Monday, November 3, 2014

Why I Am Walking to Montreal, Part I

As Catholic Christians we repeat creeds. This is held against us by some, who believe that a real man should believe what he damn well wants to believe, damn it. But I have no problem with creeds.

A creed makes me the member of a family with a longer, more distinguished genealogy than the most Proper Bostonian. It makes me the descendant of saints.

As a Catholic, I believe in the holy spirit and the holy Catholic church (two tenets of our faith) the way a Cabot or Lowell believes in trusts. It has worked for generations before me, and by believing it myself, I join my hands with my ancestors and profit by their example.

Now, I confess that some things in one or the other creed (Nicene or Apostles) that we Catholics recite (at Mass or when saying the rosary) are easier for me to understand than others. For example, the resurrection of the body is an idea I’m still working on. But I profess it as a belief anyway. My maternal grandmother, the only other Catholic convert in my immediate lineage, did the same, and she was a great lady.

There is one article of faith that I have no problem with whatever—in fact, it is what being Catholic is all about to me. That article is the communion of saints. It’s the genealogical principle again: the best members of the family (the ones with dusty portraits hanging in the mansion house) are present to me even now, not only as images or memories but also as friends and allies.

All of this is a long way around explaining directly why, on May 1, I propose to begin walking to St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal.

When I became a Catholic in 2008 and took the name Joseph at my confirmation, I really didn’t know what I was doing. But of course, in the context of saints and our communion with them, I had chosen one ancestor to be my special friend, my patron saint.

As I wrote in the previous post, something mysterious had moved me from Thomas (More) to Joseph (foster father of Jesus). But what did it mean that Joseph was my patron saint? What was the nature of my relationship with him?

I didn’t know, but I was willing to learn—and I think that is half the battle in becoming anything new, especially Catholic. So I read and read some more, and the more I read in the lives of the saints and people like them, the more I read of great men and women who claimed a devotion to St. Joseph.

Now, I confess a certain queasiness around the word devotion. It certainly is no Protestant word, and I was a good upstanding Protestant before I was a bowing, kneeling Catholic. But no, I will go further. Devotion sounds positively unmanly.

Yet there it was among the holy men and women who drew my attention: frequent mention of a devotion to St. Joseph. 

St. Teresa of Avila had a devotion to St. Joseph. So did St. Thérèse of Lisieux. So, in spades, did Servant of God Dorothy Day, who is not yet and may never be a saint, but in my admiration for Catholics before me—the way a Little Leaguer admires Hall of Famers—I keep coming back to books about Dorothy Day. She (the lady pictured above) and her story move me.

I am leaving for Montreal on May 1, the same date in 1933 when Dorothy Day and her companions began selling the first issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper on the streets of New York. In 1955, Pope Pius XII established May 1 as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Both Pius and Dorothy chose May 1 because the Communist party had been using it to celebrate “May Day,” and pope agreed with lady that the Catholic Church had done way more, for a much longer time, for the ordinary working person than had any party. So today, we Catholics all honor St. Joseph on May 1, and in 2015 I will too.

You can’t hang around St. Joseph for very long without learning about another member of the family who was only recently canonized. That relative’s name is André Bessette. And he is worth at least one more post, which I promise to write soon.

But here’s the basic story. André Bessette (1845–1937) was a religious brother in the Congregation of Notre Dame, a slim, sickly man so completely without brains or physical ability that he was assigned to be the porter in a boys school in Montreal. As porter, Brother André literally opened the door. He ran errands and did the odd janitorial job. He was, in short, a dogsbody.

But—impossible to explain—visitors were soon asking to see him and talk with Brother André. Visitors to the school believed that André Bessette could perform miraculous cures. He said that this was nonsense, of course. Brother André claimed that people were cured by their faith, not by him. But that didn’t stop him from giving his visitors medals of St. Joseph, or rubbing visitors with “St. Joseph’s oil” (burned before a statue of the saint), or instructing everyone to take their problems to St. Joseph.

“Pray to St. Joseph,” he told his guests. “St. Joseph will never leave you out in the cold.”

This religious nothing, this French Canadian dogsbody, happily referred to himself as “St. Joseph’s little dog.” Others called him unkindly “St. Joseph’s fool.”

The Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal—my destination next spring, which I hope to reach in early June—was effectively built  or at least inspired by André Bessette. The story of how this happened is so wonderful that I will reserve it for another post.

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