Every November, the splendor of life at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary comes into spectacular focus. While the beautiful fall foliage appears, the unique special effects happen during four days of celebration with which the month begins.
The first three days are given over to the Forty Hours devotion, so designated for the “period of continuous prayer made before the Blessed Sacrament in solemn exposition.” (At the seminary, it’s more like 55 hours in real time!) The fourth bishop of Philadelphia, St. John Neumann, introduced this tradition in 1853, and it seems to have been celebrated at the seminary ever since.
The devotion begins on All Saints Day, when the glories of heaven’s population are feted liturgically, including the public display of more than 140 relics. The devotion continues through All Souls Day, the “Dia de los muertos” which featured a display of names and photos of deceased loved ones to be remembered. The devotion closes on the third evening with an outdoor candle-lit procession and solemn benediction.
On the fourth day, the archbishop joins the seminary community to celebrate its patron saint. During Mass, he formally admits a new group of men to “candidacy,” meaning they make a public profession of their intention to exercise one day the sacred order of priest. His homily this year focused on the cultivation of “humilitas” — the virtue singularly highlighted on St. Charles Seminary’s coat of arms.
Humility links everyone — saints and seminarians alike — in the truth that we are not perfect. Humility reminds us of who we are before God: sinners in need of divine mercy. Deriving from the Latin word for earth (“humus”), humility keeps us grounded and thereby allows us to see and treat others on the same footing. To cite a claim attributed to St. Augustine: “There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future.”
Unlike the virtues associated with heroic deeds, the “little” virtue of humility can fit into everyone’s life. Opportunities to practice it abound each day. Others often see to it that we know just how imperfect we are!
Beyond the seminary campus, humility can yield benefits for anyone who seeks to live each day well. Long before the rise of positive psychology, St. Francis de Sales wrote about two of them in his “Introduction to the Devout Life”: gratitude and courage.
“A lively consideration of graces received,” he notes, “makes us humble because knowledge of them begets gratitude for them.” In addition, growth in humility also leads to a more courageous bearing with all that happens to us, and even gives us a more daring approach to daily living. “The proud man who trusts in himself has good reason not to attempt anything. The humble man is all the more courageous because he recognizes his own impotence. The more wretched he esteems himself the more daring he becomes because he places his whole trust in God who rejoices to display his power in our weakness and raise up his mercy in our misery.”
That uplifting power is displayed with great fanfare during the seminary’s November celebrations. Yet the real spiritual force happens when we see the sacred in the sublime.
A Forty Hours devotion may be replete with glowing candles, hymnic chants, and all the smells and bells we rightly associate with solemn worship. But what we worship — the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament — comes to us in the material form of bread and wine, elements of the earth in which the Lord humbles himself most profoundly for our sakes.
As de Sales describes it, “You cannot consider our Savior in an action more full of love or more tender than this. In (the Eucharist) he abases himself … and changes himself into food, so that he may penetrate our souls and unite himself most intimately to the heart and body of the faithful.”
In the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, that divine humility is displayed that we might come to adore him, as all the saints now do unceasingly in heaven. In the life of St. Charles Borromeo, that humility is exemplified in the way that this prelate, not-so-learned by academic standards, was nevertheless able to preach and teach with such effectiveness that he ranks among the heroic figures of the church’s reformation.
As seminary days return to their routine, and all of us carry on with ours, a life of “humilitas” remains not only an institutional axiom but a personal aim — for everyone who seeks to be a saint.
Father Dailey is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne.
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