Saintly inspiration for new beginnings

Archbishop Aquila

It’s not that often that bishops are able to announce the kind of good news I am about to share with you. As I write this column, the archdiocese is beginning the process of opening two new parishes in the Denver metro area in response to our growing population.

For some of you this isn’t news, since you are a part of the two communities – one in Thornton and one in Green Valley Ranch – that have come together to form the foundation for these future parishes. I am inspired to see the number of young families and faithful men and women who have committed to become a part of these new communities.

Before I reveal the names I have chosen, it’s important to explain some Church terminology that describes the phases of forming a parish. On December 3, 2017, these two communities will be designated as a “quasi-parish.” Prior to receiving this status, they were satellite locations of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish and Ascension Parish.

With their designation as quasi-parishes, these communities will now have their own patron saints, statutes, pastoral and finance councils, keep their own sacramental records, and have an established territory within the archdiocese. Once these quasi-parishes are incorporated and demonstrate that they can sustain themselves, they will be recognized as parishes.

I have been praying for quite some time about what these two new locations should be named. As I brought this decision before the Lord, the importance of renewing family life and evangelization kept echoing in my heart, and so I have chosen two recent saints who exemplify those missions.

This coming August, the Church will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II’s visit to Denver for World Youth Day in 1993. Many observers have commented that this was a spiritual turning point for the Church in the United States. And certainly, it was a turning point for the Church in northern Colorado. During his visit, St. John Paul II challenged us to become saints, and for many, he became a father figure who was also their spiritual hero. Countless marriages, and priestly and religious vocations were born during those summer days in Cherry Creek State Park, and 25 years later we continue to see new apostolates created as a result of his leadership and love.

Not only did St. John Paul II inspire many people to take up the demands of the Gospel with joy and zeal, but he also gave the Church the gift of the Theology of the Body. As forces within our society work to dismantle the blessing, meaning and purpose of sexuality, the treasure that St. John Paul II gave us in the Theology of the Body increasingly reveals its value.

For these reasons, I have decided to name the quasi-parish in Thornton, “St. John Paul II.” The community that has been meeting for the last several months has gathered at Frasatti Catholic Academy and the archdiocese is working to purchase land in the vicinity to provide a site for the parish church.

As I mentioned earlier, the state of the family has been in my prayers, too. A couple years ago I came across some love letters that were written between an engaged Italian couple during World War II. That couple was St. Gianna Molla and her husband Pietro.

St. Gianna Molla was a doctor with a generous heart for the poor and a desire to share her faith. At one point, she even planned to join her priest brother in Brazil as a missionary, but her family’s concerns about her delicate health and the primitive conditions there dissuaded her. Since she couldn’t be a missionary, she focused her intense love for God and the poor on family life and the practice of medicine.

In reading the letters that St. Gianna and Pietro Molla exchanged, their love for God and each other is evident. She wrote to Pietro, “I really want to make you happy and be what you desire: good, understanding, and ready for the sacrifices that life will require of us.” Pietro responded, “I’ve read your letter over and over, and kissed it. A new life is beginning for me: the life of your great (and greatly desired) affections and of your radiant goodness.” Their love for each other was fed by their faith, which was often mentioned in their letters. Their spiritual depth was also apparent in their decision to prepare for their wedding by attending a “triduum” of Masses over the three days before their vows.

Besides her love for the faith, St. Gianna is best known for how she lived her final days. When she was pregnant with her fourth child, who would be named Gianna Emanuela, she learned that she had a benign tumor on her uterus. This condition was treated at the time by aborting the baby and removing the tumor. However, Gianna steadfastly refused an abortion and had only the tumor removed, knowing that the risk of a stitch becoming infected or breaking from being pregnant was quite high. She gave birth on Holy Saturday, but a few hours later she came down with a septic infection. St. Gianna died four days later at her home.

Because of her love for her family, devotion to the faith, and protection of innocent human life, I have decided to name the second new quasi-parish “St. Gianna Molla.” This community has been celebrating Mass at Omar D. Blair Charter School in Green Valley Ranch.

As the Church works toward establishing a permanent presence in these locations, I urge everyone in the archdiocese to pray for these communities, that they might imitate their patrons and continue to grow. I also encourage you to learn more about these amazing saints, who offer us examples that are especially relevant for our society today. Saints John Paul II and Gianna Molla, pray for us!

COMING UP: Art: A needed sacrament of faith

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

A sacrament is an outward, material sign of an inward, spiritual reality. The seven sacraments are signs instituted by Jesus to communicate his grace to us. In addition, we have sacramentals, signs and practices that draw us more deeply into our faith. We do not have an abstract faith; it is sacramental and incarnational, centered on the coming into the flesh of the Son of God and his continued presence in the Church through the Eucharist.
Art, following this sacramental identity, expresses our faith, draws us into prayer, and mediates divine realities. In a time of relativism, which shuns proposals of truth and goodness, we need to rely more upon the witness of beauty. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this opportunity and need: “I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.”

Does this approach actually work for evangelization? Elizabeth Lev details one example, the crucial role of art at a time of crisis in the Church, in her book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art (Sophia, 2018). As core Catholic doctrines faced opposition from Protestants, the Council of Trent called for the creation of art to assist in renewal. The Council said that art should instruct, help to remember and meditate divine realities, admonish, provide examples, and to inspire the faithful to order their lives in imitation of the saints (4). Lev adds her own synthesis of how art assists the Church, asserting that “art is useful in evangelization…. can bring clarity…. [and] is uplifting” (6). The Catholic Reformation and Baroque periods, particularly in central Italy, were ages “of unprecedented art patronage from the top down, effectively a very expensive PR campaign meant to awaken the hearts and minds of millions of pilgrims who were making their way to the Eternal City” (5).

And it worked. It was not art for art’s sake that led Catholics to stay true to the faith, but art’s ability to express the deep spiritual vision of the Church as articulated by the great Catholic reformers. Lev lists the main protagonists of this cooperative work:  “The spiritual insight of Charles Borromeo, Robert Bellarmine, Federico Borromeo, St. Philip Neri, and Paleotti fused with the creative talents of Caravaggio, Barocci, the Carracci School, Lavinia Fontana, and Guido Reni, making for a heady cocktail designed to entice the faithful into experiencing mystery” (16). Lev provides a masterful overview of the key theological issues at stake and how artists were commissioned to visualize the faith in these areas, including the sacraments, mediation of the saints, purgatory, and practices such as pilgrimage.

Developments in technique enabled art to come alive, actively mediating faith, by using theatrical characteristics that invited the viewer into the drama of the scene. Altar pieces beckoned down to the action of the altar, pointing to the reality occurring there, such as Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ (37), and others drew the viewer into the scene, as with Frederico Barocci’s extended hand of St. Francis bearing the stigmata, inviting an imitation of Christ (145). Other paintings inspired religious sentiments such as contrition, as found in Reni’s St. Peter Penitent, who models how to weep for one’s sins and to beat one’s chest in repentance (45), and Titian’s good thief who reaches out to Christ as one would do in confession (52). The book beautifully presents the artwork, and Lev seamlessly combines art criticism and religious commentary.

The time period of Lev’s book bears some striking similarities to contemporary struggles. Many Catholics continue to question the faith, and we have experienced a return to iconoclasm in the last fifty years, bent on the destruction of the Church’s sacramental vision. We, too, need the inspiration of art, which calls us to renew our faith: “Art no longer allow[s] the viewer to stand at a safe distance, as a passive recipient of grace, but exhort[s] everyone to act” (180). For the success of the New Evangelization, we need a return to beauty. This will require us to invest in a renaissance of the arts, knowing that this investment will support the Church’s efforts to communicate the truth of our faith, for the salvation of souls.