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King St. Eric of Sweden: Template for Dads

18 May

It can’t be easy for kings to become saints. Most are also husbands and fathers, and so you have all the challenges that come with those callings, plus the enormous headaches and perpetual consternation associated with ruling a people. Raise taxes, lower taxes? Go to war, sue for peace? Statecraft, diplomacy, court intrigues – how do Gospel values square with all that? Just pack up the fam, head to the hills, and camp out near some monastery or other, that’s what I say.

Of course, I’m not in danger of inheriting any royal titles any time soon, so there’s that.

Anyway, despite the hurdles involved, there are plenty of royals who’ve run the race and won the prize of heaven, and today we commemorate a notable example: King Eric IX of Sweden. His story is no doubt instructive for kings (and other political leaders) who seek holiness, but I think it’s also edifying for us commoner dads who are equally earnest in aspiring to sanctity.

Born into wealth, Eric married a princess, yet it was his personal merits that earned him the crown of the realm around 1156. Although thrust into power and all the responsibilities accompanying it, the young king’s chief concern was his relationship with God, and he was known for his extensive mortifications and fasting in addition to regular times of prayer and contemplation. These practices buttressed his efforts to fortify the practice of the Faith among his subjects, which included building churches and restraining vice.

Eric was a solicitous king who is remembered for his care of the poor – sometimes through direct visits and almsgiving. Also, he promoted impartial justice for all and, toward that end, supervised a definitive collation of laws – the Code of Uppland – that strengthened the Swedish social order.

When that social order was threatened by pagan raiders from neighboring Finland, King Eric took up arms in defense of his people. Even so, Eric sought the good of his foes by inducing St. Henry, Bishop of Uppsala, to accompany him into battle and then stay behind after the victory to evangelize the Finnish populace – a missionary enterprise that met with success, but which also won Bishop Henry the crown of martyrdom.

King Eric similarly suffered martyrdom at the hands of those who rejected Christian faith and values. A group of irreligious rebels in league with a Danish prince hatched a scheme to murder Eric and take control of the Swedish throne. King Eric was attending Mass when he received word that the insurgents were gunning for him. “Let us at least finish the sacrifice,” was his reply according to Alban Butler. “The remainder of the festival I shall keep elsewhere.” Following the liturgy, Eric abandoned himself to God and, to minimize casualties among his loyal supporters, insisted on facing his enemies alone. As soon as they saw the monarch exit the church, the mob attacked, knocked him to the ground, and cut off his head. It was May 18, 1161.

The tomb of King Eric became a site of pilgrimage where many healings were reported, and he was deemed the patron saint of Sweden until the Reformation. He’s still a saintly template for those in authority, both royal and otherwise – especially dads. As Fr. Butler notes, “every father, master of a family, magistrate, or king, is accountable to God for those under his charge,” and St. Eric’s biography is like a paternal mini-catechism. Like the King, we fathers are obliged to maintain order at home, make adequate provision for our families, and defend them against harm.

Yet, even more fundamental is our duty to foster fidelity to Christ and growth in virtue among those we care for. That can’t be accomplished perfectly, but it can hardly be accomplished at all without our own personal example, and that example will necessarily, almost by definition, involve sacrifice – putting the needs of others before our own, for example, trusting in God’s providence even when we can’t see a way forward, loving those difficult to love, extending ourselves without heed of reciprocity.

In other words, fatherhood always entails martyrdom in one form or another, and here again St. Eric leads the way. Maybe we won’t get our heads chopped off like the Swedish sovereign, but our path to sanctity will nonetheless require death to self. Over and over, day after day, imperfectly, sometimes grudgingly, but consistently and perpetually. Good thing we have intercessors like King St. Eric who understand what we’re up against. Let’s lean on them; let’s lean on each other.
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Shopping for a Protestant Bible

9 May

“The idea of the unity of God’s people…is profoundly based in Scripture.”
~ Pontifical Biblical Commission

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Why You Should Thank a Nurse Today

6 May

“We must sooth and sustain, tend and watch; preaching and practicing patience, till sleep and time have restored courage and self-control.”
~ Louisa May Alcott

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See One, Do One, Teach One

5 May

It’s a gross oversimplification, and it’s even frowned upon in medical training circles today, but there’s still a lot of truth in the old nursing adage: See one, do one, teach one.

For example: Think back to when you learned to give injections.

Probably it was something utterly foreign to your experience and, frankly, terrifying – sticking a total stranger with a sharp object, let alone pushing chemicals into his arm! But we talked about it in the lab, we showed you videos, we demonstrated it (on manikins, of course) – you saw how we did it, and you heard us insist that you could do it, too.

Then, after seeing, you did it yourself – that same day, right there in the lab! You drew up some saline in a syringe, you swabbed off a practice pad, and you got up to courage to jab it in – success! You kept at it, over and over and over, until you could do it without breaking into a cold sweat, and you were ready for the inevitable, ominous-sounding check-off – in nursing school, the main way you follow “see one” and “do one” with “teach one.”

In a sense, you were teaching back to us what you’d learned and practiced, and then you went on teaching back to us as you performed those skills in the clinical setting on real patients. Many of your other nursing skills were reinforced the same way: You’d encounter the new skill, then practice it yourself, and finally turn around and share what you’d encountered and assimilated.

Here’s the thing, though: Nursing isn’t just about those bedside skills – not even close. Especially for Christian nurses. It’s also about your presence and attention; it’s about how you do things, not just what you do; it’s about being a conduit of God’s healing and comfort through your words, through your gestures, through your prayers, both spoken and silent.

It’s about, in other words, being ambassadors of Jesus – his envoys in the lives of those who are sick and suffering, apprehensive and forlorn.

This is at the heart of a Biblical vision for nursing, and I’d like to cap off your nursing formation by presenting a few exemplars of this Biblical vision that I hope you’ll keep in mind as you launch your career. And I’ve made it easy for you to remember them – in a word, Mary. Actually, make that Mary x3.

The first is the Mary you’re probably thinking of – the Christmas Mary, the virgin mother of the Messiah. We see in the beginning of Luke’s Gospel that Mary sees or encounters divine grace the moment the angel Gabriel tells her that she’s to be the mother of Jesus – “Let it be to me according to your word,” is her verbal response.

Immediately after, however, she follows up with an active response – seeing is followed by doing ­– and she visits Elizabeth, herself 3 months pregnant with John the Baptist. Mary, having received Jesus, literally, in the flesh, turns around and brings Jesus (again, literally) to her expectant cousin – the best pre-natal home visit ever!

That’s what we get to do as well – what you’ve been doing as a student nurse, and what you’ll be doing every day as an RN: Bringing Jesus to others through your skills, your knowledge, your presence, yourselves. And when others praise you for your selflessness and care, you’ll point to God – teaching through your words and example that what you do is all about whom you have received, just as Mary does with Elizabeth. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she tells her cousin. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

The second Biblical nursing Mary is the Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. These three siblings were clearly the Lord’s chums, which means they’d already seen who he was – or, in my terminology, they’d already encountered his Gospel of love. In Luke, we also see Mary and Martha doing the Gospel they’d encountered by offering hospitality to Jesus, but in two very distinct ways that mirror the two dimensions of our profession. There’s the Martha of Bethany in us which is oriented to tasks – and which, frankly, is what our employers expect of us, not to mention our patients. But we’re also called, again especially as Christian nurses, to do a lot of Mary of Bethany at the bedside – sitting at the feet of Jesus under the guise of the sick, listening, just being with.

Mary and Martha also appear late in John’s Gospel, caring for their ailing brother, Lazarus, and advocating for his healing by sending for Jesus. Although Lazarus dies before Jesus arrives, we see the two sisters persisting in their advocacy – a teach-back of total faith in Christ, who assures them that “whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” Jesus then goes on to raise Lazarus from the dead, anticipating his own resurrection, but also affirming with action the two sisters’ declaration of faith.

Finally, we have Mary Magdalene, a prominent New Testament figure, and a witness to both the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. We know from Luke’s Gospel that she’d been healed of demonic possession – that is, she’d encountered the healing Christ – and she was doing what Christ had shown her by supporting him and his Apostles out of her “own means” in Luke’s words.

But Mary Magdalene is best remembered for her role as apostle to the Apostles. According to John, she was the first to come upon the risen Lord on Easter morning – although she initially mistook him for somebody else. When she finally recognizes Christ – alive! Somehow alive! – she falls down to worship, but he has a mission for her to carry out right away. He says, “Go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” And Mary promptly complies, going to the disciples to teach them, to bring them the good news: “I have seen the Lord!” Yes, he is alive indeed!

So, three biblical Marys, and three models for carrying out our profession of care. There’s at least one more thing these three have in common: They’re all considered saints – that is, they conformed their lives to Christ and persevered in faith, running the race to the end, in the words of St. Paul, and winning the prize of heaven. That’s our ultimate goal as well – we’re all saints in the making, saints to be – and nursing affords us daily opportunities to pursue it.

We’ve already seen or encountered Christ in our lives, and we’ll keep seeing him regularly – daily! – in those we care for. And caring for them as nurses, if done with charity and compassion and patience, is a superior means of doing what Christ has called us all to do. Finally, we are all sent, like Mary Magdalene, to announce the Gospel – to teach through out words and actions that we’ve seen the Lord, that he’s alive, and that his healing goes well beyond the physical complaints of our patients. May God bless you as you go forth and live these realities – as you go forth to bring Jesus to a hurting world who needs him.
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Adapted from a speech given to Bethel College nursing graduates at their Pinning ceremony on 4 May 2019. A version appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Why I’m Catholic: It’s Home

3 May

The whole flailing, disastrous mess — all true, all somehow in accord with what is, and, despite itself, ably engaged in bringing our distorted grasp of things in line with that reality.

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My Brush with Socialism

29 Apr

“And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2.44-45).

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Wipo of Burgundy: Our Easter Template of Ordinary Discipleship

28 Apr

When I left the Easter Saturday Mass at St. Monica’s yesterday morning, the alleluias were ringing in my ears. It had been an exhilarating way to round out the Octave, with lots enthusiastic singing and pervasive joy – alleluia indeed!

Of special note was Fr. Jacob Meyer’s resonant intoning of the Easter Sequence, Victimae paschali laudes (“Christians, Praise the Paschal Victim”) – in Latin. Since my own Latin is considerably rusty, I scrambled with a hymnal to find an English translation so I could follow along, and I couldn’t help taking note of the Sequence’s author at the bottom of the page: “ascr. to Wipo of Burgundy, d. 1048.”

Yes, that’s right, Wipo. Not exactly a household name (and neither are its variant renderings, “Wippo” and “Wigbert”), and I admit I did a big double take the first time I spied it. Nonetheless, you’ll find it in every hymnal’s fine print, although it’s usually hedged a bit with that appended “ascribed to” disclaimer – something that accompanies a lot of ancient attributions. However, the ascription is strong enough that it was repeated three times in the St. Monica hymnal’s index in conjunction with three different settings of the work.

Born around the year 1000, Wipo was ordained a priest, and then he served as a chaplain for the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II. Wipo also wrote poetry and apothegms, and he authored several works of history and biography that are respected for their stylistic panache and relative objectivity. But, as far as ecclesial matters are concerned, Wipo is just a tentative footnote in our modern hymnals. Neither a pope nor a bishop; not a saint nor a Doctor of the Church; just Wipo – or Wippo, or Wigbert – who may have penned a great Paschal poem that was eventually incorporated into our Sacramentary and Eastertide observances.

In other words, a liturgical one-hit wonder.

And, yet, what a wonder it is. “One of the finest of the transitional Sequences,” according to Sr. J. Isaac Jogues Rousseau, SSND. We all heard Wipo’s masterpiece on Easter Sunday, when it’s obligatory every year, and maybe you’ve been hearing it (or singing it yourself) throughout the week at daily Mass. Like other Sequences, it precedes the proclamation of the day’s Gospel, and it’s an extra, especially jubilant recapitulation of the festival’s core themes – in this case, the Paschal feast’s good news of redemption through Jesus Christ, our resurrected savior.

About halfway through, it declares, “O Mary, come and say what you saw at break of day” – the ideal lead-in to yesterday’s Gospel wherein Mary Magdalene reports to the skeptical Apostles her encounter with the risen Christ. The Eleven likewise balk at a similar testimony from the two Emmaus disciples, and so Jesus finally confronts them in person – no denying the Resurrection at that point! After upbraiding the Apostles for their unbelief, Jesus repeats to them what he’d told Mary: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16.15).

That’s the same commission we heard at the end of the Sequence: “Share the good news, sing joyfully: his death is victory!” Wipo’s Easter poem jubilantly sums up the essence of what we’ve been celebrating throughout the Octave – what we’re living, in fact, as contemporary witnesses to our own transforming encounters with the risen Lord.

And, following Wipo’s lead, those encounters are worth rhapsodizing about, in word and deed. May we do so with flair and delight throughout the sequence of all our days, and may a Wipo-like obscurity attend our efforts that humility be preserved. For even if, with God’s grace, we end up accomplishing great things in temporal terms, it’ll be in our interests if “ascr. to” appends to our names, both now and forever. “Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one,” writes Thomas Merton, “but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great.”

Amen. Al-le-lu-ia.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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