Two Thousand and Seventeen is a year of significant anniversaries. The fragmentation of western Christendom that occurred with Martin Luther’s break with Rome is generally regarded as having begun with his nailing of 95 theses to the door of the church of Wittenberg Castle in Saxony on 31 October 1517. No Catholic in his right mind would dream of celebrating such a blow to the Mystical Body of Christ. We can, however, use this anniversary as an occasion to work and pray with our fellow Christians in charity and truth for renewed unity. Our Lord’s declared wish is that all should be one, united under the successor of the Prince of the Apostles, and we must pray that the Holy Ghost will inspire hearts and remove all obstacles to the achievement of this end.
Meanwhile, we certainly can, and should, celebrate the Catholic Reformation which was the Church’s urgent response to this crisis. This year would be an excellent opportunity to refresh our familiarity with the documents of the glorious Council of Trent, and especially with the Roman Catechism which was the fruit of that council, being published in 1564 under the superintendence of St Charles Borromeo. Reading those documents, and that Catechism, it is possible that we shall be surprised at how deeply rooted these expressions of the Church’s Magisterium are in Holy Scripture, especially if we have fallen victim to the bizarre myth that the Catholic Church only discovered the Bible in the 1960s.
The wondrous renewal of religious life, spirituality and theology that flowed from and characterised the Catholic Reformation was given vitality by countless individual examples of heroic sanctity across the Catholic world. In Rome alone, the presence of our holy father St Philip, St Camillus of Lellis, St Felix of Cantalice, Pope St Pius V and many others too numerous to mention would have made it difficult to cross the city without bumping into a saint. If we think there is room for improvement in the Church in our own day, then our answer lies with them: it is through the personal holiness of Her individual members cultivating friendship with Our Lord in the circumstances of their daily lives that the Mystical Body of Christ on earth increases in strength and health.
If veneration of the saints was one of the casualties of the Protestant revolt, St Philip would counter this by cultivating great devotion to them in Rome. While north of the Alps shrines were being desecrated and relics scattered, St Philip literally danced for joy when the relics of the martyrs Ss Papias and Maurus were transferred to the Chiesa Nuova with great solemnity in 1590. The saints of ancient Rome had been his companions during the long nights he had prayed among their mortal remains in the catacombs, and the entrance into the church of the bones of these two Roman soldiers was for him like the arrival of dear friends. In his last years, he would have the lives of the saints read to him for several hours every day.
Of course, the saint to whom St Philip was most intensely devoted left no mortal remains to be venerated on earth, because She was assumed body and soul into Heaven at the end of Her earthly life. May is the month dedicated to Our Lady, and it is also the month of St Philip. It was surely a great blessing for St Philip that his departure from this world into eternity occurred during the month of the Blessed Virgin. He always claimed that it was She, and not he, who was the true founder of our Congregation. He ordered that all of the altars in the church of the Roman Oratory should be adorned with paintings depicting mysteries in the life of Our Lord, and that the Madonna should appear in each one of them. One prayer which was continually on his lips was “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, pray to Jesus for me.”
This brings us to another major anniversary, because in May we mark the centenary of Our Lady’s appearance to three peasant children in Portugal in 1917. On the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, 13th May, Pope Francis will travel to Fatima and canonise two of these children, Francisco Marto and Jacinta Marto, who both died within a short time of the close of the apparitions, which lasted six months. The first stage of the cause for the beatification of the third visionary, Lucia Santos, who became a Carmelite nun and died in 2005, concluded earlier this year, so we may hope that Sister Lucia will soon join her cousins in being raised to the altars.
In Her visits to the three children of Fatima, Our Lady proposed devotion to Her Immaculate Heart as a powerful antidote to the ills afflicting the modern world. In Her second apparition in June 1917 She told Lucia “Jesus wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart”, and showed the children Her Immaculate Heart surrounded by thorns and seeking reparation. When, a month later, they were shown a terrible vision of souls in hell, Our Lady told the children that to save many souls from damnation “God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart.”
Coming into the Oratory church, you will see a large image of Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart surrounded with thorns, in the sanctuary, above the High Altar. This is because our church is devoted to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. At Fatima, Our Lady promised that “in the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph.” In an age in which there is so much anxiety about the present and such uncertainty about the future, this is our assurance that ultimately God will prevail. It is also an urgent call to sacrifice and prayer. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI preached at Fatima on 13th May: “We would be mistaken to think that Fatima’s prophetic mission is complete. Here the plan of God takes on new life – a plan which asks humanity from the beginning: ‘Where is your brother Abel […] Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!’ (Gen 4:9). Mankind has succeeded in unleashing a cycle of death and terror, but failed in bringing it to an end… In sacred Scripture we often find that God seeks righteous men and women in order to save the city of man and he does the same here, in Fatima, when Our Lady asks: ‘Do you want to offer yourselves to God, to endure all the sufferings which he will send you, in an act of reparation for the sins by which he is offended and of supplication for the conversion of sinners?’ (Memoirs of Sister Lúcia, I, 162).”
During Mary’s month of May, we pray the Holy Rosary publicly at Our Lady’s Altar before the evening celebration of Holy Mass. Please join us in praying for peace in the world, for the conversion of sinners (amongst whom we count ourselves), and for unity amongst Christians. There will also be Masses on the first Saturday of each month, as requested by Our Lady of Fatima, at 11am from May to October, followed by recitation of the Rosary.
Fr Julian Large