Ignatian Year

Homily for Novena of Grace at Farm Street Church

March 6, 2022

Mirabilis Deus in sanctis suis – God is wonderful in his saints

(Ps 67:36 Vg.)

It is an honour and a delight for me to preach here at Farm Street Church during the Novena of Grace, especially this year, when Jesuits, Oratorians and Carmelites are joined in the celebration of a wonderful anniversary.

Four hundred ago, on the 12th of March 1622, Rome witnessed a celebration of holy joy and splendour. In a festive ceremony held in St Peter’s Basilica, Pope Gregory XV canonised five saints: Isidore the Farmer, the beloved patron saint of Madrid; Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus; Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit missionary; Teresa of Avila, the ardent reformer of the Carmelites, and Philip Neri, the founder of the Congregation of the Oratory.

This was a day to be remembered. The storms of the Protestant Reformation, with its vehement reaction against the cult of the saints, had led to a crisis of confidence in the Catholic world, and canonisations had become a rarity. The celebration of 1622 was the fruit of a renewal that had begun already before the Protestant Reformation, as is especially clear in the life of St Ignatius. Sadly, it needed the challenges of Luther, Calvin and others for these dispersed streams of Catholic reform to form a mighty river that carried the fruits of this renewal to the whole Church.

The Roman people, who were greatly devoted to their own Philip Neri, said that the pope had raised to the altar “four Spaniards and a saint”. This comment was not only a characteristic show of chauvinism, but also displayed wit and awareness of how the political struggles among the Catholic powers of Europe affected the causes of saints. Although Philip was widely venerated already during his lifetime and even more after his death in 1595, the official process of canonisation dragged on for a considerable time and sustained long interruptions. Among the reasons for this delay, there was the political and military rivalry between France and Habsburg Spain. The Spanish in particular resented the key role Philip and other Oratorians had played in the reconciliation of the French King Henry IV with the Catholic Church. In the short but energetic pontificate of Gregory XV, these quarrels were resolved by canonising Philip together with four wonderful Spanish saints, who each in his or her own way reflected the holiness of God in our broken world that is so much in need of it.

At the time, the shadow of war was looming over central Europe. A violent conflict had erupted between nations that called themselves Christian. The Thirty-Years’ War not only caused immense personal suffering and material damage, but also brought a moral and intellectual devastation that was to have long-lasting consequences. Today, as the shadow of war is looming once again over Europe, let us commend the Ukrainian people to the protection of the saints we are celebrating this year.

The Novena of Grace is prayed in honour of St Francis Xavier, one of the greatest missionaries the Church ever had. St Philip Neri had particular admiration for his evangelising work. After being ordained a priest in 1551, Philip begin to hold regular meetings to pray and to meditate on the word of God with his disciples in his rooms at the church of San Girolamo della Carità in Rome. Philip introduced the custom of reading aloud spiritually uplifting texts, and among these texts were the letters of Francis Xavier from his missionary journeys. These letters had just been published and stirred the zeal and imagination of devout readers. For a short period Philip felt inspired to offer himself for work in the missions. There may have been a romantic element of adventure in this idea, and Philip made sure to seek spiritual advice in the matter. He asked for the counsel of a saintly Cistercian monk at the abbey of Tre Fontane, who told him that “his Indies were to be in Rome, where God would make much use of him”. There was indeed a lot of evangelising to do within his own city, and Philip threw himself into this work with joy and dedication. He became a key figure in the spiritual renewal of Rome, and is venerated as the city’s second patron saint. This work was not always easy, and Philip and the early Oratorians suffered from misapprehension, calumny, and at times even rejection from the authorities of the Church. During these trials, Philip found consolation and encouragement in thinking about the much greater hardships Francis Xavier and other Jesuit missionaries were facing in their apostolates.

* * *

The theme of trial resonates on this First Sunday of Lent, when we contemplate Christ’s forty-day retreat in the desert. This retreat precedes our Lord’s public ministry and served as preparation for it. In the Evangelist’s account, we hear that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit … into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil”. This raises some difficulty for our understanding: how can the Son of God Incarnate, the All-Holy One, who is not subject to original sin, as we are, be tempted by the devil?

Here is something Christ faces voluntarily, in sovereign freedom. He allows the devil to test him. The temptations are part of Christ’s descent into our human condition, a descent that He made to the end, even to death on the Cross. Why does our Lord allow the tempter to get so close? St John Chrysostom suggests that this is “in order that the baptised should not be troubled if after Baptism they suffer still greater temptations, as though such were not to be expected” (Homilies on St Matthew, 13,1).

The Sacrament of Baptism heals the wound of original sin and elevates us onto a new plane of existence. Our soul receives sanctifying grace, which is a real share in the divine life. This gift enables us to enter into the right relationship with God and to practise faith, hope and charity. And yet, we experience that, even with this wonderful gift, we are still drawn to sin, even when we recognise it for what it is. The deep divisions in our reason and our will don’t go away in a moment of enthusiasm: all too often we experience that we “have our desires one way, and our knowledge and conscience another” (St John Henry Newman).

So we are in for a spiritual struggle, and this is what our Lord wants to show us by allowing Himself to be tempted. He also wants to show us how can overcome temptations, by giving us his supreme example.

Above all, the tempter wants to sow distrust between Jesus and his heavenly Father; he suggests that God should be put to the test with a spectacular, miraculous performance that would stun everyone. This particular temptation will come again right when Christ is suffering on the Cross, when the crowds are shouting: “Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him”. Wouldn’t this be a suitable and effective way of showing himself to the world as its mighty Saviour? A great sign that everyone must recognise? But Christ rejects these temptations, because He came into the world to do something very different: “[to fashion] for us a remedy out of mortality itself, that the cause of our downfall might become the means of our salvation” (Preface III for Sundays in Ordinary Times). The way to victory and life leads through the Cross, and the Cross can only be embraced through faith.

God does not tempt us; he never does. But he allows temptations in our lives, because they are opportunities for us to grow in faith and love. Temptations teach us to know ourselves, especially our weakness, to rely on God’s strength through prayer, and so to overcome them.

We can be confident and cheerful that our Lord Himself is on our side to help us. This is the comforting message of the psalm verses that resound in the liturgy of this First Sunday of Lent: “He will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone” (Ps 90).

Christ, having been tempted Himself, will have compassion on our infirmities and will restore us again when we fall, if only we turn to Him.

Wherever we may find ourselves, Lent is the time to make a fresh start and reach for that “crown of life which God has promised to those who love him”.

And let us offer our Lenten prayers and sacrifices for the people of Ukraine and for peace.

This Homily for Novena of Grace was given by Fr Michael Lang, C.O

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