¡Viva Cristo Rey! (Part 2)

Yesterday, we celebrated one of my favorite feast days, the Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Why is it one of my favorite feast days, you may ask? Not just because “Crown Him with Many Crowns” is my jam (really, though, it’s a fantastic hymn). I love this day so much because it is a day to celebrate the powerful truth that Jesus is Lord and I am not.

Praise God for that gift. As the liturgical year wraps up this week, I declare that truth with a sigh of relief in my lungs and with praise and gratitude in my heart—Jesus Christ is King. King over all my problems, King over our hurting Church, King over every situation in this past year that has made no sense, King over all the violence in the world and the turmoil in my heart, King over the days where I feel like I can’t do it, King over every. single. thing.

We praise You, Lord Jesus.

Saint_Jose_Luis_Sanchez_del_Rio
St. José Sánchez del Río

He is sovereign over all. We get to choose to surrender our control and let Him be King, no matter what the cost. A great Saint did this at just 14 years old, St. José Sánchez del Río. He lived in Mexico during the Cristiada movement of the 1920s, when a bloody war was waged against Catholics. The Church was under total control of the state, and it became illegal for Catholics to practice their faith in public. Monasteries and convents were shut down, Church property was taken over, and priests were arrested and killed for saying Mass. The Cristeros rose up to fight for Christ their King, and St. José asked his parents to join their army. He said, “For Jesus Christ, I will do everything.” He was their youngest member and became their flag bearer. St. José was imprisoned after giving his horse to the General and not being able to escape in time. While in prison, he refused to renounce his faith and could be heard frequently saying, “Viva Cristo Rey! Viva La Virgen de Guadalupe!”

St. José’s godfather was the mayor of his town, but he did not let him go. He told him if he just said, “Death to Christ the King,” he would let José go home to his family. But he refused, so he was ordered to be killed. The federalists cut off the soles of his feet with a knife and then made St. José walk ten blocks along a dusty, gravel road to his grave. The soldiers beat him and mocked him, and he just kept shouting, “Viva Cristo Rey!” They then stabbed him several times. They asked him what they should tell his father, and St. José replied, “That we will see each other in Heaven! Viva Cristo Rey! Viva La Virgen de Guadalupe!” With that, the soldiers shot him, and he died.

Jesus was St. José’s King, and he let Christ reign over every area of his life, even when it meant dying a death much like our Lord’s. Is Christ King over every part of your life, or is there anything else that reigns? The ultimate expression of our trust in God is when we have childlike dependency on our Savior and King. As the liturgical year comes to a close and we prepare for the coming of our Savior, where do you need Christ to be your King?

Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King!

P.S. A great movie on the life of St. José Sánchez del Río is For Greater Glory. Here’s a powerful clip!

¡Viva Cristo Rey!

Miguel_Pro's_execution_(1927)This weekend we will celebrate Christ the King Sunday, and today we honor the feast of Blessed Miguel Pro, who is known for his last words, uttered before a firing squad: “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”). As we reflect on Christ’s role as king within our own lives, Miguel Pro is an example to us of how we are to orient our hearts toward Christ above all else.

Miguel Pro lived in Mexico during a time of intense religious persecution. The secular government forbade all public worship, and as a Jesuit priest, Father Pro had to carry out his mission in secret. Disguised as a mechanic, an office worker, or a beggar, he administered the sacraments and served the poor. He was well aware of the dangers and knew that this mission would likely cost him his life, but he also understood that following Christ was what gave his life meaning in the first place. If it meant defying an unjust government, he would not hesitate; he would gladly lay down his life for the sake of Christ, who had died on the Cross for him.

In 1927, Father Pro was falsely convicted of an assassination attempt against President Calles and executed without trial. Intending to portray Pro as a coward, Calles sent a photographer to the execution. But this backfired, for the photo portrayed Father Pro as the saint he truly was: standing bravely with arms outstretched, embracing his cross and declaring Christ his king. The photo of his last moments, printed on the front page of newspapers throughout Mexico, galvanized the Cristeros, who were fighting against government persecution. His martyrdom was a powerful witness for Christ.

When our society contradicts the teachings of Christ, are we prepared to stand for what is right? Or are we ruled more by the common beliefs of the culture than by Christ Himself? Unlike Miguel Pro, we do not have to fear a firing squad for practicing our faith, but sometimes much lesser penalties—fear of being misunderstood, ignored, or ostracized—scare us away from allowing Christ to rule in every aspect of our lives. Let us pray to Blessed Miguel Pro to grant us his courage, that we may not allow the fear of how others may treat us to cloud our focus on Christ the King.


Image: Photograph of Miguel Agustin Pro, Mexican Jesuit, being executed by a firing squad in Mexico city, November 23, 1927 / PD-US

Martyrdom of St. Isaac Jogues

I tell you, my friends,
do not be afraid of those who kill the body
but after that can do no more.
I shall show you whom to fear.
Be afraid of the one who after killing
has the power to cast into Gehenna;
yes, I tell you, be afraid of that one.
Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins?
Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God.
Even the hairs of your head have all been counted.
Do not be afraid.
You are worth more than many sparrows.
—Luke 12:4–7

My confidence is placed in God who does not need our help for accomplishing his designs. Our single endeavor should be to give ourselves to the work and to be faithful to him, and not to spoil his work by our shortcomings.
—St. Isaac Jogues

st-isaac-joguesToday we celebrate the feast of St. Isaac Jogues, one of the North American martyrs who gave his life serving the Native American people (and also the first priest to set foot in Manhattan). Through his life and martyrdom, he embodied the verses from today’s Gospel. He had no fear of those who threatened to kill his body, although there were many. He focused instead on the well-being of the soul, both preserving the sanctity of his own soul and awakening other souls to Christ.

In the summer of 1642, while Fr. Jogues was traveling with the Huron people he was serving, he was captured and tortured by attacking Mohawks. They beat him mercilessly and chewed off his forefingers, leaving his hands permanently mutilated. Fr. Jogues spent the next seventeen months in captivity, treated as a slave. Even in those unimaginable conditions, he sought to connect with people’s souls. He baptized seventy people and tended to the sick, including one of the men who had bitten off his fingers.

For Fr. Jogues, the horrible bodily tortures he suffered—undoubtedly painful though they were—were ultimately inconsequential. When he was freed from captivity and returned to civilization, he spoke fondly of his former persecutors, never allowing the physical pain they had caused him to cloud his awareness that they were beloved children of God. He had demonstrated his genuine love for these people, who had reason to distrust Westerners, by learning their language and customs and being attentive to their needs. He wanted them to realize the incalculable worth of their souls—they were worth more, indeed, than many sparrows.

People thought Fr. Jogues was crazy to return to his mission after the ordeals he had suffered, but he was undeterred. He was eventually martyred in 1646, captured again by Mohawks and killed by a blow to the head with a tomahawk. Some of his last words were, “I do not fear death or torture. I do not know why you would kill me. I come here to confirm the peace and show you the way to heaven.”

Curiously, his killer later underwent a radical conversion to the Catholic faith and took the name Isaac Jogues when baptized. He too was martyred just a week later. One of the missionary priests said afterward, “God willing, there are now two Isaac Jogueses in heaven.” I have to imagine that the first Isaac Jogues had taken an active interest in caring for his persecutor, interceding for his conversion and a martyr’s crown. His goal, after all, had always been heaven, not just for himself but for everyone. Ultimately, his joyful confidence in Christ drew many souls upward in his wake.

The Forerunner

Gospel reading: Mark 6:17-29
Herod was the one who had John the Baptist arrested and bound in prison
on account of Herodias,
the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married.
John had said to Herod,
“It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
Herodias harbored a grudge against him
and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so.
Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man,
and kept him in custody.
When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed,
yet he liked to listen to him.
She had an opportunity one day when Herod, on his birthday,
gave a banquet for his courtiers,
his military officers, and the leading men of Galilee.
Herodias’ own daughter came in
and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests.
The king said to the girl,
“Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.”
He even swore many things to her,
“I will grant you whatever you ask of me,
even to half of my kingdom.”
She went out and said to her mother,
“What shall I ask for?”
She replied, “The head of John the Baptist.”
The girl hurried back to the king’s presence and made her request,
“I want you to give me at once
on a platter the head of John the Baptist.”
The king was deeply distressed,
but because of his oaths and the guests
he did not wish to break his word to her.
So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders
to bring back his head.
He went off and beheaded him in the prison.
He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl.
The girl in turn gave it to her mother.
When his disciples heard about it,
they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Dear fellow pilgrims, 

Today is a peculiar and peculiarly brutal feast day, the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. (Side note: This was one of the two choices that Aidan and I could have gotten married, and we chose August 1st instead because 1. It was sooner than August 29th, and 2. We felt a little… weird about the prospect of sharing this feast day with our wedding day.) This is a peculiar feast day because saints’ feast days, at least in the Roman Catholic Church (I’m not sure about Eastern orthodox feast days), are usually celebrated on the day of their death, because that’s when their race was finished and they passed into eternal life. But St. John the Baptist also has a feast day for his birth. I am just learning that this is because he was freed from original sin in the moment he “leapt in the womb” because of the proximity of Jesus in Mary’s womb, and thus, was born into this world without original sin. The only other feast day for another nativity other than Christ’s in Mary’s own nativity, because she too was born into this world, but also conceived without original sin.

While I don’t know the theology behind what it means exactly to be freed of original sin, what can I observe is that this is a privilege reserved to only Mary and St. John the Baptist, and probably because of their proximity to Jesus’ mission; God was giving them an indispensable tool to fight that same mission alongside Christ, and in the case of St. John the Baptist, act as the “forerunner” of Christ. And this is why we celebrate specifically the Passion of St. John the Baptist today: this passion preceded His Passion.  

There are many parallels between St. John the Baptist’s passion and Christ’s passion: 

Both St. John the Baptist and Jesus were… 

  • … speaking truth to power
    • John was pointing out that Herodias was an illegitimate wife of Herod.
    • Jesus pointed out that many of the Pharisees were illegitimate leaders of the Jewish people. 
  • … locked up by powerful figures who were also aware of their righteousness.
    • “Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody.”
    • Pontius Pilate’s wife, and arguably also Pontius Pilate, knew Jesus was a holy man and did not deserve to die. 
  • … killed at the result of a powerful man being pulled in the direction of the crowds after feeling much tension within himself over whether or not he should kill them. 
    • “The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her.”
    • “Crucify him! Crucify him!” 
  • … displayed to a crowd after they were murdered
    • on a platter
    • on the Cross

There is a special relationship that John has with Jesus because we all follow Jesus, but, in a way, Jesus followed John, since he was the “forerunner of the Messiah.” In the linear line of human history, Jesus followed John, but in Salvation History that exists outside of time, Jesus’ sacrifice and Resurrection preceded and enabled St. John the Baptist to live a life of virtue.  What humility of Christ to follow his second cousin in death, and also to share a small portion of the genetic information of the blood they both shed because of their familial ties.  What humility of both St. John the Baptist and Christ, to die in such brutal and tragic ways… at the hands of men who were interiorly struck by their holiness, but torn between this faint truth within them and their earthly roles that pointed to killing as the only “solution.”  

Today, let us pray that we adopt the attitude of this “forerunner,” living on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and always attuning our lives to something greater than us. 

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

The Narrow Way

I remember years ago, as a child, reading with awe the stories of great missionaries and martyrs.  And so when in China I met “real live people” who were daily risking their lives to bring the Gospel, I was somewhat starstruck.  I attended secret Masses with priests and nuns who had served in the Underground Church for decades, who had friends who had been arrested, beaten, or even killed for their faith.  I met women who taught small children the faith, despite the law that made it a crime to speak of God to anyone under eighteen.  I met men and women who had started orphanages and infant hospices to care for the abandoned and discarded little ones, and others who assisted women seeking to hide their “illegal” pregnancies from forced abortion.  Each of these daily put their livelihood and even their lives on the line, over a span of decades, and many had suffered terrible persecution but still persisted.

When I was invited to join some of them in a secret mission trip to another part of China, to join in speaking “illegally” about the faith, I was thrilled.  To be fair, the risk to me was insignificant—if caught I would only be deported, not killed.  But there was something in me that loved the idea of being a part of something that felt so missionary, to join these heroes even in a partial way.

But then, a few days before we were to leave, something felt wrong.  At first I thought the heat was finally getting to me.  We had taken a taxi to the Great Wall, and our driver like many elderly Chinese had a deep superstition regarding moving air.  He insisted on keeping the windows closed and the AC off, until we arrived and gratefully tumbled out into the much cooler 99 degree air.  But the weak, dizzy feeling continued well into the evening, even after we returned from the wall.

The next morning, my stomach began to lurch and make sounds that might have had me burned at the stake in earlier centuries.  It then violently designated “return to sender” pretty much everything I had ever eaten or ever considered eating.  Charity and basic decency ask me to censor the graphic details, but suffice it to say, I had never been so sick in my life.

In the United States, when one gets a stomach bug or food poisoning it usually end after 24 hours or so.  This did not.  After three full days my body was still violently and involuntarily turning itself inside out, and I alternated between thinking I was going to die and praying that I would.

I did not suffer nobly.  I did not smile serenely offering up my pain for the poor souls.  I was not peaceful, accepting whatever God would send me for His greater glory. I don’t even think I prayed, other than to beg God to let me die, quickly.  I had not known, until that moment, that it was possible to experience such pain and not die or fall unconscious.  I only wanted it to end.

It was ten days before I was back on my feet again, thanks to a combination of watermelon, Cipro and many prayers.  I missed the mission trip, and realized ruefully that that far from being a hero, I had more in common with the nameless companions who died of dysentery before ever reaching the missions.

I was tempted to be disappointed, at first, at not being permitted to do something “great” like the others.  And I was frustrated at how poorly I had suffered even my minor little cross, when I knew others who carried much bigger ones more gracefully.  But God’s plan for each of us is profoundly personal, and always perfect.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”  We’ve all heard some variation on this, and know, (at least on some level) the harm in Park Avenue pretense, or Wall Street ambition, or any other human measuring sticks.  Yet sometimes this slips into our spirituality and our ideas of holiness.

It is a central strategy of the Opposition Voice to turn our eyes away from Christ, to look instead to the gifts, or faults, of others.  When we see those of seemingly greater gifts or callings we are tempted to doubt our own, to be ungrateful, or to let them go unused.  When we see the faults of others, we are tempted to excuse our own, saying “at least I am not as bad as him/her.”  My father used to warn me not to make others the measure of my soul: “You will always be able to find someone holier than you, and someone more sinful.  The fact that you are better than Hitler does not make you a good person.  You need to do the best you can with what you have been given.” Christ invites us to look to Him, to what He is calling us to individually.

The way is narrow because it is personal, a specific way for each person.  As Pope Benedict said, there are “as many ways as there are people.”  Not that each person invents his or her own way—nothing could be more disastrous!  Rather each person is uniquely called to follow Christ in a particular way, with particular gifts.  The one reason to do anything, great or small, is because He asks us to.