Many Catholics throughout the Diocese of Rochester will be working this year on deepening their relationships with Jesus Christ, which is the objective of this first year of the diocesan spiritual renewal, Spirit Alive! It is not a journey they have to make alone, however.
Catholics can look to the examples of some of the “heroes” of our Catholic tradition, said Maribeth Mancini, cochair of the spiritual renewal and director of the diocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.
“Catholics have a rich tradition of all kinds of prayer and great models in different people,” Mancini said.
Several of those model Catholics will be highlighted during a speaker series diocesan officials are planning to present in June, Mancini said. The list of speakers and Catholic models is still tentative, but the list will probably include Archbishop Oscar Romero, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Benedict, St. Ignatius of Loyola and Antony of the Desert, she said. The presentations may be videotaped and later released on a series of DVDs, she added.
“This series gives us an opportunity to understand those models and (their) styles of prayer, and how these can be examples for us,” Mancini said.
St. Ignatius of Loyola has helped many people deepen their relationships with Jesus, noted Giovina Caroscio, a member of the program staff at Rochester’s Mercy Prayer Center. The story of Ignatius, who was born in the 16th century in what is now Spain and founded the priestly Society of Jesus, is one of conversion, added Bonnie Matthaidess, a member of Faith Lutheran Church in Penfield.
A member of the army, Ignatius was a womanizer and lived an extravagant life, said Matthaidess, who participates in Ignatian Spiritual Exercises at Mercy Prayer Center. After being injured in battle, he began to read Scripture and books about saints’ lives — the only reading materials available — and to reflect on his own life. During this period he became aware of his interior life and realized God was calling to him, Matthaidess said.
People around him soon began to ask Ignatius how they could bring about such a conversion in themselves, so he wrote his spiritual exercises, Matthaidess said. Ignatian Spiritual Exercises are practiced commonly today, usually in either a 30-day or 30-week format, she said.
Mercy Prayer Center offers the 30-week format, known as the 19th Annotation. Participants meet weekly at the center for group sessions and meetings with their individual prayer guides, Caroscio said. They develop an awareness of their own sinfulness, get to know Jesus, and examine his passion, resurrection and the Pentecost experience. They also spend time contemplating the Gospels.
“It’s how they enter into this relationship with Jesus,” Caroscio said. “They come to a much deeper understanding of who God is and how they find God in all things.”
Another Catholic role model is Antony of the Desert, who lived in Egypt during the third century and became famous 80 years after his death, when Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria wrote a biography of him titled The Life of Antony, said Father George Heyman, assistant professor of Biblical studies at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford.
Antony had lots of money and land, but still felt he was missing something, Father Heyman said. Following the Apostles’ example, he gave away his possessions and went out into the desert, where he battled with demons.
“The desert becomes this purifying transitional battle that the self has to undergo with itself. Why? Because Jesus said you have to die to yourself,” Father Heyman said.
Antony essentially began the tradition of monasticism, Father Heyman said. A number of Antony’s contemporaries who wished to imitate his discipline and God-filled spirit sought him out and began to follow his example. As a result, the desert was colonized with monks and monasteries, he said.
Lent is a perfect time for today’s Catholics to learn from Antony’s example, Father Heyman noted. During Lent Catholics can practice dying to themselves, which doesn’t come naturally, he added.
“There’s this resistance between the monstrous egos that we all have and the fundamental knowledge that I have to deny myself and take up my cross, because that’s part of our faith. Christians during Lent are called to cultivate a desire to control desire,” Father Heyman said.
Another important figure in the development of the monastic model was St. Benedict, a Roman who lived at the end of the fifth and beginning of the sixth centuries, said Father Daniel McMullin, director of Cornell Catholic Community at Cornell University. Benedict lived in Italy around the time Rome was sacked by barbarians.
Life was unstable, so Benedict went into the mountains to live a more balanced life, Father McMullin said. His pious reputation soon drew others to gather around him, forming a monastic community. In his book The Rule of Benedict, the saint laid out a Gospel-based way of life that emphasized balance and sharing in community. Many orders still live by this rule today, said Father McMullin, a former Benedictine monk.
Benedict introduced his rule to a world that was rife with chaos, immorality and transience. It offered stability in an unstable environment, which might be why his rule has become more popular among laypeople within the last 15 years, Father McMullin said.
“Some of the things that Benedict laid out there are … a way of living that families can take on,” he said. “One of these is just a balanced schedule. Time to eat together is important, and time to recreate together is important.”
The example of St. Francis of Assisi also is especially relevant today, said Bill Cook, a professor at SUNY Geneseo. Most people think of nature and animals when they think of this saint, he noted, because Francis understood that God created all living things, not just human beings.
This means all living things share a father and thus are brothers and sisters, and Francis treated them accordingly, Cook said, noting that he was a model of what today would be called “green Christianity.” Francis also understood that humans had dominion over the rest of God’s creation, but also were called to be caretakers of that creation, he said.
Francis chose a life of poverty and tried to find the sweetness in things that appeared bitter, Cook said. He never criticized another’s way of life, but the way he conducted his own life served as a model for others. When a theologian once asked him whether he should rebuke sinners, Francis had an unexpected response, Cook said.
“Francis said, ‘Look, if you live your life in accordance with the way God wants you to live, your way of life is sending a rebuke to every sinner,'” Cook said. “We tend to be very loud and point fingers (today), but Francis would not have fallen into that.”
Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in 1980 while saying Mass, is another example of living in obedience to God’s call, said Damian Zynda, faith-formation director at Church of the Transfiguration in Pittsford. His life also was a series of conversions, said Zynda, who has extensively researched the archbishop’s life.
During the early days of his leadership in the Archdiocese of San Salvador, Archbishop Romero was known as an autocrat, and he rarely delegated work or asked for input from others around him, she said. This changed after 1972, when he was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
“He writes in his journals how that was the most important time in his life. It gave him a language to help him understand what was going on in his life,” Zynda said.
Understanding his condition gave Archbishop Romero freedom, she said. He was then able to identify behaviors that resulted from the disorder and make conscious decisions to resist those behaviors. He chose to try to be the person God was calling him to be rather than simply do what was comfortable, Zynda said.
Archbishop Romero became a very compassionate pastoral leader partway through his vocation, Zynda said. When he realized the poor in his flock were being oppressed by the elite — who had been his friends and taken care of him — he knew God was calling him to advocate for those who didn’t have a voice in the public sphere, she said.
“His example is not relevant just for pastoral professional people. It’s the constant call for conversion,” she said.
Zynda remarked that parents, as the leaders of their own families, likewise are called constantly to reflect on who God is calling them to be and what he’s calling them to do. Once they’ve done that, they then need to pray for the grace and courage to obediently respond to that call the way Archbishop Romero did, she said.