Thursday, October 22, 2009

St. Peter of Alcantara (1499-1562)

Peter was a contemporary of well-known 16th-century Spanish saints, including Ignatius of Loyola and John of the Cross. He served as confessor to St. Teresa of Avila. Church reform was a major issue in Peter’s day, and he directed most of his energies toward that end. His death came one year before the Council of Trent ended. Born into a noble family (his father was the governor of Alcantara in Spain), Peter studied law at Salamanca University and, at 16, joined the so-called Observant Franciscans (also known as the discalced, or barefoot, friars). While he practised many penances, he also demonstrated abilities which were soon recognized. He was named the superior of a new house even before his ordination as a priest; at the age of 39, he was elected provincial; he was a very successful preacher. Still, he was not above washing dishes and cutting wood for the friars. He did not seek attention; indeed, he preferred solitude. Peter’s penitential side was evident when it came to food and clothing. It is said that he slept only 90 minutes each night. While others talked about Church reform, Peter’s reform began with himself. His patience was so great that a proverb arose: "To bear such an insult one must have the patience of Peter of Alcantara." In 1554, Peter, having received permission, formed a group of Franciscans who followed the Rule of St. Francis with even greater rigor. These friars were known as Alcantarines. Some of the Spanish friars who came to North and South America in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were members of this group. At the end of the 19th century, the Alcantarines were joined with other Observant friars to form the Order of Friars Minor. As spiritual director to St. Teresa, Peter encouraged her in promoting the Carmelite reform. His preaching brought many people to religious life, especially to the Secular Franciscan Order, the friars and the Poor Clares. He was canonized in 1669. “I do not praise poverty for poverty's sake; I praise only that poverty which we patiently endure for the love of our crucified Redeemer and I consider this far more desirable than the poverty we undertake for the sake of poverty itself; for if I thought or believed otherwise, I would not seem to be firmly grounded in faith" (Letter of Peter to Teresa of Avila).

The Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke (12.49-53)

Jesus said, "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."

The Truth

It is often thought that philosophy is a discipline of the university alone. By that I mean that philosophical issues and a philosophical consideration of those issues is considered to be the business of departments of philosophy or those who are their products. It is deemed that the ordinary person, the ordinary family man, the ordinary worker or professional, is scarcely caught up in such matters. In fact, the establishment of departments of philosophy in Anglo-Saxon universities considerably postdated the rise of the discipline itself. Philosophers were writing in England who had little connection with the universities. This was to be expected, for philosophical questions underpin every position the ordinary person takes. One of the most characteristic issues of the modern mind is that of the status of his knowledge and, especially, of his basic convictions: are they, and can they be said to be, objective? If all are agreed on something, the question scarcely arises. Let us say that the whole country is agreed that an economic downturn or upturn is in process as the case may be. In such a setting, no one would think of asking whether man’s opinions and convictions can be properly regarded as objective. But consider matters of religion, where there is no such agreement. The community of nations includes a vast spectrum of religious belief, and in the typical secular society every man’s street includes those of deeply divergent religious convictions. A courteous tolerance is imperative for social order and if the rights of others are to be respected. But the ordinary man in this pluralist setting can be induced to think that all talk of objective truth is a fruitless fancy. By this I mean, not that he thinks that it is merely difficult to attain to religious truth (which it is), but that there is no such thing as objective truth. All there can be said to be is, personal opinion. As theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles once said, "Religion tends to be regarded as a purely subjective preference, a mere matter of taste or custom, incapable of making objective truth-claims."

This is one of the challenges the proclamation of the person and teaching of Christ faces in the modern world. The baptized Christian, and the Church of which he is called to be a member, will not allow that “truth” is relative to each person and that therefore it does not represent a moral obligation on the one to whom it appeals. This is an illustration of the fact that the Christian religion does indeed involve fundamental philosophical positions which are opposed to certain other philosophical positions. The Church has in the past condemned various philosophical views and systems because ultimately they endanger man’s salvation. The famous Syllabus of Errors (1864) of Pope Pius IX (now beatified), a document much lampooned at the time and even now, included condemnations of certain philosophical positions. The implicit and scarcely conscious view of many that truth in religion is a phantom must be confronted, if Christ and his Church is to be known and accepted by modern man. This is a direct implication of our Gospel today, in which our Lord warns that he and his revelation will be a cause of profound discomfort in society. “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12: 49-53). Our Lord was saying to his disciples that central to their mission is the conviction and the teaching that the Truth (about Him) is absolutely objective and that it imposes a moral obligation of assent. They must expect that the proclamation of this as the objective truth will arouse the ire of many in society. Our Lord warns explicitly of the division that the Truth about Him will cause, even, at times, within the family circle.

During the early stages of his Passion, Christ came face to face with the Empire as represented by Pilate. We may say it was a confrontation with the gentile world. As one having worldly power, Pilate questioned Him about His identity and mission. Christ replied by referring to the objective truth. "For this was I born", he said to Pilate, "to bear witness to the truth and those who are of the truth listen to my voice". He had said to His own disciples that he was the way, the truth and the life. Pilate responded with a rhetorical question: “What is truth?” Let us proclaim it in our hearts and, to the extent our circumstances allow, from the housetops: Christ is the Truth!

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