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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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Of Highlander, Pig Brains, and Easter: St. Beuno of Wales

21 Apr

Remember Highlander (1986)? It’s about a race of immortals who rattle around the centuries trying to wipe each other out. “In the end,” declaims one of them (played by the immortal Sean Connery), “there can be only one.” Plus there’s this: The only way to kill one of these guys is to lop off his head. And when I say lop, I mean lop – with a three-foot broadsword that looks like it weighs more than my Camry.

It’s a fun movie – really! – but don’t take my word for it. “People hate Highlander because it’s cheesy, bombastic, and absurd,” acknowledges the micro-review on Rotten Tomatoes. “And people love it for the same reasons.” Actually, I loved it as a teen because, well, it was about a bunch of tough hombres chasing each other around the world. Forever. With Medieval swords. What’s not to love?

And now, good news! On the off chance the Highlander species of perpetual peripatetics might actually exist, there’s late word that not even decapitation need hold them back. It seems that researchers at Yale obtained a bunch of pig heads from a slaughterhouse and perfused their brains with a special hemoglobin-rich fluid. The result? Detectable brain activity, even hours after the heads had been severed from their respective bodies.

Now, true, it wasn’t the kind of activity that you’d associate with cognition or awareness, but it was still actual, measurable cellular commotion in grey matter long deemed defunct – or at least theoretically defunct. I mean, what else could it be after an extensive detachment, in both time and space, from any blood-pumping heart or other vital organs? “Assuming always that this work is replicated,” commented Hank Greely of the International Neuroethics Society, “I think it’s going to force us to think harder about how we declare somebody dead or not.”

Right – mortals and immortals alike.

Anyway, it’s funny that the pig brain story was hitting my newsfeed just as Holy Week was getting underway because Easter this year happens to coincide with saint’s day that has beheading and resuscitation overtones. Today is the feast of St. Beuno, a holy monk who is said to have evangelized much of northern Wales in the 7th century. A benefactor set Beuno up with a tract of land in Gwynedd where the saint founded a monastic community, and where he served as abbot until his death on April 21, 640. The monastery is gone now, but the chapel where he was buried remains intact.

The story goes that Beuno’s own niece, St. Winifred, was intent on a life of religion herself in imitation of her pious kinsman. Yet, the comely Winifred had attracted the attention of Prince Caradog, an ardent suitor. When she rebuffed him, the prince flew into a violent rage, cut off her head, and fled. The spot where Winifred’s head landed came alive with a gushing spring – the famed Holywell which became known for its healing properties and which acquired a reputation as the “Lourdes of Wales.”

End of story? Hardly. Like the Yale researchers, Beuno was not to be outdone by a mere beheading. When the Abbot heard of his niece’s demise, he interrupted the Mass he’d been celebrating, hurried to put Winifred back together, top to bottom, and then resumed the liturgy, offering impassioned prayers for the young woman’s healing. Sure enough, Winifred revived, “as if awakening from a deep slumber,” according to the legend, and she “rose up with no sign of the severance of the head except a thin white circle round her neck.”

Ah, a thin white circle around her neck – a scar, as it were, after a miraculous healing. Couldn’t God have accomplished that healing through Beuno’s prayers without leaving a scar? Of course, but he didn’t. No doubt, Winifred was conscious of that scar the rest of her life, and it just may have played a part in her becoming the great saint that she did – someone remembered for having “lived in almost perpetual ecstasy and to have had familiar converse with God.” Maybe every time she felt it – every time she saw it when she was gazing into the waters of Holywell – she was prompted to new heights of gratitude and surrender to the Lord.

And that’s what lends a certain verisimilitude to Winifred’s tale despite its preposterous premise, for God has a tendency to leave scars behind for our own good.

Today we’re all celebrating the Resurrection, but next Sunday, we’ll hear St. Thomas cast doubt on the Easter outrage: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

The Lord was happy to oblige: “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.’”

This Easter season, consider getting reacquainted with your own lingering scars that the Lord has seen fit to leave with you – he must’ve had a reason. And then, in the spirit of St. Winifred, perhaps use them as launching pads for ever grander gestures of fidelity and love. May every scar we retain and associate with our resurrections lead us to say with St. Thomas – through our words and our deeds – “My Lord and my God!”
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King St. Brychan of Wales (5th century)

6 Apr

“St. Brychan. King of Wales, undocumented but popular saint. Brychan is credited with having twenty-four children, all saints” (Catholic Online).

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Of Feasts, Fasts, and Folly: Of St. Patrick’s Day and Lenten Penance

17 Mar

It’s ironic that St. Patrick’s Day is always in Lent. Our culture has adopted it as a secular holiday given over to green beer and benders, whereas observant Catholics mark the feast with prayers and continued penance – especially when it falls on a Friday.

But even then, Catholics can’t help but feel a slight lift in their spirits, and smiles are abundant. We’ll wear a touch of green or go all out with funny hats and buttons. We’ll affect an Irish accent, and even shout “Erin go bragh!” (despite not knowing exactly what it means).

On the surface, all this exuberance might seem out of place during a penitential season, but I imagine Patrick is grinning today in heaven. He knows, better than most, that it’s hard to be a somber Christian, for to be a Christian requires reveling in the extravagance of God.

Patrick himself enjoyed an abundance of grace despite untold suffering. Having escaped slavery on the Emerald Isle, he returned there as a missionary around the year 432 and set about proclaiming the Gospel to the pagans there. He encountered tremendous pushback, including physical assaults and constant persecution, yet he saw the Church firmly established before he died after decades of toil.

“I cannot be silent,” Patrick wrote, “about such great blessings and such a gift that the Lord so kindly bestowed.” Following Patrick’s example, we too should be eager to speak up about our faith, for, regardless of our circumstances, we always have much to be grateful for.

So, wear your green hat today, but be ready to give an account of why you’re honoring the Apostle to the Irish. There’s no better way to mark his feast than adopting his missionary ways – especially with a smile.
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A version of this meditation was originally disseminated by Redeemer Radio as a part of its “Lent Radio Challenge.”

St. John Ogilvie (1579-1615)

15 Mar

“I fear death as much as you do your dinner.”
~ St. John Ogilvie

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Monikers Matter: St. Pacian of Barcelona (c. 310-390)

9 Mar

“With nothing to consider they forget my name.”
~ The Ting Tings

In today’s Gospel, Luke narrates his version of a familiar story. “Jesus saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the customs post. He said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And leaving everything behind, he got up and followed him” (Lk 5.27-28). Mark’s version is essentially the same as Luke’s, and yet when we hear or read either one, we automatically substitute the name “Matthew” for “Levi” – which is what St. Matthew did in his telling of this watershed moment.

Some Bible scholars speculate that the Levi version is original, and that the author of the first Gospel substituted Matthew’s name to bestow an apostolic lineage on this sinner so singled out by the Lord. But tradition holds otherwise, and I like John Delaney’s summation on the discrepancy. “Called Levi (though this may have been merely a tribal designation – that is, Matthew the Levite),” Delaney writes in his Dictionary of Saints, “he was…a publican tax collector at Carpharnaum when Christ called him to follow him, and he became one of the twelve apostles.”

In other words, Matthew was the official’s name, but Levi marked out his heritage and family – what we might call first name and surname today.

There’s a parallel in how we identify ourselves as followers of Jesus. When asked our religion, we’ll typically refer to ourselves as “Roman Catholics” or just “Catholics,” but, if pressed, especially in conversations with evangelicals or fundamentalists, we might go on to specify that we’re Catholic Christians – that is, while we’re named “Catholic,” our religious family is already (for the information of those intent on proselytizing us) “Christian.”

St. Pacian of Barcelona would demur.

A 4th-century bishop and church father whose virtues were noted by none other than St. Jerome, Pacian was a strong advocate for Christian unity and papal authority. In particular, as his few extant writings demonstrate, he was an ardent opponent of the Novatian heresy which stipulated that lapsed believers could never be reconciled with the Church. Pacian sided with Pope Cornelius who maintained that contrite apostates could be readmitted to full communion after a period of penance.

Pacian is most famous for a single Latin epigram that appears in one of his letters to a Novatian schismatic:

And yet, my brother, be not troubled; Christian is my name, but Catholic my surname [Christianus mihi nomen est, catholicus vero cognomen]. The former gives me a name, the latter distinguishes me. By the one I am approved; by the other I am but marked.

Here, the good bishop draws a line in the sand: Anybody can call himself a Christian – it is, after all, just a nickname, a label, a tag – but only Catholics can lay claim to a direct association with the Church established by Christ. “In her subsists the fullness of Christ’s body united with its head,” the Catechism states. “The Church was, in this fundamental sense, catholic on the day of Pentecost and will always be so until the day of the Parousia” (CCC 830).

This was true in the early church as well. At first, those who accepted the Gospel were simply referred to as “disciples” of Jesus or followers of The Way. Yet we know from St. Paul that there were divisions even among these original believers. Here’s what he wrote to the Corinthians:

It has been reported to me by Chlo′e’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apol′los,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

Paul’s insistence that there can’t be parties within the church echoes Jesus’ prayer, on the eve of his crucifixion, that all his disciples remain united. “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word,” he prayed, “that they may all be one…so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (Jn 17.20-21).

Of course, the label “Christian” does have an ancient provenance and a legitimate biblical pedigree. Luke testifies in Acts that the term was applied to the disciples in the city of Antioch around the same time that Paul himself was ministering there. Even so, the tendency of the church to fragment was apparently tough to contain, and each of those fragments, no matter how heterodox or schismatic, stuck to the Christian appellation like glue.

So it was that the church of authentic apostolic origins adopted the name “catholic” to differentiate herself from imposters and interlopers. “Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather,” writes St. Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans around the year 107, “just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” It’s the earliest recorded application of the word to the corporate body of Christ-followers, and the fact that Ignatius (himself from Antioch) assumes his readers know it indicates that it had already been long in use.

But why “catholic?” The word means “universal” in Greek, and so it squared with the early explosive spread of the true Gospel of Jesus throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond, despite the deviations of false gospel campaigners. But there’s more. “The term was already understood even then to be an especially fitting name because the Catholic Church was for everyone,” writes Kenneth Whitehead, “not just for adepts, enthusiasts or the specially initiated who might have been attracted to her.”

Nor just for saints, either. That’s the beauty of St. Pacian’s battle against Novatianism: the good bishop was committed to preserving the Catholic Church’s catholicity by welcoming back repentant infidels, schismatics, and sell-outs, no question. That’s in line with the latter part of today’s Gospel – the part where Jesus dresses down the Pharisees and scribes who’d been murmuring about the rabbi’s hobnobbing with miscreants. “Jesus said to them in reply, ‘Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners’” (Lk 5.31-32).

Today (March 9) is St. Pacian’s feast. Take the opportunity to reflect on your faith names and their implications, give thanks to God that you’re part of the Catholic clan – sinners and saints alike – and resolve to spend your Lent responding to the Physician’s invitation to healing and wholeness.

St. Pacian, pray for us!
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Blessed Tommaso da Olera (1563-1631)

4 Feb

Sometimes holy people are declared saints right after they die. On the other hand, sometimes canonizations grind on and on…and on.

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