2002-08-11 “Give me that old time religion” goes the refrain of a catchy Gospel hymn
August 11, 2002
“Give me that old time religion” goes the refrain of a catchy Gospel hymn. The Catholic Church has the oldest memory: back to Eden, and it does not go into hibernation like Rip Van Winkle with the death of the last Apostle, waking up only in the sixteenth century. We Americans have a rather loose grasp on what “old” means. A building just a hundred years old can expect to have an historic marker tacked on it. We can also forget that there is much of old America north and south of us.
The Pope refreshed our memory on July 30 when he canonized a lay brother in Guatemala. Pedro de San Jose Betancur was born in 1626 in Tenerife, Spain. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was taking root, the Ming Dynasty was in a civil war, Europe was torn by the Thirty Years’ War, and the East India Company establishing its commercial empire. In 1650 Pedro sailed to Cuba as a missionary and in 1651, the same year that Oliver Cromwell lamentably defeated the Scots, he went to Honduras and walked all the way to Santiago de los Caballeros in Guatemala.
Having failed in his studies for the priesthood, he made his profession as a Third Order Franciscan, and as a lay brother he worked as a gardener and janitor. He bought a small house which he converted into an oratory and infirmary. Soon he established the first school in Guatemala and a hospice for homeless men and women and founded the world’s first hospital specifically for convalescents. Until then, hospitals were basically hospices for the dying. The first native order in the New World, the “Bethlemites,” took its name from the “Little House of Our Lady of Bethlehem” which was the dedication of Betancur’s oratory.
As Pope Clement XIV affirmed by declaring him “Venerable” in 1771, his good indicated sanctity, but he is a saint because of his practice to an heroic degree of the virtues theological (faith, hope, and love) and moral (prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude).
Upon his arrival in Guatemala, Brother Pedro kissed the ground and said, “I must live and die here.” Sixteen years later, at the age of forty-six, he looked at a statue of St. Joseph in his “Bethlehem Hospital” and died exclaiming, “This is my Glory.” It is a unique glory of the Catholic Church that she has saints. St. Pedro de San Jose Betancour’s example helped convert the former Governor of Costa Rica, the Duke of Talamanca, who became Brother Rodrigo de la Cruz and took up where St. Pedro had left off. To post-modern Americans, all this was a long time ago. It was only about a quarter of the way back to the Resurrection. But the “old time religion,” lived and renewed in the lives of the saints, is in the words of St. Augustine, “ever ancient, ever new.”
Fr. George W. Rutler