More Than Just Us

In his April 19th homily at Domus Santa Marta Pope Francis talked about our paternity in relation to God. He said that no one is an orphan, but we risk becoming one by closing our hearts and not letting ourselves be drawn by the love of God.[1]

God is always here, always urging us forward on the path to home; always showing us the way; but we need to allow His help to guide us.  It takes two to bring us to heaven; He is doing His part, how about us? And this has more impact than on just us.  Our response to our Father does more than just help us home; it helps others as well.

In the readings today we see that Elijah implores God to bring life back to a young man.  Elijah’s persona, known to the young man’s mother, was one of holiness; but at a moment of crises she doubts and blames Elijah. Elijah reaction is one of calmness, patience, acceptance of his situation, and total submission to the will of God. The outcome was an amazing witness of the love of the Lord – the boy was brought back to life. “Now indeed I know that you are a man of God. The word of the Lord comes truly from your mouth.” [2] the mother exclaims to Elijah. God didn’t favor Elijah for his own sake, didn’t even favor the dead boy for his own sake – no, God worked through Elijah and the boy to bring His Gospel of Love to more people, to the multitudes.

Saul of Tarsis, the vicious pursuer of Christians was shown a great act by God, and he was converted. But this act was more than just God working on one man to change him. Through this great miracle of blinding and curing the whole Mediterranean region is awakened to the Gospel. St. Paul tells the Corinthians about this miracle: ‘For I did not receive it from a human being, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.’[3] He told them, not to brag about his gift from God, but spread the gift to those he met. God didn’t work on Saul for his own sake – no – God changed Saul to Paul so others would be made aware of the Gospel of love.

Christ, also, went about performing signs and wonders; not so much to heal and cure those He helped, but more so to announce with these signs the wonderful news that lay behind His actions.  God brought the young man back to life; and the crowd – well: ‘they glorified God, crying out “A great prophet has arisen in our midst, “and “God has visited his people.”’[4]  And their surprise and wonder and joy didn’t end in the city of Nain; ‘This report about him spread through the whole of Judea and in all the surrounding region.’[5]

Elijah and St. Paul both could have gone another way. They could have hedged their bets with this unseen God and not thrown their whole beings into serving Him; but they didn’t, they let themselves be drawn by the love of God[6]. Brothers and sisters, their part of this ongoing story has ended here on earth; it is now our part in the story.  Do we sit back deaf and blind to the actions of God around us so that we aren’t responsible for our part in His family; or do we follow the examples of Elijah and St. Paul and the countless other saints throughout history and allow God to work through us to bring the saving news of His love to those around? Orphans don’t have familial responsibility – but we do.

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[1] April 19th Homily at Domus Santa Marthae by Pope Francis – as reported in L’Osservatore Romano pg. 14 English edition.
[2] 1 KGS 17:24
[3] GAL 1:12
[4] LK 7:16
[5] LK 7:17
[6] See footnote 1

Conversion – it’s lifelong

As disciples of our Lord we spend ourselves to our limits in making His good news known. But, just as we spend ourselves in His name, every so often we run into periods of frustration and exhaustion which can lead us into doubt. Thoughts such as – I have given my life to my God; why isn’t my life easier? Why isn’t my witness met with more interest than derision? Why do I receive ridicule instead of curiosity? Why don’t people want what I have? – enter into our hearts and minds. It is all too easy to question our choice for God, our vocation as His disciple, within this attitude of despondency.  And this is made all more difficult by Satan who looks for these cracks in us; as we hear in Peter’s first letter: ‘Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.[1]

Tomorrow (January 25th) we celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul; it is one of my favorites.  For me, this is a feast that shows me the truth about successful discipleship – conversion.

Tomorrow’s feast is all about conversion. To only think of St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus does this feast a disservice because it hides a most important aspect of his conversion; St. Paul’s conversion is a lifelong conversion. Pope St. John Paul the great wrote: ‘His conversion on the road to Damascus was immediate and radical, but he had to live it in faith and perseverance for long years of apostolate: from that moment on his life had to be an incessant conversion, a continual renewal.[2]

Brothers and sisters, let’s take tomorrow’s Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul as a time to look at what conversion means in our lives. It is not a onetime thing, it is constant. As St. Paul was constantly tested in his faith, so will we.  As we are challenged almost daily to prove our discipleship, so was he.  Each morning St. Paul woke up and made the decision to take up his witness again, so should we. Each evening he laid his head down in review of how his decision for the day went, so should we. Being challenged day in and day out, being exhausted in the Lord’s work day in and day out, is the way of continual conversion; because it is our response to these hardships that builds our lives into a continual ‘yes’ to God. It is not easy but it is necessary; the path to conversion is through the cross since it is by the cross that we have the chance to begin with.

This is a tough road – this road of conversion. What can we do to assure our ‘yes’ to our constant and continual conversion? Abandon yourself to Him! Surrender to the will of Love Himself. ‘Depend on Jesus for everything.[3] Trust in He who never leaves. Live within the ever open embrace of Mercy.

I will finish with a beautiful quote from St. Josemaría Escrivá, one that I go back to time and time again; it helps against those doubting times: ‘Each day, O my God, I am less sure of myself and more sure of you![4]

Amen

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[1] 1 Peter 5:8
[2] Pope St. John Paul the Great General Audience January 1980
[3] St. Josemaría Escrivá, The Way #731
[4] St. Josemaría Escrivá, The Way #729

Lessons From A Sword

Today’s first reading from the Book of Jonah[1] shows Jonah entering Nineveh and heralding a warning from God – repent or be doomed.  Jonah had finally stopped fighting against God’s plan for him; he went into a pagan city with only the truth and trust in God.  It started me wondering more about how that happens.  It also happens that today, January 25th, when it doesn’t fall on a Sunday is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul – another example of absolute trust in God and tireless proclamation of Truth.

Cardinal Ratzinger, back in the 1980s wrote a small reflection[2] for the feast of the conversion of St. Paul.  In it he used the sword (which St. Paul traditionally holds in artwork) as his reflective vehicle. At one point he wrote: ‘suffering and truth belong together.[3] This comment came about as Cardinal Ratzinger explained the sword as representing truth, God’s truth; and the sword as suffering, martyrdom (and humility).

Sword as Truth
In the letter to Hebrews the author writes an oft quoted and very powerful line ‘For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.[4]  God’s word, His truth is that powerful.  His truth, if we allow it to enter our hearts and minds, will reveal to us things we never knew and some we never want to know.  This sword reveals us to ourselves; it opens us, but not as a weapon in the hands of a conqueror, but rather as a scalpel in the hands of a healer.  God’s truth is our salvation and healing.  God’s truth, His Word, is Christ.

Sword as Suffering and Humility
But the sword also symbolizes suffering (indeed martyrdom), and humility.  St. Paul’s apostolic journeys, are full of suffering. At one point in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians he gives us a summary of sorts: ‘Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.[5]

He listed these sufferings not to brag (St. Paul never brags about himself); but in this case, to make the Corinthians aware of what it means to be a true witness to God; as opposed to the imposters who were in Corinth.  The sufferings he endured weren’t endured because of any message of his own; he endured these sufferings for the Truth, for the Word, for Jesus Christ.  St. Paul allowed himself to be a servant, a ‘slave’ in his words, to the truth – Christ his master.  He knows that God’s Word will set us free – it is the only way and so as a humble servant he endures for God. St. Paul says it so much better: ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.[6]

Our part – embracing the sword
So brothers and sisters, St. Paul stands in many images and statues with a sword – not as symbol of power that the world would recognize but, among other things, as a symbol of how to live our lives.  As witnesses to the good news of God’s salvific plan we know that God has revealed to us the truth that will set us free, words that will bring us salvation, the Word in Christ Jesus.  But words that people don’t want to hear – because they reveal too much for their comfort. As bearers of this good news, and because of this news, we know that we will meet with sufferings.  But, as servants of this Word, we need to endure these sufferings for God and the sake of the people who are inflicting these sufferings.

In today’s Gospel reading we hear Christ proclaim the good news and invite others to do the same. ‘Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.[7] He tells some fishermen and He is telling us now.

St. Paul’s actions in Christ’s name shows us the way of our ministry: humble bravery in living and proclaiming the Truth tirelessly. St. Paul pray for us as we continue your ministry as witnesses to the Truth.  May we embrace the sword as Christ embraces us – with love.

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[1] Jon 3:1-5; 10
[2] The Warrior and the Sufferer Reflection on the Feast of the Conversion of the Apostle Paul  – ‘Images of Hope, Feast Day Reflections’ by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger 1997
[3] ibid
[4] Heb 4:12 (RSV)
[5] 2 Cor 11:24-27 (RSV)
[6] Gal 2:20 (RSV)
[7] Mk 1:17 (RSV)

Midian

Yesterday the Church celebrated one of my favorite feasts, the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul. For me it celebrates the power of God in our lives.  Saul of Tarsus, a faithful Jewish leader who, as a zealot, put his whole self into the prosecution of the ‘upstart blasphemy’ of Christianity, was brought into the faith he hated by Christ Himself. People change, no matter what their station in life is, if they desire the truth; and this is what Saul sought – God’s truth.  It was the truth that brought me into the Catholic Church.  I was sure that if I studied Catholicism’s flawed logic I could refute it with truth.  But here I am; I desired the truth and here I am.

But, the desire for truth can be thwarted by the fear of the journey.  Conversion story after conversion story show the struggle to overcome the various fears of accepting truth.  The fear of change that this acceptance calls for; change of life style and priorities.  The fear of alienation from family and friends as they reject the change; and to some the fear of persecution by governments and society. This journey towards truth seems to be crowded with overwhelming forces that can make a person give up.

However, if we allow the truth into our hearts and minds we can take great courage that God is enough to defeat our fears; God is enough to defend our choices from the overwhelming odds that scare us into inactivity – with Him at our side we are not alone, we are not weak, we are His.

Today’s readings bring to light this strength that accepting the fullness of truth gives us.  For most of us the reference to Midian in the readings passes us without impact and that is a shame for it is a great narrative from the Book of Judges that proclaims God’s power.  In spite of an overwhelming force against them, Gideon’s army was further reduced by God himself to a mere 300 soldiers.  And with absolute faith Gideon did as God asked and went to meet this immense enemy with these 300 and defeated them.  Gideon’s experience shows us that with God at our side, we never should fear the odds because He works for and with us.  Moses stood in face of the Pharaoh and all of Egypt to free God’s chosen people. Christ created His Church with 12 apostles and a few score of disciples against the whole of the Jewish establishment and the largest empire on earth, the Romans; and He did this with no army!

Brothers and sisters, this reflection isn’t only about those who are taking the step of conversion, we are all in the position of Gideon, Moses and St. Paul.  We, as Catholics, are staring in the face of overwhelming odds when we try to live our faith publically.  We are threatened, in varying degrees, when we go out proclaim the Gospel by our lives.  We too have the option of quietly acquiescing and holding our faith silent to be safe.  So we need to grasp the whole truth and take courage in God’s companionship, allowing his all-knowing and all-powerful Self to guide us and strengthen us in our journey, in the journey He selected for us.  St. Paul, in his letter to Timothy wrote: ‘The grace of our Lord has been granted me in overflowing measure, along with the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.’  This is true for each us – let us take this and go out and proclaim to the world as St. Paul did, unafraid.