Saturday, 13 March 2010

Novena of Grace of St Francis Xavier 9th Day, 12th March 2010

On March 12th, 5 saints were canonised in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. St Isidore the Farmer or St Isidro Labrador, a Spaniard. St Teresa Avila: the great reformer of the Carmelites. She has two great daughters: St Thérèse d’Enfant Jesus whom we got to know a little yesterday and St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, otherwise known as Edith Stein, whose name in religion also honours St John of the Cross; she was a Jewess who died at Auschwitz. St Philip Neri, otherwise known as the Apostle of Rome. One of his more famous followers is John Cardinal Newman, the English convert from Anglicanism, who might be beatified when Benedict XVI visits the UK this year. Of him, it was alleged that when the canonisation took place, a shout was heard in the streets of Rome, “The pope has canonised 4 Spaniards and a Saint”. According to the Italians, no Spaniard was good enough to be a saint. The fourth was St Ignatius, without whom we would not have the Society of Jesus. And finally, St Francis Xavier, whose Novena we have been celebrating. But none of them is our saint.

It is a tradition of the Society of Jesus for a Jesuit to take his vows on a feast of Our Lady. For example, 2nd February used to be a Marian feast but it has since been changed to a feast of Our Lord—from The Purification of Mary to the Presentation of the Lord. 49 years ago, on the evening of the dedication of this Church, Fr Paul Jenkins made his solemn profession in the morning because at that time 2nd February was still a Marian feast. Other Marian feasts of Jesuit importance are like 1st Jan, Mary Mother of God, 22nd April, Queen of the Society of Jesus, Assumption without a doubt is an important Jesuit-vow day, the birthday of Our Lady which falls on 8th Sept and 8th Dec, the Immaculate Conception. When a Marian feast is not available, then a feast of a Jesuit saint is used. Theoretically, one enters a day before the Feast to take his vows two canonical years exactly after—therefore, an entrance into the Society of Jesus on 14th August means vow-taking will be on 15th August two years later.

I entered on 15th February—the feast of Blessed Claude la Colombière. But, I took vows on 2nd March, two weeks after two canonical years because one of my co-novices could not join us until 1st March. We waited for him to complete his two canonical years. Today, the life we consider is St Claude, not Blessed, because he was canonised in 1992 by John Paul II. The last miracle needed for the canonisation of Blessed Claude took place in 1989: the cure of a Jesuit suffering from a fatal lung disease--pulmonary fibrosis. A first class relic of Blessed Claude la Colombière, a small sliver of bone was placed on the dying priest's forehead and a miracle was prayed for. Three days later, the Jesuit, Father Houle's condition was greatly improved and, to the amazement of his doctors, X-rays showed that the pulmonary fibrosis had completely disappeared. There was no scientific explanation for the sudden turnabout of the condition. According to his doctor, the Jesuit was too far gone for any reversal of his condition. [1]

St Claude la Colombière cannot be separated from another Saint: Margaret Mary Alacoque who is associated with the Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But his life has its own drama. He was born near Lyons in 1641 and entered the Society of Jesus at Avignon. After his novitiate, he taught grammar and the humanities. Even before his ordination to the priesthood, he gained a reputation as a preacher. After completing his studies in Paris, he became tutor to the sons of Colbert, the finance minister of Louis XIV, but was dismissed from his post and returned to Avignon. In 1675, after his solemn profession as a Jesuit, he was appointed superior at Paray-le-Monial, in which the convent of St. Margaret Mary was located. Here he became her spiritual director and encouraged her in the spread of the devotion to the Sacred Heart.

Because of his remarkable gifts and judgment, he was sent to England, to be court preacher to the duchess of York, Mary Beatrice D’Este, wife of the future James II, and took up residence in London. His radiant personality and splendid gifts were noted by everyone. When the alleged "Popish Plot" to assassinate King Charles II shook the country, St Claude was accused of complicity in the plot and imprisoned. Through the intervention of Louis XIV of France, he was released, then banished from the country. He spent his last years at Paray-le-Monial, his health broken by tuberculosis caught whilst imprisoned. He died on February 15, 1682, an apostle of the devotion to the Sacred Heart.

Why did I choose him? First, the readings both make mention of the heart—conversion and how one ought to love with one’s heart, soul and mind—one’s entirety. Friday is also traditionally dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. So, who more appropriate than the Apostle of the Sacred Heart?

In St Claude, we have a priest of great sensitivity—a sensitivity of spirit needed to recognise the truth of the revelation that St. Margaret Mary received. She was thought to be delusional by her sceptical sisters in the community and she suffered as a result their disbelief. She received assurance from the Lord, however, that he was sending her his "faithful servant and perfect friend".

What is of interest to us is that “sensitivity” can also border on scrupulosity. In fact, during his tertianship, he felt moved to take a special private vow to obey all the rules of the Society in the strictest manner possible. In this, there is some kind of affinity between him and St Thérèse because the focus on minutiae can lead to scrupulosity. In other words, meticulous or conscientious is good but overly leads to anxiety. This is where his life cuts into ours. Scrupulosity is an obsessive tendency to see as grave sin what is venial sin or even no sin. A person suffering from scrupulosity often keeps remembering and confessing past sins that have been absolved through sacramental confession.

At the other end of the spectrum of scrupulosity is the tendency to rationalise away or minimise what is truly a serious sin. So, you can see that the other side of the scrupulous coin is “rationalisation”—the tendency to “explain” everything away—a form of the deadening of the conscience. I think many of us belong to this category. We have lost the sensitivity to sin and its consequences. Saints such as Claude challenge our world of deadened conscience personally as well as collectively, to take care not to rationalise our behaviour in the name of personal development, or progress. Have you ever wondered why right after the greeting “The Lord be with you” we enter into the penitential rite? Have you felt disjointed that after the “riotous” entrance hymn, we immediately go into this breast-beating rite, that it does not make sense? It may stem from the fact that we have lost the sense of sin. If a few of us err on the side of “scrupulosity”, then many of us err on the side of an eclipsed conscience.

Thus, the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the recently approved devotion to the Divine Mercy do not make sense unless we recognise that we are sinners in need of forgiveness. His prayer in times of despair helps us appreciate this fact. “Lord, I am in this world to show Your mercy to others. Other people will glorify You by making visible the power of Your grace by their fidelity and constancy to You. For my part I will glorify You by making known how good You are to sinners, that Your mercy is boundless and that no sinner no matter how great his offences should have reason to despair of pardon. If I have grievously offended You, my Redeemer, let me not offend You even more by thinking that You are not kind enough to pardon me. Amen”.

Second, I choose St Claude because he is a good model of what a priest can be. He was an unspectacular man. Much of his fame cannot be divorced from that of St Margaret Mary. It was only subsequently that he came into his own. He knows what it really means to play second fiddle as in the words of our Allah-priest himself: Always the bridesmaid but never the bride. Saints are those who live exactly what St John the Baptist has taught us: “He must increase and I must decrease”. But, he is a good model because Christ called him “a faithful servant and a perfect friend”. In effect, Christ was saying: “Here is a man after My own Heart”. And, what has St John Baptist Mary Vianney to say about the priesthood? “The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Christ”.

Finally, the novena has come to its conclusion. Why are we celebrating this? When everything around us is changing, and changing too fast, we need anchors or foundations. Tradition, to name one, is a kind of foundation. Do you know why Hitler’s National Socialism was appealing? From our vantage point of view, we can see how wrong Nazism was but yet many bought into it lock, stock and barrel.

With the Industrial Revolution, individuals were reduced to faceless individuals. There is some truth that God has carved us into the palm of His hand… we are not nameless. He knows every one of us by name and every hair on our head is counted. There is something inherently transcendental in our looking for recognition; to be known as God knows us.

When people find that on one day they have a job and the next day, they don’t and they are basically a number in a statistic, you find that they will look for something to fill the vacuum of namelessness. So, it seemed that Hitler came at the “right time” to fill an unfortunate vacuum.

With our novena we are in a process of re-forming our tradition—consolidating the anchor which allows a Catholic, through the changes of life, to point to something which says, "It is a rock I can stand on"; the anchor I can rely on. And this is proven for so many of you; when you look back, you find markers in your life which for you are constants in a sea of change. Those of you who have the experience of the Latin Mass or those whose educational background was a missionary school, you remember the constants, that after many years, these constants remain foundational and they give you a sense of continuity. Now, if you put this into a bigger picture, you begin to see why “divorce” is prohibited by the Church. Children need the constancy of the father and mother’s relationship in order to navigate the turbulence of life. We are not engaged in the creation of nostalgia. Instead, it is a conscious effort to anchor the parish in the big picture. Without this anchor, the whole work of justice is at best our knee-jerk reaction. The anchor of tradition and constancy provide us with a stability to engage in the sanctification of the world. Tradition frees us from the task of re-inventing the wheel so that our energy can be spent unfolding the gifts of Baptism. What we are doing put us within the frame of a bigger picture that is meaningful in the sense that it has an intention—that intention is God’s vision for the world. Baptism and all the sacraments and sacramentals which a novena is, are directed to the unfolding of that vision.
[1] Relics! We have one here from St Francis Xavier. The important point is that relics are not unscriptural. On the contrary, Christian veneration of relics has biblical foundation. Miracles were worked through both the cloak of Elijah and the bones of Elisha. In the Acts of the Apostles we see people healed by coming into contact with handkerchiefs touched by St. Paul. Of course, from Christ Himself, the woman with haemorrhage was healed by touching the hem of His cloak. St. Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate version of the Bible, gives us the proper attitude towards relics: "We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than the creator but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order to better adore Him, whose martyrs they are". At Cologne in 2005 Pope Benedict summed up the part relics play in the life of the Church: "By inviting us to venerate the mortal remains of the martyrs and saints, the Church does not forget that, in the end, these are indeed just human bones, but they are bones that belonged to individuals touched by the transcendent power of God”.