Thursday, May 19, 2011

St Francis Coll y Guitart, O.P., Confessor

Ecclesiasticus 31:8-11 / Luke 12:35-40

How well do we hold up to our convictions and commitments when no one expects us to do so? When we find ourselves in a time or a place where doing, daily, what we have pledged to do is made not merely inconvenient, but difficult, and yet we have no a community to support or even give witness to our efforts, how quickly do we compromise, and perhaps even abandon what we have set out to do? It's not so hard, after all, to find ourselves, now a month into the season of Easter, in just that situation. During Lent, of course, we may have had support, in the liturgy, in the precepts of the Church, and in the company of our neighbors who share the faith, to remain true to our commitment in our Baptism, to renew our lives where they had fallen short and strive to reach a deeper engagement with the Gospel. In the initial glow of Easter, we no doubt found the joy to sustain those hopes, no longer in the context of Lenten asceticism, but in the glorious Good News of the empty Tomb. Yet now, when time has passed, when no one seems to ask anything much of us or expect more than the minimum, when we perhaps even discourage anything out of the ordinary in our lives, thinking more of the summer vacation than of Christ risen from the grave, where have those commitments gone?

Today we thank God for the witness of St Francis Coll y Guitart, O.P. A diocesan seminarian in the early nineteenth century in Spain, he joined the Order of Preachers, made solemn profession, and was on his way to priestly ordination when, in 1835, the State suppressed all Catholic religious orders and disbanded the Dominican house of studies where Francis lived. Separated from his community and the structures and rhythms of religious life, Francis completed his priestly formation in a diocesan seminary and served initially as a parish priest. However, he never forgot his solemn profession, and while the State might have been able to dissolve the Order materially, it had no power to free him from a vow made to God, the Blessed Virgin, St Dominic, and his successors, to live in obedience according to the Rule of St Augustine and the Constitutions of the Friars Preachers until death. Indeed, he eventually became an intinerant preacher, as well as the founder of a congregation of Dominican sisters who would teach the young where he had gone to preach. So faithful had he been to Dominican life, even while the State had officially abolished it and no one would have begrudged his simply having adopted the patterns of the secular clergy, that when religious orders were restored in 1872, nearly forty years later, his unbroken commitment to the life of the Order allowed the newly-restored community to begin its life almost at once, as though there had been no suppression.

What Ecclesiastus says of the blessed man can thus rightly be said of St Francis Coll: he that could have transgressed, and hath not transgressed: and could do evil things, and hath not done them. So also does his lifetime of fidelity in the midst not so much of open persecution as suppression and neglect, rightly echoes the blessed servant spoken of by the Lord Jesus Christ, who remains faithful not merely during the first watch, but the second and the third as well. He was indeed ready for the coming of the Son of man, and in that watchfulness, even without the benefit of the very regular life to which he remained faithful, the Order could restore its witness to the faithful in Spain.

There is of course no formula to let us know how to maintain our commitments when the means of doing so are taken from us. There is no easy way to know what we might adapt, what we ought to keep strictly, what we can morally let slide. The gift of prudence is never so important as during such times. Even so, in St Francis Coll, we can have confidence that our continued witness to promises no one much expects us to keep — the religious deprived of her community, the husband whose spouse obtained from him a civil divorce, the falsely accused removed from her ministry — will not be fruitless, not without its reward. Therefore are his goods established in the Lord, says Ecclesiasticus, and so say we even more boldly in light of the Resurrection, and all the Church of the Saints shall declare his alms.

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