I have been praying for you daily. I am glad to hear that everything is set for your entry into the seminary – sometimes the Devil makes a last ditch effort to dissuade young men who have heard the call from following through on their decisions. It’s nice to know that your courage has thus far frustrated his diabolical efforts. But watch out just the same; Satan is very subtle and very creative (he has a lot of experience).
I think you are ready for seminary life, but I also think I owe you one small piece of avuncular advice: don’t expect roses without thorns. You will find joy on the path of predilection that God has so graciously called you to follow, but your joy will not exclude the cross. Remember, you are following in Christ’s footsteps, and they lead up a narrow and steep road.
Today’s saint is a good example. John was an old man, and feeble, and worn out by the time he was elected the 53rd Pope. But he took up the responsibility with as much energy as he could muster. Unfortunately for him, the Arian heresy was rampant at the time. (Arians denied the divinity of Christ, among other things.) The heresy had caused a huge rift among Christians throughout the former Roman Empire. In fact, the ruler of Italy at the time, King Theodoric the Ostragoth, was an Arian himself.
At first Theodoric lived in peace with the good and holy Pope John. But later the King became a bit neurotic, and paranoid. He forced the Pope to lead a delegation to the Byzantine Emperor (Justin was his name) in Constantinople in order to demand more freedom for Arian churches back in Italy. Pope John was received with grandeur and joy by Emperor and people alike. He even participated in an elaborate and beautiful ceremony where he crowned the Emperor. It was a moment of deep communion between the Western and Eastern Churches.
Pope John was able to win some concessions from Justin, and so from Theodoric’s perspective the delegation should have been considered a success. But it wasn’t. The Ostrogothic King suspected John of conspiracy. He thought the Pope and the Byzantine Emperor were plotting a Byzantine take-over of Italy and of what was left of the Western Roman Empire. So Theodoric had Pope John arrested as soon as he returned from Constantinople and set foot on Italian soil. He threw him into a prison in the eastern Italian city of Ravenna (the paranoid King had earlier imprisoned and executed the Pope’s confidant, St Boetius). There the aged and frail Pope was left to die a slow and painful death from neglect and hunger.
Please don’t think my calling to mind this historical tidbit means I am wishing you a miserable time in the seminary and in the priesthood – not at all. I just want to make sure you don’t start off on this adventure with the wrong expectations. Heaven, after all, is in heaven, not here on earth.
Your loving uncle, Eddy
Without a doubt, winning membership in Phi Beta Kappa as a junior is commendable. But I have to tell you that I am not surprised. Just remember amid your glee that your extraordinary intelligence and the good study habits that are allowing it to flower are due not to your own merit, but to God’s graciousness and your parents’ wisdom. And also remember that getting good grades, though important, is not the end-all and be-all of life – at least, not for a Christian. On that note, you may find it useful to reflect on the life of today’s saint.
Antonia was the second of ten children born to a peasant family on the Island of Sardinia, off the west coast of Italy. She grew up between World War I and II, when education was being made available even for the poorest of children. But after just four years of school, she was forced to leave her studies behind so that she could take over the housekeeping for her mother, who had been confined to bed by a painful heart condition. She accepted this hardship humbly and joyfully.
Antonia didn’t let either her lack of education or her poverty keep her from loving Christ. When she was ten, she joined Catholic Action, Italy’s national apostolic movement for lay people. She was a model member, and energetically fulfilled her commitments and recruited other young people to join the group. As she continued to work and to build up the Church, she was exercising all the Christian virtues – to honor Christ and live in friendship with him was her first care and her first priority.
On one afternoon when she was 16, she went out to gather wood for the stove at home. Alone, she was accosted by another, older teenager, a boy who tried to rape her. She resisted, and he beat her. She continued to resist, and he continued to beat her, trying to force her submission. But she knew that her body was a Temple of the Holy Spirit, and she would not submit. The would-be rapist’s anger grew into fury, and he beat her to death.
Antonia is a beatified saint. She was faithful to her Lord, and her virtue has infused (and continues to infuse) strength and grace into the Church. That, my bright young nephew, is a life worth living, however brief – notwithstanding the unfortunate fact that she barely even knew how to read. I encourage you to follow in her footsteps, always keeping first things first, regardless of Phi Beta Kappa pins and parties.
Your loving uncle, Eddy
Some things, my bright young niece, are more important than promotions. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad you have been offered such a wonderful job right out of college. You certainly deserve it, and that company probably doesn’t realize what a jewel they are getting. But as your devoted uncle, I need to give you a warning. They will try to take advantage of you. They are less interested in you than in what you can do for them. So they will use all kinds of perks and promises of promotion to motivate you to work 80 and 90 hour weeks, throwing your life and your soul out of balance. Be careful. Keep Christ in the center. Remember that your friendship with him is priceless – no promotion will ever even compare.
That’s a lesson that today’s saint learned well. As a child John was miraculously saved from a mortal disease by the prayers of his parents. In thanksgiving, they consecrated him to God. He easily found his vocation to the priesthood, and dedicated himself to it with such fervor and sincerity that his preaching literally converted thousands of sinners.
His holiness led to popularity especially among the poor. He was made Vicar General of the diocese of Prague, the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia at the time. His position was a platform for an active and remarkably fruitful apostolate, though his naturally retiring personality led him to decline more than a few offers of bishoprics. Among his many duties was that of interceding for the destitute in the court of King Wenceslaus. Though the King was hardly a model Christian, the Queen, Sophie, was devout. St John was her confessor.
And that’s how the trouble started. Wenceslaus was a suspicious fellow, in addition to being sensual, temperamental, and self-indulgent. He was also a control-freak, and at one point demanded that St John reveal to him what his wife had said in confession. The faithful priest refused to break the sacred seal of the sacrament. The King retaliated by putting him in prison. The situation was aggravated by John’s astute defense of the Church’s honor and well-being against other of the King’s selfish ploys. In the end, his refusal to bow to Wenceslaus’s desires earned him torture and a painful, martyr’s death by drowning in Prague’s Moldau river.
St John had every chance in the world to climb the social ladder, but he was more interested in Christ’s Kingdom than in Wenceslaus’s petty pleasures and politicking. You too may have to suffer a bit if you stay true to the Lord, but in the end, as you already know, fidelity to Him will make you much happier than a penthouse and a Porsche.
Your loving uncle, Eddy
Your notes never fail to uplift me. You are unique among my nieces. None of them has been given such a cross as our Lord has seen fit to give you, and few of them bear their crosses with as much faith and love. I am truly sorry to hear that your mother’s mental health gives no signs of improvement, but I am deeply edified by your trust in Providence, and your continued, faithful presence in her life. Your example of self-sacrificing, Christ-like love reminds me a lot of today’s saint.
Dymphna is one of those mysterious figures from the early Middle Ages. We know less about her actual life than we do about the remarkable influence her life had and continues to have.
She was the child of a pagan Irish King (Damon was his name) and a beautiful Christian woman who died while Dymphna was still just a girl. Upon her mother’s death, her father fell into a violent depression and left Ireland in search of a woman who could equal her in beauty. Dymphna, meanwhile, was left under the care either of relatives or of the holy priest St Gerebernus, or both – we don’t really know.
Damon’s quest kept him away for years, but was unsuccessful. When he finally returned, his daughter had grown to be a beautiful young woman (still in her teens). She resembled her mother, and as a result, her father, in his abnormal mental state, conceived an incestuous desire for her. But she had been brought up Christian, and betook herself to St Gerebernus, who recommended that she flee from her father instead of submitting to his sinful designs. Together they crossed the English Channel into Belgium. They found a small oratory near the present day town of Gheel, and there they settled down to live a simple life of work, prayer, and service to the poor and suffering.
Their peaceful Christian way of life was short-lived, however. Her Father pursued and found her. He demanded that she obey his desires, but she refused. He sent his servants to kill both the priest and his daughter. They beheaded St Gerebernus, but they were pacified by the beautiful, holy maiden. This put Damon into an uncontrollable rage, and he himself came and struck the head off of his daughter.
By then, Dymphna’s reputation for Christian charity and goodness had already been established. The sick and poor visited her grave and implored her intercession. Soon cures were reported – especially cures of the mentally insane. Devotion spread, and a hospital for the mentally ill was constructed. The cures, the devotion, and the hospital are all still going strong today.
My dear niece, it doesn’t sound like you need much encouragement from me, but even so, I think today’s saint shows clearly how God works in this sinful world. He doesn’t eliminate suffering and sin – even the most horrible and horrifying kinds. Rather, he conquers them with the love of Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And I am convinced that his conquest is advancing far and wide through you.
Your loving uncle, Eddy
I only have a minute to answer your latest missive. Something’s going on in the prison today, and in a matter of mere moments they will be escorting me into some kind of temporary cubicle for an undetermined amount of time. Pray that it is more temporary than typical university temporary housing.
In any case, your friend’s argument that the hierarchical structure of the Church (organized under the authority of the Pope – successor to St Peter – and the Bishops – successors of the other Apostles) was a fourth-century invention designed by Constantine to usurp the Church and use it for secular ends is totally ridiculous. Besides the gargantuan ignorance of history illustrated by such a preposterous theory, it explicitly contradicts Scripture. Just take today’s saint, for example.
After Judas had committed suicide, Peter and the other Apostles, under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, appointed Matthias to take his place. The Book of Acts records the event.
After quoting some Old Testament texts that point towards the perpetuity of the apostolic offices, St Peter said, “Out of the men who have been with us the whole time that the Lord Jesus was living with us, from the time when John was baptizing until the day when he was taken up from us, one must be appointed to serve with us as a witness to his resurrection.” Then the community nominated two candidates, Joseph known as Barsabbas, and Matthias, and then they prayed, “Lord, you can read everyone’s heart; show us therefore which of these two you have chosen to take over this ministry and apostolate, which Judas abandoned to go to his proper place.” When they drew lots, Matthias won. From then on, as the Book of Acts puts it, “he was listed as one of the twelve apostles.” (Acts 1:21-26)
That clearly shows that the very first Christians understood the ministry of the twelve apostles (the ministry carried out by popes and bishops through the ages) as something that was essential to the Christian community. It was supposed to last even after Christ had finished his earthly mission. It is not antithetical to the work of the Holy Spirit.
I don’t have time to recap the many historical arguments, but this Scriptural one is pretty irrefutable, in my opinion. Ask St Matthias to enlighten your buddy, and count on my prayers as well – unless they knock me unconscious when they move me to my “temporary” new home.
Your loving uncle, Eddy
I owe you my most heartfelt congratulations. You are now a graduate of one of the world’s finest institutions of higher learning, and the first of your family to earn a college degree. It is no mean accomplishment. You can be sure that here in the buzzing shadows of these infernal fluorescent lights, I am sharing your joy. If your parents were alive, I am sure they would be beaming. Come to think of it, they are probably beaming now more than they would have been beaming if there were still confined to this earth.
But as your uncle, I feel obliged to temper my congratulations with an appropriate avuncular warning. The world is a hungry place. It’s hungry for souls. And as you launch out to conquer it, be careful. Because of your achievements and talents, it will try to make you forget about God and bask in the self-defeating light of yourself. Don’t let it. Follow the example of today’s saint.
St Mary Mazzarello founded the Congregation of the Daughters of Mary the Help of Christians in 1867, under the guidance of another great saint, John Bosco, in northern Italy. For the next 14 years her good humor, common sense, hard work, and simple (but oh so profound) prayer life enabled her to turn the little group of fifteen young ladies into a flourishing, international force to be reckoned with, one of the largest congregations in the Church. They dedicated themselves to educating poor girls (and this was long before the feminist movement had got going), and were so successful that their students have become influential members of society in every walk of life throughout the world.
The funny thing is St Mary herself was uneducated. She was unsophisticated. She was a peasant, with rough hands and a strong back. And yet, God used her to launch a vast work of education.
That’s the lesson for you. By nature, you are just the opposite of St Mary: bright, educated, cultured, lovely, familiar with the ways of high society… And yet, in order to accomplish truly worthwhile achievements in the world, you need to become just like St Mary in your heart. You need to have one desire: to please Jesus, your Lord, your King. Only he can give you lasting happiness. That’s St Mary’s message to you, and if you’re not careful, it will get drowned out in the hubbub and glitter of the world you are diving into.
The only graduation present I can give you is a phrase from St Mary. Please keep it close to your heart, and look at it more often than you will look at your diploma. If you do, you won’t derail: “Speak little to creatures, but speak much with God. He will make you truly wise.” And True Wisdom is where Success is really at.
Your devoted Uncle, Eddy
True, growth in holiness does take time. But it seems like you’re using that truth as an excuse to cling to your comfortable, self-indulgent ways. Frankly, the only thing stopping you from being a saint is, I hate to tell you, yourself. Why put it off? Why not follow the example of today’s saint, who showed in his life the truth of Pope Benedict XVI’s resounding affirmation on the day of his installation as the 265th Supreme Pontiff: “Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away and gives everything.”
St Pancras was an orphan born in Palestine, it seems. His uncle took him to Rome when he was only a boy. There both of them became Christians. We don’t know the circumstances of their conversion, but we do know what happened to Pancras.
When Emperor Diocletian tried to rejuvenate his crumbling empire by purifying it of the Christians, he inaugurated the most vicious and universal persecution in history. We have no way of calculating the number of victims, which certainly reached well into the thousands, but we do know many of their identities. One of them was St Pancras. He was just a teenager, a 14-year-old boy when he was rounded up and beheaded along with two former Roman Legionaries, saints Nereus and Achilles. Years later, Pope Saint Symmachus built a church over his grave, and Pope St Vitalian sent some of his relics to England when St Augustine of Canterbury was initiating the evangelization of the British.
Why was this orphan-martyr so popular? One of the reasons was his age. Though his body and mind were immature at the time of his martyrdom, his heart and his soul overflowed with supernatural courage. He proves beyond a doubt that being a saint is not a task only for “adults”, as you so sophisticatedly put it in your note.
I don’t have any of his relics to send you. But I can assure you that a prayer for his intercession in your current state of spiritual stagnation will help jumpstart your hunger for holiness. That, as the Gospel tells us, is the only sure way to find the satisfaction you’re really looking for.
Your loving uncle, Eddy
You are understandably looking forward to a well-earned vacation. But I can’t help thinking that you are looking forward to it a bit too much. Is it possible that you have fallen victim to the rampant “weekend mentality”? It’s the mentality that “lives for the weekend” (or for the vacation). In other words, instead of finding meaning in life as a mission, as a task that includes work and friendships and family, plus a bit of relaxation and entertainment to keep balanced, the weekend mentality considers everything else to be a means for achieving the longest and most indulgent relaxation/entertainment activities possible.
Underlying this devilish mentality is the assumption that we exist merely in order to enjoy ourselves, not to give ourselves. It’s the “fulfillment from self-indulgence not from self-giving” approach to life. And it’s a deadly one. Today’s saint may help shake you out of it, if you happen to be falling into it.
Francis was energetic by nature. He was the oldest of eleven children, and while still a teenager impressed the priests of his town and was taken on by them as a Catechism instructor. Later, he moved to Naples with one of his brothers, where he studied Canon and Civil Law. He finished his studies rapidly and received a special dispensation to be ordained when he was still under 24 years of age (the minimum required by Canon Law).
His brilliant intellect and powerful communications skills won him a position teaching at the Jesuit Collegio dei Nobili (school for aristocrats) in Naples. He held that position for five years. Then he convinced his family to allow him to join the Jesuit Order. For the rest of his life, he threw himself into missionary activity there in southern Italy, around the beautiful but chaotic and vicious city of Naples.
His official position was preacher at the Gesu Nuovo Church, which became his center of operations. From the start his concise, energetic rhetorical style (plus his holiness of life) attracted huge crowds to his sermons. And he began to teach other missionaries so as to multiply his efforts. He was tireless in his efforts to win sinners back to Christ and to show Christ’s love to the poor and indigent. He traveled from village to village on foot, visited prisons, galley slaves, and even preached to the brothels. He became the father of Naples’ poor, and they flocked around his coffin when he finally died, exhausted by his labors and worn out by a painful sickness, at the age of 75.
For St Francis, there wasn’t enough time in the day to do what ought to be done for Christ and his Kingdom. And I must say that times haven’t changed that much – perhaps even more nowadays than back in the 1700s suffering souls are dying to hear the Good News. They just need someone to bring it to them in a way that they can relate to, in a way that makes it understandable and relevant. Maybe you can think about that during your vacation, which ought to be a time to recharge your batteries, not run them down.
Your loving uncle, Eddy
I am sorry, but I disagree with you. You say you are doing everything within your power to grow in faith, put order in your life, and discover God’s will. But that’s not true. You have neglected the most practical and one of the most ancient Catholic tactics: you have not sought out a trustworthy spiritual director. In that vein, I think you need to reflect a bit on today’s saint.
John of Ávila was born to a wealthy family and went to the famous University of Salamanca to study law. He did well, but felt called to the religious life. Wealth and abstract knowledge simply didn’t satisfy him. He went off to learn how to pray and sacrifice. Three years later he went on to study philosophy and theology and was eventually ordained a priest. He longed to travel to the New World on a mission of evangelization, but the archbishop of Seville convinced him to stay in Spain and evangelize the southern province of Andalusia, which was still recovering from centuries of Moslem rule.
Thus St John found his vocation. For the next forty years he preached tirelessly. He went from town to down, spreading the Good News, serving the poor, and denouncing sin wherever he found it – even (especially, perhaps) among the rich and powerful. He was so effective that at one point he was imprisoned by the Inquisition for teaching that the rich couldn’t get into heaven (the rich were purposely misinterpreting him because he was waking up their consciences). The charges were dropped, however, after investigation. His brief sojourn as a religious criminal only increased his popularity.
Among his many gifts was that of being a wise and effective spiritual director. In fact, he served as such for five of the most influential saints of the sixteenth century: St Teresa of Ávila, St John of the Cross, St Peter of Alcantará, St John of God, and St Francis Borgia.
And that, my precocious young niece, is my point. God likes to work through human instruments. That’s one of the reasons behind the Incarnation. And so, if you are trying to pursue the path of holiness and meaning all by yourself, you are not doing it God’s way. The history of the Church is a history of saints passing on sanctity from one generation to the next. Don’t think you’ll be able to catch it without catching it from someone.
Pray for a trustworthy spiritual director (and that doesn’t mean it has to be someone who floats around in ecstasy all the time, just someone you can trust – remember, the director is just an instrument of God’s grace), and start LOOKING for one too.
Your concerned uncle, Eddy
Well, it’s been quite a year. I can’t say that I’m glad you had to struggle so much, but I can say that I am glad you struggled so courageously. You never let anything take precedence over Christ. Your many hidden victories in the spiritual battle will bear plenty of fruit, both in your own soul and for the extension of God’s Kingdom.
I hope you don’t let down your guard now that freshman year is over, though. As you head back to your summer job, you may find it hard to resist some of the old temptations. I wish you could find some other place to work – the beach is fun, but it’s also, well… you know. In any case, the key to a successful summer will be the same as the key to your successful first year of college: staying faithful to your prayer commitments. Today’s saint can help you.
Beatus is one of those mysterious figures that we don’t really know too much about. It seems he was English. And history says that he was baptized by St Barnabas, who, some sources say, made his way to Great Britain in the first century. Beatus then took a trip to Rome, where he was ordained to the priesthood by St Peter himself. Then he either received a mission from the Prince of the Apostles, or he simply decided for himself, to go over the Alps and bring the Good News into Switzerland.
It was no easy task. And we don’t know exactly how he went about doing it. What we do know is that he took the spiritual life seriously, and spent many days and nights in prayer and meditation in a cave near Lake Thun, on Mount Beatenberg (guess where that mountain got its name). Local tradition maintains that he did battle with a dragon in that cave, and emerged victorious.
Whether the dragon was physical (which I personally think is a real possibility – dragons are so ubiquitous in ancient legends that I like to think they really did exist) or merely a reference to the devil is up for discussion. But the victory is a fact. And he won it because he kept his prayer life in shape.
You probably won’t have as much time for prayer as Beatus did, but what you lack in quantity you can easily make up in quality… If you want to, that is. And I hope you do, because although the beach is beautiful, only Christ can satisfy the yearnings of your heart.
Your loving uncle, Eddy