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Saints are part of our DNA as Catholics. They are our friends, our personal companions on our faith journey. They comfort and challenge us, they give us guidance and hope, they help us find God’s plan for our lives. Walking With the Saints passes on the stories of selected holy people who are powerful examples of Christian living.

Walking With the Saints

Defenders of the Faith

by Mitch Finley

The term “defender of the faith” may conjure up images of a stalwart figure clad in medieval armor bearing sword, buckler and shield, setting forth Arthur-like to lower the boom of truth on those who would lead the faithful away from the True Faith. In fact, the Church understands the title “defender of the faith” in a broad-minded way. It’s a title conferred on individuals who are especially effective when it comes to representing what the Catholic faith is really all about. The three saints we will get to know better here certainly qualify.

St. Cyril of Alexandria (376?-444)

Have you ever attended a funeral and heard the dearly departed eulogized as a good and virtuous person, yet you knew for a fact that he or she had more than a few human faults? Yes, she gave unselfishly to the poor...but she always made a big show of doing it. Yes, he was cheerful...but he regularly drank too much. And so forth...

Spend some time with those who lived with Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta for years and years, and you would eventually hear anecdotes not only about Mother Teresa’s holiness and heroism, but also about her blind spots and lapses of patience. Even saints sometimes irritated the daylights out of other people, yet they became saints all the same.

Cyril of Alexandria is a good example of one such person. Cyril defended the truth tirelessly, it’s true. He spoke up for the truth in public and he wrote lengthy treatises in opposition to well-meaning theological crackpots of his era. The very same Cyril, however, was a very difficult person to get along with. Indeed, he used his position as bishop of Alexandria to bully people, and it’s even possible that, in the year 415, he had something to do with the murder of the female philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria.

Defense of Christ’s identity

All the same, Cyril became a saint and a Doctor of the Church by defending the Incarnation, one of the central doctrines of the Christian faith. The Incarnation is our belief that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, and that neither nature overshadowed the other. Cyril did this not by writing about the Incarnation directly, but by insisting that Mary must be called the Mother of God (Greek: theotokos).

When the followers of a renegade bishop named Nestorius declared that it was wrong to call Mary the Mother of God, Cyril stood up at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and let go with the fifth-century Greek equivalent of, “Now, hold on just a darn minute there!”

In our time, it would not be unusual to encounter people who do not believe that Jesus was—and now, in his risen state, is—both fully human and fully divine. Yet, since the time of St. Cyril of Alexandria, and especially since the Council of Chalcedon affirmed Cyril’s teaching in 451, it has been the constant belief of the Church that we must take in all seriousness both the divinity and humanity of Jesus.

Living the faith

As believers today, we may find ourselves in situations where we, too, may speak up for the faith of the Church. Some are even called to be “apologists,” that is, defenders of the faith who explain its meaning in lectures and by writing books and articles.

An adult believer wants to have an adult understanding of the faith, and reading the occasional book about what it means to be Catholic is always worthwhile. But most of us will find ourselves called to “defend” our faith, above all and first of all, by living it. In doing so, we may attract the attention of believers and unbelievers alike, so that without our speaking a word about it they will notice our love for God and neighbor. That, in all times and all places—Cyril’s time and place as well as our own time and place—is the best way to be a “defender of the faith.”

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St. Philip Neri (1515-1595)

Do you ever wonder what kind of world we’re living in when it comes to religion and religious practice?

It can seem that it’s a religious smorgasbord out there, and people pick and choose whatever appeals to them based on subjective criteria alone, that is, whatever “feels right to me.” It may appear, too, that there is a great deal of apathy and indifference when it comes to religion, and that more than a few people resent any attempt to even bring up the topic of religion for discussion. Philip Neri lived in a very similar cultural environment, and he decided to do something about it.

Philip was a young man on the way up. Born in Florence, Italy, Philip was one of four children of Francis Neri, a notary, who saw to it that Philip was given a first-rate education by the Dominicans. Philip’s mother had died when he was quite young, and he grew up a sincerely but superficially pious boy who was popular with his peers.

At the age of 18, Philip was sent to San Marco to live with a bachelor relative who was a businessman. Philip’s father hoped the relative would make Philip his heir. Soon after arriving, however, Philip had a profound experience which he referred to later as a “conversion.” From then on, he had no wish to become a success in the eyes of the world.

Using his gifts

Philip left for Rome with no money in his pocket and no plans, intending to rely entirely on the guidance of Divine Providence. When he arrived, he was taken in by a customs official, Galeotto Caccia, who gave him the job of tutoring his two young sons. In return, Caccia gave Philip a modest room and simple food to eat. This arrangement suited the young man just fine.

After two years, during which Philip’s spiritual life deepened and matured, he began to “hang out” on the street corners and in the marketplaces where he would engage all and sundry in conversation—in particular the young people who worked in the banks and shops. Using his “gift of gab” and his lively sense of humor, Philip gradually enticed many young people indifferent to religion to think about the love of God and to consider their relationship with Christ.

Rooted in prayer and community

In this way, his “defense” of the faith took the form of attracting lukewarm Catholics to a mature, adult practice of their faith. Note that Philip did this not by preaching or attempting to proselytize but by being of good cheer and by entering into cordial conversation. Late each evening, he would withdraw to a church or to the catacombs of St. Sebastian on the Appian Way, where he would turn his heart to Christ. On various occasions Philip had profound experiences of the love of God.

In 1548, when he was 33, Philip sought and received the help of his confessor, Father Persiano Rossa, in organizing a fraternity of far-from-affluent laymen who would gather regularly for prayer and to care for poor pilgrims. Encouraged by Father Rossa to become a priest, Philip finally gave in and was ordained in 1551. Later, his informal group came to be called the Oratory, a fraternity of diocesan priests living in community.

In ways that made sense for his time and place, St. Philip Neri defended the faith against religious apathy and, using the gifts he had been given, proclaimed the gospel and lived it in ways that changed people’s hearts.

St. Vincent Ferrer (1350?-1419)

It is possible to have a theological conviction that turns out to be completely wrong, yet still become a saint. Vincent Ferrer is a classic example.

His early life was noteworthy because he joined the Dominicans when he was only 15; in addition, he was highly gifted intellectually. In fact, at the age of 21 he taught philosophy at the University of Lérida, in Spain, even before his own education was complete. When he was 29, Vincent was ordained a priest and became a member of the court of Cardinal Pedro de Luna.

The year before that, Cardinal de Luna had helped elect Pope Urban VI, but later de Luna became convinced that this election had been invalid. He then joined a group of cardinals who proceeded to elect another man as Pope Clement VII. This second election resulted in the famous schism that led to several popes residing in Avignon, France, over some decades. Then, in 1394, de Luna himself was elected to succeed Clement VII. He took the name Benedict XIII.

Vincent Ferrer honestly believed that the Avignon popes were the legitimate heirs to the chair of St. Peter. He became an ardent champion of the Avignon papacy. He was also reported to the Inquisition for heresy because he taught that Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, had later repented of his sin. His friend Pedro de Luna, who was now the antipope Benedict, dismissed the charge, however, and made Vincent a member of his court. Subsequently, Vincent became a celebrated traveling preacher.

A change of heart

In 1408, however, while ministering in plague-stricken Genoa, Vincent became concerned about the impact of the Avignon papacy on the unity of the Church. He tried to talk his old friend Benedict into withdrawing his claim to the papacy, but Benedict would have no part of that. One day, wearied by the whole situation, Vincent let Benedict have it with both barrels (verbally, from the pulpit) when Benedict was present in church together with a huge assembly.

After this public chastising by Vincent, all of Benedict’s followers abandoned him, and Benedict fled Avignon. Soon thereafter, in 1414 at the Council of Constance, unity was restored to the Church. A French statesman and writer named Gerson remarked to Vincent Ferrer, “But for you, this union could never have been achieved.”

Five years later, following an exhausting preaching tour in France, Vincent Ferrer died in Brittany at about the age of 70. Thirty-six years later, he was canonized, in no small part because of his role in helping to restore the unity of the Church.

Unity as a value

St. Vincent Ferrer teaches us that there are values that transcend religious disagreements. In Vincent’s case the value was the unity of the Church, which he came to see as far more important than arguing over who was the legitimate pope. This is an issue not without relevance in our own time when splinter Catholic groups claim that the last legitimate pope was Pius XII (1939-1958), and that the election of his successor, Pope John XXIII, was invalid. This means that, for these groups, the Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John, was also invalid.

But Vincent’s example also has more personal applications. Whenever we have an opinion about some spiritual or theological issue, about some issue in parish life or about anything having to do with the Church, we may well ask ourselves if there are not values of more importance for which we should be willing to set aside differences of opinion about lesser matters.

Next: Individual Martyrs

 
Stepping Out in Faith
by Joan McKamey

Defend your faith by really living it. Follow in the footsteps of…

• St. Cyril of Alexandria, who spoke the truth in spite of opposition. What truth or truths of our faith are you called to defend or explain? Don’t ever be afraid to speak up for the truth. Christian discipleship isn’t about popularity.

• St. Philip Neri, who used his gift of gab and sense of humor to attract lukewarm Catholics to deeper faith. Use your own gifts to reach out to those in your family, circle of friends or parish who have become distant from the Church.

• St. Vincent Ferrer, whose humility allowed him to change his mind in the interest of Church unity. Initiate conversation with someone who holds a different position than you do on a Church issue.

Share how these and other saints inspire you on your faith journey.
We will post selected inspirations in this feature.
 
 
 
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