Sunday, May 1, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 17 ~ St. Kizito


Fresh from school I spent half a year teaching English at St Kizito Minor Seminary in Malawi. It would have been longer, but the work permit proved hard to obtain. Looking back, I suspect I was supposed to bribe somebody, but was too wet behind the ears to pick up whatever hint was given. The school was run for the diocese of Dedza by the Missionaries of Africa, or White Fathers (named for their Arab-style white robes), an order founded in Algiers in 1868. For those few months I lived in a clerical compound along with four aging Missionaries of Africa (the headmaster, the bursar, a Latin teacher, and a vigorous French Canadian who did a lot of work in the nearby parishes), two diocesan priests, a seminarian, and a lay missionary from the United States. A number of lay teachers, professional educators with families of their own, came in on a daily basis. The school itself was a large quadrangle, with a chapel at one end, teachers' offices at the other, and ground-floor classrooms along either side with dormitories above. Off the quadrangle were workshops and the boys' refectory. The bursar ran a pig farm nearby, and employed a number of men in the workshops. On Wednesday afternoons the boys hoed the fields belonging to the school. The establishment was relatively self-sufficient – certainly compared to any other school I have ever been to.

Despite all the usual precautions I did come down with malaria; which was unpleasant but short-lived, and has not recurred. From the comfort of a full recovery I think I would rather be able to say I have had malaria than never have had it at all, but it is a vicious disease that can be devastating to the under-nourished or those with weakened immunity. I was far from under-nourished; in fact the constant diet of maize paste (nsima), yams, groundnuts and pork, regularly supplemented with Malawi Carlsberg, cost me my youthful slenderness.  I returned to Europe in July, for my sister's wedding, and that autumn matriculated at St Peter's College, Oxford, where the dining hall was named Hannington Hall. It took a while to register with me, but there is an important connection between the St Kizito to whom the Malawian school was dedicated, and the James Hannington for whom the Oxford dining hall was named.

Kizito was Catholic and Hannington was Anglican, but both were among the victims of a short-lived but intense persecution unleashed against Christians by the teenaged Mwanga II, King of Buganda, in 1885–86. Hannington, the first Anglican Bishop of East Africa, was assassinated en route to his see in October 1885. Joseph Mukasa, a Catholic chamberlain at Mwanga's court, was killed in November for openly criticizing the murder. The main persecution came in the spring of 1886, sparked by Christian pages at court resisting the sexual advances of their king and some of his friends. The king, himself only 18 or 19, was convinced that it was his prerogative to use or lend his servants as he saw fit, but Christian morality had convinced these boys otherwise. Kizito was the youngest of them, aged 13 or 14 when he was burnt alive for his attachment to his sexual integrity.

Over the following years King Mwanga was deposed, reconquered the throne, was deposed again, and died in exile as an Anglican, with the baptismal name Daniel.

The Catholics among the Ugandan Martyrs were canonized in 1964 by Paul VI, as "Charles Lwanga and companions" (after the 25-year-old catechist among the pages). In 1969 Paul VI became the first pope to visit Africa, specifically to bless the altars at their shrine (from which the picture above is taken; a recent video of the shrine can be found on YouTube). Here is a short excerpt from his brief homily on the latter occasion:

But, you will ask me, why should the Martyrs be honoured?
And I answer you: It is because they have performed the most heroic, and therefore the greatest and most beautiful of all actions; they have, as I said, laid down their lives for their Faith, that is, for their religion and for the freedom of their conscience. Therefore they are our champions, our heroes, our teachers. They teach us how real Christians should be. Listen to me now: Should a Christian be a coward? Should he be afraid? Should he betray his own Faith? No! Of course not! Your Martyrs teach us just how true Christians should be, especially young Christians, African Christians. For Christians must be courageous, they must be strong, they must, as Saint Peter wrote, “be firm in the faith” (1 Pet. 5, 9). Your Martyrs teach us how much the Faith is worth!


Pope Paul clearly had a great veneration for these young martyrs who were, for the most part, killed for resisting the sexual violence of the politically powerful. Pope Francis celebrated mass at their shrine in November last year, and also visited the shrine to the Anglican martyrs. Perhaps it is just me not noticing, but I would have thought rather more could be made of the ecumenical aspect of these witnesses to a shared Christian teaching.

Their feast day is 3 June. It is a national holiday in Uganda.

Paul Arblaster is my second oldest internet acquaintance (The oldest is Mary who also comments on this blog.). He has also written about St. AnthonySt. Cuthbert, and Margaret  for this series.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 16 ~ St. John Fisher


Protestants, I think, at least Protestants in the English-speaking world, are sometimes a bit surprised to hear the word martyr applied to Catholics executed for their faith during the Protestant Reformation in England. Perhaps that’s not as true as it once was, when English Protestants grew up on Foxe’s Book of [Protestant] Martyrs (actually not the title, which begins Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, Touching Matters of the Church and goes on at some length).

John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, was one of the first of these. Rochester, for Americans whose knowledge of geography is as poor as mine, is roughly 30 miles southeast of London, and roughly halfway between London and Canterbury. I presume that made it a pretty important see in Fisher’s time. He was certainly a prominent man, being among many other things the chaplain and confessor of the mother of King Henry VII. There is an excellent and concise account of his life in the old Catholic Encyclopedia online at NewAdvent.org, so rather than repeat it I’ll direct you there.

Fisher was beheaded on June 22, 1535, only a few weeks before his more widely known fellow martyr St. Thomas More. Here’s one incident from the sad story that strikes me as illuminating the forces at work toward the end of Fisher’s life:
In May, 1535, the new pope, Paul III, created Fisher Cardinal Priest of St. Vitalis, his motive being apparently to induce Henry by this mark of esteem to treat the bishop less severely. The effect was precisely the reverse. Henry forbade the cardinal's hat to be brought into England, declaring that he would send the head to Rome instead.

This shouldn’t be taken as a suggestion that Fisher might have been spared if not for the pope’s intervention, which is surely not the case. Only capitulation on Fisher’s part would have done that, and he clearly was made of the same stern stuff as More.

Most of us have probably seen A Man For All Seasons and will recognize from it the name of the treacherous Richard Rich. Rich was also instrumental in getting Fisher condemned. Fisher was attempting to avoid execution by simply not speaking of Henry’s supremacy over the Church, but Rich tricked Fisher into confiding in him, then betrayed him. (http://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-John-Fisher)

It is an obviously timely lesson for us that Fisher was the only English bishop to resist Henry. The others not only acquiesced, but attempted to persuade Fisher to go along with them. His reply is for me one of the most stirring things in English Christianity:
Methinks it had been rather our parts to stick together in repressing these violent and unlawful intrusions and injuries dayly offered to our common mother, the holy Church of Christ, than by any manner of persuasions to help or set forward the same.
And we ought rather to seek by all means the temporal destruction of the so ravenous wolves, that daily go about worrying and devouring everlastingly, the flock that Christ committed to our charge, and the flock that Himself died for, than to suffer them thus to range abroad.
But (alas) seeing we do it not, you see in what peril the Christian state now standeth: We are besieged on all sides, and can hardly escape the danger of our enemy. And seeing that judgment is begone at the house of God, what hope is there left (if we fall) that the rest shall stand!
The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it. And therefore seeing the matter is thus begun, and so faintly resisted on our parts, I fear that we be not the men that shall see the end of the misery.
Wherefore, seeing I am an old man and look not long to live, I mind not by the help of God to trouble my conscience in pleasing the king this way whatsoever become of me, but rather here to spend out the remnant of my old days in praying to God for him.

The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it. There’s a good deal of resonance for us in that line.

Here is a longer piece, at CatholicCulture.org, that goes into a good bit of detail about Fisher’s life as a churchman, his efforts toward internal reform, and his involvement in the theological controversies of the time.

Fisher was originally sentenced to be drawn and quartered, but was beheaded instead. I had intended to give Henry some credit for that gesture of decency, but according to a footnote in the article just cited it was done out of concern that the aged and sick bishop “would not survive being drawn on a hurdle to Tyburn two miles away, thus depriving Henry of the satisfaction of his execution.”

For my part I do not feel great indignation at this story, although it would be very much justified. I feel, rather, a great sorrow that these tragedies in the history of the Church are so frequent, and I wonder what would have happened if things had gone otherwise. And with a sigh I note the resemblance of our situation to that of Fisher and More. It is not, obviously, as dangerous and violent as that, but the lines are being drawn on the same fundamental question: is the state the final authority on matters of conscience? No one is in danger of losing his head, but we have seen people lose their livelihood because, to use the words Robert Bolt gives Thomas More, “[they] would not bend to the marriage.”

Maclin Horton is the proprietor of his own blog Light on Dark Water from which sprang this series. You might want to check out the current series there, 52 Movies or last year's 52 Authors.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 15 ~ Beato Angelico

Years ago, when I was an undergraduate earning a physics degree, I had a rare elective on my slate and I decided to fill it with a course on medieval art. I don't know that I could have articulated to anyone at the time why, of all the courses I might have chosen, I chose that one, but in retrospect I see it as an initial step into the beauty and mystery that eventually led me to the Catholic Church. I remember sitting in the dark classroom looking at a wall-sized screen onto which painting after painting of the Virgin and Child were projected -- the same figures, the same postures, the same clothing, even the same foldings in the clothing! -- and feeling, against the odds, that there was something there for me. I finished that course with the seeds of a love of medieval art planted in my heart, a love that has never ceased to grow, and one of its flowers has been a love for Fra Angelico.

Technically, Angelico is not a saint -- not officially recognized as one by the Church -- but only a Blessed. Nonetheless, I believe he warrants inclusion in this series on saints, mostly because when I suggested him Janet didn't say no.

There is relatively little surviving written evidence about the life of Fra Angelico. Instead, we have his paintings. I suppose it is a matter for debate how much a man's art can tell you about his inner life -- I think of Ralph Vaughan Williams as a counterexample to the idea that it's easy to draw out the latter from the former -- but, not having other options, in this post we'll look admiringly at a few of Angelico's paintings.

Fra Angelico was born Guido di Pietro, in the small Tuscan town of Vicchio, most likely in the last decade of the fourteenth century. About his early life we know little. In about 1425, when he was likely in his late 20s or early 30s, he moved to Fiesole, just on the outskirts of Florence, and joined the Dominicans, taking the religious name Giovanni.

He was already an accomplished painter at this time. His extraordinary Annunciation, which resides today at the Prado in Madrid, dates to within a few years of his entry into the Order. Following a well-established iconographic tradition, the painting depicts the Blessed Virgin giving her consent to the angel, while in the background, in the garden, we see Adam and Eve evicted after the Fall. Mary, the new Eve, undoes by her obedience the damage wrought by the disobedience of the old Eve, or, as the medieval writers liked to say, the 'Ave' reverses the 'Eva'. It's a wonderful painting, full of luminous colours. 



A personal favourite of mine is his Coronation of the Virgin, which he painted for the Dominicans of Fiesole about a decade after joining the community. Today, on account of the redistribution of goods occasioned by the Napoleonic wars, it is found in the Louvre. In his Life of Fra Angelico, Giorgio Vasari singled this painting out for special praise, saying it "gave supreme proof of his talent". Here is the painting:


Vasari describes it this way:
[In it] Jesus Christ is crowning Our Lady in the midst of a choir of angels and among an infinite multitude of saints, both male and female, so many in number, so well wrought, and with such variety in the attitudes and in the expressions of the heads, that incredible pleasure and sweetness are felt in gazing at them; nay, one is persuaded that those blessed spirits cannot look otherwise in Heaven, or, to speak more exactly, could not if they had bodies; for not only are all these saints, both male and female, full of life and sweet and delicate in expression, but the whole colouring of that work appears to be by the hand of a saint or an angel like themselves; wherefore it was with very good reason that this excellent monk was ever called Fra Giovanni Angelico.

He exaggerates a little -- the number of saints is certainly less than infinite -- but I can understand his enthusiasm. 


At around the same time, he painted a Last Judgment, a large-scale work that includes all of the usual elements in a medieval judgment scene: Christ in glory, with the blessed on his right and the damned on his left. I bristle a little at the common view that the damned are usually the more interesting -- what with the pitchforks and the molten metal and the various forms of torture on display -- but I will grudgingly admit that it is, in many cases, true. It is no doubt preferable to feel a beatific glow of happiness, but it is not always preferable to look at someone else feeling a beatific glow of happiness. This is why this painting by Angelico is so dear to my heart, for the eye is drawn to the garden of the blessed where the angels and the saints dance a lilting circular dance, the very picture of grace and delight, as glory streams from the entrance to the celestial city. When I think of Angelico, it is this that usually comes to mind first:



He returned to the theme of the Annunciation for an altarpiece commission in Cortona. (I believe that he painted this scene five times.) [See all five here. jtc] This is truly one of his most magnificent achievements: the composition is, in its essential elements, the same as the one we saw above -- we again see the scene set in an enclosed garden (a symbol of virginity), with the expulsion from Eden in the top left, and Our Lady discovered at prayer -- but it glows with a special beauty. Also notable is that Angelico has written the words of the angel's greeting in a streaming line from his mouth, and her answer, upside down and backwards, streaming back to him. I've seen this done in other paintings, but according to my book on Angelico it was original with him. I've always liked it.



You can see, at the bottom of this painting, a series of smaller predella paintings, in this case showing other scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin: her betrothment to Joseph, her visitation to Elizabeth, the adoration of the Magi, the presentation of Jesus in the temple, and her dormition. Many of Angelico's major works have these adjunct predella paintings, and, although I'm not dwelling on them here, they are often of great interest, and beautifully executed.

The locus mirabilis for lovers of Angelico's art is probably the monastery of San Marco in Florence, where, in addition to doing a number of frescoes in the public areas of the monastery, he did a fresco in each brother's cell. Today one can visit the site and walk from room to room, admiring them, but I've often wondered what it would have been like to actually inhabit one of those rooms, living in the constant company of one of these masterpieces of sacred art. Could I have had my pick of rooms, I'd have chosen the one with this scene of the Resurrection, which I look at every Easter:



The last painting I'll mention is his Lamentation, which was made for a confraternity in Florence dedicated to consoling prisoners condemned to death. In the final hours before being executed, prisoners were chained to a spot where they could view the painting. Perhaps it was consoling for them, in some measure, to see such a beautiful picture of holy men and women lamenting over the death of a condemned criminal.



Vasari, writing about a century after Fra Angelico died, gives us some insight into the sort of man he was. We learn, for instance, that at one point the Pope offered to make him the Archbishop of Florence, but that he refused "for the reason that he did not feel himself fitted for ruling others", a refusal that in Vasari's mind made him a model for church leadership:
Let the churchmen of our own times learn from this holy man not to take upon themselves charges that they cannot worthily carry out, and to yield them to those who are most worthy of them. Would to God, to return to Fra Giovanni (and may this be said without offence to the upright among them), that adll churchmen would spend their time as did this truly angelic father, seeing that he spent every minute of his life in the service of God and in benefiting both the world and his neighbour.
Vasari also tells us that he was reputed to be both a friend of poverty and of the poor:
He shunned the affairs of the world; and, living a pure and holy life, he was as much the friend of the poor as I believe his soul to be now the friend of Heaven. He was continually labouring at his painting, and he would never paint anything save Saints. He might have been rich, but to this he gave no thought; nay, he used to say that true riches consist only in being content with little. He might have ruled many, but he would not, saying that it was less fatiguing and less misleading to obey others. He had the option of obtaining dignities both among the friars and in the world, but he despised them, declaring that he sought no other dignity save that of seeking to avoid Hell and draw near to Paradise.
Late in life he was called to Rome to paint for the Popes, and he died in Santa Maria sopra Minerva on 18 February 1455. Originally he was interred in that church's Thomas Aquinas chapel, as was fitting for a son of the Dominican Order, but he was later moved to a position just to the left of the main altar (beneath which lies St Catherine of Siena), where a modest monument was erected to mark the place. I discovered his tomb on my first visit to Rome back in 2001, and I have returned to the spot to honour him each time I have been to the city. In my experience, there are always fresh flowers there.

Fra Giovanni was called 'Angelico' soon after his death, and the title has stuck. In fact, it is more than just an enthusiastic rhetorical flourish, for he was called pictor angelicus on analogy with Aquinas' title doctor angelicus, a recognition of his preeminent place in the Dominican Order, and indeed in the Church. He was also called 'Beato Angelico' beginning shortly after his death, but only in 1982 did Pope St John Paul II make the designation official, and the same pontiff named him the universal patron of all artists in 1984. This title is a source of joy to me.

A man may be a saint and be completely unknown to history. Being a great artist, even a great maker of sacred art, doesn't in itself move one any closer to being a saint. This is the work of grace, and is hidden from outsiders. I can only say that for me, in my own spiritual life, as I try myself to cooperate with that hidden work of grace, the art of Beato Angelico has been a consolation and an encouragement, for it has given me a vision of that glory toward which I aspire. Perhaps he would now say, like St Thomas, that his work is as straw compared to the true glory he has seen, but for those of us still on the way, his work is enriching fare for the journey. I am thankful for it.

-- Craig Burrell blogs at All Manner of Thing and is curator of The Hebdomadal Chesterton.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 14 ~ Margaret

Anne of Jesus
After her death, Teresa of Avila’s reforms were saved by one of her closest companions, Anne of Jesus (who has her own entry in the old Catholic Encyclopedia). It was Anne who gathered Teresa’s writings into publishable form, and appealed to the pope when Spanish ecclesiastical authorities wanted to change the governing structures of her order. In this she was partially successful, but her thanks was to be forbidden from receiving daily communion for three years. She went on to found the first Teresian convents in France (Paris, Pontoise, Dijon) and Belgium (Brussels, Louvain, Mons). She arrived in Brussels in January 1607 to found the first Discalced Carmelite convent in the Low Countries, and she died there in 1621. Her cause of beatification, initiated soon after her death, seems to have stalled at being declared ‘Venerable’ in 1878 (even though St Thérèse of Lisieux was certain she was in heaven).

Her relics are kept in the Brussels Carmel, where there is a local devotion that leads to them primarily being visited by women praying for children or for help during pregnancy. They are housed in a corridor within the monastery’s enclosure, so I have not been able to venerate them myself, but the former archivist, now deceased, did once open a door to let me have a glimpse of the casket in which they are kept. I have seen graces poured out in a friend’s life that I cannot specify (it not being my story to tell), but that I am confident can be attributed to the Venerable Anne of Jesus.

Anne died after a long illness, in the arms of Sister Margaret of the Mother of God, who at that moment was lifting her on to fresh bedding. Margaret herself died in odour of sanctity in 1646 and was recorded as such in Carmelite obit books (there is a Wikipedia entry, but it is not very informative). For years I was tangentially involved in a project to study, translate and publish Sister Margaret’s spiritual autobiography, which is now available in English from Toronto University Press. She began writing it in 1635, under obedience to her confessor. It is a fascinating document for all sorts of reasons, written in a simple but vivid style. One interesting aspect of it is how much of it was cut by the priests who prepared the versions that circulated in manuscript as edifying reading, turning a highly personal document into a much more stereotypical hagiography.

Margaret, born Margriet Van Noort, had grown up as an army child, which in the 16th century meant being a camp follower, and in her case a camp follower in the long but ultimately unsuccessful Frisian Campaign to maintain Catholic Habsburg rule in the north-eastern Netherlands during the Dutch Revolt. As a child she suffered the deprivations typical of war: living under canvas, sometimes going without food or clean water, constantly being on the move, sometimes in fear of being overtaken by the enemy, helping her father build makeshift fortifications, and attending Mass in the open air under enemy artillery fire. Once she became separated from her family while on the march, and was looked after by an officer from another regiment until they could be reunited. In her later teenage years she was sent into domestic service in Brussels, in a household where the mistress read Teresa of Avila’s autobiography to her, but she suffered sexual harassment from male fellow servants, from her mistress’s husband, and from her mistress’s brother. I am not aware of any other first-person account of what it was like to be a child camp follower in the years immediately before 1600, or a sexually harassed domestic servant in the years immediately after 1600. Almost all of this vanished from the ‘official’ versions circulated after her death.

Upon entering the Carmelite convent in Brussels as a lay sister in 1607, she became the first Dutch Teresian Carmelite. As a lay sister her duties were generally in the kitchen, but included all sorts of menial odd jobs. As Anne of Jesus’s health began to fail, Margaret, an unusually large and strong woman (which had stood her in good stead when a servant girl) was increasingly called upon to attend to her, being the only member of the community who could lift her comfortably. This had to be done on top of her regular work. It was the close association with Mother Anne through the years of her physical decline that made her a key witness when the cause for canonisation was being prepared, and it seems likely to have been this that led her confessor to order her to write her spiritual autobiography.

Most of Margaret’s writings are taken up with the supernatural visitations, visions and illuminations she enjoyed. Take her description of her feelings upon making her profession (in Susan Smith’s translation):
I do not know what I was feeling, but it seemed like they bound me with a most precious binding and that it was so great that it stretched from earth to highest heaven. I felt a kind of love and appreciation that I cannot describe; and I still feel it. It was such a strong feeling in my soul that I was in a state of abstraction for several days and everyone who looked at me said they saw in my face the change in my soul. From the day of my profession I sensed myself closer to Our Lord and the presence of God changed me, even the worldly part left in me, through Holy Communion. It was so vivid it seemed that the walls became windows; or rather, it seemed as if sunlight poured from the Sacred Host and everywhere I would go, day and night, on awakening I would see the Sacred Host.
There is a lot more about experiences such as this than there is about suffering, but to judge by my own response, the attitudes to suffering are what strike a modern reader the most forcefully. In her early years as a nun, Margaret was eager to share in the sufferings of Christ in all sorts of inventive ways that her confessors had a tendency to put a stop to when they found out about (denying herself drink despite the heat of the kitchen, tying her belt too tight, putting dried peas in her shoes, rubbing onion juice under her eyes, letting hot fat splash on her arms, exposing herself to sunburn, even carrying around a little box containing a maggoty bit of meat, so she could from time to time savour the odour of physical decay). It is hard not to see these exercises in terms of self-harm by a traumatised young woman, however anachronistic and at odds with her self-understanding such terms might be. As she matured, she stopped finding ways to torture herself and instead accepted the sufferings she was sent.

Throughout the years of caring for Mother Anne, she had suffered migraines. One Lent, she says, these were taken from her by a vision of Christ’s suffering, in which "it seemed to me that He took the crown of thorns and put it on my head with such great force that some thorns broke off the crown and stuck in the middle of my forehead. . . . the pain is still there, though not so strong. The pain was not an exterior feeling, but rather interior. It was a consolation to me, even though I felt great pain". Her migraines ended, and instead she received a lasting share in the suffering of the Crown of Thorns. By this transformative spiritual experience, the pain she had endured became a consolation to be embraced. A sceptical materialist might be inclined to say that nothing had actually changed, but to Margaret herself everything was altered.

Paul Arblaster is my second oldest internet acquaintance (The oldest is Mary who also comments on this blog.). He has also written about St. Anthony and St. Cuthbert for this series.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Sunday, April 3, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 13 ~ St. Faustina

Icon written by Daniel Nichols
Sister Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938)

People who use words like 'Low Sunday' or 'chasuble' or 'stole' are insufferable to me. If they pronounce the word 'mass' to rhyme with 'arse' I want to hit them in the face. Nor do they efface that reaction if they wear boaters or belong to the ghastly University G & S society. When John Paul II turned the Sunday after Easter into 'Divine Mercy Sunday' I did not care one way or the other. Not so a young man who came into my office in April 2000 - then a high Church Anglican and now a pillar of Scottish traditional Catholicism. He was appalled that, as he put it, 'Low Sunday,' had been eviscerated for the sake of 'a foreign, semi-literate nun.' Our chaplain remarked that the gentleman managed to combine in one sentence xenophobia, misogyny and contempt for simple people.

John Paul II was actually no liturgical traditionalist - he authorized altar girls, casually added an extra Mystery round to the Rosary, celebrated rowdy World Youth days, and, as we have seen, abolished 'Low Sunday' for the sake of the 'divine mercy' devotion initiated by one of his compatriots, Sister Faustina. It is unusual for a professional philosopher and still more a Cardinal to so far to appreciate the charismatic aspect of religion, but Catholics have been lucky in our last three popes, Francis, Ben, and JPII.

At the time of the conversation, I had no idea what it was about. Having no interest in the liturgy, popular devotions or the insides of churches built after 1850, I only vaguely - if at all - connected 'Divine Mercy', the Polish nun Sister Faustina and the horrible painting of Jesus with red and white stripes emanating from him which had become customary to see near the lectern of many Catholic Churches. Many popular devotions invented through the visions of holy nuns have been aesthetically disastrous - think of the Sacred Heart.

In Holy Week we read the lines - and I do not quote from the appalling translation we heard last week - '...he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not' (Isaiah 53.2-3).
Later, when I was supervising a PhD about another 20th century mystic, Adrienne von Speyr, I recommended to my student that she watch a movie about Sister Faustina. I believe that is how the DVD came into my possession; I cannot think how else it could have done so.

I saw it many years later with graduate students in the Mid West, who told me that, as 'saint movies' go, it is really not that bad. All I remember from it is many scenes of burning, apocalyptically haunted cornfields, with red suns: these are supposed to indicate the visions. I also recall the scenes showing the psychiatric tests which were imposed on the good Sister by her confessor, and the hard work she had to do extracting vegetables from their conventual garden for the nuns' sustenance. Given that the naturalistic genre doesn't really work well for depicting miraculous events such as visions and conversations with Jesus Christ, it is not a bad movie, and one can recommend it for getting some sense of the Saint's biography.

Sister Faustina was born Helena Kowalska in 1905 in Krakow, the city where Karol Wojtyla would later be a University professor. Her parents turned down her early requests to join a convent. They were poor people and they needed her to work to help support them. She came from what we today would consider real poverty. When in 1924, she heard Jesus telling her to leave town to get into a convent, she did a runner to Warsaw. Several convents turned her down on account of her poverty. Its hard to imagine that happening today, when convents seem desperate for young vocations. But to be fair, in any era, its not normal for postulants to present themselves at the convent door saying they've been instructed by Jesus to join a convent in this city. Most Catholics in any era would think that is a sign of madness. We have never simply welcomed visionaries with open arms. They need to smash their way in or come in through the back door.

The Order which Sister Faustina eventually joined, 'The Congregation of our Lady of Mercy,' would not take her until she had her own habit, so she spent a few years saving up for it and sewing it. Again, it makes for a remarkable contrast with the earnest young women who do the rounds of the convents to find out what suits them.

So it was not until 1926 that she joined her order; she took her vows in 1928. At this time, Lithuania was a sort of inferior subsection of Poland, like Ireland and the United Kingdom. She was packed off to the order's house in Vilnius to work as a cook, which perhaps indicates what the other Sisters made of their new colleague. She was then sent back to the dismal sounding township of Płock. It's a Yiddishy name: most of the inhabitants of Płock had been Jewish since the 13th century. Most would die in the Shoah. No wonder Sister Faustina burned with visions of fire in the 1930s. Later on, in 1939, the first seeds of the validation of her vision of the 'Divine Mercy image' would be Archbishop Jałbrzykowski's recognition that she foresaw the coming tragedy.

It was in Płock in 1931 that Jesus first appeared to Faustina in the white garment with the Red and Pale lights sticking out of it. He told her to paint his image as the 'King of Divine Mercy,' and to engrave on the painting the legend, 'My Jesus I trust in you.' He asked for this image to be venerated, and he promised that 'the soul that will venerate this image will not perish', that is (I'm guessing), not be damned to hell. So it's very important to venerate this image. Faustina did not know how to carry out the instruction because she could not paint. This part of the story is reminiscent of Bernadette of Lourdes' saying that some representation of the Apparition was quite unlike Our Lady.

After taking her final vows in 1933, Faustina was sent back to Vilnius (do you get the feeling the sisters kept moving her around? - maybe not, maybe they just thought she was a useful little creature), where she worked in the garden - as I mentioned, the movie brings out well what hard toil it is to raise one's food from the soil. The return to Vilnius was a providential move for Faustina, because she was befriended by the convent's confessor, a professor of pastoral theology named Michael Sopocko. On hearing that she regularly conversed with Jesus, he ordered a psychiatric examination, which she passed. He encouraged Faustina to write down the conversations in a journal, and put her in touch with a painter-professor friend, Kazimirowski.

Photo of  image painted
 by Eugeniusz Kazimirowski
Kazimirowski painted the image as described to him by Faustina. It was first exhibited, and the 'divine mercy' devotion performed in the First Sunday after Easter, ie what the young gentleman would have called 'Low Sunday', in 1935. The idea of the devotion was to be given mercy by Jesus, to have faith in Jesus' mercy, and to show mercy to other people, even including high churchmen.

Faustina wanted to start a new Order, the Congregation of Divine Mercy. But the Catholic Church is not like that. There are rules, as the Archbishop Jałbrzykowski reminded the young woman: for instance, you have to stick with the religious Order you have joined (not that this proved much of an obstacle for Bernard of Clairvaux, for instance, or Saint Dominic). She was packed off to a different convent, in Walendow. But Jałbrzykowski and Father Sopocki did continue to spread her devotion to the divine Mercy.

Sister Faustina died, aged only 33, in April 1938. By 1939, Cardinal Jałbrzykowski saw that she had accurately predicted the Second World War, with its invasions of Poland. This gave him a good pretext for further extending the display of the Divine Mercy image and encouraging devotions to it.

After the War, Sopocko was able to start the Congregations of Divine Mercy which Faustina had wanted.

But it was the 1950s, a time when the most damaging thing a Roman cleric could say about an idea was that it was 'dangerous.' Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani at what we now call the C.D.F., but which then was called the Holy Office forbade the further spread of 'images and writings that promote devotion to the Divine Mercy in the forms proposed by Sister Faustina.' Maybe the authorities feared that people saw the image and the devotion as a 'get out of hell free' card. The image and devotion to it were 'Indexed' from the 1959 to 1978. This was despite its being championed by Cardinal Wojtyla, first as Archbishop of Krakow and later as Pope JPII. The prohibition was lifted in 1978. One can see from this how much it meant to John Paul, and why it was not a casual act of liturgical vandalism for him to replace 'low Sunday' with Divine Mercy Sunday.

Over a hundred million Catholics are now attached to the Divine Mercy image and practice the devotion and the Novena.

I still don't much like the image Kazimirowski produced. I don't like this shiney, doe-eyed Jesus. A few years back now, the iconographer Dan Nichols produced for me an 'Icon' version of the image, and I keep it in my office. It was on the cover of a book I co-wrote called 'Illuminating Faith.' When I told one of my co-authors, the son of an art historian, that I planned to put the 'Divine Mercy' image on the cover of our book, he said, 'no it's kitsch.' Its one of the great things about Catholicism that we have kitschy stuff. You could even say that our conception of God is pretty kitschy by some standards. Sister Faustina was a great saint, and therefore a great individual. I mean no disrespect to this individuality to say that she was one of a great wave of Charismatics which the Church has known in the past hundred and twenty years. This new outpouring of visions and auditions is here to help the Church in our difficult times.

Grumpy teaches Systematic Theology in the Mid-West. She also wrote about St. Thomas Aquinas for this series.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.