When Christ our Lord was fasting in the wilderness He was with the wild beasts, and angels ministered unto Him.
From scripture and tradition we know quite a lot about angels. They were created before us and greatly outnumber the human creation. Angels are greater than us in intelligence, knowledge, power, and beauty, notwithstanding the unique dignity bestowed on human nature by the hypostatic union in Christ, and the fact of our redemption.
The primary task of the angels is to glorify and serve our Creator. Their secondary task is the protection of His human creatures and the care of our salvation: “He shall give His angels charge over thee; to guard thee in all thy ways” (Ps.91:11). Our Guardian Angels have a special role: “From infancy to death human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. ‘Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life’.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para.336)
What of animals? In their own way they also reflect the Almighty’s artistry and something of His infinite beauty. Perhaps that is easier to grasp in the case of a domestic pet than in the case of scorpions, spiders, and squid.
Many people who are fond of animals find it hard to accept the opinion that nothing of them survives physical death. A theologian as great as St.Thomas Aquinas thought they do not. But that particular item of St.Thomas’ wide-ranging deductive speculations has never been defined by the Church one way or the other.
Blessed John Henry Newman believed that we know more about angels than we know about animals:
“We have more real knowledge about the Angels than about the brutes. They have apparently passions, habits, and a certain accountableness, but all is mystery about them. We do not know whether they can sin or not, whether they are under punishment, whether they are to live after this life. We inflict very great sufferings on a portion of them, and they in turn, every now and then, seem to retaliate upon us, as if by a wonderful law. We depend on them in various important ways; we use their labour, we eat their flesh. This however relates to such of them as come near us: cast your thoughts abroad on the whole number of them, large and small, in vast forests, or in the water, or in the air; and then say whether the presence of some countless multitudes, so various in their natures, so strange and wild in their shapes, living on the earth without ascertainable object, is not as mysterious as anything which Scripture says about the Angels? Is it not plain to our senses that there is a world inferior to us in the scale of beings, with which we are connected without understanding what it is?
(Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol.4, sermon 13)
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Thanks be to God that His wisdom often turns dysfunctional human plans upside down and inside out. We see this in the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The instrument of torture becomes the throne of glory.
He Who was nailed to the Cross like a criminal is in fact the King of kings before Whom one day every knee shall bow. Every knee: the final clarification of all those interesting inter-faith discussions.
The splendour of the Holy Cross guarantees that in our war against the forces of darkness we are already well and truly on the winning side. The principal and decisive battle has already been fought and won by the Son of God. What now remains are the continuing skirmishes by which the Enemy tries to undermine our confidence in Christ’s victory.
How do we exalt the Holy Cross? By showing forth in our daily lives the Gospel truth that suffering can be salvific. We also exalt Christ the Lord by reaching out in charity to our neighbours, especially to those who do not yet share our faith.
How are people going to know about Christ unless we tell them? How will they come to believe in Him unless we prepare the ground for them to receive the Holy Spirit’s supernatural gift of faith?
We cannot hope to prepare the ground unless we ourselves are credible witnesses. We bear witness to Christ (among many other ways) by being of genuine service to our fellow citizens, serving them after the pattern of His own compassion and generosity.
We do this not for cold humanistic or sociological reasons, but with a supernatural motive. We serve our neighbours in order to share with them something of what we ourselves have received; the countless blessings of that infinite charity which the Sacred Heart of Jesus unremittingly intends for the whole of mankind.
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From all eternity God’s wisdom has planned our individual salvation. He has so ordered His creation that even apparently chance occurrences can play a part in the unfolding of our salvation.
In the complex and multi-faceted kaleidoscope of daily life, countless instances of human interaction (mostly unplanned by us) all combine in a dynamic synergy of cause and effect.
From our limited vantage point, in place and within time, we rarely appreciate the providential coherence of those interactions.
On 26th August we commemorate a 19th century missionary priest and preacher, Blessed Dominic Barberi, of the Passionist Order. Fr.Barberi felt called to work in England. In 1841 he arrived on these shores and for eight years he preached missions and gave retreats throughout the country, and established several houses of his own Passionist Order.
Blessed Dominic is well remembered for being the priest who received John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church. Newman was an Anglican clergyman and thoroughly English in every way. He and Blessed Dominic could not have been more different. Yet divine Providence had ordained that their two lives should cross and interact, with wonderful effect.
On the evening of 8th October 1845, in torrential rain, Fr.Barberi arrived at the small cottage in the village of Littlemore outside Oxford to which Mr.Newman had retreated when he withdrew from ministry in the Church of England. The next day, 9th October, after Newman had completed a general confession lasting several hours, Fr.Dominic first absolved him from heresy and schism, and then absolved him from his sins. He then received him into what Newman had been given the grace to recognize as “the one fold of the Redeemer”.
The spiritual fruits of Newman’s ecumenical journey have already been abundant. Thanks to the influence of his life and writings, many thousands have been led by grace into the Church Christ founded.
If Blessed John Henry Newman were one day declared a saint, would there not be a vast outpouring of praise and thanksgiving ascending in prayer from earth to heaven?
God will never be outdone in generosity. His loving response to our prayer would surely be a flood of sanctifying grace pouring down upon the People of God.
We could expect that many who are lapsed would return to the faith of our fathers, by grace and personal influence.
We should hope that many who do not yet know Christ would be drawn to the light of His Gospel, by grace and personal influence.
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“It is by the power of God’s grace that from this barren and desolate earth there have ever sprung up at all flowers of holiness and glory. And Mary is the Queen of them. She is the Queen of spiritual flowers; and therefore she is called the Rose, for the rose is fitly called of all flowers the most beautiful.
But moreover, she is the Mystical, or hidden Rose; for mystical means hidden. How is she now “hidden” from us more than are other saints? What means this singular appellation, which we apply to her specially? The answer to this question introduces us to a third reason for believing in the reunion of her sacred body to her soul, and its assumption into heaven soon after her death, instead of its lingering in the grave until the General Resurrection at the last day.
It is this:— if her body was not taken into heaven, where is it? how comes it that it is hidden from us? why do we not hear of her tomb as being here or there? why are not pilgrimages made to it? why are not relics producible of her, as of the saints in general? Is it not even a natural instinct which makes us reverent towards the places where our dead are buried? We bury our great men honourably. St. Peter speaks of the sepulchre of David as known in his day, though he had died many hundred years before. When our Lord’s body was taken down from the Cross, He was placed in an honourable tomb. Such too had been the honour already paid to St. John Baptist, his tomb being spoken of by St. Mark as generally known. Christians from the earliest times went from other countries to Jerusalem to see the holy places.
And, when the time of persecution was over, they paid still more attention to the bodies of the Saints, as of St. Stephen, St. Mark, St. Barnabas, St. Peter, St. Paul, and other Apostles and Martyrs. These were transported to great cities, and portions of them sent to this place or that.
Thus, from the first to this day it has been a great feature and characteristic of the Church to be most tender and reverent towards the bodies of the Saints. Now, if there was anyone who more than all would be preciously taken care of, it would be our Lady. Why then do we hear nothing of the Blessed Virgin’s body and its separate relics? Why is she thus the hidden Rose? Is it conceivable that they who had been so reverent and careful of the bodies of the Saints and Martyrs should neglect her—her who was the Queen of Martyrs and the Queen of Saints, who was the very Mother of our Lord? It is impossible. Why then is she thus the hidden Rose? Plainly because that sacred body is in heaven, not on earth.”
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Many have tried to reduce the Person of Christ the God-man to something comprehensible. To try and render Him fully understandable is to try and make Him other than what He is. We must accept that the constitution of His unique Person is ultimately a mystery.
The mystery of His two natures in one Person was revealed iconographically (so to speak) at His Transfiguration on the mountain.
Then at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 a definitive doctrinal formulation was pronounced:
“We confess that one and the same Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son, must be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation…He is not split or divided into two persons, but He is one and the same only-begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ…”
That doctrine has been treasured and expounded by the Church down the centuries. The doctrine of Christ’s two natures in one Person nourishes our spiritual lives, even as it surpasses our understanding. This doctrine helps us to accept with awe and wonder the fact that the Baby at Bethlehem knew that He had made the stars. The One who preached by the side of Lake Galilee knew that He had already existed for ever. The One Who willingly went to His death on Calvary knew that He was Israel’s Messiah, the Son of God.
To ponder the doctrine of Christ’s two natures will deepen the way we look at the crucifix, or an image of our blessed Lady. It should also illuminate the way we read the gospels. It should help us to understand that no human word or gesture of Christ’s recorded in the gospels was ever merely contingent. All the words and actions of His humanity were a revelation of His divine purposes.
In the Mass, in the tabernacle, and in the monstrance, we worship the Person of Christ in His two natures. Christ’s human and divine Presence in the Blessed Sacrament helps us to accept the sufferings which He sometimes asks us to endure, as our way of sharing in His Cross.
And whenever the weight of that Cross threatens to weaken our faith or undermine our hope, we have the Mass to sustain us. The beauty of Holy Mass should always orientate us to look forwards and upwards; forwards and upwards towards the divine splendour that will one day be revealed to us on the mountain, that Mountain which is Christ Himself.
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Ignatius was born in 1491, the eleventh and last child of a Basque noble, the doyen of the castle at Loyola in Guipuzcoa, Northern Spain. His early life was at court and in the army. In 1521 a canon ball fractured his shin and thigh. The broken bones in his leg were wrongly set, so it was decided to break them again. That bodged surgery left Ignatius limping for the rest of his life.
When convalescing he immersed himself in what we would now call books of military fiction. He found that war stories were exciting enough at the time of reading, but left him feeling empty afterwards. By contrast, books about Christ and the saints inspired thoughts and aspirations that remained in his mind and heart, and bore fruit.
After a pilgrimage to Montserrat, Ignatius spent eleven months at the town of Manresa a few miles from the abbey. Near Manresa there was a cave where he passed hour upon hour in solitary prayer. He began to mortify his body in ways that we might nowadays describe as extreme. He spent many hours weeping for past sins.
During those months of solitude and penance at Manresa, Ignatius had a number of visions and mystical experiences which formed the basis of his Spiritual Exercises, precisely structured meditations intended to ignite a definitive commitment to serving Christ the King. One of Ignatius’ particular insights was the value of the imagination in the contemplation of divine things. Using our imagination in prayer helps to purify and strengthen the will.
Wondering how best to serve the Church, his idea of a new religious Order gradually took shape. In 1540 Pope Paul III established The Society of Jesus. For the rest of his life Ignatius lived in Rome, directing the new Order. During the magnificent missionary expansion of The Society he was often ill. On 31st July 1556 he died suddenly and without receiving the last rites.
Part of Ignatius’ enduring legacy is his uncompromising affirmation that in the Christian life half measures are of no use. Ultimately, we are either with the King or we are against Him. After his conversion Ignatius’ whole life was lived for the greater glory of God and the Holy Name of Jesus. He was a contemplative-in-action. He worked for God’s greater glory with all the zeal and practicality of a tireless soldier.
The early sources indicate that Ignatius’ original focus, and the primary charism of his Society, was preaching and teaching the truth that salvation is through Jesus Christ, and Him alone. Their principal means of doing that was by conducting the founder’s Spiritual Exercises.
The subsequent shift of emphasis to ‘building a better world’ seems to be one of the many theological re-positionings that emerged in the 1960s.
Many claim that ‘building a better world’ is an authentic part of doing Christ’s work.
Secundum quid. It depends on what one means by ‘better’.
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Our faith in the salvation which the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ offers mankind also imposes on us a grave responsibility to tell others about it. If we really believe what we say we believe, then we should want to shout it from the rooftops. The desire to tell others the truth about Christ the Redeemer should motivate us every day, whatever our state in life, whatever our role in the Church.
As we pass through the crowds of people on the streets, we do well to remember that we are rubbing shoulders with a race of immortals; uniquely privileged creatures made in the image of God, immortal beings for whom Christ shed His Precious Blood. All human beings are created by God to fulfil a glorious destiny – to be crowned in heaven with an eternal diadem of unimaginable splendour. That salvation and its crowning are made possible only by the redemption Christ won for us on Calvary with the shedding of His Precious Blood. Of that Blood, one single drop would have been sufficient to ransom all possible worlds from all possible effects of all possible sins.
The majority of the people we see rushing around our cities are not on their way to or from Mass. This should increase our zeal for the salvation of souls. Those innumerable un-evangelized souls we encounter on the streets have so much to offer God’s people. But how will they come to believe in Christ’s Gospel if nobody ever tells them the plain truth of the matter? How will they come to understand their true destiny if nobody ever tells them the real Gospel facts of life? How will they come to love and worship the one true God if we who claim to know Him persist in our complicity of silence concerning all the erroneous ideas about Him that are peddled so widely in the name of ‘religion’.
Complicity with error will win us no crowns at the Judgement. It will not be sufficient to say “Lord, Lord, I spoke up against something we called extremism”. He expects far more from His apostles and disciples than that. We shall have to give Him an account of how often we spoke up for His Truth; how often we spoke up honestly, explicitly, and publicly, for the Truth revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth, the Redeemer, the Saviour, the Messiah.
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In 1535 Bishop John Fisher and Chancellor Thomas More were put to death for their belief that the Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded. They died because they believed that no secular or royal power on earth can replace the authority given by God to the Holy Father, the Bishop of Rome, over all national and local Churches, over each and every single one of the faithful.
Down the ages, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth century, various dreamers and theoreticians have fantasized that the Catholic Church should accommodate itself to the secular world, by embracing and even marrying the spirit of the age. It has led many Christians into a dangerous complicity with the ideologies of current political correctness. The spiritual bankruptcy resulting from that delusion is all too evident today. One current example is the new lunacy being spouted in the crazy world of gender theory. Why are many Christians so slow to denounce this insult to our Maker?
For John Fisher and Thomas More, the clash between Church and State was not over the sort of political correctness we struggle with today. In their situation the persecution of the Church by King Henry VIII was a sharply defined and specific item of parliamentary legislation. They either had to submit to the new law, the new politics, or be branded as traitors. They chose to be traitors to the new politics, and thus they remained loyal to Christ. In the gospels our Lord clearly warned us of irreducible contradictions between this world and His Kingdom. This permanent inbuilt disjunction is an inconvenient truth which many 20th century pastors and theologians did their best to brush under the carpet.
Towards the end of the 20th century an English Catholic bishop (R.I.P) spoke with admirable enthusiasm about ‘the conversion of England’. He meant, the conversion of England to Catholicism. He was loudly criticized by a strident horde of the chatterati. The liberal establishment (secular and Christian) jumped up and down in protest. The buzz-word ‘divisive’ was bandied around with shrill indignation, and the bishop unjustly maligned.
St John Fisher and St Thomas More understood ‘divisive’ rather more accurately. They would also understand what many today have still not caught on to, or will not admit: that if Catholic Christianity is to survive in this country it will more and more mean swimming against the tide, in our attempt to preserve the faith and help others to find salvation. Look at what the closed minds of rigid and intolerant secularists are trying to do to our faith schools.
In spite of the debilitating religious and ideological legacy we have inherited from the ghastly 20th century, our perennial task is always the same: to assist God in helping all His sons and daughters to find truth and holiness in the one fold of the Redeemer, the Catholic Church. In every generation our job is to help that number to grow. Numbers matter. Souls matter. Salvation matters.
Most sweet Jesus, Redeemer of the human race, look down upon us humbly prostrate before Thine altar. We are Thine and Thine we wish to be; and to be more surely united with Thee, behold each one of us freely consecrates himself today to Thy most Sacred Heart.
Many indeed have never known Thee; many too, despising Thy precepts, have rejected Thee. Have mercy on them all, most merciful Jesus, and draw them to Thy Sacred Heart.
Be Thou King, O Lord, not only of the faithful who have never forsaken Thee, but also of the prodigal children who have abandoned Thee, grant that they may quickly return to their Father’s house, lest they die of wretchedness and hunger.
Be Thou King of those who are deceived by erroneous opinions, or whom discord keeps aloof, and call them back to the harbour of truth and unity of faith, so that soon there may be but one flock and one shepherd.
Grant, O Lord, to Thy Church, assurance of freedom and immunity from harm; give peace and order to all nations, and make the earth resound from pole to pole with one cry: praise to the divine Heart that wrought our salvation: to It be glory and honour for ever and ever. Amen.
(composed by Pope Pius XI)
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