By Fr. George Welzbacher
August 7, 2011
While there's reason enough and then some not to dismiss out of hand all of those gloom-and-doom forecasts about the near-terrn prospects of the Catholic Church and the integrity, the security and the prosperity of our republic, still, it's not just darkness and woe that will catch the eye of the discerning observer. The native common sense of the American people has been known, after all, to reassert itself more than once in the aftermath of folly. And in the matter of the fortunes of the Church, what seems to me to be distinctly reassuring is the joyful commitment to the cause of Christ and TO THE ENTIRE RANGE OF THE CHURCH'S TEACHING that is the common denominator of so many of our younger bishops, our younger priests, and our promising priests-to-be. (Speaking as an octogenarian, I would define "younger" as capped at about fifty-five). And needless to say, for this hope-sustaining "youth corps", guest memberships might surely be arranged to include many an older bishop and many an older priest, who would qualify for the vigor of their battle-tested faith.
Those seminarians whom I have come to know surely validate this paradigm. Let me introduce one of them to you here, with the understanding that, were it not for our restrictions of space, I could present for your encouragement and edification a number of others as well.
Working this summer at St. Stephen's Parish in Anoka, Spencer Howe is a zealous and highly intelligent young man who, reared in the Lutheran confession, sought admission a decade ago to the Catholic Church. He will return to Rome this fall to continue his studies at the North American College in preparation for ordination to the priesthood. In two years, God willing, he will begin to serve this archdiocese as a "newly minted" young priest. Courteous and energetic, he shows nothing of the confusion that troubled so many young priests and seminarians back in the hurricane years of the 1960s and 70s and 80s as to what the mission of a priest might be. Like his fellow seminarians today he is passionate in his desire to do whatever he can to establish and to fortify Christ's enthronement in the hearts of those whom God has called to be His own and, in the process, to keep them out of hell and get them into heaven. Mr. Howe is also a gifted writer. May I share with you here his reflections on the recent beatification of Pope John Paul the Great. His report appeared in the June edition of The Catholic Servant.
* * * * *Blessed John Paul II: A Holy Father and the Communion of Saints
Pope John Paul II knew sanctity when he saw it. This is why he could so confidently propose the "universal call to holiness" to Christians everywhere. He had seen it, he had touched it, and he lived it. Holiness was no longer ethereal for him, but rather flesh-and-blood. During his nearly twenty-seven year pontificate, he proclaimed a staggering total of over 1800 blesseds and saints from every imaginable walk of life to give to the world a myriad of intercessors to petition and examples to imitate. Is it any wonder that a man so "in touch" and in love with the saints has now joined their number?
Each time we honor a saint at Mass, we recall that the Holy Spirit is the author of all holiness. The priest prays these beautiful words: "Father, You renew the Church in every age by raising up men and women outstanding in holiness, living witnesses of Your unchanging love." Every period of Church history confirms this abundantly. When criticized by some who claimed he was raising "too many" to the Altar, the Polish Pontiff merely responded with a witty "Can we hold it against God that there are so many holy Christian disciples and martyrs in OUR age?"
There is a vital truth to consider, however, when considering the saints. They do not exist in isolation but they often spring up together as friends and in close proximity. Moreover, every saint also recognizes the inspiring and powerful witness of many who have gone before. The Communion of Saints embraces all the baptized, and those who are recognized by the Church as heroic in their faith and virtue arrive at that point because they have discovered long before that the saints in Heaven are their true brothers and sisters. This is why we profess our faith in the "Communion of Saints."
As a young man, Karol Wojtyla came across a Polish translation of a biography in which he instantly found a friend. It was Pier Giorgio Frassati, a young Italian student who had died in 1925 at twenty-four years of age when Karol was just a boy of five. But the figure of the rugged mountain climber, dedicated student, fervent believer, and devoted friend to the poor of Turin had made its mark and pointed out a living way to beatitude in the "normalcy" of his brief life. If we recognize spiritual youthfulness as one of John Paul's marking characteristics, we could not but consider the young Pier Giorgio as one of his constant spiritual companions throughout his life and into his suffering and infirmity. Perhaps as John Paul's body was wracked by Parkinson's Disease and he was no longer able to move about freely, he might have thought of Pier Giorgio ascending a mountain peak, a thought which would urge the Pope "higher" in the Christian life.
This lifelong spiritual bond was rooted in the common faith shared by these two sons of the Church. In 1989, the year before Frassati's beatification, John Paul II recalled the impact of that friendship: "In my youth, I also felt the beneficial influence of his example, and as a student I was impressed by the force of his Christian testimony." Inaugurating a photo exhibition on the life of Pier Giorgio, as Cardinal of Krakow, Wojtyla looked around at the many images of his spiritual companion and exclaimed, "See how the man of the Eight Beatitudes looked, who carried with him the grace of the Gospel and the joy of salvation offered us by Christ, simply by being himself each and every day." In this beautiful description he summed up the whole essence of those who live out the Beatitudes of Jesus Christ.
An estimated four million mourners flooded the streets of Rome in 2005 for the Funeral Mass of the Polish Pope. They had been drawn by the radiance of the face of this Vicar of Christ. Six years later the crowds reassembled once again to see the smile of the one for whom they had chanted "Santo subito!- Saint soon!" His image was unveiled on the majestic façade of the Vatican Basilica as his friend and successor Pope Benedict XVI, to the joy of all the world, proclaimed him Blessed.
In his homily, Pope Benedict noted an awe-inspiring truth about what happens at every Mass, but one that was particularly tangible on May 1st as the overflow crowd from every nation under heaven spilled out of Saint Peter's Square and literally flooded Rome: "In heaven a very different celebration is taking place among the angels and saints! Even so ... at this moment we feel closer than ever, sharing as it were in the liturgy of Heaven."
The evening before the Beatification, I made my way through the crowds to attend a mini-conference that highlighted the spiritual friendship between Frassati and our beloved Pope John Paul II. In a stunning image Father Primo Soldi, one of the speakers, reflected on what would take place the next day. "At that dramatic moment when the curtain is raised to reveal the tapestry of the image of the new Blessed, all of the saints in Heaven whom he raised to the Altar will form a living crown around the throne of God, and no doubt, Blessed Pier Giorgio will be among them!" On that great occasion of rejoicing as earth was united with heaven, I was blessed to stand in that crowd.
As we reflect on what all of this means for us, permit me to offer a few words of encouragement. In responding to the Lord's call to holiness, get to know the saints! They are for us that "great crowd of witnesses cheering us on" (Heb 12: 1) Claim them as your patrons and follow in their footsteps, for they show what the Beatitudes look like in living color. Perhaps consider offering a Litany of some of your patron saints after your meal or a family Rosary. Of all that they teach us, perhaps the most important lesson is that holiness is possible for EACH of us and that Heaven is our true homeland. Do not be discouraged by the "other-worldliness" of the saints, but be heartened instead by their humble humanity, their simple trust in the Lord, and the promise of their friendship and prayers.
Blessed John Paul II, and all you holy men and women, pray for us!
* * * * *Please keep Spencer Howe and all of our bishops, priests and seminarians in your prayers. And may I request your prayers for a brilliant young priest who was ordained a year ago for the Archdiocese of Chicago. He has recently been treated (successfully it would seem but with impairment of vision) for a cancerous tumor behind his left eye. He is Father Andrew Liaugminas. His father, a distinguished professor in his native Lithuania, was able to escape from his homeland during the Soviet era and to make his way to the United States via South America.
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