St John of the Cross (Juan de la Cruz, above) was born today in 1542, near the town of Ávila, in Old Castile. A major mystic of the Church, and a leading figure in reforming monastic life in Spain, he co-founded the Discalced (‘shoeless’) Carmelites with St Teresa of Ávila, his fellow mystic. John’s poetry, including his poem ‘Dark night of the soul’ (La noche oscura del alma), explores mystical prayer, describing the progress by which the soul sheds its attachment to the world through the experience of Christ’s passion and exaltation. He is regarded as one of the greatest Spanish poets.
Upon an obscure night,
Fevered with love in love’s anxiety,
(O hapless-happy plight!)
I went, none seeing me,
Forth from my house where all things quiet be.
St John of the Cross, La noche oscura del alma, translated by Arthur Symons
Six children and young teenagers reported seeing visions of the Virgin Mary at Medjugorje, in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, while they were walking back to their village today in 1981. Fourteen year-old Ivanka was the first to see the figure, and testimony from the whole group described her as having black hair, blue eyes, a small nose, rosy cheeks, and wearing a simple blue-grey dress and veil that fell all the way to the small, white cloud on which she was standing. The visions turned the small village of Medjugorje into a major pilgrimage destination, but they have been variously criticised as being a hoax, a religious illusion, or a throwback to a more traditional form of Catholicism.
Today is the traditional birthday of another St John, ‘The Baptist’, as he was known. The cousin and forerunner of Jesus, he ‘wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey,’ according to Mark and Matthew’s Gospels. He baptized Jesus in the River Jordan, and famously said of him, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’
Today in 1559, Protestant worship was restored to the Church of England after Queen Mary’s five-year Counter-Reformation. The Act of Uniformity introduced by the incoming Queen Elizabeth I put in place a new Prayer Book which retained various Catholic rituals and priestly garments to make it easier for traditionalists to swallow (and harder for Puritans).
The English explorer Francis Drake, newly arrived on the coast of California, held a service from the Book of Common Prayer today in 1579, St John the Baptist’s Day. The service, read by Drake’s chaplain, was the first use of the Prayer Book in the Americas.
On this day in 1967, Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Sacerdotalis Coelibatus (‘Priestly celibacy’), insisting that Catholic priests should be celibate, and regarding celibacy as a ‘brilliant jewel’ guarded by the Church for centuries.
‘It is not right to continue repeating that celibacy is against nature because it runs counter to lawful physical, psychic and affective needs, or to claim that a completely mature human personality demands fulfillment of these needs. Man, created to God’s image and likeness, is not just flesh and blood; the sexual instinct is not all that he has…’ Sacerdotalis Coelibatus
Image: Lawrence OP