The idiom "you're not getting older, only better" - surely applies to the Blessed Virgin who is busier than ever as we near the third millennium, the millennium foretold in Sacred Scripture as that time of peace and Our Lady is preparing us for a great celebration of countless of her children returning to her Divine Son and His Church. What a celebration it will be! But we must be prepared for the "party." You can't throw a party if you're not prepared, if you don't have the facilities or "goodies" so to speak, or the participants. In this case the facilities are the parishes and the "goodies" are the knowledge of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith both catechetically, scripturally, and doctrine-wise. The participants are Catholics who are well-versed in their faith to evangelize and minister to others - the millions of others who, like the prodigal son, will return to the fold. There will be great rejoicing, but there is plenty of hard work to pull it off and God depends on us to be His legs, His arms, His mouth, and His ears to help make it the great success expected. One other thing He depends on us to have - His heart, which means giving ourselves heart and soul to fulfilling His Will. No wonder Our Lady constantly harps on praying with and from the heart! She has been doing this since her first apparition to Saint James in Saragoza, Spain quite possibly when she was in her "fifties" or "sixties." Since that time she has been appearing all over the earth. For a young girl born near Bethsaida, she has been quite the world traveler! There is likely no country in the world she has not visited over the past two millenniums and her message is always the same: Pray from the heart and come home to her Divine Son. And yet, for nearly 2000 years we still haven't gotten it right. Either we argue amongst ourselves preferring our own wills over what she asks - to adhere to the Divine Will, or we argue over Mary's role - Protestant vs. Catholics - and the sad, sad fact is that over these 20 centuries more people have died over the "cause" of religion than any other cause. That's not what God wants, that's not what the Blessed Mother wants, and, in truth, that's not what mankind wants. Yet all faiths have gone into battle from the early Romans to the Crusaders to the Papal State armies to the wars during the Protestant Reformation to the French Revolution to Northern Ireland to Palestine today. Mary is not the "Queen of warriors" but rather the "Queen of Peace" and that peace cannot be achieved without prayer from the heart, without totally submitting our will to God's will.
Today there are wars throughout the world as we stand on the brink of an even greater world prophesied in Scripture and by Our Lady to so many visionaries over the years. There is no continent where there is peace save for Antartica. Africa is in a shambles as Moslems and Christians are engaged in bitter fighting from Sudan to the Congo to South Africa; Asia is reeling from persecution in China and Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India not to mention Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia; Australia is embroiled in fierce name-calling between factions as the gay-rights and abortion advocates infiltrate the culture down-under as the bishops fight to preserve the truth; Europe is crumbling in moral decay. The Holy Father has warned so many countries of this - from the guerrilla tactics in Northern Ireland between militant Protestants and Catholics, to the disregard for the culture of life in Scandinavian countries and Germany to the disregard for the faith and concession to modernism in France and Italy. In fact, possibly the only country still strong is Portugal which Our Lady also foretold at Fatima. In the "new world" things aren't much better, in fact possibly worse. In South and Latin America there is so much fighting in practically every country that no one knows if there will be a coup the next minute. Governments that have come to power this way are fighting with the Catholic bishops over abuses and practices as Catholics weigh the delicate balance between caring for our fellow man and liberal theology as thousands die from senseless massacre and even more from starvation. In North America Mexico is in dire straits and Canada is treading the economic waters as the Canadian dollar loses its value in a very unstable market while the bishops of Canada reveal an even more liberal bent than their neighbors to the south. Ah, yes, the United States - the country dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, the land more blessed with material possessions than any other in the history of mankind. What about America? While there are no formal military wars within our boundaries the war for life has been going on for thirty years on the front lines of the abortuaries; faiths have fueded longer; and the most revered position in the country - that of President, has been made into a mockery because of Bill Clinton's total denial of God's will in favor of his own selfish wants. The Baptists, of which he supposedly belongs, have called for his resignation or impeachment. We're still waiting to hear from the bishops of the United States in making a united stand against the immoral regime of the nineties. Because the prelates are experts at politics it may not be soon forthcoming. As we have mentioned so many times on these pages, the moral fiber of America is spreading so thin that will unravel soon unless we return to her Divine Son and heed all Our Lady asks. But there must be unity for this to happen and even as we prepare to welcome the countless souls back into the Church, there is still too much in-fighting amongst ourselves; not only between the conservative and liberal elements of the Church but within the Marian movement itself. How can we heed the messages if we are not willing to listen to them? Too many hold the messengers up for scrutiny without truly hearing what Mary is saying. We judge too quickly and pay more attention to the messenger than the message. The majority of messages this century have been the same and yet so few truly hear and even fewer heed what Our Lady asks. And so there is misery throughout the globe. No wonder the Blessed Virgin weeps so. With all the efforts she has put out one would hope for better results. But Mary is not dismayed and, like the loyal daughter of the Father, devoted mother of the Son, and faithful spouse of the Holy Spirit, she perseveres.
Liturgically her birthday is the beginning of a week that includes the feast of The Holy Cross, formerly the Triumph of the Cross, and then the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. We begin joyously and lead up to two feasts that connotate much sacrifice and suffering, but without which we would not have the graces we have been afforded by God today. Without the Cross and Mary's fiat think where we would be! It's not a nice thought and it's not a nice thought to think of the countless souls who could lose out if we do not intensify our prayers and evangelization efforts immediately. We must be ready for the onslaught. One way is through the special Novena for Life sponsored by Father James Moroney, Executive Director, National Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat for the Liturgy. It began officially last night on the eve of Our Lady's birthday and will continue through to the Feast of the Sorrowful Mother. Each day will be included in our PRAYERS & DEVOTION section with suggested scriptural readings. This is an excellent way to begin our readiness exercises. That readiness, that willingness to be part of God's "volunteer faculty" is the best present we can give our Blessed Mother today on her birthday...that, and a good ol' fashioned "Happy Birthday, Mom!"
Pope Celestine I was succeeded on July 31, four days after his death, by Pope Saint Sixtus III who was the third pontiff in succession who had been born in Rome. Sixtus enlarged and embellished the Basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. Lawrence and was the author of several epistles. Probably his greatest accomplishment was upholding the jurisdiction of Rome over Illyria against the Eastern Emperor who wanted it dependent on Constantinople. He died on August 19, 440. We leave it to Msgr. Ryan to set the scene for the age we are covering in this installment: "Roman Imperial civilization had done its work as a channel of Christianity, and, like its own mighty aqueducts which had brought for centuries the pure mountain waters to the thirsty multitudes, was now falling into picturesque decay. In the west, in Gaul and Britain, the Cross, which had advanced with the Roman eagles, fell back with them when they retired. The scattered Christians that remained when the Legions had retreated, were either lapsing into heresy, or were being swallowed up in the wave of triumphant barbarism rolling from the north." He was, of course, refering to the Visigoths and the barbarian leader Alaric who had taken Rome and plundered the city in 410 and then twenty years later Augustine's beloved city of Hippo in northern Africa. The people were ripe for conquest, falling into disarray morally and materially. It was a walk in the park for Alaric and he continued unabated. This encouraged other barbaric tribes to go a-plundering. One such was the King of the Huns Attila who, born in 405, soon became the "Scourge of God." As Msgr. Ryan relates, "But the same Providence that let loose that avenging flood upon the sullied Empire, was not without a care for His own. As the Frank and Goth pushed into the fertile lands of Italy, other conquerors as mighty rose in the lands those had left. Saintly heroes were given by God to the stricken peoples, and by Him strengthened with the power which is made perfect in infirmity."
One of these saints was Pope Saint Leo the Great who became the 45th in the line of Peter when he was chosen to succeed Sixtus III on September 29, 440. Born in Tuscany, Italy near the very end of the 4th Century, Leo came up through the ranks of the Deaconate and was in France attempting to reconcile the warring factions there when he was elected Pope. Though, like most pontiffs, he did not feel worthy, he nevertheless accepted the privileged and august duties of leading God's people through the middle of a most turbulent century. Naturally the people looked to him for leadership and to save them from the plights that would afflict them, yet Leo, as a humble but effective deacon knew he couldn't do it by and of himself. He placed everything in God's hands and constantly sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thus, in the hands of God, Leo became a powerful instrument to protect and honor the Church during the decay of the Roman Empire, the assaults of Arians, and the invasions of heathens. Three years into his papacy Leo convened an assembly to rebuke and endorse Pope Innocent I's condemnation of Manicheanism as well as exposing Nestorianism, Priscillianism, and Arianism. In 451 he called the Fourth General or Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon where he staunchly defended the Incarnation, defining the revealed teaching of faith that in Christ there are two distinct natures, the divine and the human, hypostatically united in one person. He also condemned the heresy of Eutyches. But the Byzantine Court did not convey his words to the people and the heresy grew stronger among the Eastern monks and bishops. This made it necessary for Leo to convene the Fifth Ecumenical Council, this time at Constantinople where he condemned in no uncertain terms the Three Chapters or heresies running rampant. He garnered the signatures of all the Bishops, proclaiming "Peter has spoken by Leo." He admonished his bishops to know their faith and to assure that their priests in each diocese were knowledgable in Dogma and Doctrine so that the people would not fall into the heresies that had assaulted the Church during the Third, Fourth and Fifth Centuries. Leo not only assured unity within ecclesiastical ranks, but re-established harmony among the faithful. He is called "great" because of his energetic work in maintaining unity, his involvement in the liturgy, politics, preaching and writings, which have been cherished and passed on through the ages. But to historians his greatest accomplishment came in 451.
The year before a barbaric horde known as the Huns had overrun the Empire, pillaging and plundering Gaul and moving rapidly from the north through Italy to the gates of Rome. Fearing no man, Leo chose to meet Attila - the "Scourge of God" face to face at the gates. Many felt it was suicide and that Rome's fall was a fait accomplis, but Leo knew God would protect him and so he bravely confronted the pagan king at the gates of Rome, pursuading Attila to abandon his plans to sack the city. To everyone's astonishment Attila rounded up his horde and turned away from Rome. It was another in the many encounters down through the centuries where, through the grace of God, a superior force is turned away, evidence David slaying Goliath, the victory at Lepanto, Saint Clare holding aloft the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance to protect the city, and many more such cases where the power of God was manifested. Leo took very seriously his charge handed down from Saint Peter to rule Christ's Church as Christ instructed. Leo knew it was not him who convinced Attila to forego his attempts on Rome, but the miraculous vision God allowed Attila to behold of Saints Peter and Paul standing behind Leo. The "Scourge of God" knew that any power this great was not to be messed with or he would be scourged by God, and so, totally overcome mentally by the vision he had seen, he retreated. It was the end of the threat so feared throughout Europe as the Hun king died two years later while Leo ruled another ten years, 21 in all, receiving his Heavenly reward on September 10, 461. In 1754 St. Leo was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XIV, honoring this great Pope for his great writings and wisdom at a pivotal time in Church and world history. He had shown great courage and his skills at governing the Church and emphasizing spirituality while juggling the political footballs of his time. His actions strengthened the Vatican's position in the world while bringing the people to a closer understanding of what Jesus meant in His words to Peter in Matthew 16: 18-19, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; and whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven."
Leo was succeeded by Pope Saint Hilary, 46th successor of Peter, on November 19, 461 and he died after seven years on February 29, 468 leaving behind the accomplishments of possessing great political thought like his holy predecessor. Hilary determined that a certain level of culture was needed to foster the priesthood, and that popes and bishops should not nominate their successors. Besides establishing the concept of a seminary, he also reached out toward the missions instituting apostolic vicariates in the west in Spain, Ireland and Britain. Tivoli-born Pope Saint Simplicius followed Hilary on March 3, 468 as the 47th in the line of Popes and held the papacy until March 10, 483. It was during his papacy that the Fall of the Roman Empire occured in 476 as Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus was forced to surrender everything. Much has been written about the Fall of the Roman Empire, but the fact is that when it finally did happen it was a mere footnote in history for the Decline had been in process for centuries, decaying from within, finally stumbling on the stone of barbarianism which we shall cover in the next issue and how, ironically, the fall led to the rise of Christianity as God rose up great saints to touch the vandals, convert them and procreate the true faith throughout all the land.