Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Heaven’s remedy for making converts:

In 1859, just a few miles north of Green Bay, the Blessed Virgin appeared to a young woman named Adele Brice. As if to anticipate the spiritual drought that would hit the Midwest just a hundred years later, Our Lady gave instructions to little Adele on how to turn the hearts of sinners to her Son. And although she was commended for receiving Communion earlier that morning, the heavenly visitor expected more from her. Indeed, fulfilling her religious obligation by assisting at the Mass, although absolutely essential, was not enough to bring about the change of hearts in North East Wisconsin. She said to Adele:

“I am the Queen of Heaven, who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same. You received Holy Communion this morning, and that is well. But you must do more. Make a general confession, and offer Communion for the conversion of sinners.”

The Queen of Heaven, who also came to be known as Our Lady of Good Help, uses early Christian methods in making disciples of her Son. By offering her Communion to the Father, Adele was rehearsing for her own day to day sacrifices; the spiritual sacrifices needed for the conversion of sinners. Christ, who eternally offers himself at the altar from heaven, traces out the vocation for each and every disciple. Whether it be doing penitential acts of self-denial or corporeal works of mercy, the human body is always bound up with these acts of love and sacrifice. This is why St. Paul wrote the following to the Romans: “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)

No doubt, Our Lady of Good Help instructed Adele to teach the children what they should know for their salvation. But before a missionary endeavor could bear fruit, Adele would first have to pray for the conversion of sinners and offer her Communion to the Lord as a kind of spiritual sacrifice. This would lay down the needed foundation for teaching people their catechism, how to sign themselves with the sign of the Cross and how to approach the Sacraments.

With each apparition, Our Lady fashions her children into a very specific kind of discipleship. It is not enough to be a certified teacher or a trained evangelist. It is not enough to know the Faith. As with Adele in Wisconsin, she required more from the three children at Fatima; more than just learnedness. For instance, she asked Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco the following question- and only this question: "Do you wish to offer yourselves to God, to endure all the suffering that He may please to send you, as an act of reparation for the sins by which He is offended, and to ask for the conversion of sinners?" "Yes, we do." said the children. "You will have to suffer a lot, but the grace of God will be your comfort.”

Love and suffering is the motif that gives shape to the way in which the Mother of Jesus Christ forms disciples. She, like no other, places her Crucified Son right at the center of evangelization. Indeed, our wounded Savior is at the heart of making converts. And if souls are to be saved, his life must be reproduced in each of his disciples.

The Blessed Virgin, in various apparitions, did not invent a new way of making disciples. No. It is taken straight from the New Testament. For instance, we find that love is not only an obligation imposed on all believers, but it is something that reconciles sinners to God. Indeed, sanctified human love saves:

“By kindness and piety guilt is expiated, and by the fear of the LORD man avoids evil.” (Proverbs 16:6) “Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.” (I Peter 1:8) “Whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:20)

What also saves, what also builds-up, is a suffering infused with a love for God and neighbor. No doubt, suffering by itself is impotent. It is a mere waste. But Our Lord transformed this human experience and elevated it. He even likened his Passion to a cup and a baptism, i.e. liturgical channels of grace (Matthew 20:22 / Mark 10:38). And after making such an unusual reference, he promised that the two Apostles, St. John and St. James, the Zebedee brothers, would also drink the same cup and be baptized with the same baptism as Our Lord would. In other words, their suffering and sacrifice too would be transformed into liturgical-like channels of grace for souls. Again, this is evidenced throughout the New Testament writings:

“[F]or whoever suffers in the flesh has broken with sin.” (I Peter 1:1) “For as Christ's sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow. If we are afflicted, it is for your encouragement and salvation…” (II Corinthians 1:5-6) “So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (II Corinthians 4:12) “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…” (Colossians 1:24)

The Christ-bearing pastor, the Christ-bearing evangelist, the Christ-bearing teacher and the Christ-bearing missionary is one who also bears the scars of Christ; this, by begging God for the conversion of sinners, by exposing oneself to ridicule and by offering spiritual sacrifices behind closed doors. The Saints instinctively knew that words, however eloquent, and kindness, however warm, were woefully insufficient for the making of converts.

St. Edith Stein, even with her genius and eloquence, discovered this to be true for her. In a letter to Sister Adelgundis, Saint Edith Stein wrote, “Prayer and sacrifice, in my opinion, are much more crucial than anything we can say.” This was in reference to their former professor Edmund Husserl who was also the founder of phenomenology. Husserl happened to be a convert to Lutheranism from Judaism. St. Edith, on the other hand, was a convert from Judaism to Catholicism. Naturally, Husserl and St. Edith, both geniuses in their own right, discussed their differences as to what following Jesus Christ meant for them. But after several conversations with him, she came to this conclusion: “After every meeting with him, I come away more convinced of my inability to influence him directly and feeling the urgent necessity of offering some holocaust of my own for him.”

It would seem this is what Our Lady is trying to tell Catholics who really want to glorify God. It is not what we do or say that is the most decisive factor in making disciples. Rather, it is what God does with what we do or say that really makes the difference. By making spiritual sacrifices or offering holocausts of our own, we place our words and deeds more firmly in the Hands of God so that He can use them as He wishes.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ecce Homo: Behold the Man!

“Ecce Homo!” Pilate said to the crowd. That is, “Behold the man!” Behold the man, the Christ, who stands alone and rejected by his people.

To be an outsider and misunderstood is the lot of God’s closest friends. As far as I know, there is not a single canonized Saint who was not rejected by their own in some way and hence felt alone at some critical juncture in their life. Jesus warned as much when he said he came to bring not peace but the sword.

The Lord’s chosen instrument of pruning and purification is quite often being excluded by those closest to us. By far, the worst pain is to be endured during spiritual desolation; that is, when the soul feels totally abandoned by God himself. In this instance, the soul can be so deprived of the “sense” of grace that she deems itself to be denied of God’s mercy. Not a few Saints were tempted with despair; the feeling of being totally left behind by their Best Friend.

Consider the patriarch Joseph, one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Although God guaranteed that he would be blessed in several dreams he had, he was sold into slavery by his own brothers. For twenty long years it seemed as if God abandoned him. But he was later elevated to prime minister of Egypt. As such, he was in a position to save his family from starvation.

Moses, the great legislator of God’s law, was driven out of Egypt by Ramesses II for forty years. But he too would rise up and lead hundreds of thousands of Hebrews out of slavery.

Before his anointing as king of Israel, David did not fit in with the rest of brothers. This is why he would shepherd the sheep by himself. Again, it was not his brothers that Samuel anointed the second king of Israel, but David, who was overlooked by his own father and siblings. "Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart." (I Sam. 16:7)

The prophet Elijah, for his part, was not welcomed in the so-called band of prophets. The only real companion he had was his disciple Elisha.

As for the minor prophet Hosea, he was instructed by God to marry a prostitute named Gomer (she was to symbolize the infidelity of Israel), this, only to be rejected by her later on.

Indeed, the character and greatness of these patriarchs, kings and prophets of the Old Testament came about through the rejection of their own.  Rejection and banishment was no less the chosen instrument used by Christ in fashioning his Saints. Just to name only a few, there was his own family- the Holy Family –who had to flee Israel in order to take refuge in Egypt so as to escape the wrath of King Herod.

And centuries later there was St. Thomas Becket, St. Thomas More, and St. John Fisher who were rejected and martyred by their English countrymen. And we cannot forget Pope St. Gregory VII, a champion of Church reform. He managed to get the State off of the Church’s back, but was eventually driven out of Rome by King Henry IV only to die in exile. About seven hundred years later, St. Alphonsus Liguori was kicked out of the Redemptorist order; the religious order he himself founded.

In more recent times, the Lord continued to set men and women apart for his work through the very same means: that of trials and rejection. St. Edith Stein, for instance, was a convert from Judaism to Catholicism. As such, she was estranged from her own people- most notably her own family -because of her faith in Christ. St. Padre Pio was forbidden by the Vatican to publicly exercise his ministry for ten years. Unable to minister to his people, he became a prisoner of his friary. And there is Bishop Fulton Sheen, arguably the most gifted evangelist of the twentieth century. According to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Bishop Sheen was an outsider with regard to his brother bishops. He never quite belonged.

After becoming familiar with God’s friends in Scripture and the Saints to follow, this recurring phenomenon of being excluded by our own should not surprise us. Our Lord himself said that no servant is above his master. And what did the Master say as he was dying on the Cross? He uttered the memorable words of Psalm 22: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”

Quite often the friends of God feel estranged, not only by their own people, but by God Himself. A wonderful book that captures this feeling of being alone in the desert is The Spirituality of the Old Testament. We discover that by no means are we singled out as if something unusual was happening to us. Instead, we are reminded that following in the footsteps of our Savior- at times a lonely walk -is the path many prophets and saints have traveled. The author, Paul Marie de la Croix, writes as about this holy abandonment:

“[S]ouls cease to understand the reason for the trials that afflict them and believe they are separated from God forever...divine conduct seems utterly incomprehensible, even extremely arbitrary and unjust. Everything bewilders them, causing uneasiness, anguish, obscurity. They more they seek God, the more deeply hidden He remains; the more they desire Him, the more he rejects them...they experience a reversal of God’s relationship to them. They seem to be permanently abandoned or even rejected, though divine favor and friendship had been theirs before.”

But as St. Francis de Sales once said, "An ounce of desolation is worth more than a pound of desolation." Through rejection and humiliations, we are given the opportunity to possess God for his own sake; to love the God of gifts over the gifts of God. To be sure, through the wine-press of suffering, we come to better understand our own sinfulness and unworthiness to have our prayers answered. The feeling of being entitled to his gifts and favors- the most common of faults–gives way to humility and gratitude.

This is why we must never wince, never draw back when faced with the possibility of offending people by speaking the truth and doing God's work. Indeed, we may be rejected and excluded; we may have to eat lunch by ourselves in the cafeteria; we may risk losing a job; we may lose friendships and disappoint colleagues; and though it pains us very much, we may be ostracized from our family. Our Lord did not say that we should merely tolerate these trying circumstances, but to rejoice in them! As hard as it may seem, we have to ask Jesus- the Man that stood condemned before the crowd -for the grace to rejoice and see through short-term sacrifces to lay hold of long-term gains. It is only then we can stand with our Lord through thick and thin.

On Good Friday our Lord stood alone before his people as a rejected king. From the Thursday night to three o’clock Friday afternoon, God the Father- as if to side with the angry crowd -had appeared to reject his only begotten Son. Alone our Lord Jesus stood before Pilate and his people. A true outsider!

He was born outside of Bethlehem in a cave and he died a condemned man outside of the walls of Jerusalem. Can there be any doubt, then, that in the Sacred Heart of Jesus there is a special place for the ostracized and the rejected. They have not been forgotten by Him who knows what it feels to be forgotten.

Have you been forgotten or excluded from those closest to you? Please know you have a friend in Christ! There is a special place in His heart for such friends.