Wednesday, October 20, 2004 +


Phyllis McGinley (New York, 1962):

I would give anything (except my comforts, my customs, and my sins) to be a saint.

I cannot repeat often enough that saints are not angels.

While they lived the very saints which the Church eventually honors may have been suspect to the same establishment. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, was eight times imprisoned by the Inquisition, Teresa of Avila ran afoul of it, as did Francis Borgia, John of the Cross, and a multitude of others. It was fifty years after his death before the writings of Thomas Aquinas, now the basis for much churchly doctrine, were declared safe for the orthodox. The best of saints walked a constant tightrope, teetering (as did Pascal, who still remains unhaloed) just above the abyss of heresy.

They were literal. Literalness is the fork in the upward road where they part company with ordinary people. And it is the Gospels, the solid, explicit Word which they take literally.

The severities [Francis Borgia] imposed only on himself. With others he was all courtesy and charm.

The Roman Catholic Church, when it is being more Roman than catholic, has committed a number of political errors. One of the sorriest was the Bull issued by Pope Pius V, a good man but tactless. He could possibly have healed the breach between England and the Vatican that Henry VIII had initiated; instead, in a fit of self-righteous indignation, and quite misunderstanding the implacable patriotism of Englishmen, he chose to excommunicate Elizabeth and all her subjects who subscribed to the new Church. A schism already existed. By this edict it turned into complete revolt. Elizabeth retaliated by wholly outlawing the old faith. Popish leanings must be wiped out in the island. Saying mass was made an illegal act. Families who refused to follow the Book of Common Prayer or who did not attend the lawful Sunday services were either heavily fined or carried off to the Tower.

The triumphs [of Matteo Ricci] came to nothing. Priests of other establishments, coming now into China, denounced the Jesuits for what would presently be called their ecumenicism. It was charged that they taught that pagans were as good as anybody else (which charitable idea did not then inform Europe), and since they had seen Ignatian priests joining in Confucian ceremonies, accused them of idolatry. When the tolerant Chinese found Christians squabbling among themselves, and ridiculing sacred ancestral beliefs, they repudiated the whole new religion and China was once more lost to the Western World.

The Brief [of Clement XIV in 1773, dissolving the Jesuit Order] was supposed to have been read in every country in the world. But two important kingdoms, neither one Catholic, refused to publish it. They were Russia, under Catherine, and Prussia, ruled by Frederick the other Great. These two powerful suzerains admired the Jesuits and their educational system and not only urged the ones already there to stay on but invited priests from other lands to join them. The paradox of Ignatius was still valid.

Many immigrated and kept the Society intact in exile. In such places as England and America the members did not disband but rather chartered themselves as organizations under another name. In America twenty priests (who were then the only English-speaking Catholic clergy in the thirteen colonies) banded together as the Roman Catholic Priests of Maryland under the direction of Bishop John Carroll, brother of Daniel, the Signer. In England they called themselves the Gentlemen of Stonyhurst.

Saints have always had a sort of holy effrontery which comes, no doubt, from lack of personal vanity. They do not say to themselves, "This or that is impossible and will make me appear ridiculous." They say, "I will do the work of God."

Nobody wins a civil war, and it was well that England had none.