Friday, October 19, 2007

Franciscan Priest, Reformer (1499-1562)

Spiritual Bouquet: Be careful to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Eph. 4:3

Saint Peter was born in 1499 near the Portuguese border of Spain. While still a youth of sixteen, he left his home at Alcantara and entered a convent of Discalced Franciscans near Valencia. He rose quickly to high posts in the Order, as a guardian, a definitor, and then Superior of the Province of Saint Gabriel. But his thirst for penance was still unappeased, and in 1539, being then forty years old, he founded the Congregation of Saint Joseph of the “Strict Observance,” to conserve the letter of the Rule of Saint Francis. He suffered great tribulations to conserve that Rule in its integrity. Eventually Saint Peter himself, the year before his death, raised it to the status of a province under obedience to the Minister General of the entire Seraphic Order. The Reform he instituted has since been extended even to the farthest Orient and the Indies; it is believed God ordained that it repair the ravages to the faith of the sixteenth century. The modesty of Saint Peter remains proverbial in the Franciscan Order; never did he raise his eyes to look at the non-essentials of his interior life with God. His fast was constant and severe; he lived perpetually on bread and water alone, even during his illnesses. He devised a sort of harness to keep him upright on his seat during the short hour and a half of sleep which he took every day, for forty years. He acknowledged to Saint Teresa of Avila that this mortification was the one which cost him the most. The cells of the friars of Saint Joseph resembled graves rather than dwelling-places. That of Saint Peter himself was four and a half feet in length, so that he could never lie down; his sackcloth habit and a cloak were his only garments; he never covered his head or feet. In the bitter winter he would open the door and window of his cell in order that, by closing them again, he might be grateful for the shelter of his cell. Among those whom he guided to perfection we may name Saint Teresa, who fully appreciated this remarkable director. He read her soul, approved her spirit of prayer, and strengthened her to carry out her reforms. Everywhere he could do so, he planted crosses, for the Passion of Our Lord was engraved in his heart. Wherever they were to be placed, even on mountains, and however heavy they might be, he went to the destined sites carrying them on his shoulders. From these heights he would then preach the mysteries of the Cross, afterwards remaining in prayer there. Shepherds saw him several times in the air, at the height of the highest trees of the forests. Never did he go anywhere except on foot, even in his old age. He was often seen prostrated before a large crucifix, shedding torrents of tears; and he was found in ecstasy once at the height of the traverse of a crucifix. Saint Peter died at the age of sixty-three, repeating with the Psalmist, “I rejoiced when it was said unto me, let us go unto the house of the Lord!” The date was October 18, 1562; he was kneeling in prayer.

Reflection: If men do not go about barefoot now, nor undergo sharp penances as Saint Peter did, there remain many ways of trampling on the spirit of the world; and Our Lord teaches them, when He finds in souls the necessary courage.

Sources: Les Petits Bollandistes: Vies des Saints, by Msgr. Paul Guérin (Bloud et Barral: Paris, 1882), Vol. 12; Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints, a compilation based on Butler’s Lives of the Saints and other sources by John Gilmary Shea (Benziger Brothers: New York, 1894).

"He was already very old when I met him for the first time," said St. Teresa. She continued: "He was thin and his skin seemed more like the bark of a withered tree. He used to speak only when he was addressed. He had very good sense, and his conversation was amiable and pleasant" These were the words of St. Peter of Alcantara when, after his death, he appeared to St. Teresa of Avila telling her what had been reserved for him in Heaven. She recounted those penances that the Saint himself had described to her when he was alive. For a period of 40 years he slept for only one and a half hours each day. To keep sleep from overcoming him, he used to remain standing or kneeling. When he permitted himself to sleep, he did so seated on a bench with his head resting on a block of wood fixed on the wall. He always went barefoot. His only clothing was his habit and a cape, and often in the winter he would take off his cape and keep the door and windows open to suffer the cold. He would eat only every three days. His poverty was extreme.

Comments of Prof. Plinio:
The figure of this Saint terrifies the new generations. I think that a few words are necessary to explain him.
First, his life proves that man can support much more suffering than one thinks. There are many people who came through the concentration camps in World War II and were reduced to skeletons. Afterward they became healthy and fat again, and still today many are alive and active everywhere in Europe. Second, one can see how mankind is deteriorating today, and can no longer support the same penances that St. Peter of Alcantara in the 16th century willingly took on himself. It seems that the ensemble of mankind is losing its strength, following the general degradation of the universe. The biological make-up, the biological fullness of man is becoming less than what it used to be. Third, one has to understand that besides the great human strength that permitted men of times past to suffer the way St. Peter of Alcantara did, there was also the role of grace. Many of things he did, he could not have done without a special grace, perhaps even a miracle, helping him. Without these graces he could not have led such a rigorous lifestyle.

Jay comment: In his book, "Golden treatise on mental prayer", wrote by St Peter
on request of many lay people, men and women, the Saint in very lovely and amicable style explains very clear that all should be prudent and careful not to damage health and strength of the body in practising external penancies. In this I agree with Prof. Oliveira comments that it was the special grace which allowed St Peter of Alcantara to suffer willingly so much for the love of God. I found it helpful explanation when the want of mortification exists, God Himself sometimes sends different sort of crosses both internal and external to recompense.

Fourth, one can ask why such severe penances as those taken on by St. Peter of Alcantara existed in the Catholic Church. There are reasons for that. Since man was able to support them, it offered a great glory for God that His sons and daughters would voluntarily suffer those penances for love of Him. Also it was indispensable that we have a record of such extraordinary penances so that we might understand how good and merciful God is when He does not ask us to do the same. He accommodates Himself to our weakness and misery. This is a reason to make us more grateful to Him.

Fifth, there is a touching contrast between the grandiose way of sanctity of St. Peter of Alcantara and the little way of St. Therese of the Child Jesus. She carried out the normal penances of a Carmelite nun, which were far from being the terrifying penances of St. Peter of Alcantara. Nonetheless, to die with tuberculosis at age 24 as she did implies a great deal of suffering. To have such an illness that corrodes the human organism in a certain sense is more trying than his great mortifications. But it was a different kind of suffering, a suffering of the little way, a suffering accessible to all, and not those tremendous self-imposed exercises of St. Peter of Alcantara, such as his decision to endure the winter cold in Spain. Many of you have no idea how strong and intense a cold wind in Spain is. He was pleased to suffer it for the love of God.

Sixth, someone could ask me: Are those penances of St. Peter of Alcantara something we should do? Certainly today we arenít call to make those grand physical penances. There is a form of suffering to which all of us are called, a kind of suffering that both St. Peter of Alcantara and St. Therese of the Child Jesus had to bear intensely. It is to endure sufferings of the spirit. It is to carry great spiritual crosses and endure the great sufferings of soul that accompany our apostolate.

I am sure that St. Peter of Alcantara, seeing the situation of the Franciscan Order at his time, suffered a lot. Such suffering was a strong stimulus for him to reform the Order, which he did. St. Therese of the Child Jesus also suffered greatly from living in a Convent where almost no one, including her superior, understood her. This represented a great cross. Also she voluntarily chose to offer herself in holocaust for love of God, which is indisputably a tremendous suffering.

All of us can relate in some way to this kind of suffering, especially if one takes seriously the great crisis that afflicts the ensemble of the Catholic Church. Such sufferings often appear on our pathways. We should support them with patience and joy because to be a Catholic is to be one who suffers. The Catholic who does not suffer is unworthy, his life futile. He does not follow the same path of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is the path of the cross.

These are some considerations that I offer you admiring the penances of the great St. Peter of Alcantara. Let us ask him to help us to support the spiritual sufferings we are called to bear in as worthy and holy a way as he did with his grandiose physical and moral penances.

Today's main picture is by Giovanni Battista Pittoni "The Apotheosis of Saint Jerome with Saint Peter of Alcantara and an Unidentified Franciscan about 1725
St Jerome on a cloud is guided heavenwards by a guardian angel. His hand rests on a skull, symbolizing the transience of earthly life. The painting was made for an altar in the nave of the popular Venetian church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli. The church was run by Franciscan nuns and in the foreground is a Franciscan friar who can be identified as the renowned sixteenth-century Spanish preacher St Peter of Alcantara. He emphasizes the spiritual character of the event, experiencing the vision of St Jerome inwardly. The altarpiece, which was painted around 1725, was originally arched at the top.