Sunday, February 25, 2018

Feast of the Salesian Protomartyrs

Feast of the Salesian Protomartyrs

Sts. Louis Versiglia, SDB (1873-1930), bishop,
and Callistus Caravario, SDB (1903-1930), priest

On February 25, 1930, Salesians Bishop Louis Versiglia, vicar apostolic of Shiu Chow, China, and Fr. Callistus Caravario, pastor of the Lin Chow mission, was murdered at Li-Thau-Tseul in the district of Lin Chow by Communist pirates while journeying in the company of several female catechists, whose human dignity they defended successfully at the cost of their own lives. The Salesian Family observes their feast day every year on their “heavenly birthday.”

On October 1, 2000, St. John Paul the Great canonized 120 martyrs who shed their blood for the Faith in China between 1648 and 1930. Of these, 87 were Chinese and 33 were missionaries. Their collective memorial day is July 9.

Chronologically, the last two of these martyrs—the only ones after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900—were Bp. Versiglia and Fr. Caravario.

Born in 1873 in the Italian province of Pavia, Louis entered the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales at Turin in 1885. After making his profession as a Salesian in 1889, he earned a degree in philosophy at the Gregorian University in Rome, was ordained in 1895, and served as master of novices in Rome from 1896 to 1905.

Then Fr. Michael Rua, Don Bosco’s successor as Rector Major, tapped Fr. Versiglia to lead the first Salesian expedition to China, which arrived at the Portuguese colony of Macao in 1906. When the Salesians ventured onto the mainland to open a mission at Shiu Chow in 1918, he led that group, and when the mission was erected into a vicariate apostolic in 1920, he was chosen as its bishop.

Bp. Versiglia displayed personal holiness, wisdom in his government, and tireless activity as he organized and developed his vicariate. He set up his episcopal headquarters and opened schools for boys and girls (with the Salesian Sisters), a minor seminary for Chinese youths, a formation center for local catechists, an orphanage, an old-age home, a medical clinic, and some 20 mission stations.

Fr. Caravario, born in 1903 in the province of Turin, was still a “baby priest,” having been ordained by Bp. Versiglia in May 1929. He too had studied at the Oratory, and after his profession in 1919 and his postnovitiate studies had gone to China in 1924 as a missionary. He was transferred to Timor for his practical training but returned to China and was assigned to Lin Chow in Bp. Versiglia’s vicariate.

Fr. Caravario was characterized by his virtuous life, pursuit of holiness, and missionary zeal. In February 1930 he traveled from his mission to Shiu Chow in order to accompany Bp. Versiglia and his new catechists upriver to Lin Chow—the fatal trip interrupted by Communist bandits.

The cause of canonization of the two sturdy missionaries was initiated in 1953. Recognized as martyrs by Blessed Paul VI in 1976, they were beatified by St. John Paul II in May 1983, who also took the initiative to add them to the roster of the Chinese martyrs to be canonized in 2000.

Most of this article is based on the entries by Domenico Garneri and Guido Bosio in the Dizionario biografico dei Salesiani (Turin, 1969), ed. by Eugenio Valentini and Amedeo RodinĂ².

Homily for 2d Sunday of Lent

Homily for the
2d Sunday of Lent
Feb. 25, 2018
Mark 9: 2-10
Nativity, Washington, D.C.

Is there anyone here who has not sung “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”?  As you know, it was inspired by the goals of the Union cause during the Civil War, viz., the preservation of the United States and the elimination of slavery from our Union.

You may be a little less familiar with the 3d stanza of that stirring hymn that’s at once patriotic and religious.  It came to mind in connection with today’s gospel passage.  That stanza reads:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
        With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
        As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
        While God is marching on.

The half line about making men (and women) free, even at the cost of one’s death, is of course a Civil War reference, as is the last line, which associates God with Union troops on the march.

The Transfiguration (Raphael)
But of more interest to us tonite is the reference to transfiguration.  We heard how Jesus was mysteriously transfigured before the eyes of his apostles Peter, James, and John, and in that glorious state conversed with Moses and Elijah, the exemplars of the Old Testament Scriptures, the Law and the Prophets, that Jesus had come to fulfill.  Then a voice from the overshadowing cloud—a sign of the divine presence—identified Jesus as “my beloved Son” and instructed the 3 overwhelmed apostles, “Listen to him.”

They have been listening to him for quite some time already.  Unlike John’s Gospel, in which Jesus’ ministry is framed around 3 Passovers and thus takes place within just over 2 years (not 3, as we commonly say), Mark offers no hint about the length of Jesus’ public ministry.  His repeated use of the word immediately gives us the impression of a breathless rush from Jesus’ baptism to his crucifixion and resurrection, all in perhaps just a few months.

Anyhow, Peter, James, and John have been listening to Jesus for a while.  In the preceding chapter of Mark, Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah (8:27-29), and then Jesus makes the 1st prediction of his approaching passion, death, and rising (8:31).  The apostles listen, but they don’t understand.  They recognize him as the Messiah, but they don’t understand.  You can be sure that when Peter, James, and John see Jesus with the Old Testament personages who embody the Law and the Prophets, they don’t understand.  And when God speaks from heaven, “This is my beloved Son,” they don’t understand.

Sure enuf, as they descend the mountain, Jesus speaks again of his death and resurrection (9:9), and they don’t understand; “they questioned what rising from the dead meant” (9:10).

In the space of 18 verses, Jesus has been identified as Messiah and beloved Son of God.  To understand, the disciples will have to continue to listen to him.  Jesus has twice spoken of his passion and resurrection.  To understand, they’ll have to listen to him.

Listening, you know, means more than hearing with our ears.  In one ear and out the other isn’t listening, right?  The apostles are going to have to learn the lesson that their teacher has been trying to impart to them.  It will be only thru their experience of his death and resurrection that they’ll finally understand and become effective witnesses that Jesus is Messiah and beloved Son of God.  Only then will they understand that Christ’s glory—his transfiguration—is the outcome of his fulfilling the Scriptures, i.e., fulfilling the plan of our salvation laid out by his Father.  His glory comes out of his perfect obedience to God, even when wicked men hate him on account of that obedience and put him to a horrible death.

But God’s plan can’t be thwarted.  Rather, it transfigures Jesus—not for a transitory moment as on the mountaintop, but forever in the life of the resurrection.

And so we come to Julia Ward Howe’s 3d stanza:  he died to make men and women holy by offering us a share in his own glory, a glory that transfigures us too when we embrace him—embrace his obedience to his Father, embrace our own share in his cross, embrace his teaching as completely as we can.  He is the beloved Son.  Listen to him, and you will be transformed as he’s been, made a beloved son or daughter of God, made holy, destined for resurrection.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Homily for 1st Sunday of Lent

Homily for the
1st Sunday of Lent
Feb. 18, 2018
Gen 9: 8-15
1 Pet 3: 18-22
Our Lady of Lourdes, Bethesda, Md.

“See, I am now establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you…” (Gen 9: 8).

The word covenant is used 5 times in the 8 verses of our 1st reading.  It’s the 1st covenant mentioned in the Bible between God and his elect, his chosen ones—in this case, Noah and his descendants, i.e., the entire human race.

According to the story, God has been so angered by the sinful behavior of his human creatures that he’s wiped them out, and all living creatures as well—because there’s a fundamental unity in creation, and homo sapiens can’t be neatly separated from the animal or plant kingdoms.  God has excepted only 1 upright man, Noah, and his immediate family and a pair of each species of animal (Gen 6:19)—or, in a 2d version of the story, 7 pairs of clean animals and 1 pair of the unclean (7:2).  (The account of the great flood that we have in our Bible today is an editorial melding of 2 earlier sources, and the melding isn’t always smooth.)

Landscape with Noah's Thank Offering
(Joseph Anton Koch)
Having survived thru a gracious act of God, Noah and his family respond by offering a sacrifice.  God is pleased, and he responds with this covenant promise, that never again will he react so angrily as to destroy the earth with water as he has just done (8:20-22).  And he provides a sign of his pledge, a peace sign, as it were, of this covenant that he freely initiates:  he places his bow in the heavens.  The Hebrew word used here for the rainbow is the same word that means a bow that’s a weapon of war.  So God hangs up his weapon, puts it to rest.  That word usage makes God’s covenant sign all the more powerful now as a symbol of his patience with us and his willingness to bear with our evil—our evil hearts, our evil desires, our evil words, our evil deeds:  “the desires of man’s heart are evil from the start,” the Lord declares even as he smells the sweetness of the holocaust that Noah offers (8:21).       

The Lord knows who we are and how we are—so few of us righteous like Noah.  And he begins to devise what we might call Plan B.  He’ll call Abraham and make another, more specific covenant with him, then Moses and yet another, very specific covenant, all leading eventually to the last, eternal covenant effected thru the sacrifice of Jesus.

That’s the covenant that St. Peter alludes to, without using the word.  “Beloved:  Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God” (3:18).  And we enter this covenant relationship by the power of God’s Spirit.  As Jesus Christ “was brought to life in the Spirit” (3:18), so are we.  And, in view of the Noah story, isn’t it really ironic that the sign of Jesus’ covenant is water!  The water of the great flood, Peter says, “prefigured Baptism, which saves you now,” washing us clean not of physical dirt but of the moral or spiritual filth of our sins, cleansing our consciences and uniting us to our Lord Jesus (3:21).

In this season of Lent, we’re invited to renew our covenant relationship with God the Father by reconnecting with Jesus:  by repentance of our sins (“Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” Jesus proclaims [Mark 1:15]); by celebrating the sacrament of Reconciliation, which concretizes our repentance and brings the Spirit into our hearts and our lives afresh and renews the grace of Baptism; by recommitting our lives to the truth that Jesus teaches and the way of living that he demonstrates.

We prayed a little earlier that our Lenten observances will help us conduct ourselves in Jesus’ way, in a way that “pursues … the riches hidden in Christ” (Collect)—the riches of our Father’s love, the riches of virtue, the riches of the seeds of eternal life.

May the Holy Spirit of Jesus draw you and me ever closer to Jesus himself, and thru him to the Father who created us, loves us, and wants us to spend eternity with him.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Homily for Thursday, Week 5 of Ordinary Time

Homily for Thursday
Week 5 of Ordinary Time
Feb. 8, 2018
1 Kings 11: 4-13
Nativity, Washington, D.C.

“When Solomon was old his wives turned his heart to strange gods, and his heart was not entirely with the Lord, his God, as the heart of his father David had been” (1 Kgs 11: 4).

In the 1st chapters of 1 Kings, parts of which have been given to us at Mass in recent days, Solomon appears as a devout and wise king with whom God is very pleased.  Today we see something else; he’s grown old and foolish, led astray by his many foreign wives.

King Solomon's Court
(Ingobertus, ca. 880 A.D.)
We’re also reminded that God made a great promise to David, that his dynasty would last forever.  The passage today speaks of David’s heart belonging entirely to the Lord and of David’s following the Lord unreservedly (11:4,6).  Not that David was perfect, as we know.  But in spite of his weaknesses, he remained faithful to the Lord.  And God says today that he’ll be faithful to his promise.  But the realm of David’s dynasty will be constricted in punishment for Solomon’s infidelity.  At least, that’s the interpretation of the sacred writer who composed Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings as he looks back at the history of God’s people some centuries later, trying to understand what’s happened.

Very often we don’t know what God’s doing or why as we observe world events, Church events, or our personal lives.  It’s only by reflecting on them that we may see his hand at work, guiding people’s right choices, sending prophetic warnings, working to straighten out people’s bad or sinful choices.  Such reflection is, in fact, what we read that Mary did concerning the events surrounding the birth and childhood of Christ (Luke 2:19,51).

From what we read about Solomon in particular in today’s reading, we may draw 2 lessons.

1st, the company we keep influences our attitudes and our behavior for better or for worse.  The Scripture says that Solomon’s pagan wives led him into the sin of idolatry.  Don Bosco constantly warned young people to avoid “bad companions” and to seek good, wholesome friendships.  He made that his own practice when he was young, brought it out in his biography of St. Dominic Savio, included it in his handbook for the guidance of the young The Companion of Youth, and repeated it over and over when speaking to his boys.  It remains a practical lesson for young people today as we observe repeatedly about gangs, drugs, thievery, poor study habits, etc., as well as about the benefits of youth ministry, Scouting, Boys & Girls Clubs, and other such programs.

2d, Solomon was so good and wise for so long, but in his old age became foolish and sinful.  Maybe he’d “lost it,” gone senile—that’s not for us to judge.  But you and I can never, never sit back on our virtuous laurels—if we think we have some—and presume the gates of heaven are already open to us, and a heavenly mansion already has our name emblazoned on its door.  “It’s not over until the fat lady sings.”  Jesus doesn’t crown us with the laurels of victory until the very end, until our final perseverance in his grace.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Homily for 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
5th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Feb. 7, 1988
Job 7: 1-4, 6-7
Mark 1: 29-39
St. Theresa, Bronx

“Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?  Are not his days those of a hireling?  My days …come to an end without hope” (Job 7: 1, 6).

Job is an intriguing book.  It’s about being human, about struggling to live a good life, about one’s relationship with God, about suffering.

Job is a God-fearing man.  He loses suddenly almost everything dear to him: children, wealth, health.  All that remains to him is his wife, and she nags him.  His friends pass judgment on him:  If all this has happened to you, God must be punishing you for some horrible sin.  So Job laments and demands justice of God.

Job rebuked by his wife and his friends
(source unknown)
Job’s story is our story.  At one time or another all of us feel like him:  “assigned months of misery, and troubled nights…” (7:3). This seems to be our human condition.  Job is portrayed as an upright man, but he’s beaten down by undeserved suffering.  If righteousness, personal integrity, cannot assure us of a reasonably happy life, what are we to do?  Is there no way out for us, no salvation?

Yes, sisters and brothers, there is a way of the suffering, pain, and despair that make up so much of our lives.  There is salvation from all those afflictions that fall upon us when we think we deserve better from life.  There is even salvation from afflictions that we do not deserve, for we are wise enuf to admit before God and one another our sinfulness.

Our way out and our salvation is the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Paul was speaking of his own conduct when he wrote to the Corinthians:

I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak.  I have become all things to all, to save at least some.  All this I do for the sake of the good news (1 Cor 9:19,22-23).

But he could just as well have been speaking of Christ,

who did not count equality with God something to be grasped.  Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness: … he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him … and every tongue (shall) confess that Jesus Christ is Lord… (Phil 2:6-11). 

Jesus became one of us, the servant of all whom “everyone was looking for,” whom they “tracked down” like a fugitive (Mark 1:36-37).  He became weak like us, suffering the afflictions of our human condition—hunger, weariness, human hardheadedness, false friends, even death—a disgraceful death, falsely accused and abandoned.  Who was more righteous than he?  Who deserved suffering less than he?

Jesus didn’t stop preaching the good news, stop doing good in word and deed, in order to escape unjust punishment.  He was fully faithful to God his Father. His suffering was the path to new life, and God his Father raised him to new life and made him the source of eternal life for all of us weak and sinful folks.

In Mark’s Gospel last Sunday and today we’ve seen Jesus healing people.  When he exorcises the possessed, the demons try to proclaim him as “God’s Holy One” (Mark 1:24). Why does Jesus silence them?  Because his identity as God’s Holy One doesn’t depend upon his power to work wonders.  It would be misleading—devilish—to have people think so.  Jesus’ miracles are signs of the divine power to restore life, to heal sin, to make men and women whole.  But Jesus knows that he must himself suffer.  He must become weak, must be one of us, must be all things to everyone, even unto death.  In Mark’s Gospel, the only person who can loudly and publicly identify Jesus is the centurion at the foot of the cross:  “Truly this was God’s Son” (15:39).  For Jesus to be seen for who he is, he must be crucified.  Only one who has been in Job’s shoes, so to say: one who has been lonely: one who has suffered “the agony of defeat”—only such a person can know “the thrill of victory.”  Only such a person can heal the broken, forgive the sinner, bring life out of the grave.

This is the good news that Jesus came to proclaim.  We are not just “dust in the wind,” as a #1 song had it about 10 years ago.  We are not just “slaves longing for the shade, creatures living without hope,” as Job put it this morning (7:2,6).  No, we are God’s dear children, marked in Baptism for eternal life.  Jesus is God’s witness to that.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Homily for Feast of the Presentation

Homily for the Feast
of the Presentation of the Lord
Feb. 2, 2018
Luke 2: 22-32
Don Bosco Cristo Rey HS, Takoma Park, Md.

Of the several themes that stand out in today's liturgy, I'll consider two.

1st, there's an emphasis on fulfilling the Law.  Mary and Joseph are, and Jesus will be, faithful Jews, observing the Torah and the pious practices of their people.

In part, to say that they fulfill the Law is to say that they're faithful to God:  "If we love him, we'll keep his commandments," St. John says (14:21; cf. 2 John 6).

In part, their fulfilling the Law is completing it.  This is more of a Matthean theme than a Lucan one.  But the Holy Family's actions are bringing the Old Law to its climax:  "and suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek" (Mal 3:1).
Presentation of the Lord
(from a 15th-c. Book of Hours)
2d, the holy couple offer the ritual sacrifice required to redeem their son from the Lord:  "Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord" (Luke 2:23).  30 years later, their son will offer himself as a sacrifice to redeem the whole of humanity and make every man and woman truly consecrated to the Lord.  The child redeemed in the Temple becomes the redeemer man who opens up the temple where God is enthroned above.

In this Eucharist we're mystically within that temple, taking part in the Redeemer's sacrifice, assisting him as it were in consecrating mankind to the Lord.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Solemnity of St. John Bosco

Solemnity of St. John Bosco

(Salesian Central Archives)
Yesterday, January 31, was the solemnity (in the Salesian Family) of St. John Bosco, founder of the Society of St. Francis de Sales (Salesian Society), Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (Salesian Sisters), Association of Salesian Cooperators, Association of Mary Help of Christians (ADMA), and of the entire Salesian Family, which now numbers 31 member groups.

The entire Catholic Church celebrates "Don Bosco," however: father and master of youth, patron saint of editors and publishers, of apprentices, of magicians, and of various other persons and affairs--including, at least unofficially, of umbrella-makers, because of the torrential rain that afflicted the celebrations in Turin following his canonization in 1934.
(Salesian Central Archives)
Several publications and other communicators noted his feast:

Magician Angelo Stagnaro wrote in the National Catholic Register that "Don Bosco was deeply imbued with God's love and inspired by His mysteries." See
(Nino Musio)
The saint of the day of Our Sunday Visitor's Sarah Reinhard was Don Bosco, of course:

St. John Bosco, called Don Bosco during his life, is the patron of young people and students for a reason: Educating and guiding young people to the truths of the Catholic faith were his passion and the work of his life.

To learn more about Don Bosco, check out the Salesians' account (complete with audio narration!).

The blog Church Militant posted a short video that may have been intended mainly for youngsters but (with the caveat noted below) is informative for all:

Concerning that video, I'll make 2 corrections. (1) The assassination attempts on DB, according to his own testimony (Memoirs of the Oratory) came not from industrialists upset with his attention to young workers but from Turin's Waldensians upset with his writings defending the Catholic faith against their preaching and ministries. (2) His well-known dream of the 2 columns is not about 2 Popes and the Church but about the Eucharist and the Virgin Mary, the 2 columns to which the Church safely anchors in her battle against evil and error.
(Nino Musio)
Serio Mattarella, President of Italy, dedicated a long communique to the figure of Don Bosco:"Today is the 130th anniversary of the death of John Bosco, founding priest of the Salesians and of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, an educator that Italian society has had the opportunity to appreciate for its attention to the young, for his passion, for his commitment in helping countless young people in conditions of degrading poverty and marginalization.

"Humble origins were, in the life of Don Bosco, a root from which he drew permanent guidance. His intelligence, his social skills, his great organizational skills, inspired by evangelical testimony, were directed to the creation of works that have reached a large number of youths, of working children, even very young, offering them precious spaces of welcome , education, formation, solidarity, individual and community growth. He knew how to make the social issue his own and build more spaces for citizenship and belonging.

"In many parts of Italy and of the world, the mark of Don Bosco, and of the congregations promoted by him, is still alive. Many Italians owe the Salesians some of their own culture, of their own formation as citizens. The continuity of Don Bosco's works represents a contribution to social cohesion and progress, values ​​that enrich a country, and help the whole community to face the challenges of the times."

Letter of the Rector Major to Italian President Sergio Mattarella

(ANS – Rome – February 5) - In response to the statement issued by President Sergio Mattarella of Italy on the occasion of the 130th anniversary of the death of St John Bosco, Fr. Angel Fernandez Artime, Don Bosco’s tenth successor, sent a letter expressing the renewed commitment to keep alive the teaching of the Saint of Youth and to collaborate in building the spirit of “brotherhood, solidarity, and cohesion.”

Rome, February 2, 2018
Prot. No. 18/0069

The Right Honorable
Prof. Sergio Mattarella
President of the Republic
Palazzo del Quirinale

Dear and most illustrious Mr. President of the Republic,

From the media we have learned with joy of the statement you made on the occasion of the liturgical feast of St. John Bosco, January 31, 130 years since his death.

Your words have accurately and affectionately portrayed the figure of our Father and holy Founder. His social commitment and evangelizing passion, primarily addressing the poor and abandoned young people, of whom you, too, have spoken, are alive today in our Congregation and in the different groups of the Salesian Family.

In communion with institutions and the Church, our constant work is to promote spaces and times of humanization, progress, social cohesion, and of encounters with the message of the Gospel. Historically, Don Bosco carried out his mission at a time, both rich and contradictory together, which led to the unification of Italy. With his motto “good Christians and honest Citizens,” we believe Don Bosco has helped to foster that unique feeling of social passion that unifies the Italian people that you represent, and likewise, to make it known in the many countries where the works of his charism have reached.

We fervently hope and work constantly in order not to fail in the task left to us, providing our help to realize that common spirit, European and worldwide, of brotherhood, solidarity, and cohesion, aimed at the progress of each person and consequently of all society.

Cordially in Don Bosco,
Fr. Angel Fernandez Artime