Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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May 1, 2002
Saint Joseph the Worker

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

On March 25, 1858, around four o'clock in the morning, Bernadette Soubirous left the «dungeon,» the hovel where her family lived, to go to the grotto at Massabielle, where, since February 11th, a mysterious Lady had been appearing to her. The fourteen-year-old slipped through sleeping Lourdes, accompanied by several people let in on the secret by her aunt. Scarcely had she recited a decade of the Rosary before the grotto than the Lady revealed Herself to the girl. Smiling, the Lady motioned for her to draw nearer. Bernadette then found herself very close to the Visitor, to Whom she passed along, in her Bigorran dialect, her parish priest's insistent request: «Madame, would you be so kind as to tell me who You are?» The Apparition smiled and did not reply. A second time, the child repeated her question. The third time, the Lady, who was holding Her hands open, clasped Her hands in front of Her chest, and said, «Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou... (which means: I am the Immaculate Conception). I wish for a chapel to be built here...» Then, still smiling, She disappeared.

On the way home, Bernadette, for fear of forgetting them, kept repeating these words which to her were incomprehensible: «Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou.» She hurried to the parish priest's house and declared to him, without even saying hello: «Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou.»—«What did you say, you arrogant little girl...?»—«The Lady said these words to me...»—«Your Lady cannot have this name! You're wrong! Do you know what 'the Immaculate Conception' means?»—«I don't know; that's why I repeated these words the whole time until I got here, so I wouldn't forget them.»

How would she know what «the Immaculate Conception» means, a girl who did not yet know how to read and who had just been enrolled in Catechism? But the priest knew well—less than four years earlier, Pope Pius IX had proclaimed the Blessed Virgin immaculate in Her Conception. In the Bull Ineffabilis of December 8, 1854, he had said, «We define that the doctrine which holds that the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.» More than eighteen centuries after Jesus Christ, by this solemn act, the Pope had defined a new dogma. Some people asked, «How is this possible? Does the Church have such power? Was not Divine Revelation completed with Jesus Christ?»

Actually, the Letter to the Hebrews says: In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days, He has spoken to us through His Son (Heb. 1:1-2). Saint John of the Cross commented on this passage in these words: «From the time that He gave us His Son, Who is His Word, God has had no other word to give us. He has told us everything at once and at one time in this Word alone... for what He said in pieces to the prophets, He said completely in His Son, by giving us this whole which is His Son.» The Second Vatican Council likewise recalled, «The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ» (Dei Verbum, no. 4).

To grow in understanding of the faith

«Yet,» teaches The Catechism of the Catholic Church, «even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries» (CCC, no. 66). Revelation has been entrusted by God to the Church so that She might transmit and interpret it. «The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ... The Church's Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes truths contained in Divine Revelation... in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith... Thanks to the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of faith is able to grow in the life of the Church» (CCC, nos. 85, 88, 94). This is achieved particularly in the defining of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

In Holy Scripture, this dogma is based on the Angel Gabriel's greeting to the Blessed Virgin Mary: Hail, full of grace (Lk. 1:27). This fullness of grace is only truly complete if it extends, in time, to the first moment of the Blessed Virgin's life, that of Her Conception. Yet this passage from the Gospel, although giving valuable information, is not enough, in and of itself, to prove the truth of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin. So that the light contained in it might be fully understood, we must turn to the testimony of Tradition. In fact, «it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence» (Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, no. 9).

Belief in Mary's Immaculate Conception dates back to the first centuries of Church history. The Fathers of the Church who spoke of it were unanimous in their recognition of the Mother of Jesus Christ as the all-beautiful and unblemished Spouse referred to in Canticle of canticles (4:7). Saint Ephrem († 373) wrote that the Mother of God is «full of grace..., utterly pure, utterly immaculate, utterly without sin..., completely unfamiliar with all stain and all blemish of sin» (Oratio ad Deiparam). The liturgical feast of the Conception of Mary (December 8), has existed since at least the seventh century in the Greek Church. It is true that great theologians of the Middle Ages formulated objections to belief in the Immaculate Conception, which seemed to them to undermine the universality of Christ's Redemption. Blessed Duns Scotus (1266-1308) and, after him, the theologians of the Franciscan school answered that Mary remained intact of all stain of original sin, in anticipation of the future merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race. Thus the Blessed Virgin was indeed redeemed by the Blood of Jesus Christ, but in a very sublime manner, that of preservation from sin.

Saint Maximilian Kolbe, who died a martyr of charity in Auschwitz in 1941, figures among the Franciscans who spoke best about the Immaculate Conception. Saint Francis Anthony Fasani, canonized by Pope John Paul II on April 13, 1986, is less known. Long before the proclamation of the dogma, this monk had the distinction of making the Immaculata known and loved.

The «sinner of the Immaculata»

Antonio Giovanni Fasani was born in Lucera, in the Puglia region in southeast Italy, on August 6, 1681. His parents were of humble station—his father earned his living as a day laborer. The Fasani family, poor in material goods, was rich in faith. Every evening, the Rosary was recited before an image of Mary Immaculate. From his mother, Anthony obtained the roots of his profound devotion to the Blessed Virgin. In 1695, at the age of fourteen, the young man entered the Conventual Franciscans. The following year, he pronounced his vows under the name of Brother Francis Anthony, at the monastery of Monte Sant'Angelo. The young friar had a lively and ardent nature, tempered by humble restraint. He became a friar in order to become perfect.

From 1696 to 1709, Brother Francis Anthony pursued studies in theology, which he completed in Assisi with the reception of a master's degree, which earned him the name «il Padre Maestro.» His affection and veneration for the Immaculata continued to grow and, in his humility, he even defined himself as «the sinner of the Immaculata,» that is, a poor sinner redeemed by the intercession of Mary Immaculate.

In Lent of 1707, Father Fasani was unexpectedly sent to preach in Palazzo, not far from Assisi. His youth, the soundness of his theological knowledge, the warmth of his voice, the ascetic look in his face which showed a deep interior life, as well as the conviction which propelled him, produced enthusiasm and moral improvement in the people. A witness reported, «He preached with a palpable fervor, such that he imprinted on the souls of his listeners the truths which he announced... He spoke of the Holy Mother of God with such rapturous devotion, such tenderness and such a loving expression on his face, that it seemed that he had had a conversation with Her face-to-face.»

The gravest evil

Upon his return to Lucera, where he would remain for the rest of his life, he preached there, as well as in the entire region of Puglia. His preaching, based on the Word of God, left no room for the rhetorical ornamentation which was all the fashion in his day. Father Fasani showed indescribable horror and displeasure when he saw God offended or when people told him about sinful actions. This horror of sin, shared by all the Saints, is by no means exaggerated. Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises,—recommended time and again by the Church—invites the retreatant to ask the Blessed Virgin for the grace to know one's sins with an intimate knowledge and to feel horrified by them (no. 63). The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, «To the eyes of faith no evil is graver than sin and nothing has worse consequences for sinners themselves, for the Church, and for the whole world» (no. 1488). Indeed, for the sinner, the consequence of mortal sin (sin of a serious nature, which is committed with full knowledge and full consent) is the loss of sanctifying grace, and, if he dies in this state, the deprivation of eternal life. Saint Paul warns the Corinthians against it: Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

And to those who feel entitled to God's kindness and thus remain in sin and assure themselves of their eternal destiny, Saint Paul replies, Or do you hold His priceless kindness, forbearance, and patience in low esteem, unaware that the kindness of God would lead you to repentance? By your stubbornness and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself for the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God, Who will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works, but wrath and fury to those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness (Rom. 2:4-8).

In the pulpit, Saint Francis Anthony spoke passionately against vices and public scandals. From then on he was showered with reactions of anger and insults. He was called an hysteric and a boor, but in the end, people came just the same to confess to him. Every day, he spent many hours in the confessional, receiving all sorts of people with the greatest patience and a joyful face. His words often inspired the sinner to repent, and gave the will to mend one's ways. This ministry eventually consumed the best part of his time. His joy was great when he could bring about the conversion of persons of dissolute or scandalous morals, or inveterate sinners.

Mary, refuge of sinners

In his fight against sin, the saint had recourse to Mary Immaculate. He emphasized that if the Mother of God was immaculate, it was so as to be the refuge of sinners. Her purity wipes away our stains and renders us pure; Her brightness drives away our darkness. After Adam and Eve's sin, God said to the serpent (that is, to the devil): I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers; She will crush your head, and you will lie in wait for her heel (Gn. 3: 15 [Vulgate]). The Fathers of the Church saw this prophecy fulfilled in the Immaculate Virgin, the new Eve, Who in a singular fashion assisted Her Divine Son, the new Adam, in His fight against evil. To sinners who wished to convert, Father Fasani ceaselessly repeated that Mary, the enemy of sin, was at the same time the Mother of mercy and the «door to Heaven» because She encourages us to pray, to regularly go to the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist, to listen to Her Divine Son and to follow Him. Saint Maximilian Kolbe, two centuries later, would go so far as to say that the Immaculate is the personification of Divine Mercy. She adds nothing to the mercy of God which comes to us through the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but, in accordance with His Father's wishes, Jesus desires that mercy be distributed through Mary's hands.

In the Immaculate Conception, Saint Francis Anthony saw first of all the positive reality, the sublimity of grace which from the first moment elevates the person of Mary, perfectly sanctified in light of Her mission as Mother of God. He brought out, in contrast to the grandeur of the divine gift, the Virgin's humility as a creature. Her sublimity came to Her exclusively from God—it was not a conquest of human nature. Father Fasani also emphasized that after this dazzling beginning, the life of Our Lady was marked by constant spiritual growth in free conformity to graces from God.

When going to preach, the saint generously distributed, especially to children, little pictures of the Immaculate Virgin, on the reverse side of which were written a pious recommendation, a short prayer or a noble thought. The spiritual fruits of this quite simple practice were numerous. The Blessed Virgin even deigned to perform miraculous cures by the touching of these pictures.

Model for souls of prayer

Father Francis Anthony's sermons about Mary always concluded with a piece of practical advice—Christians can and should imitate Mary, the most perfect model of faithfulness to the Gospel, in order to attain, in Her company, intimate love for Jesus and to belong entirely to Him. He liked to contemplate in the Mother of God the model of the soul of prayer. The life of the Immaculate Virgin was a continuous conversation with God. Who better than Her, after her Divine Son, can teach us to pray? The saint pointed out to his confreres: «We study God, we preach God, we discuss God, but the spirit remains dry, without devotion. Much knowledge, and no prayer.» But what is prayer? The Catechism of the Catholic Church answers this question by quoting Saint Teresa of Avila: «'Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him Who we know loves us.' Contemplative prayer seeks Him Whom my soul loves (Canticle 1:7). It is Jesus, and in Him, the Father... Contemplative prayer is hearing the word of God. Far from being passive, such attentiveness is the obedience of faith, the unconditional acceptance of a servant, and the loving commitment of a child» (CCC, nos. 2709, 2716).

The choice of time and length of prayer indicate a determined will which reveals the secrets of the heart. We do not pray when we have the time—we make time to be with the Lord, very determined to remain in His presence no matter what the trials and the dryness of the encounter might be. Prayer can become «contemplation,» that is, the gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. «I look at Him and He looks at me,» the peasant of Ars said to his holy parish priest about prayer before the Tabernacle. The light of Jesus' gaze illuminates the eyes of our hearts, which it purifies. This light teaches us to see everything in the light of His truth and compassion for all mankind. Contemplation also directs its gaze towards the mysteries of the life of Christ. It teaches us in this way to know the Lord with an intimate knowledge, in order to love Him more and to follow Him more closely (cf. Saint Ignatius, Spiritual Exercises, no. 104).

Defender of the poor

Father Francis Anthony practiced the virtue of poverty by sleeping on a straw mattress in his cramped cell, being content with little, and wearing threadbare clothes. The sight of the destitute distressed him, and in his sermons, he stressed the importance of charity towards the poor. He collected money and clothing for them. One day, a half-naked beggar asked him for some clothes with which to cover himself. Father Francis stripped off most of his clothes and went back to the monastery wearing only his tunic.

He wisely administered the «credit bank» which had its headquarters at the monastery, the aim of which was to protect the poor against the speculation of usurers. Thanks to this institution, he was able to set up a table open daily to the needy. Every day, Isabelle, a humble woman of the people, Father Fasani's own mother, could be seen coming there. In this country bankrupted by wars, where the great landowners overwhelmed the peasants with enormous land use fees, the Franciscan reminded the rich of their duty to share the goods of this world and to give a fair wage to their workers.

Today and yesterday, the practice of social justice is a grave obligation for all Christians, especially the more fortunate. «Saint John Chrysostom vigorously recalls this: 'Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.' 'The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity' (Apostolicam actuositatem, Second Vatican Council). 'When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice' (Saint Gregory the Great)» (CCC, no. 2446).

This duty of justice is particularly serious in our time, marked as it is by «the scandal of the affluent society of today's world, in which the rich grow ever richer, since wealth produces wealth, and the poor grow ever poorer, since poverty tends to additional poverty. Not only is this scandal found within individual nations, but it also has aspects which extend well beyond their borders... Truly there needs to be a greater spirit of solidarity in the world, as a means of overcoming the selfishness of individuals and nations» (John Paul II, November 4, 2000).

Humility that works miracles

Led to defend the virtue of a fifteen-year-old girl without means, on whom a young male landowner had designs, Saint Francis Anthony brought her to an orphanage where she would be raised at no cost. This earned him threats and hatred from the gentleman, who denounced him to Rome, where he had to go to exonerate himself. Admitted into the Pope's presence, he said nothing in his own defense. When, however, he humbly kissed the Pope's feet, the Pontiff, who suffered from gout, was, upon this contact, instantaneously freed of his illness, and was thus convinced of the Franciscan's innocence. The Friar's obedience worked miracles as well. One day when he was preaching from the pulpit, his bishop, entering the church, asked him in front of the assembled crowd to stop talking. He did so immediately. Some days later, the bishop's servant came looking for him—the Prelate, stricken with a violent illness, demanded that Father Francis Anthony come to his bedside. «It's unnecessary,» the saint replied. «He has already received his cure from Mary Immaculate.»

On November 29, 1742, at the beginning of the preparatory novena for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Father Francis Anthony Fasani died of exhaustion. On April 16, 1986, at the Franciscan's canonization, Pope John Paul II pointed out, «A tireless preacher, Saint Fasani never reduced the demands of the Gospel message in the desire to please men.» May he, from the heights of Heaven, help us to turn always to Her who, forever free from all stain, can deliver us from all the evil within us.

«O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee.»

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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