What Are You Waiting For?

“Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.” -2 Corinthians 6:2

Now is a very acceptable time.

Last week at a youth ministry conference I was at, one of the speakers posed the question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” It has stuck with me ever since and made me ponder in prayer how much I let fear hold me back.

Fear runs deeper than just being scared. Fear is the voice from the enemy that tries to ruin what God wants us to do before we even take a first step. Fear comes from the accuser that tells us we’re not enough, that we aren’t cut out for it. Fear brings anxiety in trying to have all the answers and figure things out when God just wants us to be present with Him.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Now is a very acceptable time.

What are you holding back from God? What is blocking your heart from His?

Behold. He is with you. He wants to give you whatever it takes for what He is calling you to. He won’t lead you astray.

Behold. Each moment God gives us is a gift, a grace that we can use to radically love or to doubt Him or ourselves and put things off for another day.

What are we putting off? Is it more time in prayer? Is it a job change you know you need? Is it a mission trip you feel God calling you to? Is there someone in your life you need to forgive?

Now is that very acceptable time to take that next step towards God, wherever He is leading you on His path of peace. Be not afraid.

A Posture of Humility

This week, I helped facilitate the confession line for a group of middle schoolers. Many were nervous; several had not gone to confession in years. I tried to help settle their nerves and calm their fears before going in, assuring them of God’s great mercy and that there was nothing to be scared about. A few children inspired me with their eagerness to enter the confessional—one who hadn’t been in six years, as well as one who had just gone last week. They didn’t allow any apprehensions to hold them back from receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness. They simply went forward with a sincere trust that by humbling themselves before God, they would experience grace. And what inspired me the most was that all these kids, even the ones who were most nervous, came out of the confessional beaming with joy and relief.

Kneeling in the shadows of the confessional, coming face to face with the reality of our sin and articulating it aloud—this is not something that demeans or diminishes us. Rather, it ennobles us, for it unites us more closely with our Creator as part of His Divine Body. By kneeling down and making ourselves small, we become part of a greater whole. Yet many of us hesitate to take this posture of humility. Sometimes a sense of perfectionism holds us back from admitting our mistakes, even to ourselves. But this sort of perfectionism is ultimately rooted in fear—that our faults will make others think less of us, or that God will be disappointed in us (as if He doesn’t already know all that we’ve done!). So instead of confessing our sins, we live in denial of their existence—and then we never receive the graces that will help us overcome them. We never come to understand that our goodness does not come from ourselves, but from the God who loves us so much that He laid down His life to redeem us in our sinfulness.

Jesus Himself has taken the ultimate postures of humility: on the Cross, with His arms spread open in surrender; and in the Eucharist, where He comes to us as Bread and Wine, food for us to consume. Through these gestures of love, He offers Himself as a gift to us. His arms are open wide to receive us; His Flesh nourishes and strengthens our souls. He offers His Body, broken and crushed, to heal us of our own brokenness:

For my Flesh is true food,
and my Blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood
remains in me and I in him.
—John 6:55–56

This week I also mourned the passing of John Aroutiounian, with whom I co-taught a Confirmation class three years ago. I was so moved by his eulogy, which reflects on the mystery of redemptive suffering and illustrates the fullness and meaning of his short life. John was very intelligent, had multiple prestigious degrees, and likely would have gone on to have a remarkable career. Yet when presented with a more humble calling—to suffer deeply, to physically waste away, to witness to the strength of the human spirit and the dignity of life even amidst great affliction, and to lay down his life at just 26 years old—he did not hesitate to embrace this cross. During his life, John fought to defend the dignity of every human life—even our enemies, even those who are inconvenient to us. He was a pro-life advocate and volunteered as a suicide hotline counselor. He believed at his core that life, every life, was worth living, and that each human soul has incalculable, eternal worth. He gave no greater witness to this conviction than through his own suffering and death.

We all have a natural desire to protect and shelter ourselves and our loved ones against suffering. However, it is through those painful experiences that we encounter the true meaning of our existence. Only when brought to our knees by suffering do we realize how deeply we must depend on God. A happy, complacent life can cause us to forget that, in the words of St. Thérèse, this world is our ship, not our home. We are meant for something greater; our deepest desires will not find fulfillment in this world but point us to the fulfillment that awaits us in heaven. And the path to heaven is through the Cross, following in the footsteps of our Redeemer.

Indeed, the fear of suffering can be worse than actual suffering. For when God allows us to suffer, He provides the graces in that moment to bear crosses we never thought we could carry, as long as we surrender to Him, acknowledge our own weakness, and trust that He will use every second of our pain for His divine purpose. Only by lowering ourselves into the depths of our humanity can we be raised into the divine Light. If we accept our crosses with a posture of humility, our suffering will surely bear fruit.

Prayer is the Battle Plan

In my favorite movie, You’ve Got Mail, the main character Kathleen Kelly laments not being able to come up with the right words at the right time, finding herself tongue-tied and her mind blank. “What should I have said, for example, to the bottom-dweller who recently belittled my existence?” she says. I think we’ve all had those moments, where we realize later, perhaps at 11:30pm when we’re lying in bed trying to sleep, the thing we wanted to say and how we wanted to say it. These situations arise in moments of conflict, in a moment where we feel misunderstood, or when we are put in a circumstance where we are invited to stand up for the truth with love.

What do we say? What do we do? How do we get better at fighting the fear and speaking up, or maybe biting our tongue when anger arises and allowing God’s truth to pour out of us instead?

The Apostles in today’s first reading act with wisdom when they had every reason to both lash out in anger and be totally tongue-tied. Faced with opposition and death threats all around them, and after having just been released from prison, Peter and John and the other Apostles gather together to pray for boldness. They could’ve had a meeting to come up with a battle plan to confront their persecutors, or they could’ve strategized how to go into hiding. They could’ve given up on their mission to evangelize entirely. But praying for boldness was their battle plan. Surrounded by challenges and fear, they knew that it was not them doing the work of growing the early Church, but the Holy Spirit at work through them. They realized their acute need for the Holy Spirit to empower them and give them the boldness they needed to go out and answer God’s call.

So they prayed for boldness; then, trusting that the Holy Spirit would not abandon them, they went out and kept preaching.

I don’t think our Catholic Church has an issue of too many people living with holy boldness. That is not our problem. I think we are more caged in fear than anything. In what areas of our own lives do we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to empower us with boldness? Where is God calling us to shake off the fear and trust in His faithfulness? The more open we are to the Holy Spirit, the more He can empower us. When we are faced with those challenging situations where we know in the pit of our stomach that we need to say something, we can call on the Holy Spirit to give us the words and the courage to speak as He is leading us. We can put the pressure on God to show up and give us what we need—we just have to be open.

Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit. Help us to be bold and on fire for Your mission for each of us.

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