SAINTS FOR THE SEASON  (December, January, February)

With the Word Divine

The Virgin, pregnant,

Comes upon her way,

If you give her lodging.

                                    (St John of the Cross)

    Nine months ago, on 25th March, we celebrated the Annunciation, when Mary, just emerged from childhood herself, agreed to become the mother of the Son of God, and the Divine Child was conceived in her by the power of the Most High, the Holy Spirit.  Now the Church is in the season of Advent, the quiet final weeks of her pregnancy, awaiting with her the birth of that Holy Child, who "came all so stille where his mother was, as dew in April that falleth on the grass."

    Firstly, however, on 8th December, we rejoice in Mary's own Immaculate Conception, immaculate solely for the sake of (and by the merits of) the Holy One to whom she will give birth.  And it is on account of her Immaculate Conception that she stands supreme in all creation as "Queen of Angels, Queen of All Saints, Cause of Our Joy" - on account of the great privilege bestowed on her at the moment of her conception. 

    A further ancient feast, on 17th December, (9 days after the Immaculate Conception - just time for a Novena!), celebrates "The Humility of the Blessed Virgin Mary"; that perfect childlike trust that was the consequence of her Immaculate Conception.  It is this that constitutes her essential holiness, and it is this that explains Christ's own observation that blessed even above her motherhood is her humility - her total willingness "to hear the word of God and keep it."

    But the purpose?  That the Word might become flesh, the great joy of Christmas - "...that the Word could take on himself what was ours, and then clothe us with what was his." (St Athanasius).  How we rejoice in the birth of a child - but this child!  And throughout Advent what preparation we should make, and with what joyful expectation!  On Christmas Eve St John of the Cross (whose verse provides the theme for these notes) with his friars would parade a statue of the Virgin from door to door asking for shelter.  All would refuse and would then join the procession, until finally, in the Church, the Christ-Child would be placed in the crib.  Often John would pick up the child from the manger and dance with it round the chapel, unable to contain his joy.

    Sunday 26th December is the feast of The Holy Family, and the Church holds up the love of Jesus, Mary and Joseph for each other as the model of the Christian family.  The Holy Innocents, whose families were desolated by the slaughter of their children, are remembered on 28th December.  On this day we can perhaps remember too the thousands of families throughout the world, whose lives have been torn apart by war, disease and persecution; and nearer home we can lament the continuing callous disregard of infant life, as “...Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they were no more”. (Mt 2:18).

    It is in her Motherhood of Christ our Saviour, that Mary becomes our mother - mother of the whole Christ wherever present - of Christ in glory, and of Christ abiding with us still, Emmanuel; whether present in each of us as members of his mystical body, or in his sacrifice renewed in each Mass, or in his sacramental presence in the tabernacle.  In celebrating The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on 1st January, the Church begins the Divine Office with the words: "O wonderful exchange!" - that in taking up our human nature God bestowed on us his divine nature.

    The Epiphany of the Lord on 6th January sees the wise men being led in faith to Christ, and offering him their gifts.  Christ, appearing to St Mechtilde on this feast presented to her the gold of his Divine Love, the frankincense of his holiness and devotion, and the myrrh of his bitter Passion, that she might offer them back as gifts to him as if they were her own.  All that he has is indeed ours.

   The final feast of Christ's childhood during this period is The Presentation, on 2nd February.  The blessing and carrying of candles on this Candlemas Day celebrates the true light come into the world, and the cry of joy of Simeon, repeated by the Church every evening at Compline, that his request - to see "the light to enlighten the gentiles and give glory to Israel" - had been realised; and his prophecy to Mary that a sword was to pierce her soul.

    Many saints are commemorated during these three months, before the commencement of Lent on Ash Wednesday.  Several were martyrs - Stephen, Sebastian, Agatha, Lucy, Paul Miki, and others - but our theme has been children, and as January is dedicated to The Holy Childhood it would seem particularly appropriate to finish with a young girl, martyred at the age of thirteen. 

    21st January is the feast of St Agnes, martyred in the fourth century and one of the most revered saints of the Roman Church.  Prior to the post-Vatican II Reforms she was venerated by name in the Canon of every Mass, and also had a subsidiary feast, on 28th January, commemorating her appearing to her parents praying at her tomb.  Having consecrated herself to Christ, she rejected proposals of marriage and was in consequence denounced as a Christian to the Authorities.  Stripped naked for public insult her chastity was wonderfully protected, and she was sentenced to be beheaded.  She is regarded as a double martyr - to modesty and to religion, and has been viewed by thousands upon thousands of young women as their patron and model.  In the cellars beneath her church of St Agnes in Rome are the remains of the ancient brothel where she suffered humiliation, now preserved as a shrine; while a further church stands over her tomb in the catacomb of St Agnes.  In Greek the name Agnes means "Chaste", and in Latin, "Lamb"; and on her feast-day two lambs are blessed in the presence of the Pope, and their wool is used to make the palliums sent by the Pope to archbishops throughout the world as a sign of their pastoral authority.  St Agnes is pictured with the sword of her execution in her hand and with a lamb at her feet.

Peter Whelan


SAINTS FOR THE SEASON  (March, April, May)

   The writer François Mauriac, in his Mémoires Intérieurs, talks of his ability to revisit the novels he had read from childhood onwards, renewing at will his familiarity with their characters as if he knew them personally, many of them even as friends, but others more distantly as characters to be respected or passed by; but their world completely "habitable". The saints are like that. With some one feels totally at home, as if you could sit comfortably beside them in total familiarity, - Gemma Galgani, Elizabeth of the Trinity,  Charles de Foucauld, Thérèse, even Mary herself, and so many, many more - or walk with them in the countryside, with some, running and laughing with them through the fields.

   The difficulty in writing a short piece like this is that so many of this family of friends - for family is what they are - have to be passed over for lack of space. In this three month period: Aelred of Rievaulx, friend to all; Aelred's own favourite saint, Cuthbert (although now celebrated in September), so loved by his companions that they vied with one another to visit him in his island fastness; Chad under whose parish patronage I spent my own childhood and youth; Bede patron of my schooling; Abraham the hermit of Edessa and his niece Mary, their story wonderfully recorded by Ephraim the deacon; Robert, founder with our own Stephen Harding, of the Cistercian Order of which Aelred too was a member; John of God, in turn shepherd, soldier, pedlar, before being persuaded by John of Avila to a life caring for the sick and dying, widows and orphans, the unemployed, poor students and fallen women, now patron saint of hospitals; John of Avila himself, who drew also to himself by his preaching the great St Teresa and St Francis Borgia; Louis de Montfort, whose writings include "True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin"; Mary Magdalen dei Pazzi, urged by the eternal Father to offer unceasingly the merits of Christ's blood, the only worthy offering, in expiation of the Father's wrath at "the iniquities of mankind, which cry aloud for vengeance with even greater force than the blood of Abel" - an offering particularly appropriate in this season of Lent; Catherine of Siena, whose feast is normally celebrated on 29 April, also with an intense devotion to the merits of Christ's Precious Blood, urging her disciples to become inebriated with it, and concluding her Dialogues with a prayer to the "Eternal Blood", and crying to the Divine Mercy: "O divine Folly! was it not sufficient for you to become incarnate that you must also die for us? And your mercy has done even more than this, for you have given yourself to be our food"; Gemma Galgani (14 May) who bore, like Catherine, the marks of the stigmata, sharing with Christ in his suffering until she pleaded: "Jesus, Jesus, I can bear no more", all the time immersed in ordinary domestic duties within the family, with an unfulfilled yearning to be a Passionist nun, and declared a saint in 1940; Benedict Joseph Labré (16 April), another "failed vocation", whose health obliged him to leave both the Carthusians and the Cistercians, becoming a tramp and a beggar, spending the rest of his short life on pilgrimage from one European shrine to another, ending his days in a Rome hostel for the destitute, collapsing on the steps of the church of Santa Maria dei Monti on the Wednesday of Holy Week, and being buried in that church with great public acclamation on the Easter Sunday.

All of these, and many more, are commemorated in the Calendar of Saints during this period, although most are only celebrated liturgically in their own localities or congregations, enabling the liturgy to concentrate properly on the unfolding of the Mystery of Christ.

   March is traditionally dedicated to St Joseph, April to the Holy Spirit, and May to the Blessed Virgin; and the relationship in these months of the feasts of St Joseph (19 March), the Annunciation (25 March), and the Visitation (31 May), plays out a drama involving, of course, all three. Curious to wonder when it was that Joseph discovered Mary to be with child; when was he brought to the realisation that the child had been conceived by the Holy Spirit - was it before or after Mary's visit and three months stay with her cousin, Elizabeth? What was the reason for Mary's journey when young betrothed Jewish girls were not expected to wander away from home? Was Joseph's initial reaction a factor? Sufficient to know the outcome, which makes Joseph now the "custos", the guardian, not simply of Mary and of Jesus, but of Christ's Church, of us. St Teresa of Avila calls St Joseph "my glorious father", writing in her Life: "I do not remember ever having asked him for anything that he did not grant me. The Lord seems to have given other saints grace to help in some troubles, but I know by experience that this glorious saint helps in all. Himself subject to Joseph on earth, so in heaven the Lord does what he asks."

   The saints provide not only an example for our edification, but are concerned for our salvation as fellow members of the Mystical Body of Christ. Everyone should have their own personal Litany of the Saints, of those saints whose lives have some particular bearing on their own, who share their devotions, or with whom they simply feel an affinity. The saints will ensure that it works both ways.

Peter Whelan



SAINTS FOR THE SEASON  (June, July and August)

   June, July and August - months dedicated to sound Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart, to the Precious Blood and to the Immaculate Heart of Mary; but also holiday months, and what better escape from crowded beaches than tracking down the local saint? For after almost two thousand years of Christianity few regions remain without a saint or two.

   My own boyhood holidays were invariably spent in Wales, truly a land of saints. So many names beginning with 'Llan', each commemorating a church, a monastery or a saint, from Llandudno in the North, where a tiny chapel of St Tudno is preserved on the shore, to Llantwit- Major in the South, where St Illtyd in the fifth century, a full hundred years before the arrival of Augustine, established a great centre of learning from which many of the great Welsh saints and missionaries emerged. They included St Samson, later abbot of Caldey (a monastic island still) and one of the greatest missionaries Britain has ever produced. His feastday falls within this period, on 28th July. Some fifty years later David, patron saint of Wales and himself trained in Illtyd's monastery, established another great nursery of saints at Mynyw  (Menevia, now St Davids), and his relics are still enshrined in the cathedral there. Pope Callistus II in 1120 decreed that two pilgrimages to David's shrine were equivalent to one to Rome.   So no need to venture abroad - a prayer once recited regularly at Benediction refers to this as "an island of saints, illustrious for their glorious merits and virtues".>But of course venturing abroad uncovers thousands of similar opportunities for discovery. I mention only one - and that initially a missed opportunity and a matter of regret: that when visiting our son-in-law's parents near Lyon, and having been offered a visit to a village some kilometres to the North, I chose an easier option. Thankfully the omission was made good a year later. For the village, whose name was hardly known before 1818, had then become suddenly a place of pilgrimage for thousands - not to pray beside the tomb of a dead saint, but to visit the confessional of a humble, barely educated, simple village priest, a former farm hand. That priest is still about his Master's business, for he is known now as St John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, the patron of parish priests; and the village of Ars is a shrine to his devotion and to his memory. His feastday is 4th August.

   6th July is the feastday of a saint truly for our own time, Maria Goretti, a child approaching  twelve years old, killed defending her chastity from the persistent advances of a young man of twenty so incensed by her refusals that he stabbed her repeatedly with a knife. She survived the stabbing for twenty hours, during which she became a Child of Mary, received the Last Sacrament and specifically forgave her murderer. Her canonization in the Holy Year, 1950, was attended by her mother, by her brothers, and by her murderer, and being the first canonization to be conducted out of doors in the Piazza of St Peter's, by a huge crowd which included my own wife, Cecilia. The murderer, repentant during twenty-eight years in prison, lived on well into his eighties as a monastery gardener.

   The Nativity of St John the Baptist on 24th June (a Solemnity) is the oldest feast in any liturgy to celebrate a saint, and he and Our Lady are the only saints whose nativity as well as their birthday into glory is celebrated in the liturgical calendar. Catholic tradition holds that John was sanctified in his mother's womb, receiving sanctifying grace at the visit of Mary when, as Elizabeth proclaimed, "The moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy". In former times the beauty of this feast was on a par with Christmas, with three masses and with two offices, one celebrating the Old Law and the other the New, as the Baptist provides the bridge between the two, sent to witness that Christ is "the Chosen One of God". His feast was always therefore one of great joy, celebrated with bonfires as soon as the sun had set. Martyred as a consequence of his fearless condemnation of the immorality of the ruling family, the feast of his Beheading also falls within this period, on 29th August.

   The Solemnity of Mary's own birthday into glory, her Assumption into Heaven, is celebrated on 15th August.   9th June is the feast of St Ephraem the Deacon, baptized at the age of eighteen; a refugee from persecution, becoming a champion against heresy, and eventually a hermit; leaving his solitude towards the end of his life to undertake famine relief, and dying within six months of returning to his cell. On account of his writings, particularly his hymns in honour of Our Lady which form an important contribution to Catholic dogma, he was declared a Doctor of the Church, and is known in the Eastern churches as "the Harp of the Holy Spirit". Ephraem concludes his "Life of Mary the Harlot, Niece of the Hermit Abraham" with a lament for his own condition, and how better close these notes on the saints than with Ephraem's words, in Helen Waddell's beautiful translation in The Desert Fathers; words which many of us could surely apply to ourselves:

   "Sorrow on me, beloved, for these fell on sleep, and with all confidence have gone their ways to God: whose minds were never set upon the business of earth, but on the sole love of God. And I unapt and reluctant in my will abide, and behold winter hath come upon me, and the infinite tempest hath found me naked and spoiled and with no perfecting of good in me.

   "I marvel at myself, beloved, how I daily default, and daily do repent. Behold, those who received their talent along with me strive day and night to trade with it, that they may win the word of praise; but I in my sloth hid mine in the earth, and my Lord makes haste to come; and behold my heart trembles and I weep the days of my negligence and know not what excuse to bring.

   "Have mercy upon me, Thou that alone art without sin, and save me, who alone art pitiful and kind: for Thou knowest that I did shun much of evil and the byways of shame, the vanity of the impertinent and the defence of heresy. And this not of myself, but of Thy grace wherewith my mind was lit. Wherefore, holy Lord, I beseech Thee, bring me into Thy kingdom, and deign to bless me with all that have found grace before Thee,  for  with Thee is magnificence, adoration and honour, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.


                                                                                                        Peter Whelan



SAINTS FOR THE SEASON  (September, October, November)

   This three months period contains the parish's patronal feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, three of "the seven who stand ever ready to enter the presence of the glory of the Lord". There are many others ready to do God's bidding - Christ himself referred to the "more than twelve legions of angels" available for his defence - and we join them all at every Mass in their hymn of praise to God, "Holy, Holy, Holy".  If we hesitate to approach such exalted spirits as the Archangels for help, we have the assurance of Jesus himself that our very own guardian angels are assigned to care for us, who "always behold the face of my Father in heaven".  The feast of the Archangels is on 29th September, and of the Guardian Angels is 2nd October.

   The 3rd September is the feast of Saint Gregory the Great, who abandoned a distinguished career as an administrator, which had culminated in the office of Prefect of Rome, to become a monk. As an abbot he saw Saxon slaves being sold, and intended to go himself and convert the British from Angles to 'angels'. However, his presence was required in Rome to help deal with the plague devastating the city, and when the plague killed Pope Pelagius II Gregory found himself pope, and had to entrust his mission to Augustine and forty others from his own monastery. Among the forty was Paulinus, first bishop of the restored See of York following the conversion of King Edwin in 627. The feast of Paulinus falls on 10th October, while that of his successor, Wilfrid, on 12th October.  Wilfrid was persuasively prominent at the Synod of Whitby (hosted by the Abbess Hilda) in resolving the differences in practice between the observances of the Celtic monks and his own Roman tradition. He spent his last years at Ripon, and although the church he built there was destroyed by the Danes, its Saxon crypt, preserved in the present cathedral, provides a moving link with the saint.  Wilfrid designed the crypt to be the size and shape of the empty tomb of the risen Christ, and to stand there in silent prayer takes one back, not only the 1300 years to when Wilfrid himself prayed there, but the almost 2000 years to when the apostles entered Christ's empty tomb.  Hilda's own commemoration is on the 17th November. Baptised by Paulinus of York and influenced strongly by Aidan, she became eventually the abbess of Whitby, a monastery both of monks (including Wilfrid and John of Beverly) and nuns renowned for its learning where literature and the arts were fostered. One of the greatest Englishwomen of all time, she was patron to the early English poet Caedmon, a lay brother in the monastery, whose songs and stories brought the scriptures to unlettered Christians.

   Another Northern saint of this period is Cuthbert, who was dragged reluctantly from his Farne island hermitage to be consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne by Theodore, Archbishop of York. Bede tells us that "he first practised whatever he taught others to do...afire with heavenly love, unassumingly patient...kindly to all," and, "whenever he offered the sacrifice of the Saving Victim to God, he offered his prayers to God in a low voice, and with tears welling up from the depths of his heart". One of the greatest English saints, renowned as the wonderworker of England, his shrine at Durham was one of the most frequented in the Middle Ages, ancient even before Thomas of Canterbury was born. Although the shrine was destroyed at the Reformation, his relics are still venerated at Durham. Cuthbert’s feast is celebrated on 4th September.

   England certainly features prominently in these three months. Although there are several feasts of Our Lady during this period (The Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary on 8th September, the Most Holy Name of Mary on 12th September, Our Lady of Sorrows on 15th September, Our Lady of the Rosary on 7th October, and The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary on 21st November), the feast of Our Lady of Ransom on 24th September is the only one of Mary's feasts proper to England. It had originated in Spain in 1233 in an appearance of Our Lady to Saint Peter Nolasco requesting the ransoming of Christians held by the Moors, and devotion to Our Lady under this title came to express the desire of Catholics to restore England as the "Dowry of Mary". Pope Leo XIII in becoming the first president of the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom made the feast proper to all the dioceses of England. The restoration of the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, initially at Kings Lynn, and eventually in Walsingham's Slipper Chapel, was due largely to the efforts of Father Fletcher, co-founder of the Guild, working with the Parish Priest of Kings Lynn, Father Wrigglesworth. Appropriately, the feast these days is celebrated as Our Lady of Walsingham.

   Other saints belonging to our English Catholic heritage and commemorated during this period include Edward the Confessor (13th October); "Then was seen ... a king who was truly the father of his people". A strong king, but never happier than when showing his concern and his generosity to the poor. His shrine in Westminster Abbey, which he had endowed, was one of the few medieval shrines to survive the Reformation. The crown with which our sovereigns are crowned still bears Edward's name out of respect to his memory. Another earlier king remembered in this period is Edmund, King and Martyr, who inherited the throne of the East Angles at the age of fifteen. He sacrificed himself to the plundering Danes rather than have his subjects, and indeed the Danes, slaughtered in battle. Tied to a tree, whipped, and shot with arrows, he was finally beheaded. The arms of Bury St Edmunds still incorporate the image of the wolf who legend tells discovered Edmund's head where the Danes had thrown it. His feast is on 20th November.

   On 25th October 1970 Pope Paul VI canonised the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. establishing that date each year as their feastday. Although now celebrated on 4th May, it seems appropriate still to speak of it here. It is a feast in which Catholics can rejoice while lamenting the circumstances which gave rise to it - great cultural change throughout Europe, the yearning of a king for a son and heir, deeply rooted discontents, perhaps, going back even to the time of Augustine. At first it was only a matter of the king's divorce, then of the king's sole supremacy in matters of religion, hardening progressively into a hatred and suppression of all things Catholic - the Mass, the sacraments, the priesthood, devotion to Mary and to the saints. The martyrs span a period of a century and a half, beginning with the three Carthusian priors, of whom St Thomas More, standing with his daughter at the window of his cell in the Tower and seeing them taken out for execution, said "See, Meg, these blessed fathers as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage." The forty include laymen and laywomen, priests and religious, whom Pope Paul VI, at their canonization praised as being "a shining example of that genuine faith which will have nothing to do with ambiguity or false compromise... a necessary condition of all true and fruitful ecumenical dialogue." The feast of these Forty Martyrs, representative of all the Catholics martyred between 1535 and 1679, is now celebrated on 4th May, the day on which the three priors, John Houghton, Robert Lawrence and Augustus Webster, were martyred in 1535, as the Protomartyrs of the English Reformation, along with the distinguished Bridgettine monk, Richard Reynolds, the ‘Angel of Syon’.

   The feast of Winefride, the patron, with Our Lady Help of Christians, of this diocese of Shrewsbury,  is celebrated on 3rd November; appropriate that she should be celebrated close to the common celebration of all those of the Mystical Body of Christ who have already attained the kingdom of heaven, and whose joy we celebrate, before joining our prayers with those of Winefride and all the saints for those Holy Souls who are undergoing a willing prior purification.

   We have talked of kings; and there is one further king to celebrate. The final Sunday of the Church's year, 21st November (2010), is the feast of Christ the Universal King. St Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises invites a choice: between two armies spread out on a vast plain - the army of Christ and the army of Lucifer. That, after all, is the choice the saints have made - awaiting the final consummation spoken of by St Paul, "when Christ hands over the kingdom to God the Father". 

Peter Whelan