My latest piece for Aleteia is a reflection on the Infant Jesus of Prague, the famous devotional object from Spain that ended up in Bohemia during the Renaissance. I had never been particularly interested in this representation of the Christ Child until several years ago, when I turned to Him at a very difficult moment in my life. As always, my thanks to Elizabeth Scalia and her staff at Aleteia for publishing my scribblings.
>Today is the Feast of St. Francis Xavier, more properly Francisco de Jasso y Azpilicueta, patron of missionaries. He was one of the first Jesuits to be canonized, alongside his fellow Basque and founder of the Jesuit Order, St. Ignatius Loyola. Born into a noble family in Navarra in 1506, he died a missionary off the coast of China on this date in 1552.
Like a number of the great Spanish saints, including not only Loyola but St. Dominic, St. Francis Borgia, or St. Thomas of Villanova, among others, St. Francis gave up a comfortable life in order to follow God’s Will, taking Christ’s instruction to the rich young man in St. Mark’s Gospel, to leave everything and follow Him. Of course, we all know the unfortunate outcome of that encounter:
At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”St. Mark 10: 22-23
Some have taken this passage to mean that Christ is condemning all wealth, which he certainly is not doing. Of course, others who have embraced the so-called “Gospel of Prosperity” hold to the equally false position that material rewards and an avoidance of suffering are a sign of Divine favor. Rather, as is often the case, Jesus takes a middle road between these: His call to the rich young man is a very specific one, intended for him.
The more general implication of this passage, it seems to me, is that one should be prepared to abandon all material possessions if called upon to do so, for Christ warns us about becoming attached to things which pass away. Yet notice that Jesus says it is “hard”, not “impossible” for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God. He certainly did not eschew the assistance of those with means, for indeed numerous people supported His ministry financially, and he taught parables regarding the proper use of wealth to those who would listen.
At the same time however, Jesus very explicitly instructs that those who are given wealth, power, and influence in great measure are supposed to use those things to perform equally great works of love and charity. One of the beauties of the Catholic faith is that someone of as lofty a status as St. Elizabeth Queen of Hungary and someone of as lowly a status as St. Benedict Labre the homeless mendicant can both be recognized as exemplary Christians and models for us to follow, even though one lived in a palace and the other on the streets. Certainly, it can be said that one does not need to be poor to get to Heaven, but it helps – or at least, it makes it a bit easier to shuffle off this mortal coil if you have never had much to enjoy on it in the first place. Yet not everyone is called to abandon the family estates, as St. Francis Xavier did, in order to follow God’s Will.
Indeed, just as the question of the abandonment of possessions and position is one that is between the Maker and the creature, so too the purpose one follows. All of us are called to be saints, though not all of us are called to be missionaries in far-away places, like St. Francis Xavier. The much-beloved English historian St. Bede, for example, rarely traveled from the monastery where he spent nearly all of his life, including having been born on its lands.
Equally, the talents of individuals can differ significantly, but result in furtherance of the Kingdom of God. You could not find two more different individuals than St. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine and St. Thérèse de Lisieux in terms of education, background, and accomplishments. Yet both are proclaimed Doctors of the Church, in recognition of the profound importance of their very different writings – something which seems incredible to the unbeliever.
In a slightly different vein, this is why the Church, in following the example of Christ Himself, never gives up hope on anyone, no matter how limited their abilities physically, mentally, or otherwise. It is also part of the holistic pro-life concept we embrace, refusing to sanction the abortion or euthanization of those suffering from conditions such as mental retardation, physical deformity, etc. The human soul is known to God alone, and within an outwardly healthy body and mind may lurk a fatally damaged spirit, turned in on itself and unable to use its health, intelligence, and abilities to look beyond the self to the needs of others. This is worse than a physical or mental disability, it is a spiritual disability, and God preserve us from it.
As Christians we celebrate the assent to the Will of God when we remember the lives of the saints. The single most important example of this, of course, is that of the Virgin Mary: her “Fiat” to the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation, and the Incarnation which followed. Of course most of us, and even most of the saints, did not have such a dramatic moment of decision as did the Blessed Mother, St. Paul, St. Thomas More, etc. Our opportunity to say, “Yes,” when it comes, may be something very quiet and unheralded.
Today the castle in Navarra where St. Francis Xavier was born is in the hands of the Jesuits, who have preserved it as a shrine to the man. The remains of the man himself – or most of them, anyway – lie enshrined thousands of miles away in Goa, India, where he spent years doing missionary work. As interesting a monument as the family castle is, historically speaking, and as stunning the Basilica of Bom Jesus, architecturally speaking, in truth neither of these places truly matter. Their destruction, while unfortunate, would not result in the destruction of either Christianity or in the legacy of St. Francis Xavier himself.
Rather, it is the legacy of St. Francis Xavier in having had the courage to follow the Will of God which has made him a saint, not the buildings built or relics preserved in his memory. That we have sought to preserve these physical reminders of him is only right and proper. Yet as the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man shows us, it is in the abandonment of attachment to the material world that we achieve the spiritual. The young man said, “No,” but St. Francis Xavier said, “Yes.” Let us hope that we, too, would have the courage to do the same when the call comes.
>As I write this I am preparing for a trip with my siblings home to visit my parents for Easter weekend, so I will be (mercifully) brief. It will be fantastic to get out of the city and back to the countryside again. So here are just a couple of points for this Good Friday:
– We had a superb turnout at St. Stephen’s last evening, and a beautifully celebrated mass along with a thought-provoking, memorable homily by Father Jim Brady. We will miss him greatly when he goes back to Louisiana next month. Afterward a large group of the 20- and 30- somethings went on a little pilgrimage across the bridge into Georgetown, to visit the Blessed Sacrament at Epiphany Parish before going on to dinner.
– My friend Father Hugh Vincent Dyer, O.P., sent me an interesting article (thanks Father!) he came across in the New York Times archive, about King Alfonso XIII of Spain and some of the Grandees (the highest nobility) of Spain, washing the feet of the poor at the Royal Palace and setting the table for them in the Royal Palace with their own hands. You can read the intro to the short article here. The slightly longer article can be opened by clicking on the PDF. Father Hugh became our deacon at St. Stephen’s not long after I myself arrived, and perhaps one of my funniest memories is of Monsignor Filardi introducing us after mass on evening: I was in an aircast and on a cane, he in a plaster cast and on a crutch. It turned out that we had both snapped our ankles on the same day and swapped stories of the rather stupid things we had done to end up in that condition.
– Today being Good Friday, Christians commemorate the Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ. As Catholics we fast today, and also abstain from meat. I’d like to leave you with the image of Christ made by human hands that most speaks to me, so much so that I have a copy of it framed in front of me on my desk as I write this. This is the “Christ Crucified” by Diego Velázquez painted around 1632. Interestingly enough, it was not until I saw the painting first-hand in the Prado Museum in Madrid that I realized that the background, so commonly reproduced as jet black, is in fact an extremely dark, almost black, shade of green. It makes me think of how the sky in the rural areas of the Northeast and Midwest can turn an inky black with a definite green tinge to it, before a truly severe storm is about to hit.