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November 1, 2006|
All Saints' Day
Born in Maryland on July 4, 1831, Alfred received Baptism soon after his birth from the hands of a Methodist minister, even though his parents were Episcopalian, an American Protestant denomination based on Anglicanism. As a young boy, he devoted himself assiduously to his studies and learned entire Shakespeare plays by heart. He also succeeded in mastering Latin and Greek. His passion for study did not keep him from fervent attendance at religious services. Although he had an ardent and somewhat impulsive nature, he was also very affectionate and was always the first to ask for forgiveness.
When Alfred was 17, his father died, leaving his wife responsibility for six children. The eldest brother left to make his fortune in the Far West; Alfred put his talents to good use to support his mother and sisters. For four years, he worked as an assistant schoolteacher, but he then received the inspiration to devote himself to the service of souls. He then passed an exam before a jury of Episcopalian pastors, and was ordained a deacon, then a priest, in this denomination. Desiring to devote himself to the ministry without impediment, he renounced marriage.
In 1862, Alfred was named rector of Mount Calvary Episcopal Church in Baltimore, which he was to serve tirelessly for nine years. Filled with zeal for souls, he assiduously gave himself to prayer, fasting, and studying Sacred Scripture. To learn Hebrew, he went to a rabbi, and thus acquired a deeper knowledge of the Word of God. He also took a keen interest in the Fathers of the Church and steeped himself in their doctrine, which in his eyes expressed the faith of the Church. This Protestant pastor, who felt close to Catholicism, wore the cassock, recited the Roman Breviary, and prayed to the Virgin Mary. He went so far as to question the truth of his own faith. One day, two visitors came to his church, asking if it was a Catholic church, and if he was a priest. He boldly replied «yes,» but conscience stricken, he went to find them and explained, «I thought myself a priest, but I am not, and you will find the Catholic church three squares from here.» He apparently doubted the validity of his priestly ordination, which in reality is lacking in Episcopalianism. However, Episcopalian priests, like their Anglican brethren, think they are true priests and able to consecrate the Eucharist. Pastor Curtis in fact cherished a very great devotion to this sacrament. Formed in the school of the Fathers of the Church, he took Christ's words literally: «This is my Body... This is my Blood...» For him, Jesus, the Master and Guide Whom he felt called to preach and defend, is truly present in the consecrated species.
Where is Christ's Church?
In 1871, an event took place that marked a decisive turn in Pastor Curtis' life. His superior, the Episcopalian bishop of Maryland, published a pastoral letter on the Holy Eucharist, in which he stated that if Christ is present in this sacrament, it is not in order to be adored, but only to become food for our souls. He was therefore forbidding his flock from worshiping this sacrament as the Person of Christ. Curtis, shocked, reacted strongly and resigned from his pastoral duties. His November 8, 1871 letter to his bishop contains this beautiful profession of faith: «If it is not the truth that the very Human and Divine Christ is Himself first offered, for the living and the dead in the Holy Eucharist, and there put according to His whole Living Person into my very hands, to be then and there adored and endowed with all I am, and all I possess perpetuallythere is no truth for me, at least no truth I greatly care to know... All my teaching grows out of, and depends upon the fact, that the Lord is actually one with and present in the Eucharist, under the form of Bread and Wine as He was of old present in the stable, one with and under the form of Babyhood...» A few days later, he further explained his thoughts: «I cannot at all see how Christ can be received as Christ without adoration. To say that He is present but is not to be adored is to me only a certain way of saying that He is not veritably present at all.»
To adore the One we receive
Like so many others who, in order to be faithful to the voice of their conscience, have renounced a privileged and prestigious position, Pastor Curtis threw himself into the unknown. Giving up his parish and a comfortable salary, he had no idea what would become of him. «I felt as though I were about to leap into a great chasm, knowing not where I would land,» he confided to a friend. God, in His mercy, allows this type of experience in order to purify the souls of His friends, to test their love, and to lead them to greater perfection. He never abandons those who are faithful to Him. Little by little, the light grew in Pastor Curtis' mind. He became nearly certain that the only path would be to enter the Roman Church. Out of consideration for the denomination in which he had been a pastor, he did not want to take this decisive step in his own country. In early March 1872, he left for England and went to Oxford, where he visited several leading Anglicans there to assure himself that he was not deluded. Their responses did not satisfy him. He then requested an audience with Father Newman, whose own conversion had taken place nearly thirty years before. The future Cardinal listened to him with kindness, spoke of his own path, and then gave him two books, saying, «Read these if you like, but pray and pray; nothing will help you more than humble prayer; and come to see me whenever you will, I am at your disposal.»
The security of the Truth
To the end of his days, Curtis would suffer from his family's inability to understand his conversion. Of his family, only a brother would join him in the true Church of Christ. Later, deeply moved by the death of his parents who had not entered the Church, he allowed himself to be consoled by a priest who assured him of his mother's total sincerity. Cardinal Newman, who had also experienced this sort of trial, wrote, «One cannot force others to think as one would like, even those who are the closest and dearest to us.»
Curtis, after having been received into the Church, wondered about his future. His thirst to give himself totally to God made him want to enter the Carthusian order, but Newman, with a premonition of the good this man could accomplish, encouraged him to return to his country and put himself in the service of the archbishop of Baltimore. So Curtis went there and entered the seminary to complete his studies for the priesthood. Older than most of the seminarians, he was nevertheless admired by all for his gentleness, humility, zeal for communal discipline, and mortification. On December 19, 1874, he received priestly ordination.
It is no longer I but Christ
In 1883, Father Curtis had the privilege of accompanying his archbishop to Rome, and in 1886, he was named bishop of Wilmington, Delaware, a suffragan diocese of Baltimore. His characteristic humility made him try to avoid this role: «I care not how many I have over me, provided I have no one under me.» But his efforts to escape this burden failed, and he received episcopal consecration on November 14, 1886. As a bishop, he stayed close to his people and his priests. He did not fear fatigue and gave himself freely to the souls entrusted to his care. Filled with zeal for orphans and prisoners, he held poverty in high regard, and did not fear being considered poor. His responsibility seemed to him to be that of the servant in the Gospels to whom the Master, in leaving for a distant land, had entrusted the care of his possessions. He himself exhorted the faithful to remain vigilant at all times, for the Lord leaves us in the dark about the day of His return: «Our Lord mercifully conceals from us the time of His coming, for if people knew that they had several years to live, they might spend most of the time in earthly enjoyments and prepare for death only when it is near; thus they would lose the reward that might have been theirs had they always kept themselves in readiness for His coming at any hour.»
The supreme test of holiness
Deeply loved by his entire diocese, Bishop Curtis continued to provide Masses, homilies, and various services to the poor, even after his successor was consecrated. He also remained confessor for the Visitation nuns. The last ten years of his life were spent in Baltimore in the residence of Cardinal Gibbons, who named him Vicar General. Long hours of his days and nights were spent in front of the Blessed Sacrament. «It is pleasant to spend time with Him, to lie close to His breast like the Beloved Disciple and to feel the infinite love present in His heart,» wrote Pope John Paul II. «If in our time Christians must be distinguished above all by the 'art of prayer,' how can we not feel a renewed need to spend time in spiritual converse, in silent adoration, in heartfelt love before Christ present in the Most Holy Sacrament? How often, dear brother and sisters, have I experienced this, and drawn from it strength, consolation and support! This practice, repeatedly praised and recommended by the Magisterium, is supported by the example of many saints. Particularly outstanding in this regard was Saint Alphonsus Liguori, who wrote: 'Of all devotions, that of adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the greatest after the sacraments, the one dearest to God and the one most helpful to us' » (Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, no. 25).
In keeping with his desire to work up to the end in the Lord's vineyard, Bishop Curtis assisted the Cardinal in giving Confirmation. During one such ceremony, he spoke to the confirmands in these words: «The Holy Ghost comes to be the truest and best of Friends, an unfailing one... All other friends, however true, would simply be such only in name, in comparison with the Divine Friend who comes to you today... Think of this, and cherish with jealous care a love and friendship absolutely essential for the salvation of your soul. This Divine Friend will never depart from you, unless by sin you chase Him away. May God grant that such a misfortune may never happen to any of you, but that having had the happiness to become the temples of the Holy Spirit of God, you may ever cherish and preserve the help of the Divine Friend, by fidelity and perseverance in God's grace.»
These yet unknown saints
We can hope that Alfred Allen Curtis is numbered among those yet unknown saints of whom he himself spoke so eloquently in a homily for the feast of All Saints' Day: «Let us honor all Saints, but especially that numberless army of unknown Saints. The canonized Saints, who are few compared with the former, have been capable of practicing heroic virtue, virtue which is beyond our attainment. But we will consider the vast army of unknown Saints who have no history, who lived the same common life that we do, who did common things uncommonly well, who toiled, waited, suffered; who believed, hoped, loved and repented, these we can imitate.»
In imitation of this great convert and this truly apostolic man, let us receive from the Lord Jesus Himself the gift of His Person and His work of salvation in the Holy Eucharist, in which He shows us a love that knows no bounds. «The Eucharist is a priceless treasure: by not only celebrating it but also by praying before it outside of Mass we are enabled to make contact with the very wellspring of grace» (John Paul II, ibid.).