In this Gospel passage there is seemingly a huge disjuncture between the 1st and 2nd half of the Gospel, but dig deeper and you will find a gem.
In the first half of the Gospel, we see that Jesus says:
“If anyone gives you a cup of water to drink just because you belong to Christ, then I tell you solemnly, he will most certainly not lose his reward.”
The keywords here are “who belong to Christ”.
What does it mean to BELONG TO CHRIST? It means that our whole life is about Jesus: every thought word and deed draws others to Jesus and allows Jesus to shine!
So what does all this have to do with cutting off your hands and being salt of the earth, as seen in the second half of the Gospel?
The answer lies in these two ideas:
1. Turning away from sin
2. Rooting our identity in Christ
Everything that stops us from belonging to Christ must be removed. If we are the obstacle, then we are better off dead (being thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around you pretty much equates to death). If we are living a life of sin that causes scandal, or living a wayward life that draws us and others away from God, we need to STOP.
Jesus appears harsh by telling us to cut off the body part that causes us to sin. Let’s look deeper.
Are we willing to cut off whatever draws us away from Christ?
We ARE the salt of the earth. If salt loses its saltiness, it’s worthless. If we lose our identity in Christ, it renders us useless.
NEWSFLASH: We didn’t need to exist! We were created for a reason and purpose — we are created by God for God, in His image and likeness.
Fulfilling the will of God will help us to live a life of peace. It will never be a peace that the world can give. Nay, they will persecute and condemn, claiming us to be holy.
God’s peace is offered to us daily. We can only do that by being the salt of the earth, by belonging to God, and by doing God’s will.
This morning I listened to the always enlightening Bishop Barron talk about Frassati. First of all, Bishop Barron is a national treasure and I 10 out of 10 recommend the Word on Fire Show. Secondly, let’s take a minute to talk about our boy, Frassati.
Frassati’s life is an example of how grace and faith can grow in the most surprising places. Frassati wasn’t raised in a faith-filled home like so many of the Saints. His father was a prominent Italian politician and his mother a well-known painter. His father was agnostic, and his mother was *vaguely* Catholic. Frassati wasn’t given a spiritual upbringing but found one for himself instead.
Even from a young age and without any humanly prompting he was captivated by the Eucharist and the liturgy. He would disappear for hours at a time and visit the chapels for Eucharistic adoration causing his parents to frantically search for him. (Now where have I heard that story before? *cough cough* finding at the temple *Cough cough*)
Similar to his surprising devotion to the faith, he also had a devotion to the poor. He gave all his money and all his time to the poor. He was truly a man of the poor. He was both their caretaker and their advocate. His love of the poor was so brilliant that when he died of polio at the age of 24 his funeral was a HUGE event. It wasn’t his prominent parents’ friends who overwhelmed the event, but the poor. His funeral was a massively-attended event because of the massive amount of people he attended to and cared for while he was living.
When we hear about mountain-climbing Frassati’s “Verso L’alto” we are reminded of his acceptance of grace and his determination to climb closer to Christ. Frassati was a man of action. First, he accepted grace into his life and then boldly ACTED. May he be an example to us all. To the heights!!! Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, pray for us.
In this Gospel passage, Jesus talks about Divorce.
Growing up I never thought much about the sacredness of married life. My family was pretty much dysfunctional (this MIGHT be an understatement) and I never thought much about the importance of family — in fact I detested it.
I (shamefully) remember asking my mom one birthday — it was my 7th — for her to divorce my dad as my birthday gift. I did not think it would be a problem — after all, when someone is aggressive to you daily, you leave him… right?
To that she gave a response I’ll never forget for the rest of my life: “This is a cross I must carry.”
Honestly, I thought she was mad for wanting to endure this hardship.
On hindsight, that was her living out her vows of marriage and that planted in me a seed of perseverance and faithfulness to God. It was the wisest thing anyone ever said to me.
The Pharisees quoted the mosaic law and questioned why Moses allowed for divorce. But Jesus explained that God’s intention for our state in life — whether married or single — was to be saints.
Being a saint entails that we rely on the power of God to overcome hardship before we rely on the power of man.
Moses had only permitted divorce because of the hardness of their hearts.
Male and female are indissolubly united in one flesh in marriage — a sacred and binding union — until death.
Marriage vows are so sacred, and such exemplars of what it means to love truly — you vow to love unconditionally every single moment of every single day, you vow to give yourself totally for the good of the other person. THAT is true love.
After all, from a Theology of the Body (TOB) lens, our entire faith is based on the idea of God wanting to marry us! He — in the person of Jesus Christ — is the groom and we the Church are His bride; the cross the “nuptial bed”. Just like how Jesus was humble to death on the cross, couples must learn to adjust in humility for the marriage to grow and experience success. Many failures in marriages are due to:
– lack of humility
– lack of prayer life
Back to my mom: she may not be educated in theology or the doctrines of the Church. But she is (sure as sure can be) in possession of the Truth and I believe that she is the epitome of what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus.
Prayers for all my married friends, that you realize that God has called you to be saints in your vocation as married people, and may God grant you the graces to be faithful to the end.
My high school batch at St. Paul College of Pasig, a Catholic school for girls here in the Philippines run by the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres, just celebrated its homecoming. We prepared for it for a year, a year that was spent reminiscing about high school memories and organizing a grand celebration dinner.
Among the fond memories of our high school days, a favorite is that of the Intramurals. The Intramural athletic competitions were, and still are, a big thing in our school. Rivalry between batches in volleyball, softball, track-and-field, swimming, and chess events was intense, although everyone played fair and clean most of the time. Even members of the non-athletic majority, such as I, were expected to take the Intramurals seriously as we formed part of their batches’ pep squads in the cheering competitions. The cheering competitions were the biggest events in the Intramurals. We practiced hard for hours amidst the demands of high school homework, and each batch tried to outdo each other in coming up with the most sophisticated and most artistic pep squad and cheer dance routines.
From the conversations and social media interactions among my batch mates, it is clear that the spirit of the Intramurals is still alive among us – especially since we could never forget that we were the champions of the cheering competition during our junior year.
It seems that sports competitions were a big thing, too, to our school’s patron saint. In St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he used athletics as an example to illustrate the determination and sacrifice it takes for a Christian to reach the highest goal in life, which is union with God: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” (1 Corinthians 10:7).
In other words, St. Paul was cheering on the Christian community in Corinth, “Go! Fight! Win!”
I like the way St. Paul viewed the struggle for sanctity as a sport.
Often, we balk at the suggestion that we should aim to be saints. We tend to think that sanctity is reserved for an elite few, and that the rest of us are doomed to either spiritual mediocrity or damnation. We want to be good but we find it hard.
St. Paul himself knew how hard it is to aim to be a saint. His writings reflect his awareness of his sinful past, and even post-conversion he wrote about “the thorn of the flesh” and having had to be delivered from his “body of death”.
Perhaps it is because he knew how discouraging the struggle against oneself can be, that he wrote about it in terms of sports to encourage his readers. Sports are tough and demanding. They involve pain and hard training. But they are fun, too. They are all about a sense of accomplishment when one wins, hope for another second chance of victory when one loses, and camaraderie with one’s teammates in any case.
It is depressing to examine one’s conscience every night and discover that one has committed the same faults and sins as the day before. But it is less discouraging to see one’s repeated falls as the reps that an athlete must do to master a technique. The struggle for sanctity is not about loathing oneself for being a sinner and beating up oneself to become what one is not. The struggle to be a saint is a spiritual sport. One can win with training (developing virtue), proper nutrition and hydration (the Eucharist and the other sacraments), proper treatment of injuries (the sacrament of confession), following the advice of one’s coach (spiritual direction and the teachings of the Church), the right mental attitude (the theological and cardinal virtues), and teamwork (the support we get from each other as members of the Mystical Body of Christ). Like any other sport, it is enjoyable; one fruit of training in this spiritual sport is joy.
St. Paul’s reference to a “perishable wreath” refers to the fact that during his time, victorious athletes got nothing more than crowns of leaves for all their efforts. Today’s athletes receive more durable prizes – metal or plastic trophies, or medals of gold, silver, or bronze – but just the same, these prizes serve no further purpose than to be displayed. Nevertheless, athletes invest a lot just to win these prizes. The prize for winning the spiritual sport of pursuing sanctity is priceless, and surely worth all the effort involved in attaining it.
When we are defeated in the struggle to be good, we can either give in to discouragement, or we can, like a true athlete, train for the next match and try again as many times as needed to win. One day, we will be able to say, like Saint Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith “ (2 Timothy 4:7)
Earlier this week a friend of mine shared an article on Facebook, written by Melinda Selmys of Catholic Authenticity on Patheos. In the blog she describes some of the challenges surrounding the use of NFP, particularly the issues that arise when the risk of an unintended pregnancy are so high as to be unacceptable, but abstaining from sexual intercourse is not conducive to mental and emotional health. A priest told her in essence to try her best, and if she failed to know that she really was trying and to leave it in God’s hands. She describes the mind games encouraged by this situation, saying:
“What it meant was that I was in a position where I couldn’t have a realistic discussion about what I actually wanted in my sex life… but provided I was responding to seduction, swept away by my passions, or just doing it because I felt pressure it wasn’t really my fault.”
I recognize this mind game in my own life. To pick one example, let’s say I have composed a particularly biting and sarcastic email, deliberately not giving myself time to think, stifling that nagging feeling that maybe I should reconsider or at least wait a few hours, and pushed the send button before I could come to my senses. Later on in the throes of regret I told myself it was “in the heat of anger.” It wasn’t. I wanted to be cruel, and I encouraged and hid behind a feeling of anger to make that cruelty possible, and now I allow myself enough regret to make me feel I am not so uncharitable after all.
She goes on to say:
“–the attitude that I generally find in Catholic chastity culture… external circumstances are always the Cross that God is calling you to bear. Internal weakness, on the other hand, is natural. Everybody stumbles. It’s a dirty little secret that almost nobody actually practices the teaching. It’s understood that you are going to succumb to passion, that “frequent recourse to the confessional” will be necessary. That if you’re actually rigid enough to follow the teaching as you profess it, well, probably that would be harmful. But nobody actually does that.”
I do not know if the author actually believes this statement of the “dirty little secret” of NFP, i.e. that no one actually practices it strictly. The comment boxes, both on the particular Facebook thread I read, and on the article itself, contained both rebuttals and affirmations of it. In any event, I don’t want to turn this into an NFP blog. For what its worth, my wife and I practice NFP, it doesn’t seem to cause us too much stress (Deo Gratias), and I don’t think I have ever come across this “Catholic chastity culture” she references, so my two cents on the topic would likely be neither here nor there.
Rather, I want to address the unspoken assumption at the heart of some of the comments, and of much of the debate around (insert hot button topic of sexual ethics in the Church today). NFP is one such arena, but I have personally heard this argument used more frequently in regards to debates around homosexual behaviors and lifestyles, and reception of sacraments by divorced and cohabitating couples. Very few are even talking about what I consider to be the real epidemic, that of pornography within the Church. The argument goes something like this:
“Sure the Church teaches X, Y and Z. But that is not what people actually do. Lots of great Catholics do exactly the opposite and they are still good people, and it’s just a shame that they can’t be more open about it until the oppressive, backwards Church changes her teaching to reflect how people actually practice.”
The problem is that this thinking is 100% wrong-headed. It is exactly backwards.
Whenever I hear this argument used, i.e. that the Church should adjust her teaching to practice, because her ethic is just too hard for people to live up to, I can’t help but think they have understated their case. God’s commandments are not too hard.
They are impossible.
Of course NFP is hard (for a lot of people, not for everyone). Chastity in general is hard. And, as Dorothy Sayers would remind us, lust is not the only deadly sin. There are, in fact, six more, though we often tend to ignore them. Temperance is hard, industry and frugality are hard, generosity is hard, honesty and patience are hard, mercy and justice are hard, and of course, don’t even get me started about humility and charity.
Let me repeat the title of this blog: “Catholicism is impossible.” We get hung up on pelvic issues, (NFP, contraception, divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, but always on the one that other people are committing) possibly because these are so noticeable, possibly because we are just obsessed with sex as a race. We talk about everyone else’s sleeping arrangements and never notice our own sins of gossip and slander. We neglect to mention the extortion, usury, greed and envy that are the backbone of our nation’s economy. We don’t bat an eye over the gluttony and sloth wreaking havoc on our health and happiness.
Have you read the Sermon on the Mount recently?
“Be ye perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
Or to pick another example:
“When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” Luke 18:22-27
Since when has ease or convenience ever been one of the Gospel’s selling points? This is the standard we are called to live up to.
Everyone has a secret failing. For some, NFP is hard. Probably for most. Those for whom it is easy do others a disservice when they act or speak as if it should therefore be easy for everyone, or as if it was easy because of their own merits or strength. Continence, which means perfect control over the appetites, is a gift of God, given to all eventually if they struggle long enough (everyone is continent in Heaven) but very few seem to receive it right away.
Likewise, those for whom patience comes naturally should no go around telling everyone else that patience is easy. The same for every other virtue/vice.
But those who think that the Church should change her teaching to reflect practice have mistaken what the Church’s teaching is. It is not an arbitrary decision that some actions are okay and others are not. When the CDC tells us not to smoke tobacco it is not because a bunch of old white men in D.C. decided that they hate tobacco and are choosing to punish those who like it with cancer. The Church makes statements about what she believes to be fact: e.g. homosexual activity is not in keeping with the best nature of man; usury is not in keeping with love of neighbor; contraception is harmful to marriages and societies; gossip is harmful to communities and souls, and so on and so forth. We may agree or disagree, but let us not have any muddled thinking that these teachings ought to be based upon what people actually do. If people actually were chaste, just, temperate, merciful, humble and charitable, we would not need teachings. We need these teaching because we are, in fact, unchaste, unjust, intemperate, vengeful, proud and selfish. We need to teachings to tell us when we have fallen short, and to warn us to try harder.
I will share with you my own discovery from that process of trying harder, that if you try to battle a besetting sin long enough you will find that two things are true:
You are not really trying as hard as you think you are. You have not resisted to the point of shedding blood, you have not quit your job, moved towns, smashed your computer, engaged an accountability partner, changed your route to and from work, sold your car, cut off your hand or gouged out your eye. Until you have done those things, you aren’t really trying.
Even when you do really try with every fiber of your being (that in itself is a gift) you will find it is impossible. Sure, you may rope yourself off from the sinful act itself but the desire is still there. Part of you still wants it. It is not a sin in itself, but it is not perfect continence either.
We must strive for perfection, not in the hopes that our striving will accomplish it, but so that our striving and failing may reveal our weakness and frailty to ourselves. Then we will pray as we ought, “Lord, I can do nothing on my own. Have Mercy on me, a Sinner, and save me by your power.”
When the humility, weakness and vulnerability of the Infant Jesus enters our souls and shapes them into His helpless image, (swaddled in a feeding trough, or nailed spread-eagled to a wooden beam, both show the same vulnerability) then His power will be made perfect in our weakness.
I returned last month from a pilgrimage to Western Europe. As usual, I was bombarded by the same question countless times: “How was it?” I replied, “It was very good, but challenging.” Lost luggage right at the very start, pilgrims having to cut short the journey due to a family emergency and last, but not the least dramatic of all, lost passports on the eve of our return. It seemed that whatever could possibly go wrong, went wrong with this trip. And yet, despite all the unplanned emergencies and heart-stopping mishaps, most of us, including the ‘victims,’ emerged strengthened by the whole experience, in fact, doubly certain of God’s Providence and protection. In a way, the surprises were the value-added elements of our pilgrimage – a reminder to be constantly vigilant and be ready for the moment when the Lord decides to change our life’s itinerary.
But in hindsight, no amount of careful pre-planning or caution could have prevented the twist and turns in our itinerary. What then was needed to weather the unannounced storms and detours of life? This is where today’s parable becomes illuminating. Many have focused on the element of wakefulness in today’s parable. But it is important to take note that the passage records that “all became drowsy and fell asleep.” The wise slept as well as the foolish! But there is no hint of rebuke or disapproval from the Lord. It seemed perfectly natural, under the circumstances. This indicates that Christian vigilance does not mean continually peering up into the heavens like an air-raid sentry on duty. Reminders, like the Church’s annual season of Advent, are helpful and needed, but what our Lord is indicating is that watching also allows time for normal activities. Money must be earned, food must be cooked, laundry washed, school lessons learnt, weddings and funerals held, time for rest and leisure — life must go on.
So, the crucial difference between the wise and the foolish has to do not with staying awake but with having sufficient oil. In unraveling the mystery and the symbolism of the oil, we can perhaps begin to understand the depth and meaning of being prepared in the Christian context. Oil, in the Old Testament, is frequently used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Kings and priests were anointed with oil as a sign of their consecration (and, supposedly, Spirit-filled). Likewise, in the life of Christians, nothing good happens without the inspiration, the guidance and the strength afforded by the Holy Spirit. We are anointed with the oil of Sacred Chrism at baptism and Confirmation, signifying the gift of the Holy Spirit poured into our lives.
Notice that both the wise and foolish bridesmaids had oil to start with. The difference lay with the extra jar of oil. The vital point in the foolish bridesmaids’ ‘foolishness’ was not that they ‘slumbered and slept’ but that they had no oil in their vessels. They had oil in their ‘lamps’ to start with, a testimony of the sanctifying grace a person receives at baptism. But they failed to bring along an extra supply of oil – indicating the many souls who fail to grow in sanctity, making use of the channels of grace like Holy Communion and frequent confessions, failing to apply themselves to grow spiritually through study, devotion and prayer.
The great danger is that so many have become contented with the mere fact that we are baptized and have done little more to grow in our personal faith life. This is the problem with the foolish bridesmaids. They had forgotten an important lesson in life: it’s not just how you begin the story but how you choose to end it. Our salvation depends on so much more than just being baptized. Our faith must go beyond the rudimentary catechism that was given to us when we were young. It demands that we live out the call to holiness that comes with being a Child of God. That’s what’s so wrong about the fundamentalist evangelical idea of “once saved, always saved,” that you only have to believe and accept Christ as your Savior once in your life to be automatically “saved” regardless of what you do the rest of your life. That is certainly not true. St. Paul tells us that “he who endures to the end will be saved.” And if our light is to endure to the end, we need an extra reservoir of oil which continually feeds the flame of life, never letting it falter or gutter out in darkness, under-girding them in every hour of stress, of pressure or disaster, keeping them firm and steady in the midst of the buffeting pressures of life.
Holiness is that extra reservoir of oil. We begin on our path to holiness at Baptism. Through it, we become holy, sharers in the divine life. But that is only the start. In the Eucharist, our holiness is deepened, as we become one with the source of holiness, our Lord Jesus Christ. Confirmation strengthens us, and Reconciliation offers us forgiveness if we have strayed from the path of holiness. The Sacrament of the Sick consoles us in our weakness. Holy Orders and Matrimony give us the grace to sustain ourselves as we serve others in the states of ordained ministry and marriage. All the sacraments assist us on our way as we strive to live a holy life. We must never feel complacent that we have sufficient ‘oil’ of holiness. We must be constantly working at ensuring that we have an extra supply.
That is why the wise bridesmaids could not share their extra oil with the foolish ones. This is because the oil which the wise bridesmaids possess is not something external — like food or clothes or money. The oil which is used in this parable is a symbol of inner spirituality, virtue, and the faith life of a person that has been nurtured carefully with prayer, the sacraments, spiritual practices, devotions and a commitment to living the Word of God. It is product of personal sacrifice, devotion and discipline. Holiness is simply not transferable.
We may be secretly sympathetic toward the plight of the five foolish bridesmaids. We too wish to step forward and hand them our oil and perhaps find ways to lighten their burdens. But the truth is, this is not possible. One of the important lessons that my last pilgrimage taught me and which coincides with the message of today’s parable is this: Holiness or even readiness cannot be shared or transferred to another. It is most personal for it is our lives that we are preparing. Some other pilgrims later shared with me how they would have been willing to exchange places with the couple who had lost their passports. God could not have chosen a more vulnerable pair. The thought that others were willing to take their place was inspiring. Unfortunately, this was not possible. No one could take their place when it came to lost passports. Likewise, no one would be able to make up for the insufficient oil that each of us needs to keep our lamps lit and burning.
As we continue to wait for the Divine Bridegroom, with many, if not all of us, feeling drowsy or perhaps even falling asleep, let us pay heed to the words of the gospel and the advice of that Great Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine:
“Watch with the heart, watch with faith, watch with love, watch with charity, watch with good works …; make ready the lamps, make sure they do not go out …, renew them with the inner oil of an upright conscience; then shall the Bridegroom enfold you in the embrace of His love and bring you into His banquet room, where your lamp can never be extinguished.”
Rev. Michael Chua is a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is the parish priest of the Church of Jesus Caritas, Kepong and Administrator of the Chapel of Kristus Aman, Taman Tun Dr Ismail, KL, as well as Ecclesiastical Assistant and Chaplain for the Catholic Lawyers Society.
There is so much in the world for us all if we only have the eyes to see it, and the heart to love it, and the hand to gather it to ourselves – so much in men and women, so much in art and literature, so much everywhere in which to delight, and for which to be thankful. – Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of the Island
Did you know that the ladybug (or ladybird) is named for Our Lady? In German, it’s Marienkäfer; in Dutch, it’s Lieveheersbeestje, “Dear Lord’s little bug”. Did you know tempura has its etymology in Quatour Tempora and was invented by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries in Nagasaki?1 Or that La Macarena is Our Lady of Hope, and Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes is Our Lady of Ransom?2 And that “goodbye” means “God be with you”?3
God made Creation, and saw that it was good (Genesis 1). As Catholics, we are not Gnostics, who thought that the world of matter is bad, and we must be liberated from it into the realm of pure spirit. No – we affirm that Creation is good. Christ truly took on human flesh and He has sanctified it. Eric Johnston wrote on the Solemnity of the Assumption: “Jesus did not have to take Mary’s body into heaven. But in doing so, he proclaims that our whole selves fit into heaven. Our body is not the obstacle. Sin is not about our bodies; holiness is not about being less bodily, or less human. Jesus (the Word through whom all things were made) created us in the beginning in His image and likeness; He created us so that we, in the fullness of our humanity, can ascend to the presence of God.”4
Nor are Catholics pantheists. We know that God the Creator is transcendent; we do not confuse His omnipresence as Him being a deity wholly immanent in Creation.5 We love Creation as a gift from Him and exercise stewardship over it, just as Adam did in the Garden of Eden.
Anthony Esolen writes: “When, in Genesis 2:19, the Lord God brings the animals to Adam, the man exercises a godlike authority in granting them names, not, we are to suppose, based upon the dictates of his willful pleasure, but upon his insight into what they really are.”6 Similarly, Catholics down the ages – monks, missionaries and scientists – have taken the responsibility of naming animals, plants (Passionfruit, I’m looking at you), stars, lunar craters, diseases, places (Munich, San Francisco and the Whitsundays, anyone? We’ve got Novena in Singapore), food, beverages, you name it, we’ve got it.
I once read an article reflecting that in naming the animals, Adam formed a type of relationship with them; you don’t name things you don’t care about. Last July, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane gave a talk on mission, saying, “God wants us to cooperate with Him in His ongoing work of creation and salvation. He asked Adam to name the animals. God could have named the animals Himself, but He wants us, as the Body of Christ, to help Him in creating order out of chaos.”
So, the next time a ladybug alights on your arm, a Saint Bernard gambols up to you, or you drink some passionfruit juice while munching on a Filet-O-Fish, give thanks to God for His wondrous deeds, and take delight in the pure beauty of existence.
Our Lord had a divine sense of humor, because He revealed that the universe was sacramental… A spoken word is a kind of sacrament, because there is something material or audible about it; there is also something spiritual about it, namely, its meaning… In a world without a divine sense of humor, architecture loses decoration and people lose courtesy in their relationships with one another. – Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, “These Are the Sacraments“
And now thus saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and formed thee, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed thee, and called thee by thy name: thou art mine. – Isaiah 43:1
“I prefer a family with tired faces from generous giving, to a family with faces full of makeup that know nothing of tenderness and compassion. I prefer a man and a woman, don Aniceto and his wife, with faces that are wrinkled due to the daily struggles over the fifty years of strong married love; and here we have them, and their son has learned the lesson from them and is now twenty-five years married. These are families.”
—Pope Francis’s message to families in Mexico
While the whole world is fascinated by the statements Pope Francis made on the plane ride back from Mexico, it is this quote, directed to the family, that struck me. I am expecting my fifth son in a few weeks/days, to go with four boys (5, 4, 3, and 19 months). Quotes like these, which affirm the joy of family, appeal to a young father like me who still struggles to see the joy in every minute of every day. Yet there is something more to this quote than just my experience or comprehension of it. In this I see the small daily conversion to Christ’s teachings that takes place when someone encounters a holy person (or even someone who strives for holiness). Rather than being repelled by the physical appearances of this elderly couple, Francis is renewed in his mission to speak for the beauty of the family. Where society sees suffering, sacrifice, pain, and waste, Francis sees joy, beauty, goodness, and truth.
Family life is filled with great experiences of games, joy, and laughter. Along with them, there is exhaustion, strain, and exerted patience. The “sacrifice” of the family, however, is not arbitrary or fruitless. The sacrifice is the constant kenosis—the emptying of the self—that imitates Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. What Francis is calling for in his homily is, in many ways, a societal return to true heroism and true selflessness, which is manifested in and through the family. He calls for a society built on selflessness, heroism, and virtue—in other words, a society centered on love. Francis’s description of the ideal family reveals his belief that a virtuous society will arise only from the family.
The Selfless Family
Family is the first and vital cell of society (Apostolicam Actuositatem 11), society’s root (Gaudium et Spes 52). A healthy society, therefore, comes about when families form and create persons who are for others. The family begins from the free and open self-gift between a man and a woman (AA 11). This self-gift naturally leads to the fostering of offspring that will further the future of society. Rather than being prepackaged robots, children come with their own originality and personalities. They need to learn how to eat, sleep, behave, and do many things their parents have taken for granted. With these experiences come joy and accomplishment. They also bring anxiety, sleep deprivation, and frustration. Frankly, they bring out the best and the worst. I can speak of this from experience. With each child, my ability to love has expanded to reach horizons I never thought possible. Yet this expansion has revealed levels of sin I thought were long gone or never knew I had. For example, I am more patient than I have ever been, only because I have seen how impatient I was before. In calling me out of my own sinfulness and my own way of thinking, my children challenge me to become the man God desires. While the wrinkles are forming (as Francis stated), these wrinkles are only part of the kenosis I must undertake to imitate Christ in all things, including suffering. In this selfless giving of life, the parents become examples for the future generation to imitate, showing that life is only truly lived in service to others.
The Heroic Family
“The way to rest is through toil, the way to life is through death” (Pope St. Leo the Great). This simple and yet direct statement from Francis’s predecessor proclaims the mission and focus of discipleship in the family. As seen above, the expansion of the parents’ love for their children brings with it much work, responsibility, and sacrifice. These experiences are God’s way of calling us to closer communion with Him in our imitation of His Son. Christ’s suffering on the Cross for the sake of others is the greatest example of heroism for all humanity to imitate. The sacrifice of one’s life, the giving up of the will for that of the Father, is the call to all Catholics: ordained, religious, or lay. For the layperson, vocation is lived through the family. The family becomes the sacrament of the Church for the world and is the apostolate for the laity. The ideal of heroism shines through the Church, and not simply through the examples of men and women who died, were persecuted, or gave up everything for the faith. The Church shines with equal brilliance through the simple daily living of the “quiet” saints. These holy men and women may not have done deeds to be told from generations to generations, but they do the small things that light a fire that will not be quenched. Helping neighbors move or clean house, shoveling the snow for the elderly, giving up time to assist in a church function like a fish fry, or simply stopping to assist someone in need on the road or sidewalk: these simple, quiet acts produce saints. These hidden saints support the more-known heroes, instilling virtues within them. St. Augustine had his mother Monica to give witness to patience and humility; St. Therese of Lisieux’s parents bore patiently her difficult temperament in childhood and are now canonized saints. Behind the portrait of each saint is someone, be it a parent, family member, or family friend, who inspired and instilled the courage to take on the great task of sainthood. For every great missionary, there is someone in the background who gives the saint inspiration to continue forward regardless of the cost. The family is the environment upon which true heroism is created. The family is the environment to which we need to return.
The Virtuous Society
The heroic family brings about a truly virtuous society. As Gaudium et Spes explicitly states, a just society has the human person as “the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions” (25). A society naturally does this because it is composed of persons who came from a family that constantly focused on the building-up of persons into other well-centered humans. This family comes with wrinkles; it comes with suffering and with sacrifice. Yet, formed in love, these wrinkles become a wealth of knowledge, not scars of exhaustion. Done in love, suffering becomes redemptive, a victorious sign of our ability to overcome our own selfishness to build something greater. Done in love, our sacrifices allow us to become what we truly desire; they become the source of our freedom and life. The wrinkles, sufferings, and sacrifices show that the person we were before these events carried a yoke that was heavy and a burden that was not light. I’d like to conclude with an example of virtue that was exhibited to me not too long ago. Our son was sent to the hospital, and due to the nature of the visit, we were held up all weekend. We could not bring all four kids with us and needed to give attention to our hospitalized son. Our family came to our aid and took the three other kids over the weekend (with no forewarning). Friends who heard of our situation came to our aid, cleaned our house (which was a mess at the time), and chipped in with some appliances and furniture that needed to be replaced (without us even asking or making any indication that it was needed). They came in during their weekend, missed events they were scheduled to attend (with good speakers, I might add), and donated their financial resources to help us out in a time of need. In these saintly acts I am sure some wrinkles were added, but in doing so new stories of heroism and courage can be told. This was a case of a virtuous community that was formed not out of self-love, but of the selfless assistance to those in need. When I see these families, I see the description of what Francis has been calling for. No, he is not naïve; he sees the real challenges and burdens we face from society and mostly from our own sinfulness. But among these ashes comes the greater joy, the joy of being loved—first by God, then by family, and finally by friends. Always rooted within the family, we are shown God’s love and mercy and come to express this through our love of others. The family is the place where this takes place. It is God’s designated vehicle to make His Son known.
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. – John 15:11
Joy is like an old ship that was headed for some adventure, but sunk instead like a slow rock under the heaviness of life, waiting to be unearthed.
Divers, plunging in on the breath of prayer, found my ship a while ago, full of Spanish gold.The treasure laden ship has started to rise to the surface on the current of contemplation. But I am reluctant to let it. I have just enough of the joy currency to coast.
I don’t really want to strike it rich. If I throw my money around everyone will think I am one of those annoying nouveau riche Christians. And they will either roll their eyes or expect way too much of me. They won’t realize of course that the money is not mine, I inherited it a while back.
The marine trust fund has been discovered, but it could disappear underwater again at any time. So, instead of facing the constant fear of sinking, I simply keep my hand on the ship of joy, watching as it bobs underwater, struggling to surface.
Too much joy after all is just not something most people can handle. It causes unrealistic expectations and I am deathly afraid of smiling for the rest of my life. Joy and sanctity are so intertwined. Too much sanctity, now that is even scarier than the never ending smile. So I have decided to keep this joy boat under wraps.
It seems proper.
After all, like most people, I prefer to waver just above average in the sanctity business – just enough so people will admire me but no more. With anything more than slightly above mediocre comes the hassle of consistency. God knows, it’s the consistency that makes a saint. And then the adventure is all over from there.
Or is it?
I forgot it’s the ship of joy that carries us on the adventure in the first place.
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