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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saints I Don’t Like

One evening in August I heard a piercing scream from the living room.  I quickly ran to find my mother shrieking and pointing at a large black shadow that dove about the room at extreme velocity.  “There’s a bat in here!”

I found myself paralyzed with fear.  “God—you’ve got to help me!!!”

The bat continued to dive about.  Later, after I had recounted this story to a friend, she sent this video [language warning] of a family who attempted to get rid of a bat in their dining room.  In the video, the bat fluttered about creepily, but did not dive.  Our bat, in contrast, behaved like a kamikaze.  “That’s because it’s a young bat, not an old bat,” my mother explained.  “It is stupid and scared…”

It was not as scared as I was though.  When God did not answer my prayer, I brought in the big guns: “PADRE PIO YOU HAVE TO HELP ME!  You have to get rid of this for me.  I cannot kill it.  I cannot.  There has to be another way!”

The bat flew upstairs, and into the guest room, where I quickly slammed the door and continued to plead with Padre Pio.

Suddenly, I remembered that this was the one room in the house with a door to the outside.  It is one that is never used, but which opens out to a little porch.  I moved quickly over to the door and opened it, praying for the bat to fly out before others could fly in.  Meanwhile my mother, who had followed me upstairs, shut the door leaving me trapped with the bat.

I endured an eternity of terror—at least five minute’s worth—while the bat dove at my head, then back up and around the room, then at my head again.  I cringed in the corner until finally, it flew out into the night.

“Thank you Padre Pio!” I exclaimed, my relief mingled with surprise that in fact, he came through for me—again.

*            *            *

You would think, hearing this, that I must be a great fan of Padre Pio.  I am not.

Padre Pio has worked many miracles for me, but I can’t bring myself to like him. I’ve wanted to like him—felt that I ought to—but I cannot.   He seems too austere for my taste; too cranky; too intricately linked with suffering.

I know that had I met him in real life, I probably would have really liked him.  We might even have become great friends.  I know that someday, soon perhaps, we will in fact be great friends.  I know this because it’s happened to me before.

People who’ve seen me wearing my St. Thérèse necklace will doubtless be surprised to hear that I used to dislike her too.  The saint whom I now credit with my spirituality used to be one I avoided at all costs.

Lots of people love Thérèse.  Scores of friends have asked for and received roses from her on a regular basis.  I knew I ought to love her too, but when I first read her story, I wanted to punch her.  (True story). She seemed way too saccharine, too spoiled (first by her family, then by God), and it was impossible to take her protestations of littleness seriously.  Yet she claimed to be “little” and to be in need of Jesus’ carrying her to become a saint.  Please.

I’ve written elsewhere and at length about learning to receive God’s love and depend on God’s mercy, a lesson that I’ve come to appreciate precisely from St. Thérèse.

*            *            *

Last Friday, I was reading a reflection from St. Isaac Jogues.  I’ve never disliked Isaac—he was in fact rather useful in teaching fifth grade boys, who relished the graphic details of his torture and martyrdom.  But personally I found him a bit too gory.

“It is only my cowardice and bodily weakness which form powerful obstacles to the designs God has for me and for this country” he began, and I immediately wanted to roll my eyes.

This was the guy Erin wrote about last week—the guy who had his fingers chewed off, among other tortures—but who then WENT BACK VOLUNTARILY to minister to those same people.   That he should call himself a weak coward reeked of absurdity and untruth.

“But what if it’s true?” a voice spoke within me, seemingly out of nowhere.  “What if he really was that weak?  What if he really was a coward?”

As often happens when I hear this Voice, I was deeply challenged and more than a little afraid.  What if…?

It is much safer, I realized, to believe that saints are super-human, to believe that they are made of different material than I.

But what if they’re not?

What if they are in fact, made of the same stuff I am?  The same weakness.  The same fears.  The same sluggishness of heart.

But what if the mustard seed is allowed to grow, the leaven received in order to transform?  What if God’s life really does have the power to change us?  To make us into more than we might dream?

When I was a child, I loved the butterfly.  I marveled that something as ugly and crawling as the caterpillar could become something so beautiful and free.

If the caterpillar were a thinking creature, would it know what lay in store?  Would it hear whispers from the butterflies of what they used to be, of their former lowliness, and doubt?  Could it even imagine, a creature of earth with so many legs that moved so slowly, could it even imagine what it would feel like to fly?  When it was finally ensconced in its cocoon, did it feel as though it were buried, trapped, that things were finally over?

I don’t know if a caterpillar can imagine flying.  But it will be transformed into something that can.

Of course, in humans this transformation is not inevitable, nor can it be achieved by effort alone.  It requires cooperation with grace.  We must allow God to plant and cultivate the mustard seed.  We must allow Him to incorporate the leaven into our very being.

But what then, if His words are true?

Jesus’s first miracle was the transformation of water into wine; His last was the transformation of wine into His blood.  But His most remarkable is the transformation of us into Himself.

Lord I believe; help my unbelief.


Quotes:

St. Isaac Jogues, just before he died:

“I do not fear death or torture. I do not know why you would kill me. I come here to confirm the peace and show you the way to heaven.”

C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:

“Christ says ‘Give Me all.  I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work.  I want You… Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit.  I will give you a new self instead.  In fact, I will give you Myself; my own will shall become yours’…  The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for.  Nothing less.  He meant what He said.”

St. John Paul II:

“We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son.”

**Disclaimer:  Alert readers will notice that I’ve actually posted about next week’s Gospel, not the one for today!  A big mea culpa–I didn’t realize my mistake until too late!

 

Butterfly

Image from Wikimedia Commons

© <a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Ram-Man”>Derek Ramsey</a> / <a href=”https://derekramsey.com”>derekramsey.com</a&gt; / Used with permission

 

 

The Science of the Cross

“I will have only one wisdom: the science of the cross.” —Venerable Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận

Earlier this week, I was able to attend a requiem Mass at St. Vincent Ferrer in memory of the victims of 9/11. It was a beautiful liturgy as well as a powerful reminder of our own mortality, that our days on earth are fleeting and meant to be used purposefully, in service to God. In his homily, Fr. Sebastian mentioned Venerable Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận as an example of someone who lived with radical hope even in extreme suffering.

Venerable Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận (1928–2002) was a Vietnamese Cardinal who spent thirteen years imprisoned by the communist government in re-education camps, most in solitary confinement. However, refused to despair over the immense suffering he experienced, choosing instead to make the most of his situation. He wrote letters to Church communities, spent long hours in prayer, and showed joy and kindness toward his prison guards. The prisons had to change his guards regularly because he was so effective at evangelizing them.

Cardinal Văn Thuận brought light into the darkness; his very presence spread hope amid some of the bleakest corners of humanity. And he did so by embracing the Cross. This paradox is at the heart of Christian belief: that joy springs from suffering. For the early Church, the Crucifixion was a source of shame and embarrassment; and yet this is how God chose to save us, through an act of utter humiliation and torture. While in his cell, Cardinal Văn Thuận made for himself a crucifix out of scrap wood and some wire that had been smuggled in by some sympathetic guards. He sought a physical reminder that his own sufferings were united with Christ’s.

Today, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, let us look to the saints who have gone before us to understand why the Cross is so vital in sustaining our hope, especially as we undergo times of turbulence and trial. Cardinal Văn Thuận accepted his imprisonment as a gift. St. Edith Stein showed mercy and compassion even in Auschwitz. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati willingly ventured into the poorest, most desolate areas of his city to spread hope and charity, and he endured his agonizing final illness without complaint. May we, too, learn to fan the flame of God’s love within us, so that we may be a light in the darkness.

“To treasure each suffering as one of the countless faces of Jesus crucified, and to unite our suffering to his, means to enter into his own dynamic of suffering-love. It means to participate in his light, his strength, his peace; it means to rediscover within us a new and abundant presence of God.” —Venerable Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận

The Forerunner

Gospel reading: Mark 6:17-29
Herod was the one who had John the Baptist arrested and bound in prison
on account of Herodias,
the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married.
John had said to Herod,
“It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
Herodias harbored a grudge against him
and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so.
Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man,
and kept him in custody.
When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed,
yet he liked to listen to him.
She had an opportunity one day when Herod, on his birthday,
gave a banquet for his courtiers,
his military officers, and the leading men of Galilee.
Herodias’ own daughter came in
and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests.
The king said to the girl,
“Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.”
He even swore many things to her,
“I will grant you whatever you ask of me,
even to half of my kingdom.”
She went out and said to her mother,
“What shall I ask for?”
She replied, “The head of John the Baptist.”
The girl hurried back to the king’s presence and made her request,
“I want you to give me at once
on a platter the head of John the Baptist.”
The king was deeply distressed,
but because of his oaths and the guests
he did not wish to break his word to her.
So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders
to bring back his head.
He went off and beheaded him in the prison.
He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl.
The girl in turn gave it to her mother.
When his disciples heard about it,
they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Dear fellow pilgrims, 

Today is a peculiar and peculiarly brutal feast day, the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. (Side note: This was one of the two choices that Aidan and I could have gotten married, and we chose August 1st instead because 1. It was sooner than August 29th, and 2. We felt a little… weird about the prospect of sharing this feast day with our wedding day.) This is a peculiar feast day because saints’ feast days, at least in the Roman Catholic Church (I’m not sure about Eastern orthodox feast days), are usually celebrated on the day of their death, because that’s when their race was finished and they passed into eternal life. But St. John the Baptist also has a feast day for his birth. I am just learning that this is because he was freed from original sin in the moment he “leapt in the womb” because of the proximity of Jesus in Mary’s womb, and thus, was born into this world without original sin. The only other feast day for another nativity other than Christ’s in Mary’s own nativity, because she too was born into this world, but also conceived without original sin.

While I don’t know the theology behind what it means exactly to be freed of original sin, what can I observe is that this is a privilege reserved to only Mary and St. John the Baptist, and probably because of their proximity to Jesus’ mission; God was giving them an indispensable tool to fight that same mission alongside Christ, and in the case of St. John the Baptist, act as the “forerunner” of Christ. And this is why we celebrate specifically the Passion of St. John the Baptist today: this passion preceded His Passion.  

There are many parallels between St. John the Baptist’s passion and Christ’s passion: 

Both St. John the Baptist and Jesus were… 

  • … speaking truth to power
    • John was pointing out that Herodias was an illegitimate wife of Herod.
    • Jesus pointed out that many of the Pharisees were illegitimate leaders of the Jewish people. 
  • … locked up by powerful figures who were also aware of their righteousness.
    • “Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody.”
    • Pontius Pilate’s wife, and arguably also Pontius Pilate, knew Jesus was a holy man and did not deserve to die. 
  • … killed at the result of a powerful man being pulled in the direction of the crowds after feeling much tension within himself over whether or not he should kill them. 
    • “The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her.”
    • “Crucify him! Crucify him!” 
  • … displayed to a crowd after they were murdered
    • on a platter
    • on the Cross

There is a special relationship that John has with Jesus because we all follow Jesus, but, in a way, Jesus followed John, since he was the “forerunner of the Messiah.” In the linear line of human history, Jesus followed John, but in Salvation History that exists outside of time, Jesus’ sacrifice and Resurrection preceded and enabled St. John the Baptist to live a life of virtue.  What humility of Christ to follow his second cousin in death, and also to share a small portion of the genetic information of the blood they both shed because of their familial ties.  What humility of both St. John the Baptist and Christ, to die in such brutal and tragic ways… at the hands of men who were interiorly struck by their holiness, but torn between this faint truth within them and their earthly roles that pointed to killing as the only “solution.”  

Today, let us pray that we adopt the attitude of this “forerunner,” living on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and always attuning our lives to something greater than us. 

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

Lamentation

Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you when you were young;
I will set up an everlasting covenant with you,
that you may remember and be covered with confusion,
and that you may be utterly silenced for shame
when I pardon you for all you have done, says the Lord GOD.
—Ezekiel 16:60–63

Today’s reading from Ezekiel reminds me of a recent video from Fr. Robert Barron, which is definitely worth a watch: Bishop Barron on Ezekiel and the Sex Abuse Crisis. Ezekiel wrote of the corruption within the holy city of Jerusalem and its cleansing through avengers from the North. Today, the “holy city” of the Church has fallen into corruption, and it too needs to be cleansed, to endure the painful siege of repentance. God will not abandon His covenant with us. But if we are to be cleansed, we must allow Him to show us the weight of our sin; we must be willing to feel our shame and sorrow.

As Aidan and Alyssa have written this week, it has been sobering to read reports of the horrific abuse that has occurred within the Church and the deep corruption that kept it hidden for years. As American Catholics, we are mourning over these unthinkable crimes and trying to figure out how we can possibly move forward through this mess.

Yesterday’s Gospel reading, which Alyssa reflected upon, spoke of forgiveness, which may seem untimely at the moment. The Gospel asks us to forgive, but often we don’t understand the meaning of true forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean making excuses for the person who wronged you or brushing it under the rug. That’s not forgiveness; it’s denial. True forgiveness must acknowledge the sin and yet refuse to feed it. A person who forgives renounces any claim toward revenge and resists the tendency to harbor resentment. It is a daily decision, and it is not an easy one. But it is the only way that we can stop the cycle of sin and open our hearts to mercy. A truly forgiving heart is not indifferent to injustice; it is all the more deeply hurt by it, since it refuses to dehumanize either the victim or the perpetrator. It sees the tragedy of an innocent life altered irrevocably; it sees those individuals who used their God-given will for evil. And it resolves to do better.

I am reminded of the story of St. Maria Goretti and her murderer/attempted rapist, Alessandro Serenelli. Now, this is not a typical story—we should not go around assuming that all murderers and rapists will be reformed by our prayers and can be later welcomed into our families. But it is in fact what happened in the case of Alessandro Serenelli, incredible though it may seem. Though Alessandro was bitterly unrepentant for the first few years after Maria’s death, he experienced a profound conversion of heart after experiencing a vision of Maria in which she forgave him. He was moved to weep for his sins for the first time, and he began the process of true repentance. Due to Maria’s miraculous intercession (again, possible only through the grace of God and not by human means), he was completely reformed and eventually became an adopted son of Maria’s mother.

While Alessandro clung to his pride and callously denied his guilt, the seeds of sin and evil continued to fester within him. Only when he realized the depth of his sin and entered into a living purgatory of shame and regret was his heart opened to receive God’s mercy. This step was crucial: acknowledgment of wrongdoing, grief over what has been tainted and destroyed, ownership of one’s sinfulness. Unless we confront the realities of our sins and face our deepest wounds, we will never be able to receive healing. And Alessandro’s revelation of guilt—and thus his pathway to forgiveness—was made possible because of Maria’s purity and steadfast prayer.

As faithful Catholics who are shocked, saddened, and heartbroken over the recent scandals within the heart of our Church, we are called to step up and be the solution, to challenge the Church to rise up to her sacred calling. Now is the time for prayer and fasting. We will expect from the Church a higher standard, and we will start by being saints. The purification of the Church will begin with the purification of our own souls, by a deep desire for holiness and purity throughout every aspect of our lives. Jesus and Mary weep alongside us at these crimes. I’ve been encouraged by the discussion among young, faithful Catholics of the many ways in which we can carry this out, and I’ve compiled a list of resources here.

I stay with the Church because her teachings proclaim the dignity of the human person, even as some of those who represent her have trampled upon human dignity through objectification and abuse. I pray that we allow the light of truth to overcome the darkness, so that everything hidden will be exposed to the light. The truth of our own dignity and worth—and indeed that of our children—must prevail against the shadows.

Like Children

“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children,
you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven….
…If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,
will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills
and go in search of the stray?…
…In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father
that one of these little ones be lost.” Matt 18:1-5,10,12-14

Our peaceful Pentecost prayers were interrupted by the wail of an emergency siren.  It was emanating from my 18-month-old niece Zippy, who was making a compelling case that evolutionary descent was not from apes but from banshees.  “Owwwww” she wailed, convincing the entire congregation to look our way, expecting blood.  But it was just an abbreviation for “out” by which she meant “out of the pew”, “outside” and also “now.”

So I extracted her writhing figure and brought her outside to the statue of Joseph holding Jesus, where she was once again happy.  “Ball!” she said, noting the sphere in the hands of baby Jesus.  “Ball!” she said louder.  “That’s the world, Zippy, not a ball,” I explained, but she still thought that Jesus ought to hand it over to her.  I realized she had a good share of my DNA blended in with the banshee.

Several years ago I read a book about Saint John Paul the Great which deeply inspired me to want to be a saint.  “I am ready to get serious about my faith” I told God.  The images that came to me in prayer, however, were not of great sacrifices or even good deeds, but rather of a nursing infant.

“What does this mean?” I asked, and then followed another image, of myself as toddler, sitting on Jesus’ lap at the Last Supper.  I looked around with great delight.  “I am ready to sit with the big kids!” toddler-me told Jesus.  “I want to be one of the apostles.”  Then I thought for a moment, and toddler-me replied, “Actually Jesus, I want to be you.  I want to be in charge!”  Jesus only smiled, and I saw once again the nursing infant.

There was a time when serious-adult-me would have rebuked this little toddler, but now I only laugh, because I know that Jesus delights in her, in her big dreams and small stature.  Certainly a humility check is in order (and still in progress) but there is something in her honesty, in her way of relating to Jesus, her confidence in His love for her no-matter-what, that adult-me can learn from.

After Mass, we take Zippy to Red Robin for dinner, and order her mini meatballs from the kid’s menu.  Because I am an amateur, not a parent, I hand her the tomato sauce for dipping.  Moments later, I am sitting next to a pint-sized serial killer, covered head to toe in red.  Because I am an aunt, not a parent, I snap pictures in lieu of cleaning her up.

I hand her a cup of juice, which she sips daintily, careful not to spill any.  When she is finished, she indicates so by pouring the remaining juice directly into her lap.  She looks up, smiles, and reaches out her arms to be picked up.  She is confident that my love is greater than my aversion to sauce and stickiness.

I bring her outside to fend off impending sirens, and she hears some music from a nearby restaurant, and begins to dance.  She has not yet learned to judge herself on the reactions of others, the number of Facebook likes, or even her skill at dancing, which is only a slight improvement over her table manners.

I am reminded of teaching my four-year old class the story of The Found Sheep. For this one, Jesus leaves the ninety-nine to search diligently, until He finds it and carries it home jubilantly on His shoulders. At first I worried in the back of my mind that children in their sensitivity might worry about the ninety-nine—those poor sheep left behind while Jesus goes looking for the one.  But the child sees what adults do not: to Jesus, there is no ninety-nine.  There is only the one.

Children know the secret to holiness is simple.  Love. Dependence. Trust. Confidence in the goodness of God, in His care for us, in His willingness to love us even when we are messy or awkward or do things badly or even completely wrong.

The key to holiness is not the greatness of our deeds but the greatness of God’s love.  Prayer is not one of the good works performed by the holy, but rather the food which makes any other work possible.

A few months later I am standing at the seashore with little Zippy, the waves which wash pleasantly over my ankles are strong enough to push her off balance.  But unafraid, she reaches up her arms to be picked up.  Safe and comfortable in my arms, she points to the deep, trusting that she can go anywhere as long as she is held.

May we like little children be confident always in the Father’s love for us, trusting in His goodness and protection to feed us, to lead us, to carry us home.

The Heart-Knowing of St. Peter

Reading 1

JER 31:31-34

The days are coming, says the LORD,

when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel

and the house of Judah.

It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers:

the day I took them by the hand

to lead them forth from the land of Egypt;

for they broke my covenant,

and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD.

But this is the covenant that I will make

with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.

I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; 

I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives

how to know the LORD.

All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD,

for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.

Gospel

MT 16:13-23

Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi

and he asked his disciples,

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,

still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter said in reply,

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.

For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.

And so I say to you, you are Peter,

and upon this rock I will build my Church,

and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.

I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.

Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;

and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Dear fellow pilgrims, 

Our readings today remind us that the Lord wants our hearts, not merely outward actions.  His Heart and our hearts are the meeting place for this new covenant between God and His people, His children. This desire for our hearts is an equal and opposite reaction from our Lord giving us His Heart completely in His life, death, and resurrection. But this covenant, this relationship between God and Man has not always been this way.

The first reading’s description of how covenants would shift reminded me immediately of how relationships between children and parents develop: at first, a parent must take a more hands-on approach to teaching their child about how to act in the world (i.e. “I took them by the hand…”) when they are small. There are rules that are very black-and-white, involving a lot of commands, because children must understand the do’s and don’ts of the world before they develop the cognitive capacity to think more deeply about the reasons behind them.  (And, quite honestly, children need to know the do’s and don’t’s of survival so they can just literally live to develop that cognitive capacity for critical reasoning.) Then, as a child grows older, a parent has less direct control over them, and hopes and prays that the child has at least learned “right from wrong” and can make their own good decisions without constant reminders. Parents’ influences become internalized, or incorporated to subconscious habits or patterns, in older children. This human psychological shift parallels the shift in covenantal relationships between God and Man: God wrote the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, and God also “wrote,” or revealed, His new covenant on the Heart of His Son.  Jesus’ Heart reveals the Heart of the Father, the desire of the Father for a new, closer relationship with His children.  

We can oftentimes (at least I can) overly intellectualize or overthink what it means to actually know Jesus, and this is true especially if you are a cradle Catholic (so I’ve gathered).  THIS is the relationship God desires, and paid such a heavy price for even the chance to have with you, and I’m speaking to you cradle Catholics now: God desires that you would follow Him and not just the things “you know you should do.”  It’s the difference between calling your mom every weekend because you know you should do it and calling your mom every weekend because you just miss her and want to know how she is doing, and know she wants to hear how you’re doing and you know that this exchange will energize you both. (note: I know most of us do not have that ideal relationship with our parents, but these relationships can help teach us more of what our perfect Father is like according to where we may feel hurt or wounded by our biological parents.)

And so, God the Father sends His Son to earth to show His children Who He Is and not just “what He wants you to do.” And in the Gospel reading for today, Jesus holds what an overthinking, intellectual disciple might have seen as a “pop quiz.”  The disciples happily chimed in when Jesus asked who OTHER people said He was, for this was accessible objective knowledge. But… only one answered when Jesus asked who THEY said He was.  Salvation history was unfolding before their very eyes, but many disciples were probably still very unsure about the specifics surrounding Jesus. They all felt a grip on their soul, but few could take that risk to profess a specific faith in Jesus’ identity.  For this was truly a faith, especially so for these disciples who had yet to see Him die and rise again, fulfilling His role as Messiah.  We know the end of the story!  They didn’t.  But it was St. Peter who saw Who Jesus was, he saw with his heart, because he was willing to be led into an unknown knowing, a faith.  I think this is due to the “fool” of St. Peter that manifests in different ways throughout his discipleship.  This same foolish instinct led him out of the boat when Jesus called him to walk in the storm.  This seeming “foolishness” is actually the center of what Jesus heralds about children: there is a purity of reaching out towards what his heart feels but cannot articulate because he knows that this is actually the better part to act upon. 

And beautifully, Peter’s risky profession of faith in a moment of testing, proclaiming who Jesus was to him in a time of confusion and many opinions on the matter, led to Jesus proclaiming who Peter would be.  Peter’s confirmation of Jesus’ identity led to his own; seeing His heart helped him see his own.  This was a defining moment in the unfolding of Jeremiah’s prophecy: Peter was not being taught by another human about how to know God, He was getting to know Jesus, and would be led into knowing the depth of Jesus’ Heart by experiencing the weight of his own sins and redemption. His leadership of the Church would be based off of this knowing, not one of ancient books. Jesus’ law was being written within the hearts of men and women who followed Him, not on stone or paper. 

Jesus, I draw near to You. 

I ask You to silence the voices of self-revision in my mind. 

You long to hear me as I am. 

Tell me how you love me. 

Tell me how you see me. 

My heart longs to know Yours. 

Please meet me here, in my heart. 

Pax Christi,
Alyssa