Wednesday, December 10, 2014

St. Benedict Joseph Labre (1748-1783)

A beggar. A bum. A stinking, dirty tramp. A saint. Benedict Joseph Labre is a stunning challenge to our sanitized images of sanctity and, while not a Franciscan, his total embrace of poverty makes him a true kinsman of St. Francis.

The son of a village shopkeeper, Benedict Joseph grew up amid comfortable surroundings in the French countryside. His parents interpreted his reserved manner, evident piety, and concern for the poor as signs of a priestly vocation and sent him away for an education.

Benedict Joseph Labre, depicted by Antonio Cavalluci (1795)
Benedict studied under his uncle, a parish priest, but the boy's heart was rarely fixed on his Latin lessons. Instead, he gravitated to the transient poor of the byways and lonely places, and he delighted to mingle with them, often emptying out his pockets among them. Labre's attraction to the despised appeared eccentric to his contemporaries, no less than to us, yet his impulse was right – he intuitively recognized the continuity between his time with outcasts and the long hours he spent before the Eucharist.

During a cholera outbreak, the priest and student selflessly cared for the sick and dying. After losing his uncle to the disease, Benedict left his studies and career behind, determined to follow his true calling – poverty, hiddenness, and prayer. He set out with his family's permission to locate a monastic family where he could lose himself in abandonment to God.

The Carthusians, the Cistercians, the Trappists – all turned him away due to his curious affinities and poor health. But he never gave into discouragement. He knew God was faithful and would lead him aright, and as it turned out, Labre's wanderings proved to be a providential trajectory that did indeed set him on his life's course.

For Benedict Joseph's calling was to be a monk with a singular vocation: His monastery became the world, his chapel the streets, and his habit rags and filth. Like St. Francis, Labre's heavenward gaze was so intense, so fixed, that he found it difficult to conform to any of the world's categories – even the best of them – and he found his niche by not having a niche.

Giving up on monastic life, Labre made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1770. In the next six years, the saint crisscrossed the European landscape: Always on foot, generally sleeping outside, rarely begging, and accepting only those alms he needed for any given day. With an old cloak, his Rosary beads, and a couple of books as his only possessions, he made multiple journeys to a variety of shrines, including Loreto, Compostela, and, fittingly, Assisi. His days were spent in prayer and his nights among the homeless poor. Since he never cared for his body, he was often reviled and abused – signs to him of God's special favor.

Eventually Benedict settled in Rome, and he served the rest of his life as the Eternal City's holy fool, destitute yet joyful. He frequented many of the city's churches, and had a particular enthusiasm for the then-popular Forty Hours devotion. The supplicant would sit for long stretches in silent meditation before the tabernacle, completely enveloped in the presence of Christ, and then retire to the ruins of the Colosseum, his adopted home, to spend a good part of his night in further, intense prayer. 

Labre's tomb in S. Maria dei Monti, Rome. The effigy was made by Achille Albacini in 1892.
In his last days, Labre's rapidly declining health forced him to find refuge in a poor house. On Wednesday of Holy Week, 1783, the 35-year-old beggar collapsed on the steps of a church; he later died peacefully in the home of a friendly butcher. Immediately the city's children took to the streets exclaiming, "The saint is dead! The saint is dead!" The entire populace turned out to pay their respects and extra police had to be brought in to control the crowds. As Donald Attwater says in his Dictionary of Saints, "The people of Rome never had any doubt about the holiness of this 'new St. Francis,' and he was eventually canonized."

Benedict Joseph is truly a saint for our times. His radical detachment – from possessions, from the world, even from himself – shows up the emptiness of modern self-absorption and greed. Not that we should all resort to a semi-contemplative existence on the streets, but we would do well to follow Labre's lead in cultivating detachment and put away whatever distracts us from God.

Therein lies sanctity and sanctity is our destiny – we only must seize it, and God gives us the grace to do so. God can fashion a saint from a homeless tramp; he can make saints of us. All he needs are the raw materials.

A version of this essay was originally published in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

St. Crispin of Viterbo (1668-1750)

St. Crispin of Viterbo, OFM Cap.
"I've got shoes, you got shoes, all God's children got shoes." The old spiritual conjures up numerous biblical images of feet, shoes, and hoofing it for the Lord. St. Paul tells the Ephesians to "stand fast, your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace" (6:15), and to the Romans he quotes the prophet Isaiah when he declares, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news" (10:15; Isa. 52:7).

St. Crispin of Viterbo was one well acquainted with footwear as well as the link between faith and feet, for though he worked as a shoemaker in his youth, he was destined to spend his latter days unshod as a Franciscan beggar for God.

Brother Crispin was born Pietro Fioretti to a poor family in Viterbo, a small town north of Rome. His mother dedicated Pietro to the Blessed Virgin at a local shrine, instructing her son that Mary was also his mother. Accordingly, Pietro grew up with a deep devotion to the Queen of Heaven and referred to her affectionately as his "other momma."

Pietro was vigorous in his pursuit of sanctity, but physically frail, so he was fortunate in obtaining a cobbler's apprenticeship from his uncle. This benevolent uncle also saw to his nephew's schooling and enabled the boy to acquire a rudimentary training in Latin from the Jesuits. Nevertheless, Pietro was unable to pursue a learned profession, and instead excelled as a shoemaker while all the time seeking perfection in the science of the saints. 

When Pietro was 25, he observed a group of Capuchin novices process through the streets of Viterbo, and the Lord gave him a clear interior message that he was called to religious life. Immediately presenting himself to the superior of the local Capuchin friary, Pietro requested admittance to the order, but was turned away due to his sickly appearance. The cobbler, convinced of God's call, was not dissuaded, and he doggedly made his case. Eventually, the superior relented and admitted Pietro to the Franciscan family.

The new novice took the name Crispin to honor the patron saint of his trade, although he forever put aside his shoemaking skills. At first he cooked for his community; then he took up work in the gardens and orchards. Crispin also worked in the infirmary, where he acquired a widespread reputation for healing, both physical and spiritual. Once he effected a cure for a Vatican chamberlain, and the pope's own doctor praised the Capuchin brother's art. Crispin demurred and humbly attributed his success to Mary's intercession, saying that "the Blessed Virgin can do more than all the physicians in the world."

Brother Crispin eventually settled in Orvieto where he was appointed questor, or "beggar of alms" – a role he fulfilled for over 40 years. Crispin was seen constantly in the streets, joyfully exhorting the rich to give of their abundance, and equally joyful in providing for the needs of the poor and his brother friars. Beloved by all, respected for his peacemaking abilities, and revered for the care he provided the sick, orphaned, and imprisoned, Crispin was considered by many in the town a close personal friend. Indeed, when the superior assigned another brother to be questor, the homemakers of Orvieto denied the newcomer entry, and flatly refused to support the community until Brother Crispin was restored to his post. 

Calling himself the "beast of burden of the Capuchins," Crispin cheerfully took on all tasks, no matter how difficult or unpleasant. When epidemics broke out among his brother friars in distant convents, he went to care for them, heedless of the risk to his own health. Also, he personally attended to the foundlings left on his community's doorstep, and not only provided for their immediate physical needs, but also arranged for their future training in a trade.

Brother Crispin's years of selfless service finally took their toll during the winter of 1747-48 when he contracted pneumonia. After two years of suffering from his infirmities, Crispin anticipated his death in the joyful spirit of the psalmist:
I rejoiced because they said to me, "We will go up to the House of the LORD." And now we have set foot within your gates, O Jerusalem (Ps. 122:1-2).
Pope Pius VII beatified Brother Crispin in 1806, and Pope John Paul II, in the first canonization of his pontificate, declared the Capuchin cobbler a saint in 1982. His feast is celebrated by Franciscans on May 21.

A version of this essay was originally published in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Son Named Crispin

Limestone sculpture of St. Crispin (1400-1600, France)
We named our second son Crispin. It’s not an uncommon name in the U.K., but it’s pretty darned rare ‘round these parts.

I wish we could say that our choice was inspired by the saint, but it wasn’t. The fact is, we were watching the BBC's "Pride & Prejudice" just weeks prior to Cris’s birth, and there it was in the ending credits: Crispin Bonham-Carter, the actor who played the excellent Mr. Bingley in that sublime production.

“Crispin, Crispin,” I murmured to Nancy. “That’s a strong boy’s name, don’t you think? And I know there’s a St. Crispin.”

Yes, St. Crispin, as in St. Crispin’s day – the one forever enshrined in Shakespeare’s Henry V.

And today is that day. It’s not on the universal calendar as far as the Church is concerned, but it’s definitely on the universal calendar of those with any kind of literary bent. The St. Crispin’s day speech in Shakespeare’s play has got to be one of the most stirring orations of all time – even those of us with little familiarity with Shakespeare get it.
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
It makes you want to get up and do something heroic, something noble and courageo
us, doesn’t it? And it’s exactly the kind of spirit any father would want to instill in his children – something King Henry anticipates a bit earlier in the speech.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd.
Kenneth Branagh as 'Henry V' (1989)
As my own Crispin got older, I did my best to fulfill that prediction, and the speech became a regular fixture in our home each October. For years, on this day, we’d get out the Henry V soundtrack CD (the one from the brilliant film version directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh), and then put on the music from the St. Crispin’s Day scene. I’d dust off our big collected works of Shakespeare, and locate Henry V, act IV, scene 3. As best I could, I’d attempt to synch my recitation of the speech with the music, but it never mattered much in the end, because I don’t think I’ve ever gotten through one of Crispin’s feast day recitations without breaking down into a blubbering heap.

Why? What is so moving about this speech, this scene? It’s the sheer audacity of it, I think. No success was guaranteed – in fact, things looked pretty desperate for the English in that fight. They were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, and yet the King (in Shakespeare’s version of events) rallied his troops to fight on despite the odds – for their own glory and the glory of the realm. The battle was the thing; success or failure was not in question. Loyalty and dedication to high ideals – and to the crown, to the king – were the prize, and the outcome of the fight itself was up to God.

Bossche, Crispin and Crispinian (1494)
Still, it’s a fictional speech about a fierce battle – a far cry from the saint himself – the patron of cobblers, both him and his brother, Crispinian. They were third century Romans and Christian converts. Their enthusiasm for the Gospel led them to abandon their Romans roots and travel to the Soissons region of Gaul (modern day France) to preach and evangelize and teach everyone about the Lord.

The brothers witnessed by word in the daytime, and by night through their deeds, especially by supporting themselves (and others) through their shoemaking trade. This all took place prior to the legalization of Christianity, and the brothers’ bold testimony ensured that the authorities would catch up to them at some point. Eventually the Emperor’s men did track them down, and the missionary brothers suffered humiliation, torture, and death by the sword.

They died, yes, but their lives had been remarkably fruitful. Here's how my old Butler’s Lives of the Saints summarizes the ministry of those cobbler saints:
The infidels listened to their instructions, and were astonished at the example of their lives, especially of their charity, disinterestedness, heavenly piety, and contempt of glory and all earthly things; and the effect was the conversion of many to the Christian faith.
Irrespective of Shakespeare and the soliloquy, we knew we'd found a worthy namesake for our son, and an inspiring role model for any boy. Happy feast day, Crispin. May your patron and his literary legacy ever inspire you to persevere in the contests you undertake, particularly when the odds are stacked against you.

This story was adapted from an essay that originally appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Before a Mission Trip to Poland

A letter in response to a request for support from a short-term missioner.

People gather in Warsaw to mark Poland's Independence Day (Nov. 11, 2012)
Thanks for your letter and the opportunity to support you in your trip to Poland, both financially and through prayer. We’re not well off in the financial department, which is reflected in the paltry sum I’ve enclosed—sorry it can’t be more! Prayers, though, we’re loaded with, so we’ll be sending plenty your way. Count on it!

The trip sounds terrific, and I’ve no doubt you’ll be a true blessing to the students you encounter, work with, and befriend. And, as you noted, it will be an adventure that will help you work through some of your own questions and strengthen your faith.

One thing I wanted to mention, though. You wrote that many of the students grew up in an “atheist culture” and that they “do not know many Christian people.” While it is true that many Poles grew up during a time of atheistic Communist rule, their culture remained steadfastly Christian throughout. In fact, it is largely because of their strong Catholic Christian faith (and the encouragement of a strong Polish Pope) that the Poles were the first Eastern European country to challenge Russian-led Communist totalitarianism back in the ‘80s.

And “know many Christian people?” A quick check of Wikipedia (not terribly authoritative, I know, but a rough estimate) tells us that Poland is approximately 88% Catholic, with a smattering of other Christian traditions making up most of the other 12%. Obviously, large numbers of these folks may claim a church affiliation without any real faith commitment, but that’s no different than it is here in the U.S.

St. Mary's Basilica in Krakow, Poland, a day before President Lech Kaczynski's funeral there
All I’m suggesting is this: It might be helpful to conceive as your trip as primarily an opportunity to fellowship with other Christians rather than a missionary trip to evangelize the unchurched. Sure, you’ll meet some young people who don’t know the Lord and who are hungry for the Gospel—maybe even some who grew up in practicing Catholic and Protestant homes—but it’s still a good idea to take into account their Christian upbringing and traditions, and encourage them to discover Jesus Christ anew.

God bless you! I remember when my parents and sister travelled to Poland, and it delights me that you’ll be following in their footsteps. We’ll definitely be praying for you, and I hope you’ll keep us updated while you're there!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Disappearance of Down Syndrome

Originally posted on Facebook, June 28, 2008.

If you can recognize the characteristic physical features associated with Down Syndrome (DS), try this experiment: Next time you're out in a crowd, take a look around and count how many folks with DS you can identify. How many? How old?

Chances are you wont see many, and the ones you see will be well into their 30s and 40s or beyond—an observation that would be consistent with documented demographic realities.

Why is this? What happened in the early '70s that so radically decreased the number of babies born with DS? Was there some kind of fantastic medical discovery back then that aided the treatment of this condition in the womb?

Guess again.

In a beautiful yet discomforting piece in the Wall Street Journal recently ("A Life Worth Living," 6/27/2008), Christine Rosen alludes to the real reason:
Between 80% and 90% of women who find out they are carrying a child with the chromosomal abnormality (which can be tested using amniocentesis) choose to abort. A Harvard medical student who surveyed 1,000 women who were pregnant with Down Syndrome babies reported that many were urged by their doctors to terminate their pregnancies; one woman's physician told her that her child would "never be able to read, write or count change." This at a time when new developments in medicine have nearly doubled the average life span of people who have the condition to 49 from 25 years.
So, it wasn't a medical advance that led to fewer babies born with DS, but rather the Supreme Court's decision in 1973 to make abortion legal in all 50 states. In other words, we're eliminating a disorder by eliminating the patient.

All abortions are abominable crimes, but killing preborn babies because they are viewed as "defective" is particularly revolting—especially when it becomes the norm. Again, Christine Rosen:

As a culture, we have made what Amy Laura Hall of Duke University Divinity School calls a "democratic calculus of worth" regarding Down Syndrome. And that calculus has resulted in a society hostile to people who refuse to make the culturally acceptable choice of ridding themselves of a disabled child before she is born.

Can we continue to call "civilized" a society that tolerates, protects, and even promotes this heinous practice? Or has our "teetering on the edge of collapse" finally shifted into a moral free fall?

Pray for an end to abortion. Work for its end. Protest accordingly. Vote accordingly.

And when you see a baby with DS say a prayer of thanks. That baby's very existence means that we haven't hit rock bottom just yet.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Fog Clears

“I’ll crush you like a bug,” the wrestler snarled, twisting his fist around slowly and deliberately.

Opposite him, Joe “Rip Dawg” Merton considered the threat and snarled back.

A lunge, a blow to the solar plexus, and an epiphany: “I am a bug,” murmured Rip Dawg, as he crumbled serenely to the mat.


A 55 Fiction submission to Bethel's Crossings literary magazine, March 16, 2010.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

St. Fidelis and the Cathedral of the Plains

The stretch of I-70 across Kansas can be a challenge to the sleep deprived, but about halfway across the state there’s a jewel awaiting those who make the trip: The “Cathedral of the Plains.”

When I visited it the first time, I thought I’d enjoy a brief respite at a simple country church. I was wrong on two counts: There’s nothing simple about the Cathedral of the Plains, and my short respite turned into a prolonged prayerful pause—almost a roadside retreat.

The “cathedral” is actually St. Fidelis Church, a parish served by Capuchin Franciscans in the small town of Victoria (pop. 1,231 at last count). Victoria started as an English and Scottish settlement named for the queen back in the late 1800s, but Russian immigrant farmers of German descent took it over, bringing with them their devout Catholic faith and a passion for rich liturgical worship.

The faithful constructed a series of churches culminating in an unprecedented communal project: a church to rival the magnificent edifices the farmers had left behind in Europe. Urged on by their Capuchin pastor, every Catholic from the surrounding area contributed. They quarried limestone several miles south and transported it to the site by wagon. Workmen used hand tools to cut and shape the stones, and elaborate rope-and-pulley systems to set them in place.

The worksite was a constant hive of activity, and the busy farmers helped out between planting, harvesting, and chores. When completed in 1911 after three years’ work, St. Fidelis Church was one of the largest churches west of the Mississippi—220 feet long, with twin towers topping out at 141 feet each. The enormous Romanesque structure acquired its “Cathedral of the Plains” moniker from the U.S. statesman William Jennings Bryan after he visited it in 1912. And just recently, the church acquired another, more prestigious honor when it was designated a minor basilica by the Vatican.

And why St. Fidelis? Fidelis was the 17th-century Capuchin itinerant preacher who implored the Calvinist citizenry of Austria to return to the true faith. He was killed, of course, and therein lies the hook that captured the imaginations of the Kansas transplants. Just as St. Fidelis had surrendered all to make Christ known, the people of Victoria had truly invested their lives in erecting their monument of faith.

And it isn’t just a monument, but also a sign of the Body of Christ—like all church buildings. Like the Church herself. “Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord,” St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, of the whole Church. “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (2.21-22).

Which is why some churches have feast days: They really do point us to Jesus. The Franciscan Cathedral of the Plains is no exception.

A version of this story was originally published in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Student Loan Crisis: Solved!

Originally posted on Facebook, July 16, 2013. 

Sounds like Mayor Bloomberg has been eavesdropping on Becker family dinner discussions. Here's businessman Eric Roper in the Wall Street Journal yesterday:
New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg got it right the other day when he encouraged kids to think about forgoing college and becoming plumbers instead. Not everyone needs to go to college.
So true, and it doesn't mean consigning yourself to an attenuated intellectual life or blinkered prejudice—a point made by Will Hunting long ago:
The sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin' some thinkin' on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on an education you coulda' got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.
Plus, plumbers really help people—and the industrious ones go on to create jobs for others. More from Roper:
After all, what's wrong with plunging those toilets? You get good at the job, do it for a few years, and maybe you open your own plumbing business and hire people to work for you. 
So, a decent, honorable job that helps people and allows you to support yourself and your family. At night, you can read all the Kierkegaard and Spinoza and Nabokov you want—for free! Maybe no degrees or letters after your name, and almost certainly no fame or great fortune.

But you'd have the satisfaction of being a good plumber, serving your customers well, and honoring God through your hard work and craftsmanship. As Robert Bolt's Thomas More offered in A Man for All Seasons, "Not a bad public, that."  

Monday, March 3, 2014

On Her Sixth Birthday

"Nank you," she says, and "Her is
Upstairs" – endearing utterance
Doomed to extinction.

Professionals will have their way
In time, but not tonight! For
Now, her is heavy on my lap,

Safe, as we read a book
Falteringly, together,
Daddy and daughter.
Nank you.

Virginia Dale, February 29, 2012

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Easter Meditation

Originally posted on Facebook, April 9, 2012.

The other day, the kids were watching Fly Away Home—a great, underrated movie. Like all good movies, like all true stories, it’s about sin and salvation; about love, life, and death; about redemption, sacrifice, risk, and hope.

And it’s about fatherhood. As soon as I heard the main theme by Mary Chapin Carpenter, I rushed in to catch the film’s end, and I burst into tears. It’s a father’s worst nightmare and greatest joy—his little girl growing up, leaving his protective care, launching, flying, going away on her own. My daughters aren’t rescuing geese and flying solo over a continent, but they’re growing up, just like Amy in the movie.   

As many of you know, my daughter Joan is preparing to go to Oxford this summer. It’s a great opportunity, and I’m fiercely proud of her, but I’m terrified. What was I thinking when I said she could go if she got the scholarship? Shouldn’t I have known that she’d get it? Shouldn’t I have known that she’d find a way?   

Easter is like that I think. We bury Jesus and think, “Well, that’s done,” and we go about our business—what were we thinking? He bursts forth, he undoes our complacency, he pummels our sloth, he calls us to be martyrs, saints, and heroes—scandalous! Outrageous! Crazy talk!    

But he is relentless—like kids growing up. You’re blessed with your first child—sometimes, like us, when you’re still getting used to being married—and you have no idea what you’re doing. You stumble along, God blesses you with more children, you do the best you can, and they grow up. They grow up even when you’re not ready for them to grow up—when you’re just beginning to think that you might be getting the hang of it all, they’re driving and dating and going to Oxford.    

God, watch over them as they fly away. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Let’s Get Radical: Has the Catholic Worker Movement Betrayed Its Founders?

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin
Liberals are too liberal to be radicals. To be a radical is to go to the roots. Liberals don’t go to the roots; they only scratch the surface. The only way to go to the roots is to bring religion into education, into politics, into business.

To bring religion into the profane is the best way to take profanity out of the profane. To take profanity out of the profane is to bring sanity into the profane. Because we aim to do just that we like to be called radicals.

~ Peter Maurin