Holiness at the Heart of Our Studies

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October 8, 2018 officially marked the beginning of a new academic year at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. Hundreds of students and professors gathered in the adjoining Basilica of Sant’Apollinare to commemorate the occasion with a Mass celebrated by the Prelate of Opus Dei and Grand Chancellor of the university, Monsignor Fernando Ocáriz, which  was followed by an inaugural lecture on “The Christian Ideal and Commitment in the World: Three Lay Persons of the 16th Century”, given by Mr. Luis Martínez Ferrer, Professor of Church History. Each academic year begins with a Mass of the Holy Spirit, in which all those involved in the life of the university are invited to ask the Holy Spirit for the grace to, in the words of Msgr. Ocáriz, “become docile instruments of His action in the Church and in the world”, so as to be led “to the truth in its entirety”, both intellectually and spiritually.

While Santa Croce is primarily an institution of higher learning, it takes great care to ensure that its students receive human and spiritual formation, as well. The universal call to holiness in the everyday circumstances of life lies at the very heart of the university’s mission, and it is with this perspective that all students – whether clergy, religious or lay – are invited to approach their studies.

For this reason, in his inaugural speech, the Grand Chancellor, echoing the words of Pope Francis in the recent apostolic constitution Veritatis Gaudium: On Ecclesiastical Universities and Faculties, spoke of the need to place one’s studies at the service of the Gospel, emphasizing that the “heart of our studies must always be the authenticity of the Christian message” and the fundamental aim to serve the Church and society as a whole. The inaugural lecture given by Prof. Martínez Ferrer tied together many of these themes, presenting the figures of three lay people who left their homelands to spend their lives at the  service of the evangelization towards the end of the 16th century: Catalina de Bustamante, Pedro López de Medina, and Antonio Emanuele Nsakune Vunda, all of whom “lived out the Catholic Faith in an admirable way, as witnesses of Christian excellence.”

Professor Ferrer reminded his audience that the founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaría Escrivá, considered “the laity as active and responsible members of the Church and in the Church, who must pursue sanctification, not at the edge of many human activities, but in fulfilling worldly commitments as a path to holiness.” The lives of the three people he chose as examples from history are summarized here.

 Catalina de Bustamante (born in Spain around 1490) was a Third Order Franciscan who moved to Mexico with her husband. She strove to educate indigenous women to protect them from abuses of the conquistadores as well as for their evangelization. After the death of her husband, she continued to teach young women according to the Spanish family model, based on monogamous marriage and free consent. When she learned of abuses of indigenous women, she went to her bishop and received permission to write to the King of Spain. She even returned to Spain to explain the problems of indigenous women directly to Queen Isabella. As a result, more teachers were sent to Mexico.

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A statue in Texicano was inscribed: “Maestra Catalina de Bustamante, first educator of America.”

Pedro López de Medina (born in Spain in 1527) was a doctor who, around 1550, moved to Mexico for the last 40 years of his life. He was a successful doctor and real estate entrepreneur, married, and the father of five children. Two of his sons became priests and Pedro’s patients included some religious communities including the Dominicans. He founded St. Lázaro hospital for lepers in 1572 and Hospital of the Epiphany in 1582 which welcomed blacks, mulatoes (mixed black and white), and mestizo (European and Mexican). This hospital was also known as Our Lady of the Desamparados (meaning homeless, helpless, or forsaken) and dedicated to Our Lady of the Forsaken.

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In 1582, the Hospital of the Epiphany was dedicated to the Magi, symbolizing the diversity of races it served.

Antonio Emanuele Nsaku ne Vunda was born in the ancient Kingdom of Congo, Africa. Since Congo considered itself a Christian country since the late 1590s, their monarch wrote to the Pope in 1595 asking for his prayers and fatherly protection. The king urged the sending of Spanish missionaries and asked for religious ornaments, tabernacles, and books for worship. Antonio was sent to Rome as an ambassador in 1604, but due to storms and other misfortunes did not arrive until more than a year later. Among the difficulties Antonio faced was poor health. The ambassador’s sacrifices paved the way for Italian Capuchin priests to begin missionary work in the Congo.

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This fresco of Pope Paul V giving Antonio a blessing on his death bed is found in the corridor of the Vatican Museum leading to the Sistine Chapel.


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