On July 23, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373). Devotion to her is understandably less strong here than in her native country; but the Pope has recently declared her one of the patrons of Europe, and there is new interest in the personal revelations she received from the Lord. They began when she was a small girl and continued through her long life as wife, mother of eight children, founder of a monastery and a religious order for women and men, counselor to rulers and popes, pilgrim. Her revelations bring out details of Our Lords humanity and can inspire great devotion to him as one like us.
St. Bridget was a follower of Jesus who came to know him and rose to holiness by praying, Lord, show me thy way, and make me willing to follow it. She prayed to know Gods will, but then she knew she had to pray that God might change her will in order to follow his. She knew herself well. Her life was full of accomplishments which can elicit admiration even today. She herself saw her life, however, as a struggle to do what the Lord called her to do and to do it in his way, not hers. She was a disciple, and her life was a pilgrimage.
As a noblewoman and a national figure, St. Bridget (Birgitta) is part of Swedens historical memory. The Swedish government and church therefore wanted to recognize her importance with an official celebration of the 700th anniversary of her birth. On June 1, some Chicago pilgrims and I were in Vadstena, where she built her monastery, for that celebration. The celebration was not without some irony, since it was the King of Sweden and the official church, after the Protestant Reformation, who had closed her monastery and torn it down, using the stones for a royal residence, dispersing her nuns and destroying her work.
After the Lutheran religious ceremony, attended by todays king and queen of Sweden and other prominent figures of contemporary Sweden and Scandinavia, there was a luncheon. I was seated next to the foreign minister of Sweden. St. Bridget didnt figure much in our conversation. The foreign minister was interested in discussing President Bushs religious beliefs and whether they influenced his foreign policy, and I was interested in finding out how the entry of ten new states might change the nature of the European Union. Neither one of us did too much to enlighten the other, but it was a very pleasant meal.
Later in the day, the Catholic Church celebrated Mass in St. Bridgets honor in the courtyard of the castle built from the purloined stones of her monastery. It was a popular celebration, with a surprising number of young people.
From Sweden, I went to Malta, making a kind of personal pilgrimage to the island where St. Paul was shipwrecked on his way to martyrdom in Rome. He was a prisoner of the state, but he had sufficient liberty to preach the Gospel on Malta for three months and appoint a man named Publius to head the church there. As we intensify in coming months the work of evangelizing here in Chicago, I wanted to pray to St. Paul to help us seize whatever opportunities the Lord might give us to preach the Gospel effectively here. I prayed for our Archdiocese in the place where St. Paul was shipwrecked centuries ago, that we might become today an evangelizing Church, not consumed by our own problems but eager to do what the Lord calls us to do and to do it in his way, not ours.
Malta is a contrast to Sweden. A tiny island in the Mediterranean and closer to Africa than to any part of Europe but Sicily, Malta has been inhabited for over 7,000 years. Its location means that it has been conquered many times over. It has been ruled by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Normans, Arabs, Spaniards, the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, French, British and, finally, the Maltese themselves. From the time of St. Paul and St. Publius, however, Malta has been Catholic, and the Church shapes the daily rhythm of life and the ways of society.
Sweden is, apart from Norway and Finland, Europes northernmost country and the continents second largest state. It is a prosperous place, well governed and, in recent centuries, it has been able to avoid war. It is also a very secular society. During my visit to Sweden in June I gave a lecture in the University town of Lund, in southern Sweden, on secularization. The Jesuits in Sweden had asked me to address this topic, since the Swedes themselves sometimes wonder how it is that they are such a secular society. While religion isnt much practiced, it is fairly much discussed. My conversation with the Swedish foreign minister is a case in point. Where religion is not a threat, it becomes a curiosity.
And thats the heart of secularization: the power of God and the authority of the Church are seen as a threat to human freedom. They therefore have to be eradicated or, at least, contained. Sometimes this is done violently, through direct persecution and through the institution of atheist regimes, as in revolutionary France or Soviet Russia. Sometimes this is done more subtly, through harassment and internal division, so that God is tamed and the Church unable to call people to conversion, to discipleship. God then becomes simply a name for whatever is important to any individual, and religion becomes a source of comfort for those who need it or a way of celebrating things important to like-minded people. People belong to a Church for their own purposes, not to be changed by Christ, to be converted. This is the kind of secularization they have in Sweden, where almost everyone belongs to the state church. It is the kind of secularization, with some few differences, we have in America and in Chicago. It doesnt bring freedom, since it has its own commandments and demands and it cannot explain human destiny; but it succeeds in persuading people that they are free. And that is enough to keep a society going for some time.
St. Bridgets Sweden, St. Pauls Malta and our Chicago are very different places. What they have in common is the Church that is born from the Eucharist, from the self-sacrifice of Christ made present sacramentally in the celebration of the Mass. Christ is himself, not just a projection of our making; and, no matter the social context, he calls people to follow him. Those who hear his call pray daily: Lord, show me thy way, and make me willing to follow it.
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