Month: June 2022

The Big Picture

This history column usually focuses on the single “planet” that is our parish, showing how it fits into the “solar system” of our immediate neighborhood. Every now and then, though, it’s good to step back and look beyond our single point of light, to the whole sky and the many galaxies beyond our view that form our universe – and the many cultures and communities that form the wider Catholic Church, of which we are such a small part. And in that, Sister Gertrude Borres is our key!

Sister Gertrude, of the Religious of the Assumption – in the convent across the street from the church – was named Director of the Archdiocesan Office for Pastoral Care for Migrants and Refugees in 2019 – just before the Covid pandemic hit — and has been working steadily ever since, through crisis after crisis, with different waves of immigrants and migrants. Her mission is two-fold: working with Catholic Social Services to connect people with resources to take care of their physical needs (loss of jobs, healthcare during covid, documentation, etc.), and, also, to help people feel welcomed by recognizing that “language, culture, and customs are important” and it’s vital to “nurture faith as lived.” Her office currently supports chaplains saying Mass in seventeen different languages other than English or Spanish – and embraces the rich diversity of customs and traditions that anchor and enrich Catholic experiences around the world – from Asia and the South Pacific to Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

How has our parish intersected with Sister Gertrude’s work?

As the Afghan crisis unfolded, Sister Gertrude says, when Catholic Social Services welcomed about fifty Afghans arriving in Philadelphia, her role was to support and help with resettlement. When a family who moved to our neighborhood wanted to send their children to St. Francis de Sales School, she went to Father Eric, who went to Sister Mary McNulty, and among them, they arranged for this to happen. Parishioners contributed to help cover tuition. The parents then needed to learn English, so Sister Kathy Benham, IHM, was also looped in, and the parents began to attend English as a Second Language classes at the IHM Literacy Center.

Ukraine is currently immersed in an ongoing war and conflict. The Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy is Orthodox Catholic and has its own support organization, so Sister Gertrude’s efforts have focused on spiritual solidarity and the understanding that there is little we can do physically to help, but “it strengthens them to know that people are praying for them.” The Zoom Novena Pilgrimage that just ended – a joint effort with the local Ukrainian Church, in which, each night, participants learned the story of one city and the impact of war – cultivated empathy for people in Ukraine who, she notes, in their suffering, “are experiencing the passion of Christ.” The Taizé Prayer Service at our parish, at the end of the novena, strengthened the newly-forged bonds with the Ukrainian community and the sense of sharing in the same mission.

On World Communications Day, Pope Francis compared the church to a choir, in which “unity does not require uniformity, monotony, but the plurality and variety of voices…” He hopes to “rediscover a symphonic Church, in which each person is able to sing with his or her own voice, welcoming the voices of others as a gift to manifest the harmony of the whole that the Holy Spirit composes.” Sister Gertrude who is herself a migrant, born and raised in the Philippines, feels that the role of her office is to “make the big church closer to the migrants and refugees.” Here at SFDS, she would like to “open us to not only our little world but to the universality of the church and our parish mission expressed right there in our title, as ‘United by the Most Blessed Sacrament’!” Let the dialogue begin!

Gender Bender

71. St. Francis de Sales

We come to thee, O happy Saint

To claim thy care and love,

To beg thy guidance through this life,

To endless bliss above.

Chorus

Oh, pray for us, St. Francis,

For dangers hover near;

Oh pray for us, St. Francis,

To conquer every fear.

While in the rosy bloom of youth,

To God thy soul was given,

And true, through life, thy spotless soul

‘Mid suffering soared to heaven.

Thy purity has won for thee

A crown of fadeless light;

Oh, may its beauty shine on us

And cheer the gloom of night.

              The verses above are from a hymnal printed for SFDS by the Catholic Standard in 1926, under the direction of Rev. Charles McGinley who was the Director of the women’s BVM Sodality organization at the time.

              The words to the hymn are somewhat peculiar for our Patron Saint – particularly the second verse, about “the rosy bloom of youth” and the suffering of a spotless soul. Saint Francis de Sales wasn’t tortured or martyred; he became the Bishop of Geneva in 1602 and died peacefully of a heart ailment at what was then a respectable age of 55. It seems odd that the hymn doesn’t reference his patient efforts to keep the faith alive during the Protestant Reformation; his advice on the Devout Life or his other inspirational writings (“We shall steer safely through every storm, so long as our heart is right, our intention fervent, our courage steadfast, and our trust fixed on God. If at times we are somewhat stunned by the tempest, never fear. Let us take breath, and go on afresh“); or his designation as patron saint of journalists and the deaf (a role Pope Francis is now highlighting).

              Curiously, an internet search finds the same song used to honor Saint Charles Borromeo in Monterrey, CA in 1914: “…then all the people form a long procession. In the center is carried the statue of San Carlos, and, while the choir sings the Hymn to San Carlos, they march slowly around the church… ‘We come to thee, O happy Saint/ To claim thy care and love,/ To beg thy guidance through this life,/To endless bliss above…’” Here, too, the words don’t fit the life of that 16th century Bishop known for founding seminaries.

              Hymnary.org, which tracks different versions of hymns printed over time, provides an answer. Its first recorded instance of the verses, is as a Hymn to St. Agatha, “dedicated to St. Agatha’s Sodality by a member” in 1872 and popular from 1872 to 1935. Ah, now it all fits! St. Agatha made a vow of virginity in rosy youth; kept her purity, through the suffering of torture and imprisonment; and soared to heaven to claim a martyr’s crown, around the year 251 AD.

              So why was the hymn repurposed? Since saintly feast days fall once a year, usually on a weekday, there hasn’t been much call for special songs – surprisingly, even for use in the annual Forty Hours or for institutions named for saints. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy, now working on a new English language breviary, notes that music has existed for a number of saints but “Many of the nearly 300 Latin hymns, some dating back to the early centuries of the Church, have never had an official English translation…” If a need arose for an anthem, churches improvised. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has now approved the Green Book of the hymns of the Proper of Saints, so more official songs could eventually be available in English, but here’s a challenge and an opportunity for our own parish tribute to our patron St. Francis de Sales!