March 23, 2014

Blessed Mark of Aviano

Feast Day : 13 August

Bad Timing?

When it was announced that Blessed Pope John Paul II would beatify the Capuchin Venerable, Brother Mark of Aviano, many Western media commentators thought such a move was not only badly timed, but also a potentially controversial provocative action. Two years after Nine-Eleven and the American-led War on Terror, aimed mainly at Islamic militants, that ensued, beatifying the man who played a decisive role in organizing a Christian army to lift the Siege of Vienna on the 12th of September 1683 seemed to some to smack of the Catholic Church taking the side of Western powers set against the expansion of Islamic militant fanaticism and the growing influence of Muslim immigrants in many European nations. In response to this, the Vatican made clear that the undeniable historical role that Brother Mark played in uniting Christian rulers to defeat the Turkish forces who had besieged Vienna as the strategic gateway to Western Europe should be in no way be seem as an attack on Islam as a religion or some sort of ‘preemptive crusade’. Church officials went on to insist that Brother Mark had only helped the people of Vienna and of Austria and Hungary in general defend themselves against an aggressor, who happened to be the Ottoman emperor of the time. They added that insofar as Brother Mark’s beatification had a message for modern times, it was not as such an anti-Islamic one but rather a call for Europeans to recognise their common Judaeo-Christian religious heritage. But even this was not, in fact, the reason why Brother Mark of Aviano was being beatified. The main reason why he was being beatified was because he, like other Saints and Blesseds, had led a life of genuine holiness, and because certified posthumous miracles confirming that holiness had been worked through his intercession. 

A Truant Teenager Joins the Capuchins

Brother Mark had joined the Capuchins one year after finding shelter in one of the Order’s Friaries while running away from school to join Venetian forces fighting the Turks in Crete. The Guardian of the Friary not only provided the sixteen year old adventurer with food and lodging but also with wise counsel, urging him to return home to his  father and mother. His parents, Mark Cristofori and Rose Zanoni were a well-off middle class couple who had ten other children. When the future Brother Mark was born at Aviano on the 17th of November 1631, his parents had him christened Charles Dominic. After they had provided him with a basic education at home, they enrolled young Charles Dominic in the Jesuit College of Gorzia. It was from this college that Charles Dominic Cristofori ran away to war. While on the run, hungry and exhausted, he ended up knocking on the door of the Capuchin Friary in Capodistria in search of food and lodging. Despite his returning home following the advice of Capodistria’s Brother Guardian’s advice, he ended up joining the Capuchins a year later. He was received into the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor as a novice in September 1648 and one year later made Perpetual Profession on the 21st of November 1649 taking the religious name Brother Mark of Aviano. After Profession he spent a year of work and prayerful reflection to prepare for further studies. For a while, however, it looked like his dream of being ordained to preach would never be realized because of his failure to pass the necessary Seminary entrance examination. He seemed like he would have to settle for being a ordained a simple Mass priest without faculties to hear confessions or preach, but, after the General Minister made a visitation of the Province in 1653 and met Brother Mark, he devised a special course of studies to enable Brother Mark to receive the necessary faculties for preaching and hearing confessions. And so Brother Mark of Aviano was able to be ordained a priest in 1655 and he immediately threw himself with all the zeal he could muster into the ministry of preaching.

Hearing the Word of God in Prayer! 

The main reason why Brother’s Mark’s preaching was a resounding success, is that his sermons were thoroughly imbued with the Word of God. The Word of God was the secret of his oratory. In reading and meditation, he heard the scriptural Word of God; in prayer and contemplation he encountered that Word personally in Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh. To paraphrase the words of the early Capuchin Constitutions, he came to ‘imprint the Blessed Jesus’ on his ‘own heart’ so that it was Jesus Who moved him ‘to speak from the fullness of love.’ In fact, almost all his time not devoted to preaching was given over to prayer. After a hard day’s work preaching, he seldom slept much but would usually remain in the choir until 10 at night.  After about two hours rest in his cell he would be among the first Brothers to rise at midnight and go to the choir for Matins. Afterwards, taking care not to wake his sleeping confreres, he would quietly return to the choir carrying his sandals in his hands and there would remain alone praying to the Lord until morning. Nor did he cease praying once a new work day had begun but, according to witnesses, ‘he kept his heart continually raised up to God’, even in the midst off distracting activities. After his preaching journeys, he loved to return to his cell, ‘there to give himself completely to God and be inflamed anew with the divine love. He prepared thoroughly for his celebration of Mass and so great was his devotion to the Holy Sacrifice that it was infectious. Witness tell us that ‘when he stood at the altar, he inspired everyone with his fervour.’ His Masses frequently lasted an hour and a half and at the Consecration he often seemed to be rapt in ecstasy. He also had a deep personal devotion to Our Lady and would urge others to invoke her powerful help with great confidence. 
Sharing the Word of God in Preaching !

 Thanks to his deep prayer life, Brother Mark became ‘inflamed like the Seraphim’, so that on fire himself he might in turn inflame others. And inflame them he did, as this contemporary account of his preaching clearly implies. ‘His sermons were wonderful and his discourse so well ordered, so pleasing and persuasive that even when he spoke at great length no one grew tired of listening; we were unaware of the time when hearing him speak. He spoke rapidly and seemed to pour out streams of divine eloquence.... He did not indulge in the modern fad of using metaphors and similar devices.... His sermons were consistent and well balanced.’ He preached with such emotion that even his own eyes would well up with tears. The people who thronged to listen to him hung on his every word and gesture as he raised his handheld crucifix aloft and urged the congregation to be detached for the things of this world, repent of their sins and seek God’s mercy and forgiveness. They reacted by cries for mercy, weeping and striking their breasts. Even when he preached in Germany and other places in Europe without knowing the local language the congregation, huge congregations would listen attentively, moved more by the evident sincerity with which he preached than the actual meaning of his words. 

Doing the Word of God in Healing!

On September the 8th 1676. a miracle, the first of many, occurred and Brother Mark’s popularity ratings went through the roof. On that date, he blessed a nun in Padua who had been confined to bed with illness for thirteen years and she was instantly cured. When word of this miracle spread abroad, crowds flocked to wherever he was staying in search of his blessing and miraculous cures. Even when he was changed to more isolated country Friaries crowds followed him there too, much to the chagrin of his confreres who were greatly inconvenienced by the throngs. Miracles multiplied everywhere as a result of Brother Mark’s blessing, but he was not one to stop at healing bodies only. 

He devised a way of turning this gift or charism into a moment of evangelisation by preaching ferverinos on the act of contrition. These talks gradually came to have a form of their own and ended up becoming dialogues between the preacher and the congregation. Fired up, he would urge them to express their faith and trust, their sorrow and repentance, and they would respond with pleas to God for mercy often weeping and striking their breasts. These ferverinos would always end with a common recital of a sincere act of contrition. Brother Mark, who soon became known as the ‘Apostle of the Act of Contrition’, would also distribute leaflets and holy cards explaining the act of contrition which he himself produced and had printed to encourage this devotion. After this, would come the blessing, as a result of which huge numbers of sick and disabled people were physically cured immediately. In 1681, for instance, 150 crutches, 80 walking sticks and numerous other orthopedic devices were left behind in the Munich’s Capuchin church as evidence of Brother Mark’s healing powers. Spiritual healing also was not lacking and this occurred above all in the Sacrament of Reconciliation after his preaching. Often when the number of confessors was insufficient, confessions went on for hours on end. Brother Mark’s preaching and other efforts also brought about public reconciliations of feuding families and often he would plea for those who were being treated unjustly or for those whose lives were in danger from persecutions and institutional violence. For instance, he mediated between the Christians and Jews of Padua in 1684 and, during the siege of Belgrade, in 1688, his pleas for mercy for captured Muslim enemy soldiers resulted in their lives being spared. 

Brother Mark of Aviano’s Personality

 So, what was the heroic Brother Mark of Aviano like as a human being and ordinary Capuchin Brother? Witnesses tell us that he was full of compassion for those in any kind of need, It is said that he would supply bread to the poor whenever there was a food shortage and that he was ever ready to go to the bedside of the sick to encourage and console them. He was by nature a rather shy man, and humility and modesty marked all his dealings with others. Yet in times of crisis, he could be decisive and proactive when fulfilling his diplomatic missions to the Royal Courts of Europe. Capuchin Brothers who lived with him say he was kindhearted, tender, friendly and courteous to everyone. One Capuchin Guardian wrote: “anyone who saw his friendly face felt happy.”

Despite his keen intelligence, he never forgot that he once had been excluded from studies and some Brothers continued to misconstrue his shyness and submissive attitude as signs of inherent stupidity. To them he was just an ordinary good-living religious. Even after the gift of miracle-working was bestowed on him, some wondered why God had not shown poor judgement in choosing Brother Mark. Brother Mark himself found the public adulation more embarrassing than endearing, once remarking to a companion as he fended off relic-hunters who wanted to snip off parts of his habit that he would rather they skinned him alive. Despite his ever-increasing fame for holiness, vainglory was never one of Brother Mark of Aviano’s personal flaws. Immune as he was to vainglory and pride, he was not immune to suffering and illness. Sometimes after long and exhausting journeys across Europe on foot, his feet hurt so severely that he required periods of rest and convalescence. Exhaustion and a natural inability to cope with extreme heat in Summer often plagued him especially in his later years. In fact, these may well have brought on the fever that, in the end, claimed his life in August 1699. This fever was exacerbated by stomach ailments and other complications. After his holy death, the Holy Roman Emperor himself took charge of Brother Mark’s funeral arrangements and gave him a state funeral for he had been instrumental in saving the Empire and Western Europe generally from being overrun by the Ottoman Turks.

More Alliance Builder than Coffee Brewer

Brother Mark’s role in the 1683 Battle of Vienna is legendary. According to some urban myths even the coffee drink Cappuccino derives its name, which means Capuchin, from the fact that the he mixed warm milk and honey with the bitter-tasting strong coffee abandoned by Turkish troops as they fled from the battlefield. It seems, however, that the Cappuccino coffee actually derives its name from the fact that its brown colour was similar to that of the Capuchin habit.  While Brother Mark of Aviano may not have been the actual inventor of the now world-famous coffee beverage, the decisive role he played in driving Turkish forces back from Vienna is an undisputed historical fact. Among the powerful political contacts and personal connections maintained by this fiery Capuchin preacher, counsellor and diplomat, we find Charles V, Duke of Lorraine and Governor of Tyrol, together with his wife Eleanor, William-Philip, the Duke of Neuburg and his son John-William, the Elector of Bavaria, Maximilian-Emmanuel and his uncle Maximilian-Philip, Anne-Elizabeth of Lorraine, the Princess of Vaudemont, Princess Mary-Ann-Christina of Bavaria, Dauphiness of France, King Charles II of Spain and his second wife Queen Marianne of Neuburg, and especially King John III Sobieski of Poland, Emperor Leopold I and several members of the Imperial Court. His complex relationship with such personages was to serve him well as at the Pope’s command he forged a grand alliance of Christian rulers. This grand alliance, called the Holy League, was established to lift the siege of Vienna and defend Western Europe against incursions from Turkey’s Muslim Ottoman Empire. Brother Mark successfully used his diplomatic influence and powers of persuasion to bring these disparate forces together and resolve the inevitable jealousies and infighting among the allies. He was able to persuade Austrian Holy Roman Emperor to cede overall command of the relief forces to John III Sobieski, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. This was because The Polish King would not join the League without himself having overall command. On the 12th of September 1683, the Christian forces under the Sobieski’s command managed to surprise the Turks who had being laying siege to Vienna for two months at that stage and rout them for once and for all. 
Yet Brother Mark did not directly participate in the battle but rather stayed praying in a little chapel on the hill of Kalenburg which overlooked the battle scene. His role seems to have been of one of bringing together heterogeneous armies and forging a well-oiled war-machine, mediating between commanders with different views on how to proceed and raising the troops morale by assuring them of victory and urging them to pray. From 1683 to 1689 he continued to participate in the military campaigns that followed the lifting of the Siege of Vienna by promoting good relations within the Imperial army and helping the soldiers spiritually and materially. His assistance helped to bring about the liberation of Buda in 1686 and Belgrade in 1688. The war ended with the peace treaty of Karlowitz in January 1699. Vienna’s citizenry and the Austrian Emperor Leopold II were very grateful to Brother Mark for his decisive role in defending the city. Their deep sense of gratitude was illustrated by the actions of the Emperor when the saintly Capuchin died some six months afterwards. He himself took charge of Brother Mark’s funeral arrangements and insisted on his having a tomb in the Capuchin Church alongside the tombs of the Austrian Imperial Family.

Courageous in Battle, Magnanimous in Victory

Though Brother Mark was convinced of the need to take up arms to defend Christian Europe from being overrun by Turkish forces and Islamised as a result, he also knew how to be merciful and magnanimous in victory. He used his influence to guarantee the safety of hundreds of Muslim soldiers who appealed to him personally after the Christian forces captured Belgrade. Indeed, mercy and magnanimity were hall marks of Brother Mark of Aviano’s personality and Capuchin ministry. A spirit of magnanimity and generosity marked his main Capuchin apostolate of preaching and healing. He was always available to those who thronged to him in search of healing and thirsting for the Word of God. And his devotion to mercy is best illustrated by his unique promotion of the act of contrition to prepare people’s hearts to receive the forgiving mercy of God. Blessed Mark of Aviano has been rightly called the Apostle of the Act of Contrition. 

"O God, Marvel of those devoted to You, I do not deny for one moment that if You were to weigh my many evil deeds on the scales of justice, nothing would await me but eternal darkness and the deep abyss. But You, O Lord, harbour other intentions and Your Mercy is preponderant so as to consign Your just anger to last place. I used to glory in declaring myself Your enemy. You, however, have not only pardoned my every fault but You have counted me as one of Your children and promised me the Kingdom of Heaven as an inheritance which You have prepared for me. This is an excess of divine liberality by which my soul is so flooded with joy that it is able to express nothing except thanks and gratitude to You, O God." - Blessed Mark of Aviano

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