A Star and a Gift: Two remarkable classic movies for the holidays

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington

Each year the Christmas season gets underway with carols and festive songs on the radio, parades, parties, decorations and a host of holiday-themed movies on television. When you think of Christmas movies, certain perennial favorites come to mind, such as A Christmas Carol (1938), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). And if your taste runs to more modern fare, the viewing possibilities become almost endless.

But if you prefer movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age (1930s – 1950s), as I do, you may want to take a look at a couple of short films from the 1940s that, although seldom shown on TV, deserve some recognition and even a little fanfare. These little-known and unjustly neglected films: The Greatest Gift (1942) and Star in the Night (1945), with running times of 11 minutes and 22 minutes, respectively, are guaranteed to warm your heart and put you in the proper spirit to celebrate the birth of our Savior.

The Greatest Gift, as we learn in the opening frame, is based on a medieval French legend concerning monks who, while snowed in during the winter months, dedicate themselves to fashioning gifts they will offer to the Virgin when springtime arrives. When a half-frozen itinerate juggler, played by Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street), is found outside the monastery, the abbot, Father Cyprian, has the poor man brought inside and cared for. The juggler, Bartolomé, was hoping to make it to the winter fair in Florence before the snow closed the pass to Italy, but the pass is already closed, so he will have to spend the winter with the monks.

With the coming of spring Bartolomé prepares to go on his way, but he is persuaded to remain for the next day’s festivities in honor of the Blessed Lady. As the monks add the final touches to their gifts, Bartolomé, intending to make an offering of his own, selects his two best juggling clubs, but Father Cyprian, in his wisdom, tells the poor juggler he will not allow him to give away his only means of earning a living, adding that after all, “a grateful heart is the greatest gift of all.”

The next day the monks process into the little chapel chanting and carrying their gifts – fine candles and fancy candlesticks, beautiful altarpieces and illuminated manuscripts – all of which they lay before the statue of the Virgin. Bartolomé offers a gift as well, but you will have to watch the film’s spectacular conclusion to discover what it is.

In Star in the Night (winner of the Academy Award for that year’s Best Short Film) the scene shifts from medieval Europe to Christmas Eve in the southwestern part of the United States in the 1940s. We see three men on horseback loaded with gifts they purchased because they wanted to impress a salesgirl. As they ride along in the dark, wondering what to do with all these store-bought items, they notice a bright star in the distance and ride toward it. The source of the light is a huge star-shaped sign advertising the Star Auto Court (as motels were called at that time) owned by the cynical, Scrooge-like Nick Catapoli and his virtuous wife, Rosa.

Nick, who thinks the worst of people and hates Christmas, refuses hospitality to a passing hitchhiker, a man who only wants to warm himself by the stove and get a cup of coffee. The hitchhiker espouses peace, brotherhood and love, but Nick calls these things “a lot of baloney.” On this night when everyone should be of good cheer, all the guests display just the opposite. They are discontented because they are thinking only of themselves: a woman complains because the people in the cabin next to hers are signing loudly (they are singing Christmas carols); a man is upset because the shirts he sent out to the cleaners were improperly ironed and one is torn; an elderly couple argue with Nick over getting extra blankets for their cabin.

At this point a young couple, José Santos and his wife María, arrive at the auto court. José asks for a cabin because María is not well. But Nick can’t help them because there are no more vacancies. However, Rosa generously offers them the use of a little shed, a barn, where the young couple can rest. Most viewers, long before this scene, will have figured out that Star in the Night is a re-telling of the Christmas story. What ensues after Rosa leads José and María to the barn is not unexpected, but it’s what happens to all the other characters that makes this little gem of a film memorable and well worth watching.

This Christmas season treat yourself to these two short films and you will wonder why they are not regularly shown on TV during the holidays. Each one is available on YouTube. For The Greatest Gift the website is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6QmDPF-ln8 and for Star in the Night go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXjdBs70syY. Happy viewing and Merry Christmas!

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of St. John Oxford.)

Putting God first

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington

We all know what the commandment says: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3) The text goes on to state in a straightforward manner: “You shall not make for yourself an idol … You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” (verses 4a and 5a) Unfortunately, the Israelites did just that. They built altars to pagan idols and worshipped them rather than the one true God.

In our time we obviously don’t bow down to Baal or any of the other false gods mentioned in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, idolatry (worshipping some aspect of creation instead of the Creator) is pervasive in our contemporary culture. Our society considers practically everything more important than matters of faith. And anything we put before God becomes, in essence, an idol. Think about how our culture idolizes celebrities of all kinds. We put rock stars and sports heroes on a pedestal. The fact that we call certain movie actors matinee idols is especially telling.

What about family, friends, possessions, careers and leisure activities? Are we guilty at times of prioritizing any of these at the expense of Sunday worship? Instead of going to Mass, some choose to stay in bed a little longer on Sunday or perhaps play a round of golf or go to the lake. But because God is, in the words of St. Anselm, “that than which nothing greater can be thought,” we should always give Him precedence in our lives, especially on Sundays. In other words, we should make sure we get to Mass, and then we can do some of the other things, as long as we “keep the Sabbath day holy.” God wants first place in our lives. If we will make Him a priority, He will in turn supply our needs: “Strive first for the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

When we pray the spiritual communion prayer, we say to Jesus: “I love you above all things.” Not some things, but all things. If I say I love God more than anything, I need to prove it; I need to live it. Others are watching, and the last thing I want to do is turn someone away from God and the church because they see that I’m not living out my faith.

Years ago, I met a man who belonged to a well-known civic organization that has clubs in practically every large city in the country. This man was heavily involved in the club’s service activities; it was his life. I know this because he told me one time that the club was his religion. Admirable as his commitment to service was, he clearly had his priorities mixed up.

Some people put flag and country first. It’s right and proper to love our country, but we should never privilege country over God. I belong to a local civic club (a different one from the club referred to above). Our meetings open with a prayer and the pledge of allegiance to the flag, in that order. But that wasn’t always the case. At one point, confusion arose among club members regarding how we should begin our meetings.

After some discussion, we finally resolved the issue by acknowledging that God is paramount. Prayer is always the first thing on our agenda. As is often the case, tradition helps us to get things right. As everyone knows, the phrase is “God and country,” not the other way around.

Daily scripture reading and prayer are other ways we can make the Lord preeminent in our lives. We offer up prayers of thanksgiving, praise, petition and intercession first thing in the morning, at various times during the day, including before meals and immediately before going to bed at night. Scripture study and prayer allow us to enter into intimate conversation with God. Do I sometimes forget one of my prayer times or fail to do the daily readings? Sure I do, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to give up my reading and prayer regimen altogether. The Christian life is a struggle in many ways, and one way this can manifest itself is in our study and prayer time.

If our modern society were to put things in their proper order, God, the source of all good things, would come first; others would be second, and we would place ourselves last. However, our culture usually gets that turned around. What we actually see is the self, the ego, first and foremost; and everything else far behind. Regrettably, the classic expression – looking out for number one – still holds sway. Advertising backs this up by encouraging consumers to pamper their ego, to “go for all the gusto.” So where does this leave God? It leaves Him out of the picture altogether.

How often do we put family, friends, sports and our own wishes before God? It’s difficult for me to reflect on this because I’ve been guilty of relegating God to second place or lower at various times in my life. But imagine what society would look like if we all gave God His rightful place. It would, in short, revolutionize our culture.

As in everything else in life, we have a choice. We must choose between the kingdom of God and the things this world has to offer. Choosing both is not an option because “no one can serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24) As Christians, our desire should be to serve God first, always, and everywhere, because He is, was and always will be before all things. It’s His proper place.

Deuteronomy 6:4-5 contains the schema, the fundamental statement of the Jewish faith: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Practicing Jews still recite this passage twice a day. Jesus expands on these words by showing us how to apply them to our lives: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39)

Keeping the commandment “You shall have no other gods before me” requires that we love God with all of our being and that we put our faith into practice by transforming our selfishness into selflessness. In short, we show our love for God by our love for others. When we give God first place in our lives, we put others before ourselves. That’s the correct order.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of St. John Oxford.)

Sacred reality of the Eucharist

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington

In observance of the National Eucharistic Revival, I offer these reflections on how I came to understand what Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen meant when he said: “The greatest love story of all time is contained in a tiny white Host.”

When I was growing up in the Baptist Church, the observance of the Lord’s Supper was always a special occasion, partly because it was observed so infrequently, but also because of its solemnity. Children knew they had better not be caught whispering or passing notes during this service. Church members believed the bread and grape juice they consumed merely symbolized the Body and Blood of Christ because the service was only a remembrance rather than a re-enactment. Nevertheless, we were always warned not to partake if we knew ourselves to be unworthy.

GLUCKSTADT – Father Ajani Gibson, of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, looks to the Eucharist as Bishop Joseph Kopacz holds the host up during Mass at St. Joseph parish, as a part of a Eucharistic Revival event on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. Mississippi Catholic columnist, Melvin Arrington reflects on the sacred reality of the Eucharist in his column “Reflections on Life.” (Photo by Joanna Puddister King)

My first exposure to the Catholic Church was in graduate school when I started attending Mass with Terry, my future wife. It quickly became obvious to me that the focal point of the Mass was always the same thing week after week: the priest would consecrate the bread and wine and repeat the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper. Then the people would come forward and receive communion.

One day, after having attended Mass several times, I asked Terry, a cradle Catholic, if she had ever gotten tired of repeating the same ritual every Sunday. She replied simply, “No.” But she said it with a slight, almost imperceptible, smile while looking off in the distance, as if contemplating something beautiful. This was more than 50 years ago, and I still remember that conversation. Needless to say, her answer made a deep and permanent impression on me. Now, as a Catholic, I can appreciate why this sacrament is the essential element of the Mass. After all, the one thing Christ asked his disciples to remember was His sacrificial death.

After we were married, we tried to focus on those doctrines baptized Christians hold in common. Unfortunately, belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist wasn’t one I shared with her. But after praying, studying and attending Mass for many years, I finally came to accept this teaching and found my way into the Catholic Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, the writings of Archbishop Sheen, and Terry’s wonderful example of faith.

During this journey I learned that the first-century Christians believed Christ was actually present in the Eucharist. This was not just a symbol for them. Jesus said when we gather to worship He is in our midst. (Matt. 18:20) So, from the very beginning when the first Christians met in homes for prayer and the “breaking of the bread,” they sincerely believed what they were receiving was the Precious Body and Blood of the Lord.

The church has maintained a firm belief in the Real Presence throughout its history. The early Church Fathers taught this, and the teaching largely remained unchallenged until the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Of course, Protestants to this day hold to a symbolic interpretation. But it’s important to keep in mind that during the church’s first 1500 years (75% of its 2000 year history), all Christians believed Christ was truly present in the Sacrament of the Altar.

Growing up, I had learned to interpret the Lord’s Supper symbolically, but the first-century Christians didn’t understand it that way, for one reason because they were able to distinguish between literal and figurative language. For example, when Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11), they realized He was speaking metaphorically because He wasn’t really a shepherd; He was a carpenter turned teacher/preacher. They knew Jesus was using this expression to show how He watched over and cared for his own.

In like manner, when Jesus told Peter and Andrew He would make them fishers of men (Matt. 4:19), He didn’t mean these two fishermen would literally be snaring people in their nets. They must have instantly grasped the metaphorical significance of His remark – that they were being called to lead men and women to follow Jesus – because upon hearing those words the two men left their boats without hesitation and went along with Him.

However, when we come to John chapter six Jesus speaks literally, leaving no room for ambiguity: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life … For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (vv. 54-55) How do we know that? We know because when He explained this pronouncement in greater detail and they understood He meant it literally, many left Him, claiming this teaching was too hard. Even the persecutors of the early Christians took these words at face value because one of the charges they leveled at Jesus’ followers was cannibalism.

Toward the end of this passage Jesus stated, “There are some of you who do not believe.” (John 6:64) We still have scoffers with us today. In fact, surveys show that seventy percent of Catholics in this country don’t believe in the Real Presence. Despite this sad fact, the church’s teachings have not changed. We, like those in Jesus’ day, should take His words in the “Bread of Life” discourse literally. There is no other option. What Jesus said is true because He said it, and He is Truth itself.

As Christoph Cardinal Schönborn has commented, the people do not kneel and the priest does not genuflect “in front of a mere symbol.” He goes on to explain, “No one genuflects in front of a piece of bread. I bow down before God in person.”

The Eucharist, like other “mysteries of faith” (e.g. the Trinity), is difficult to explain, but it’s not necessary to comprehend something fully in order to believe it. Without understanding how gravity works or how light can travel at 186,000 miles per second, I still accept these things as true.

When we approach the altar with bread and wine, two of the basic elements that sustain life, we are bringing gifts that represent our own sacrificial offering. Bread and wine are most appropriate because, as Archbishop Sheen explains, “no two substances have to undergo more to become what they are than do wheat and grapes. One passes through the Gethsemane of a mill, the other through the Calvary of the winepress before they can be presented to the Beloved on the altar.”

In contemplating this “holy and living sacrifice,” I’m reminded of a weekly feature than used to run in a local entertainment paper. The feature asked selected individuals to answer a single question. One week the editors, probably thinking of celebrity sightings, asked: “When have you ever been in the presence of greatness?” One of our parishioners was among those questioned. He gave the best response imaginable: “Every Sunday.”

Like Coca-Cola’s advertising slogan of the 1970s, “It’s the Real Thing,” we, in turn, boldly proclaim that the Eucharist is really and truly the “Real Thing.” It is sacred reality – Jesus in our midst, offering us intimate participation in His Divine Life. And that’s a love story for all time.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of St. John Oxford.)

The greatest gift

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington
Gift giving and the Christmas season go together like trees and decorations. It’s hard to think of one without the other. Adults understand this, but children usually have a different perspective.

When I was a little boy, Christmas to me was all about getting gifts rather than giving them. What was the best present you received as a child? I can still remember a few of mine. When I was in second grade my parents gave me a little robot. It was only about a foot tall, but it was simply the finest Christmas toy ever because it would come alive when I moved it forward and backward by remote control! Another year my favorite present was an illustrated copy of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, a book I still have on my shelf after all these years.

When I was around ten my favorite was a transistor radio. That little Zenith model really opened up the world to me. It wasn’t even necessary to stay home to listen to it. I could take it with me practically anywhere and listen to ball games and all the wonderful music of that era. To my young, immature way of thinking that was the greatest present ever.

But as I grew older those childhood attachments gradually became less significant as the things that really matter began to occupy more of my time and thoughts. Eventually, I came to realize that residents of Western democracies have been endowed with individual God-given liberties that oppressed and/or poverty-stricken peoples around the world do not have. How often do Americans take for granted clean air and water, abundant food, warm clothing, comfortable housing, good health and loving family members? And what a wonderful blessing to have children and grandchildren! Of course, not everyone in our country enjoys these benefits, but a lot of us do, and we should take the time to acknowledge these things and give thanks for them. And most of all we should be grateful for the gift of life itself.

But rather than focus on things received, our thoughts should concentrate on giving during this holy season. This means not only material gifts but monetary ones as well. Everybody has probably received requests for charitable contributions in which the sender lists a series of suggested donation amounts, ending with a blank space and the words “my best gift,” or something to that effect. The amount written in may be less than the minimum suggested donation or it may be greater. Either way, that phrase allows the contributor to set the amount according to his or her own resources.

This raises a question worth pondering: What’s my best offering? A friend of mine likes to say, God sent us His best: His Son and His Spirit. He loved us so much that He sent His love, His only Son, to be our Savior; and He sent the love He shares with the Son, the Holy Spirit, to be our advocate and comforter. Those are gifts that can’t be topped!

The Holy Family also left us beautiful models to follow. Mary gave her best when she said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) What hope would the human race have if she had not agreed to become the Mother of God? In addition, Joseph set a high standard when he responded in the affirmative to God’s call by lovingly taking Mary into his home rather than denouncing her as the law prescribed.

Jesus offered Himself as well. The King of Kings left his celestial home and humbled himself by becoming the Babe in the manger. Then, at the end of His earthly life he sacrificed himself on the Cross in order to pay our sin debt. And now, so that we might have the Divine Life within us He offers His precious Body and Blood in the Eucharist.

So, if the members of the Holy Family gave their finest gifts, why shouldn’t I try to do likewise? Giving of self in service to others is not easy, but it affords tremendous bonuses because the giver receives abundant spiritual gifts in return. As St. Paul, quoting the words of Jesus, tells us: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)

During this time of year many people, unfortunately, suffer from sadness and loneliness. If you are one of these, here’s a suggestion to bring some happiness into your life: do something to help another person. In doing so you will experience the joy that comes from cooperating with God’s plan. Here’s a quotation that helps put service to others in perspective: “Whenever you have an opportunity to do something for someone, do it, because you may be the instrument God uses to answer that person’s prayer.” The chorus to an old Protestant hymn gracefully captures the essence of these thoughts: “Others, Lord, yes others. Let this my motto be. Help me to live for others, that I may live like Thee.”
If we have God’s love in our hearts, it will be nearly impossible to keep it bottled up inside; we will feel compelled to share it with others. Christmas is about giving, and nothing has greater lasting value than the gift of God’s love. The more we love, the more we will want to give of ourselves. After all, that’s the most precious thing we can give this Christmas.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of St. John Oxford.)

Reflections on St. Martin de Porres and racial reconciliation

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington

Martin de Porres, the first black saint of the Americas, knew bigotry and racial discrimination firsthand. Born in 1579 in Lima, Peru, he was the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and a black woman from Panama. He and his sister Juana were socially stigmatized for being of mixed race. For many years their father refused to acknowledge them as his children, mainly because of their dark skin. Lacking his support, they spent their childhood in poverty.

Discrimination based on race has a long and shameful history. Unfortunately, our country appears in several chapters of that history, with our state comprising an entire chapter of its own. During my childhood, there was no meaningful social interaction between the races, so I was blissfully ignorant of the struggles of people of color.

OXFORD – A stained glass window at St. John the Evangelist Church depicts St. Martin de Porres. Columnist, Melvin Arrington writes the column “Reflections of Life,” this week he reflects on his childhood in segregated Mississippi and the life of this very special saint. (Photo courtesy of Melvin Arrington)

I grew up in the 1950s in the Northwest section of Jackson on a little street off of Northside Drive. This was during the era of separate facilities for schools, hotels, restaurants – everything. And this included housing. There were five houses on my street, all occupied by white families. Adjoining my house, the fifth one, was a huge, overgrown vacant lot functioning as a barrier separating whites from the black families that lived on the other side of it. Families on the two ends of the street didn’t socialize in any way; it was as if they lived on separate planets. I knew there were boys my age who lived beyond that weedy field, but we couldn’t play together. That was just the way things were.

As an illegitimate, mixed-race child, Martin de Porres faced a bleak future because of the way things were during his era. At age 12 he had the good fortune to became apprenticed to a barber-surgeon (a person skilled at bloodletting), an experience that taught him about medicine and how to care for the sick. At 15 he had a vision of Mary, who told him to go to the local Dominican friary and ask to be admitted. He did so, and the Order accepted him as a lay helper, the most he could expect given his color and lack of social standing. In 1603, after serving nine years, he was finally allowed to take full vows as a friar.

Martin worked in the kitchen, laundry, and infirmary and also distributed alms to the poor. Always willing to do any menial chore, he was assigned the task of sweeping floors, earning him the nickname Brother Broom. People also called him Martin of Charity because of his love and passion for service. In addition to devoting much time to caring for the sick and the poor, he founded an orphanage, and took on the task of tending to black slaves brought from Africa, because they had no one to care for them. He even set up a shelter/hospital for stray dogs and cats. Martin never judged a person by his race or social class; in looking at someone in need, he only saw Jesus.

Martin had the gift of healing, sometimes performing an instant cure just by walking into a sick person’s room. Like his good friend, Rose of Lima, he often experienced mystical ecstasy during prayer. Other gifts included the ability to levitate and also to be in two places at once (bilocation). It was said that any room where he went to pray would become filled with light. Another rare talent was his ability to communicate with animals. According to one well-known story, he taught a dog, a cat, and a mouse to eat from the same bowl at the same time.

The beloved Brother Broom died in 1639, surrounded by the Dominican friars. All of Lima turned out to mourn his death. Pope John XXIII canonized him in 1962. His feast is Nov. 3. He is the patron of barbers, hairdressers, black and mixed-race peoples, and social justice. This black saint, who endured the bitter realities of racial prejudice and discrimination and struggled throughout his life to bring diverse peoples together, is also our patron of racial reconciliation.

In Oxford, one of the stained-glass windows at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church honors St. Martin de Porres. Fittingly, the window was placed in the southeast corner of the building facing University Avenue at precisely the spot where, in the fall of 1962 (the year of Martin’s canonization), U.S. Marshals lined up to begin escorting James Meredith to the Ole Miss campus. After several failed attempts to gain admission to the University, Meredith ultimately enrolled following a night of rioting that left two dead and hundreds injured. All of this bloodshed resulted from the state’s refusal to allow Meredith, an African American U. S. Air Force veteran and native Mississippian, to enroll in one of its institutions of higher learning.

Our state has made much progress since that incident. By way of illustration, here is the rest of my story. In my early thirties, I accepted a teaching position at Ole Miss and moved with my family to Oxford. One day, while having lunch at a civic club meeting, I met an African American gentleman who was a high-ranking administrator at the University. In talking, we discovered we had grown up in the same city and even in the same part of town! When we learned that we had actually lived on the same street, we were shocked! As a child he had lived on the other side of that infamous vacant lot! We had long ago been neighbors and yet, because of segregated housing, we had never met until that day at the civic club. My new-found friend should have been someone I grew up playing baseball with. As a child, we had been deprived of each other’s friendship because that was “the way things were.” Today, when my friend tells our story, he calls it a “Mississippi story.”

St. Martin de Porres, you taught the dog, the cat and the mouse to get along with each other. Pray for us that we might learn how to treat everyone with dignity and respect and live in peace with all our brothers and sisters, regardless of race. Amen.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of St. John Oxford.)

St. Rose of Lima and the call to service

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington

We know we all have a purpose in life. We are here to know, love and serve God. If we come to know Him, we will love Him. And if we love Him, we will want to serve Him. St. Rose of Lima learned these truths at a young age and took them to heart. I, on the other hand, was nearing retirement age when I discovered them and began putting them into practice.

St. Rose of Lima (1586-1617) was born into a well-to-do family in Peru’s capital city during Spanish America’s Colonial era. Early on, she showed an inclination to the austere life, fasting often and praying constantly. As a young lady she was considered to be very beautiful. But she was so fearful of the pitfall of vanity that, before going out into the street, she would soak her hands in lime and intentionally disfigure her face by rubbing pepper on her cheeks to mar her complexion. At one point she began wearing a self-fashioned crown of thorns because of a deep desire to imitate Christ.

Why perform these excessive mortifications? Perhaps it was an attempt to take the words of our Lord a little too literally when He proclaimed, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out” and “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” (Matthew 5:29-30) In any case, the object was to enhance her spiritual rather than physical beauty. These extreme forms of penance seem strange to us, like the actions of someone who is out of touch with reality. But we can also view them as a protest against the materialism and evils of those times, an era plagued by violent acts of cruelty and the savage lust for gold.

When the family fell on hard times, Rose began working in their home vegetable garden by day and doing needlework, including making exquisite lace and embroidered silks, at night. Many friends encouraged her to marry in order to escape poverty, and her great beauty would have easily made this possible. But instead, at age 20, she joined the Third Order of St. Dominic after seeing a black and white butterfly come to rest on her shoulder, taking that as a sign God wanted her to wear the black and white habit. As a member of the Third Order, Rose was allowed to wear the habit and continue living and working at home.

She greatly admired and hoped to imitate St. Catherine of Siena and chose the great Italian saint as her patron. Like St. Catherine, Rose received visions from God and experienced mystical ecstasy. This aroused the suspicions of church authorities, including the Inquisition. But after theologians conducted an examination, they concluded that her holiness was genuine.

Hoping to live a life of solitude, Rose managed to construct a hut as a little hermitage on the grounds of the family home. There she lived as a recluse, spending much time in prayer.

St. Rose reportedly protected the city of Lima from disaster three times. When Dutch pirates invaded the city in 1615, the fearless young woman stood guarding the tabernacle in the Church of Santo Domingo as the raiding party entered the church. When they saw her there, they returned to the ships and canceled their plans to plunder the city. In two other instances her prayers saved Lima, once from attack during an indigenous uprising and, on another occasion, from damage by an earthquake.

In reading about this saint, I found out that she’s considered the founder of social services and social work in Peru. The term “social services” refers to promoting the welfare of others by providing assistance such as medical care and housing for the benefit of those in need in the community, and that’s exactly what Rose did. During the latter portion of her life, in true Dominican fashion, she added an active component to the contemplative life by roaming the city in search of homeless children, the sick, the elderly and the dying and taking them to some rooms reserved in her parents’ house, where she fed and bathed them and saw to their needs. In fact, that’s the sort of thing we should all be doing in some form or other – serving the less fortunate – either directly or indirectly through prayer and financial support.
At age 31 Rose fell sick and died. She was so highly regarded by the citizens of Lima that during the funeral procession the city’s leaders took turns carrying her coffin. St. Rose of Lima is the patron saint of Latin America (feast day, Aug. 23). Canonized in 1671, she was the first person born in the New World to be raised to the altars.

One lesson we can learn from this saintly life is that faith must be put into action. As mentioned earlier, I came to this realization rather late. As a young man, I spent most of my time selfishly caring for my own needs, with relatively little concern for the common good. Later, after I had a family of my own, I just didn’t seem to have enough free time to pull away from obligations at home to become involved in community service. Only in mid life did I come to understand that I needed to make time for volunteer work. There are opportunities for involvement in every community. In retirement I’ve found mine. These activities are good for the soul. They have changed the direction of my life, and clearly for the better.

In the final analysis, we’re here to serve others, not ourselves. As Pope Francis says, “It is not enough to say we are Christians. We must live the faith, not only with our words, but with our actions.” St. Rose of Lima would wholeheartedly agree.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus at University of Mississippi and member of St. John Oxford.)