Saturday, April 01, 2006

Now that's a bishop

Today is the feast day (not on the general Roman calendar) of St. Hugh of Grenoble (France, †1132), a bishop for 52 years between the 11th and 12th centuries. This was no office he sought and in fact left his office vacant for a year to seek the peace of the monastic life at Cluny. He only went back after a direct order came from the Pope. Later, he would go on retreat at the monastery of St. Bruno in Chartruese (to whom he gave permission to start the monastery) and St. Bruno would have to tell him to back to the office.

What is remarkable about him is what he did in his diocese. When he got there, according to Butler's Lives of the Saints, "The gravest sins were committed without shame -- simony and usury were rampant, the clergy openly flouted the obligation to celibacy, the people were uninstructed, laymen had seized church property and the see was almost penniless."

Sound familiar? What did St. Hugh do about it? He didn't declare bankruptcy, he didn't call for dialogue, he didn't say the people shouldn't learn the truths of the faith under the guise of feel-good renewal programs. According to Butler's, "For two years he laboured unremittingly to redress abuses by preaching, by denunciations, by rigorous fasts and by constant prayer."

The last two actions particularly intrigued me. There is a story of St. Patrick going up onto the mountain now called Croagh Patrick in order to spend 40 days in fast and prayer for the people of Ireland. Not long after he started, he was tormented by demons in the shape of birds flocking around the opening of his little cave, so much so that they completely blocked out the light. After many prayers and entreaties which were unavailing, he took the bell he always carried and started ringing it. The demons started scattering and finally he threw the bell into their midst and the birds threw themselves into the sea.

But that was only the beginning. He conversed regularly with an angel because his petitions to God were five-fold:
  • that many souls would be free from the pains of purgatory through his intercession;
  • that whoever, in a spirit of penance, recited the hymn he composed that we call St. Patrick’s Breastplate, before death would go to heaven;
  • that the barbarians would never obtain sway in the Church in Ireland;
  • that seven years before the Day of Judgement, the sea would spread over Ireland to save its people from the temptations and terrors of the Antichrist;
  • and finally, that Patrick himself should be able to judge the whole Irish race on the last day.
The angel would say to Patrick something along the lines of, "OK, OK, we give in on this point -- now give up the fast." But, like Abraham negotiating with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, Patrick persisted on all points and won.

The stand Bishop Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., took against the National Review Board is, in a sense, bracing, even though, as Ed Peters rightly points out, he's wrong. There is also the fact that he was extraordinarily uncharitable and arrogant -- attitudes totally unbecoming of someone in the office of bishop, especially one who calls himself orthodox. But what we don't hear from any of our bishops, most of whom appear to be quite well-fed and living in rather comfortable quarters, is that they are fasting, praying and doing penance in intense ways for their flocks. We do not hear exhortations to fast and prayer from them for the crisis which now engulfs the Church in our country. We do not hear sermons like those of St. Hugh's during which "it was not unusual to see the whole congregation in tears, whilst individuals would be moved to make public confession on the spot." Nor do we hear of bishops who will sell chalices and precious stones in order to feed the hungry.

Perhaps it falls on us laity to do some intense fasting, prayer and penance for our bishops. What we have is not simply a crisis of clerical misconduct; what we have is, as then-Cardinal Ratzinger said, "a crisis of saints." And that crisis isn't going to be relieved by mere name-calling or even preaching and denunciations. As Jesus Himself said, "This kind can only be driven out by prayer and fasting."

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