Twelve years ago, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI canonized Jeanne Jugan about whom he said:
By her admirable work at the service of the most deprived elderly, St Mary of the Cross is also like a beacon to guide our societies which must always rediscover the place and the unique contribution of this period of life. Born in 1792 at Cancale in Brittany, Jeanne Jugan was concerned with the dignity of her brothers and sisters in humanity whom age had made more vulnerable, recognizing in them the Person of Christ himself. “Look upon the poor with compassion”, she would say, “and Jesus will look kindly upon you on your last day”. Jeanne Jugan focused upon the elderly a compassionate gaze drawn from her profound communion with God in her joyful, disinterested service, which she carried out with gentleness and humility of heart, desiring herself to be poor among the poor. Jeanne lived the mystery of love, peacefully accepting obscurity and self-emptying until her death. Her charism is ever timely while so many elderly people are suffering from numerous forms of poverty and solitude and are sometimes also abandoned by their families. In the Beatitudes Jeanne Jugan found the source of the spirit of hospitality and fraternal love, founded on unlimited trust in Providence, which illuminated her whole life. This evangelical dynamism is continued today across the world in the Congregation of Little Sisters of the Poor, which she founded and which testifies, after her example, to the mercy of God and the compassionate love of the Heart of Jesus for the lowliest. May St Jeanne Jugan be for elderly people a living source of hope and for those who generously commit themselves to serving them, a powerful incentive to pursue and develop her work!
The other day I asked a visiting priest responsible for Catholic higher education to speak to us about the most influential teachers in his life.
To this, he immediately responded that he has had many teachers throughout the course of his life who were alright but rather unremarkable. He noted that he thinks this is the case for most people. But, he insisted, there are, of course, those one or two teachers who stand out and whose influence upon you is something you will remember and cherish for your entire life.
As he said this, it was clear that he was conjuring up his own recollections of these special and extraordinary teachers. Gradually, he told us a few anecdotes about them.
Then, he encouraged us not to expect every teacher to be extraordinary but insisted that we do establish the hope of encountering at least some of them who are truly excellent.
“Given the choice between 5,000 decent but mediocre and lukewarm people or 4,999 heretics and one shining saint, I would definitely choose the heretics and the saint,” this priest said. “The saint makes the difference.”
Five years ago, I was attending a cool Thomistic seminar in Norcia after which there was an optional trip to Rome.
Flashback to earlier that summer when I had been in America at the Hildebrand Project learning from and conversing with Italian statesman and professor Rocco Buttiglione.
As we sat outdoors, he memorably told me the story of St. Camillus de Lellis about whom I don’t remember having ever heard before.
Professor Buttiglione and I had been discussing end-of-life care when he began to speak to me about this saint who, almost 500 years ago, founded the Servants of the Sick.
Given my interest in these topics, I was happy to encounter the story of this saint in conversation.
July 9th is the feast day of the Chinese Martyrs.
It was October 2000 when Saint Pope John Paul II canonized 120 martyrs in China. As Alejandro Bermudez noted in his recent piece, “87 were Chinese laypeople and 33 were missionaries.”
Bermudez says, “The feast is an occasion for the Chinese Catholic diaspora, and for the Universal Catholic church as a whole, to pray for Christians currently persecuted in Communist China, especially those Catholics who despite being a minority in Hong Kong, constitute the backbone of the freedom movement and are currently being jailed such as Catholic convert Jimmy Lai, owner of the pro-democracy paper Apple News; or those forced to exile, like pro-democracy Catholic leader Joseph Cheng.”
In his homily, John Paul II said the, “martyrs are an example of courage and consistency to us all, and that they honour the noble Chinese people.”
The stories of these modern martyrs are captivating and it is important for them to become accessible and familiar so to bolster the faith and tenacity of Christians and people of good will worldwide.
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.
This evening I am reflecting on two famous Italians who died on this date – one is Niccolò Machiavelli who died in 1527 and the other is Aloysius de Gonzaga, S.J. who died in 1591. The latter lived fewer than half as many years than the former. And, while Machiavelli is certainly on more course syllabi today, Aloysius de Gonzaga is a canonized saint whose example and spirit continues to be invoked from generation to generation.
Aloysius de Gonzaga came from an affluent and influential family. He decided, however, to renounce his aristocratic lifestyle and joined the Jesuits while he was still a teenager. When there was a plague in Rome in 1591, Aloysius insisted on volunteering at a hospital and it was in this context that he contracted the disease and died when he was just 23.
What does a 23-year-old who died in the sixteenth century have to teach young people today living in the 21st century?
Here is a summary of Pope Francis’ remarks on this point to high schoolers:
As the pandemic is being overcome, I am returning to this piece I wrote on March 16, 2020 weaving together Albert Camus’ The Plague with the contemporary events that were emerging with COVID-19.
Here’s the last paragraph of the novel with some lines emphasized:
None the less, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers. And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linenchests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.
“For the bane and enlightening of men…”
The word “bane” has the sense of “that which causes ruin or woe” and is related to the terms “killer, slayer, murderer, a worker of death.”
The word “enlightenment” has the connotation “‘to remove the dimness or blindness’ (usually figurative, from one’s eyes or heart).”
Has this COVID-19 pandemic in any way removed the dimness from our hearts?
“Plague” and “enlightenment”, which at first seem greatly opposed, are, in Camus’ understanding, more related that they appear.
Sometimes I wonder about how we will look back at this Covid period of our lives.
Will this time be regarded as “lost years” or “missing years”?
Will we be able to recall events clearly or will they be blurred, absent the ordinarily vivid and communal expressions of milestones?
And, will trauma and grief be suppressed by gradual good humour and selective nostalgia?
In The Year of Our Lord 1943, Alan Jacobs writes about the effects of the end of World War II saying, “As war comes to an end, and its exigencies cease, and people return to a freedom absent for so long that its return is discomforting, they think of the apparent lawlessness of Nature and Man alike…”
A few pages later, Jacobs says:
I’m thankful to a friend who reminded me that today is the feast day of St. Gianna Beretta Molla and who, accordingly, suggested that I devote today’s post to her.
Gianna was an Italian Catholic pediatrician and mother of four. She is known for refusing life-saving medical interventions that would have resulted in the death of her fourth child with whom she was pregnant at the time.
While it would have been morally licit for her to opt for the interventions in an attempt to save her own life, since the loss of her child would have been wholly unintended and inadvertent, Gianna was willing to die in order that her unborn child might live.
How someone comes to such a decision with faith and courage is almost never momentary happenstance. As John Paul II put it– that Gianna knew how to offer her life as a sacrifice was the crowning of an exemplary existence.