Spirituality Matters 2018: January 4th - January 10th

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(January 4, 2018: Elizabeth Ann Seton, Religious)
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“The person who acts in righteousness is righteous, just as he is righteous.

In his book This Saint’s for You, Thomas Craughwell writes:

“For two hundred years American parochial schools have provided countless children with a solid education while teaching them how to be faithful Catholics and solid citizens. While parish schools aren’t as numerous as they once were – to say nothing of the legions of nuns that used to teach in them – the situation is not nearly as daunting as it was in Elizabeth Ann Seton’s day.”

“Mother Seton’s life coincides with the birth of the United States and the rise of the Catholic Church in America. She was born one year before the battles of Lexington and Concord, during an era when Catholicism was outlawed in every colony except Maryland. In British America, there were no bishops, no nuns, no Catholic schools and no seminaries. Only about twenty priests lived in the colonies, most living incognito and using aliases to avoid hard anti-clerical laws. For her part she grew up the daughter of a prominent, well-to-do Anglican family on Staten Island. During the revolution they walked a fine line between loyalty to the king and support for the rebels. Whatever her family’s true sympathies may have been, they were firmly in the American camp by the time George Washington was elected president: in fact, the then-fifteen year-old Elizabeth danced at the first inaugural ball.”

“At the age on nineteen she married William Seton, a wealthy New York merchant. The couple had five children – three girls and two boys – and enjoyed a life of comfort and privilege. After eight years of marriage, William’s business went bankrupt: shortly thereafter, he contracted tuberculosis. In an attempt to save William’s health, the Setons sailed for Italy, where William had business friends, the Filicchi family. He subsequently succumbed to his chronic illness. Elizabeth and her children remained as guests of the Filicchi’s for some time. Their hosts owned a private chapel that provided Elizabeth with her first exposure to the Catholic faith, about which two things impressed this widowed mother: the Filicchi’s reverence during Mass, and the comfort they appeared to receive from confession. Upon her return to New York, Elizabeth sought out the pastor of a local Catholic Church and asked to convert to Catholicism.”

“With few exceptions, Elizabeth’s Anglican family and friends turned their backs on her following her conversion. She struggled to support herself and her children until Bishop John Carroll invited her to open a Catholic school in the archdiocese of Baltimore. It was during this time that she began to consider joining a religious community. However, the European model of religious life – living a mostly cloistered life with only a few hours per day devoted to teaching girls who boarded at the convent – did not appeal to her. With so much work begging to be done for the Catholic Church in America, Elizabeth wanted to be much more active. With Bishop Carroll’s encouragement, she founded a new community of sisters dedicated to the work of Catholic education: the Sisters of Charity. They opened America’s first parish school in Emmitsburg, Maryland on February 22, 1810.”

“The system established by Mother Seton conveyed the faith from generation to generation; it eased the passage of Catholic immigrants into American society; it served as the seedbed for countless vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. Her teaching order offered a new model for religious women – sisters who were ‘in the world, but not of it.’ In the history of the Catholic Church in America, Mother Seton was – and continues to be – an indispensable woman.” (This Saint’s for You, pp. 99-100)

Elizabeth Ann Seton followed God’s demonstrated righteousness by founding a community of religious women who dedicated their lives to parochial education: teaching children – many of them immigrants – how to be faithful Catholics and solid citizens. In other words, her community was righteous in their attempts to do right by their students.

Today, how might we follow her example?

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(January 5, 2018: John Neumann, Bishop)
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“This is the message you have heard from the beginning: we should love one another…”

“This ‘American’ saint was born in Bohemia in 1811. He was looking forward to being ordained in 1835 when the bishop decided there would be no more ordinations: Bohemia was overstocked with priests. John wrote to bishops all over Europe but the story was the same everywhere: no one needed any more priests. But John didn’t give up. He had learned English by working in a factory with English-speaking workers so he wrote to the bishops in America. Finally, Bishop John Dubois of New York agreed to ordain him but John would have to leave his home forever and travel across the ocean to a new and rugged land. He was ordained the following year.”

“In New York, John was one of 36 priests for 200,000 Catholics. John’s parish in western New York stretched from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania. His church had no steeple or floor but that didn’t matter insofar as John spent most days traveling from village to village anyway, climbing mountains to visit the sick, staying in garrets and taverns to teach, and celebrating the Mass at kitchen tables. Because of the work and the isolation associated with his remote outpost, John longed for community. In 1840, with the permission of Dubois, he applied to join the Redemptorist Fathers, was accepted, and entered their novitiate at St. Philomena's in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was their first candidate in the New World. He took his vows as a member of the Congregation in Baltimore, Maryland, in January 1842. After six years of difficult but fruitful work, he was appointed as the Provincial Superior for the United States. Neumann became naturalized citizen on 10 February 1848. John was appointed bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. As bishop, he was the first to organize a diocesan Catholic school system: he increased the number of Catholic schools in his diocese from two to one hundred.”

“Neumann actively invited religious institutes to establish new houses within the diocese. In 1855, he supported the foundation of a congregation of religious sisters in the city, the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. He brought the School Sisters of Notre Dame from Germany to assist in religious instruction and staffing an orphanage. He also intervened to save the Oblate Sisters of Providence, a congregation for African-American women, from dissolution. Neumann's efforts to expand the Catholic Church were not without opposition. The Know Nothings, an anti-Catholic political party representing descendants of earlier immigrants to North America, was at the height of its activities. They set fire to convents and schools. Discouraged, Neumann wrote to Rome asking to be replaced as bishop, but Pope Pius IX insisted that he continue.”

“John never lost his love and concern for the people—something that may have bothered the elite of Philadelphia. On one visit to a rural parish, the parish priest picked him up in a manure wagon. Seated on a plank stretched over the wagon’s contents, John joked, ‘Have you ever seen such an entourage for a bishop!’ The ability to learn languages that had brought John to America enabled him to learn enough Spanish, French, Italian, and Dutch to hear confessions in, at least, six languages. When the a wave of Irish immigration reached American shores, John learned Gaelic so well that one Irish woman remarked, ‘Isn’t it grand that we have an Irish bishop!’ John Neumann died of a stroke on January 5, 1860 at the age of 48.” (http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=70)

Notwithstanding his proficiency with languages, John Neumann is best remembered for mastering the one and only language that really matters – the language of love.

How might we imitate his example - just this day - through our efforts at loving others?

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(January 6, 2018: Andre Bessette)
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“Whoever possesses the Son has life …”

The life and legacy of Andre Bessette offers us a concrete example of what it looks like when someone “possesses the Son”:

“When Alfred Bessette came to the Holy Cross Brothers in 1870, he carried with him a note from his pastor saying, ‘I am sending you a saint’. The Brothers found that difficult to believe. Chronic stomach pains had made it impossible for Alfred to hold a job very long and since he was a boy he had wandered from shop to shop, farm to farm, in his native Canada and in the United States, staying only until his employers found out how little work he could do. The Holy Cross Brothers were teachers and, at 25, Alfred still did not know how to read and write. It seemed as if Alfred approached the religious order out of desperation, not for a vocation.”

“He may have had no place left to go, but he believed that was because this was the place he felt he should have been all along. The Holy Cross Brothers took him into the novitiate but soon found out what everybody else had learned - as hard as Alfred (now Brother Andre) wanted to work, he simply wasn't strong enough. They asked him to leave the order, but Andre, out of desperation, appealed to a visiting bishop who promised him that he would intercede on his behalf with the brothers so that Andre could stay and take his vows.”

“After his vows, Brother Andre was sent to Notre Dame College in Montreal (a school for boys aged seven to twelve) as a porter. His responsibilities were to answer the door, to welcome guests, find the people they were visiting, wake up those in the school, and deliver mail. Through kindness, caring, and devotion, Brother Andre helped many souls experience healing – in many documented cases, including physical healings.”

“As if that were not enough, in 1904 Bro. Andre received permission to construct a small chapel dedicated to St. Joseph, to whom he had a life-long devotion. By the 1930’s he had inaugurated the construction of a basilica on the highest point of the city on Montreal, but the Depression all-but-brought the project to a halt. At ninety-years old he told his co-workers to place a statue of St. Joseph in the unfinished, unroofed basilica. Brother Andre died soon after on January 6, 1937, and didn't live to see the work on the basilica completed. But in Brother Andre's mind it never would be completed because he always saw more ways to express his devotion and to heal others. As long as he lived, the man who had trouble keeping work for himself had never stopped working for God.”

On December 19, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI promulgated a decree recognizing a second miracle at Blessed André's intercession. On October 17, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI formally declared Blessed Andre Bessette a saint. ( http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=18 )

To the extent that Brother Andre “possessed the Son”, he was empowered with the ability to capture the hearts of so many people who encountered him.

Just today, how might we imitate his example just today in our interactions with one another?

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(January 7, 2018: Epiphany of the Lord)
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“They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then, they opened their treasures....”

On the Feast of the Epiphany, Blessed Louis Brisson made the following observations:

“In the Orient, there was a tradition that a new star would appear as a sign of redemption. If one would follow that star it would lead to the awaited Messiah. Thus, the Magi of the Orient who knew of this tradition - and who were versed in the study of the stars - one night noticed the star that was the precursor of the Messiah. Three in number the Magi – along with a great troop of servants – set out to follow it. The star led them to Jerusalem but stopped and disappeared.”

“The king who reigned in Judea at the time was Herod. Hiding his astonishment and hate, he called the doctors of the Law who declared that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Herod, then, took the Magi aside and said to them, ‘I did not know of the birth of the King, but when you have found Him, return to let me know so that I also might go and adore Him.’ When the Magi left Jerusalem, the star appeared anew and led them to Bethlehem. They approached the Child Jesus, adored Him and offered Him their presents.”

“My friends, each soul has its own little star, the star of its vocation, the star of the will of God which enlightens its life and shows it what God desires of it. Ask our Savior very fervently for the grace to be faithful to your star. In following it you will find Jesus with his love and graces as the Magi found Him in the manger.” (Cor ad Cor, p. 49)

Today, how can you do homage to the Child Jesus? The answer - By opening the most valuable treasure of all - the God-given star of love within your heart.

And by following it!

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(January 8, 2018: Baptism of the Lord)
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“I the Lord have called you for the victory of justice.” “Those of any nation who…act uprightly are acceptable to God.”

The account of Jesus’ baptism ends with the sound of a voice from heaven, saying “This is my beloved son. My favor rests on him.”

Why does God’s favor rest upon Jesus? Because Jesus is the Son of Justice. Jesus measures by God’s standards in giving others their due.

Isaiah tells us that God has called us, like Christ, “for the victory of justice” and, in the Acts of the Apostles, to “act uprightly”. In everyday terms, what does it mean to work for God’s justice by acting uprightly?

Consider the opposite of acting justly and uprightly: “We condemn every little thing in our neighbor and excuse ourselves of important things. We want to sell very high but to buy at bargain prices. We demand that the right thing be done in another’s house but that mercy and generosity be granted to ours. We like to have things that we say taken in good part but we are tender and touchy about what others say.” ( Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter 36). At its heart, injustice is about living a double standard, measuring the world with two weights: one to weigh everything to one’s own advantage, and another to weigh everything to the disadvantage of others.

What makes our acts of injustice so difficult to identify is that they are seldom big. Rather, they are frequent and small, easy to overlook. St. Francis de Sales writes: “Self love can lead us and direct us into countless small yet dangerous acts of injustice and iniquity. Because they are little we are not on guard against them and because there are many of them they are sure to cause us – and others – great injury.”

Francis de Sales writes that just and upright people are, in short, reasonable people. They do not live a double standard. They are people of integrity. They follow the Golden Rule by treating others as they themselves would wish to be treated - not expecting of others that which they themselves refuse to practice. Just and upright people measure the world using only one weight - the love of God. “Be just and reasonable in your neighbor’s place and your neighbor in yours”, says St. Francis. “Live a generous, noble, courteous, royal, just and reasonable heart.”

To the extent that we act in this manner with one another each and every day, we grow as the “beloved sons and daughters of God”. God’s favor will rest on us, as we make real the promise of God’s justice to others.

Why not begin today?

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(January 9, 2018: Tuesday, First Week in Ordinary Time)
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“He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

In today’s Gospel we hear that the people of Capernaum where “astonished” at the teaching of Jesus, for “he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. What distinguished the teaching of Jesus from the teaching of the scribes? How did Jesus’ “new teaching” manifest itself? Some of the elements include - but are certainly not limited to – the following differences:

    1) Jesus taught important matters of the highest importance and which are necessary for salvation. By contrast the scribes taught trifling matters of rites and ceremonies which were passing away, such as the washing of hands and of cups.

    2) What Christ taught in word, he fulfilled in deed. He talked the talk and walked the walk. The scribes, by contrast (as Jesus observed) spoke bold words, but exhibited few deeds.

    3) Jesus taught with fervor and zeal, such that the words of Scripture could always be applied to him. The scribes could lay no such claims.

    4) Jesus confirmed his teaching by miracles; the scribes could not.

    5) The scribes were merely interpreters of the Law, whereas Christ was the embodiment of the Law and Prophets.

    6) While the scribes sought their own glory and the praise of others, Jesus taught solely for the glory of God and for the salvation of others.

    7) In his words and example – and also by the hidden inspirations of his grace - Jesus illuminated the minds and inflamed the hearts of his hearers. By contrast, the scribes clouded the minds and discouraged the hearts of their hearers. (http://newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.com/2012/01/christ-taught-as-one-having-authority.html)
When other people encounter us – especially as it relates to matters of faith, life and love – to whom do we bear a greater resemblance: the scribes or The Christ?

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(January 10, 2018: Leonie Aviate, OSFS, Founder and Religious)
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“Anyone who welcomes one such child for my sake welcomes me...”

Today we celebrate the life and legacy of St. Leonie Aviat, OSFS: religious, founder.

In the middle of the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution, there was a rapid expansion of the textile industry in the town of Troyes, France. The Industrial Revolution created opportunities for women to work outside the home and/or the farm. Droves of young country girls came to the town in search of employment and adventure. They had no money, nowhere to live and were thus exposed to many potential hazards. With a remarkable intuition for overcoming obstacles, Father Louis Brisson took these girls into his care. He acquired a building, offering board and lodging and even work on the premises to a number of young female workers. He trained a group of volunteers to oversee the boarding house, but no matter how devoted they were, the undertaking lacked stability. It was not only necessary to provide room and board for the girls and young women, but also to educate them in their faith and guard them against moral danger. Fr. Brisson eventually determined that this new undertaking would be better served by a community of religious women who could devote themselves to this growing ministry.

Enter Leonie Aviat. Together with Fr. Brisson, she founded the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales who, during the course of her lifetime, saw many a child – and young adult, for that matter – welcomed for the sake of the Lord.

Children not only come in many shapes and sizes, but as it turns out, children also come in a variety of ages. In the broadest sense, the “children” to whom Jesus alludes in today’s Gospel are: anyone who is vulnerable, anyone who needs welcome, anyone who needs comfort and anyone who needs a safe place.

Today, who might be the children in our lives whom Jesus challenges us to welcome for his sake?

~ OR ~

Throughout the history of Christian spirituality, there frequently appears to be an uneasy relationship between prayer and work, between being and doing, and/or between resting in God and doing for/with God. St. Francis de Sales offered a remedy for the temptation to dichotomize prayer and work. The “Gentleman Saint” identified – in broad strokes – three types of prayer.

First, there is vocal prayer. Examples of this type of prayer on which most – if not all – of us first cut our gums include: the Our Father, the Hail Mary, Grace-before-Meals, etc,, etc. It is a form of prayer of which we can make good use even into old age.

Second, there is mental prayer, or “prayer of the heart”. Some people experience this type of prayer as meditation; for other people, it is known as contemplation. This type of prayer relies a great deal less on words and makes greater use of thoughts, considerations, affections, images and silence. Unlike vocal prayer, it tends to be much less public and much more private. Mental prayer seems to come easily for some folks, while it appears to be more elusive or challenging for others.

Finally, there is what Francis de Sales referred to as the prayer of good life. It is the prayer that comes with doing good – with practicing virtue – in a very mindful, heart-filled, intentional and deliberate way at each and every moment – specifically - through the practice of the Direction of Intention!

Leonie Aviat, OSFS clearly saw the Direction of Intention as the bridge linking prayer and work. Years after founding the Oblate Sisters, she would later remark:

“I still remember the words the Good Mother said to us one day on the subject. ‘The faithful practice of the Direction of Intention is the first rung on the ladder that will make us attain sanctity.’ She had been so faithful to this article that she knew its reward.” ( Heart Speaks to Heart, p. 150)

Professor Wendy Wright notes that in the Salesian tradition the interior prayer of the Direction of Intention - be it with or without words - provides the foundation for both the life of the cloistered Visitandine and the very active life lived by an Oblate Sister. She again quotes Leonie Aviat:

“My children (wrote the Good Mother) you are not called to say the office for the moment. Your principal occupation is work. Give yourself to it as graciously as possible. Go to your work when the clock chimes. Set out joyfully according to our Rule, as if you were going to say the office and make meditation, because for you, work is a continual meditation.” ( Ibid)

Whether we do our work prayerfully – or put our prayer to work – prayer and work are the inseparable sides of the same coin: the love of God, neighbor and self.