Letter from Fr Paul – 8 November 2020, Thirty-Second Sunday of the Year

8 Nov

Dear All,

A number of people asked if in the event of another lockdown I would resume writing a weekly letter. So here it is. We are told it will be only for a month.

The Cardinal and some of our Bishops and also the Archbishop of Canterbury have appealed to the Prime Minister that churches should remain open for public worship. They have argued that public worship is vital to the life of the country and also that our churches with the rigorous measures we have put in place are certainly among the cleanest and safest places to be. Of course, it is also our duty to worship God in public because Christ is King and Lord of all and the whole universe is subject to Him.

On Wednesday I celebrated the last public Mass at St Mary’s before lockdown and it happened to be the feast of St Charles Borromeo (1538-84) which seemed very apt because he was Archbishop of Milan during the plague of 1576-78. This epidemic became known as the “St Charles Plague” because of the heroic way he responded to it.

St Charles Borromeo

Charles was born into a noble family in Milan in 1538 and his uncle, Cardinal Medici, became Pope Pius IV who made him a Cardinal before he was even ordained a priest so as he could administer the diocese of Milan. To be made a Cardinal before ordination was quite common in those times. Charles was then ordained at the age of 25 and he quickly became Archbishop of Milan and played a major role in the Council of Trent, which was basically the Catholic Church’s answer to the Reformation. The Council upheld Catholic teaching and decreed various reforms which St Charles vigorously implemented in Milan, including the proper education of priests, the importance of caring for the poor and he insisted on far greater reverence during the Mass.

When the plague broke out in Milan in 1576 Charles was attending a funeral of a bishop elsewhere, but when he heard the news, instead of keeping away he immediately returned to his Cathedral in Milan and begged God for mercy. Then without further ado, he went to the centre of the outbreak. When he finally got home he found officials waiting for him asking him to take charge of the situation since all the city’s leaders had fled!

The authorities out of fear of contagion had already forbidden public processions and religious ceremonies, and so many souls were being deprived of the Sacraments. St Charles said that it was because of this that the wrath of God had been called down upon Milan. Therefore, he told the officials that the only cure was to pray and do penance with greater fervour than before. 

Charles went out every day to visit the sick and dying and offered himself as a victim for the sins of his people. Although there were many priests in Milan, there were problems with their ministering to the dying, since many parishioners wouldn’t let their priests near them until the passage of time had shown they had remained healthy. Many priests in Milan went into hiding, fearing they might catch the disease. And so St Charles told them, “Do not be so forgetful of your priesthood as to prefer a late death to a holy one.” 

He went to the monasteries and asked the priests there for help. Many responded positively and heroically served the sick. After the plague subsided, not one of Charles’ companions had died, whereas many of those who refused to help had. But he also advised his priests not to “neglect human means, such as preventatives, remedies, doctors, everything that you can use to keep off infection, for such means are in no way opposed to our doing our duty.” He also said, “From the beginning I resolved to place myself entirely in God’s hands, without however despising ordinary remedies.” He issued many guidelines telling the faithful not to gather in crowds and to avoid contact with each other. Masses were held outdoors if the church was too small and he ordered more Masses be celebrated. Catechism classes were held on street corners. 

He told everyone to “take the plague of the soul into consideration more than the contagion of the body which, for many reasons, is less pernicious.” St Charles insisted on public prayer and penance. Ashes were constantly distributed. There were three processions a week during which he walked barefoot wearing a thick penitential cord around his neck. 

St Charles set up nineteen columns throughout the city where public Masses were celebrated every morning. This allowed the sick to attend Mass every day and the priests would distribute Holy Communion to all the victims of the plague through their windows. He was concerned chiefly for the spiritual welfare of his flock.

An engraving depicting St  Charles Borromeo ministering to the sick, circa 1880

By Christmas of 1577, the plague had become less widespread. Seventeen thousand people had died in Milan out of a population of one hundred and twenty thousand. However, in Venice which is a much smaller city, forty thousand people died in the same two years.  Why had Milan been spared from a greater loss? 

According to St Charles, “Not by our prudence, which was caught asleep. Not by science of the doctors who could not discover the sources of the contagion, much less a cure. Not by the care of those in authority who abandoned the city. No, my dear children, but only by the mercy of God.” 

St Charles died in 1584 at the young age of 46 having exhausted himself working in the vineyard of the Lord. His heart is preserved in the Basilica of San Carlo al Corso in Rome, which is cared for by the Rosminian Fathers.

The Altar with the relic of the incorrupt heart of St Charles Borromeo in Rome

Cardinal Vincent Nichols said on Radio 4 last Thursday that he expected the Government will soon abandon its ban on public worship. I think he is working hard behind the scenes. Let us pray through the intercession of St Charles Borromeo that this will come about quickly.

God bless you all.

Fr Paul

Letter from Fr Paul – 30 August 2020, 22nd Sunday of the Year

31 Aug

Dear All,

JESUS says in today’s Gospel, “If anyone wants to be a follower of Mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). And St Paul also says, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 22-23).

St Helena, (ca 248-330) who was the mother of the Emperor Constantine (272-337) went searching for the True Cross on which Our Lord was crucified because she recognised its power. Constantine, who at the time was a pagan had prayed to the True God to give him a sign of victory against his enemies. And so he saw a sign in the sky of a cross with the words “In hoc signo vinces” which means, “In this sign you shall conquer.” So Constantine put the Cross on his standard and shields and then marched into battle.  He was victorious at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 and went on from there to conquer all of the Roman Empire, east and west. This was the beginning of Christendom, because he ended the persecution against Christianity and made Catholicism the official religion of the Roman Empire. So recognising the power of the Cross, his mother St Helena went to Jerusalem to find the actual Cross on which Our Lord was crucified.


“Discovery of the True Cross” by Agnolo Gaddi, (1350-1396)

Pagan emperors years before had purposely piled masses of soil and rubble over Mount Calvary and built a pagan temple to prevent any Christians from worshipping at these holy sites. When St Helena arrived, being the mother of the Emperor, she ordered all the soil and rubble be taken out so that the Holy Places could be restored. After a lot of digging they came upon three crosses, but there was no sign on any of them.  Assuming that one was the True Cross and the other two belonged to the thieves crucified alongside Christ, a woman dying from a terminal disease was brought to the spot. She touched the crosses, one by one and after she touched the third cross, she was cured, thereby identifying the True Cross.

St Helena who found the True Cross

The Cross of Christ brings life because it has defeated death and the devil. The Cross is the instrument of salvation and it was chosen as such by God from all eternity. Just as the fall of Adam took place next to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so it would be by another tree, the Cross, that the Second Adam (JESUS) would bring salvation to this fallen world. The Cross of Christ was also pre-figured by Noah’s Ark which was made of wood. Just as those inside the Ark were saved from the flood, so we are saved from the shipwreck of sin and arrive safely at the port of Heaven by the Cross of Christ.

And so Our Lord tells us to take up our cross daily and follow Him. It is not only military battles that have been won through the Cross, but spiritual ones too thereby saving many souls. Just as Our Lord, the Head of the Mystical Body was victorious through the Cross, so we too who are members of His Mystical Body – the Catholic Church, must also gain victory through the Cross.

The best way for the Cross to touch us is through the Sacraments because we are given a share in the victory of Calvary when we receive them. At Baptism we are marked with the Sign of the Cross several times which signifies that our faith above all is a faith of the Holy Cross. When we are anointed with the Oil of Chrism at Confirmation to make us Soldiers of Christ we are again marked with the Sign of the Cross.

At Baptism we are marked several times with the Sign of the Cross

But there are other ways the Cross can come into our lives too: the pains and sufferings of life which we can offer up. We need to realise that crosses must come into our lives because they will save us. This is why God permits them. They can come in many forms: pain, grief at the death of a loved one, misunderstandings among friends and in families, financial problems and so on. This is all due to Original Sin – the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. If there had been no Original Sin there would be no suffering. There would be no death, disease or sickness in the world. But God permits these things because He knows He can bring a greater good out of it. The greater the struggles you have, the greater the graces and the victories will be. So let us use these struggles as a weapon to save our souls and those of others. Sickness and infirmities borne patiently can help us atone for our own sins and for those of others.

Connected to all this is what we call “Victim Souls”. A victim soul is a person especially called by God to sacrifice and suffer in union with Him for the conversion of souls, and in reparation for the sins of mankind. In other words, their mission is to lead souls to God. Examples would be St Faustina and St Padre Pio.

St Padre Pio bore the stigmata (wounds of Christ) for 50 years

There are so many sins in the world today, those of the ignorant and also those committed with malice by people who hate God, and then there are the infidelities of all of us. They all deserve God’s punishment. But God has given us two great means of averting this: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the voluntary expiation of sins made by generous souls. St Gemma Galgani (1878-1903) received the wounds of the Passion on her body which bled every Thursday and Friday. They would then disappear and return again the following week. In 1900 Our Lord said to her, “Victims of expiation are needed for the sins of the world. If only you could let the whole world know how incensed My Father is at the world. Even now He is preparing a severe chastisement for the whole human race.” The fulfilment of this prophecy was more than likely the First World War. We, by offering up our sufferings and trials can do the same, even though we are probably not called upon to do so to the same degree as these great saints did.

St Gemma Galgani

This is a huge topic, but one final point I would like to mention now, and hopefully it will be a reassuring one, is that if you have much to suffer, it is a sign that God has a high degree of glory planned for you in Heaven. If you have many crosses to bear in spite of the fact you have tried hard to lead a good life and love God above all else, it is a great sign for you for eternity. Just as some stars are more brilliant than others, so the saints in Heaven have different degrees of glory. Those who converted just before death will no doubt have a lower degree of glory than those who led lives of heroic virtue. Now suppose God has planned for you a very high place in Heaven, but you don’t have the inclination or will to attain it and you are content with avoiding any serious sins, you say your prayers, attend Mass and do many good works. But that is not enough for what God intends for you. So He uses the Cross – this could be pain, tribulation, temptation and sickness. God is preparing you now for a marvelous glory He has prepared for you in Heaven. Just as the vine has to be pruned year after year to bear really good fruit, so our souls need pruning and refining to be worthy to take our place among the highest choirs of the angels and saints. By our own efforts we cannot attain this, and so God purifies and refines us by sending us crosses and sufferings. Let us always remember the words of St Paul, no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

God bless you all.

Fr Paul

Letter from Fr Paul – 23 August 2020, 21st Sunday of the Year

23 Aug

Dear All,

Inscribed around the inside of the Dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome in Latin in letters six feet high are the words of Our Lord to Simon Peter from today’s Gospel: “Tu  es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam.” “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church.” (Matthew 16:18).

The inscription inside the Dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. “Tu es Petrus”

This is the promise of the Primacy to Peter, and we believe that this is not only a primacy of honour but also of jurisdiction. Peter received from Our Lord supreme authority to teach and govern the whole Church. And Peter has a line of successors in this who we call the Popes. Pope Francis is the 266th Successor of St Peter.

Peter’s name to begin with was Simon and it was Our Lord who changed it. “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter) (John 1:42) and Peter means rock. Whenever someone’s name is changed in Scripture, it signifies a new vocation. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel and so on. Peter is going to be the foundation of the Church Christ will found. “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church.” So Our Lord compares His Church to a house that is built on a rock which will give it stability and which will be its foundation, and that rock is Peter. Note here that JESUS says Church (singular) and not churches. The Church is His Body and He cannot have many bodies. There is only one Church – the Catholic Church which is founded on a single man who is to have divine assistance, and that man is Peter. There is a famous phrase coined by St Ambrose of Milan (ca. 340-397) in the Fourth Century: “Ubi Petrus ibi ecclesia.” “Where Peter is, there is the Church.”

Our Lord also gives Peter the “Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven” or the keys of the Church.  Keys were regarded by the Jews as a symbol of ownership or supreme authority so that he who holds the keys is the master of the house. Therefore Peter is to be the ruler of the Church. He is also given the power of binding and loosing. Whatever Peter commands or forbids, he does it in the name of Christ. The keys are the symbol of the Papacy and you can see the crossed keys on the notice board outside our church.

“The Delivery of the Keys” by Pietro Perugino, (ca 1446-1523)

As I have said above, this was the occasion of the promise of the Primacy, but the conferral of the Primacy took place after the Resurrection when three times Our Lord asked Peter if he loved Him and three times Peter replied in the affirmative. JESUS said, “Feed My lambs, feed My sheep.” (John 21:15-17). Our Lord here gives Peter complete jurisdiction over the Universal Church. JESUS said of Himself, “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11) and He is now delegating that authority to Peter.

Peter might seem an extraordinary choice on Our Lord’s part to be the visible Head of the Church on earth. After all, he denied three times that he even knew Him and Our Lord had prophesied this. He said to Peter, “But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32). And St Paul tells us, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (1 Cor. 1:27) And we should not assume that these powers given to Peter were to end with him. The powers are transferred to his successors – the Popes. St Peter was the first Pope. The Pope has to guard the Deposit of Faith and feed the flock with the Truth. We believe that in order to do that, the Pope under certain conditions has the charism of infallibility. That is to prevent him from formally teaching error on faith and morals. I have already written about this in more detail in my letter of 28th June.

Just as an illustration of God protecting His Church from formally teaching error, Pope Sixtus V who reigned for just five years (1585-90) did much good in reforming the Church. But he made a grave mistake in trying to reform St Jerome’s translation of the Bible (Latin Vulgate) which was the official translation. At this time there were many versions of it in circulation so the Pope wanted to provide the best and most accurate version, particularly as Protestantism was really gaining ground at this time. So he got together a group of scholars which included St Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) and they began the revision process. Pope Sixtus didn’t like their work, abandoned the commission and decided to do it himself, something which was way above his intellectual ability. When he showed the Cardinals what he had done, it was full of errors, parts had been missed out and he had even added things in. This was a serious danger to the Church as Protestants would inevitably say the Pope thinks he is equal to God in changing His Word and would effectively be trying to correct the Holy Spirit. Needless to say there was huge opposition to the Pope’s plans from important theologians and scholars and Pope Sixtus was about to make shipwreck of the doctrine of infallibility. He was preparing to promulgate his work as the only official version of the Scriptures in the Catholic Church. The Papal Bull was already written, and copies of his new translation were already bound and delivered to all the Cardinals in Rome. It seemed nothing could stop him and all he had to do was to formally promulgate the Bull. But then he died. He had been in excellent health up to this point and had been one of the most active Popes ever. The advance copies were quietly withdrawn by the Cardinals and the Papal Bull never saw the light of day. Did God intervene and prevent Sixtus V from formally teaching error to the whole Church? Who knows, but his death prevented him from crossing that line.

The Church will also last till the end of time because “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18) and the Gospel must be preached to the ends of the earth and all brought into the Church which as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is His Body” (#846).

There have been many throughout history who have sought to destroy the Church and the Papacy, but they will always fail because of Christ’s promise that He would be with His Church until the end of time (Matthew 28:20).

Pope Pius VII

Napoleon Bonaparte (1768-1821) was a baptised Catholic but during much of his life made many threats against the Church and the Pope. In 1804 he insisted the Servant of God, Pope Pius VII (1742-1823) came to Paris to crown him as emperor. When the Pope arrived he was very badly treated and during the coronation ceremony Napoleon famously took the crown from the Pope’s hands and placed it on his own head! Afterwards he tried to bully the Pope into moving the Papacy to Paris so as he could control the Church to which the Pope replied, “How well you act comedy.” Napoleon was so furious that he tore a drawing of St Peter’s Basilica to shreds in front of the Pope declaring, “This is what I shall do to the Church – I will crush her utterly.” To this, Pius VII calmly replied, “Now you act tragedy.”

The Coronation of Napoleon in 1804  by Jacques-Louis David. Pope Pius VII is seated on the right

A few years later, in 1809, Napoleon seized the Papal States – these were territories in Italy which belonged to the Church. From that moment Napoleon’s fortunes changed. Four days later, he suffered his first major defeat in battle. Later on he had Pope Pius arrested which resulted in the Pope excommunicating him. Napoleon reacted, “Does he suppose the [weapons] will fall from the hands of my soldiers?” Strangely enough this is exactly what happened. When he invaded Russia he was forced to retreat during the brutal Russian winter, with many soldiers becoming so weak due to the cold they could no longer carry their weapons. Napoleon was eventually defeated and sent into exile. He sometimes amused himself by complaining about the Church and pretending any religion was superior to Catholicism, but he also begged the Pope to send him a Catholic chaplain, while also praising JESUS Christ as truly divine, and stating that “The nations of the earth pass away, and thrones fall to the ground; the Church alone remains.” Napoleon learned the hard way that Our Lord’s promise to Peter will never fail.

No one, and nothing, will ever overcome the Catholic Church. To sum it all up, the great Archbishop Venerable Fulton Sheen (1895-1979), speaking of the Church in the first person singular wrote:

“I have adapted myself to every form of government the world has ever known; I have lived with Caesars and kings, tyrants and dictators, parliaments and presidents, monarchies and republics. I have welcomed every advance of science, and were it not for me the great records of the pagan world would not have been preserved. It is true I have not changed my doctrine, but that is because ‘the doctrine is not mine but His that sent me.’ I have changed my garments, which belong to time, but not my Spirit, which belongs to eternity. In the course of my long life, I have seen so many modern ideas become unmodern, that I know I shall live to chant a requiem over the modern ideas of this day as I chanted it over the modern ideas of the last century.

I shall grow weak when my members become rich and cease to pray, but I shall never die. I shall be crucified as I was on Calvary, but I shall rise again. And finally when time shall be no more, and I shall have grown to my full stature, then shall I be taken into Heaven as the bride of my Head, Christ.”

May God bless you all.

Fr Paul

Pope Francis, Vicar of Christ and the 266th Successor of St Peter

Letter from Fr Paul – 15/16 August 2020, The Assumption of Our Lady

16 Aug

Dear All,

In St Peter’s Square on All Saints Day 1950, before a throng of Cardinals, Bishops and faithful from all over the world, Venerable Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) proclaimed ex cathedra the dogma of the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven. In doing so the Pope exercised the charism of infallibility. He said:

“By the authority of our Lord JESUS Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”

Venerable Pope Pius XII during the Proclamation of the Dogma in St Peter’s Square, 1st November 1950

And so within the lifetime of many of you reading this, a dogma which has been believed from the beginning of the Church and has been celebrated with great joy and solemnity throughout the centuries was finally proclaimed de fide (of the Faith) and must therefore be believed by all Catholics. By proclaiming this dogma, Pius XII put to rest any doubts about it, and also corrected any errors that may have existed in modern times about Mary.

Mary being taken up into Heaven by Guido Reni, 1575-1642

As we heard in the definition of Pius XII, when we say Our Lady was assumed into Heaven, we don’t just acknowledge that her soul was taken up into Heaven, as is the case with everyone else who has attained heavenly glory – but that at the end of her earthly life she was taken up soul and BODY into Heaven, her body suffering no decay. Death and corruption are the penalty of Original Sin. Mary was conceived without Original Sin and she committed no actual sins. She is the Immaculate Conception. Her whole life had been one continuous “yes” to God. “Be it done unto me according to Thy word” (Luke 1:38). The Pope didn’t indicate whether Mary had died as we don’t know for sure one way or the other. What is important is the fact she was taken up to Heaven body and soul. And in fact there is some difference between the Eastern and Western Churches as to how exactly it happened. The Eastern Churches actually refer to this feast as the “Dormition of Our Lady”. Dormition is a word for sleep and refers to her death, whereas the Western Church tends to portray her as being taken alive at once body and soul into Heaven, although there is a tradition in the West that she first died, was carried to her tomb by the Apostles and then three days later was taken up to Heaven. This is why the Pope said “having completed the course of her earthly life…” so it’s open to some interpretation.

Saint Maximus the Confessor (d.662) in The Life of the Virgin wrote down the story that long preceded him:

“The holy Apostles encircled the bed on which lay the Holy Theotokos’ [ie. the God-bearer’s] body. . . .They honoured it with hymns and praise. . . .Then the Apostles called on blessed Peter to deliver a funeral prayer. . . .He prayed, and immediately they wrapped in a holy shroud and anointed with myrrh the body that contained the uncontainable, the King and Creator of all things visible and invisible, and they laid it on a bed.”

The Dormition (falling asleep) of Our Lady by Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

It is also significant that whereas we have the tombs and relics of every Apostle and the bones of many early saints, there is no church that claims to have the body of Mary, and this is because it’s not on earth – it is in Heaven. Furthermore, references to the Feast of the Assumption as being believed from the time of the Apostles date back to the Fourth Century.

There is, however, Scriptural evidence as to the whereabouts of Mary’s body and soul. And the Church today gives us an important passage from the Apocalypse as our First Reading. “A great sign appeared in Heaven, a woman adorned with the sun, standing on the moon, and with the twelve stars on her head for a crown. She was pregnant and in labour, crying out aloud in the pangs of childbirth…” (12:1-2). Now the woman described is unquestionably Mary, because it is a beautiful woman who gives birth to a child who can be none other than JESUS. 

Furthermore, the first line of this reading also refers to the “Ark of the Covenant” which is one of the titles of Our Lady. “The sanctuary of God in Heaven opened, and the Ark of the Covenant could be seen inside it” (11:19). Remember if you can what was in the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament. Firstly, it was a box of acacia wood, covered in gold. Inside it were placed the two tablets on which God had inscribed the Ten Commandments. Then there was the rod of the High Priest Aaron, and some of the manna (the miraculous bread) with which God had fed the Israelites as they journeyed through the desert for forty years. Now the point is, in this Ark dwelt the very presence of God. He dwelt mysteriously within it, rather like our Catholic understanding of the tabernacle in our churches.

The Ark of the Covenant being carried in the Old Testament

But Mary is the true Ark. Why? Because she contained in her womb what the Ark of the Old Testament only foreshadowed. Just as the Ark contained the Ten Commandments, Mary bears the one who is the fulfilment of the Law. Just as the Ark carried the rod of the High Priest Aaron, so Mary carries the true High Priest who will offer His life on the cross for our sins. And just as the Ark carried the manna with which God had fed Israel in the desert, Mary carries in her womb the child who will be known as “the Bread of Life.” So if Mary is the new Ark and the dwelling place of God on earth, then by implication JESUS is God on earth. You see, all Marian doctrines point to Christ and who He really is.  Now in the reading from the Apocalypse, if Mary is that Ark, that Ark is clearly described as being in Heaven. (11:19). And this new Ark is not just Mary’s soul but also her body. It was in Mary’s body  that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and so it is fitting that her body, the true Ark be taken up into the Holy of Holies in Heaven.

Now why should all this matter to us? Well, just as with most Marian dogmas, it’s an anticipation of what we hope for ourselves. As Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven, we hope that one day we too will be there body and soul. When we die, once our souls are purified they will enter Heaven, but the body remains in the tomb and decays. But on the Last Day, as St Paul tells us in First Corinthians, the trumpet shall sound and all the dead shall be raised, and what was perishable will be imperishable, incorruptible. In other words we will be reunited with our bodies for ever. And then will come to pass the saying “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord JESUS Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:51-57).

The Assumption of Our Lady then is a wonderful precursor of our own resurrection. It is made possible by Christ’s rising from the dead. As we are told in the Second Reading, “Death came through one man (Adam), in the same way the resurrection of the dead has come through one man” (Christ). (1 Corinthians 15:21).

Our Lady is the first fruit of the Redemption and already shares in it. She is the first fulfilment of the promises of Our Lord; and she is for us, the foreshadowing of what will happen to us. She shows us the way and opens the way for all who wish to follow her Son. So let us rejoice on this Feast of all Marian Feasts. We rejoice with Pope Pius XII, and the whole Court of Heaven, and we pray to our Heavenly Mother in all her glory that where she has gone before we may follow. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

May God bless you all.

Fr Paul

Pope Pius XII before a statue of Our Lady. “Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.” “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

Letter from Fr Paul – 9 August 2020, 19th Sunday of the Year

9 Aug

Dear All,

This past week we celebrated the feast of one of the truly great saints and one of my favourites: St John Marie Vianney who is also known as the Curé d’Ars which means the Parish Priest of Ars. He is also the Patron Saint of Parish Priests and I have an icon of him in my room which a fellow seminarian gave me as an ordination present. Here it is.

St John Marie Vianney was born in the French town of Dardilly, near Lyons in 1786 into a very devout Catholic family.  He was one of six children. It was a very turbulent time for the Church in France because of the French Revolution (1789-99). Churches were either confiscated or destroyed and there was a strong anti-clerical movement and priests had to go into hiding for fear of their lives. The Church had to operate underground, with Masses and the Sacraments being celebrated secretly in houses, in barns, in cellars and sometimes in the middle of the night. The Vianney’s would often travel long distances to attend Mass and John at thirteen years old made his First Holy Communion in a neighbour’s kitchen. The Vianney family hid many priests in their own home and John came to love their company and to really admire the sacrifice they made. Through these extraordinary circumstances he came to see these priests as heroes.

Masses were celebrated secretly in farms and private houses during the French Revolution

In 1802 Napoleon Bonaparte became Emperor of France and he allowed the churches to re-open. At fifteen years old John revealed his desire “to win souls for the good Father.” In other words he felt called to the Priesthood. His mother was delighted, but his father was very opposed to the idea because he was worried about finance and wanted him to work on the family farm, but eventually he gave in. When John was twenty he went to study with Abbé Balley who was the Parish Priest of Écully. He was there with a group of much younger boys. John was not very good at his studies, particularly Latin. Fr Balley asked one of his brightest pupils, twelve year old Mathias Loras to help John. Mathias was very patient, but one day he lost his temper with John and slapped him hard on the cheek because he just couldn’t grasp or remember anything. The other boys expected a fight to break out, but instead John fell to his knees and said, “Forgive me Mathias. I know I try your patience. I’m stupid and I always have been. One of my sisters told me that and she loves me dearly too.” Everyone was silent when Mathias suddenly burst into tears and said, “Oh John, you will never know what you have taught me this afternoon” as he rushed out of the room. John was mystified and wondered what on earth he could have taught Mathias. One of the other boys told him, “It’s  humility you’ve taught him. Latin is not everything.”

John was sent to the major seminary at Lyons in 1813. He struggled with his studies there too, but Abbé Balley persuaded the Vicar General that John’s extraordinary piety made up for his academic limitations. He was finally ordained a Priest on 12th August 1815 and celebrated his first Mass the following day. He was appointed assistant to his great friend and mentor Abbé Balley. When the Abbé passed away three years later, John was appointed Parish Priest of Ars. The Vicar General told him, “My friend, you are going to a small parish where very little of the love of God can be seen. You are now to enkindle the flame of Divine charity there!”

The Vicar General was correct. Ars was a small town of around 230 people and due to the Revolution the people there had virtually all stopped practising the Faith and were totally indifferent to their religion. There is a well-known incident that as he approached Ars he met a young shepherd boy, Anthony Givre, and asked him for directions. The boy obliged and Fr Vianney said to him, “Anthony, you have shown me the way to Ars. I will show you the way to Heaven.” There is a statue just outside Ars recalling this famous meeting in 1818.

“Show me the way to Ars and I will show you the way to Heaven.”

When Fr Vianney arrived he knelt down and asked God to bless his Parish, the Parish that he would change forever and where he would spend the rest of his life. Ars to begin with was full of sin. Blasphemy, cursing, profanation of Sundays, gatherings and dances at taverns with immodest songs and conversation were commonplace. These things would be the subject of his sermons and he never held back. But he fasted, did severe penances, went without sleep and used the discipline. He took only one meal a day which consisted of one or two boiled potatoes and water. He performed all these penances and mortifications for the welfare of his people and to convert them. He decorated and made his church as beautiful as possible to make the practice of the Faith as attractive as possible for them.

After ten years of preaching and visiting his parishioners regularly he had converted and transformed the little town of Ars and people were flocking there in their thousands from all over France to see this holy priest and to make their confession to him. The change in the people was very noticeable even to outsiders. Some of the other priests became jealous of Fr Vianney and forbade their own parishioners from going to see him. They even wrote letters to the Bishop saying he was too ignorant to be a Parish Priest and should certainly not hear Confessions. So they got a petition going to have him removed. The petition mistakenly came to Fr Vianney and when he saw the signatures of so many priests he signed it himself and sent it to the Bishop! His great humility moved the priest who had started the petition to great remorse and they became good friends. Meanwhile the Bishop had become tired of the complaints and sent a Canon from the Cathedral to investigate. Fr Vianney had to submit up to two hundred difficult cases of conscience he had come across in the confessional along with his solutions. The conclusion was that his solutions were perfect! However, after this investigation, some priests still continued calling John “mad”, to which the Bishop is known to have responded: “Gentlemen, I wish that all my clergy had a small grain of the same madness!” The Bishop gave him faculties, rare at the time, to hear Confessions anywhere throughout the diocese.  After a while, with the Bishop’s support, most of the priests came to learn to love and support him.

People would queue for over three days to see him. Why? Because he was like no ordinary Confessor. Towards the end of his life, around one hundred thousand people were coming to Ars every year. He could spend up to eighteen hours in the confessional every day! He would rise at 1am and he did this in spite of all his other priestly duties such as celebrating Mass, teaching Catechism, reciting the Divine Office, visiting the sick and so on. But in the Confessional he could read souls. If people withheld certain sins he would admonish them, and often, to their astonishment would tell them what their sins were.

Thousands of people would flock to Ars every year to confess to the holy Curé

As people told their sins he would say, “What a pity, what a pity.” He was even known to weep and say, “My friend, I weep because you do not.” And so people were moved to true contrition and they also seemed to find the graces to give up sinful habits after confessing to him.

There is the story of a bandit who had been away from the Church for many years. He was sick and afraid of dying but deep down wasn’t really sorry for his sins. Fr Vianney knew this and when the man had finished he told him, “I’m sorry, you’re wasting your time here because you’re not really repentant.” Then he sent the man away without giving absolution. The bandit returned the following day and this time was repentant, but some of his sins were so awful he dared not mention them. When the man had finished Fr Vianney listed for him all the sins he had failed to mention and then gave him absolution. The man went away reconciled to God and absolutely speechless.

Fr Vianney always insisted suffering with temptation was an opportunity to do good for others. “Offer your temptations for the conversion of sinners. When the devil sees you doing this, he is beside himself with rage and makes off, because then the temptation is turned against himself.” He continued, “we must watch over our mind, our heart and our senses, for these are the gates by which the devil enters in.”

Fr Vianney also suffered violent personal attacks from the devil whom he called the grappin. On the night before a really big sinner was going to come for Confession the attacks would become more ferocious and the holy Curé would say, “There’s a really big fish coming tomorrow.” The demon would continuously bang on doors but there would be nobody there. At first Fr Vianney thought it was burglars and so he asked two other men to sleep in the house in case he needed their help. They too heard all the noises but found nobody. Some men even kept armed guard outside the house but still they found nobody and yet the disturbances continued. Then he realised it was the rage of Satan. One night when Fr Vianney was disturbed more than usual, he said, “My God, I willingly make the sacrifice to You of a few hours sleep for the conversion of sinners.” Immediately the demons vanished and everything fell silent. On other occasions the demons pulled him out of bed and on one occasion even set his bed on fire. 

The burned bed of St John Vianney in the house at Ars

Then on one night after a particularly violent assault where the house had literally been shaking he got up to answer the door. There he found a man who had travelled miles to make his Confession. This sort of thing was not an unusual occurrence. The purpose of all this was to make the Cure so tired so as to make him physically unfit to go on with his astonishing work in the Confessional by which he snatched so many souls from the clutches of the evil one. It shows us how much Satan fears the Sacrament of Confession. In the end, these occurrences became so common that Fr Vianney used to make fun of the demon and he would joke to people, “Oh! the grappin and myself – we are almost chums.” The devil once told him, “If there were three priests such as you, my kingdom would be ruined.” Fr Vianney’s friend, Abbé Raymond said, “Only at the Last Judgement will it become known how many souls have found their salvation here.” It was the Confessional which was the glory of his priesthood.

One of the other really great things St John Vianney did was to found La Providence. At the end of the Napoleonic era France was in a grave economic state and many women and girls sold themselves as prostitutes. So Fr Vianney founded La Providence which was an orphanage – in fact it was a two storey beautiful French country house – where numerous young teenage and orphan girls in need of spiritual direction and shelter learned skills such as housekeeping from Catherine Lassagne, who headed the house. One of his great delights was to teach them the catechism. It became a really crowded affair and had to be moved into the church.

St John Vianney and St Philomena

I cannot write about St John Vianney and not mention his favourite saint, St Philomena. He used to attribute all his miracles out of humility to her. He first came to know about her through a friend of his, Pauline Jaricot, the foundress of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith and the Living Rosary, who in 1835 had been miraculously cured of a grave illness through the intercession of Saint Philomena. Pauline Jaricot offered Fr Vianney a part of the relics of the saint which she had obtained from the shrine at Mugnano. He immediately had an altar erected in her honour in the church at Ars and it soon became the scene of innumerable cures, conversions and miracles. He always told the sick to pray to St Philomena and due to his great devotion to her the whole of France soon knew her name, and altars, statues and churches dedicated to her sprung up all over.

After forty years, life had taken its toll on his physical and spiritual health and there were various times when he wanted to run away from the parish to prepare for his own death. He was never successful in this and he died on 4th August 1859. The Bishop presided over his funeral with three hundred priests and more than six thousand people in attendance. His body is preserved incorrupt above an altar in the Parish Church of Ars.

May the holy Curé of Ars bless us from above, and may he inspire all priests to know more deeply the privilege of bringing souls to Christ through the grace and power of Holy Orders.                     

May God bless you all.

Fr Paul

The incorrupt body of St John Vianney in the church at Ars