Category Archives: Church

Kindred Spirits: St. Catherine of Siena and Sigrid Undset

Today is the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena: mystic, stigmatic and Doctor of the Church. The writings of St. Catherine (1347-1380) have inspired many people down the centuries, but among the most interesting examples from comparatively recent times is the Norwegian Nobel Laureate, Sigrid Undset (1882-1949). I will spare the reader any vain and pitiful attempt on my part to analyze the sometimes above-my-head ideas related by St. Catherine. Instead, I draw attention to the work of Undset, whose admiration of this remarkable 14th century saint led to a wonderful, accessible reflection on St. Catherine and her writings.

Sigrid Undset was one of Norway’s most important modern writers. In recognition of her talents, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 – back when one actually had to be able to write, bring about peace, etc. to merit the award. Her trilogy “Kristin Lavransdatter”, set in 12th century Norway, ought to be required reading for all Catholics. Herself a convert to Catholicism, the 20th century Norwegian writer, Undset, found much in common with the 14th century Italian writer, St. Catherine.

Both women were Third-Order Dominicans, and lived in times when the Church appeared to be in danger of disintegrating. Indeed, Undset’s conversion from secular atheist to fervent Catholic was considered a tremendous scandal both among the Low-Church Lutherans and the no-Church intellectuals of her countrymen. Yet like St. Catherine fighting against a tide of materialism in her own day, Undset encouraged the faithful to fight back again the secularization of Western society.

Undset’s magnificent spiritual biography of the saint, “Catherine of Siena”, was published posthumously in 1951. It is a fitting introduction or companion for those interested in learning more about St. Catherine, written in a thoughtful and sensitive style that is typical of the author’s other works. The fact that Undset was so interested in the Middle Ages, not just in her own country but in the idea of Christian Europe, allowed her to build a bridge for us between our own day and a world which may at times seem very foreign to our experience.

Like many of us, Undset recognized the fact that the writings of this great Italian mystic are not always easily accessible for the modern reader. Apart from most likely not having had any mystical experiences, the modern reader most certainly did not have the benefit of growing up in the more deeply spiritual world of Medieval Europe. Yet she saw that, as in St. Catherine’s day, man’s perennial tendency to either ignore God completely or remake Him in our own image leads to evil results.

In “Catherine of Siena” Undset opined that the problems of the modern age grew out of a denial of man’s being made in the image and likeness of God, and all that entails. In order to justify his own bad behavior in violation of the natural law and the teachings of Christ and His Church, man can convince himself that sin is, in effect, virtue. If we have “ceaselessly stained and crippled the image of God in ourselves,” she writes, “we have succumbed to our desire for power and flattery, to our passions, hate and revenge, lust and ambition.”

In Undset’s view this paradoxical mindset leads to impotence, or destruction, or both. She notes that modern men are always planning utopian visions of the future, only to tear them down: man accomplishes something good, and almost immediately sets about destroying it. There is no sense of planning or preservation, all is caprice, shallowness, and pique. “We are afraid of change,” she writes, and yet simultaneously are “afraid of stagnation. We love old things and institutions, and will have something which is new and different.”

St. Catherine’s dogged perseverance, such as in trying to get the Papacy to return to Rome from Avignon, impressed Undsett tremendously: particularly because the saint seemed so often to be fighting a losing battle against the materialism of her times. Undset points out that the efforts made by St. Catherine to persuade others to take the right path were pursued with the full understanding of the saint herself that she might very well never see their fruits. In this, Undset says, St. Catherine drew closer to Christ:

She gave of herself until her physical life was used up; in a fight whose final results she was as sure of, as she was sure that she would not see many victories on the battlefield of this world. But in fact Our Lord has never made any promises regarding the triumph of Christianity on earth – on the contrary. If we expect to see His cause triumph here, His own words should warn us: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith upon the earth?” He did not tell us the answer.

Undset points out that even in the Middle Ages, when Christianity was in full flower all over Europe, there were still plenty of people who refused to follow Christ. She counseled that those who speak of “the bankruptcy of Christianity in our times” ought to keep this in mind, as well as Jesus’ own aforementioned speculation from St. Luke. God gives us no promises about the safety of the Church – other than that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

Living as do we, in an age of horrors which St. Catherine could not have imagined in her most intense mystical experiences, Undset championed the idea put forward by St. Catherine’s example that the single soul must stand up to be counted. Undset reminds us that, whatever the world may say, “every man is born individually, and must be saved individually.” This last point is an important one, for it gives us cause to not only hope but to continue to act in accordance with God’s Will for us, even if we feel we are all alone or there is seemingly little or no possibility of stemming the tide.

One of St. Catherine of Siena’s most famous counsels is: “Be what you are meant to be, and you will set the entire world alight!” Undset must have taken that counsel very seriously, for she “put herself out there”, as the saying goes. She may have lost the respect of some of her peers by rejecting secular materialism, but she gained the far greater blessing of Christianity in return. Let us hope that God, in His Mercy, has not only gathered her to Himself, but also that she and St. Catherine have become friends in heaven, given what extraordinary women each of them in her way was upon earth.

St. Catherine of Siena by Sano de Pietro (c. 1442)

Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht

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Filed under atheism, Catholic, Church, Dominicans, Italy, literature, materialism, Norway, secularism, Sigrid Undset, spirituality, St. Catherine of Siena

Church Vandalism in Spain: Credit Where It’s Due

Who would have thought that, in the 21st century, one would be able to regularly blog about or even tweet regarding acts of church vandalism in Spain? From Madrid to Barcelona and beyond, it seems that every week there is a new story of uncivilized, sometimes politically motivated, acts of violence against the fabric of the Church. As appalling as these events are however, it is extremely important to stress that cooler heads must prevail when reporting on these events. Not every physical attack on a church building comes about as a result of political action.

Recently for example, I learnt of a new act of vandalism in the historically important city of Burgos, located in central Spain. Two 13th century statues on the main entrance portal of the church of San Esteban (i.e. St. Stephen) were decapitated sometime late on Holy Thursday or early in the morning of Good Friday by an unknown person or persons. San Esteban was built between the 13th and 14th centuries, and is considered by some architectural historians to be the most important example of Gothic church architecture in the city after the Cathedral of Santa Maria La Mayor. It was declared a National Monument of Spain in 1931, and at the present time it serves as the Altarpiece Museum for the Archdiocese of Burgos.

This morning Spanish authorities announced the capture and charging of an individual in connection with the case. The heads of the statues of St. Peter and St. Lawrence were recovered by the National Police from the individual, and these have been returned to the church for restoration. The defendant is a local man, who had been arrested and charged recently with antiquities theft in another matter, but was out on bond at the time of the San Esteban incident.

From the beginning the Archdiocese of Burgos has been very careful not to jump to the conclusion that this was an anticlerical act, and expressed its belief that this was probably an act of theft. Vandalism of ancient churches to feed the black market in looted antiquities is a problem throughout Europe, and Spain is no exception. When the incident was first reported, a spokesman for the Archdiocese noted the important detail that the heads were taken away, rather than left at the scene, as would normally be expected from leftist vandals. Nor was there any accompanying graffiti or other indications to suggest that the vandalism was a politically motivated act.

A similar, commendable restraint was shown by the Archdiocese of Barcelona and local authorities last week, when the sacristy of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia was torched by a mentally ill man. Neither the Archdiocese nor the police alleged that there was any connection between the individual and leftist anti-Catholic actions. By taking this cautionary approach in Burgos, Barcelona, and elsewhere, the Church is doing exactly what it needs to do, even if authorities are often powerless to prevent vandalism – politically motivated or not – against its property.

There is a trait in the Spanish character at all points along the socio-political spectrum to jump to conclusions about the cause or motivations behind an act, which at the moment the Church appears to be avoiding institutionally, unless there is undeniable proof of an anti-Catholic motivation. Perhaps the most famous example in recent years of the Spanish tendency to form an opinion with insufficient evidence occurred on March 11, 2004, when the Madrid subway system was bombed three days before national elections were scheduled. The conservative government and some elements of the media immediately blamed ETA, the Basque separatist group, which denied all involvement – and admittedly the charge against them seemed rather bizarre to outside observers at the time, including this writer, since attacks like these are not the usual m.o. for ETA.

Through subsequent investigation it quickly came to light that the Madrid subway attacks were carried out not by Basque separatists, but rather by Muslim terrorists. The public reaction against the conservatives for making ETA the scapegoat for 3/11, as the subway bombing has come to be known, was harsh and swift; the small lead which the conservatives had enjoyed as the election was drawing to a close completely evaporated. This catapulted Mr. Rodriguez Zapatero and the Spanish Socialist Party into office, where they remain at the present time.

There is without question a rising sentiment of anticlerical fervor in Spain, and this needs to be addressed both through engaging those who seek to harm the Church, and by insisting that civil authorities do their job to maintain law and order. However, the bishops, the media, and the laity need to act with restraint when assigning blame to acts of Church vandalism. Tarring with too a wide brush will only hurt the perception of the Church in the court of public opinion, creating a “boy who cried wolf” situation. And it is among the members of the law-abiding public, Catholic or not, where the real power to combat deliberate acts of anticlericalism resides.

The 13th century statues of St. Peter (L) and St. Lawrence (R)
on the entrance portal of San Esteban in Burgos, prior to last week’s vandalism

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Filed under anti-Catholicism, Barcelona, Burgos, Catholic, Church, Madrid, Sagrada Familia, Spain, vandalism

Spy Wednesday: Judas and the Monkey

[N.B.: A big change is coming to the Blog of the Courtier next week, stay tuned for details.]

Today is Spy Wednesday, when the Church recalls Judas Iscariot’s plot to betray Jesus. In continuing our reflection this Holy Week on St. Matthew’s Passion Narrative, it is worth considering a rather interesting question, unanswered by the Scriptures, and which perhaps has slipped our attention. Why did Judas hold on to the 30 pieces of silver?

St. Matthew tells us that two days before the Crucifixion:

[O]ne of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me if I hand Him over to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand Him over.

St. Matthew 26: 14-16

Of course we know what happens next. Judas plays his part perfectly, but he comes to abhor what he has done. St. Matthew writes:

Then Judas, His betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? Look to it yourself.” Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself.

St. Matthew 27:3-5

Notice that Judas is not giving the Temple any old money to try to bribe the officials into letting Jesus go. St. Matthew tells us that he “returned” what we are told are the 30 pieces of silver. It is the actual blood money that Judas gives back, and rather interestingly Judas defiles the Temple by throwing the coins into the Temple precincts. The real defilement of course, was that undertaken by the Temple authorities themselves, who in effect ordered a “hit” on Jesus.

So why does Judas still have this money with him, on the morning of Good Friday? One answer could be that he simply did not have time to spend it. Another answer is that his sudden wealth would have been conspicuous, and the Apostles would have suspected him of stealing (again) from the communal purse. Yet I think the answer can be found in a simple, but superb painting by the great early Italian Renaissance master Giotto: the bag containing the thirty pieces of silver became the monkey on Judas’ back.

The bargain to betray Jesus has not been treated as frequently in art as the kiss of Judas, but Giotto’s rendering of this infernal deal can be seen in the famous fresco cycle he completed before 1305 for the Arena Chapel in Padua. Judas is shown receiving the bag containing the 30 pieces of silver from one of the Temple officials, while two others discuss the exchange. Clasping onto Judas, like the proverbial monkey on the back, is a frightening black demon – not noticed by any of the participants in the scene – complete with claws, sharp teeth, and cloven hoof.

From this point forward, Judas becomes just as burdened with his demon, monkey, albatross, etc., as any substance abuser. He cannot spend the money, not only because it will draw attention and suspicion upon him, but because somewhere in his mind he knows that what he is doing is wrong. The money he carries around becomes the burden that will ultimately drag him down to hell. Even when he throws the monkey off his back by trying to return the money and undo his actions, the monkey jumps right back on again. For Judas doubts the power of God and His forgiveness, and instead chooses suicide as a punishment for his sins, no doubt goaded on by that monkey on his back.

The Church on earth, as I often have to remind others, is an institution populated entirely by sinners. Because this is the case, many of us have our own monkeys on our backs just like Judas, which we are carrying around and remain unwilling or unable to put down. They do not have to be tangible in the way that a bag full of coins is, in order for them to have a powerful pull on us. We can only be relieved of these heavy burdens through the Grace of God, and how fortunate we are to be able to seek and obtain that Grace through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Judas, of course, denied the power of Christ to forgive, and therefore could not rid himself of the monkey he had allowed to climb onto his back. For many, going to confession to seek forgiveness is viewed as an unpleasant experience, and it is therefore avoided. In my experience, the relative pleasantness of an action often has little to do with its efficacy. Much of life is not pleasant, but eternal damnation as a result of intentionally unrepented sin is, we are assured by Christ Himself, infinitely less pleasant.

Easter is only a few days away, but we do not have to follow Judas’ example and allow the monkey – or troop of monkeys – on our backs to continue to dictate how we are to act. Until we die, it is never too late to seek the Grace of God through the sacrament with a contrite heart. For those of my readers who have not been to confession for quite a long time, please think about whether it is time to ask God’s Grace to get that mangy old monkey off your back. I know that I will be doing the same for myself.

The Pact of Judas by Giotto (c. 1503)
Arena Chapel, Padua

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Filed under art, Church, confession, Giotto, Holy Week, Judas Iscariot, Spy Wednesday

>Write Your Bishop for Holy Week

>Today the Church marks the Feast of Pope St. Martin I, one of the bravest pontiffs to ever sit in the chair of St. Peter. When the pope refused to follow certain overreaching dictates of the Byzantine Emperor, the latter sent troops to the Lateran and arrested him, taking Martin to prison in Constantinople and eventually exile in the region of the Black Sea, where he later died. He was not the first nor the last bishop in history to find himself isolated and alone for refusing to cave in to temporal authority.

During some excellent dinner-and-libations conversation last evening one of the gentlemen in attendance reiterated something those of my readers who are fellow Catholics have no doubt heard many times before: the bishops need our support. Yet beyond just the bricks and mortar issues, which is when most of us usually think about the bishops, it is important that we realize that their flock is a necessary source of encouragement for them, in a wider society containing elements that violently hate them. They are a group of prominent men suffering one of the greatest ironies of the contemporary, celebrity-based culture: they do not get a lot of fan mail – indeed, often quite the reverse.

What I want to encourage my readers to consider, as we approach the beginning of Holy Week on Sunday, is whether they could take the time to write just a brief note of encouragement to their local bishop – not to criticize, but to thank him for something good that he has done on behalf of his flock. Because of the high prominence of the Church doing Holy Week, the bishops in the larger cities always find themselves or their Holy Week services under attack from crazies on the Left. A lot of them will rise to the challenge, but they are human beings after all, not saints. They signed up for the job of pursuing their vocation, but that does not mean that they could not, from time to time, do with a little temporal encouragement, particularly under times of particular stress.

One aspect of being a courtier is to recognize that the mission of the Church must supported by those of us who are in positions to do so. Certainly financial donations help with expenses and projects, but there is an even greater thing that can be accomplished through the simply writing of a few lines. Supporting your local bishop and giving him a bit of encouragement, even if you disagree with him on a number of points, is a way of not only giving the bishop a break from the bad news and angry comments he is flooded with every day, but simultaneously gives you the opportunity to provide some comfort to and to engage in the encouragement of the highly important and far-reaching apostolate of another.

If of course you decide to send an Easter Card to your bishop, I would try to eschew what are really “Happy Vernal Equinox” cards with fuzzy ducklings and glittery rabbits. Yet given the selection available in most stores, you are probably just better off sending a plain letter or note card. Unless, of course, you know your bishop reasonably well and feel that he would see the humor in it.

I am very happy to let the bishops be bishops, for theirs is not a job that I, for one, would relish. But I am also happy to realize that, even as a single parishioner in one of the many parishes in his diocese, telling the bishop “thank you” for his service, or finding one good thing that he did and writing a few well-chosen and encouraging lines about it will mean a great deal. If people of good will who care about the Church can do some small thing like this for their bishop, whether at Easter or at other times of the year, I wonder whether there wouldn’t be even greater readiness on their part to challenge the evils of the anti-culture which face us.

Pope St. Martin I

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Idle Hands: Leftist Failures and Anti-Catholicism in Spain

In the overnight hours of March 22nd-23rd, a group of radical feminists set fire to the historic 18th century church of Saint Vincent in Sarrià, a place which I know well and have written about on my other blog, Catholic Barcelona. The formerly independent village of Sarrià is a pretty, well-to-do neighborhood in the north end of Barcelona, somewhat reminiscent of Georgetown here in DC. Why those responsible chose this particular parish we do not know, though its pastor, Father Manel Valls, is well-known both in Barcelona and throughout Catalonia for being the celebrant of the televised Sunday Mass on TV2, one of the main Catalan television stations.

The anonymous group which claimed responsibility for this act intended to do not only as much damage as possible to the church building, but also to wound the hearts and minds of Catholics everywhere, not just local parishioners. Mocking the part of the mass known as the Presentation of the Gifts, during which lay members of the congregation process with bread and wine to the altar and then present these gifts to the priest to be used for the Consecration of Jesus’ Body and Blood, the unnamed group sneered on their website that “by this action, we present our unique offering to the Church and its values: 3 liters of gasoline, which burned to illuminate the darkness of the night.” Fortunately for the parish, the group only succeeded in burning part of the main portal and door of the church, as shown below: next time, the parish may not be so lucky.

Direct attacks by leftists on Catholic houses of worship have been increasing across Spain in recent weeks. From a student chapel at Madrid’s most important university, to parish churches in Segovia, Tenerife, and elsewhere, anti-Catholic violence has been undergoing a real resurgence. However this particular action in Barcelona is a significant stepping up of the level of violence seen so far. Until this recent attempt at church burning, the current rash of break-ins and protests have involved offensive graffiti and signs, or demonstrations which devolved into laughable acts of hysteria and crowd frenzy. They could be dismissed as disgusting, but to some extent predictable, elements of life in a free society.

Yet the more disturbing aspect of this has been the appearance of signage and chanting, calling not only for the deliberate burning of the churches, but also the killing of the members of the clergy and religious orders, actions last undertaken during the rule of the Left before and during the Spanish Civil War. My fear is, it can only be a matter of time before the targets of assault and even destruction cease to be structures, and start to be people. It would not be the first time in Spanish history that such evils took place.

Despite pleas from Church officials and the laity that these matters be taken seriously before they are allowed to go too far, these classic, tell-tale signs of trouble seem to be taking many by surprise. It was thought in many quarters, from the media and academia to politicians and bureaucrats, both within Spain and internationally, that in this day and age there was no real physical threat either to the property of the Church or to either its leaders/adherents. Not only is this an utterly ignorant position, for anyone who knows a little about the history of Spain and its tendency to repeat itself, but it also betrays a subconscious attitude on the part of many that by not “keeping up with the times” with respect to its social teachings on abortion, contraception, or on the ordination of women, the Catholic Church in some way deserves what it gets.

The reason for this increasing radicalization is said by many to be unclear, but I attribute it to three, key points. First and foremost, we must take into account the precarious state of the Spanish economy, which has been circling the drain for some time, with market watchers worrying over the state of the country’s savings banks, increasing interest rates, and slashed growth forecasts. Overall unemployment currently stands at 20% of the population, but youth unemployment for those in the 18-35 age bracket is stuck at a shocking 40%. If idle hands are the Devil’s workshop, there is nothing like a young, unemployed Spanish leftist to do his handiwork.

Secondly, blame must be laid at the doorstep of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who recently announced that he will not be seeking a third term as President of the Spanish Government. Not only have “the Shoemaker’s” policies since 2004 led his country to the point of economic collapse, but his thinly-veiled loathing of both conservatives and the Catholic Church have been expressed through the radical social policies he has pushed through parliament, to rapturous adulation from those on the left. All the while, he has been giving the Spanish people circuses rather than bread; now they have realized that they are hungry, and by standing down for the next general election he has clearly indicated that he does not want to be thrown to them for food.

And finally we must consider what I believe to be the third cause for the increase in anti-Catholicism in Spain which, ironically enough, is the success of the faithful within Spain to stand up for themselves with the visible support of their Pontiff. The Papal Visits to Santiago de Compostela and Barcelona last year drew enormous crowds – not of the elderly, though of course they were there also, but more significantly of the young. Watching streaming media coverage of the consecration of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the clearly audible and visible shock of the jaded newscasters at the presence of enormous numbers of youth overjoyed to see this elderly German priest made me smile rather broadly. And of course this summer, the celebration of the Holy Father of World Youth Day in Madrid – which will, in fact, go on for much longer than a day – is going to throw the supposedly sophisticated Spanish leftist for an even bigger loop.

The idle hands which I mentioned earlier have to up the ante if they are going to prevent the Church in Spain from having any kind of a future, and this is why those hands are putting down their placards and picking up cans of gasoline. For the left cannot claim that these young people – who have no memory at all of General Franco and the repressive aspects of his regime – are being forced to practice Catholicism or to admire the pope. The under 40′s in Spain have grown into their teens and adulthood knowing that virtually every libertine path is open to them, and yet a surprisingly large number have chosen to reject social engineering, radical feminism, and bioethics standards taken from the collected works of Josef Mengele, and instead freely and willingly choose to follow the path of Christ. The fact that a Spaniard born into modern, democratic Spain would exercise their free will to be a Catholic sends your average Spanish leftist into a screeching hissy fit.

The latest chapter in the history of anti-Catholicism in Spain is being written before our eyes; we are living under the curse of that Chinese proverb, “May you live in interesting times.” How much more violent that anti-Catholicism becomes – and I fear it will inevitably become even more violent – will depend on the willingness of those in authority to protect not only the property of the Church, but also the safety of those who work for and worship within it. Those of us who care can do our part by not only following the news about what is going on in Spain, but also by blogging, tweeting, e-mailing, and talking about it with those in our circle. And in the meantime, let us hope and pray that these attacks will stop soon, before something far more grave occurs.

The entrance portal to the church of St. Vincent in Barcelona,
after being attacked by leftists last month.

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Filed under anti-Catholicism, Barcelona, Catalonia, Catholic, Church, Spain