Saints of November

November has been a busy and unsettling month on the national level and the parish level. We are still struggling with the results of a contentious and divisive election; I have been working with the parish staff and committees on planning for a challenging celebration of Christmas, with the Chinese coronavirus still upending our lives; that same plague is interrupting the traditions of many families for this week’s Thanksgiving celebrations; the Archdiocese is beginning its planning process to realign parishes due to the
priest shortage and decrease in practicing Catholics.

Amidst all of this uncertainty, it is good that the Church as always in Advent turns her attention to the coming of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That is what the season is about: the coming of Christ in history, in mystery, and in majesty (His incarnation and birth at Bethlehem, His presence in the Blessed Sacrament, and His coming again in glory) [more on this in my next Advent column].

In anticipation of the coming of the Lord, the constant drumbeat of the Advent Gospels and prayers is to be ready for His coming by doing His will and following His commands. The saints are the ones who teach us to do the will of God, even in challenging times, so in these waning days of the month, I would like to reflect on some of the saints of November.

On the 13th of the month, we remembered Mother Francis Xavier Cabrini, an Italian immigrant from the late 19th century. I can relate to her, because, like me, she was one of thirteen children. She was the first American citizen saint, because although foreign-born she was naturalized here. As her religious name implies, she had great admiration for the missioners who went to the Far East and baptized thousands who would otherwise have not known Him, including St. Francis Xavier. She wished to follow in their missionary footsteps and head East, but Pope Leo XIII had other ideas. “Look west, not east,” he instructed her. Fortunately for Americans, she did. Arriving on these shores in 1899, she worked tirelessly for 28 years, mostly with immigrants and mostly in America, although she also worked overseas. Despite sometimes frail health, she founded 67 institutions, including schools, hospitals, and orphanages. This feat was all the more impressive when one considers that there were still waves of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant spirit throughout much of her career.

I think often of saints like her and St. John Neumann, the self-described “country bumpkin” from what is now the Czech Republic. He was the son of German and Czech parents, and had a true missionary heart, serving the German and Eastern European immigrants of the U.S. Like Mother Cabrini, he too became a U.S. citizen and eventually the bishop of Philadelphia. He was the first American man to be canonized.

My father was an American history professor, and specialized in the history of immigration, so I learned a lot about this from him. But it was more than an academic exercise for me. In my vesting room, where I prepare for Mass, there is a beautiful crucifix brought over to these shores by my immigrant ancestors from Germany, who had almost nothing but their Catholic faith. It’s no exaggeration to say that, without immigrants of strong faith, the Catholic Church in America would be a shadow of itself. That is one reason that the Church reminds us that (within the rule of law of course) we should continue to be welcoming to those immigrants who seek to make a better life in America.

Since my parents frequently attended a Byzantine Catholic church in suburban Detroit (and sometimes dragged us children along), I learned early that the Church consisted of both Eastern and Western Catholics. Sadly, the Church split apart East vs. West about 1000 years ago, in a schism from which we have never fully recovered. What are now called the Orthodox are the heirs of those eastern Christians who broke union with Rome. However, many of the Eastern Churches did stay in union with the one true Catholic Church and her pope. On November 12th we celebrated the feast day of one of the saints who made that union possible. In fact, he is considered a “martyr for unity” because he was killed for his efforts to unite the Eastern and Western churches. He was quite literally the victim of mob violence.

St. Josaphat Kuncewicz hailed from what today would be called Ukraine and found a call to the monastic life early in life. He was a tremendously talented preacher and never failed to proclaim the need for unity in the Church. He was named bishop but found himself embroiled in a very difficult political situation. There was a deep mistrust of Rome, and western customs in general, so those opposing him set up alternative bishops. Accusing him of wanting to force these Christians to “go Latin” (against their own customs), a mob of enemies invaded his bishops’ residence. While trying to get his servants out, St. Josaphat was too late to save himself and the mob executed him.

Finally, on November 15th we remembered St. Albert the Great, an outstanding scholar, theologian and scientist from the 13th century. He introduced Greek and Arabic science to the European world and made great contributions botany and biology. If anyone tells you that the Church is opposed to science, he is dead wrong. But exploding that myth is a column for another day.

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