Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Earth is Not an Exile

Not all that long ago, canonizations weren't big news but a seemingly daily occurrence.

John Paul II raised 482 individuals to the honors of the altar during his 27 year reign -- so many that, last month, the Holy See announced that the mandatory memorials listed on the General Roman Calendar will be reviewed as there's not enough room for everyone, even those who've already made the cut. By contrast, Benedict XVI has added but 10 new saints to the rolls so far in his pontificate, and that number will increase by four this Sunday, as the feast of the Trinity sets the backdrop to the current Pope's fourth canonization liturgy, in St Peter's Square.

Among the new class are the priest-catechist George Preca, the first saint of the Catholic mecca of Malta, the 15th century Polish Franciscan Simon of Lipnica, Bl Charles of St Andrew, a 19th century Passionist who settled in Ireland and became known as the "saint of Mount Argus" even in the immediate aftermath of his death, and Marie-Eugenie Milleret, the French-born foundress of the Religious of the Assumption.

The child of parents little more than formally religious, Milleret was said to have had a mystical experience on the day of her first Communion. After a mission at Paris' Notre-Dame Cathedral solidified her faith, she founded the community in 1839 with one other young woman. She was 22, and her simple "credo" was innovative for its time in that it signaled not a contemplative charism, but one turned outwards:
I believe that we are in this world and in this particular time to help bring about the Father’s reign in ourselves and in others.

I believe that Jesus Christ delivered us from the past by his cross, so that we might freely work for the fulfillment of the Word of God there where we are.

I do not believe that this earth is a land of exile. I consider it a place of glory for God.

I believe that each of us has a mission on earth. It is simply a question of seeking how God can use us to make his Gospel known and lived.

I believe that we must carry out this mission courageously and by means of faith — the poor means of Jesus Christ. We know that all success comes from Jesus Christ.

I believe in a truly Christian society where God, although invisible, reigns everywhere and is preferred to everything.

To make Jesus Christ known as liberator and King of the world, to teach that everything belongs to him, that he wants to form in each of us the great work of the Kingdom of God and wishes each of us to enter into his plan – either to pray, to suffer or to act – this is for me the beginning and end of all Christian education.

My gaze is fixed on Jesus Christ and the extension of his Kingdom here on earth.
Since Milleret's death in 1898, her foundation has spread to 34 countries around the world, with four houses remaining in the US, to which the RA's arrived in 1919 on the invite of a prelate who got to know the community as a missionary bishop in the Philippines: Dennis Dougherty, the newly-arrived archbishop of Philadelphia.

Thanks to Dougherty's great favor, which enabled it to especially thrive over his 33 year reign as Catholic Philadelphia's first Pharaoh, the Assumptions maintained a particularly close tie to this area through the years. The community maintains two houses in the archdiocese, although their primary foundation of Ravenhill -- a girls' academy based in an early-1800s mansion in the city's northwest -- closed in 1982 and now houses offices and classrooms for the adjacent Philadelphia University. Among Ravenhill's alumnae was a daughter of St Bridget's parish in nearby East Falls: Grace Kelly, the future Hollywood star and princess of Monaco who died in 1982.

On a personal note, I've often said that, though I've never spent a day in a church school, my public school teachers gave me a Catholic education that would give the parochial establishment a run for its money. This is, in large part, due to the reality that many of these mentors and heroes of my formative years had, in the grand tradition of this town, tried their hand at the seminary or religious life before hearing the call to the ministry of the secular classroom.

However "public," though, it was never terribly secular; each saw and lived their work as a vocation in the highest sense of the word, and each kept a love and appreciation for their faith, and an encouragement to keep it, without which this work would've never been possible.

One of these was a former Religious of the Assumption whose family was close to Dougherty. After years of furtive attempts to study the language on my own, she was actually my first formal Italian teacher -- and whatever little I'm able to accomplish in the ancestral tongue is owed directly to her. To say I'm immeasurably grateful is understatement and, given her family's history, her post-convent choice of profession was cryptically fitting; a daylong discussion could be had as to which half of the term "Roman Catholicism" the late cardinal -- who, perfect in all things, died on the 61st anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood (56 years ago tomorrow) -- was more beholden.

Signora's roots and formation were never far off the table, especially at the end of every class, which she'd mark by stopping wherever she was and simply saying "Amen." On those days when the wrap-up ran long, mutters of "Amen" could be heard from the desks in the hope of speeding things up....

Despite the rationale, the word has probably never been heard so much in any other public school in recent decades.

Beatifying Marie-Eugenie Milleret in February 1975 -- the first beatification of that Holy Year -- Pope Paul VI put a question to the crowd. "Isn't Mother Marie-Eugenie our contemporary," Paul asked, "in the problems that she lived with and the solutions that she attempted to bring to them?

"Because they are the intimates of God," he replied, "the saints do not become outdated!"

Amen. Amen... and Amen.