Monday, December 1, 2014

Blessed John of Vercelli, O.P.

Much will be asked of us in the Christian life. Much was asked of Bl. John of Vercelli. From his studies in theology and canon law, John would come to be asked by the Order of Preachers to take up the mantle of leadership, first as prior of the priory in Bologna, then as prior provincial of the province of Lombardy, and finally as Master of the Order, a post he held for nearly twenty years until his death. His gifts as a leader, whose humble witness in visiting the friars across Europe, traveling by foot, caught the eye of the pope, who would come to ask him first to direct the Order to assist in bringing peace to the warring states of Italy, then to serve in the ecumenical council of Lyons and seek the union of the Greek Church in the East with the Latin Church in the West, and then to promote in the Church devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, all of which he did willingly.

Towards the end of his life, John was once again asked to take up an important task, this time the office of Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, but this title he refused. We might well assume that John had finally had enough, that he was no longer willing to do new and difficult work in the Church. To be fair, there may be something to this. No one can responsibly receive every task or mission he is offered. It is untrue to his own limits and, in the end, unfair as well to the one who asks, who needs someone who can give his full effort to the work at hand.

Even so, there is perhaps more in this late refusal by one who had made himself so much at the disposal of the Order and the Church. We might think that making oneself open to the needs of others is a zero sum game, that we have a finite resource which we must divide between ourselves, others, and God, and our task is seeking to find some kind of balance. However, this view, reasonable as it seems, is mistaken. Our task, which is also, or ought to be our joy, is to give ourselves entirely and without reserve to God. It is in that unhesitating self-donation to Jesus Christ, and only there, that we will find what truly gives us life, what truly opens us up to what best fulfills our time on this earth. More than that, it is only in a life of prayer to the Lord that we will have the true wisdom to see when our service to others flows from the life we have with God, and when it flows from something else: our pride, our delusions of omnicompetence, our need to feel wanted or useful, our fear of being misunderstood in refusing, or many other reasons. When we do not become prompt to see the signs of the Spirit active in the world and in our hearts, we can just as easily refuse a task that would have made us more like Jesus Christ, or take on a task that uselessly burdens our hearts.

In Advent, we are called once again to see the signs in the world, to read what seem to many to be calamities, what might well cause the hearts of others to draw back in fear. We, however, are asked to hold our heads erect, not to be bowed down by what is being asked of us by God. We are called, as was John of Vercelli, to see those signs not as unfamiliar and terrifying, but as the clear and comforting language of a God whom we have come to know well in our daily, humble, and open prayer.

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