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May 17, 2020: The Sixth Sunday of Easter - Pastor’s Corner

Stella Caeli Exstirpavit

O Star of Heaven, who nourished the Lord
and rooted up the plague of death 
which our first parents planted;
may that star now deign 
to hold in check the constellations whose strife grants the people the ulcers of a terrible death. 
O glorious star of the sea, 
save us from the plague.
Hear us: 
for your Son who honors you denies you nothing.
Jesus, save us, for whom the 
Virgin Mother prays to you. Amen.

This Friday May 22nd marks the beginning of the original novena. A novena refers to the “nine days” between Christ’s Ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  After Christ ascends in glory on Thursday, the disciple’s distance themselves from society in the Upper Room and await the coming of the Spirit of promise.  Though the disciples gather in hopefulness, Jesus did not give them any sort of guarantee of how long they would have to wait. Nine days can seem an eternity when there’s no sign of arrival.

         We, too, live in the expectant hope that we will be able to gather together for public worship.  This week, Archbishop Cordileone published a pastoral letter announcing that there is a plan in place to take concrete steps towards opening Masses to the public in the next few weeks.  We have included the full text in the bulletin.  As we plan protocols to ensure safe health practice, we are eager to embrace this blessed moment of public worship.

         In anticipation of this renewal of the Holy Spirit, I am announcing the invitation to join in a novena from Friday May 22nd - Sunday May 31. Our novena prayer will be the Stella Caeli Exstirpavit which is a beautiful prayer used in the time of plague that has been set to chant.  As a community, we will chant this as a hymn during evening prayers and pray it as the conclusion to our Universal Prayers at Mass.  In order to better appreciate it, let us consider its history, tradition and spirituality.

History & Tradition

In 1317, Portugal was devastated by the plague. In the region of Coimbra, the disease was particularly virulent as it ravaged the nearby countryside towns and villages. At the heart of this province, stood a monastery of Poor Clare Nuns that had just been established three years earlier by the Queen of Portugal, St. Elizabeth.  In great fear, the Mother Abbess decided to allow the nuns to leave the cloister and go elsewhere in order to escape the plague. However, on the eve of their departure, an unknown beggar, whose face had an uncanny likeness to the statue of St. Bartholomew which adorned their chapel, appeared at the door. He handed the nuns a paper with a prayer, and instructed them that if they prayed it daily, the plague would pass them by unharmed. The prayer was the Stella Caeli Exstirpavit.  Subsequent historical research reveals that the text is based on a Christmas homily delivered in the 8th century by St Peter, bishop of Damascus. The nuns prayed it and consequently they were spared. The plague soon vanished from their neighborhood. After the death of her husband King Denis, Queen Elizabeth joined this monastery until her death in 1336. (She was canonized in 1625 by Pope Urban VIII). Because of her influence and its reputation for deliverance, the Stella Caeli Exstirpavit quickly spread throughout Europe and was later included in many Medieval prayer books.

Spirituality of “Stella Caeli”

This prayer begins with the radiant greeting to Mary as “Star of Heaven,” (Stella Caeli).  In an age when stars were the original GPS for travel both on land and sea, this traditional Marian image views her as guiding beacon for those who are lost. 

         The prayer then turns towards recognizing her role as the Mother who nursed the child Jesus (lactavit Dominum).  The reasoning of the prayer is simple, if powerfully straightforward: since the child she fed did away with the plague of sin which assailed the soul, her intercession will help end the plague which attacks the body. [There is even a reference to the specific historical context in the allusion to “ulcers of a terrible death” which is a direct reference to the swellings which were one of the symptoms of the Black Death.]

The prayer then draws on traditional imagery of Mary as the New Eve.  In describing Mary as being the one who “rooted up the plague of death” (exstirpavit mortis pestem), there is an allusion to the well-established medieval association of Mary as reversing the sin of the first Mother of all the living.  Unlike Eve who grasps for the fruit of the tree of knowledge (quam plantavit primus parens hominu), Mary cultivates the fruit from the tree of life. Although the fruit of innocent was lost by our first parents, our new Mother cultivates the fruit redemption in her Son.  Mary is the organic gardener of a new Eden.  In sum, Mary is presented a guiding, nourishing Mother, whose Son is eager to respond with health and hope. May Mary, Stella Caeli, bring us from the darkness of this pandemic into the bright radiance of God’s presence and peace.

~Fr. Michael


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