Dear Friends and Benefactors,
Enclosed is a winter VERBUM, unusually in color, in order to share with you a little of the beauty of the magnificent but rare ceremony of the solemn consecration of an altar, because probably few of you will ever be able to attend in person such a ceremony.
The Seminary's altar was no doubt consecrated by the Dominicans when they originally built in 1950 their Priory which is now our Seminary. But when they withdrew from the building in 1970, leaving it to unknown future occupants, they quite correctly took out of the little cavity in the main altar (known as the "sepulchre") the relics of the three Saints, including two martyrs, contained there, which meant that the altar lost its consecration. Hence our ceremony of the reconsecration on All Saints Day last November.
The ceremony was long – some five hours with Pontifical High Mass following, but that is not disproportionately long for the hallowing of an altar on which is to be offered the Sacrifice, the one and only sacrifice that can appease the just wrath of God, and obtain grace and mercy for mankind: the Sacrifice of the Mass. Such a ceremony of sacralizing, or making sacred, is a marvelous antidote to the process of de-sacralizing, or secularizing, or desecrating, which is going on all around us. Our world does not want God? In his place it will have trash at best, and at worst, the demonic. Interesting how Satan brings back sacrifice! Especially the sacrifice of innocents, of children, as we are reliably told by police forces today. Parents turning their backs on the Sacrifice of the Innocent Victim, Lamb of God, may justly see taken from them the sacrifice of innocent victims, their own children. The desacralisation of Mass by the Novus Ordo rite is the main explanation of today's catastrophic rise of satanism. Hence, by way of antidote, the VERBUM in color.
A sacrificed child, or near-child, is one of the three saints whose relics were placed in the sepulchre of the Seminary's altar on November 1, together with St. Thomas Aquinas', patron of the seminary, and St. Peter Martyr's, original patron of the Dominicans' priory. She is St. Emerentiana, foster-sister of St. Agnes, both martyred in Rome in 304 A.D. It was in pursuit of a relic of St. Agnes herself that the seminary obtained a relic of her companion in martyrdom instead. Here is how the two girls gave their life for Christ:
St. Agnes, born around 290 A.D., who was perhaps no older than thirteen when she died – thirteen! – of a noble Roman family, noble above all by the Faith in which they brought up their child. However, not only was Agnes beautiful of soul with her deep love of Jesus Christ and of his Passion, she was also beautiful to behold with a beauty which aroused the passionate attention of a young Roman, Procopius, son of the Roman governor. This young man did everything he could with words and gifts to win Agnes' consent to his suit, but she turned him down on all counts: "My soul lives only for the love of one so noble, handsome, wise, rich, good and powerful that you cannot hope to be his rival. I love him better than my own soul, than life itself, and 1 would be happy to die for him. When I love him I am chaste, when I approach him I am pure, and when I embrace him I remain virgin."
Procopius fell so ill with jealousy that his father Symphronius, the governor, attempted to persuade her in his place. Meeting also with her resolute refusal to prefer anyone to the Bridegroom of her soul, and learning that this rival to his son was no doubt the God of the Christians, he had here the excuse he needed to submit Agnes to all kinds of pressure. He tried threats, he tried promises, to no avail. Finally he told her to make a sacrifice like all Roman girls to the pagan goddess Vesta, or else he would have her taken – fate more dreaded by Christian girls than death itself – to a place of debauchery where she would be forcibly exposed to the licentiousness of all comers. Agnes did not flinch, expressing complete trust in the power of her God to protect her.
Furious, Symphronius carried out his threat. Agnes was first stripped of her clothing, but God protected her with a miracle making the hair of her head grow instantaneously in such abundance as to cover her complete body. (A 20th century reader is tempted to laugh, but if God exists, if He is all-powerful, and if He protects the innocent, where is the absurdity?) Then Agnes was dragged into the place of infamy to be exposed to all violation, but there she met an angel to protect her, with a white dress so dazzling as to illuminate the darkness around her and to convert the young men who came near her. Procopius, in fact, was struck blind when he tried to approach her. Moments later, recovered enough from his blindness to take up again his pursuit of Agnes, Procopius attempted to force his way through the celestial shield surrounding her. He was struck dead at her feet by the angel.
When Symphronius arrived in despair at the news of his son's fate, and violently cursed Agnes as a witch, the saintly girl calmly replied that Procopius had had only himself to blame for seeking to break through her heavenly protection. The governor begged her to prove she was no witch by bringing Procopius back to life. This she did, by her prayers. Procopius went straight out of the house, proclaiming the God of the Christians to be the true God.
When this latest turn of events reached the ears of the high priests of Rome's paganism, they were infuriated, and they so stirred up the populace to demand the death of the young witch that although Symphronius himself would by now have been willing to let Agnes go free, out of cowardice he handed her over to his subordinate, Aspasius, and himself withdrew from the case. Aspasius had a great fire lit, and Agnes thrown into it, but again God protected her, for as her virtue had honored God by extinguishing in herself and in others the flames of lust, so God honored her virtue by shielding her from the flames of the bonfire – they divided around her, leaving her intact, but burning to death a number of the idolaters standing by. As for Agnes, she prayed a prayer of honour and glory to God, like the three young men similarly protected in the burning fiery furnace (Daniel III), and the fire went out, leaving no trace.
However, since the uproar of the populace only grew worse, Aspasius handed over Agnes to be executed by the sword. When the executioner appointed to dispatch the girl turned pale and trembled as though he were the one condemned to death, Agnes gave him courage: "What are you waiting for? Kill this body that I do not want men to look on, and let the soul live, which God is happy to look on! May the Lord who chose me for his bride and whom I wish to please, out of his goodness receive me in his arms." So saying, she drew her clothing around her, received the fatal blow, and even in death veiled her face in her hands.
Her body was buried by the Christians with great joy at her astounding victory over the world, the flesh and the devil, on a piece of land belonging to her family outside the Numa Gate, where today the Church of St. Agnes stands. The pagans were as furious as ever and attacked these triumphant Christians, including a young catechumen still not baptized, Emerentiana, the companion and foster-sister of Agnes. But Emerentiana would not leave the place of Agnes' burial, and standing up to the pagans out of love and fidelity to Agnes, won in her turn, baptized in her blood, the crown of martyrdom, being stoned by the crowd just two days after Agnes had been killed. Emerentiana's body was buried alongside Agnes', and her feast is celebrated on January 23 in our Missals and breviaries, two days after the Feast of St. Agnes. It is a relic from this girl and heroine of the Faith which is now in the seminary's main altar, nearly 1700 years later.
These stories from the history of the early Church are extraordinary. They tell of a different world, difficult for us to imagine, because whereas it was then a world of paganism giving way to an overpowering Faith, now it is the last remains of the Christendom created by that Faith being crushed beneath a seemingly overpowering neo-paganism. Yet from 1700 years ago to today, neither have God, Our Lord or His one true Church changed on the one side, nor have the world, the flesh and the devil essentially changed on the other. Then let us stop and think for a few moments on what it may need for today's church to engender another Agnes or Emerentiana.
Firstly, the power of example. We know very little about Emerentiana, little more than the few facts related above. Surely these tell us she was the first fruits of Agnes' example. Closely tied to Agnes before she died, Emerentiana could not be torn away from her in death. Agnes had been that most vivid of all lessons, a living example, which a kindred spirit found irresistible. None of us goes to heaven – or to hell! – alone.
Secondly, the power of the Christian family and home. Of Agnes herself, outside of the heroic events leading to her martyrdom, we know next to nothing, except that her parents reared her from a tender age in great piety. There is no other normal explanation for such heroism as Agnes showed while barely a teenager. God might create this kind of heroism by a miraculous intervention, but normally such a single-minded love of God, such a maturity of resolution, such a refusal of anything remotely harmful to purity, such an accurate assessment of anything the world has to offer, as Agnes showed, can only have come from a home through-and-through Catholic, in which without a trace of artificiality or exaggeration the interests of God, and of God alone, counted. No dubious pictures or consideration for religious liberty in this home. The teenager can hardly have thought, or been encouraged to think, of anything other than her Lord Jesus Christ and his Mystical Body, the one true Church, and Heaven.
Thirdly, the power of fidelity. With easily most of the martyrs we know little of their early lives. Their glory flares up at the end of their lives, apparently out of nothing. But such glory cannot come out of nothing. It normally comes out of a long preparation of faithfulness in little things, which as Our Lord Himself says (Mt. XXV, 23), He rewards with grace in great things, for instance of being faithful in martyrdom. Thirteen years of little acts, day by day, each noted by God, had brought the grace of Agnes to the point where, in the supreme trial, she never wavered. She inspired Rome then, she has now – despite a recent fire – a handsome Church dedicated to her in New York, and she will inspire Christendom to the end.
St. Agnes, St. Emerentiana, pray for us! As Satan knowing his time to be short, redoubles in fury; as the remaining members of Christ are like torn apart limb from limb; as the lies and seductions of the world seem set fair to overwhelm truth forever; obtain for us that single-minded love of Jesus Christ, trust in His protection, and desire to be with Him in Heaven for ever, as carried both of yourselves safely out of this world and into eternity!
Dear friends and benefactors, pray that St. Emerentiana's relic in the Seminary's altar may help draw down upon seminarians and their teachers the grace never until the day they die to have in view any interests other than those of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and for ever!
We are always sincerely grateful for your support, especially those of you who help us month by month. Nine new seminarians received the cassock yesterday. There should be four new priests ordained here in Winona on Saturday, June 25.
May God bless you and keep you.
Sincerely yours in Our Lord Jesus Christ,
Bishop Richard Williamson