General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI, 13 October 2010 – Blessed Angela of Foligno

17th century print of Blessed Angela of Foligno; artist unknown; swiped from Wikimedia Commons; click for source imageToday I would like to speak to you about Blessed Angela of Foligno, a great medieval mystic who lived in the 13th century. People are usually fascinated by the consummate experience of union with God that she reached, but perhaps they give too little consideration to her first steps, her conversion and the long journey that led from her starting point, the “great fear of hell”, to her goal, total union with the Trinity. The first part of Angela’s life was certainly not that of a fervent disciple of the Lord. She was born into a well-off family in about 1248. Her father died and she was brought up in a somewhat superficial manner by her mother. She was introduced at a rather young age into the worldly circles of the town of Foligno, where she met a man whom she married at the age of 20 and to whom she bore children. Her life was so carefree that she was even contemptuous of the so-called “penitents”, who abounded in that period; they were people who, in order to follow Christ, sold their possessions and lived in prayer, fasting, in service to the Church and in charity.

Certain events, such as the violent earthquake in 1279, a hurricane, the endless war against Perugia and its harsh consequences, affected the life of Angela who little by little became aware of her sins, until she took a decisive step. In 1285 she called upon Saint Francis, who appeared to her in a vision and asked his advice on making a good general Confession. She then went to Confession with a Friar in San Feliciano. Three years later, on her path of conversion she reached another turning point: she was released from any emotional ties. In the space of a few months, her mother’s death was followed by the death of her husband and those of all her children. She therefore sold her possessions and in 1291 enrolled in the Third Order of Saint Francis. She died in Foligno on 4 January 1309.

The Book of Visions and Instructions of Blessed Angela of Foligno, in which is gathered the documentation on our Blessed, tells the story of this conversion and points out the necessary means: penance, humility and tribulation; and it recounts the steps, Angela’s successive experiences which began in 1285. Remembering them after she had experienced them, Angela then endeavoured to recount them through her Friar confessor, who faithfully transcribed them, seeking later to sort them into stages which he called “steps or mutations” but without managing to put them entirely in order (cf. Il Libro della beata Angela da Foligno, Cinisello Balsamo 1990, p. 51). This was because for Blessed Angela the experience of union meant the total involvement of both the spiritual and physical senses and she was left with only a “shadow” in her mind, as it were, of what she had “understood” during her ecstasies. “I truly heard these words”, she confessed after a mystical ecstasy, but it is in no way possible for me to know or tell of what I saw and understood, or of what he [God] showed me, although I would willingly reveal what I understood with the words that I heard, but it was an absolutely ineffable abyss”. Angela of Foligno presented her mystical “life”, without elaborating on it herself because these were divine illuminations that were communicated suddenly and unexpectedly to her soul. Her Friar confessor too had difficulty in reporting these events, “partly because of her great and wonderful reserve concerning the divine gifts” (ibid., p. 194). In addition to Angela’s difficulty in expressing her mystical experience was the difficulty her listeners found in understanding her. It was a situation which showed clearly that the one true Teacher, Jesus, dwells in the heart of every believer and wants to take total possession of it. So it was with Angela, who wrote to a spiritual son: “My son, if you were to see my heart you would be absolutely obliged to do everything God wants, because my heart is God’s heart and God’s heart is mine”. Here Saint Paul’s words ring out: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2: 20).

Let us then consider only a few “steps” of our Blessed’s rich spiritual journey. The first, in fact, is an introduction: “It was the knowledge of sin”, as she explained, “after which my soul was deeply afraid of damnation; in this stage I shed bitter tears” (Il Libro della beata Angela da Foligno, p. 39). This “dread” of hell corresponds to the type of faith that Angela had at the time of her “conversion”; it was a faith still poor in charity, that is, in love of God. Repentance, the fear of hell and penance unfolded to Angela the prospect of the sorrowful “Way of the Cross”, which from the eighth to the 15th stages was to lead her to the “way of love”. Her Friar confessor recounted: “The faithful woman then told me: I have had this divine revelation: “after the things you have written, write that anyone who wishes to preserve grace must not lift the eyes of his soul from the Cross, either in the joy or in the sadness that I grant or permit him'” (ibid., p. 143). However, in this phase Angela “did not yet feel love”. She said: “The soul feels shame and bitterness and does not yet feel love but suffering” (ibid., p. 39), and is unrequited.

Angela felt she should give something to God in reparation for her sins, but slowly came to realize that she had nothing to give him, indeed, that she “was nothing” before him. She understood that it would not be her will to give her God’s love, for her will could give only her own “nothingness”, her “non-love”. As she was to say: only “true and pure love, that comes from God, is in the soul and ensures that one recognizes one’s own shortcomings and the divine goodness…. Such love brings the soul to Christ and it understands with certainty that in him no deception can be found or can exist. No particle of worldly love can be mingled with this love” (ibid., p. 124-125). This meant opening herself solely and totally to God’s love whose greatest expression is in Christ: “O my God” she prayed, “make me worthy of knowing the loftiest mystery that your most ardent and ineffable love brought about for our sake, together with the love of the Trinity, in other words the loftiest mystery of your most holy Incarnation…. O incomprehensible love! There is no greater love than this love that brought my God to become man in order to make me God” (ibid., p. 295). However, Angela’s heart always bore the wounds of sin; even after a good Confession she would find herself forgiven and yet still stricken by sin, free and yet conditioned by the past, absolved but in need of penance. And the thought of hell accompanied her too, for the greater the progress the soul made on the way of Christian perfection, the more convinced it is not only of being “unworthy” but also deserving of hell.

And so it was that on this mystical journey Angela understood the central reality in a profound way: what would save her from her “unworthiness” and from “deserving hell” would not be her “union with God” or her possession of the “truth” but Jesus Crucified, “his crucifixion for me”, his love. In the eighth step, she said, “However, I did not yet understand whether my liberation from sins and from hell and conversion to penance was far greater, or his crucifixion for me” (ibid., n. 41). This was the precarious balance between love and suffering, that she felt throughout her arduous journey towards perfection. For this very reason she preferred to contemplate Christ Crucified, because in this vision she saw the perfect balance brought about. On the Cross was the man-God, in a supreme act of suffering which was a supreme act of love. In the third Instruction the Blessed insisted on this contemplation and declared: “The more perfectly and purely we see, the more perfectly and purely we love…. Therefore the more we see the God and man, Jesus Christ, the more we are transformed in him through love…. What I said of love… I also say of suffering: the more the soul contemplates the ineffable suffering of the God and man Jesus Christ the more sorrowful it becomes and is transformed through suffering” (ibid., p. 190-191). Thus, unifying herself with and transforming herself into the love and suffering of Christ Crucified, she was identifying herself with him. Angela’s conversion, which began from that Confession in 1285, was to reach maturity only when God’s forgiveness appeared to her soul as the freely given gift of the love of the Father, the source of love: “No one can make excuses”, she said, “because anyone can love God and he does not ask the soul for more than to love him, because he loves the soul and it is his love” (ibid., p. 76).

On Angela’s spiritual journey the transition from conversion to mystical experience, from what can be expressed to the inexpressible, took place through the Crucified One. He is the “God-man of the Passion”, who became her “teacher of perfection”. The whole of her mystical experience, therefore, consisted in striving for a perfect “likeness” with him, through ever deeper and ever more radical purifications and transformations. Angela threw her whole self, body and soul, into this stupendous undertaking, never sparing herself of penance and suffering, from beginning to end, desiring to die with all the sorrows suffered by the God-man crucified in order to be totally transformed in him. “O children of God”, she recommended, “transform yourselves totally in the man-God who so loved you that he chose to die for you a most ignominious and all together unutterably painful death, and in the most painful and bitterest way. And this was solely for love of you, O man!” (ibid., p. 247). This identification also meant experiencing what Jesus himself experienced: poverty, contempt and sorrow, because, as she declared, “through temporal poverty the soul will find eternal riches; through contempt and shame it will obtain supreme honour and very great glory; through a little penance, made with pain and sorrow, it will possess with infinite sweetness and consolation the Supreme Good, Eternal God” (ibid., p. 293).

From conversion to mystic union with Christ Crucified, to the inexpressible. A very lofty journey, whose secret is constant prayer. “The more you pray”, she said, “the more illumined you will be and the more profoundly and intensely you will see the supreme Good, the supremely good Being; the more profoundly and intensely you see him, the more you will love him; the more you love him the more he will delight you; and the more he delights you, the better you will understand him and you will become capable of understanding him. You will then reach the fullness of light, for you will understand that you cannot understand” (ibid., p. 184).

Dear brothers and sisters, Blessed Angela’s life began with a worldly existence, rather remote from God. Yet her meeting with the figure of Saint Francis and, finally, her meeting with Christ Crucified reawakened her soul to the presence of God, for the reason that with God alone life becomes true life, because, in sorrow for sin, it becomes love and joy. And this is how Blessed Angela speaks to us. Today we all risk living as though God did not exist; he seems so distant from daily life. However, God has thousands of ways of his own for each one, to make himself present in the soul, to show that he exists and knows and loves me. And Blessed Angela wishes to make us attentive to these signs with which the Lord touches our soul, attentive to God’s presence, so as to learn the way with God and towards God, in communion with Christ Crucified. Let us pray the Lord that he make us attentive to the signs of his presence and that he teach us truly to live. Thank you.

General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI, 29 September 2010 – Saint Matilda of Hackeborn

Saint Mechtilde of HelftaToday I want to talk to you about Saint Matilda of Hackeborn, one of the great figures of the convent of Helfta, who lived in the 13th century. Her sister, Saint Gertrude the Great, tells of the special graces that God granted to Saint Matilda in the sixth book of Liber Specialis Gratiae (Book of Special Grace), which states : “What we have written is very little in comparison with what we have omitted. We are publishing these things solely for the glory of God and the usefulness of our neighbour, for it would seem wrong to us to keep quiet about the many graces that Matilda received from God, not so much for herself, in our opinion, but for us and for those who will come after us” (Mechthild von Hackeborn, Liber specialis gratiae, vi, 1).

This work was written by Saint Gertrude and by another sister of Helfta and has a unique story. At the age of 50, Matilda went through a grave spiritual crisis, as well as physical suffering. In this condition she confided to two of her sisters who were friends the special graces with which God had guided her since childhood. However, she did not know that they were writing it all down. When she found out she was deeply upset and distressed. However, the Lord reassured her, making her realize that all that had been written was for the glory of God and for the benefit of her neighbour (cf. ibid., II, 25; V, 20). This work, therefore, is the principal source to refer to for information on the life and spirituality of our Saint.

With her we are introduced into the family of Baron von Hackeborn, one of the noblest, richest and most powerful barons of Thuringia, related to the Emperor Frederick ii, and we enter the convent of Helfta in the most glorious period of its history. The Baron had already given one daughter to the convent, Gertrude of Hackeborn (1231/1232 – 1291/1292). She was gifted with an outstanding personality. She was Abbess for 40 years, capable of giving the spirituality of the convent a particular hallmark and of bringing it to an extraordinary flourishing as the centre of mysticism and culture, a school for scientific and theological training. Gertrude offered the nuns an intellectual training of a high standard that enabled them to cultivate a spirituality founded on Sacred Scripture, on the Liturgy, on the Patristic tradition, on the Cistercian Rule and spirituality, with a particular love for Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and William of Saint-Thierry. She was a real teacher, exemplary in all things, in evangelical radicalism and in apostolic zeal. Matilda, from childhood, accepted and enjoyed the spiritual and cultural atmosphere created by her sister, later giving it her own personal hallmark.

Matilda was born in 1241 or 1242 in the Castle of Helfta. She was the Baron’s third daughter. When she was seven she went with her mother to visit her sister Gertrude in the convent of Rodersdorf. She was so enchanted by this environment that she ardently desired to belong to it. She entered as a schoolgirl and in 1258 became a nun at the convent, which in the meantime had moved to Helfta, to the property of the Hackeborns. She was distinguished by her humility, her fervour, her friendliness, the clarity and the innocence of her life and by the familiarity and intensity with which she lived her relationship with God, the Virgin and the Saints. She was endowed with lofty natural and spiritual qualities such as knowledge, intelligence, familiarity with the humanities and a marvellously sweet voice: everything suited her to being a true treasure for the convent from every point of view (ibid, Proem.). Thus when “God’s nightingale”, as she was called, was still very young she became the principal of the convent’s school, choir mistress and novice mistress, offices that she fulfilled with talent and unflagging zeal, not only for the benefit of the nuns but for anyone who wanted to draw on her wisdom and goodness.

Illumined by the divine gift of mystic contemplation, Matilda wrote many prayers. She was a teacher of faithful doctrine and deep humility, a counsellor, comforter and guide in discernment. We read: “she distributed doctrine in an abundance never previously seen at the convent, and alas, we are rather afraid that nothing like it will ever be seen again. The sisters would cluster round her to hear the word of God, as if she were a preacher. “She was the refuge and consoler of all and, by a unique gift of God, was endowed with the grace of being able to reveal freely the secrets of the heart of each one. Many people, not only in the convent but also outsiders, religious and lay people, who came from afar, testified that this holy virgin had freed them from their afflictions and that they had never known such comfort as they found near her. “Furthermore, she composed and taught so many prayers that if they were gathered together they would make a book larger than a Psalter” (ibid., VI, 1).

In 1261 a five year old girl came to the convent. Her name was Gertrude: She was entrusted to the care of Matilda, just 20 years of age, who taught her and guided her in the spiritual life until she not only made her into an excellent disciple but also her confidant. In 1271 or 1272, Matilda of Magdeburg also entered the convent. So it was that this place took in four great women two Gertrudes and two Matildas the glory of German monasticism. During her long life which she spent in the convent, Matilda was afflicted with continuous and intense bouts of suffering, to which she added the very harsh penances chosen for the conversion of sinners. In this manner she participated in the Lord’s Passion until the end of her life (cf. ibid., VI, 2). Prayer and contemplation were the life-giving humus of her existence: her revelations, her teachings, her service to her neighbour, her journey in faith and in love have their root and their context here. In the first book of the work, Liber Specialis Gratiae, the nuns wrote down Matilda’s confidences pronounced on the Feasts of the Lord, the Saints and, especially, of the Blessed Virgin. This Saint had a striking capacity for living the various elements of the Liturgy, even the simplest, and bringing it into the daily life of the convent. Some of her images, expressions and applications are at times distant from our sensibility today, but, if we were to consider monastic life and her task as mistress and choir mistress, we should grasp her rare ability as a teacher and educator who, starting from the Liturgy, helped her sisters to live intensely every moment of monastic life.

Matilda gave an emphasis in liturgical prayer to the canonical hours, to the celebrations of Holy Mass and, especially, to Holy Communion. Here she was often rapt in ecstasy in profound intimacy with the Lord in his most ardent and sweetest Heart, carrying on a marvellous conversation in which she asked for inner illumination, while interceding in a special way for her community and her sisters. At the centre are the mysteries of Christ which the Virgin Mary constantly recommends to people so that they may walk on the path of holiness: “If you want true holiness, be close to my Son; he is holiness itself that sanctifies all things” (ibid., I, 40). The whole world, the Church, benefactors and sinners were present in her intimacy with God. For her, Heaven and earth were united.

Her visions, her teachings, the events of her life are described in words reminiscent of liturgical and biblical language. In this way it is possible to comprehend her deep knowledge of Sacred Scripture, which was her daily bread. She had constant recourse to the Scriptures, making the most of the biblical texts read in the Liturgy, and drawing from them symbols, terms, countryside, images and famous figures. She had a special love for the Gospel: “The words of the Gospel were a marvellous nourishment for her and in her heart stirred feelings of such sweetness that, because of her enthusiasm, she was often unable to finish reading it…. The way in which she read those words was so fervent that it inspired devotion in everyone. “Thus when she was singing in the choir, she was completely absorbed in God, uplifted by such ardour that she sometimes expressed her feelings in gestures…. “On other occasions, since she was rapt in ecstasy, she did not hear those who were calling or touching her and came back with difficulty to the reality of the things around her” (ibid., VI, 1). In one of her visions, Jesus himself recommended the Gospel to her; opening the wound in his most gentle Heart, he said to her: “consider the immensity of my love: if you want to know it well, nowhere will you find it more clearly expressed than in the Gospel. No one has ever heard expressed stronger or more tender sentiments than these: “As my father has loved me, so I have loved you (Jn 15: 9)'” (ibid., I, 22).

Dear friends, personal and liturgical prayer, especially the Liturgy of the Hours and Holy Mass are at the root of Saint Matilda of Hackeborn’s spiritual experience. In letting herself be guided by Sacred Scripture and nourished by the Bread of the Eucharist, she followed a path of close union with the Lord, ever in full fidelity to the Church. This is also a strong invitation to us to intensify our friendship with the Lord, especially through daily prayer and attentive, faithful and active participation in Holy Mass. The Liturgy is a great school of spirituality.

Her disciple Gertrude gives a vivid pictures of Saint Matilda of Hackeborn’s last moments. They were very difficult but illumined by the presence of the Blessed Trinity, of the Lord, of the Virgin Mary and of all the Saints, even Gertrude’s sister by blood. When the time came in which the Lord chose to gather her to him, she asked him let her live longer in suffering for the salvation of souls, and Jesus was pleased with this further sign of her love.

Matilda was 58 years old. The last leg of her journey was marked by eight years of serious illness. Her work and the fame of her holiness spread far and wide. When her time came, “the God of majesty… the one delight of the soul that loves him… sang to her: Venite vos, benedicti Patris mei…. Venite, o voi che siete i benedetti dal Padre mio, venite a ricevere il regno… and he united her with his glory” (ibid., VI, 8).

May Saint Matilda of Hackeborn commend us to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to the Virgin Mary. She invites us to praise the Son with the Heart of the Mother, and to praise Mary with the Heart of the Son: “I greet you, O most deeply venerated Virgin, in that sweetest of dews which from the Heart of the Blessed Trinity spread within you; I greet you in the glory and joy in which you now rejoice for ever, you who were chosen in preference to all the creatures of the earth and of Heaven even before the world’s creation! Amen” (ibid., I, 45).

General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI, 15 September 2010 – Saint Clare of Assisi

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Clare of Assisi; date unknown, artist unknown; church of Saint Stephen, South Kensington, London, England; photographed on 22 December 2014 by Oxfordian Kissuth; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsOne of the best loved Saints is without a doubt Saint Clare of Assisi who lived in the 13th century and was a contemporary of Saint Francis. Her testimony shows us how indebted the Church is to courageous women, full of faith like her, who can give a crucial impetus to the Church’s renewal.

So who was Clare of Assisi? To answer this question we possess reliable sources: not only the ancient biographies, such as that of Tommaso da Celano, but also the Proceedings of the cause of her canonization that the Pope promoted only a few month after Clare’s death and that contain the depositions of those who had lived a long time with her.

Born in 1193, Clare belonged to a wealthy, aristocratic family. She renounced her noble status and wealth to live in humility and poverty, adopting the lifestyle that Francis of Assisi recommended. Although her parents were planning a marriage for her with some important figure, as was then the custom, Clare, with a daring act inspired by her deep desire to follow Christ and her admiration for Francis, at the age of 18 left her family home and, in the company of a friend, Bona di Guelfuccio, made her way in secret to the Friars Minor at the little Church of the Portiuncula. It was the evening of Palm Sunday in 1211. In the general commotion, a highly symbolic act took place: while his companions lit torches, Francis cut off Clare’s hair and she put on a rough penitential habit. From that moment she had become the virgin bride of Christ, humble and poor, and she consecrated herself totally to him. Like Clare and her companions, down through history innumerable women have been fascinated by love for Christ which, with the beauty of his Divine Person, fills their hearts. And the entire Church, through the mystical nuptial vocation of consecrated virgins, appears what she will be for ever: the pure and beautiful Bride of Christ.

In one of the four letters that Clare sent to Saint Agnes of Prague the daughter of the King of Bohemia, who wished to follow in Christ’s footsteps, she speaks of Christ, her beloved Spouse, with nuptial words that may be surprising but are nevertheless moving: “When you have loved [him] you shall be chaste; when you have touched [him] you shall become purer; when you have accepted [him] you shall be a virgin. Whose power is stronger, whose generosity is more elevated, whose appearance more beautiful, whose love more tender, whose courtesy more gracious. In whose embrace you are already caught up; who has adorned your breast with precious stones… and placed on your head a golden crown as a sign [to all] of your holiness” (First Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague: FF, 2862).

Especially at the beginning of her religious experience, Francis of Assisi was not only a teacher to Clare whose teachings she was to follow but also a brotherly friend. The friendship between these two Saints is a very beautiful and important aspect. Indeed, when two pure souls on fire with the same love for God meet, they find in their friendship with each other a powerful incentive to advance on the path of perfection. Friendship is one of the noblest and loftiest human sentiments which divine Grace purifies and transfigures. Like Saint Francis and Saint Clare, other Saints too experienced profound friendship on the journey towards Christian perfection. Examples are Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Jane Frances de Chantal. And Saint Francis de Sales himself wrote: “It is a blessed thing to love on earth as we hope to love in Heaven, and to begin that friendship here which is to endure for ever there. I am not now speaking of simple charity, a love due to all mankind, but of that spiritual friendship which binds souls together, leading them to share devotions and spiritual interests, so as to have but one mind between them” (The Introduction to a Devout Life, III, 19).

After spending a period of several months at other monastic communities, resisting the pressure of her relatives who did not at first approve of her decision, Clare settled with her first companions at the Church of San Damiano where the Friars Minor had organized a small convent for them. She lived in this Monastery for more than 40 years, until her death in 1253. A first-hand description has come down to us of how these women lived in those years at the beginning of the Franciscan movement. It is the admiring account of Jacques de Vitry, a Flemish Bishop who came to Italy on a visit. He declared that he had encountered a large number of men and women of every social class who, having “left all things for Christ, fled the world. They called themselves Friars Minor and Sisters Minor [Lesser] and are held in high esteem by the Lord Pope and the Cardinals…. The women live together in various homes not far from the city. They receive nothing but live on the work of their own hands. And they are deeply troubled and pained at being honoured more than they would like to be by both clerics and lay people” (Letter of October 1216: FF, 2205, 2207).

Jacques de Vitry had perceptively noticed a characteristic trait of Franciscan spirituality about which Clare was deeply sensitive: the radicalism of poverty associated with total trust in Divine Providence. For this reason, she acted with great determination, obtaining from Pope Gregory IX or, probably, already from Pope Innocent III, the so-called Privilegium Paupertatis (cf. FF., 3279). On the basis of this privilege Clare and her companions at San Damiano could not possess any material property. This was a truly extraordinary exception in comparison with the canon law then in force but the ecclesiastical authorities of that time permitted it, appreciating the fruits of evangelical holiness that they recognized in the way of life of Clare and her sisters. This shows that even in the centuries of the Middle Ages the role of women was not secondary but on the contrary considerable. In this regard, it is useful to remember that Clare was the first woman in the Church’s history who composed a written Rule, submitted for the Pope’s approval, to ensure the preservation of Francis of Assisi’s charism in all the communities of women large numbers of which were already springing up in her time that wished to draw inspiration from the example of Francis and Clare.

In the Convent of San Damiano, Clare practised heroically the virtues that should distinguish every Christian: humility, a spirit of piety and penitence and charity. Although she was the superior, she wanted to serve the sick sisters herself and joyfully subjected herself to the most menial tasks. In fact, charity overcomes all resistance and whoever loves, joyfully performs every sacrifice. Her faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was so great that twice a miracle happened. Simply by showing to them the Most Blessed Sacrament distanced the Saracen mercenaries, who were on the point of attacking the convent of San Damiano and pillaging the city of Assisi.

Such episodes, like other miracles whose memory lives on, prompted Pope Alexander IV to canonize her in 1255, only two years after her death, outlining her eulogy in the Bull on the Canonization of Saint Clare. In it we read: “How powerful was the illumination of this light and how strong the brightness of this source of light. Truly this light was kept hidden in the cloistered life; and outside them shone with gleaming rays; Clare in fact lay hidden, but her life was revealed to all. Clare was silent, but her fame was shouted out” (FF, 3284). And this is exactly how it was, dear friends: those who change the world for the better are holy, they transform it permanently, instilling in it the energies that only love inspired by the Gospel can elicit. The Saints are humanity’s great benefactors!

Saint Clare’s spirituality, the synthesis of the holiness she proposed is summed up in the fourth letter she wrote to Saint Agnes of Prague. Saint Clare used an image very widespread in the Middle Ages that dates back to Patristic times: the mirror. And she invited her friend in Prague to reflect herself in that mirror of the perfection of every virtue which is the Lord himself. She wrote: “Happy, indeed, is the one permitted to share in this sacred banquet so as to be joined with all the feelings of her heart (to Christ) whose beauty all the blessed hosts of the Heavens unceasingly admire, whose affection moves, whose contemplation invigorates, whose generosity fills, whose sweetness replenishes, whose remembrance pleasantly brings light, whose fragrance will revive the dead, and whose glorious vision will bless all the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, because the vision of him is the splendour of everlasting glory, the radiance of everlasting light, and a mirror without tarnish. Look into this mirror every day, O Queen, spouse of Jesus Christ, and continually examine your face in it, so that in this way you may adorn yourself completely, inwardly and outwardly…. In this mirror shine blessed poverty, holy humility, and charity beyond words…” (Fourth Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, FF, 2901-2903).

Grateful to God who give us Saints who speak to our hearts and offer us an example of Christian life to imitate, I would like to end with the same words of Blessing that Saint Clare composed for her Sisters and which the Poor Clares, who play a precious role in the Church with their prayer and with their work, still preserve today with great devotion. These are words in which the full tenderness of her spiritual motherhood emerges: “I give you my blessing now while living, and after my death, in as far as I may: nay, even more than I may, I call down on you all the blessings that the Father of mercies has bestowed and continues to bestow on his spiritual sons and daughters both in Heaven and on earth, and with which a spiritual father and mother have blessed and will bless their spiritual sons and daughters. Amen” (FF, 2856).

General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI, 8 September 2010 – Saint Hildegard of Bingen, part 2

portrait of Saint Hildegard of Bingen; date unknown, artist unknown; swiped from Wikimedia Commons; click for source imageToday I would like to take up and continue my Reflection on Saint Hildegard of Bingen, an important female figure of the Middle Ages who was distinguished for her spiritual wisdom and the holiness of her life. Hildegard’s mystical visions resemble those of the Old Testament prophets: expressing herself in the cultural and religious categories of her time, she interpreted the Sacred Scriptures in the light of God, applying them to the various circumstances of life. Thus all those who heard her felt the need to live a consistent and committed Christian lifestyle. In a letter to Saint Bernard the mystic from the Rhineland confesses: “The vision fascinates my whole being: I do not see with the eyes of the body but it appears to me in the spirit of the mysteries…. I recognize the deep meaning of what is expounded on in the Psalter, in the Gospels and in other books, which have been shown to me in the vision. This vision burns like a flame in my breast and in my soul and teaches me to understand the text profoundly” (Epistolarium pars prima I-XC: CCCM 91).

Hildegard’s mystical visions have a rich theological content. They refer to the principal events of salvation history, and use a language for the most part poetic and symbolic. For example, in her best known work entitled Scivias, that is, “You know the ways” she sums up in 35 visions the events of the history of salvation from the creation of the world to the end of time. With the characteristic traits of feminine sensitivity, Hildegard develops at the very heart of her work the theme of the mysterious marriage between God and humanity that is brought about in the Incarnation. On the tree of the Cross take place the nuptials of the Son of God with the Church, his Bride, filled with grace and the ability to give new children to God, in the love of the Holy Spirit (cf. Visio tertia: PL 197, 453c).

From these brief references we already see that theology too can receive a special contribution from women because they are able to talk about God and the mysteries of faith using their own particular intelligence and sensitivity. I therefore encourage all those who carry out this service to do it with a profound ecclesial spirit, nourishing their own reflection with prayer and looking to the great riches, not yet fully explored, of the medieval mystic tradition, especially that represented by luminous models such as Hildegard of Bingen.

The Rhenish mystic is also the author of other writings, two of which are particularly important since, like Scivias, they record her mystical visions: they are the Liber vitae meritorum (Book of the merits of life) and the Liber divinorum operum (Book of the divine works), also called De operatione Dei. In the former she describes a unique and powerful vision of God who gives life to the cosmos with his power and his light. Hildegard stresses the deep relationship that exists between man and God and reminds us that the whole creation, of which man is the summit, receives life from the Trinity. The work is centred on the relationship between virtue and vice, which is why human beings must face the daily challenge of vice that distances them on their way towards God and of virtue that benefits them. The invitation is to distance themselves from evil in order to glorify God and, after a virtuous existence, enter the life that consists “wholly of joy”. In her second work that many consider her masterpiece she once again describes creation in its relationship with God and the centrality of the human being, expressing a strong Christo-centrism with a biblical-Patristic flavour. The Saint, who presents five visions inspired by the Prologue of the Gospel according to Saint John, cites the words of the Son to the Father: “The whole task that you wanted and entrusted to me I have carried out successfully, and so here I am in you and you in me and we are one” (Pars III, Visio X: PL 197, 1025a).

Finally, in other writings Hildegard manifests the versatility of interests and cultural vivacity of the female monasteries of the Middle Ages, in a manner contrary to the prejudices which still weighed on that period. Hildegard took an interest in medicine and in the natural sciences as well as in music, since she was endowed with artistic talent. Thus she composed hymns, antiphons and songs, gathered under the title: Symphonia Harmoniae Caelestium Revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations), that were performed joyously in her monasteries, spreading an atmosphere of tranquillity and that have also come down to us. For her, the entire creation is a symphony of the Holy Spirit who is in himself joy and jubilation.

The popularity that surrounded Hildegard impelled many people to seek her advice. It is for this reason that we have so many of her letters at our disposal. Many male and female monastic communities turned to her, as well as Bishops and Abbots. And many of her answers still apply for us. For instance, Hildegard wrote these words to a community of women religious: “The spiritual life must be tended with great dedication. At first the effort is burdensome because it demands the renunciation of caprices of the pleasures of the flesh and of other such things. But if she lets herself be enthralled by holiness a holy soul will find even contempt for the world sweet and lovable. All that is needed is to take care that the soul does not shrivel” (E. Gronau, Hildegard. Vita di una donna profetica alle origini dell’età moderna, Milan 1996, p. 402). And when the Emperor Frederic Barbarossa caused a schism in the Church by supporting at least three anti-popes against Alexander iii, the legitimate Pope, Hildegard did not hesitate, inspired by her visions, to remind him that even he, the Emperor, was subject to God’s judgement. With fearlessness, a feature of every prophet, she wrote to the Emperor these words as spoken by God: “You will be sorry for this wicked conduct of the godless who despise me! Listen, O King, if you wish to live! Otherwise my sword will pierce you!” (ibid., p. 412).

With the spiritual authority with which she was endowed, in the last years of her life Hildegard set out on journeys, despite her advanced age and the uncomfortable conditions of travel, in order to speak to the people of God. They all listened willingly, even when she spoke severely: they considered her a messenger sent by God. She called above all the monastic communities and the clergy to a life in conformity with their vocation. In a special way Hildegard countered the movement of German cátari (Cathars). They cátari means literally “pure” advocated a radical reform of the Church, especially to combat the abuses of the clergy. She harshly reprimanded them for seeking to subvert the very nature of the Church, reminding them that a true renewal of the ecclesial community is obtained with a sincere spirit of repentance and a demanding process of conversion, rather than with a change of structures. This is a message that we should never forget. Let us always invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he may inspire in the Church holy and courageous women, like Saint Hildegard of Bingen, who, developing the gifts they have received from God, make their own special and valuable contribution to the spiritual development of our communities and of the Church in our time.

General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI, 1 September 2010 – Saint Hildegard of Bingen, part 1

portrait of Saint Hildegard of Bingen; date unknown, artist unknown; swiped from Wikimedia Commons; click for source imageIn 1988, on the occasion of the Marian Year, Venerable John Paul II wrote an Apostolic Letter entitled Mulieris Dignitatem on the precious role that women have played and play in the life of the Church. “The Church”, one reads in it, “gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine “genius’ which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms that the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness” (n. 31).

Various female figures stand out for the holiness of their lives and the wealth of their teaching even in those centuries of history that we usually call the Middle Ages. Today I would like to begin to present one of them to you: Saint Hildegard of Bingen, who lived in Germany in the 12th century. She was born in 1098, probably at Bermersheim, Rhineland, not far from Alzey, and died in 1179 at the age of 81, in spite of having always been in poor health. Hildegard belonged to a large noble family and her parents dedicated her to God from birth for his service. At the age of eight she was offered for the religious state (in accordance with the Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 59), and, to ensure that she received an appropriate human and Christian formation, she was entrusted to the care of the consecrated widow Uda of Gölklheim and then to Jutta of Spanheim who had taken the veil at the Benedictine Monastery of Saint Disibodenberg. A small cloistered women’s monastery was developing there that followed the Rule of Saint Benedict. Hildegard was clothed by Bishop Otto of Bamberg and in 1136, upon the death of Mother Jutta who had become the community magistra (Prioress), the sisters chose Hildegard to succeed her. She fulfilled this office making the most of her gifts as a woman of culture and of lofty spirituality, capable of dealing competently with the organizational aspects of cloistered life. A few years later, partly because of the increasing number of young women who were knocking at the monastery door, Hildegard broke away from the dominating male monastery of Saint Disibodenburg with her community, taking it to Bingen, calling it after Saint Rupert and here she spent the rest of her days. Her manner of exercising the ministry of authority is an example for every religious community: she inspired holy emulation in the practice of good to such an extent that, as time was to tell, both the mother and her daughters competed in mutual esteem and in serving each other.

During the years when she was superior of the Monastery of Saint Disibodenberg, Hildegard began to dictate the mystical visions that she had been receiving for some time to the monk Volmar, her spiritual director, and to Richardis di Strade, her secretary, a sister of whom she was very fond. As always happens in the life of true mystics, Hildegard too wanted to put herself under the authority of wise people to discern the origin of her visions, fearing that they were the product of illusions and did not come from God. She thus turned to a person who was most highly esteemed in the Church in those times: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, of whom I have already spoken in several Catecheses. He calmed and encouraged Hildegard. However, in 1147 she received a further, very important approval. Pope Eugene iii, who was presiding at a Synod in Trier, read a text dictated by Hildegard presented to him by Archbishop Henry of Mainz. The Pope authorized the mystic to write down her visions and to speak in public. From that moment Hildegard’s spiritual prestige continued to grow so that her contemporaries called her the “Teutonic prophetess”. This, dear friends, is the seal of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit, the source of every charism: the person endowed with supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never flaunts them and, above all, shows complete obedience to the ecclesial authority. Every gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit, is in fact intended for the edification of the Church and the Church, through her Pastors, recognizes its authenticity.

I shall speak again next Wednesday about this great woman, this “prophetess” who also speaks with great timeliness to us today, with her courageous ability to discern the signs of the times, her love for creation, her medicine, her poetry, her music, which today has been reconstructed, her love for Christ and for his Church which was suffering in that period too, wounded also in that time by the sins of both priests and lay people, and far better loved as the Body of Christ. Thus Saint Hildegard speaks to us; we shall speak of her again next Wednesday. Thank you for your attention.

General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI, 25 August 2010 – Saint Augustine of Hippo

the painting 'Saint Augustin', by Philippe de Champaigne, c.1647, oil on canvas, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CaliforniaThere are very dear people in the life of each one of us to whom we feel particularly close, some of whom are already in God’s embrace while others still share with us the journey through life: they are our parents, relatives and teachers; they are the people to whom we have done good or from whom we have received good; they are people on whom we know we can count. Yet it is important also to have “travelling companions” on the journey of our Christian life. I am thinking of a Spiritual Director, a Confessor, of people with whom it is possible to share one’s own faith experience, but I am also thinking of the Virgin Mary and the Saints. Everyone must have some Saint with whom he or she is on familiar terms, to feel close to with prayer and intercession but also to emulate. I would therefore like to ask you to become better acquainted with the Saints, starting with those you are called after, by reading their life and their writings. You may rest assured that they will become good guides in order to love the Lord even more and will contribute effective help for your human and Christian development.

As you know, I too am especially attached to certain Saints: among them in addition to Saint Joseph and Saint Benedict, whose names I bear is Saint Augustine whom I have had the great gift to know, so to speak, close at hand through study and prayer and who has become a good “travelling companion” in my life and my ministry. I would like to stress once again an important aspect of his human and Christian experience, which is also timely in our day, in which it seems, paradoxically, that relativism is the “truth” which must guide our thoughts, decisions and behaviour.

Saint Augustine was a man who never lived superficially; his thirst, his restless and constant thirst for the Truth is one of the basic characteristics of his existence; not however for “pseudo-truths”, incapable of giving the heart lasting peace, but of that Truth that gives meaning to life and is the “dwelling-place” in which the heart finds serenity and joy. As we know, his was a far from easy journey: he thought he had found the Truth in prestige, in his career, in the possession of things, in the voices that promised him instant happiness; he committed faults, he experienced sorrows, he faced failures but he never stopped, he was never content with what only gave him a glimmer of light. He was able to look into the depths of his being and realized, as he wrote in Confessions, that the Truth, the God whom he sought with his own efforts was closer to him than he himself, that God had always been beside him, had never abandoned him, was waiting to be able to enter his life once and for all (cf. III, 6, 11; X, 27, 38). As I said in a comment on the film made recently about his life, Saint Augustine, in his restless seeking realized that it was not he who had found the Truth but that the Truth, who is God, had come after him and found him. Romano Guardini, commenting on a passage in the third chapter of Confessions said: “St Augustine understood that God is the “glory that brings us to our knees, drink that quenches our thirst, treasure that gives happiness… [he had] the pacifying certainty of those who have understood at last, but also the bliss of the love that knows: “this is everything and it is enough for me” (Pensatori religiosi, Brescia 2001, p. 177).

Again, in Confessions, in the ninth book, our Saint records a conversation with his mother, Saint Monica, whose Memorial is celebrated on Friday, the day after tomorrow. It is a very beautiful scene: he and his mother are at Ostia, at an inn, and from the window they see the sky and the sea, and they transcend the sky and the sea and for a moment touch God’s heart in the silence of created beings. And here a fundamental idea appears on the way towards the Truth: creatures must be silent, leaving space for the silence in which God can speak. This is still true in our day too. At times there is a sort of fear of silence, of recollection, of thinking of one’s own actions, of the profound meaning of one’s life. All too often people prefer to live only the fleeting moment, deceiving themselves that it will bring lasting happiness; they prefer to live superficially, without thinking, because it seems easier; they are afraid to seek the Truth or perhaps afraid that the Truth will find us, will take hold of us and change our life, as happened to Saint Augustine.

Dear brothers and sisters, I would like to say to all of you and also to those who are passing through a difficult moment in their journey of faith, to those who take little part in the life of the Church or who live “as though God did not exist” not to be afraid of the Truth, never to interrupt the journey towards it and never to stop searching for the profound truth about yourselves and other things with the inner eye of the heart. God will not fail to provide Light to see by and Warmth to make the heart feel that he loves us and wants to be loved.

May the intercession of the Virgin Mary, of Saint Augustine and of Saint Monica accompany us on this journey.

General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI, 18 August 2010 – Saint Pius the Tenth

Pope Saint Pius X, 1895Today I would like to reflect on my Predecessor, Saint Pius X whose liturgical Memorial we shall be celebrating next Saturday and to underline certain features that may be useful to both Pastors and faithful also in our time.

Giuseppe Sarto, that was his name, was born into a peasant family in Riese, Treviso, in 1835. After studying at the Seminary in Padua he was ordained a priest when he was 23 years old. He was first curate in Tombolo, then parish priest at Salzano and then canon of the Cathedral of Treviso with the offices of episcopal chancellor and spiritual director of the Diocesan Seminary. In these years of rich and generous pastoral experience, the future Pontiff showed that deep love for Christ and for the Church, that humility and simplicity and great charity to the needy which characterized his entire life. In 1884 he was appointed Bishop of Mantua, and in 1893, Patriarch of Venice. On 4 August 1903, he was elected Pope, a ministry he hesitated to accept since he did not consider himself worthy of such a lofty office.

Pius X’s Pontificate left an indelible mark on the Church’s history and was distinguished by a considerable effort for reform that is summed up in his motto: Instaurare Omnia in Christo, “To renew all things in Christ”. Indeed, his interventions involved various ecclesiastical contexts. From the outset he devoted himself to reorganizing the Roman Curia; he then began work on the Code of Canon Law which was promulgated by his Successor Benedict XV. He later promoted the revision of the studies and formation programme of future priests and founded various Regional Seminaries, equipped with good libraries and well-qualified teachers. Another important sector was that of the doctrinal formation of the People of God. Beginning in his years as parish priest, he himself had compiled a catechism and during his Episcopate in Mantua he worked to produce a single, if not universal catechism, at least in Italian. As an authentic Pastor he had understood that the situation in that period, due partly to the phenomenon of emigration, made necessary a catechism to which every member of the faithful might refer, independently of the place in which he lived and of his position. As Pontiff, he compiled a text of Christian doctrine for the Diocese of Rome that was later disseminated throughout Italy and the world. Because of its simple, clear, precise language and effective explanations, this “Pius X Catechism”, as it was called, was a reliable guide to many in learning the truths of the faith.

Pius X paid considerable attention to the reform of the Liturgy and, in particular, of sacred music in order to lead the faithful to a life of more profound prayer and fuller participation in the Sacraments. In the Motu Proprio Tra le Sollecitudini (1903), the first year of his Pontificate, he said that the true Christian spirit has its first and indispensable source in active participation in the sacrosanct mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church (cf. AAS 36[1903], 531). For this reason he recommended that the Sacraments be received often, encouraging the daily reception of Holy Communion and appropriately lowering the age when children receive their First Communion “to about seven”, the age “when a child begins to reason” (cf. S. Congr. de Sacramentis, Decretum Quam Singulari: AAS 2 [1910] 582).

Faithful to the task of strengthening his brethren in the faith, in confronting certain trends that were manifest in the theological context at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, Pius X intervened decisively, condemning “Modernism” to protect the faithful from erroneous concepts and to foster a scientific examination of the Revelation consonant with the Tradition of the Church. On 7 May 1909, with his Apostolic Letter Vinea Electa, he founded the Pontifical Biblical Institute. The last months of his life were overshadowed by the impending war. His appeal to Catholics of the world, launched on 2 August 1914 to express the bitter pain of the present hour, was the anguished plea of a father who sees his children taking sides against each other. He died shortly afterwards, on 20 August, and the fame of his holiness immediately began to spread among the Christian people.

Dear brothers and sisters, Saint Pius X teaches all of us that at the root of our apostolic action in the various fields in which we work there must always be close personal union with Christ, to cultivate and to develop, day after day. This is the essence of all his teaching, of all his pastoral commitment. Only if we are in love with the Lord shall we be able to bring people to God and open them to his merciful love and thereby open the world to God’s mercy.

General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI, 4 August 2010 – Saint Tarcisius

Saint Tarcisius holy card, artist unknownI would like to express my joy at being here with you today in this Square, where you have gathered festively for this General Audience, attended by such large numbers of the great European pilgrimage for altar servers! Dear boys and girls and young people, welcome to Rome! Since the vast majority of the altar servers present in the Square are German-speaking, I shall speak to them first of all in my mother tongue.

Dear altar servers, dear friends, dear German-speaking pilgrims, welcome to Rome! I greet cordially all of you and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State. He is called “Tarcisio” like your Patron Saint. You have had the courtesy to invite him and he, who is called Tarcisius after the Saint, is happy to be able to be here among the world’s altar servers and the German altar servers. I greet my dear Brothers in the episcopate and in the Priesthood, and the Deacons who have wished to take part in this Audience. I warmly thank Bishop Martin Gächter, Auxiliary of Basel, President of “Coetus Internationalis Ministrantium”, for his greeting to me, for the important gift of the statue of Saint Tarcisius and for the scarf he has given me. It all reminds me of the time when I too was an altar boy. I also thank Bishop Gächter on your behalf for the great work he carries out among you. I likewise thank your co-workers and all who got together to make this joyful meeting possible. My gratitude also goes to the Swiss sponsors and to all who have worked in their various capacities to make the large statue of Saint Tarcisius a reality.

How many of you there are! While flying over Saint Peter’s Square in the helicopter I saw all the colours and the joy filling this Square! Thus not only do you create a festive atmosphere in the Square but you also fill my heart with joy! Thank you! The statue of Saint Tarcisius has come to us after a long pilgrimage. In September 2008 it was unveiled in Switzerland in the presence of 8.000 altar servers; some of you were certainly present. From Switzerland it travelled through Luxembourg on the way to Hungary. Let us greet it festively today, glad at being able to become better acquainted with this figure of the early Church. Later, as Bishop Gächter told us, the statue will be taken to the Catacombs of Saint Calixtus, where Saint Tarcius was buried. The hope that I express to all is that this place, namely the Catacombs of Saint Calixtus, and this statue, may become a reference point for altar servers, boys and girls, and for all who wish to follow Jesus more closely through the priestly, religious or missionary life. May they all be able to look at this strong and courageous boy and renew their commitment to friendship with the Lord, to learn to live with him always, following the path he points out to us with his word and the witness of so many Saints and Martyrs whose brothers and sisters we have become through Baptism.

Who was Saint Tarcisius? We do not have much information about him. We are dealing with the early centuries of the Church’s history or, to be more precise, with the third century. It is said that he was a boy who came regularly to the Catacombs of Saint Calixtus here in Rome and took his special Christian duties very seriously. He had great love for the Eucharist and various hints lead us to conclude that he was presumably an acolyte, that is, an altar server. Those were years in which the Emperor Valerian was harshly persecuting Christians who were forced to meet secretly in private houses or, at times, also in the Catacombs, to hear the word of God, to pray and to celebrate Holy Mass. Even the custom of taking the Eucharist to prisoners and the sick became increasingly dangerous. One day, when, as was his habit, the priest asked who was prepared to take the Eucharist to the other brothers and sisters who were waiting for it, young Tarcisius stood up and said: “send me!”. This boy seemed too young for such a demanding service! “My youth”, Tarcisius said, “will be the best shield for the Eucharist”. Convinced, the priest entrusted to him the precious Bread, saying: “Tarcisius, remember that a heavenly treasure has been entrusted to your weak hands. Avoid crowded streets and do not forget that holy things must never be thrown to dogs nor pearls to pigs. Will you guard the Sacred Mysteries faithfully and safely?”. “I would die”, Tarcisio answered with determination, “rather than let go of them”. As he went on his way he met some friends who approached him and asked him to join them. As pagans they became suspicious and insistent at his refusal and realized he was clasping something to his breast that he appeared to be protecting. They tried to prize it away from him, but in vain; the struggle became ever fiercer, especially when they realized that Tarcisius was a Christian; They kicked him, they threw stones at him, but he did not surrender. While Tarcisius was dying a Pretoria guard called Quadratus, who had also, secretly, become a Christian, carried him to the priest. Tarcisius was already dead when they arrived but was still clutching to his breast a small linen bag containing the Eucharist. He was buried straight away in the Catacombs of Saint Calixtus. Pope Damasus had an inscription carved on Saint Tarcisius’ grave; it says that the boy died in 257. The Roman Martyrology fixed the date as 15 August and in the same Martyrology a beautiful oral tradition is also recorded. It claims that the Most Blessed Sacrament was not found on Saint Tarcisius’ body, either in his hands or his clothing. It explains that the consecrated Host which the little Martyr had defended with his life, had become flesh of his flesh thereby forming, together with his body, a single immaculate Host offered to God.

Dear altar servers, Saint Tarcisius’ testimony and this beautiful tradition teach us the deep love and great veneration that we must have for the Eucharist: it is a precious good, a treasure of incomparable value; it is the Bread of life, it is Jesus himself who becomes our nourishment, support and strength on our daily journey and on the open road that leads to eternal life; the Eucharist is the greatest gift that Jesus bequeathed to us.

I am addressing those of you who are present here and, through you, all the altar servers of the world! Serve Jesus present in the Eucharist generously. It is an important task that enables you to be particularly close to the Lord and to grow in true and profound friendship with him. Guard this friendship in your hearts jealously, like Saint Tarcisius, ready to commit yourselves, to fight and to give your lives so that Jesus may reach all peoples. May you too communicate to your peers the gift of this friendship with joy, with enthusiasm, without fear, so that they may feel that you know this Mystery, that is true and that you love it! Every time that you approach the altar, you have the good fortune to assist in God’s great loving gesture as he continues to want to give himself to each one of us, to be close to us, to help us, to give us strength to live in the right way. With consecration, as you know, that little piece of bread becomes Christ’s Body, that wine becomes Christ’s Blood. You are lucky to be able to live this indescribable Mystery from close at hand! Do your task as altar servers with love, devotion and faithfulness; do not enter a church for the celebration with superficiality but rather, prepare yourselves inwardly for Holy Mass! Assisting your priests in service at the altar helps to make Jesus closer, so that people can understand, can realize better: he is here. You collaborate to make him more present in the world, in every day life, in the Church and everywhere. Dear friends! You lend Jesus your hands, your thoughts, your time. He will not fail to reward you, giving you true joy and enabling you to feel where the fullest happiness is. Saint Tarcisius has shown us that love can even bring us to give our life for an authentic good, for the true good, for the Lord.

Martyrdom will probably not be required of us, but Jesus asks of us fidelity in small things, inner recollection, inner participation, our faith and our efforts to keep this treasure present in every day life. He asks of us fidelity in daily tasks, a witness to his love, going to church through inner conviction and for the joy of his presence. Thus we can also make known to our friends that Jesus is alive. May Saint John Mary Vianney’s intercession help us in this commitment. Today is the liturgical Memorial of this humble French Parish Priest who changed a small community and thus gave the world a new light. May the example of Saint Tarcisius and Saint John Mary Vianney impel us every day to love Jesus and to do his will, as did the Virgin Mary, faithful to her Son to the end. Thank you all once again! May God bless you in these days and I wish you a good journey home!

General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI, 7 July 2010 – Blessed John Duns Scotus

Blessed John Duns ScotusThis morning, after several Catecheses on various great theologians, I would like to present to you another important figure in the history of theology. He is Blessed John Duns Scotus, who lived at the end of the 13th century. An ancient epitaph on his tombstone sums up the geographical coordinates of his biography: “Scotland bore me, England received me, France taught me, Cologne in Germany holds me”. We cannot disregard this information, partly because we know very little about the life of Duns Scotus. He was probably born in 1266 in a village called, precisely, “Duns”, near Edinburgh. Attracted by the charism of Saint Francis of Assisi, he entered the Family of the Friars Minor and was ordained a priest in 1291. He was endowed with a brilliant mind and a tendency for speculation which earned him the traditional title of Doctor subtilis, “Subtle Doctor”. Duns Scotus was oriented to the study of philosophy and theology at the famous Universities of Oxford and of Paris. Having successfully completed his training, he embarked on teaching theology at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and then of Paris, beginning by commenting, like all the bachelors of theology of his time, on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Indeed, Duns Scotus’ main works are the mature fruit of these lessons and take the name of the places where he taught: Ordinatio (called in the past Opus Oxoniense – Oxford), Reportatio Cantabrigiensis (Cambridge), Reportata Parisiensia (Paris). One can add to these at least the Quodlibeta (or Quaestiones quodlibetales), a quite important work consisting of 21 questions on various theological subjects. Duns Scotus distanced himself from Paris, after a serious dispute broke out between King Philip IV the Fair and Pope Boniface VIII, rather than sign a document hostile to the Supreme Pontiff as the King requested of all religious, preferring voluntary exile. Thus he left the country, together with the Franciscan Friars, out of love for the See of Peter.

Dear brothers and sisters, this event invites us to remember how often in the history of the Church believers have met with hostility and even suffered persecution for their fidelity and devotion to Christ, to the Church and to the Pope. We all look with admiration at these Christians who teach us to treasure as a precious good faith in Christ and communion with the Successor of Peter, hence with the universal Church.

However, friendly relations between the King of France and the Successor of Boniface VIII were soon restored and in 1305 Duns Scotus was able to return to Paris to lecture on theology with the title of Magister regens [regent master], now we would say “Professor”. Later his Superiors sent him to Cologne as Professor of the Franciscan Studium of Theology, but he died on 8 November 1308 when he was only 43 years old, leaving nevertheless a consistent opus.

Because of the fame of his holiness, his cult soon became widespread in the Franciscan Order and Venerable Pope John Paul II, wishing to confirm it, solemnly beatified him on 20 March 1993, describing him as the “minstrel of the Incarnate Word and defender of Mary’s Immaculate Conception” (Solemn Vespers, Saint Peter’s Basilica; L’Osservatore Romano [ore] English edition, n.3, 24 March 1993, p. 1). These words sum up the important contribution that Duns Scotus made to the history of theology.

First of all he meditated on the Mystery of the Incarnation and, unlike many Christian thinkers of the time, held that the Son of God would have been made man even if humanity had not sinned. He says in his “Reportatio Parisiensis”: “To think that God would have given up such a task had Adam not sinned would be quite unreasonable! I say, therefore, that the fall was not the cause of Christ’s predestination and that if no one had fallen, neither the angel nor man in this hypothesis Christ would still have been predestined in the same way” (in III Sent., d. 7, 4). This perhaps somewhat surprising thought crystallized because, in the opinion of Duns Scotus the Incarnation of the Son of God, planned from all eternity by God the Father at the level of love is the fulfilment of creation and enables every creature, in Christ and through Christ, to be filled with grace and to praise and glorify God in eternity. Although Duns Scotus was aware that in fact, because of original sin, Christ redeemed us with his Passion, Death and Resurrection, he reaffirmed that the Incarnation is the greatest and most beautiful work of the entire history of salvation, that it is not conditioned by any contingent fact but is God’s original idea of ultimately uniting with himself the whole of creation, in the Person and Flesh of the Son.

As a faithful disciple of Saint Francis, Duns Scotus liked to contemplate and preach the Mystery of the saving Passion of Christ, as the expression of the loving will, of the immense love of God who reaches out with the greatest generosity, irradiating his goodness and love (cf. Tractatus de primo principio, c. 4). Moreover this love was not only revealed on Calvary but also in the Most Blessed Eucharist, for which Duns Scotus had a very deep devotion and which he saw as the Sacrament of the Real Presence of Jesus and as the Sacrament of unity and communion that induces us to love each other and to love God, as the Supreme Good we have in common (cf. Reportatio Parisiensis, in IV Sent., d. 8, q. 1, n. 3). As I wrote in my Letter for the International Congress in Cologne marking the seventh centenary of the death of Blessed Duns Scotus, citing the thought of our author: “just as this love, this charity, was at the origin of all things, so too our eternal happiness will be in love and charity alone: ‘willing, or the loving will, is simply eternal life, blessed and perfect'” (AAS 101 [2009], 5).

Dear brothers and sisters, this strongly “Christocentric” theological vision opens us to contemplation, wonder and gratitude: Christ is the centre of history and of the cosmos, it is he who gives meaning, dignity and value to our lives! As Pope Paul VI proclaimed in Manila, I too would like to cry out to the world: [Christ] “reveals the invisible God, he is the firstborn of all creation, the foundation of everything created. He is the Teacher of mankind, and its Redeemer. He was born, he died and he rose again for us. He is the centre of history and of the world; he is the one who knows us and who loves us; he is the companion and the friend of our life…. I could never finish speaking about him” (Homily, Mass at Quezon Circle, Manila; 29 November 1970).

Not only Christ’s role in the history of salvation but also that of Mary is the subject of the Doctor subtilis’ thought. In the times of Duns Scotus the majority of theologians countered with an objection that seemed insurmountable, the doctrine which holds that Mary Most Holy was exempt from original sin from the very first moment of her conception: in fact, at first sight the universality of the Redemption brought about by Christ might seem to be jeopardized by such a statement, as though Mary had had no need of Christ or his redemption. Therefore the theologians opposed this thesis. Thus, to enable people to understand this preservation from original sin Duns Scotus developed an argument that was later, in 1854, also to be used by Blessed Pope Pius IX when he solemnly defined the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. And this argument is that of “preventive Redemption”, according to which the Immaculate Conception is the masterpiece of the Redemption brought about by Christ because the very power of his love and his mediation obtained that the Mother be preserved from original sin. Therefore Mary is totally redeemed by Christ, but already before her conception. Duns Scotus’ confreres, the Franciscans, accepted and spread this doctrine enthusiastically and other theologians, often with a solemn oath, strove to defend and perfect it.

In this regard I would like to highlight a fact that I consider relevant. Concerning the teaching on the Immaculate Conception, important theologians like Duns Scotus enriched what the People of God already spontaneously believed about the Blessed Virgin and expressed in acts of devotion, in the arts and in Christian life in general with the specific contribution of their thought. Thus faith both in the Immaculate Conception and in the bodily Assumption of the Virgin was already present in the People of God, while theology had not yet found the key to interpreting it in the totality of the doctrine of the faith. The People of God therefore precede theologians and this is all thanks to that supernatural sensus fidei, namely, that capacity infused by the Holy Spirit that qualifies us to embrace the reality of the faith with humility of heart and mind. In this sense, the People of God is the “teacher that goes first” and must then be more deeply examined and intellectually accepted by theology. May theologians always be ready to listen to this source of faith and retain the humility and simplicity of children! I mentioned this a few months ago saying: “There have been great scholars, great experts, great theologians, teachers of faith who have taught us many things. They have gone into the details of Sacred Scripture… but have been unable to see the mystery itself, its central nucleus…. The essential has remained hidden!… On the other hand, in our time there have also been “little ones” who have understood this mystery. Let us think of Saint Bernadette Soubirous; of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, with her new interpretation of the Bible that is “non-scientific’ but goes to the heart of Sacred Scripture” (Homily, Mass for the Members of the International Theological Commission, Pauline Chapel, Vatican City, 1 December 2009).

Lastly, Duns Scotus has developed a point to which modernity is very sensitive. It is the topic of freedom and its relationship with the will and with the intellect. Our author underlines freedom as a fundamental quality of the will, introducing an approach that lays greater emphasis on the will. Unfortunately, in later authors, this line of thinking turned into a voluntarism, in contrast to the so-called “Augustinian and Thomist intellectualism”. For Saint Thomas Aquinas, who follows Saint Augustine, freedom cannot be considered an innate quality of the will, but, the fruit of the collaboration of the will and the mind. Indeed, an idea of innate and absolute freedom – as it evolved, precisely, after Duns Scotus – placed in the will that precedes the intellect, both in God and in man, risks leading to the idea of a God who would not even be bound to truth and good. The wish to save God’s absolute transcendence and diversity with such a radical and impenetrable accentuation of his will does not take into account that the God who revealed himself in Christ is the God “Logos”, who acted and acts full of love for us. Of course, as Duns Scotus affirms, love transcends knowledge and is capable of perceiving ever better than thought, but it is always the love of the God who is “Logos” (cf. Benedict XVI, Address at the University of Regensburg, 12 September 2006). In the human being too, the idea of absolute freedom, placed in the will, forgetting the connection with the truth, does not know that freedom itself must be liberated from the limits imposed on it by sin. All the same, the Scotist vision does not fall into these extremes: for Duns Scotus a free act is the result of the concourse of intellect and will, and if he speaks of a “primacy” of the will, he argues this precisely because the will always follows the intellect.

In speaking to Roman seminarians last year I recalled that “Since the beginning and throughout all time but especially in the modern age freedom has been the great dream of humanity” (Discourse at the Roman Major Seminary, 20 February 2009). Indeed, in addition to our own daily experience, modern history actually teaches us that freedom is authentic and helps with building a truly human civilization only when it is reconciled with truth. If freedom is detached from truth, it becomes, tragically, a principle of the destruction of the human person’s inner harmony, a source of prevarication of the strongest and the violent and a cause of suffering and sorrow. Freedom, like all the faculties with which the human being is endowed, increases and is perfected, Duns Scotus says, when the human being is open to God, making the most of the disposition to listen to his voice: when we listen to divine Revelation, to the word of God in order to accept it, a message reaches us that fills our life with light and hope and we are truly free.

Dear brothers and sisters, Blessed Duns Scotus teaches us that in our life the essential is to believe that God is close to us and loves us in Jesus Christ, and therefore to cultivate a deep love for him and for his Church. We on earth are witnesses of this love. May Mary Most Holy help us to receive this infinite love of God which we will enjoy eternally to the full in Heaven, when our soul is at last united to God for ever in the Communion of Saints.

General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI, 30 June 2010 – Saint Joseph Cafasso

Saint Joseph CafassoWe have just come to the end of the Year for Priests: a time of grace that has yielded and will yield precious fruits for the Church; an opportunity to remember in prayer all those who have responded to this particular calling. The Curé d’Ars and other holy priests have accompanied us on this journey as models and intercessors, true beacons in the history of the Church. Today, as I announced last Wednesday, I would like to recall another of them, who stands out from the group of “social saints” of Turin in the 19th century: it is Saint Joseph Cafasso.

It seems appropriate to remember him because exactly a week ago was the 150th anniversary of his death in the Piedmontese capital on 23 June 1860, when he was 49 years old. In addition, I would like to recall that on 1 November 1924, in approving the miracles for the canonization of Saint John Mary Vianney and publishing the Decree authorizing the beatification of Cafasso, Pius XI juxtaposed these two priestly figures with the following words: “Not without a special and beneficial disposition of Divine Goodness have we witnessed new stars rising on the horizon of the Catholic Church: the parish priest of Ars and the Venerable Servant of God, Joseph Cafasso. These two beautiful, beloved, providently timely figures must be presented today; one, the parish priest of Ars, as small and humble, poor and simple as he was glorious; and the other, a beautiful, great, complex and rich figure of a priest, the educator and formation teacher of priests, Venerable Joseph Cafasso”. These circumstances give us the opportunity to know the living and timely message that emerges from the life of this Saint. He was not a parish priest like the Curé d’Ars but was above all a formation teacher of parish and diocesan priests, indeed of holy priests such as Saint John Bosco. He did not found religious institutes like the other Piedmontese priests of the 19th century because his “foundation” was the “school of priestly life and holiness”, which he achieved with his example and teaching in the “Convitto Ecclesiastico di S. Francesco d’Assisi” [College-Residence for Clerics of Saint Francis of Assisi], in Turin.

Joseph Cafasso was born in Castelnuovo d’Asti, the same village in which Saint John Bosco was born, on 15 January 1811. He was the third of four children. The last, his sister Marianna, was to be the mother of Blessed Joseph Allamano, Founder of the Consolata Missionary Fathers and the Consolata Missionary Sisters. He was born in 19th-century Piedmont, marked by serious social problems but also by many Saints who strove to find remedies for them. These Saints were bound to each other by total love of Christ and by their profound charity for the poorest people. The grace of the Lord can spread and multiply the seeds of holiness! Cafasso completed his secondary school studies and the two years of philosophy at the College of Chieri and, in 1839, went on to the theological seminary where he was ordained a priest in 1833. Four months later he entered what for him was to be the fundamental and only “stage” in his priestly life: the “Convitto Ecclesiastico di S. Francesco d’Assisi” in Turin. Having entered it to perfect himself in pastoral ministry, it was here that he brought to fruition his gifts as a spiritual director and his great spirit of charity. The “Convitto” was in fact not only a school of moral theology where young priests, who came mainly from the countryside, learned how to become confessors and how to preach but was also a true and proper school of priestly life, where priests were formed in the spirituality of Saint Ignatius of Loyola and in the moral and pastoral theology of the great holy Bishop Saint Alphonsus Mary de’ Liguori. The type of priest that Cafasso met at the “Convitto” and that he himself helped to strengthen especially as Rector was that of the true pastor with a rich inner life and profound zeal in pastoral care, faithful to prayer, committed to preaching and to catechesis, dedicated to the celebration of the Eucharist and to the ministry of Confession, after the model embodied by Saint Charles Borromeo and Saint Francis de Sales and promoted by the Council of Trent. A felicitous saying of Saint John Bosco sums up the meaning of educational work in that community: “at the “Convitto’ men learn to be priests”.

Saint Joseph Cafasso sought to bring this model into being in the formation of the young priests so that, in turn, they might become the formation teachers of other priests, religious and lay people, forming a special and effective chain. From his chair of moral theology he taught them to be good confessors and spiritual directors, concerned for the true spiritual good of people, motivated equally by a desire to make God’s mercy felt and, by an acute and lively sense of sin. Cafasso the teacher had three main virtues, as Saint John Bosco recalled: calmness, wisdom and prudence. For him the test of the lessons taught was the ministry of Confession, to which he himself devoted many hours of the day. Bishops, priests, religious, eminent laymen and women and simple people sought him. He was able to give them all the time they needed. He was also a wise spiritual counsellor to many who became Saints and founders of religious institutes. His teaching was never abstract, nor based exclusively on the books that were used in that period. Rather, it was born from the living experience of God’s mercy and the profound knowledge of the human soul that he acquired in the long hours he spent in the confessional and in spiritual direction: his was a real school of priestly life.

His secret was simple: to be a man of God; to do in small daily actions “what can result in the greater glory of God and the advantage of souls”. He loved the Lord without reserve, he was enlivened by a firmly-rooted faith, supported by profound and prolonged prayer and exercised in sincere charity to all. He was versed in moral theology but was likewise familiar with the situation and hearts of people, of whose good he took charge as the good pastor that he was. Those who had the grace to be close to him were transformed into as many good pastors and sound confessors. He would point out clearly to all priests the holiness to achieve in their own pastoral ministry. Blessed Fr Clement Marchisio, Founder of the Daughters of Saint Joseph, declared: “You entered the “Convitto’ as a very mischievous, thoughtless youth, with no idea of what it meant to be a priest; and you came out entirely different, fully aware of the dignity of the priest”. How many priests were trained by him at the “Convitto”, and then accompanied by him spiritually! Among them as I have said emerges Saint John Bosco who had him as his spiritual director for a good 25 years, from 1835 to 1860: first as a seminarian, then as a priest and lastly as a Founder. In all the fundamental decisions of his life Saint John Bosco had Saint Joseph Cafasso to advise him, but in a very specific way: Cafasso never sought to form Don Bosco as a disciple “in his own image and likeness”, and Don Bosco did not copy Cafasso; he imitated Cafasso’s human and priestly virtues, certainly and described him as “a model of priestly life” but according to his own personal disposition and his own specific vocation; a sign of the wisdom of the spiritual teacher and of the intelligence of the disciple: the former did not impose himself on the latter but respected his personality and helped him to interpret God’s will for him. Dear friends, this is a valuable lesson for all who are involved in the formation and education of the young generations and also a strong reminder of how important it is to have a spiritual guide in one’s life, who helps one to understand what God expects of each of us. Our Saint declared with simplicity and depth: “All a person’s holiness, perfection and profit lies in doing God’s will perfectly…. Happy are we if we succeed in pouring out our heart into God’s, in uniting our desires and our will to his to the point that one heart and one will are formed: wanting what God wants, wanting in the way, in the time and in the circumstances that he desires and willing it all for no other reason than that God wills it”.

However, another element characterizes the ministry of our Saint: attention to the least and in particular to prisoners who in 19th-century Turin lived in inhumane and dehumanizing conditions. In this sensitive service too, which he carried out for more than 20 years, he was always a good, understanding and compassionate pastor: qualities perceived by the prisoners who ended up by being won over by his sincere love, whose origin lay in God himself. Cafasso’s simple presence did good: it reassured, it moved hearts hardened by the events of life and above all it enlightened and jolted indifferent consciences. In his early prison ministry he often had recourse to great sermons that managed to involve almost the entire population of the prison. As time passed, he gave priority to plain catechesis in conversation and in personal meetings. Respectful of each individual’s affairs, he addressed the important topics of Christian life, speaking of trust in God, of adherence to his will, of the usefulness of prayer and of the sacraments whose goal is Confession, the encounter with God who makes himself infinite mercy for us. Those condemned to death were the object of very special human and spiritual care. He accompanied to the scaffold 57 of the men sentenced to death, having heard their confession and having administered the Eucharist to them. He accompanied them with deep love until the last breath of their earthly existence.

Joseph Cafasso died on 23 June 1860, after a life offered entirely to the Lord and spent for his neighbour. My Predecessor, the Venerable Servant of God Pope Pius XII, proclaimed him Patron of Italian prisons on 9 April 1948, and, with his Apostolic Exhortation Menti Nostrae, on 23 September 1950 held him up as a model to priests engaged in Confession and in spiritual direction.

Dear brothers and sisters, may Saint Joseph Cafasso’s example serve as a reminder to all to hasten towards the perfection of Christian life, towards holiness. In particular, may this Saint remind priests of the importance of devoting time to the sacrament of Reconciliation and to spiritual direction, and to all the concern we should have for the most deprived. May we find help in the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom Saint Joseph Cafasso was very devoted and whom he called “Our beloved Mother, our consolation, our hope”.