Go

“When Jesus heard that John had been arrested,
he withdrew to Galilee. 
He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea,
in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali,
that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet 
might be fulfilled:

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles,
the people who sit in darkness
have seen a great light,
on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death
light has arisen.”

 From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say,
“Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 4:12-17

Today’s Gospel can often be glossed over and summarized as the start of Jesus’ public ministry. But I couldn’t get past the first line: “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested…” The weight of that hit my heart. Jesus had just spent 40 days and 40 nights praying and fasting in the desert, and now He hears of His cousin’s arrest and knows his death is imminent. Yet this news does not prevent Jesus from going where the Father is leading Him; I would even daresay it fuels Jesus to go where He needs to go, no matter what the sacrifice and no matter what the cost.

Jesus goes to Galilee not to hide and avoid being arrested Himself, but to fulfill the great prophecy from Isaiah that He is the Messiah! He is the Light who scatters all darkness! In hearing of John’s arrest, I imagine the reality of what Jesus was about to undertake in His public ministry, culminating in His own death, started to sink in. In a moment of what could have been great fear leading to inaction, Jesus begins to preach. The Word takes on a voice. And how the aching world needed His preaching, His healing, His love, His mercy.

What is it time for you to begin? What are you holding back from God? I think sometimes we all have a sense of where God is calling us, we’re just too afraid. I am right there with you in battling the fear. What steps can we begin to take to go where He is leading us?

Last week I wrote about the anointing we have received in Baptism, and today’s first reading proclaims twice that we belong to God (1 John 4:4-6). We can have great confidence in Who we belong to and in the One who goes before us in all things. Brothers and sisters, I don’t know what your specific mission is in this life. But I do know that you are needed. You, as Catholics, are desperately needed in this world. So whatever it is, wherever He is calling you, take that first step—make that phone call, speak up when you’d normally stay silent, write that song, go to Confession, take that time in prayer that you’ve been avoiding. Go. More of Him, less of us. All for His glory, all for His Kingdom, all according to His will.

Holy Innocents

When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.

When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious.
He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity
two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.

—Matthew 2:13–18

As Joseph and Mary anticipated Jesus’s arrival, surely they had some idea that they should expect the unexpected when it came to parenting the Son of God. After all, they had already received one giant surprise and had chosen to trust in God’s plan. Still, I don’t think they could have guessed this next curveball in their journey. After traveling to Bethlehem and delivering the child Jesus in a stable, Mary and Joseph were now asked to leave behind everything and everyone they knew, fleeing the country to protect their newborn son from being hunted by King Herod.

It is a testament to his unshakeable trust in God that Joseph responded to the angel’s warning without hesitation, picking up and leaving for Egypt immediately. After all, it was a big sacrifice to make for a message that had arrived in a dream. How did he know that this was truly God’s will for him and not some crazy manifestation of his own subconscious? Only by being so familiar with God’s voice through daily prayer was Joseph able to discern with clarity that this was a message he should heed. And he did so without wringing his hands wondering where they would stay, how they would get by in a foreign land, and why such senseless bloodshed must ensue at the hands of Herod. He dropped everything, including his own plans, to follow God’s call.

God gives grace for the situation, not for the imagination. The only way that Joseph and Mary were able to follow God so resolutely was by continually seeking His will in the present moment. They didn’t become distracted by worries and plans for the future; surely they had hopes and fears of what might lay ahead, but they placed it all in God’s hands and trusted that He would direct their steps.

Herod, on the other hand, was driven entirely by his own wild fears and self-serving plans. Filled with fear and insecurity upon hearing of the birth of this newborn king, he lashed out with merciless brutality and ordered the massacre of innocent children. But even this act of violence did not achieve its intended end, for the Holy Family had already escaped into Egypt.

Herod’s inflated ego numbed his conscience and skewed his perception of justice; he was willing to sacrifice whatever was necessary to preserve his own power, even innocent lives. Herod grasped for control when he perceived a threat to his power, but God was always in control of the situation. The newborn king would die at the appointed time and place, not through Herod’s feverish display of power and cruelty.

We are not in control, and that is a marvelous thing. Let us embrace the unknown path that lies ahead, knowing that we have a good and loving God who will lead us every step of the way. When unexpected situations arrive, may we trust that God will provide us the grace we need in the moment. And may we always be willing to speak up for the innocent and vulnerable, who are so often trampled upon and exploited by those in power.

¡Viva Cristo Rey!

Miguel_Pro's_execution_(1927)This weekend we will celebrate Christ the King Sunday, and today we honor the feast of Blessed Miguel Pro, who is known for his last words, uttered before a firing squad: “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”). As we reflect on Christ’s role as king within our own lives, Miguel Pro is an example to us of how we are to orient our hearts toward Christ above all else.

Miguel Pro lived in Mexico during a time of intense religious persecution. The secular government forbade all public worship, and as a Jesuit priest, Father Pro had to carry out his mission in secret. Disguised as a mechanic, an office worker, or a beggar, he administered the sacraments and served the poor. He was well aware of the dangers and knew that this mission would likely cost him his life, but he also understood that following Christ was what gave his life meaning in the first place. If it meant defying an unjust government, he would not hesitate; he would gladly lay down his life for the sake of Christ, who had died on the Cross for him.

In 1927, Father Pro was falsely convicted of an assassination attempt against President Calles and executed without trial. Intending to portray Pro as a coward, Calles sent a photographer to the execution. But this backfired, for the photo portrayed Father Pro as the saint he truly was: standing bravely with arms outstretched, embracing his cross and declaring Christ his king. The photo of his last moments, printed on the front page of newspapers throughout Mexico, galvanized the Cristeros, who were fighting against government persecution. His martyrdom was a powerful witness for Christ.

When our society contradicts the teachings of Christ, are we prepared to stand for what is right? Or are we ruled more by the common beliefs of the culture than by Christ Himself? Unlike Miguel Pro, we do not have to fear a firing squad for practicing our faith, but sometimes much lesser penalties—fear of being misunderstood, ignored, or ostracized—scare us away from allowing Christ to rule in every aspect of our lives. Let us pray to Blessed Miguel Pro to grant us his courage, that we may not allow the fear of how others may treat us to cloud our focus on Christ the King.


Image: Photograph of Miguel Agustin Pro, Mexican Jesuit, being executed by a firing squad in Mexico city, November 23, 1927 / PD-US

Another Saint I Learned to Like

“I am glad to hear that the Church considers her a saint, because I thought she was a witch!”  These words, allegedly spoken by a priest of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, reinforced in my mind the already intimidating image of this saint, whose feast we celebrate today.

That she was fearless and feisty was to her credit, I supposed.  But I found myself cowed by her seemingly impossible standards of self-sacrifice.  It has been recounted how, when just a young girl, she wanted very much to be a missionary.  Then, one day, when about to eat a piece of candy, she was told that missionaries could not eat such sweets.  So she didn’t.  Not that day, NOT EVER AGAIN.  She didn’t complain—even when suffering from ill treatment, or ill health—and forbade her fellow nuns to complain about ANYTHING.  Not even the weather.  She was relentless in her pursuits, in both her numerous missionary projects (schools, hospitals etc. throughout the world) and in her pursuit of holiness.

Even the Girl I Ought To Be does not aspire to such herculean efforts, and Real Me, rather than taking inspiration from her, merely added her to the list of Saints I Don’t Like.  What common ground could I have with such a saint?

So it was something of a surprise when I found myself at her shrine, one morning in May, while preparing for a talk.  The shrine offered the best chance for Mass, so there I was, praying not a few feet from the altar under which her body is encased.

That night I was to give a talk on Mary’s Fiat, and while I had been preparing for some time, I felt a subtle urge to change what I was going to say.  To talk about fear.  Fear?  I questioned the voice inside.  How does fear relate to anything?

Was Mother Cabrini smiling, just a little, when the priest began his homily, and began to speak of fear?  How in fact the saint I saw as fearless had some very big fears indeed.  One of these was of water.  When she was a child of seven, little Francesca Cabrini would make paper boats, fill them with violets (pretending they were her missionaries) and float them down the river.  She was shy and quiet then, and this solitary activity brought her much peace and joy.  Until one day she fell in.

Nobody knows how she got out.  She was discovered on the water bank, soaked and shaken, with no memory of who had rescued her.  Credit was given to her Guardian Angel, and yet for the rest of her life Francesca had a deep fear of drowning.

God did not take away her fear.  Rather, He allowed her to offer it back to Him, repeatedly.  No less than twenty-seven times, St. Frances Cabrini crossed the oceans between continents.  This was more than a century ago, and so passage was by boat, and slow, a matter of days.  Yet she did it, again and again, in spite of her fears.

Her first time crossing the Atlantic brought her to New York City. Like her patron, St. Francis Xavier, she had wanted to go to China.  But the pope told her, “Not to the east, but to the west.”  And so New York it was, where she arrived with a few nuns to begin her first mission in a convent that had been prepared for them.  Only, there was no convent—there had been some miscommunication—there was in fact no lodging prepared at all.

Mother Cabrini and her nuns spent the first night in a boarding house infested with bed bugs and mice.  Mice, I was to learn, were another fear of hers (I see her smiling at me again).  She spent the whole night sitting up, using the occasion to intercede.   So began her work among the immigrants of NYC.

How did she do it?  Like the apostles in the boat, terrified of the storm about them, she was comforted by the voice of Jesus, saying “It is I.”  She knew that voice personally.  She had a strong devotion to the Sacred Heart (one of her nuns spoke to me of her mystical “exchange of hearts” with Jesus).  She knew that He would carry her, that He would provide for her poverty and weakness.  He continued to reward her trust in Him.

In April of 1912 she was scheduled to sail yet again from England to New York.  But urgent business directed her elsewhere that day, and she canceled passage for herself and another sister.  She can only have wondered, later, when she saw the news that the boat she was booked on, the Titanic, had sunk off the coast of Newfoundland.

Why was her life spared?  We can talk casually about the mysterious plans of God.  Other saints were on board that day when the ship went down.  But God had chosen her for further things.

Ultimately, for St. Frances Cabrini, for Our Lady at the Annunciation, for each of us—our Yes is not to an abstract plan, but to a Person.  To Someone, not merely something.

When we offer even our fears to God, He responds by giving us more gifts than we could imagine.  St. Frances Xavier Cabrini founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and more than 67 institutions throughout the world.  She was the first American citizen to be canonized.

May she carry our prayers to the heart of Jesus.

 

Jesus Walks on the Sea

 

Photo Attribution:

Jesus Walks on the Sea by Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memento Mori

The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
and their passing away was thought an affliction
and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
—Wisdom 3:1–3

In my catechism class this week, I was teaching about the saints, and my students all wanted to find out which saint’s feast day fell on their birthday. One girl said, “My birthday’s November 2. What feast day is that?”

“Oh, that’s All Souls Day! It’s when we pray for the souls in purgatory,” I answered.

Disappointed, she replied, “That’s…kind of morbid.”

I can understand her reaction—it’s hard to get excited about reflecting on death, especially as a kid on your birthday. It’s a topic that most of us avoid thinking about, because it makes us feel uncomfortable. But there has long been a Catholic tradition of meditating on death, not as some kind of penance or self-imposed misery, but rather as a way to transform our fear of death into hope in the Resurrection.

Memento mori—“Remember your death”—is a refrain to keep us grounded amid the distractions of this world. Thinking about death does not seem appealing to us, but ignoring it will not make it go away. Death is an inevitable reality, and it’s not something we can control. But if we approach it from a perspective of Christian hope, deeply rooted in the promises Christ has made to us, we will begin to see that we don’t have to be so fearful of death. It is more of a beginning than an ending, an obscure mystery that only begins to make any sense to us when we see it through the lens of the Gospel. Meditating on death is itself an act of hope: that as we look more deeply into this mystery, there will be more to discover than bleak, existential materialism. There will be redemption and rebirth.

Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, a young sister with the Daughters of Saint Paul, has been keeping a ceramic skull on her desk for the past year as a reminder of death and tweeting about Memento Mori each day. She says:

Death, I think, is a very, very unpleasant topic, especially if you don’t believe in God. When I was an atheist, it was something I definitely did not want to think about because it’s the annihilation of the self. But for people of faith, it has a totally different dimension. We’re able to think about the reality of death and how it’s been transformed by Jesus.

Meditating on death not only lessens our fear; it also increases our sense of urgency to answer the callings God has given us. We are called to become saints, and we have no time to waste. We can go forward to carry out this calling filled with joy, not with fear, confident that if we are united with Christ in death, we will also be united with Him in resurrection.

For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.
—Romans 6:5