In the liturgical revisions after Vatican II, the more complex hierarchy of feasts was simplified, so that we now have solemnities, feasts, memorials and optional memorials, the last of which dot the calendar, and are, as their name implies, optional, so that we may celebrate them as our proclivity – primarily our devotion – moves us.
On that note, today we have one of those rare days where we have a choice of three (four, if we include the default ‘Easter weekday’ option).
So, here they are, in chronological order:
Saint Bede the Venerable (+735) was an English monk, sent to the monastery of Wearmouth as a young boy of seven as a puer oblatus, where he remained for the rest of his days, praying, reading, writing, working, chanting the Liturgy. Bede was considered the most learned man of his time, and one of the holiest, faithful to the end. At one point, as a teenager (he was about 14), the plague hit the monastery, and only the Abbot and young Bede were left to chant the hours, which they did faithfully, one to the other across the choir pews, until some valiant monks recovered, and others joined. Bede’s works cover almost the entire gamut of knowledge then known, and his Ecclesiastical History of England, a masterpiece of historical research, provides the foundation of current studies. Bede died peacefully, lying on the floor of his cell, surrounded by his beloved brethren. As his contemporary fellow monk described Bede’s final moments:
And so, on the floor of his cell, he sat and sang “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit”; and as he named the Spirit, the Breath of God, he breathed the last breath from his own body. With all the labour that he had given to the praise of God, there can be no doubt that he went into the joys of heaven that he had always longed for.
Saint Gregory VII, known also by his birth name of Hildebrand (+1085) was the Pope who instantiated one of the most substantial reforms of the Church that now goes historically by his name, shoring up ancient disciplines in the episcopacy and the priesthood. In his struggles with Emperor Henry IV, Gregory helped clarify the primary spiritual authority of the papacy, transcending secular authority, and his personal example, prayers and witness solidified the Church herself as she emerged from so-called ‘dark ages’ into the glories of the early ‘middle ages’, much of which would not have been possible without Gregory. He shares much in common with the first Pope of that name, both of them helping save civilization from rack and ruin, as well as freedom from the interference of the ‘State’, whose totalitarian tendencies must always be resisted, primarily by spiritual means. Saint Gregory taught us that the Church is the path to heaven from earth, and Christ’s vicar, whatever his human limitations, is the visible, hierarchical link between the two.
Here is how Pope Gregory summed up his own duty, one which could be written today, as the day of the Antichrist approaches ever-nearer:
Ever since by God’s providence Mother Church set me upon the apostolic throne, deeply unworthy and, as God is my witness, unwilling though I was, my greatest concern has been that holy Church, the bride of God, our lady and mother, should return to her true glory and stand free, chaste, and catholic. But because this entirely displeased the ancient enemy he has armed his members against us in order to turn everything upside down.
He has accordingly done such things against us, or rather against the apostolic see, as he has not been able to do from the time of the Emperor Constantine the Great. And truly it is no wonder, for the nearer the time of Antichrist approaches, the more violently he strives to destroy the Christian religion.
And finally, we have Mary Magdalene de’Pazzi (+1607), a Carmelite nun and mystic, offered great graces, ecstasies and visions by God in prayer from a young age, after a chaplain taught her to pray and meditate on the Passion of Christ. She made a vow of virginity at ten years old, and resisted attempts at marriage by her rich and noble family. Her father relented, and allowed her to enter the Carmelite monastery in Florence, which she chose since she could receive Communion daily. The description of some of her mortifications, if the contemporary accounts are not hyperbolic, are difficult to fathom, and are more to be admired than imitated, one might think. In the midst of all this, her visions continued, and her spiritual director asked that they be related to her fellow Sisters, eventually filling five volumes. Sister Mary Magdalene died on this day in 1607, and her body was found incorrupt six decades later. She was canonized in 1669. This prayer she composed describe what motivated her own progress in holiness:
Come, Holy Spirit. May the union of the Father and the will of the Son come to us. You, Spirit of truth, are the reward of the saints, the refreshment of souls, light in darkness, the riches of the poor, the treasury of lovers, the satisfaction of the hungry, the consolation of the pilgrim Church; you are he in whom all treasures are contained.
Come, you who, descending into Mary, caused the Word to take flesh: effect in us by grace what you accomplished in her by grace and nature.
Come, you who are the nourishment of all chaste thoughts, the fountain of all clemency, the summit of all purity.
Come, and take away from us all that hinders us from being absorbed in you.
And, as the great Saint Augustine puts it in a discourse on the psalms, which we find were we to choose the ‘regular Easter weekday’ readings:
Because there are these two periods of time – the one that now is, beset with the trials and troubles of this life, and the other yet to come, a life of everlasting serenity and joy – we are given two liturgical seasons, one before Easter and the other after. The season before Easter signifies the troubles in which we live here and now, while the time after Easter which we are celebrating at present signifies the happiness that will be ours in the future. What we commemorate before Easter is what we experience in this life; what we celebrate after Easter points to something we do not yet possess. This is why we keep the first season with fasting and prayer; but now the fast is over and we devote the present season to praise. Such is the meaning of the Alleluia we sing.
Amen to that.