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Pentecost in Action: Saint Cristóbal Magallanes

20 May

Lex orandi, lex credendi, goes the ancient Latin motto – loosely translated: The rule of praying is the rule of believing. In other words, our liturgical life reveals our faith life. What we do on our knees points to what we hold in our hearts as well as how we’ll act in the world.

The liturgical calendar itself reflects this notion. In late December, for example, Christmas – a divine birthday given over to feasting and fa-la-la – bumps up next to St. Stephen the Protomartyr on December 26. One day, the candlelit Christ child in the crib; the next day, a vicious stoning and blood red vestments. It’s a liturgical juxtaposition that sends an unmistakable message: Follow this baby King and be ready for martyrdom.

And isn’t that pretty much our Catholic lex credendi?

As it turns out, there’s a parallel message this Pentecost weekend as we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit. For nine days following the Ascension, Mary and the Apostles had anticipated Christ’s guarantee that they’d be “clothed with power from on high” (Lk 24.49). Then, in the Upper Room, there was wind; there were tongues of flame; there was a rush of exuberant speech in exotic languages. The Spirit had arrived in style, and his manifest intensity awed both the young Church and all the peoples of Jerusalem (cf. Acts 2.1-14, 36-40).

But the Spirit empowers for a purpose, and come Monday after Pentecost this year, we get a clear picture of what that purpose is. May 21 is the memorial of St. Cristóbal Magallanes and companions, martyrs in Mexico during the 1920s Cristero uprising in response to fierce anti-Catholic persecution.

Although St. Cristóbal himself eschewed violent rebellion and preached against it, he refused to allow official antipathy to interfere with his priestly ministry. When the government closed the seminaries, Fr. Magallanes opened one in his parish. And when falsely imprisoned for inciting revolt, he followed Christ’s example by forgiving his captors, absolving them and even giving them his few belongings. Before he was shot a few days later, Fr. Magallanes told his executioners, “I die innocent, and ask God that my blood may serve to unite my Mexican brethren.”

St. Cristóbal’s story of selfless sacrifice illustrates what the Church teaches regarding the Pentecost experience for us all. Christ “pours out the Spirit among his members to nourish, heal, and organize them in their mutual functions, to give them life, send them to bear witness, and associate them to his self-offering to the Father and to his intercession for the whole world” (CCC 739).

As we leave Church this Pentecost weekend refreshed in the Spirit, we do well to keep St. Cristóbal in mind as we claim the Spirit’s sevenfold gifts – especially fortitude – and head out to bear witness in the world.
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A version of this reflection appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Catholic Church, Mishawaka, IN. Fr. Cristóbal was executed on May 25, 1927. Pope St. John Paul II beatified him on November 22, 1992, and then canonized him on May 21, 2000. To read the Holy Father’s homily on the latter occasion, follow this link.

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A Criminal Companion for Holy Week

25 Mar

This is Passion Sunday, so you’ll already have a pretty good idea of what to expect: Red vestments, a “pre-Gospel” during the processional, the blessing of palm branches, and a dramatic reading of the entire Passion story. This year, it’ll be Mark’s version, which includes an account of the insults our crucified Lord endured and this telling detail: “Those who were crucified with him also kept abusing him.”

Mark is referring here to the two rebel convicts that were executed on Good Friday, but this is in contrast with St. Luke’s description of a “good thief” who did the exact opposite. “We have been condemned justly,” he tells his unrepentant counterpart, “but this man has done nothing criminal.” Apparently, the good thief had a change of heart as he hung there so close to our dying Savoir, and he gasps an implicit plea for mercy: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23.42).

“Amen, I say to you,” Jesus replies, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” The Church has interpreted the Savior’s words as an affirmation of the good thief’s ultimate heavenly destination, and he has long been regarded as a saint. Although St. Luke doesn’t name him, tradition settled on the moniker “Dismas,” which derives from the Greek word for “sunset” and “death.” Eastern Christians commemorate him on Good Friday every year, but Catholics remember Dismas on March 25 – the day we normally celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation.

It’s a curious liturgical overlap, you might think – a penitent criminal and the Mother of God – but tradition helps sort it out for us. In the Middle Ages, many conjectured that the actual crucifixion took place on the very same date as the Annunciation – that is, the day we annually mark the Incarnation, the beginning of our salvation that God hinged to Mary’s fiat, and its ultimate accomplishment on the Cross providentially align on our calendar. Consequently, although our celebrations of Holy Week and the Easter Triduum shift every year, the commemoration of the dying Dismas’s sanctifying confession became associated with March 25 and Mary’s pivotal acquiescence.

This year, that date – today – coincides with Passion Sunday, which results in an especially rich confluence of images. It’s the day we embark on a solemn liturgical journey with Jesus, from hosannas and acclamation to ignominy, torture, and execution – and, ultimately, Resurrection. Today is also the day that, at least in terms of human gestation, marks the hidden embodiment of the Savior in Mary’s womb. Death and new life; horrific end and new beginnings; calamity and tremendous hope – it all comes together today.

And it’s the day that we traditionally call to mind Dismas, a figure whose Gospel appearance is itself a summary – this rotten sinner who deserves to die and yet who surrenders himself to the One who is Life himself. Doesn’t that describe you and me? Dismas is us, in a sense, and we could ask for no better friend to accompany us this week as we trudge through tragedy to triumph.

If you have time today, you might want to visit Sacred Heart Basilica at Notre Dame. In the reliquary chapel off the main sanctuary, you can venerate the relics of St. Dismas, including with a small splinter from his cross. While there, you can also venerate a piece of the True Cross of Christ in a church so closely identified with Our Lady and her monumental “yes.”

St. Dismas, pray for us. Our Lady of the Assumption, pray for us. Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.
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This meditation originally appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Parish, Mishawaka, Indiana. 

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