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

Come and See

But Nathanael said to him,
“Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
—John 1:46

“Come and see.” For Nathanael (also known as the apostle St. Bartholomew, whose feast we celebrate today), this was the moment when everything shifted, when the great adventure of his life began. These three simple words were an invitation to encounter the person of Jesus Christ, to enter into the all-consuming gaze of the Almighty. Just one interaction with Jesus was enough to change Nathanael’s doubt (“Can anything good come from Nazareth?”) into confident belief (“Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”).

We, like Nathanael, may have our doubts about Jesus at times. But often the best way to strengthen our faith is not to debate whether a prophet could come from Nazareth—or, say, whether God could be present within situations of corruption and despair—but to go and meet Jesus directly. This is not to say that we should ignore our intellectual questions about the faith, but rather that we should remember that understanding flows first and foremost from relationship. We can’t truly understand Jesus if we don’t get to know Him. If we bring Him our questions and lay them at His feet, seeking to just be present with Him and allow Him to look at us, we will come alive in His presence. Experiencing Jesus fundamentally changes us, causing a perspective shift that affects everything we do afterward.

And just as Nathanael’s experience resulted from an invitation from his friend, Philip, we ought to remember that our own experience of Jesus is not meant to be kept to ourselves. Just those three simple words—come and see—can change someone’s life forever. If we have been changed by Jesus, others will see the joy He has given us. Our own lives, our works, and our personal stories are what open the eyes of others to see the love of God.

Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul

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.”
—Matthew 16:16–18

Considering the fact that they often disagreed in life, it’s funny that Peter and Paul now share a feast day. However, despite their differing personalities, their stories have much in common. Both Peter and Paul were beacons of the early Church, instrumental in evangelization and leadership. Both gave their lives as martyrs, sowing the seed of the Church. And both underwent radical conversions after personal encounters with Christ.

Peter’s story in the Gospels is one of constantly trying, failing, and persevering. He is somewhat of a hapless apostle, trying to please Jesus but constantly making mistakes in the process. His sincere love for Jesus is fully apparent, alongside his flawed humanity, and through this combination he models for us how to fall upon the great mercy of God. If someone like Peter can not only be forgiven for his denial and betrayal of Jesus but also be named the first pope—well, then there’s hope for all of us, isn’t there?

Roman_School,_circa_1620_Saints_Peter_and_PaulPaul has perhaps the most famous conversion story of all time, the dramatic encounter on the road to Damascus. He too is a prime example of a flawed saint; before Jesus dramatically intervened, Paul was literally murdering Christians. Not a typical path to holiness. But Jesus took even that unlikely path and redirected it toward sainthood. Paul always recognized that it was only through God’s grace that he was able to carry out his good works; he had no illusions of his own inherent goodness.

I, Paul, am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have competed well; I have finished the race;
I have kept the faith…
The Lord stood by me and gave me strength,
so that through me the proclamation might be completed
and all the Gentiles might hear it.
—2 Timothy 4:6–7, 17

St._Paul_Visiting_St._Peter_in_PrisonPaul poured himself out until he was empty, an open vessel in which Christ could dwell. It was then that God’s grace worked in him most fully, supplying him with a transcendent strength to persevere in his mission. The words Jesus once spoke to Peter apply to Paul, too: “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” Peter and Paul both found their strength in weakness, by being receptive to divine revelation, allowing God to take control. Peter was particularly changed after receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost—before that moment, he was cowering in the upper room, but upon receiving those graces, he immediately stepped out in courage.

There is a lesser known story in which Jesus meets Peter out on the road and redirects his path. Instead of the road to Damascus, it is the road from Rome:

A legend has Peter walking along a road outside of Rome, fleeing arrest and certain death, when he comes to a crossroads: where the Appian Way meets the Via Ardeatina.

There he meets our risen Lord.

“Quo vadis?” Peter asks, to which Jesus replies:

“Romam vado iterum crucifigi.” I am going to Rome to be crucified again….

The end of the story, of course, is the end of Peter. He turns around and heads back towards Vatican Hill. This is the last time he would need to be redirected by Jesus.

Brad Miner

1601-2

Imagine Peter at that crossroads. It would not be the first time he’d found himself in that position—his abiding love for Jesus pinned against his all-encompassing terror of suffering and death. Here was a second chance to choose faith over fear. Perhaps this time, Peter would recall the words he once spoke to Jesus: “Master, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of everlasting life.”

Just as Peter and Paul persevered despite their flaws and sins and mistakes, may we too find the courage to get up when we fall and keep moving forward. May we recognize that it is far better to stumble along the right road than to speed down the wrong one—for even if the wrong one is smoother and easier, it won’t take us where we need to go, and there is only one Way that leads to everlasting life.


1. Anonymous (Roman school), Saints Peter and Paul / PD-US
2. Filippino Lippi, St. Paul Visits St. Peter in Prison / PD-US
3. Annibale Caracci, Domine, quo vadis? / PD-US

Not From Me But For Me

Peter began to say to Jesus,
“We have given up everything and followed you.”
Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you,
there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters
or mother or father or children or lands
for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel
who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age:
houses and brothers and sisters
and mothers and children and lands,
with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.
But many that are first will be last, and the last will be first.”—Mark 10:28-31

*            *            *

It is the sound that every mother of a toddler learns to fear: an eerie silence, followed by piercing squeals of unfettered delight.

My friend Heidi and I ran down the stairs from where we had been packing for a day at the pool, to find her not-quite-two-year-old Nicholas splashing about with great enthusiasm in the toilet.

Even the future Saint Grace was quite appalled, and we immediately moved to extract him. He quickly became as stiff as a board and twice his usual weight as he began to wail piteously and thrash about.  He remained inconsolable, as we cruelly re-dressed him, buckled him in his car seat and drove him further away from his sole source of joy.  That we were driving to a pool, a much bigger and more glorious version of his tiny heart’s desire, was an irony not lost on me.

This fear of trusting, this doubt that good things can follow a No to what we think we want or are currently enjoying, is not only a quality of toddlers.

A friend of mine who was preparing to enter the seminary tried to explain the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to his secular friends.  “Dude, you’ve got to be kidding me!  Those are the three things I am most trying to avoid!”  one responded in shock.

It’s easy for me to laugh at that guy, but my own conversion was significantly delayed because I feared that if I took my faith seriously God would “make me a nun.”  (That this was for me the worst possible fate is itself quite telling).

In today’s Gospel, Jesus promises that those who give up “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands” for His sake will receive “a hundred times morein this present age”—as well as persecution, and eternal life.  We get the persecution and the eternal life part; but do we believe the hundredfold in this life?

This renunciation, this death to self, this emptiness, is a characteristic of all Christian life, not just those with what we call a “religious vocation.”   And all, whether lay or ordained, married, single or professed, are called to live not as corpses but as “witnesses to the resurrection.”

In my first ever attempt at Lectio Divina, we were invited to imagine ourselves as a person or object in the story of the Wedding in Cana.  I found myself imagining myself as one of the six stone jars in the story, and imagined myself being emptied and filled, day after day after day (before of course the Big Day in the story).  As I felt the weariness of being emptied yet again, I felt a question rise to the surface of my mind, “Grace, why are you focusing on being emptied rather than being filled?”

Later, when my life unraveled and I felt as though everything was being taken away from me yet again, I was on my knees asking God, “What is it that you want from me?”  And unmistakably the voice came back, “It is not what I want from you, it is what I want for you.”

One of the marks required for considering sainthood is a life characterized by joy.  Although the saints invariably lived lives of renunciation and at times profound suffering, they were filled with something, and this emanated in a life of joy.

God is never outdone in generosity, and indeed I have experienced on many occasions this “hundredfold” and gifts of joy I never imagined possible.  Whenever I have surrendered something to Him, He has replaced it with something better.

Yet, this is an ongoing story—I can look back on this as a promise fulfilled, but I must also look to it with the eyes of faith as a promise still to come.  Some days I am gloriously happy in my current life even without a lot of things I thought I wanted/needed.   But some days “dying to self” is like blowing out trick candles on a birthday cake, and Christianity can feel like a cruel joke.

Anyone who has attempted the Christian life for any significant stretch of time is familiar with these ups and downs, these seasons of plenty and famine.  St. Ignatius called these spiritual seasons “consolation” for the good, and “desolation” for the down times.  It is helpful to remember that just like the seasons of earth, they will come and go.  In times of good, it is helpful to build memories and gratitude to recall and strengthen us for the times that are harder.  And in the tough times, we can hold on to our memories of good and the promises of Christ.

Let us pray today for the grace to trust in the goodness and generosity of God at all times.

To an Unknown God

Hey Frassatians, I don’t have a lot of time for a reflection today, so I’m going to send out a draft I had written for two weeks ago, May 9th. Hop in your time machine and I hope you enjoy!

Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said:
“You Athenians, I see that in every respect
you are very religious.
For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines,
I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’
What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.

—Acts 17:22-23

In terms of theatrics, today’s first reading is top-notch. St. Paul delivers a Spirit-infused, moving monologue about the Lord’s hidden hand behind all the Athenians hold dear, from creation to power over life and death. How do the Athenians respond? The reaction is…mixed, quite literally. Some scoff, others humorously defer (“Can you just tell us about overcoming death some other time, Paul? Pretty please? We’re really busy right now”), and others immediately follow St. Paul as disciples of Christ.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s always easy to hear a reading like this and say, “Well, there’s their problem right there! They didn’t listen to Paul about Jesus!” Groundbreaking conclusion, that.

Anytime we hear about the crowd’s reaction in Scriptures, though, we’re being called to examine our own hearts. We’re asked to put ourselves in their place. If we had just heard Paul’s rousing proclamation of the Gospel, how would we react?

I first read today’s reading from Acts with a smugness that (at least in my case) comes in no small part from my identity as a cradle Catholic: while friends around me were dropping like flies from the Church and other churches were holding newer, hipper services, I took on the identity of martyr, and not the good kind. I was special. I could see something that others were missing. If only they knew the God that I knew. If only they knew how hard it was to stay Catholic while all of that was happening around me…

But after another read-through, I came to the truth of the matter that God wanted me to hear: That altar “to an Unknown God” is my own.

In a few recent reflections, I’ve touched on a theme pervasive in today’s faith climate: “I’m spiritual, not religious”. St. Paul’s words brought out the parts of me that had tacitly incorporate that mentality into my own faith. In the face of a political and social environment that discourages firm, immovable beliefs, tolerance is a logical outcome. Most people in NYC with whom I discussed my faith (that were not Catholic) had a similar response, sometimes stated and sometimes implied: “That’s great! ….for you.” Translation: “Don’t confront me or make me confront my beliefs, and I will be happy to politely hear about yours.” Sounds a lot like an altar to an Unknown God, huh?

And yet so often I felt this attitude of polite, partial tolerance was actually a reasonable and responsible approach. My own version of the above interaction went something like this: “We can’t possibly grasp the full mystery of God, so I’m going to leave my options open. I don’t want to push them away with firm truths.” I wasn’t questioning my faith, but I wasn’t willing to close the door on other spiritualities, either. I couldn’t bring myself to tell people that I disagree with their openmindedness. I, after having used my Catholic identity for years as evidence that I had a better faith life than so many of my peers, was unwilling to put my money where my mouth was, so to speak, and actually tell my non-Catholic friends why I believe what I believe and why I think it is the one and only Truth. I claim it with every Creed I pray, so why couldn’t I proclaim it?

When I first read Paul’s words, my reaction was something along the lines of, “Yeah, take that, Athenians!”

Upon further reflection, I realize that Paul was exhorting ME. I humbly thanked God for the lesson.

 

Pray with Scripture. It does things to your heart.

The God of Second Chances

After Jesus had revealed himself to his disciples and eaten breakfast with them,
he said to Simon Peter,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
He then said to Simon Peter a second time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
He said to him the third time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time,
“Do you love me?” and he said to him,
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
—John 21:15–17

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Sorrow_of_Saint_Peter_(La_douleur_de_Saint_Pierre)_-_James_TissotA few weeks earlier, Peter had stood outside the courtyard of the high priest, weeping bitterly. He had disowned Jesus not once, not twice, but three times, just as Jesus had predicted. Peter was filled with grief when he realized what he had done: despite the fact that he had vowed to stand by Jesus in every possible trial, despite his complete devotion, he had buckled at the first bit of pressure and cast aside the One who meant everything to him.

We might imagine that we would defend our faith in any circumstance, but when those situations actually arise, often our discomfort leads us to hide our true colors and pretend that we are just another face in the crowd, not a follower of Christ. There’s a fine line between trying not to force our faith upon others and hiding it altogether, and it can be all too easy amid a secular environment to act as though we are ashamed of our relationship with Jesus.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Saint_Peter_Walks_on_the_Sea_(Saint_Pierre_marche_sur_la_mer)_-_James_Tissot_-_overallYes, there will be consequences for defending Christ. But there are worse consequences for denying Him. We can’t allow the possible reactions of others to distance us from the Source of all joy and love, as though their approval were the real key to our happiness. And in fact, we might be surprised at others’ openness to our faith—it might end up being a point of connection between us.

Chances are, at one point or another we’re going to mess this up. We’re going to drop the ball when presented with opportunities to witness to our faith, and we’re going to hide our light under a bushel basket out of fear. But Peter shows us that this, too, can be a path to grace. When we realize our shortcomings and failures, we can follow the way of Peter, the way of humility. We can begin to understand that we will never be able to carry out our grandiose plans on our own, that we are truly dependent upon Jesus for everything.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Meal_of_Our_Lord_and_the_Apostles_(Repas_de_Notre-Seigneur_et_des_apôtres)_-_James_TissotOur God is a God of second chances. How tender Jesus was to Peter, to grant him this moment: He set the scene over again, with a charcoal fire burning just as there was in the courtyard of the high priest, and asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And three times, Peter was able to reply, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He was given a second chance, a do-over of the worst mistake he’d ever made. Jesus saw Peter’s sorrow and contrition, and in His mercy He stepped in to restore the relationship. Not only that, but He entrusted the Church to Peter as the first pope. He cast Peter’s sins as far as the east is from the west, giving him a fresh start. He does this for us, too. No matter how badly we’ve messed up, he will give us another chance if we’re willing to try again—and, this time, to call upon His help to guide us.


1. James Tissot, The Sorrow of Saint Peter / PD-US
2. James Tissot, Saint Peter Walks on the Sea / PD-US
3. James Tissot, Meal of Our Lord and the Apostles / PD-US