Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, religious (1207-1231)

In her short life Elizabeth manifested such great love for the poor and suffering that she has become the patroness of Catholic charities and of the Secular Franciscan Order. The daughter of the King of Hungary, Elizabeth chose a life of penance and asceticism when a life of leisure and luxury could easily have been hers. This choice endeared her in the hearts of the common people throughout Europe. At the age of 14 Elizabeth was married to Louis of Thuringia (a German principality), whom she deeply loved; she bore three children. Under the spiritual direction of a Franciscan friar, she led a life of prayer, sacrifice and service to the poor and sick. Seeking to become one with the poor, she wore simple clothing. Daily she would take bread to hundreds of the poorest in the land, who came to her gate. After six years of marriage, her husband died in the Crusades, and she was grief-stricken. Her husband’s family looked upon her as squandering the royal purse, and mistreated her, finally throwing her out of the palace. The return of her husband’s allies from the Crusades resulted in her being reinstated, since her son was legal heir to the throne. In 1228 Elizabeth joined the Secular Franciscan Order, spending the remaining few years of her life caring for the poor in a hospital which she founded in honor of St. Francis. Elizabeth’s health declined, and she died before her 24th birthday in 1231. Her great popularity resulted in her canonization four years later.

Elizabeth understood well the lesson Jesus taught when he washed his disciples' feet at the Last Supper: The Christian must be one who serves the humblest needs of others, even if one serves from an exalted position. Of royal blood, Elizabeth could have lorded it over her subjects. Yet she served them with such a loving heart that her brief life won for her a special place in the hearts of many. Elizabeth is also an example to us in her following the guidance of a spiritual director. Growth in the spiritual life is a difficult process. We can play games very easily if we don't have someone to challenge us or to share experiences so as to help us avoid pitfalls.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke (19.1-10)

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today. So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, He has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner'. But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount. Jesus said to him, Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.

(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

In 2009 Pope Benedict XVI declared the year to be a Year of the Priesthood. He proposed that the Church contemplate especially Saint John Vianney, the famous Cure of Ars in nineteenth century France. The Cure of Ars has been declared by the Church to be patron saint of parish priests. I can remember some fifty years ago a priest who went on to be the Provincial superior of his religious order. He himself had never served a term working in a parish, and he took St John Vianney as his patron saint. The fact is that the Cure of Ars was a remarkable religious prodigy. He was a great saint and from his backwater parish he had a remarkable reputation and influence. Archbishop Ullathorne of Birmingham once visited his parish to speak with the Cure, and he saw numerous people sleeping in the fields awaiting their turn to go to Confession. Now, if one reads the story of his life - and there are several - a notable thing about him is that from his earliest years he had a remarkable propensity for religious faith. He received his First Holy Communion with the most profound reverence. I am not aware that there was what we would normally call "a conversion" in his life. Doubtless, all through his life there were daily "conversions" from sin and he was acutely aware of sin in his life, as are all the saints. But there was no notable turning point because he always seemed to be growing in grace. The case is very different with vast numbers of good and holy persons. Due to the grace of God, they undergo conversions. Archbishop Ullathorne himself underwent a conversion while at Mass in Memel (Autobiography, p.34). His famous and brilliant friend, John Henry Newman, underwent a profound conversion at age 15 (Apologia, p.4). St Paul underwent a conversion on the way to Damascus. Augustine underwent his conversion after years of sin and heresy. The fact is that God calls people to himself in thousands of varied ways. Our Gospel today gives us one of those ways and it certainly involved a dramatic conversion.

Imagine our Gospel scene. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector of Jericho and had done extremely well, but had compromised himself seriously and repeatedly in the business of garnering his wealth. Would anyone have regarded him as having spiritual potential? Scarcely, and yet there was something in him that drew him in a spiritual direction, for he was anxious to see Jesus. He ran ahead of where Jesus was going, for he could not catch a glimpse of him for the crowd. Jesus was holy. He exercised the power of God. He was a great prophet. God was in him. So Zacchaeus ran ahead and climbed the tree which he could see Jesus would be approaching. It is a beautiful scene, but something much more beautiful was about to happen. Our Lord did not just deal with crowds - he dealt with individuals. On one occasion he was pressed by the crowd while on his way to heal someone who was seriously ill. Suddenly he stopped and asked who touched him. Everything came to a halt and Jesus carefully looked around, his penetrating gaze searching the crowd. Someone had touched him, and as a result, had been healed. The unknown woman came forward and then received the loving assurance of Jesus that her faith had saved her. Christ is interested in each individual. And so it was that, as Jesus moved along with the crowd around and behind him, he suddenly stopped and looked up. A smile came across his face as he addressed the chief tax collector by name. He had immediately plumbed the heart of Zacchaeus and asked him to come down from the tree, for he was to dine in his house that day. Zacchaeus clambered down, with his heart in a process of profound change. The fact that Zacchaeus’s name is given suggests that he became a faithful disciple, and it all began with this dramatic conversion. What does this tell us? It tells us that Christ can change the life of anyone if there is but an opening. He can change our lives too, if like Zacchaeus, we truly want to see him. Every saint is a model for all of us but there is something special that the converted saint offers us. It is the lesson that grace can overcome sin.

Let us place ourselves in the company of Zacchaeus and run ahead, as it were, to see Jesus. Let us climb that tree and receive the loving gaze of Jesus Christ as he asks us to come down and receive him into the house of our soul. Let us receive him every day, for he wants to abide with us constantly. He asks that, like Zacchaeus, we renounce sin and make him our Friend. He asks for ongoing conversion from sin, all sin. His love will enable us to do this, because with his love has come grace, that grace that changes the heart of the sinner and sets him on the path of sanctity.

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