Feb 19, 2010

Saint in the making: Canadian Brother André to be canonized 17 October

Today, the Vatican announced that Canadian André Bessette, or Brother André as he is more commonly known, will be canonized on 17 October in Rome. Once canonized, Brother André will join St. Marguerite Bourgeoys (1982) and St. Marguerite d'Youville (1990), as well as eight Jesuit missionaries recognized as Canadian saints.

Brother André was born Alfred Bessette on 9 August 1945 in Saint-Grégoire d'Iberville, Quebec near Montreal, as one of twelve children. Orphaned early in life, he worked at various jobs until joining the Congregation of the Holy Cross, where he worked as porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal, Canada, among other jobs. He also ministered to the sick, often by rubbing the sick person with oil, for which he gained a reputation as a healer. He also ostensibly cured everyone in an epidemic at his college.

Word of his power spread, and soon people began flooding to his door. The church was uneasy about his popularity, but Brother André never claimed that he could heal anyone: instead, he attributed the healing to St. Joseph, to whom he had a particular devotion.

Brother André's great wish was that St. Joseph would one day be venerated on Mount Royal in Montreal, which came to be when the Holy Cross was finally successful in purchasing land on Mount Royal on which to build a chapel. He helped collect money to build the church, which was started in 1904, and received visitors there, in addition to "curing" many people. Today, the chapel is part of St. Joseph's Oratory on Mount Royal, the largest shrine in the world dedicated to St. Joseph, and the largest church in Canada.

I visited the Oratory when I was about eight and will never forget its dark and creepy interior: the walls were covered with braces, canes and crutches from people who had purportedly been cured. Worst of all, Brother André's heart was on display, preserved in a jar. Yuck.

According to the Oratory website: "At the time of Brother André’s death, the Archbishop of Montreal, George Gauthier, suggested reviving of a little known custom of the Middle Ages. In medieval France and Italy, when people of note passed away their hearts were often removed from their bodies before burial and preserved as a token of admiration or recognition. The hearts of the kings of France were long preserved in this way. It was therefore decided to preserve Brother André’s heart in a reliquary at the Oratory where it remains as a sign of his continuing spiritual presence among us."

Brother André died on 6 January in 1937 and more than one million people paid their respects. Calls for sainthood began almost immediately: he earned the title of Venerable (which means that Catholics could pray to him) in 1978, and was later beatified on 12 June 1982 (based on his first miracle of curing Guiseppe Carlo Audino of cancer in 1958 -- the road to sainthood is certainly convoluted and strange). A second miracle qualified him for canonization (details?), which will take place on
17 October. His feast day is on 6 January.

Australia's Mary MacKillop, a nun, will also be canonized along with Brother André on 17 October, making her the country's first saint.

Oratory trivia
The Oratory served as the backdrop of the 1989 film, Jésus de Montréal.
More than 2 million people visit the Oratory each year.
The reliquary containing the heart of Brother André was stolen from the shrine on 15 March 1973, but later recovered from the home of a basement in South Montreal on 21 December 1974.

Read the press release from St. Joseph's Oratory of Mount Royal.

I have seen it! (The orant, that is)

Recently, I was cleaning up a box of our things from Dubai and came across a button that I bought at the Vadstena Abbey Church after we completed (well, almost completed, more on this later) our pilgrimage from Söderköping to Vadstena, Sweden in 2005.

The button, shown below, reads "I have seen it!" ("Jag har sett den!") and refers to a small figure painted on the ceiling above the second pillar to the left of the nave of the church. (If you manage to go there, just ask someone to show it to you.)

This type of figure is known as an orant. An orant is a type of gesture used during prayer where the hands are raised and set apart, with the palms facing outward.

My favourite button from Vadstena Abbey Church, Vadstena, Sweden

Photo: Erik Eric Ricknell

The orant is a common motif in early Christian art, used mainly from about the third century onwards, for example, in the catacombs of Rome. The figure is often a woman, sometimes on her knees, with her arms outstretched and palms facing outward.

Nowadays, the gesture is most common in charismatic and Pentecostal churches. It is also an element of Catholic worship and it used in certain types of exorcism rituals.

I cannot help but wonder if this little figure is an orant or a fine example of medieval graffiti. Did one of the fresco painters want to leave his (or her) mark on Vadstena Abbey Church?

In any case, the button is a nice example of effective marketing, and without a doubt, one of the most remarkable souvenirs I have from any church.

Feb 16, 2010

Sigge: St. Sigfrid of Växjö

Yesterday was the feast of St. Sigfrid of Växjö, Sweden, the English missionary and (possibly) archbishop of York who ventured into Scandinavia on a mission to spread Christianity in the 11th century.

King Magnus Eriksson named Sigfrid as the patron saint of Sweden in the 1300s, and according to En svensk helgonkrönika, he is one of Sweden's more complicated saints mainly because there are so many discrepancies between what is historically known about him and the numerous legends surrounding his life, not to mention that there may have been two Sigfrids.

As missionary, Sigfrid was highly successful: He converted King Olof of Sweden (Olof Skötkonung) to Christianity by baptizing him in Husaby in around 1008 (at the time, most of Sweden was still pagan). St. Sigfrid's well near Husaby Church came to be known for its healing powers in the Middle Ages and became an important pilgrim destination.

After the conversion, while Sigfrid was away preaching, his three nephews (the Cluniac monks Winaman, Unaman and Sunaman) were beheaded by pagan raiders, notably Gunnar Gröpe. According to the legend, the heads of the three unfortunates were put into a weighted tub and thrown into Lake Helgasjön.

When Sigfrid returned and discovered the deed, he recovered the tub and claimed that the heads could still talk. King Olof offered to execute the murderers, but Sigfrid convinced him to spare their lives. The king then ordered them to pay blood money to Sigfrid, which he refused.

Sigfrid continued his mission and may have founded the parish of Växjö, Sweden, where he lived until his death on 15 February (the year is unknown). In 1342, King Magnus Eriksson granted Växjö a city charter "in the name of God and St. Sigfrid" ("Gudi till heder och Sancto Sigfrido").

St. Sigfrid is normally represented as one of three bishops on a ship, as baptizing King Olof, as a bishop menaced by devils or as a bishop carrying three severed heads (or loaves of bread, a misrepresentation of the heads).

Statue of St. Sigfrid, Övergran Church. Note the tub containing the heads of Winaman, Unaman and Sunaman.

During the Middle Ages, there were so many pilgrims who visited St. Sigfrid's grave in Växjö cathedral that Pope Clemens V ruled in 1352 that all who visited the church on the feast of the saint would receive a 140 day indulgence (which meant a temporary respite from Purgatory). Undertaking a pilgrimage to the church also gave an extra 100 days.

Sigfrid is still relevant today, mainly in the annual "Siffersmarknaden" (St. Sigfrid Market) held in Växjö each year on 15 February.

According to the Sibbo Swedish Parish's website (the Old Church in Sibbo, Finland is dedicated to St. Sigfrid, or "Sankte" as he is known there), a "Seffrasmessemarken" was even held prior to Christianity in Växjö on 15 February each year (though perhaps under a different name).

Cool fact about St. Sigfrid:

The Swedish pop band, The Ark, also hails from Växjö. They are mentioned together with St. Sigfrid, in the 2010 anthology of music in Växjö entitled Från Sigfridsmässa till The Ark (From the Feast of St. Sigfrid to The Ark.)

Feb 15, 2010

Cranium in Vadstena Abbey Church not St. Bridget's

According to a new study from the University of Uppsala in Sweden, the bones in the reliquary in the Vadstena Abbey Church are not those of St. Bridget of Sweden and her daughter (St. Katherine of Sweden).

In 2002, samples were taken from both craniums, which were believed to have belonged to the Swedish saint and her daughter. Analysis has shown that they most likely belonged to other people.

The oldest cranium dates from the 1200s, and St. Bridget was not born until 1303. The younger cranium is from the period 1470-1670.

(This text was translated from SVT's news feed, 15 February 2010)