The following address was given by Archbishop Curtiss at the Bishop Frederic Baraga celebration in Cleveland, Ohio on Sunday, Sept. 4.
Frederic Baraga was 71 years old when he died in January 1868 "“ 137 years ago. He was the first Bishop of Marquette. He was the first of many Slovenian missionaries who came to North America in the early 1800s. But these historical facts are not the reason we have gathered to honor the memory of Frederic Baraga. He has a special significance today for all of us with Slovenian blood, and for the whole Church, because of his holiness that developed from his intimacy with Jesus in the Eucharist. This deep relationship with the Lord led him to make a total commitment to the people he served, especially his beloved Indian people around Lake Superior and northern Lake Michigan.
By all accounts, Frederic Baraga was a very intelligent man. He had honed his native Slovenian gifts well through diligent study and academic achievement, including a law degree from the University of Vienna. By the time he was nine years old, he was fluent in Slovenian, French and German "“ one of the benefits of living in Slovenia has always been the incentive for the young to learn the language of surrounding counties. Frederic Baraga would be amazed to learn that English has become the second language of young people in Slovenia today.
Young Baraga had to learn English after arriving in the United States, and he learned it well with an impressive vocabulary. And then he set about learning the Indian dialects of the Ojibwe (also known as Chippewa) and Ottawa tribes. He authored 20 Native American books, including a monumental grammar and dictionary of the Ojibwe language which continues in use to this very day. His prolific publishing efforts helped guarantee the survival of several Indian dialects over the years.
It is evident that Baraga used the isolation of long winter days and nights to learn and then put into writing the languages of the Indian people he encountered. This proved to be a very effective catechetical tool for him and other missionaries, and endeared him to the Indians.
His major impact:
But the long-term impact that Bishop Baraga had on the development of Catholic life in northern Michigan and beyond was not simply the result of his intelligence and his linguistic skills. He was, first of all, a man of faith, a man of the Church. His love for Jesus was obvious to all who met him. He was able to share that love with everyone who came into his life, no matter what their condition or station of life. It was not so much his natural gifts that he perfected that made Frederic Baraga a great man "“ it was the supernatural gifts of the Spirit that animated his life and his ministry, gifts given to him freely and generously by the Lord.
More than anything else, Frederic Baraga was a man of prayer who spent hours each day and night in the presence of the eucharistic Lord. He knew by faith that Jesus was truly present in the Eucharist "“ 'this is my body broken for you "“ this is my blood poured out for you." He became increasingly aware of the Lord's presence in the Eucharist and the total, overpowering love that Jesus had for him. He experienced the Lord's presence. He sensed the power of the Lord's love for him. He spent hours with the Lord, savoring his presence, treasuring the time spent in his presence, quietly, sometimes for hours without a sense of time passing by "“ he would spend three hours at the beginning of each day in prayer (rising at 3 a.m. in the summer and 4 am in the winter) totally absorbed in the eucharistic Lord.
It was this deep relationship with Jesus that made Frederic Baraga such a special catechist and bishop despite the hardship he endured, and his failures and defeats. Nothing ever daunted him because of the love of the Lord that sustained him. He was a man of constant prayer, a man of the Eucharist, a man for others. He preached more eloquently and more effectively by the priest he was, than by his deeds and his many writings.
These, then, were the special natural and supernatural gifts that made this pioneering Slovenian missionary bishop such a special man: a keen intelligence, exceptional linguistic skills, an entrepreneurial spirit as a catechist, and his obvious holiness that came from years of intimacy with the eucharistic Lord. He was very much like another Slavic bishop who, 125 years later, became Pope John Paul II.
Two Slavic Bishops:
two men of the Eucharist
One of the last legacies of our beloved Polish Pope was a fervent appeal to the Catholics of the world to observe, in significant ways, this Year of the Eucharist. He exhorted all of us to reaffirm our faith in the unique presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Because of his personal experience of intimacy with the Lord that developed from the hours he spent every day before the tabernacle "“ just as Bishop Baraga before him had spent so many hours before the tabernacle "“ Pope John Paul II knew that the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is at the very heart of our Catholic faith.
We today, with the whole Church, accept the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist as a doctrine of our Catholic faith because it is contained in the Word of God as attested by Sacred Scripture and tradition. Jesus clearly stated at the Last Supper that 'this is my body "“ this is my blood." In an earlier controversy with his followers in chapter six of John's Gospel, Jesus insisted that he was not using metaphor in teaching them about the Eucharist "“ 'my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him." Many of his listeners found this a hard saying and parted his company. Jesus did not moderate his statements to win them back, and he does not do so today.
This is the reason that the bishops and doctors of the Church throughout the ages have confidently proclaimed the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, notwithstanding the objections and misconceptions which have been raised through the centuries. Frederic Baraga knew well the teaching of the Church regarding the unique presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. But more importantly, like John Paul II a century later, Baraga had a profound sense of the Lord's presence in the Eucharist. His faith was not based on just a cognitive adherence to a doctrine of the Church that bound him to the Eucharist. He had a deep personal experience of Jesus present in the Eucharist, present for him and loving him with an overwhelming, overpowering love that never waned. Frederic Baraga became a man of the Eucharist because Jesus revealed his presence and love for him in the Eucharist "“ he experienced himself embraced by the living Christ "“ his mind and heart and spirit were transformed by this experience.
It was this same experience of the eucharistic Lord that moved the mind and heart and spirit of Pope John Paul II to proclaim this Year of the Eucharist before he died. He will be known always as the Pope of the Eucharist because he experienced himself embraced by the living Christ, just as Bishop Baraga had experienced the Lord a century before. John Paul II was able to proclaim this amazing reality to the people of the world because he was an authentic witness to this truth. Frederic Baraga had been the same authentic witness to the people who knew him in this land in the 19th century.
Wojtyla and Baraga: special
role models for Church
So this day we honor two holy men of the Eucharist "“ Karol Wojtyla and Frederic Baraga. When they are canonized as saints of the Church, all people of faith will rejoice that the Lord has raised up two holy bishops who were intimately bound to the eucharistic Lord. And we the living shall rejoice that we have been given two kindred spirits as our role models who have helped us appreciate the special gift that the Eucharist is for us on our journeys of faith.
It was John Paul II who reminded us that each one of us can also become holy because it is Jesus in the Eucharist who fills us with his holiness.
So, then, let us give a toast now to our two great heroes in the faith: to Frederic Baraga, our Slovenian bishop and saint; to Karol Wojtyla, our beloved pope and saint; and let us always give honor and praise to Jesus Christ our Savior and eucharistic Lord who was the source of their holiness and is the source of our holiness now. Salute!