High Altar Relief

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 ~ Dedication & Blessing of the new High Altar Relief ~
Cathedral of St. John Berchmans, Shreveport, Louisiana August 17, 2014

Our patron St. John Berchmans was born in Diest, Belgium, March 13, 1599, and baptized in the Church of St. Sulpice the following day.  With his beatification in 1865, a beautiful shrine was built in his home parish, with stained glass related to the life and death of the saint a reliquary with a large, visible relic of St. John, and a high altar relief of the scene of his Last Holy Communion.  

On Sunday, AugusAltar Relief dedication weekend 2014t 17, our new high altar relief, which is based on the one in St. Sulpice, was unveiled and blessed.  For this great occasion, we were happy to welcome the pastor of the Church of St. Sulpice, our patron’s home parish!   “Fr. Felix” was accompanied by a seminarian of their diocese who is from the same town as our patron.Dedication of altar relief Aug 17 2014

On August 13, the anniversary of the death of St. John Berchmans and the old feast day of the saint, they went to the Shrine of St. John Berchmans in Grand Coteau, site of one of the miracles accepted by the Vatican for his canonization.  Their ‘pilgrimage’ to Grand Coteau and to our Cathedral has been a source of great joy for the community in Diest and for their diocese.  They count it a blessing that their pastor will visit that holy site, which they have all heard about but never seen, and will visit the only Cathedral that has him as a patron.

The scene of the Last Holy Communion of St. John Berchmans was sculpted in marble from Macedonia (north of Greece), in a studio outside of Rome.  It depicts our saint as he is about to receive his Last Holy Communion, which was well documented right after his death, in anticipation of canonization proceedings as he had lived such a holy life.

First of all, even before his reception of First Holy Communion, our patron manifested a piety which far exceeded the ordinary.  He reverently served at Holy Mass early each morning, sometimes two Masses in a row.  In all that St. John did, he sought perfection, and he never encountered anything but the highest favor for his services, wherever he was placed.  Such was the humility and profound charity and interior peace which caused the young saint to advance without ceasing on the road to heaven.  Throughout his three years a Jesuit novice in Rome, he gave unceasing proofs of his already perfected sanctity; nothing he did was left to chance, but entrusted to the intercession of his Heavenly Mother, to whom his devotion continued to increase day by day.

This zealous servant of Mary, always ardent in honoring the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, was not content with believing it from the bottom of his heart, but wanted to write a work fit for publication, that everyone should know of this mystery; he promised to defend the truth of it by all the means in his power. He composed a Chaplet in honor of the Immaculate Conception. It was in the following terms that he made this promise, which was found in his own hand-writing amongst his papers after his death: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, in the presence of your dear Son, whom I believe to be truly present in the Most Holy Sacrament of the altar, I promise to Him and to you that I will ever believe and defend, to the end of my life, the truth of your Immaculate Conception. … Nothing can be more consoling during life, than to pass a great part of it with our Lord residing in the Blessed Sacrament; and nothing can be more consoling in death, than to have truly loved our crucified God.” Profound was his love of our Lord in the Eucharist.

The story of his last days is touching indeed; in a residence of several hundred priests and students, there was none who did not follow with anxiety and compassion the progress of his illness, after he had been overcome by a fever.  It became clear that he would not recover.  When the infirmarian told his patient that he would probably receive Holy Communion the next morning — an exception to the rule prescribing it for Sundays only, in those times — John said: “In Viaticum?” and received a sad affirmative answer.  He himself was transported with joy and embraced the Brother; the latter broke into tears.  A priest who knew the young saint well went to him the next morning and asked him if there was anything troubling or saddening him, and St. John replied:  “Absolutely nothing.”

From the writings of Fr. Cepari, who gave St. John his last communion (the scene of the high altar relief): 

A mattress was then laid on the floor, and he was stretched upon it, in the habit he loved so well. The room began rapidly to fill, and none could restrain their tears when they saw the wasted frame of him they loved so well on that lowly bed, and heard the burning words of love which, as if unconscious of their presence, he addressed, now to Jesus, and now to Mary. Towards half-past four, a number of the community and all the juniors issued from the church, walking two and two, reverently and sadly. Father Rector closed the procession with the adorable Body of our Lord.  As they entered, and the blessing of the room and the Confiteor was gone through, Berchmans lay motionless, absorbed in prayer; but the moment the Father drew near to place the Sacred Host on his tongue, then, he bounded up and threw himself on his knees, but his love was greater than his strength, and he would have fallen had not two who were at his side supported him under each arm. And kneeling thus, in face of his Sacramental Lord, he broke forth into a magnificent Latin act of faith, unstudied and unprepared, his voice vibrating with love, which gave it a power and clearness far beyond its natural strength. “I declare that there is here really present the Son of God the Father Almighty, and of the most Blessed Mary, ever a Virgin. I confess that I wish to live and die a true son of our holy Mother the Catholic, Apostolic, Roman Church.  I affirm that I wish to live and die a true son of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I wish to live and to die a son of the Society.”    … As soon as John had received his Lord, he bowed down his head, placed his arms cross wise on his breast, and remained completely taken up with the fervent reception he offered his Heavenly Guest.   Nearby were his little crucifix and his rule-book, with the rosary twined round them.

These unexpected words, spoken with such deep devotion, moved all present to tears. Then he received Holy Eucharist as Viaticum, the food for the journey from this life to the next, and the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, Extreme Unction.

Their angelic, ever joyous and affectionate young novice was called to leave them; no clearer tribute than their tears could have been offered to the reality of his sanctity, his participation in the effusive goodness of the divine nature.

Devotion to his memory spread rapidly in Belgium; already in 1624 twelve engraving establishments of Anvers had published his portrait. He was beatified in 1865 and, after a miraculous cure of a sister in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, was attributed to him, he was canonized 1888. Our parish was established 14 years later, in 1902.

 

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History (by Fr. Peter B. Mangum)

In preparation for the jubilee year celebrating the 125th anniversary of the canonization of our cathedral’s patron saint, I set out August 2012 on pilgrimage to the sites made holy by St. John Berchmans. Having been a student in Rome, I was already most familiar with where he studied, died and was entombed, having prayed there often.  This would be a trip to the places of his childhood in his native country of Belgium: Diest, his birthplace and home till his mid teenage years, and Mechelen, where he began pursuit of the priesthood in the Jesuit order, and where his heart is located in a beautiful reliquary, solemnly displayed for veneration on but the most special occasions. While in the church of his baptism, St. Sulpice in Diest, I was captivated by the beauty of the scene depicted in relief on the high altar commemorating St. John’s reception of viaticum, his last Holy Communion, shortly before his holy death, a scene I was familiar with because it is also depicted on his tomb of lapis lasilie. Before I left that altar I took a quick picture of part of the altar.

iPad 2012 388 1Brief excerpt from The Life of Blessed John Berchmans, by Francis Goldie, which helps explain the scene to be depicted on the high altar.    (fuller account at bottom of this page)

 

“A mattress was then laid on the floor, and he was stretched upon it, in the habit he loved so well. The room began rapidly to fill, and none could restrain their tears when they saw the wasted frame of him they loved so well on that lowly bed, and heard the burning words of love which, as if unconscious of their presence, he addressed, now to Jesus, and now to Mary. Towards half-past four, a number of the community and all the juniors issued from the church, walking two and two, reverently and sadly. Father Rector closed the procession with the adorable Body of our Lord.  As they entered, and the blessing of the room and the Confiteor was gone through, Berchmans lay motionless, absorbed in prayer; but the moment the Father drew near to place the Sacred Host on his tongue, then, he bounded up and threw himself on his knees, but his love was greater than his strength, and he would have fallen had not two who were at his side supported him under each arm. And kneeling thus, in face of his Sacramental Lord, he broke forth into a magnificent Latin act of faith, unstudied and unprepared, his voice vibrating with love, which gave it a power and clearness far beyond its natural strength. “I declare that there is here really present the Son of God the Father Almighty, and of the most Blessed Mary, ever a Virgin. I confess that I wish to live and die a true son of our holy Mother the Catholic, Apostolic, Roman Church.  I affirm that I wish to live and die a true son of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I wish to live and to die a son of the Society.”    … As soon as John had received his Lord, he bowed down his head, placed his arms cross wise on his breast, and remained completely taken up with the fervent reception he offered his Heavenly Guest.   Nearby were his little crucifix and his rule-book, with the rosary twined round them.”

With Bishop Michael Duca’s decision to move the cathedra from its location on the reredos, there for approximately 20 years, to its current location, closer to the people, the opportunity to adorn the new altar to be rebuilt at that location underneath the beautifully restored tabernacle presented itself. After several sketches of a high altar reusing elements of the former cathedra (which itself were from part of the former communion rail) the idea of a commissioned piece came about, and high on the list was the scene of St. John’s Last Communion. Once the feasibility of such a project was determined, three members of our team went on their own pilgrimage to the sites of SJB’s birth and death. While in Diest they met with the pastor of the church and with a sculptor from Rome. Numerous photographs and measurements were taken of that high altar with the thought of faithfully reproducing it for the only cathedral in the world with SJB as its patron.    (Additionally, the pastor of SJB’s childhood church plans to be present at its dedication and to make his own pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. John Berchmans in Grand Coteau, the site of his miraculous appearance to the novice Mary Wilson and her cure, the 1865 miracle needed for his canonization, which was to take place in 1888 by Pope Leo XIII.) While in Italy, researching the variety of marble, the decision was made to choose the solid white marble of Sivec, Macedonia.  Below is a photo of the actual marble delivered to the studio outside Rome for sculpting.

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Watch the progression, from photographs, to sketches, to clay mold, to sculpting of marble. 

 

 

 

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photoExcerpts from a detaphoto 3iled account of the last week of the life of St. John Berchmans, by Francis Goldie.

On August 6, 1621, unaware that Berchmans was not feeling well, the prefect of studies sent him to participate in a philosophical debate at the Greek College. Despite not feeling well, Berchmans obeyed without a word…  With such address, with such proofs of genius and learning did he put his arguments, and yet withal with such exquisite modesty, that, for the mere pleasure of listening to his powerful words, he was allowed to continue his discourse for an entire hour…

The distance between the Greek College and the Roman College is not slight when traversed under a burning sun, the heat reflected back from the pavement and the palaces. The walk, and the exertion of disputing, no doubt aggravated John’s malady; and that night an attack of fever, with a return of diarrhea, prevented his taking any rest.

Saturday morning his fever increased and feeling his strength failing him, he felt he would not be faithful to his rule unless, in obedience to it, he let his Superior know of his illness.  The rector, Father Cepari, ordered him off to the infirmary… The illness progressed…  Another night passed by without any sleep.

Next morning, August 8, being Sunday, according to custom, the Blessed Sacrament was brought at an early hour to the infirmary. John wanted to get up, and prostrate himself on the ground at the entry of his Lord. But he was only allowed to throw himself upon his bed. He received his Divine Guest with great feelings of devotion…  That evening he evidently grew worse, and a third night passed as sleepless as the last two…

August 10, it was decided that if that night brought no evident change for the better, the last sacraments must be administered… Towards eleven o’clock at night, the infirmarian felt his pulse, and perceiving it grew fainter and fainter,

Shortly after midnight (August 11th), the rector found John with his whole heart fixed on God, and ready to set out for heaven. John asked to go to confession.  … With the forethought which was habitual to him, he begged the brother to wash his feet, out of reverence to the holy oil which was so soon to flow upon them. Four o’clock came, and the callers went round to each room, telling the sad news that the Viaticum was going to be given to Brother John. The unexpected news went like a barbed arrow into every heart, and all exclaimed with one voice, “Oh, what a loss we are going to suffer! Oh, what a saintly brother we are going to lose!” …

Father Cornelius a Lapide came in soon after, and going up to the sick youth’s bed, asked him, with a freedom that their intimacy permitted, if there was any scruple, or anything that at all troubled his soul at that moment. “Nihil omnino” Nothing at all, he answered calmly and sweetly…

A mattress was then laid on the floor, and he was stretched upon it, in the habit he loved so well. The room began rapidly to fill, and none could restrain their tears when they saw the wasted frame of him they loved so well on that lowly bed, and heard the burning words of love which, as if unconscious of their presence, he addressed, now to Jesus, and now to Mary. Towards half-past four, a number of the community and all the juniors issued from the church, walking two and two, reverently and sadly. Father Rector closed the procession with the adorable Body of our Lord. As they entered, and the blessing of the room and the Confiteor was gone through, Berchmans lay motionless, absorbed in prayer; but the moment the Father drew near to place the Sacred Host on his tongue, then, he bounded up and threw himself on his knees, but his love was greater than his strength, and he would have fallen had not two who were at his side supported him under each arm. And kneeling thus, in face of his Sacramental Lord, he broke forth into a magnificent Latin act of faith, unstudied and unprepared, his voice vibrating with love, which gave it a power and clearness far beyond its natural strength. “I declare that there is here really present the Son of God the Father Almighty, and of the most Blessed Mary, ever a Virgin. I confess that I wish to live and die a true son of our holy Mother the Catholic, Apostolic, Roman Church.  I affirm that I wish to live and die a true son of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I I wish to live and to die a son of the Society.”

… The words, “Receive, brother, the Viaticum of the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ” were pronounced… As soon as John had received his Lord, he bowed down his head, placed his arms cross wise on his breast, and remained completely taken up with the fervent reception he offered his Heavenly Guest.

When they had laid him down again, he asked for Extreme Unction… The room was then so crowded that it was impossible for those present to kneel down. The storm of grief which had been lulled for a time, began again to rise, and Father Cepari himself could scarcely pronounce the words, so broken was his voice with poignant sorrow. In the midst of all this, John alone remained calm and tranquil, his hands, joined together, his eyes raised towards heaven, all intent on the sacrament he was receiving.

He said:  “If your Reverence thinks fit, you may tell my Fathers and brothers that the greatest consolation I feel is, that since I have been in the Society, I do not recollect having committed a deliberate venial sin, nor am I aware that I have voluntarily broken a single one of our rules, or disobeyed any regulation of my Superiors.” …

John, though so worn out in body, kept his mind as strong and clear as ever. On this the last evening of his life (August 12) there was one thing which struck every one that approached him, that this young man, who always considered himself so thoroughly the last and lowest of all, now spoke with a confident tone of authority as one having power…

“I am sorry, my Lord! I believe, my Lord! I hope, my Lord! I love, my Lord! Paratum cor meum Deus, paratum cor meum “My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready.” …

Berchmans was lying on his back, in full possession of his senses, holding with both hands his little crucifix and his rule-book, with the rosary twined round them. … With this religious preparation, with these continual acts of devotion, wasting away more and more, on the morning of August the 13th, 1621, at eight o clock, being a Friday, with his eyes fixed on his crucifix, clasping in his hands his beads and rule-book, and pronouncing the most sacred names of Jesus and Mary, his pilgrimage came to a happy close, and he gave back in peace his blessed soul into the hands of his Creator, leaving us all edified by his innocent and holy life, and consoled by so precious a death.

 

 

 

 

Father Felix, Father Peter & others Pilgrimage to Grand Coteau Aug 2014

 

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