for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.
Galatians 6: 17

St. Francis on Alverna

St. Francis on Alverna

Today Franciscans throughout the world celebrate the feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis. The stigmata are the wounds of Christ on his hands, feet, and side which Francis was the first to experience in his own body.

In 1224, two years before his death, in the midst of a time of deep anxiety in the soul of Francis about the future of the order that had grown up around him, Francis was in prayer and fasting on Mount Alverna.

He saw a vision of a seraph on the cross and experienced the wounds of Christ in his own body which he sought to hide.

It is very easy to dismiss the stigmata as a medieval legend meant to present Francis as “another Christ” or to exalt the stigmata to a super-miraculous manifestation of God’s special favor.

But I think it’s much simpler.

As Augustine Thompson writes in Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (p. 118):

… the stigmata were the culmination of Francis’s life since his conversion: a search for total conformity to Christ.

Francis sought to be like Christ in all things, especially in his poverty and his love for all people and all creation.

As Carlo Carretto puts it in I, Francis, Francis prayed for two graces:

Lord Jesus, two graces I ask of Thee before I die.
First, to feel in my soul and in my body, as far as possible, the sorrow which Thou, sweet Jesus, didst endure in the hour of Thy most bitter passion; second, to feel in my heart, as far as possible, that extraordinary love with which Thou, O Son of God, wast inflamed, to the point of willingly undergoing so great a Passion for us sinners.

Francis sought to be like Christ in solidarity with the suffering and love for all.

The stigmata are signs that Francis felt the pain of Christ – as Christ feels the pain of all human beings. They are also signs that Francis wanted to love as Christ did, loving even those who crucified Him.

The wounds of Christ and the stigmata of St. Francis are for me a call to deeper solidarity with the suffering and to a more embracing love for all.

Lord, open me today to solidarity and love.

The little things in life

St. Bonaventure, whose feast is celebrated today, didn’t want to be a bishop. But the pope finally forced him. The papal delegates who came to inform him found Bonaventure washing dishes. They had to wait until he was finished.

As he once wrote, “The perfection of a religious person is to do common things in a perfect manner; a constant fidelity in small things is great and heroic virtue.”

There is a saying – “Don’t sweat the little things.”

I’m not sure that is good spiritual advice. Sure, we should not let the little problems in life annoy us. But we should be attentive to the little things in pour daily lives – washing dishes, saying hello to the street-sweeper or the receptionist, picking up a piece of trash, calling a friend.

That’s where we may find God.

Poverty and following Christ

I was born poor and am resolved to die in poverty and penance.
St. Paschal Baylon 

 First, a disclaimer: I am not poor. I am privileged. I receive Social Security (being almost 67 years young.) I have money set aside in retirement accounts. I am building a house here in Honduras (which I will leave to the church.)

But the stories of the saints who lived in poverty always challenges me to try to live a simpler life and to find ways to practice a holy austerity.

Today is the feast of the Franciscan lay brother Paschal Baylon who lived in Spain from 1540 to 1592. Because of his devotion to the Eucharist he is the patron saint of Eucharistic devotions.

But what strikes me is his poverty.

Born of poor shepherds, he guarded sheep as a young man. He entered the strict Observant Franciscans founded by St. Peter Alcantara. In his friary they avoided meat and wine, lived in seven foot long cells, and walked barefoot. They spent three hours a day in mental prayer and lived on alms.

According to the Saint of the Day website:

 Paschal was careful to observe the vow of poverty. He would never waste any food or anything given for the use of the friars. When he was porter and took care of the poor coming to the door, he developed a reputation for great generosity. The friars sometimes tried to moderate his liberality!

For him poverty was a way to Christ – a way that accompanied his devotion to Christ in the Eucharist.

How ought I to respond to the challenge of saints like Paschal Baylon?

I can choose to live more poorly, more austerely – not because poverty is a value in itself, but out of solidarity with the poor.

I can choose to live in ways that I really share who I am and what I have with those in need.

And I can choose to pray more often to Christ, our Lord, who became poor for our sake and reveals Himself to us in a special way, in the poverty of bread and wine – His body and blood which he offers for us.