Brandsma: “Love will regain the hearts of the pagans.”

An Irish Carmelite priest was a guest at my student residence this evening.

Over dinner, he mentioned the recent announcement that Titus Brandsma will be canonized.

Not knowing anything of this story, my friends and I asked the priest to tell us the story.

Fr. Brandsma was a Dutch Carmelite priest who worked as a philosophy professor and journalist.

His campaign for the freedom of the Catholic press to refuse to print Nazi propaganda led to his arrest and eventual martyrdom by lethal injection at Dachau.

John Paul II canonized Fr. Brandsma in 1985 saying, “Of course, such heroism cannot be improvised” in attesting to Brandsma’s authentic Catholic upbringing and formation throughout his life.

“Although neo-paganism no longer wants love, love will regain the hearts of the pagans,” Brandsma had said.

John Paul II even recounted that the “nurse” who murdered Brandsma with the lethal injection could not resist acknowledging that Brandsma’s look toward her was one of compassion.

How much are we seized by the conviction that “love will regain the hearts of the pagans”, that death and evil will never have the last word?

“Do not lose these special characters.”

Some years ago in Poland, an elderly professor of mine who had been a student of John Paul II told us that, earlier that day, he had been giving a lecture to some high school students, a society of Young Humanists, as they called themselves.

He says he spoke to them about Dostoevsky and said: “In all of Dostoevsky’s books you can find characters who are very poor from the worldly view, especially in The Idiot with Prince Myshkin who is so poor and naive. But can such persons be heroes from the moral point of view?”

He continued to us, “Of course, high schoolers are beginning to look toward their careers and for success. And I wanted to say to them, ‘Look, if you close your understanding of happiness in a human life to this sort of success, you miss these important characters who were definitely not professionally successful. Look out for your goals, okay. But please do not lose these special characters. Sometimes these aspirations cannot be easily held together. Remember, though, that even if you lose this success for which you strive, you do not need to lose your humanity, your heart, your life,’

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Misery and Mission

“Your lessons are hard, oh God, let me be your good and patient pupil. I feel that I am one of many heirs to a great spiritual heritage. I shall be its faithful guardian.” – Etty Hillesum, killed in Auschwtiz on November 30, 1943

Today I am reflecting on the transformative impact of encountering misery – past or present – to discerning one’s path in life.

Confrontations with grave moral evils and injustices can be decisive turning points in a person’s life when he or she becomes summoned to personal responsibility with a sense of mission.

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Unique and unrepeatable

I was always intuitively and viscerally upset whenever women who had suffered miscarriages would lament well-intentioned people having attempted to console them with the words, “You can try again.”

Like Job’s “friends”, such people unfortunately misunderstood the nature of the situation so profoundly as to be unable to offer a meaningful response to those suffering this loss.

Having understood it intuitively, I also wanted to try to understand as rationally as possible why saying, “You can try again” is so inappropriate.

That is when I came upon this compelling paragraph by bioethicist Robert Spaemann who tackles various intellectual positions that would seek to eject members from the human family.

He says:

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Women at the foot of the cross

I recall reading in a biography of Cecily Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice and palliative care movement, that she had been struck by how many women were pioneering and influential in the care of the dying throughout the centuries.

This is something that I contemplate whenever I look at religious art depicting the women at the scene of the Crucifixion.

In his letter on the dignity and vocation of women, John Paul II wrote:

Indeed, the Gospels not only describe what that woman did at Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper; they also highlight the fact that women were in the forefront at the foot of the Cross, at the decisive moment in Jesus of Nazareth’s whole messianic mission. John was the only Apostle who remained faithful, but there were many faithful women. Not only the Mother of Christ and “his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene” (Jn 19:25) were present, but “there were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him” (Mt 27: 55). As we see, in this most arduous test of faith and fidelity the women proved stronger than the Apostles. In this moment of danger, those who love much succeed in overcoming their fear. Before this there were the women on the Via Dolorosa, “who bewailed and lamented him” (Lk 23:27). Earlier still, there was Pilate’s wife, who had warned her husband: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream” (Mt 27:19).

It is interesting to consider the impact that art can have on the imagination and also on forming a person’s sensitivity to his or her role to play within a society.

Deaths worth remembering

Today’s the anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Thomas More who was executed for refusing to swear the Oath of Supremacy.

I find it interesting to note that this 1535 oath began with the words, “I [name] do utterly testifie and declare in my Conscience, that the Kings Highnesse is the onely Supreame Governour of this Realme, and all other his Highnesse Dominions and Countries, as well in all Spirituall or Ecclesiasticall things or causes, as Temporall […].”

In a collection of More’s correspondence written before his death, Father Alvaro De Silva writes in the introduction that More used the word conscience more than 100 times throughout these letters.

More would not say with the solemnity of assertion that he “declares in his conscience” something he believed to be false.

Now conscience is not a word that has widespread resonance and people are not usually asked about what they “declare in their Conscience.”

Yet, there is a reason why the deaths of martyrs are worth remembering long beyond the memory of the powerful people who martyred them.

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He knew how to suffer

Today is the anniversary of the death of a Polish poet named Cyprian Kamil Norwid.

Unfortunately, Janusz Korczak was right when he said, “The world is deaf to the names of many great Poles.”

I first learned about Norwid through reading texts and addresses by John Paul II since the pope quoted him often. Then, when I moved to Lublin, I found more traces of Norwid – from schools bearing his name, to collections of his works in bookstores, to the statue of him on the university campus.

It was during an address in 2001 that Pope John Paul II told representatives of the Institute of Polish National Patrimony: “I honestly wanted to offer my personal debt of gratitude to the poet, with whose work I have been bound by a deep spiritual kinship since my secondary school years.”

He went on to acknowledge that, “Norwid’s poetry was born from the travail of his difficult life.”

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A Patient’s Fight to Be a Protagonist

Today is the 40th anniversary of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II.

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s longtime secretary, was in Rome today marking the occasion and remembering cradling the pope as he felt “his body slip as if paralyzed and fall into my arms.”

The cardinal also reflected, “Today, 40 years after that event, and 16 years after his death, I think with fear of what it would have been like if we had lost him in St. Peter’s Square back then. How poor and different the world and our homeland, Poland, would have been without his witness of faith and doctrine, without his indications and his warnings in the face of the dangers and turmoil that can threaten us in today’s world.”

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To the Tomb of a Teacher

On this date in 2008, Mieczysław Albert Maria Krąpiec OP, passed away.

I learned about this man as I gradually also learned how to pronounce his name.

This Polish priest-professor was a former rector of my university and is considered the founder of the Lublin Philosophical School – the most notable proponent of whom became Karol Wojtyła/Pope John Paul II.

It was in my very first week of classes that a professor of mine named Fr. Maryiniarczk spoke in an earnest yet convivial manner about this tradition saying, “The Lublin Philosophical School prepared, amid a very harsh time, an understanding of the human person and of reality. We aim to continue in this tradition of realistic philosophy. Metaphysics is concerned with discovering the content of being, not a conception of being and not merely a definition of concepts. We do not try to grasp a theory of man, but rather to understand man himself. This is part of what is meant by the approach called existential Thomism – an integration of truth and experience in our lives.”

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