Today is the feast day of Saints John and Paul. Orate pro nobis.
These two Saints, not to be confused with the Apostles, were brothers and were officers of the Roman army in the days of Constantine the Great. They served in the house of Constance, daughter of Constantine, who was consecrated to God. Their virtues and services to her father rendered them very dear to her.
With the aid of Constance, they practiced many works of charity and mercy, until the deaths of both Constantine and Constance. Then, at the accession of Julian the Apostate to the imperial throne, they resigned their position in the palace. Julian had returned to the cult of idols and was attempting to re-establish it in the empire. The brothers saw many wicked men prosper in their impiety. They considered that worldly prosperity accompanied by impunity in sin is the most dreadful of all judgments, indicating reprobation. And history reveals how false and short-lived was the glittering prosperity of Julian.
While still in power the apostate attempted to win back John and Paul into active service. When he was refused, he gave them ten days to reconsider. The officer Terentianus, who at the end of that time brought to their house a little idol of Jupiter for their adoration, found them in prayer. In the middle of that night on June 26 they were decapitated secretly in their own garden. The emperor feared their execution might cause a sedition in Rome. He instigated a rumor that they had been exiled.
The martyrs, by their renouncement of favors and their heroic resistance, purchased never-fading glory. Their house on the Caelian Hill became a magnificent Christian basilica by the end of the fourth/fifth century.
House and Christian basilica on the Caelian Hill In the second half of the fourth century, Byzantius, the Roman senator, and Saint Pammachius, his son, fashioned the house on the Caelian Hill into a Christian basilica and the tomb of John and Paul was venerated there from as early as the fifth century. The church was damaged during the sack of Rome by Alaric I (410) and because of an earthquake (442). It was restored by Pope Paschal I (824), sacked again by the Normans (1084), and again restored, with the further building of a monastery and a bell tower.
Names in the Roman Canon and Sacramentarium Veronense
John and Paul’s early veneration is also indicated by the fact that the names of the two saints were inserted into the Roman Canon (First Eucharistic Prayer) of the Mass. Also the Sacramentarium Veronense, which dates back to Pope Leo the Great (440-461, indicates in the preface to the feast of the saints that they rested within the city walls.
Home to the Passionists and link with New York Since 1773 the Basilica of St John and Paul has been home to the Passionist order and is the burial place of its founder St. Paul of the Cross. Among previous cardinal priests of this church are two who became pope: Pope Honorius III (Cencio Savelli, elevated to cardinal in 1198) and Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli, elevated to cardinal in 1929).
Today is the feast day of Saint Prosper of Aquitaine. Ora pro nobis.
Saint Prosper was born in the Roman province of Aquitaine in the year 403. He is known chiefly through his writings. In his youth he had applied himself to all branches both of sacred and secular learning. Because of the purity and sanctity of his manners, the writers of his time testify that he was a holy and venerable man. (1)
By 428, he was a layman living with monks at Marseilles, who disagreed with Augustine’s theology of grace and predestination. To strengthen his arguments, Prosper wrote to Augustine, who responded with On the predestination of the Saints and On the gift of perseverance. He became known as “the best disciple of Augustine.”
Prosper seems to have labelled anyone who disagreed with Augustine “semi-Pelagian,” and the list included John Cassian, Hilary of Arles, and Vincent of Lérins. The enemies of Saint Augustine turned against Saint Prosper also, publishing fifteen errors which they attributed to the latter, then sixteen propositions supposedly clarifying Augustine’s true sentiments, and spread them widely. The Saint with gentleness answered all these writings without acrid reprisals. In 431, the year after Augustine’s death, Proper and a friend named Hilary travelled to Rome to ask Celestine I, who had praised Augustine, to proclaim the truth of his teachings.
Saint Prosper was not an ecclesiastic. Saint Leo the Great, when chosen Pope in 440, invited him to Rome, made him his secretary, and employed him in the most important affairs of the Church. It was primarily Saint Prosper who finally crushed the Pelagian heresy definitively, when it was raising its head in the see of Peter. Its complete overthrow is said to be due to his zeal, learning, and unwearied endeavors. The date of his death remains uncertain, but he was still living in 455, the date at which his Chronicle concludes. But, Prosper’s history ends with the Vandal sack of Rome (455).
Works by St. Prosper of Aquitaine ca. 390-455
The Church pleads before God everywhere, not only for the saints and those regenerated in Christ, but also for all infidels and all enemies of the Cross of Christ, for all worshippers of idols, for all who persecute Christ in His members, for the Jews whose blindness does not see the light of the Gospel, for heretics and schismatics who are alien to the unity of faith and love.
But what does she beg for them, if not that they leave their errors and be converted to God, that they accept the faith, accept love, that they be freed from the shadows of ignorance and come to the knowledge of the truth? (The Call of All Nations, 1.12) (4)
Let us consider the sacraments of priestly prayers, which having been handed down by the Apostles are celebrated uniformly throughout the whole world and in every Catholic Church so that the law of praying might establish the law of believing. (Patrologia Latina 51:209-210) (4)
Like ointment on the head, which ran down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron…(Ps. 133.2) By the priest Aaron, that Priest is indicated who alone fulfills the sacrament of the true High Priest, not with a victim of another kind, but in the oblation of His own body and blood: same Priest, same Victim, Propitiator and Propitiation, the One who effects all the mysteries for which He was announced. Who died, was buried, and rose again, He ascended into heaven, exalting human nature above every other name, and sending the Holy Spirit, whose unction would penetrate every Church. (Explanation of the Psalms) (4)
June 25 Today is the feast day of Saint William of Vercelli. Ora pro nobis. Saint William of Monte Vergine, was born in Vercelli, a city of Lombardy. He lost his father and mother in his infancy and was brought up by a relative. At fifteen years of age, he left his native region and … Read more
Today is the feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. Ora pro Nobis.
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
In the holy Gospel, the nativity of St. John the Baptist, who was the forerunner of Christ, is described by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, not only for our instruction, but also that we may rejoice in the Lord our God. In the mountains of Judaea, at Hebron, eight miles from Jerusalem, lived Zachary and Elizabeth. They were just people, and lived in accordance with the commandments of God, but had no children, although they had prayed for them many years. The great age which they had attained, naturally gave them no longer any hope of issue. But still they continued their prayer. One day, when Zachary, who was a priest, offered incense in the Temple at Jerusalem, he saw at the right side of the altar, an angel, whose appearance filled the pious old man with fear and trembling. The angel, however, said to him: ” Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard. Elizabeth, thy wife, shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. He shall bring thee joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice in his nativity. He shall be great before the Lord and shall drink no strong drink, and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb. He shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God: and he shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias: that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people.”
Zachary listened with great astonishment: the angel’s promise seemed to him to be out of the course of nature. Hence, he said: “Whereby shall I know this? For, I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” The angel answered: “I am Gabriel, who stand before God, and I am sent to speak to thee and bring thee these good tidings. And behold, thou shalt be dumb and not able to speak until the day wherein these things shall come to pass, because thou hast not believed my words, which shall be fulfilled in their time.” After this the angel disappeared, and Zachary, mute from that hour, returned home after he had discharged his priestly functions.
The words of the Archangel Gabriel came to pass. Elizabeth conceived and gave praise and thanks to God that He had removed from her the disgrace of being barren. Six months later, the Most High sent the angel Gabriel to the blessed Virgin, at Nazareth, to announce to her that she should become the mother of the long expected Messiah. He at the same time informed her that her cousin Elizabeth, although she was old and barren, had conceived a son, as to God nothing was impossible. After Mary had resigned herself with deep humility to the will of the Almighty, and become the mother of the Son of God, she went into the mountains of Judaea, to the house of Elizabeth and Zachary. She did not go to see if the angel’s words in regard to Elizabeth were true, but to congratulate her happy cousin, and render her such services as she would need. The Gospel assures us that when the Virgin Mother entered the dwelling of Zachary and greeted Elizabeth, John, the yet unborn child, leaped for joy in his mother’s womb, as soon as Mary’s words of salutation reached Elizabeth’s ear, and Elizabeth herself was filled with the Holy Ghost. This leaping of the unborn Saint, was, according to the holy fathers, a sign that John, by special favor of the Almighty, knew the Saviour, yet concealed from the eyes of the world, and rejoicing in His presence, adored Him. Hence they teach that John was at that moment cleansed from original sin and filled with the Holy Ghost, and thus fulfilled the words of the angel and was sanctified in the womb of his mother.
At length came the time when he was to see the light of day, and Elizabeth gave birth to him whom the angel had promised and prophesied. When the neighbors and relatives heard how gracious God had been to Elizabeth, they all went to see her and congratulate her. On the eighth day the child was circumcised according to the law. As children, on this occasion, received a name, the relatives wished to give him that of his father, but Elizabeth opposed it, saying: ” John is his name!” “But there is none among thy kindred that is called by this name,” said her friends. Elizabeth, however, remained inflexible. Turning to the still mute Zachary, they desired to know how he would have him called. Zachary asked for a writing-table and wrote; “John is his name.” And at the same time his speech returned, and filled with the Holy Ghost, he gave thanks to God in the beautiful hymn which is one of the daily prayers of the Church, and begins: ” Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and wrought the redemption of his people.” All those present marvelled at these events, praised God, and spread among the people all that they had heard and seen, and concluded from it that the new-born child was destined to be great among them. Hence they said to each other: “What do you think shall this child be? for the hand of the Lord is with him.”
Thus writes St. Luke, in his gospel, of the nativity of St. John, and then adds that, “he grew and was strengthened in spirit;” and was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel, by his preaching and baptizing.
Several holy fathers write that Elizabeth fled with her child into the desert, to conceal herself from the cruelties of king Herod; and that John was nourished and kept either by an angel or in some other manner by divine Providence. Others write that, in his third or at most in his fifth year, he had voluntarily gone into the desert, eager to serve God more perfectly and to prepare himself for his mission. No one ought to think this incredible; since, even before he was born, he was gifted with the use of his reason, and comprehended the great mission to which he was called by the Almighty. So much is certain that he was from his most tender years in the wilderness. The holy Evangelists and the holy fathers tell us what manner of life he led there. He subsisted on wild honey and locusts, which are used as food in the East; but he ate so little, that our Lord said of him, that he had neither taken food nor drink. His drink was water; his garments, a coat of camels’-hair, which was fastened round his loins by a leathern belt. The ground was his bed, and he employed day and night in prayer and meditation. By fasting and other austere penances, he prepared himself for his mission. St. Augustine remarks that the severe life of penance of John was the model after which the hermits regulated their lives; hence they acknowledge him as their founder.
When in his thirtieth year, St. John was admonished by God to leave the wilderness and commence his mission. Going to the river Jordan, he preached penance and baptized the penitents. This baptism was not that which Christ instituted in the course of time: neither had it the power which the baptism of Christ has; but was only a sign of penance. In the Gospel it is related how great a multitude of people came to St. John; what he preached; how he exhorted them to do penance: how he had the honor to baptize Christ Himself, and what occurred during this event. The splendid testimony is spoken of, which he gave at different times, to the effect that Christ was the true Messiah. It is also recorded what he answered to those who were sent to him to ask whether he was the promised Messiah; for, his life was so holy and wonderful, that many believed him to be the long promised Redeemer. The events of the latter part of the life of this Saint will be related in the chapter for the day on which the church commemorates his decapitation.
Among the writings of the holy Fathers we find many sermons which contain magnificent praises of the virtues of St. John, the Baptist. They call him an angel in the flesh; an apostle in his sermons; a miracle of penance; the first hermit who induced so many thousands to imitate him; the first preacher of repentance, and proclaimer of the heavenly kingdom. They praise his fearlessness in reproving vice, both in high and in low; his deep humility, by which he deemed himself not worthy to baptize Christ, or even to unloose the latchet of His shoes; his angelic purity; his continual penance and his unwearied zeal for the honor of God and the welfare of men. But what should inspire every one with the greatest reverence towards this Saint is the fact, that Christ our Lord Himself praised the greatness and holiness of St. John so frequently, and said that among men there had been none greater than John the Baptist. What more can be said in his praise? (6)
Nativity of Saint John the Baptist
(from the Liturgical Year, 1904)
The Voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord; behold thy God (Is. xl. 3-9)!” Oh! in this world of ours grown now so cold, who can understand earth’s transports, at hearing these glad tidings so long expected? The promised God was not yet manifested; but already have the heavens bowed down (Ps. xvii. 10), to make way for His passage. No longer was He “the One Who is to come,” He for whom our fathers, the illustrious saints of the prophetic age ceaselessly called, in their indomitable hope. Still hidden, indeed, but already in our midst, He was resting beneath that virginal cloud compared with which, the heavenly purity of Thrones and Cherubim wax dim; yea, the united fires of burning Seraphim grow faint, in presence of the single love wherewith she alone encompasses Him in her human heart, she that lowly daughter of Adam whom He had chosen for His mother. Our accursed earth, made suddenly more blessed far than yonder heaven so long inexorably closed to suppliant prayer, awaited only that the august mystery should be revealed; the hour was come for earth to join her canticles to that eternal and divine praise, which henceforth was ever rising from her depths, and which being itself no other than the Word Himself, would celebrate God condignly. But beneath the veil of humility where His divinity, even after as well as before his birth, must still continue to hide itself from men, who may discover the Emmanuel? who, having recognized him in His merciful abasements, may succeed in making him accepted by a world lost in pride? who may cry, pointing out the Carpenter’s Son (St. Matth. xiii. 55), in the midst of the crowd: Behold Him Whom your fathers have so wistfully awaited!
For such is the order decreed from on high, in the manifestation of the Messias. Conformably to the Ways of men, the God-Man would not intrude Himself into public life; He would await, for the inauguration of His divine ministry, some man who having preceded him in a similar career, would be hereby sufficiently accredited, to introduce Him to the people.
Sublime part for a creature to play, to stand guarantee for his God, witness for the Word! The exalted dignity of him who was to fill such a position, had been notified, as had that of the Messias, long before his birth. In the solemn liturgy of the Age of types, the Levite choir, reminding the Most High of the meekness of David and of the promise made to him of a glorious heir, hailed from afar the mysterious lamp prepared by God for His Christ (Ps. cxxxi. 17) Not that, to give light to His steps, Christ should stand in need of external help: He, the Splendour of the Father, had only to appear in these dark regions of ours, to fill them with the effulgence of the very heavens; but so many false glimmerings had deceived mankind, during the night of these ages of expectation, that had the true Light arisen on a sudden, it would not have been understood, or would have but blinded eyes now become well nigh powerless, by reason of protracted darkness, to endure its brilliancy. Eternal Wisdom therefore decreed that just as the rising sun is announced by the morning-star, and prepares his coming by the gently tempered brilliancy of aurora; so Christ, who is Light should be preceded here below, by a star, His precursor; and his approach be signalized by the luminous rays which He himself, (though still invisible) would shed around this faithful herald of His coming. When, in by-gone days, the Most-High vouchsafed to light up, before the eyes of his prophets, the distant future, that radiant flash which for an instant shot across the heavens of the old covenant, melted away in the deep night, and ushered not in, as yet, the longed-for dawn. The “morning-star” of which the psalmist sings, shall know naught of defeat: declaring unto night that all is now over with her, he will dim his own fires only in the triumphant splendour of the Sun of Justice. Even as aurora melts into day, so will he confound with Light increased, his own radiance; being of himself, like every creature, nothingness and darkness, he will so reflect the brilliancy of the Messias shining immediately upon him, that many will mistake him even for the very Christ (St. Luke, iii. 15).
The mysterious conformity of Christ and His Precursor, the incomparable proximity which unites one to the other, are to be found many times marked down in the sacred scriptures. If Christ is the Word, eternally uttered by the Father, he is to be the Voice bearing this divine utterance whithersoever it is to reach; Isaias already hears the desert echoing with these accents, till now unknown; and the prince of prophets expresses his joy, with all the enthusiasm of a soul already beholding itself in the very presence of its Lord and God (St. Luke, iii. 15). The Christ is the Angel of the Covenant; but in the very same text wherein the Holy Ghost gives Him this title, for us so full of hope, there appears likewise bearing the same name of angel, the inseparable messenger, the faithful ambassador, to whom the earth is indebted for her coming to know the Spouse: Behold, I send My angel, and he shall prepare the way before My face. And presently the Lord Whom ye seek, and the Angel of the testament whom you desire, shall come to His Temple; behold he cometh, saith the Lord of hosts (Malach. iii. 1). And putting an end to the prophetic ministry, of which he is the last representative, Malachias terminates his own oracles by the words which we have heard Gabriel addressing to Zachary, when he makes known to him the approaching birth of the Precursor (Ibid. iv. 5-6).
The presence of Gabriel, on this occasion, of itself shows with what intimacy with the Son of God, this child then promised shall be favoured; for the very same Prince of the heavenly hosts, came again, soon afterwards, to announce the Emmanuel. Countless are the faithful messengers that press around the throne of the Holy Trinity, and the choice of these august ambassadors usually varies, according to the dignity of the instructions, to be transmitted to earth by the Most High. Nevertheless, it was fitting that the same archangel charged with concluding the sacred Nuptials of the Word with the Human Nature, should likewise prelude this great mission by preparing the coming of him whom the eternal decrees had designated as the Friend of the Bridegroom (St. John, iii. 29). Six months later, on his deputation to Mary, he strengthens his divine message, by revealing to that purest of Virgins, the prodigy, which had by then, already given a son to the sterile Elizabeth; this being the first step of the Almighty towards a still greater marvel. John is not yet born; but without longer delay, his career is begun: he is employed to attest the truth of the angels promises. How ineffable this guarantee of a child hidden as yet in his mother’s womb, but already brought forward as God’s witness, in that sublime negotiation which at that moment is holding heaven and earth in suspense! Illumined from on high, Mary receives the testimony and hesitates no longer. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, says she to the archangel, be it done unto me, according to thy word (St. Luke, i).
Gabriel has retired, bearing away with him the divine secret which he has not been commissioned to reveal to the rest of the world. Neither will the most prudent Virgin herself tell it; even Joseph, her virginal Spouse, is to receive no communication of the mystery from her lips. Yet fear not; the woeful sterility beneath which earth has been so long groaning, is not to be followed by an ignorance more sorrow-stricken still, now that it has yielded its fruit (Ps. lxxxiv. 13). There is one from whom Emmanuel will have no secret, nor reserve; it were fitting to reveal the marvel unto him. Scarce has the Spouse taken possession of the sanctuary all spotless, wherein the nine months of his first abiding amongst men, must run their course, yea, scarce has the Word been made Flesh, than Our Lady, inwardly taught what is her Son’s desire, arising, makes all haste to speed into the hill-country of Judea (St. Luke, i. 39). The voice of my Beloved! Behold he cometh, leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills (Cantic. ii. 8). His first visit is to the “Friend of the Bridegroom,” the first out-pour of His graces is to John. A distinct feast will allow us to Honor in a special manner, the precious day on which the divine Child, sanctifying his Precursor, reveals himself to John, by the voice of Mary; the day on which Our Lady, manifested by John, leaping within the womb of his mother, proclaims at last the wondrous things operated within her, by the Almighty, according to the merciful promise which he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever (St. Luke, i. 55).
But the time is come, when the good tidings are to spread, from children and mothers, through all the adjacent country, until at length they reach the whole world. John is about to be born, and, whilst still himself unable to speak, he is to loosen his father’s tongue. He is to put an end to that dumbness, with which the aged priest, a type of the old law, had been struck by the angel; and Zachary, himself filled with the Holy Ghost, is about to publish in a new canticle, the blessed visit of the Lord God of Israel. (Ibid. i. 68).
The hymn which follows, furnishes the Church with a beautiful formula of prayer and praise. There are few pieces so famous as this, in the holy liturgy. Its composition is attributed to Paul the Deacon, a monk of Monte Cassino, in the eighth century; and the story attached to it, is particularly touching. Honoured with that sacred order the very title of which remains through the course of ages inseparably linked with his name, Paul Warnefrid, the friend of Charlemagne and the historian of the Lombards, was on a certain occasion, deputed to bless the paschal candle, the triumphal appearance whereof, yearly announces to Holy Church, the Resurrection of the Spouse. Now it happened, that whilst he was preparing himself for this function, the most solemn of those reserved to the Levites of the New Testament, he suddenly lost his voice, until then clear and sonorous, so that, he was powerless to sound forth the glad notes of the Exsultet. In this extremity, Paul recollected himself; and turning to Saint John, patron at once of the Lombard nation and of that Church built by Saint Benedict at the top of the holy mount, he invoked him whose birth had put a stop to the dumbness of his own father, and who still preserves his power of restoring to ” vocal chords their lost suppleness.” The son of Zachary heard his devout client. Such was the origin of the harmonious strophes which now form the three hymns proper to this feast.
What is still better known, is the importance which the first of these strophes has acquired in the history of Gregorian chant and of music, The primitive air to which the hymn of Paul the Deacon was sung possessed this peculiarity, namely, that the initial syllable of each hemistich rose just one degree higher than the preceding, in the scale of sounds; thus was obtained, on bringing them together, the series of fundamental notes which form the basis of our present gamut. The custom was afterwards introduced of giving to the notes themselves, the names of these syllables: Ut, Be, Mi, Fa, Sol, La. Guido of Arezzo, in his method of teaching, originated this custom; and by completing it with the introduction of the regular lines of the musical scale, he was the cause of an immense stride being made in the science of sacred music, until then so laborious to render, and so tedious to acquire. He thus acknowledged that the divine Precursor, the Voice whose accents reveal to the world the harmony of the eternal canticle, ought to have the honour of having attached to his name the organization of earth’s melodies. (4)
Image: Natività del battista, artist: Jacopo Carucci, circa 1526
Today is the feast of the Vigil of Saint John the Baptist.
There was in the days of Herod, the King of Judea, a certain priest named Zachary, of the course of Abia, and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name Elizabeth. And they were both just before God, walking in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame. And they had no son, for that Elizabeth was barren, and they both were well advanced in years. And it came to pass, when he executed the priestly function in the order of his course before God, according to the custom of the priestly office, it was his lot to offer incense, going into the temple of the Lord; and all the multitude of the people was praying without, at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an Angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zachary seeing him was troubled, and fear fell upon him; but the Angel said to him: Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John: and thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice in his nativity. For he shall be great before the Lord: and shall drink no wine nor strong drink: and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb. And he shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias; that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people.–St. Luke, i. 5 – 17
So sacred was St. John’s day deemed that two rival armies, meeting face to face on 23 June, by common accord put off the battle until the morrow of the feast (Battle of Fontenay, 841). “Joy, which is the characteristic of the day, radiated from the sacred precincts. The lovely summer nights, at St. John’s tide, gave free scope to popular display of lively faith among various nationalities. Scarce had the last rays of the setting sun died away when, all the world over, immense columns of flame arose from every mountain-top, and in an instant, every town, and village, and hamlet was lighted up” (Gueranger). (2)
The custom of the “St. John’s fires” has endured unto this day. All over Europe, from Scandinavia to Spain, and from Ireland to Russia, Saint John’s Day festivities are closely associated with the ancient nature lore of the great summer festival of pre-Christian times. Fires are lighted on mountains and hilltops on the eve of his feast. These “Saint John’s fires” burn brightly and quietly along the fiords of Norway, on the peaks of the Alps, on the slopes of the Pyrenees, and on the mountains of Spain (where they are called Hogsueras). They were an ancient symbol of the warmth and light of the sun which the forefathers greeted at the beginning of summer. In many places, great celebrations are held with dances, games, and outdoor meals. (3)
It should be noted that in the Catholic sections of Europe the combination of the ancient festival of nature lore with the Feast of the Baptist has resulted in a tradition of dignified celebration, which has come down to our day. People gather around the fireplace, dressed in their national or local costumes, and sing their beautiful ancient songs. When the fire is lighted, one of them recites a poem that expresses the thought of the feast. Then they pray together to Saint John for his intercession that the summer may be blessed in homes, fields, and country, and finally perform some of the traditional folk dances, usually accompanied by singing and music.
At sunset on June 23rd in Ireland, the festivals begins. This midsummer festival was known as St. John’s Eve, or Bonfire Night, and not that long ago, it was a wide-spread tradition. For several days beforehand, children and young people went from house to house asking for donations for the blessed fire. It was considered very unlucky to refuse. In fact, at some fires, the names of generous donors were called out and the crowd would cheer. But then, the names of the miserly were also announced and these were greeted with jeers and catcalls.
Imagine what it must have been like. Around the fire were assembled all the people of the locality – from the smallest children to the oldest men and women. As the sun set, the fire was lit. Usually, this honor was given to a knowledgeable elderly man who would say the traditional prayer for the occasion. One verse of this prayer is:
In the honor of God and St. John, to the fruitfulness and profit of our planting and our work, in the the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (3)
And if you’re looking for an excuse to build a bonfire, the Church gives us a great reason to do so tonight, for tonight is the vigil of the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the prophetic forerunner of Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist was a man on fire with the Holy Spirit. His words burned like a furnace, and he feared no one, even the powerful rulers of his day. He called all to repentance without exception, and lightened the way for the messiah like a blazing torch. What better way to commemorate this zealous prophet than with a roaring bonfire?
And indeed, it is an ancient tradition of the Church to build a bonfire on the night of June 23, the vigil of St. John’s nativity, and keep watch through the night. The vigil of this feast is also symbolic in that it takes place only a few days after the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, calling to mind St. John’s declaration that, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
So build a fire tonight, like centuries of Catholics before you, and spend time with your family and loved ones. Remember this great saint who courageously preached the coming of the Messiah, and ask him for his intercession.
The Roman Ritual contains a priestly blessing for the vigil fire, and it is one of the oldest prayers contained in it. But if no priest is available to bless your fire, the family can sing the hymn together and the father can recite the closing prayer. Enjoy! (5)
Image: The Holy Children with a Shell, artist: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (4)
Today is the feast day of Saint Mary of Oignies. Ora pro nobis.
Mary of Oignies was born in the diocese of Liege in Belgium in 1167, of very wealthy parents. While still very young, she rejected everything childish or vain — games, beautiful clothing, ornaments. Despite her desire to be a nun, she was obliged to marry a virtuous young lord. Her holy life caused admiration in her spouse and he decided to follow her examples. Together they resolved to practice continence for life. They distributed their wealth to the poor and consecrated themselves to works of piety. The devil tried every trick to make them relent in their holy resolution, but failed. They became blessed abundantly, as well as sarcasms and insults from the worldly.
Eventually unable to bear the frequent attention of devotees, Mary and her husband felt it God’s will that they should separate to live contemplative lives. Mary retired to a hermitage of Saint Nicholas in Oignies. There she prayed for the souls in Purgatory. She gave spiritual advise to the disciples who gathered around her, among them James of Viry. She practiced asceticism worthy of the Desert Fathers, and was privileged to have mystical ecstasies and visions, mainly of Saint John and her guardian angel. Mary also continued to care for lepers.
Mary had the gift of tears. She could not look at a crucifix without breaking into a torrent of tears or being ravished in ecstasy. When a priest told her to cease these exhibitions, she asked God to make him understand. (It is not possible for a creature to arrest tears which the Holy Spirit obliges to well up). And the priest, that same day while saying his Mass, began to shed so many tears that the altar cloths and his vestments were wet with them.
She saw the place destined for her in heaven. Three days before she died, Mary began to sing in ecstatic strains in the Romance language concerning the Trinity, the Humanity of Christ, the Virgin and the Saints. She sang as if the sentences with their rhythm were written before her. She said, greatly rejoicing at it, that the Holy Spirit would soon visit His Church, and send laborers more abundantly than usual into the harvest. She died on June 23rd, 1213, of natural causes.
The faithful who have addressed her were so impressed with the value of her intercession that her relics became the object of great respect. Buried at Oignies, her remains in 1609 were placed in a silver reliquary in its parish church of Our Lady; in 1817 they were transferred to the Church of Saint Nicolas at Nivelle, near her birthplace. (1)
Today is the feast day of Saint Etheldreda. Ora pro nobis.
She was known as both Etheldreda and Audrey. She was born the daughter of a king in about 630 in Northumbria and was brought up in the fear of God. Her mother Bertha and sisters are also numbered among the Saints: Erconwald, Ethelburga, Sexburga, and Withburga. Etheldreda was married at an early age to Tonbert, prince of the Gryvii. She convinced him to allow her to retain her virginity during their married life. He died three years after their wedding, and Etheldreda lived in seculsion on the island of Ely for the next five years. (2)
She then married Egfrid, son of King Oswy of Northumbria, who was only a boy at the time. When, after twelve years of marriage, he demanded his conjugal rights. She refused, saying she had dedicated herself to God. The case was referred to St. Wilfrid, who upheld her claim. As soon as Etheldreda had left the court of her spouse, he repented of having consented to her departure. He followed her, meaning to bring her back by force. She took refuge on a headland on the southern coast near Coldingham. Here a miracle took place, for the waters forced a passage and hemmed in the hill with morasses, barring the further advance of the king. The Saint remained in this island refuge for seven days. Her royal spouse, recognizing the divine will, agreed to leave her in peace. She returned to Ely, built a double monastery there about 672.
Not only holy and a model of virtue in shepherding her people to the Lord, Etheldreda also was graced with the gift of prophecy. Most notable of her prophecies was that of her own death by plague, and the exact number of her monks and nuns who would be carried off by the same epidemic. True to her prophesy, Etheldreda died of a quinsy, a form of plague which led to the development of a large tumor upon her neck. Etheldreda, never complaining about the pain or the sight of the growth, regarded is as a punishment for her former love of fine clothing, and, in particular, for having worn jewels on her neck.
She was abbess of the convent for the rest of her life, and died in her convent in Ely. (2)
Seventeen years after her death, Saint Wilfrid and Saint Etheldreda’s physician discovered her body to be incorrupt. (3)
Unfortunately, the tomb of Saint Etheldreda was desecrated during the English Reformation, with only the incorrupt hand of the blessed saint surviving. Her relics remain at St Etheldreda’s Roman Catholic church at Ely, where many miracles have been reported through her intercession. (3)
Today is the feast day of Saint Alban. Ora pro nobis.
St Alban was an Englishman, and a pagan by birth. During the persecution of Diocletian, he fortunately received into his house a holy ecclesiastic, who was flying from the persecutors. Alban was greatly edified by the saintly life of his guest, who was almost continually employed in prayer. Knowing him to be a Christian, our saint begged to be instructed in the religion. The clergyman so forcibly showed him the extravagances of idolatry, and the truth of the doctrines of Jesus Christ, that Alban embraced the Christian faith.
It was discovered after some time that the ecclesiastic, after whom search was being made, lay concealed in Alban’s house. The governor sent a party of soldiers to seize him. But Alban, upon their approach, put on the habit of the clergyman, and enabled him to effect his escape. Alban was accordingly arrested and brought before the governor. Seeing Alban, with whom he had been acquainted, in that strange dress, and judging that he had become a Christian, he threatened that if the saint would not abandon the faith, he would cause him to suffer all the torments.
The magistrate asked, “of what family and race are you?”
“How can it concern thee to know of what stock I am?” answered Alban. If thou desirest to know what religion, I will tell thee-I am a Christian and am bound by Christian obligations.”
“I ask thy name, tell me immediately.”
“I am called Albanus by my parents,” he replied, “and I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things.”
Then the governor said, If thou wilt enjoy eternal life, delay not to sacrifice to the great gods.”
Alban rejoined, “These sacrifices which are offered to devils are to no avail. hell is the reward of those who offer them.
The governor then caused him to be cruelly scourged. Alban suffered this torture, and many others that followed it, with such joy, that the governor, despairing of being able to change his resolve, condemned him to be beheaded.
Saint Alban proceeded to the place of execution, as though it were to a banquet. Having arrived at the bank of the river, which should be crossed in order to reach the destined place, such a multitude had assembled, that it was considered impossible to pass the bridge before evening. Hereupon the saint, anxious to give his life for Jesus Christ, prayed to the Lord, and the waters, dividing themselves on either side, left a dry passage to the opposite bank. At the sight of this miracle the executioner was converted, and happily obtained the crown of martyrdom together with St Alban.
The whole legend as known to Bede was probably in existence in the first half of the sixth century (W. Meyer, “Legende des h. Albanus“, p. 21), and was used by Gildas before 547. The commonly received account of the martyrdom of St. Alban meets us as early as the pages of Bede “Ecclesiastical History” (Bk. I, chs. vii and xviii). His feast is still kept as of old, on 22 June, and it is celebrated throughout England as a greater double.
In art, St Alban is represented, sometimes in civil and sometimes in military dress, bearing the palm of martyrdom and a sword, or a cross and a sword.
Image: Heraclius takes down St. Alban’s head from a 13th Century manuscript of The Life of St. Alban(5)
Today is the feast day of Saint Paulinus. Ora pro nobis.
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
St. Paulinus, who, on account of his great learning and eloquence, but still more on account of his virtues, is highly praised by St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Jerome and St. Gregory, was a native of Bordeaux, in the province of Gascony. His parents, who were Romans, and very rich and of ancient nobility, desired that their son should be as eminent for intelligence and knowledge, as he was on account of his birth and fortune. Their desire was fulfilled; for, when Paulinus had reached the age of manhood, he was not only honored and admired by everyone, but was chosen Prefect and Governor of Rome, and gained great fame for the wisdom of his administration. The pious Paulinus, however, soon became tired of all worldly honors and pleasures, and having resigned his office, he went to Barcelona in Spain, to serve God without disturbance. Having remained there for some time, he returned to Italy. At that time, St. Ambrose was bishop of Milan, and to him Paulinus applied for advice with regard to the change he intended to make in his life. Having received the Saint’s directions, he went to Nola, in Campania, as he entertained special reverence towards St. Felix, priest and martyr, of that city. There he humbled himself so deeply, that for some time he occupied the office of sacristan. Afterwards he sold his estates, and having used a part of the money in building a Church at Fundi, he gave the remainder to the poor. He then proceeded to a little village in the neighborhood of Nola, changed his rich garments for humble clothing, and commenced to lead the life of a hermit in a poor little hut, deriving all his sustenance from alms.
But though Paulinus kept himself secluded, it yet became known who he was, and whence he came, and not only Nola, but all Italy was astonished, that so great and eminent a man had chosen for his walk through life such an humble, and, in the eyes of the world, such a despised path. The esteem in which he was then held by both clergy and laity was so great, that, on the death of the bishop of Nola, they determined to raise him to the Episcopal chair. It was long before the humble servant of God could be persuaded to accept the dignity, but having at last consented, his love, his solicitude for his flock, the zeal he displayed for the honor of God, made him beloved by men and favored by the Almighty. Soon after his election to the See, Campania suffered the fate of many other countries, and was laid waste by the Goths, and many of its inhabitants were taken prisoners. The holy Bishop used all his income to feed the poor and ransom the captives. When all his resources were exhausted, Nola was plundered and the great servant of the Almighty, with several others, was taken prisoner. God, however, so ordained that he was speedily released. Some years afterwards, the Vandals crossed the ocean, and, again plundering the Kingdom of Naples, took away many of the inhabitants as prisoners. Among these were several persons from Nola, and although St. Paulinus exerted himself to the utmost to redeem them from prison, he was unable to help all.
This extremity gave the holy Bishop an opportunity for an act of charity which had never before been witnessed in the world. St. Gregory himself relates the event as follows: A poor widow coming to the Saint complained with bitter tears that her only son, who was all the support she had, was taken prisoner, and begged him not to refuse her the money she needed for his ransom. The Saint, deeply affected, answered: “My dear daughter, I have not anything left; but to ransom your son I will sell myself. I will go with you and you must say that you give me instead of your son, in order that he may return to you.” The widow, unspeakably surprised at the Saint’s offer, hesitated to accept it; but Paulinus knew how to overcome her remonstrances, and at last persuaded her to consent to his plan. He travelled with her to Africa, where her son had already arrived, and the Saint, clad in the garment of a slave, was exchanged for the widow’s son, the latter being set at liberty. Paulinus was charged with the care of a garden, as he said that he was able to perform that work, and God blessed his endeavors in such a manner, that everything grew most wonderfully under his hands. A near relative of the king, who was a great lover of horticulture came frequently into the garden, and speaking with the new gardener, soon observed that he was more than an ordinary laborer. Paulinus one day whispered to him in a prophetic spirit: “Have a care for the future. Thy king will soon be a corpse. Act in time, and take all proper measures in the affairs of the Crown.” The gentleman, greatly terrified at this speech, informed the king of it, who desired to see Paulinus.
Fear bedewred the kings face with great drops of sweat when the Saint appeared before him; for, he had had a dream in the night in which it appeared to him that he stood before the divine judgment-seat, and heard the sentence: “The scourge given to him shall again be taken from his hands.” Among the judges, the king said he had seen the man now standing before him. After this he gave orders to inquire into the history of this gardener. At first, Paulinus would not confess who he was, but as they insisted on knowing, and he thought it might promote the honor of God, he revealed his name and also how he had become a slave. The king, admiring his virtue, immediately gave him his liberty, and told him he would grant him any favor he might ask. The Saint requested the liberation of all the captives from Nola, which the king granted without any hesitation. Hence all the prisoners from Nola were assembled at court, and being liberated, they returned with the holy bishop, whom they justly regarded and honored as their deliverer. How the whole city rejoiced when the Saint arrived there accompanied by so many long lost friends! All the inhabitants went out to meet him, and having given him due thanks for his love and goodness, they led him with great honors and rejoicings to his Episcopal chair, whence he exhorted them to give thanks to the Almighty for the grace bestowed on them, and to serve Him fervently and with unwearied zeal in future.
After this he continued his pastoral functions until sickness confined him to his bed. Two bishops from the neighborhood visited him at this time, and having an altar erected in his room, he for the last time said Holy Mass. When this was accomplished, he lay down again and asked where his brothers were? A servant, supposing that St. Paulinus was speaking of the two above-mentioned bishops, replied: “They are here, dear father.” The Saint, however, said: “Not so: those, whom I mean, are the two bishops, Januarius and Martin, who were with me, and who promised to come soon again.” Januarius had formerly been bishop at Naples, Martin at Tours : both were famous on account of their holiness. They appeared to the Saint and cheered him in his suffering, and thus he expired happily in the Lord, in the year 431. The holy Fathers Jerome, Gregory, and Ambrose in their works, bestow high praise on the great learning as well as the virtues of this Saint. St.Augustine, in his record of him, relates among other events, that when St. Paulinus had been taken prisoner, he said to the Almighty: “Lord, release my heart from all anxiety for gold and silver, as Thou knowest best where I have placed my treasures.” St. Augustine remarks that the holy man had already sent all that had been his, according to the admonition of our Lord, to heaven, through the hands of the poor. (5)
Everything Paulinus performed in the Spirit of the Bible and expressed in Biblical language. Gennadius mentions the writings of Paulinus in his continuation of St. Jerome’s “De Viris Illustribus ” (xlix). The panegyric on the Emperor Theodosius is unfortunately lost, as are also the Opus sacramentorum et hymnorum”, the “Epistolae ad Sororem”, the “Liber de Paenitentia”, the “Liber de Laude Generali Omnium Martyrum”, and a poetical treatment of the “De Regibus” of Suetonius which Ausonius mentions. Forty-nine letters to friends have been preserved, as those to Sulpicius Severus, St. Augustine, Delphinus, Bishop Victricius of Rouen, Desiderius, Amandus, Pammachius. Thirty-three poems are also extant. After 395 he composed annually a hymn for the feast of St. Felix, in which he principally glorified the life, works, and miracles of his holy patron. Then going further back he brought in various religious and poetic motives. The epic parts are very vivid, the lyrics full of real, unaffected enthusiasm and an ardent appreciation of nature. Thirteen of these poems and fragments of the fourteenth have preserved.
Conspicuous among his other works are the poetic epistles to Ausonius, the nuptial hymn to Julianus, which extols the dignity and sanctity of Christian marriage, and the poem of comfort to the parents of Celsus on the death of their child. Although Paulinus has great versatility and nicety, still he is not entirely free from the mannerisms and ornate culture of his period. All his writings breathe a charming, ideal personality, freed from all terrestrial attachments, ever striving upward. According to Augustine, he also had an exaggerated idea concerning the veneration of saints and relics. His letter xxxii, written to Sulpicius Severus, has received special attention because in it he describes the basilica of Nola, which he built, and gives copious accounts of the existence, construction, and purpose of Christian monuments. From Paulinus too we have information concerning St. Peter’s in Rome. During his lifetime Paulinus was looked upon as saint. His body was first interred in the cathedral of Nola; later, in Benevento; then it was conveyed by Otto III to S. Bartolomeo all’Isola, in Rome, and finally in compliance with the regulation of Pius X of 18 Sept., 1908 (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, I, 245 sq.) was restored to the cathedral of Nola. His feast, 22 June, was raised to the rank of a double. (1)
Saint Paulinus, having returned to Nola, died in 431. His holy remains were transferred several times but restored to the cathedral of Nola in 1908. Although some of his wonderful writings have been lost, thirty-two poems and fifty-one letters remain. His writings contain one of the earliest examples of a Christian wedding song. (4)
Image: Crop of Saint Paulinus of Nola line engraving (7)
Today is the feast day of Saint Leutfridus. Ora pro nobis.
This was an extraordinary saint who is not well known. Sometimes called Leutfrid, Leufroi, or Leufroy. He was born in the mid-7th century near Evreux, France. He was born of a good family, which he left to be a priest. After many trials, he founded La Croix-Saint Qu’en Abbey [Holy Cross Abbey], latter called Saint Leufroy Abbey. Because of his rigor, he suffered persecutions from the lax Bishops. He had the gifts of miracles and prophecy.
St. Leutfridus had an ardent zeal for justice, only surpassed by his zeal for mercy, expressed by his love for the poor. While he was abbot of La Croix-Saint-Qu’en, a monk died and three coins were found on his person in violation of the vow of poverty. Leutfridus ordered the monk to be buried in profane land, not in the abbey cemetery. Afterward, he made a 40-day fast, praying and weeping for the soul of that monk who was apparently lost. After this penance, the Lord revealed to him that the soul of the monk had been freed from Purgatory.
He had a terrible fury against the Devil. Once when he was in his cell, a monk came to tell him that the Devil had taken the shape of a monstrous animal and was in the chapel causing havoc. St. Leutfridus hurried to the chapel. Before facing the Devil, he went to each door and window and made the Sign of the Cross over them to close the exits. Then he advanced. And bit the animal furiously. The Devil tried to flee, but was prevented from leaving by the normal exits because of the Sign of the Cross the Saint had made over them. He tried to release himself from the animal body he had taken on, but God did not allow him to do so. St. Leutfridus continued to exorcize and bite him, until the monster found a way to escape through the top of the bell tower and disappeared.
Physiognomy of the Saints, by Ernesto Hello.
Extraordinarily holy, but little known, Saint Leutfridus is an example for our mediocre days.
He was born of a good family in seventh century Neustria (present-day France). He left his family to become a Benedictine priest. After a great struggle, he founded the Abbey of the Holy Cross. He was gifted with prophesy and the ability to work miracles and was extremely severe.
One day a lady began to ridicule Saint Leutfridus for being bald. The saint replied: “Why do you poke fun at my natural defect? From now on, you will have no more hair on your head than I have on my forehead, and neither will your descendents.”
Coming across a man working in a field one Sunday, Saint Leutfridus raised his eyes to Heaven and prayed: “Lord, make this land eternally sterile.” From then on, neither grain nor wheat was ever seen in the field again. In its place, there were only thorns and thistles.
These are magnificent stories!
Saint Leutfridus had an abundant zeal for justice, but was even more ardently merciful.
This principle is important. Saint Leutfridus was both just and merciful. These two virtues must go hand in hand.
Saint Leutfridus was even ardently charitable while angry and when reprimanding…these were parallel lines of his life.
When one of his monks died, his brothers found three coins in his pocket. This showed that the deceased had violated his vow of poverty. Upon learning this, Saint Leutfridus ordered that his body be buried in profane ground.
Afterwards, he made a 40-day retreat, praying and weeping for the soul of this monk, who seemed lost.
Those whose piety is merely sentimental would not understand this. Confronted by this situation, they would pray: “Oh, poor man, grant him pardon,” and consider him saved. On the contrary, Saint Leutfridus ordered him to be buried in profane ground and then made a retreat, begging for the monk’s salvation. Our Lord, Himself, possessed this combination of sternness and mercy.
After these days of retreat, the Lord revealed to Saint Leutfridus that His mercy had saved the monk’s soul, even though His justice was prepared to condemn him.
During the interim between death and salvation, the monk was in a type of limbo. Then Saint Leutfridus made a retreat, did penance and the man was saved.
Someone could wonder how this was possible since the man was already dead and judgment takes place immediately when the soul separates from the body. It is hard to say, but we cannot put limits on God’s mercy. Perhaps He left the monk’s soul fused to his body, waiting for the sacrifice of Saint Leutfridus. In any case, this story clashes with the liberal idea that the monk would be automatically saved.
Saint Leutfridus was tremendously wrathful against the devil.
Often, people react to temptations by becoming afraid of the devil, but I have seen very few who react with holy hatred and furiously fight against him. We should all strive to attain this holy wrath.
When Satan approaches, we should be filled with anger and hatred, because the devil is the declared enemy of God and our souls. He wishes us every form of evil. Thus, when we are tempted, we should react with militant execration, like Saint Michael did.
Once, a friar called Saint Leutfridus from his cell to tell him that the devil was appearing in the chapel. Recognizing his old enemy, the saint ran to the Chapel and made the sign of the cross over the doors and windows, which closed, blocking all the exits.
Wisely, he captured the devil first, so that he could not get away.
Advancing towards the devil, the saint furiously beat him. The devil wanted to flee, but all the exits were blocked. Normally, he could have instantly left the body he had taken up, but apparently he had not permission to do so. God wanted to humiliate him further under Saint Leutfridus’ blows.
This is a splendid scene. The beating was physically given and spiritually felt, all under the Sign of the Cross. Just as the wicked souls are burned by Hell’s material fire, so too the devil’s soul was made to feel the saint’s blows.
Saint Leutfridus beat the body that was merely a doll of the devil.
Naturally, these blows tormented and humiliated the devil. We too can increase his torment. This is particularly excellent when Satan provokes an attack. Then, the counter-attack gives glory to Our Lady by showing that her children’s hatred of the devil is greater than his hatred of men.
God obliged the devil to flee by way of the belfry, so that he would feel his defeat more sensibly.
The devil was forced to flee by way of the tower, under the continued blows of Saint Leutfridus. We would love to have seen the saint deliver the final blow!
We can imagine the scene: Saint Leutfridus is an old man with white hair and a white beard, but still fit and possessing chestnut eyes. He is very strong and beats the devil with utter hatred, yet maintains perfect serenity. All the while, the devil’s doll, moaning and writhing, retreats from sight, by way of the belfry.
Since we only fight and struggle as far as our anger propels us, just wrath is important. We should strive to develop a holy wrath against the devil that is always vigilant and never sleeps.
Just as a mother with a very sick child sleeps with a wakeful heart, we too should sleep with our hearts in a state of continual vigilance. We should be able to proclaim that even while asleep, we remain a living torch of hatred against the devil.
Thus, we will be able to say: “I sleep, but my heart looks in hope for an occasion to give greater glory the Blessed Virgin.” (3)