Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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June 27, 2003
Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

Saint Bernard, associating the verse from Proverbs 3:16, Long life is in her right hand, in her left are riches and honor, with the Son of God, commented, «There was an endless supply of these treasures in Heaven, but poverty could not be found there. Earth abounded and superabounded in this kind of merchandise, and men knew not its value. He came down from Heaven to make it His own, and so render it precious to us by His choice» (Sermon for Christmas Vigil). Jesus wished to be born poor in the stable in Bethlehem, so that you might become rich by His poverty (2 Cor. 8:9), to protect us, by His divine example, from the affection of earthly possessions, and to draw us to the practice of love of God and of the virtues. Jesus Christ's poverty brings us more good than all the treasures of the world, because by making us put the riches of the world in perspective, it makes us obtain those of Heaven. I have accounted all else rubbish so that Christ may be my wealth, says Saint Paul (Phil. 3:8).

Many saints have given us an example of a life of poverty following Jesus Christ. They have also been able to recognize the features of the child of Bethlehem in the faces of the poor. On July 30, 2002, in Guatemala, the Pope canonized Saint Pedro de Betancur, a Third-Order Franciscan, founder of the Order of Bethlehem, who, through his love for Christ, took up the cause of the poor.

Making himself small

Pedro de San José de Betancur was born on the island of Tenerife, part of the Spain's Canary Islands, which lie southwest of Morocco. He was born in the village of Villaflor on March 21, 1621, and was baptized the same day. His parents were fervent Christians for whom faith and God's love were the greatest of riches. The five children, of whom Pedro was the eldest, had right before their eyes their father's ardent prayer, as well as their mother's sacrifices for the poor. Pedro's character was influenced by certain qualities that came to him probably from one of his grandfathers, a Norman gentleman who had conquered the Canary Islands in the service of Henry III of Castile. Pride, the desire to always be in the spotlight, the instinct for victory and domination, the inclination to make decisions alone... Severe asceticism, sustained by grace, helped him correct these faults and practice the virtues of humility, simplicity, and obedience. His desire was to make himself small in the eyes of God as well as in those of his brothers. He inherited from his mother a spirit of piety, joy, and an aptitude for showing his religious fervor with spontaneity and good spirits.

While still quite young, the boy looked after his father's flock which he led to the valleys and beaches of the island. This contact with nature developed in him a capacity for wonder and calm contemplation of God in creation. After his father's death, Pedro left his work as a shepherd to farm the family's small property. One day he heard Brother Luis de Betancur, a relative, speak about America, about its forests and its wealth, but also about the American Indians and Blacks who were reduced to slavery. A profound compassion for these unfortunate ones and a desire to go evangelize them was born in his heart.

However, Mrs. de Betancur was making marriage plans for her son. Pedro did not share his mother's intention. He took time to pray and to consult his aunt who lived nearby. They both considered the matter before God. Finally, pointing out to her nephew the road to the sea, the aunt affirmed, «You must go meet God like Peter on the water.» Filled with joy, Pedro boarded a ship to cross the Atlantic. Before he left, he wrote to his mother that a greater love and a service of utmost importance was pressing him to leave everything. He disembarked in Havana in 1649. Two years later, wishing to reach the mainland, he boarded a ship and signed on as a cabin-boy to pay for the voyage. He worked so ardently and his kindness was such that when the ship arrived at its destination, the commander did not want to give him his freedom. Pedro discerned in this situation God's temporary and distinct will, but remained firm in his aspirations to be a missionary. Shortly thereafter, he came down with such terrible fevers that they had to disembark him on a beach in Guatemala, a country in Central America that belonged to Spain at the time. There, a fisherman spoke to him about the city of Santiago in Guatemala. «I wish to go to this city,» he replied, «because a profound joy and a higher force are pushing me to go to it!»

Before entering the capital, which he reached on foot, Pedro knelt, prayed, and kissed the ground. This was February 18, 1651, at two o'clock in the afternoon. Now, at this very hour, the beautiful city was shaken by an earthquake. Forgetting the danger, Pedro hastened to assist the victims. But the next day, exhausted by both his voyage and his charitable devotion, he went to Saint John of God Hospital which received the most neglected patients, especially many Native Indians and Africans. In spite of the seriousness of his condition, Pedro got well and was taken on as a worker at a bakery. A witness to the suffering of slaves condemned to forced labor, he was interested in their fate. He sought to improve their situation with his own salary, taught them with kindness, and recited the Rosary with them so as to change their depraved morals.

At the foot of the crucifix

One day he knocked on the door of the Franciscan monastery. Father Fernando Espino welcomed him with kindliness and, observing the depth of the young man's spirituality, invited him to study for the priesthood. An ardent worker, Pedro studied day and night, but the results were not commensurate with his efforts. This is why, after having prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, he decided to abandon the path to the priesthood. He entered the Third Order of Saint Francis, taking their habit in January 1655 before withdrawing to El Calvario Church, where he assumed the role of sacristan. Pedro spent hours in adoration before a very expressive crucifix which was venerated in the sanctuary. In his free time, he performed works of mercy, looking after all the deprived, visiting hospitals, prisons, the poor, the hungry, and unemployed immigrants. He taught children their catechism with songs and games. Little by little, his kindness and his reputation for holiness drew throngs of people to El Calvario.

«The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities... In its various forms—material deprivation, unjust oppression, physical and psychological illness and death—human misery is the obvious sign of the inherited condition of frailty and need for salvation in which man finds himself as a consequence of original sin. This misery elicited the compassion of Christ the Savior, who willingly took it upon Himself and identified Himself with the least of His brethren. Hence, those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere» (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 2447-2448).

With the phrase The poor you always have with you, but me you will not always have (John 12:8), Jesus «invites us to recognize His own presence in the poor who are His brethren. When her mother reproached her for caring for the poor and the sick at home, Saint Rose of Lima said to her: 'When we serve the poor and the sick, we serve Jesus. We must not fail to help our neighbors, because in them we serve Jesus' » (CCC, 2449).

Driven by the same spirit of charity as Saint Rose of Lima, Brother Pedro bought in February 1658 a very poor house, which he named «The Little House of Our Lady of Bethlehem.» He welcomed there street children, whites, mestizos, Creoles, blacks. Soon, students, foreigners, and poor convalescents who had been turned away from hospitals were streaming there. Thus did this man with little formal schooling become the founder of the first free basic literacy school in Central America, and founder of the first convalescence hospital in the Spanish territories in the New World. His success was such that he quickly had to expand the location. Thanks to gifts, Pedro acquired neighboring houses. Trusting in Providence, he did not look for fixed revenues, but relied upon the generosity of wealthy families which took turns providing food every day for the destitute who lived there. For other needs, he tirelessly roamed the streets of the city, appealing for help. In the midst of all this coming and going, there was no suffering that he did not try to assuage. One day, having found at the door to the Saint Francis monastery a poor old woman, a former slave and now completely abandoned, he asked her to stay in his home, and carried her there himself on his shoulders. His charity to all earned him the title of «Mother of Guatemala,» conferred on him by Pope John Paul II during his beatification.

The greatest deception

Urged by the charity of Christ, Pedro de Betancur was truly happy to give his life for God through service to the poor. In this way, he offers an example that is still relevant today. During World Youth Day in Toronto, on July 28, 2002, Pope John Paul II exhorted the youth to serve God and their brothers, in these energetic terms: «The 'spirit of the world' offers many false illusions and parodies of happiness. There is perhaps no darkness deeper than the darkness that enters young people's souls when false prophets extinguish in them the light of faith and hope and love. The greatest deception, and the deepest source of unhappiness, is the illusion of finding life by excluding God, of finding freedom by excluding moral truths and personal responsibility... Jesus—the intimate friend of every young person—has the words of life. The world you are inheriting is a world which desperately needs a new sense of brotherhood and human solidarity. It is a world which needs to be touched and healed by the beauty and richness of God's love. It needs witnesses to that love. The world needs salt. It needs you—to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

«Salt is used to preserve and keep. As apostles for the Third Millennium, your task is to preserve and keep alive the awareness of the presence of our Savior Jesus Christ, especially in the celebration of the Eucharist, the memorial of His saving death and glorious resurrection. You must keep alive the memory of the words of life which He spoke, the marvelous works of mercy and goodness which He performed. You must constantly remind the world of the power of the Gospel to save (cf. Rom. 1:16)! Salt seasons and improves the flavor of food. Following Jesus, you have to change and improve the 'taste' of human history. With your faith, hope and love, with your intelligence, courage and perseverance, you have to humanize the world we live in, in the way that Isaiah indicates: Loose the bonds of injustice... share your bread with the hungry... Then your light shall rise in the darkness (Is. 58:6-10).»

He who will live, will see

Father Manuel Lobo, a Jesuit who was Brother Pedro de Betancur's spiritual director for fifteen years, wrote, «It was because of the great devotion he professed to the mystery of the birth of the Son of God, that, inspired from Heaven, he gave his establishment the name of Our Lady of Bethlehem. Bethlehem means «house of bread»—here it was that the humble shepherds found the Son of God incarnate. Likewise, in this new Bethlehem, the poor must find not only bread, but the Lord God and, with bodily food, spiritual food for the nourishment of their souls.» Pedro started out alone. But the example of his charity brought young Third Order Franciscans to join him to aid the needy. He gladly welcomed these companions and organized a very simple common life in which prayer and penitence alternated with works of corporal charity. His desire was to build a real hospital especially for convalescents who still needed care and had to recover both their physical strength and the health of their soul. He explained his plan to the local bishop, who, after listening to him attentively, asked him with what resources he would pay for such a costly building project. «I don't know,» replied Pedro, «but God knows and will provide them.» The bishop granted the permission and work began immediately. However, there was no shortage of critics. Was it not presumptuous to undertake this kind of work? One day, the superior of the Franciscan monastery came to visit the construction site in Pedro's absence, and he condemned the costly project. When he returned, the founder, informed of the friar's thoughts, limited himself to saying, «All this is done not on this Father's behalf, nor on mine, but on God's behalf, and who will live, will see.» In fact, Pedro's faith and humility allowed him to gradually collect the necessary funds.

The greatest service of God

During construction of the hospital, Pedro continued to perform works of mercy. He provided hospitals and prisons with provisions, assisted the dying, restored harmony in divided households, and converted prostitutes, for whom he obtained means of making an honest living. He gave special attention to those who were in a situation of greater weakness, and consequently of greater need. «The option for the poor [meaning the preference given to the poorest in works of charity] is inherent in the very structure of love lived in Christ. All of Christ's disciples are therefore held to this option» (John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation on Consecrated Life, March 25, 1996, no. 82). Pedro also showed a lively charity towards the souls in Purgatory for whom he had Masses celebrated. A very active man, he nevertheless always remained united with God, never ceasing to pray and meditate on the mysteries of Our Savior's life. When he learned that the Most Blessed Sacrament was exposed in a church, he interrupted his regular occupations to go adore on his knees, motionless, for long periods of time. Accustomed to the cross and sacrifices, he nevertheless condemned penances that harmed charitable activities. «We serve God better,» he said, «by carrying a sick person from one room to another, than by submitting ourselves to excessive penances.» To a lady who complained about not being able to go to church because of her paralyzed husband, he answered, «At a sick man's side, you can pray as much as you want, and God will hear you as well as in church.»

Another of the humble Tertiary's apostolates was to travel through the streets of the city at night, ringing a bell and shouting this warning: «Brothers, remember that we have a soul, and if we lose it, we will not be able to regain it.» In this way, he reminded everyone of the great thought of eternity and brought about conversions. The most famous of these involved a young nobleman, Don Rodrigo Arias Maldonado, the governor of Costa Rica, who had come to Guatemala to receive a reward from the king of Spain. One of the noblest and richest ladies in the city was in love with Rodrigo, and appeared at his palace one night with impure intentions. But she immediately suffered a fatal syncope. Don Rodrigo, terrified, didn't know what to do when suddenly he heard Pedro's nighttime bell. Furious, Rodrigo rushed into the street, his drawn sword in his hand, determined to silence this annoying person. With his humble gentleness, Pedro stared at him, then, reading the nobleman's heart, he told him to the letter the events that had just taken place. Understanding then that he was dealing with a saint, the gentleman admitted his sins. After hearing him with great compassion, Pedro went to the dwelling where the poor woman lay, pale and icy cold. He murmured a prayer, and made the sign of the cross over her. Little by little, the lady returned to life and moaned, trembling all over. Pedro reassured her, helped her up, covered her with his coat, and sent her home.

Rodrigo spent the rest of the night without sleeping, suffering terrible remorse. When day returned, he went to the hospital and asked to enter Pedro's community. «It's not yet time,» said the latter, who sent him home. There, he found the royal note he had been waiting for since he came to Guatemala—King Philip IV had granted him the title of Marquis of Talamanca as well as a handsome salary, and told him that he would shortly name him Viceroy of New Spain. Three days later, having thought it over carefully, he arrived at the hospital once more. This time, Pedro welcomed him, embracing him. «Brother Rodrigo, peace be with you. This house is yours. From this day on, you will be called Rodrigo of the Cross.»

On April 20, 1667, Pedro, weakened by his tireless work, came down with bronchopneumonia. Seeing death coming, he designated Rodrigo of the Cross his successor and, blessing him with the words «May God make you humble!», he outlined for him the guiding principles that he needed to maintain in the work he had undertaken. On April 25, he rendered his soul to God in a rapture. Rodrigo of the Cross faithfully executed the founder's wishes and wrote the constitutions of the Order of Bethlehem. He accepted Sisters as well as Brothers. In 1674, Pope Clement X approved the rules of both communities.

A legacy that cannot be lost

On June 22, 1980, Pope John Paul II beatified Brother Pedro de Betancur, a simple Third Order Franciscan who, a poor man among the poor, was able to recognize in them the Holy Child of Bethlehem. Indeed, «Christ is poor on earth in the person of His poor... As God He is rich, as man He is poor. With His humanity He has gone up to Heaven and, prosperous, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and yet, here on earth, still poor, He suffers hunger, thirst and nakedness» (Saint Augustine). On the occasion of Brother Pedro's canonization, the Holy Father expressed himself in this way: «Still today, the new saint is an urgent invitation to practice mercy in modern society, especially when so many are waiting for a hand stretched out to help them. We are thinking of children and youth who are homeless or lack education; of abandoned women who must confront so many needs; of the multitudes of unwanted people in the cities; of the victims of organized crime, prostitution, or drugs; of the sick who are wanting for help or the elderly who live alone.

«Brother Pedro is a legacy that cannot be lost. He must be the subject of continuous gratitude; he must be imitated with renewed purpose. This legacy must inspire among Christians and among all citizens the desire to transform the human community into a large family, where social, political and economic relations are worthy of man, and within which the dignity of the person is promoted through effective recognition of his inalienable rights.

«I would like to conclude by recalling that devotion to the Most Blessed Virgin was always present in Brother Pedro's life of piety and mercy. May she also guide us so that, illuminated by the examples of 'the man who was made charity,' as Pedro de Betancur is known, we might come to her Son Jesus!»

This is the grace we ask of Saint Joseph for you and for all your loved ones.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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