Today we celebrate the memorial of Saint Scholastica, who is known as the sister of Saint Benedict. Some traditions speak of them as twins. Pope Saint Gregory the Great tells us that Benedict ruled over both monks and nuns, and it seems as if Saint Scholastica was the prioress of the nuns.
So what we know about Saint Scholastica is what we have from Saint Gregory, and his account tells us of a spiritual kinship between she and Benedict that was extremely close. They would often meet together, but could never do so in their respective cloisters, so each would travel with some of their confreres and meet at a house on the property of the monastery. On one such occasion, the last of these meetings together, they were speaking as they often did of the glories of God and the promise of heaven. Perhaps knowing that she would not have this opportunity again, Scholastica begged her brother not to leave but to spend the night in this spiritual conversation. Benedict did not like the idea of being outside his monastery for the night, and initially refused. With that, Saint Scholastica laid her head on her hands and asked God to intercede. Just as she finished her prayer, a very violent storm arose, preventing Benedict’s return to the monastery. He said: “God forgive you, sister; what have you done?” She replied, “I asked a favor of you and you refused it. I asked it of God, and He has granted it.”
Three days later, Saint Scholastica died. Saint Benedict was alone at the time, and had a vision of his sister’s soul ascending to heaven as a dove. He announced her death to his brethren and then gave praise for her great happiness. Just like Saint Scholastica, we are called to spend our days and nights in contemplation of our Lord and discussing his greatness with our brothers and sisters. We don’t often do that, though, do we? What a pleasant change that would be from some of the conversations we have!
Saint Scholastica had a very close relationship with her brother, but also a very close relationship with her Lord, who granted her prayer because of her faith. As Lent approaches next week, this would be a good time to re-examine our relationships, both with our brothers and sisters, but also with our Lord. What is it that we need to do during Lent that would strengthen these relationships and bring us into fuller communion with Christ?
Historically speaking, we know almost nothing about Saint Agatha other than the fact that she was martyred in Sicily during the persecution of Decius in the third century. Legend has it that Agatha was arrested as a Christian, tortured and sent to a house of prostitution to be mistreated. She was preserved from being violated, and was later put to death. When Agatha was arrested, the legend says, she prayed: “Jesus Christ, Lord of all things! You see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am—you alone. I am your sheep; make me worthy to overcome the devil.” And in prison, she said: “Lord, my creator, you have protected me since I was in the cradle. You have taken me from the love of the world and given me patience to suffer. Now receive my spirit.”
The stories of the early virgin martyrs like Saint Agatha do two things. First, they remind us of the unsurpassed greatness of a relationship with Christ. If they could believe in Christ when it would have been so much easier—and life-saving—to do so, then how can we turn away from God in the trying moments of our own lives, those trials which pale in comparison to the martyrdom they suffered? But even those relatively minor sufferings which we may bear can be the source of our salvation. We should look to the saints like Agatha to intercede for us that we may patiently bear our sufferings and so give honor and glory to God. Second, these stories always point to Christ. Even though we could get caught up in honoring a saint who stood fast for the faith to death, still that same saint would have us instead be caught up in honoring Christ, the one who was their hope and salvation.
Saint Agatha’s martyrdom is a participation in the “sprinkled Blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” of which the writer of the letters to the Hebrews writes. She was joined inseparably to Christ in both her virginity and her martyrdom. Her example calls us to join ourselves to Christ inseparably as well, in whatever way we may be called upon to do it. May our prayer in good times and bad always be the same as that of Saint Agatha: “Possess all that I am—you alone.”
The sign of a good leader is her or his ability to perpetuate their activity. A good corporate leader is future-minded, and lays the groundwork for his successor to carry the company forward. A good parent raises children that can be set free one day to be successful and prudent in life, extending their integrity and love into the next generation. Paul’s ministry was no different. He knew he wouldn’t be around forever; indeed his ministry marked him for martyrdom. And so in today’s saints, Timothy and Titus, he invests in leaders who will take the fledgling churches into the next generation.
During the fifteen years Saint Timothy worked with Saint Paul, he became one of his most faithful and trusted friends. He was sent on difficult missions by Paul—often in the face of great disturbance in local churches which Paul had founded. Paul installed him as his representative at the Church of Ephesus. Titus has the distinction of being a close friend and disciple of Paul as well as a fellow missionary. Titus is seen as a peacemaker and capable administrator. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians affords an insight into the depth of his friendship with Titus, and the great fellowship they had in preaching the gospel. When Paul was having trouble with the community at Corinth, Titus was the bearer of Paul’s severe letter and was successful in smoothing things out. The Letter to Titus addresses him as the administrator of the Christian community on the island of Crete, charged with organizing it, correcting abuses, and appointing presbyter-bishops.
In today’s first reading from his second letter to Saint Timothy, Saint Paul shows his mentoring. He reminds Timothy to “stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.” He urges his protégés to be strong and stand fast for the faith. At the end of the reading, he also reminds them that they would indeed have to bear their share of hardship for the faith.
Just as Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading, Saints Timothy and Titus, along with Saint Paul, were the ones who scattered the seed trusting in God’s power to bring the Kingdom of God to its fulfillment. Through their intercession, and by their testimony in the Scriptures we read, they beckon us to be those who tend and nurture the seeds of faith growing around us. It is always our turn to “proclaim God’s marvelous deeds to all the nations.”
Saint John Neumann is one of the first great American saints, the first American archbishop to be beatified. He is not to be confused with John Henry Cardinal Newman, of state university “Newman Center” fame.
John Neumann was born in what is now the Czech Republic. After studying in Prague, he came to New York at 25 and was ordained a priest. He did missionary work in New York until he was 29, when he joined the Redemptorists and became its first member to profess vows in the United States. He continued missionary work in Maryland, Virginia and Ohio. Saint John was well-known for his holiness and learning, spiritual writing and preaching.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls Philip to be his apostle, and promises that he will see great things. Philip is amazed by Jesus’ ability to see the best in him. Saint John Neumann had that kind of vision too, being able to see the kind of people who would contribute well to the cause of Catholic education in the United States.
As bishop of Philadelphia, he organized the parochial school system into a diocesan one, increasing the number of pupils almost twentyfold within a short time. Gifted with outstanding organizing ability, he drew into the city many teaching communities of sisters and the Christian Brothers. During his brief assignment as vice provincial for the Redemptorists, he placed them in the forefront of the parochial movement.
We owe much to Saint John Neumann for his ability to organize Catholic education in this country. So today we are thankful for our teachers and educators and catechists who over the years have led us all to the faith, and given us a glimpse at the light of Christ.
The birth of Christ in our world ought to mean something to us: the birth of Christ ought to mean a change in our attitudes and our behaviors and even in the course of our lives.
Today is a commemoration of St. Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury who ultimately lost his life to the man who gave him that prestigious post. When King Henry began to usurp Church rights, Thomas Becket found himself in a bind. Would he be beholden to the king, or would he protect the Church on behalf of the King of Kings? While it was a struggle for Thomas, he ultimately knew that the he must take a stand, no matter what the cost.
In today’s first reading, St. John makes the point very clear. We cannot say we love God and yet defy his commandments. And we certainly cannot love God who is love itself, while at the same time refusing to love our brothers and sisters. Being Christian looks like something, and the world looks at us to see what it is. If the birth of Christ means something to us, we have to share that meaning with the world by loving, no matter what the cost.
Perhaps the one who knew this best was Mary herself. Simeon the prophet knew that he had seen the promise when he looked at the child Jesus. Then he clearly told his mother that this Savior would cost her some happiness in life. Because Jesus would be a contradictory sign in the world, her heart would be pierced with sorrow. But all of this was to make manifest God’s glory.
The birth of Christ in our world and into our lives this Christmas ought to mean something to us. A watching world should be able to look at us and see Christ. May this Christmas find us changing our hearts and minds so that we can be that Christ for all the world to see, no matter what the cost.
Saint Stephen was one of the first deacons of the Church, chosen to aid in the distribution of food to those in need, so that the Apostles could continue their work. He was a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit, and was unafraid to speak the truth. And that, of course, is what brings him to today’s celebration. His unwillingness to cover over the truth and his powerful, indisputable words, did not make him friends with everyone, to say the least. He was stoned to death, an event in which we see perhaps the beginning of the conversion of a man named Saul, who of course, we know, later becomes Saint Paul.
The truth may, as Jesus tells us, set us free, but not without cost. Saint Stephen, and later Saint Paul of course, paid for it with their lives, as Jesus did. But covering over the truth or refusing to speak the truth would have been death of a far worse kind: a death that had no hope of salvation. Giving his life for the truth and for the faith united Saint Stephen forever with his God, who was his salvation and his joy.
And so on this Christmas day, we are reminded that Christ came to bring the truth, and that that truth would change everything, which, sadly, is not always a welcome thing. The gift of this Christmas day is the truth, given to us to guard and proclaim and shout without fear. It is the Spirit who gives us the words of truth to say in any situation, that same Spirit who gave Jesus to Mary in the first place. We too rely on that same Spirit to help us fearlessly witness to the truth, fixing our eyes as Saint Stephen did on Christ, the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God.
A long time ago now, someone once gave my family an ornament for our Christmas tree. It was very curious: basically just a large nail hung from a green ribbon. You probably already know the significance of the nail: when looking at the manger, we remember the cross. When gazing on the Christmas tree, we remember the tree from which our Savior hung. The nail was a reminder that Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter are all part of the same mystery.
Saint John of the Cross is a good reminder of this truth. Born in Spain, he eventually became a Carmelite. He came to know a Carmelite nun by the name of Teresa of Avila, and through her urging, joined her in a reform of the Carmelite order. His great writings helped to accomplish this and are noted as spiritual masterpieces, and helped him to be recognized as a Doctor of the Church. But not everyone, of course, agreed with the reform of the order, and he paid the price for it by being imprisoned. In some ways, Saint John of the Cross reminds me more of Lent than Advent. But then, so does that nail ornament.
Even as we wrap ourselves in the hope and promise of Advent, we have to pause and remind ourselves of what the promise is all about. Jesus came to pay the very real price for our many sins. And that, dear brothers and sisters, is a gift of incomprehensible worth!