A Pope On the Slopes

I just finished reading The Secret Life of John Paul II, written by Lino Zani (with Marilu Simonesci), kindly sent to me by St. Benedict Press. The book was written last year and recently translated into English.

Lino Zani was born and raised in the Italian alps is an avid skier and mountain climber. Since his parents owned and operated a mountain lodge (a lodge dedicated to the fallen soldiers of the Adamello, which figures into the story), he also instructed and guided others in skiing in is mountains.

The beginning of Zani’s relationship with Pope John Paul II began when the pope’s personal secretary had the idea that Zani’s parent’s secluded lodge would be a good location for a papal skiing vacation. The idea came to fruition, thus beginning a relationship that would last until the Pope’s death – a relationship that began as mountain guide and developed into a deep friendship.

For many years, Zani said nothing about his encounters with the Pope, but decided on the “verge of the beatification of John Paul II…to recount in its entirety, with faithful precision and a spirit of authentic and Christian awareness, the human and spiritual story…revisiting the trail of all the memories of those twenty-one exgraordinary years with the Holy Father.”

Despite the title, there may be no secrets in the book, but reading it made me feel that I knew Pope a little more personally and deeply than I had before. Zani beautifully conveys both the personalism and the prayerfulness of Pope John Paul II. Whoever the Pope was with at any given time received his love and his undivided attention. One senses reading that no one was ever made to feel small in his presence. The picture of the Pope’s sense of humor and delight in simple play made me smile.

What really touched me were the descriptions of the Pope at prayer in the mountains, which beautifully conveyed his deep holiness and spirituality. Zani describes seeing that up close: “The main effect of his holiness was precisely that of transmitting a stream of unexpected courage to face one’s own life, whatever it was like. For a little while after having been with him, one became intrepid, impermeable to the evil of sufferings, unharmed by fear.”

Although the delight of the book is in the picture of the Pope it presents, the book also tells the story of a cross in the mountain, dedicated to solders that died during World War I – and the relationship of that to the Fatima predictions. That part made an interesting read, but, for me at least, not as compelling as the portrait of holiness Zani paints.

As the book jacket says, this book provides a “fascinating glimpse into the private life of history’s most public pontiff.” A good read.


Pope Celestine V, Who Quit

Everyone (or at least most Catholics) know that popes serve until death. We also know from history that serving until death doesn’t always mean until natural death; a number of popes in earlier times met their deaths at the hands of others.

But not until I read Jon M. Sweeney’s The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death and Salvation, had I known the story of Peter Morrone, the man who became Pope Celestine V in August 1294, and, within six months, resigned the papacy.

Although his book is meant to be historical and not fiction, Sweeney is a good story-teller and I was hooked as soon as I started reading.

Part of what makes the book so compelling is Morrone himself, clearly a holy man who had a great thirst for God. He understood the need to seek God in solitude and spent many years living the life of a hermit. During those years he was sought out by many for spiritual direction and wisdom, and ultimately, organized a community of brother hermits that grew “into dozens of communities with oratories all over central Italy.” At the age of 83, he moved further from those communities to enjoy greater solitude.

His one great mistake in life appears to have been accepting the papacy. From Sweeney’s description, it is hard to imagine someone less well-suited to the papacy, especially at a time when such turbulence and politics surrounded the election of a new pope. His time as pope was nothing short of disastrous, and it is no surprise he made the determination that he should step down. All of this – the story of Morrone’s life before becoming Pope Celestine V, how it turned out that this hermit monk became pope, his papacy, and his subsequent imprisonment – is a well-told tale.

Sweeney also does a marvelous job in the book of giving us a picture of the Church during the Middle Ages. He describes not only the papacy itself and the power of the church, but also what religion was to people of the time. Much less compelling for me was the end of the book and its speculation about whether Morrone was killed or died of natural causes in prison.

All in all a great read and I am grateful to Random House’s Image Books for sending me a copy for review.

Year of the Priest

We recently commenced the Year of the Priest, declared by Pope Benedict XVI to run until June 19, 2010. The year began last week, on June 19, the 150th anniversary of the death of the Cure d’Ars, Jean Vianney, who will be proclaimed as patron saint of all priests.

I confess that I struggle with certain issues surrounding the priesthood, such as the question of ordination of women and the role of the laity in relation to priestly ministry, but those struggles take nothing away from the fine and important work done by those who have been called to the priesthood. I am blessed to have a number of diocesan and order priests among my closest friends and I’ve observed with admiration their commitment to their vocation and the fruits of their labor. I pray freqently for their ministries. (And lately, I have been praying all too frequently for the repose of the souls of priests who have died, most recently a Vincentian priest who died yesterday. RIP)

Here is the prayer suggested by the USCCB to be used by parishes during the Year of the Priest. You may want to consider including some version in your own daily prayer:

Dear Lord,
we pray that the Blessed Mother
wrap her mantle around your priests
and through her intercession
strengthen them for their ministry.

We pray that Mary will guide your priests
to follow her own words,
“Do whatever He tells you” (Jn 2:5).

May your priests have the heart of St. Joseph,
Mary’s most chaste spouse.

May the Blessed Mother’s own pierced heart
inspire them to embrace
all who suffer at the foot of the cross.

May your priests be holy,
filled with the fire of your love
seeking nothing but your greater glory
and the salvation of souls.


Saint John Vianney, pray for us.

You can read the text of Pope Benedict’s Letter on the Year of the Priest here.

World Day of Peace

January 1 is World Day of Peace. The theme of Pope Benedict’s message for this year’s celebration of the World Day of Peace is Fighting Poverty to Build Peace. In the message, he reminds us that “the Church’s social teaching has always been concerned with the poor.” It is not enough, the Pope instructs, to merely give from one’s surplus. Rather, quoting John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, he spoke of the need for “a change of life-styles, of models of production and consumption, and of the established structures of power which today govern societies.” The letter identifies a number of specific issues, including the enormity of the problem of child poverty.

Pope Benedict ends his letter by extending “to every disciple of Christ and to every person of good will a warm invitation to expand their hearts to meet the needs of the poor and to take whatever practical steps are possible in order to help them. The truth of the axiom cannot be refuted: ‘to fight poverty is to build peace.'”

You can find the entirety of the Pope Benedict’s World Day of Peace Message here.

Blessed Are You

Today’s Gospel is Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ preaching of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are you who are poor…Blessed are you who are now hungry…Blessed are you who are now weeping…Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold your reward will be great in heaven.”

In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI devotes significant attention to the Beatitudes. He reflects on the experiences of St. Paul and on John’s Gospel discussion of the Cross to draw two conclusions about the Beatitudes.

First, and fundamentally, “the Beatitudes express the meaning of discipleship. They become more concrete and real the more completely the disciple dedicates himself to service in the way that is illustrated for us in the life of St. Paul. What the Beatitudes mean cannot be expressed in purely theorectical terms; it is proclaimed in the life and suffering, and in the mysterious joy, of the disciple who gives himself over completely to following the Lord.”

From this flows for Benedict the second point, namely, “the Christological character of the Beatitudes. The disciple is bound to the mystery of Christ. His life is immersed in communion with Christ.” (Benedict quotes Paul’s statement in Galatians that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”) He goes on to call the Beatitudes “the transposition of Cross and Resurrection into discipleship. But they apply to the disciple becuase they were first paradigmatically lived by Christ himself.”

So the Beatitudes are both a “veiled interior biography” of Jesus and a set of directions for all of Christ’s disciples. However, the directions are a little more complicated than the IKEA directions for putting together a bookcase. Benedict observes that because we all have different callings, the directions apply differently for each of us. So we each need to spend some time praying with the Beatitudes to discern what they say for us.

Praying with the Beatitudes this morning, in light of Benedict’s words, I had a very clear sense of the Beatitudes as speaking primarily about our relationship with/stance toward God. Taken together, they create a picture of right relationship wth God – recognition of dependence on God, humility, hunger/desire for God and restlessness until we achieve full union with God. It is a picture that stands in stark contrast to the stance of the non-disciple.

Human Work

Today we celebrate Labor Day in the United States, a day dedicated to achievements of workers.  It offers a good day to reflect on the meaning of work from a Catholic perspective.

The secular world tends to think of work narrowly. Work is viewed as separate from spirituality and the holiness of work is often overlooked, even by many men and women of genuine spirituality.

The Catholic vision of work is very different. In Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II described work as one of the central characteristics that distinguishes humans from other creatures. “Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.”

The source of the view of work as fundamental to human existence is our creation in the image of God and God’s command in Genesis that humans “[b]e fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” Created in the image of God, human are called to co-create the world with God. It is through work that we participate in the act of creation, making all work (no matter how ordinary) a means by which we fulfill our calling to be in the image of God.

Thus, in the words of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, work “is the condition not only for economic development but also for the cultural and moral development of persons, the family, society and the entire human race.”

May the Lord bless all of our work and may we be nourished by the awareness that all our work is holy.

Saintliness: A Universal Call

There are some who view saintliness as a quality reserved for a special few, a privilege beyond the reach of ordinary persons. During his general audience yesterday, Pope Benedict rejected this idea, calling saintliness “the universal vocation of those who are baptized.” The lesson of the saints, he said is that “holiness is not a luxury,” but rather “the common destiny” of all who are called to be children of God.

In his talk, the Pope talked about the importance of studying the lives of the saints. This is something that seems to have fallen out of favor with many Catholics. Having received a Catholic school education in the 1960s, we were steeped in stories of the lives of the saints. When I taught seventh grade religious instruction several years ago, however, I was staggered by how few saints my students had even the barest familiarity with.

For me, there are any number of saints who are a source of tremendous inspiration. And a significant part of what is so inspiring is the realization that so many of those we call saints were quite ordinary human beings, beings as flawed as the rest of us. (For a fun read, pick up a copy of Saints Behaving Badly, by Thomas Craughwell, subtitled: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil Worhippers Who Became Saints.) But through the grace of God – our God who so often writes straight with crooked lines – they were able to do tremendous things.

So studying the saints can be quite a source of hope. But it also take away any excuse we might otherwise have to avoid what Pope Benedict terms a “universal call.” No one gets to say, I’m not cut out to be a saint…I’m not special enough. Saintliness, holiness, is our “common destiny.”

Clare of Assisi: Living a Life of Poverty

Today we celebrate the feast of Clare of Assisi, who we usually think of in connection with St. Francis. Pope John Paul II once observed that “it is difficult to separate these two names, Francis and Clare. There is between them something very profound, which cannot be understood outside the criteria of Franciscan, Christian, Gospel spirituality.”

Like Francis, Clare insisted on living a life of poverty, something incredibly radical for women religious at the time. Clare and her sisters faced tremendous pressure to conform, but ultimately obtained papal approval to live without fixed incomes or dowries. For Clare, it was necessary not only to minister to the needs of the poor, but to have no security but that which God would provide. This was, for Clare, what it meant to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to live the Gospel. Francis apparently believed “that Clare’s blending of poverty and contemplation more perfectly approached the ideal of radical Gospel living than he had been able to achieve.”

Clare’s way of life demonstrated a deep faith and a radical trust in God. It also demonstrated her love and devotion to Jesus, whose humility and poverty were a subject of frequent contemplation for Clare. I can only pray for the grace to live out of that same faith and trust and that same love and devotion.

Bread for the World

“Those who eat the Bread of Christ cannot remain indifferent before those who, even in our days, lack daily bread,” said Pope Benedict in his Corpus Christi greeting to those gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday (the English translation of which I read on Zenit yesterday), making reference to the “grave and growing problem” that so many people “are barely able to provide for themselves and their children.”

In his talk, he characterized as “the beauty of Christian truth” that fact that, in Jesus, God “became ‘a grain of wheat’ to be sown in our earth, in the furrow of our history; he became bread to be broken, shared, eaten; he became our food to give us life, his own divine life.”  But he emphasized that the Eucharist “is the school of charity and solidarity.”  It is not enough to simply pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  Rather, it is necessary to follow Christ’s example, working to find ways “to multiply the five loaves and two fish” so that no one lacks the necessities of life.

Not only on the feast of Corpus Christi, but each celebration of the Eucharist should be for us “an occasion to grow in this concrete attention to our brothers [and sisters], especially the poor.”  How that manifests for different people will vary, but it is a responsibility we all share as members of this one Body of Christ.

The full text of the Pope’s message can be found here.