Bl. PierGiorgio Frassati

Two hundred and forty years ago, on July 2, about 50 men gathered in Philadelphia and voted to declare independence from the British Crown.  Two days later, the men approved a document called The Declaration of Independence.

This is the anniversary we remember today, the great event we celebrate with “pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other,” just as John Adams predicted we would in a letter to his wife on July 3, 1776.  He also said “it ought to be commemorated … by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.”

Fittingly, many of us will go to Mass, thank our Father in heaven for this beautiful land of freedom, and beg that it remain that land of freedom.

Because his feast day lands on this great anniversary, most will not even remember young Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati.  But he shares this day of celebration with America.

On July 4, 1925, Pier Giorgio died in his bed from polio at the age of 24.  He had twenty four short years to make an impact on his country and Church.  And that’s exactly what he did.

Most people think of Pier Giorgio as an active, joyful, handsome young man, who is pictured on holy cards climbing mountains and laughing with his friends.  He loved mountain climbing, art, the opera, reading Dante, and playing practical jokes.

He is remembered for his charity to the poor, sick, and less fortunate.  Despite his wealthy family, he rode third class on the train and then spent the money he saved on medicine and food for the poor.  When asked why he rode third class, he merely joked, “Because there is no fourth class.”   He went to the poorest, dirties parts of Turin to minister to the sick.  He served them to the end, eventually contracting polio while working amongst them.  He suffered for six days in silence, not wanting to take his family’s attention away from helping his dying grandmother.  When he died, his parents knew they had lost a son.  They had no idea that thousands had lost a friend.

His sister later wrote, “The boy whom we thought was unknown to all but his family, suddenly was revealed to us to be the friend of thousands…those whom he had assisted or those he had merely passed near, leaving the unforgettable memory of his spirituality.”  “The street—it was nine in the morning—could hardly contain the thousands of persons who had come from every part of the city.”  “A blind man wanted to touch the coffin, another struggled to approach his benefactor. The crowd pressed around his mortal remains. Some wept, some prayed, while that coffin, without a single flower, seemed to rock above a tide of heads.”

What many don’t realize about Pier Giorgio is that he lived in Italy during a sensitive time for Church-state relations.  Italy had only be unified for thirty years, and Fascism was on the rise.  He became heavily involved in political and social reform, belonging to groups such as Catholic Action and the Federation of Italian Catholic University students.  He organized his fellow students and workers. He was arrested during peaceful demonstrations.  He physically protected priests who were attacked during protests.  He dialogued with workers during strikes and uprisings.

At age 21, during the rise of Mussolini, he wrote to his friends, “I glanced at Mussolini’s speech and my blood boiled. I am disappointed by the really shameful behavior of the Popular Party. Where is the fine program, where is the faith which motivates our people?  But when it is a matter of turning out for worldly honor, people trample on their own consciences.”

When John Paul II beatified Pier Giorgio in 1990, he called him the “Man of the Beatitudes.”   Just like the young John Paul II, Pier Giorgio enjoyed mountain climbing and picnics and spread the Gospel through joy.  But also like the young John Paul II, Pier Giorgio did not sit and watch his country and his Church suffer.  He became politically involved.  He not only fed the poor, he fought for them.  He not only lived justice, he worked for it.

Our country needs us to be men and women of the Beatitudes today.  We need to thirst for justice.  Our Church needs defending.  Our freedom needs rescuing.

Our poor need serving.  And yet it is precisely the freedom to do this that is being taken away from us.

In his homily to open the first Fortnight for Freedom, Bishop Lori pointed out:

“[E]mbedded in the HHS mandate is a very narrow governmental definition of what constitutes a church; and if it is not removed, it is likely to spread throughout federal law.

In the HHS mandate, the federal government now defines a church as a body which hires mostly its own members and serves mostly its own members, and which exists primarily to advance its own teachings. In a word, so long as a church confines itself to the sacristy, then it is exempt from having to fund and facilitate in its health insurance plans government mandated services which are contrary to its own teachings.  But if a church steps beyond the narrow confines of this definition by hiring those of other faiths and by serving the common good – then the government is telling us that such institutions aren’t religious enough, that they don’t deserve an exemption from funding and facilitating those things which violate the very teachings which inspired churches to establish their institutions in the first place.

Friends, we must never allow the government, –any government, at any time, of any party–to impose such a constrictive definition on our beloved Church or any church! Our Church was sent forth by the Lord teach and baptize all the nations.  It was commissioned by our Savior to announce that the Kingdom of God is at hand.  It was sent into the world to do the corporal works of love and mercy.  Don’t we see this all around us – in inner-city Catholic schools, in Catholic hospitals, in the work of Catholic Charities so critical for the well being of local communities?  ‘The Word of God cannot be chained,’ St. Paul wrote to Timothy, and now it is up to us to defend the Church’s freedom to fulfill her mission to freely manifest the love of God by organized works of education and charity” (emphasis mine).

May Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, Man of the Beatitudes, intercede for us as we suffer persecution for justice’s sake.  On this anniversary of our country’s founding, may we work for justice — so that this country may always be the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

(The Star-Spangled Banner, 4th verse)

St. Thomas the Apostle

The Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle is a great celebration in India.  It is tradition that St. Thomas was the only Apostle to leave the Roman Empire to preach the Gospel, traveling to Syria and Persia and then to India, as far south as the southwest region of Kerala.   He was eventually martyred, fulfilling his declaration during Jesus’ public ministry, “Let us also go [with Jesus], that we may die with him.”

Despite Thomas’ courage and missionary spirit, he is best known as being “Doubting Thomas.”  Perhaps it’s a bit unfortunate that he is best remembered for his lack of belief in the Resurrection of Christ, since the other Apostles were also unbelieving until they saw Jesus in the flesh.  On Easter Sunday, Thomas was not with the Apostles in the Upper Room when Christ appeared to them. When he heard their testimony, he declared, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

The following Sunday, Christ appeared to them again, and this time Thomas was with them.  Jesus did not reprimand Thomas, but told him, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.”  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  (John 20:24-28)

Thomas must have had a close relationship with Christ to be allowed such intimate contact with him.   Such a personal experience, a prying into one’s hand and side, must not be taken lightly.  Clearly, Thomas was Christ’s friend.  The Apostles had spent three years with Christ — spending time day in and day out, walking with him, confiding in him, working with him.  They had accompanied Him in his ministry.  They had learned from him.  They had left everything for him.

They were his friends.

We too are called to that intimacy with Christ.  He desires each of us to enter into that close relationship with him — and we call that relationship “prayer.” (CCC 2558)  We spend time with him.  We confide in him.  We work with him.  At times we use formal prayers.  Other times we just sit in his presence.  He reaches out to us in the sacraments and allows us to touch him —  “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.”  And as unworthy as we are, we marvel at his goodness to us and exclaim, “My Lord and My God!”

As we reflect on our struggle to preserve religious liberty, we must never forget the power of prayer.  It’s often difficult for us to remember that nothing is more effective or powerful than prayer.  We feel like we should be doing something — and often we should be!  But sitting in the silence of our room in conversation with God or waking up early to go to daily Mass before work — these are the most effective things we can do for anyone or for any petition.

Praying with others is an especially powerful experience.  Not only did Christ promise us he would be with the community in prayer — “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt 18:2o) — it can also increase our own faith to hear voices united in common prayer.

America’s hope is the recommitment of families to prayer.  When our families begin praying together again, the effects will be seen throughout this country.

Our families are busy, and we may think there is no time to speak with each other- much less to pray together.  But if we sacrifice and specifically set aside time to pray as a family, we will give our children a valuable lesson they will not quickly forget.

During the first Fortnight for Freedom, in 2012, I was on vacation with my family.  We decided to pray the Bishops’ prayer for religious liberty together at the end of the day.  My sister’s family already gathers for prayers at bedtime, so the prayer was added to the end of their nightly prayer routine.  Every night we would gather in the boys’ room (ages 7, 5, 3, and 1.5) and I would pass out the holy cards with the prayer on the back.  It was moving to pray “for our children and grandchildren”  in the presence of my seven nieces and nephews- to hear my father’s voice praying for the boy playing at his feet, to vocalize that petition while seeing their innocence and wondering what America would look like in their future.

On the last night, some circumstances arose and we decided my sister’s family would go ahead and pray their night prayers without the rest of us.  Unbeknownst to anyone else, before they started, my five-year old nephew left the room in search of me.  He finally found me and reported, “We need your cards!  Come hand out your cards!”

Did he know what we were praying for in that prayer, as he clutched the card in his hand and tried to follow the words?  Of course not. Did he know it was important?  Yes — because we had made an effort every night to gather together.

We prayed together that night.  And I think God heard Andrew’s prayers extra clearly.

Some days we may feel overwhelmed by the threats against religious liberty.  Other days we may feel complacent about them.  And other days we may feel like demanding proof that God is even alive.  But every day he is calling us to himself, asking us to come to him in prayer, and waiting for us to fall to our knees and declare, “My Lord and My God!”

St. Junípero Serra

St. Junípero Serra is the newest American saint on our calendar, just canonized by Pope Francis on his recent trip to the United States. Serra came to the Americas after his ordination to the priesthood with the Spanish Franciscans. After working many years in Mexico, he eventually traveled up the coast to present-day California, where he founded the first nine of the 21 California missions.

He worked tirelessly in California, teaching the natives not only the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but also agriculture and economics. Most importantly, he defended the rights of the native people against the Spanish settlers. He poured his life out in ministry. He suffered greatly from physical ailments in his legs and feet, even to the point of not being able to walk or stand. But he was indefatigable in his work to spread the Gospel.

There was controversy around his canonization, since his legacy is mixed with the history of the injustice suffered by Native Americans in this country. Those who protested his canonization cited the decimation of the people from disease brought by the Europeans and the mistreatment of the native people by the settlers. Yet if one was to look at Serra’s life and writings, we find that many of the accusations laid at his feet are either flat-out fabricated or actually belong at the feet of the Spanish and Mexican governments, and even more so, later, the United States government.

Gregory Orfalea, a biographer of Serra, admits, “I spent 12 years researching Serra’s complex story. When I started, I assumed I would find an Indian tragedy that belonged on his doorstep. But I came to the conclusion that the missions were not places of unrelieved misery, and that in most things, Serra was exemplary. In letters, mission and other archival documents, memoirs and the record the Roman Catholic Church amassed in investigating Serra for sainthood, I discovered Serra defending the Indians against Spanish comandantes and governors, both in Mexico and in California.

“In Mexico, where he served 18 years before he came to California, someone poisoned his altar wine. The evidence indicates it wasn’t Indians who wanted him dead, but settler soldiers whom Serra had just rebuked for trying to wrest land from the natives, who were, in Serra’s phrase (he often used it, and it is telling) ’in their own country.’”

It is apparent from his writings and the way he cared for the native people that he was not in the New World to conquer and subjugate, nor did he disrespect the freedoms of the people he served. Archbishop José Gomez points out, “All his writings reflect genuine respect for the indigenous people and their ways. It is sometimes said that Father Serra was ‘a man of his times.’ But to tell you the truth, he really wasn’t. He was far ahead of his times. It’s amazing that in all the stories we have from his missionary journeys, all the tens of thousands of words he wrote in letters and diaries – we find hardly a hint of racist thinking of feelings of cultural superiority.”

When Kumeyaay warriors burned the San Diego mission to the ground, killing inhabitants and martyring Father Jayme, a friend of Serra’s, he argued the that people responsible not be executed but released, so that their souls could be saved: “As to the killer,” Serra wrote, “let him live so that he can be saved, for that is the purpose of our coming here and its sole justification.”

No one claims that Serra is without sins or mistakes. To believe that’s what the Church said on September 23, 2015 is to fail to understand what canonization means. But despite what moral relativism may dictate, evangelizing the natives is not one of those sins. Father Serra believed that Jesus Christ was the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and he wanted the indigenous people to share that truth.

Shortly before Serra’s canonization, Archbishop José Gomez gave an address about the soon-to-be saint and spoke about the priest in relation to our modern world. “In our secular, ‘post-Christian’ age, it is perhaps an inconvenient truth to remember that from the beginning America was a spiritual project.” Gomez reminds us, “Father Serra helps us to appreciate in a new way that the missionaries were America’s true ‘founders.’ In him we see that America’s origins were not about politics, conquest, or plunder. The deepest motives of Father Serra and the missionaries who founded America were religious, spiritual, and humanitarian.”

Even the men we call our founding fathers had an understanding that this new country would be religious. The United States of America was not founded as a Christian nation per se, but it was founded by Christians who believed God had to remain at the center of the endeavor. It is not enough to have a Constitution that unites us; the unity comes from something much deeper. John Adams argued, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

In a time when our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are all under attack, we should remember the words of Thomas Jefferson. “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people, that these liberties are … the gift of God?” Jefferson was no devout Christian. But he recognized that this American experiment was only going to succeed in a nation who recognized a power higher than themselves.

In his homily at the canonization Mass of Junípero Serra, Pope Francis gave us a commission. “Father Serra had a motto which inspired his life and work, not just a saying, but above all a reality which shaped the way he lived: siempre adelante! Keep moving forward! For him, this was the way to continue experiencing the joy of the Gospel, to keep his heart from growing numb, from being anesthetized. He kept moving forward, because the Lord was waiting. He kept going, because his brothers and sisters were waiting. He kept going forward to the end of his life. Today, like him, may we be able to say: Forward! Let’s keep moving forward!”

Today is the 240th anniversary of the day the Second Continental Congress met in a hot room in Philadelphia. The next day, 12 of the 13 colonies voted in favor of independence. The American experiment had begun. There are days when it seems the experiment has failed. But we continue to move forward. We continue to pray for our country. And we continue to hold on to the spiritual foundation of this one nation, under God.