Views of a new Catholic in an old world on the joy and inexhaustible meaning found in the Faith
Crux fidelis inter omnes, Arbor una nobilis: Nulla silva talem profert, Fronde, flore, germine, Dulce lignum, delces clavos, Dule Pondus sustinet.
(Faithful Cross above all other. One and only noble tree. None in foliage, none in blossom none in fruit they peer may be; Dearest wood and dearest iron, Dearest weight is hung on thee)
“We cannot forget at what price we have been saved, every day. Sacrifice is not an objection but is rather the root of the Resurrection; it is the possibility of a true life. The event that reoccurs here and now and, if it first and foremost a fact – a fact that you cannot reduce to nothing, that you cannot censor, that you cannot cancel – if it is first and foremost a fact, it is a fact for you, a fact of supreme interest to you. It is a fact for you!” Msgr. Luigi Giussani
“We need the presence of God with us, Jesus every day. And Jesus, because of the sacrifice of His cross and because of His resurrection, dwells among us, every day. There will be noise on the bridge, possible confusion. It is the very noise and confusion of our city where we spend our days. We will need to desire great attention in order to follow Jesus and to fix our gaze on the event of His Passion. It is the very same attention that is needed to look at the event of His presence among us every day.” (From the procession’s program)
Friday morning, my two sons and I will travel from New Jersey to Brooklyn’s Cathedral Basilica of Saint James by train and by subway to participate in what promises to be a beautiful event. Thousands of believers are expected to walk in silence from Brooklyn, cross the Brooklyn Bridge, and into Lower Manhattan to commemorate the death of our Lord. If you live in the New York metropolitan area, I hope you will join us.
I also am wondering: What special way will you observe Good Friday?
I never have participated in such a public procession of faith and I pray that all of us who walk will, as the organizers suggest, “maintain silence all along the Way of the Cross, a silence in front of God dying for us, a silence that isn’t merely not speaking, but is the simplest, purest way to beg to recognize His presence in our daily life.”
This particular Way of the Cross began in 1996 with a handful of friends in the Communion and Liberation movement. Slowly, the event grew and now 6,000 are expected to fill the streets and stop at stations that follow Christ’s walk to Calvary. This is a dramatic way to commemorate this day. I will let you know how it goes.
Guest Post by John Eklund (an excerpt from his novel)
One day a humble servant of the Lord lost a very dear friend to the scourge cancer. The humble servant felt great sorrow and prayed that he would someday see his friend again. After much time in prayer, the humble servant was confronted by a demon. The demon said to him, “Why do you waste your time in prayer? There is no proof that God exists.”
The humble servant answered him, “I have faith and that is why I pray.” The demon then said to him with disdain, “Faith is no more than superstition. On what do you base this ‘faith?’”
The humble servant answered, “I base this faith on trust.” ”Trust in whom?” the demon retorted. “In whom do you have such trust that you would ignore the laws of probability and the laws of science?”
“I trust in Christ,” the humble servant replied. “In Christ!” the demon exclaimed. “In Christ! Name one thing Christ has done to earn your trust. Tell me please, what has He ever done to earn your prayers? I dare you to name one miracle He has ever performed that has been proven by science to be true. Name it! Name it!” he taunted with glee.
The humble servant stood with patience, and then answered with three simple words: “The Church exists.”
“What?” the demon declared in confusion. “What!” he said again with vexation. “What do you mean ‘the Church exists?’ Please tell me how this relates to trust. Please tell me how this justifies your wasted time in prayer?”
The humble servant calmly explained his answer. “Jesus Christ made a promise–the simple promise ‘Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.’ And now after 2,000 years the Church still endures. It endures despite a history of heresies and persecutions. It endures despite the tyranny of despots. It endures despite the laws of probability and the laws of science. What greater miracle is there than this—that the son of a simple carpenter, who lived a life of poverty, and dwelled with the lowly, who never ventured more than a hundred miles from the town of his birth, and who died a criminal’s death on a cross, would establish a great and holy Church, and that the teachings of this Church would be spread throughout the world by twelve simple men–men who hid in fear after the crucifixion? Yet in a mere three days after this lowly criminal’s death, these twelve sprang forth and proclaimed His word and gave up their lives so that His promise would ring true. And over the centuries thousands of others gave their lives also, so that the Church would go on. The most powerful kings and most menacing armies stood against her, but the Church did not falter. For 2000 years this Church has withstood the test of time, overcoming the greatest of odds again and again. It surmounted the insurmountable. It beat the unbeatable foe. It prevailed through the harshest of storms. I say to you, this Church has shattered the very laws that you exalt. It defied that laws of probability, and it humbled the laws of science.”
The humble servant continued on, “The existence of this Church is not a myth. The existence of this Church is not a legend. That this Church exists is an undeniable fact. That Christ’s promise was kept is an undeniable fact. And if He kept this promise, then how can there be any doubt that He will keep His greatest promise—the promise that was central to His ministry, the promise that said ‘If you believe in me, and eat of this bread, and drink of this cup, you shall live forever.’ So when you ask ‘why do I have faith,’ I tell you, it is because I have trust, and nothing that your fair science can offer can break that trust. This is why I pray, so that someday I will enjoy that most sacred covenant of all”–the humble servant paused briefly and then added with solemnity and conviction–”together with my friend!” He then looked the demon right in the eye. “What good can your science and probability offer that is greater than this?”
With those words, the demon turned away, never to bother the humble servant again.
Early this year a reader sent me a copy of his novel, “The Third Testament,” and asked me to review it. I devoured the book in a matter of days and want to strongly recommend it to our readers.
John Eklund’s tale is about a widower named Fred Smith, a professor at a small Catholic college who dreams that God has asked him to record the next testament of the Bible. The novel recounts his research on Church history since Christ, interspersing the story of a man in search of his destiny. If this sounds like a dry topic, it is anything but. The book is intriguing and inspiring and yes, had me laughing and crying by the end.
I could quibble with Mr. Smith’s assessment of what moments in modern history are divinely inspired. For example, he gushes on about President Reagan without a word about Martin Luther King Jr. and the transformative civil rights movement. But this is, after all, a novel and the narrator a fictional character. But by the end, John Eklund the writer had me so convinced it was HIS story just superficially fictionalized that I was worrying about his widowhood, the cancer his daughter struggles with and so on.
Turns out he is Dr. John Eklund, MD an oncologist and hematologist who looks young enough to be my kid brother. He’s happily married with a daughter. His book deserves a much wider audience than a self-published novel can find and I pray a publisher will find a place for it. Anyone have a contact?
We Catholics might know our catechism, but few of us, including me, learned much about the miracles and mysteries of Church history as children. This book is a gift that gives us a wonderful way to start.
Today while I was having my nails done, I struck up a conversation with the shop owner, who was sitting beside me. Another customer and I commented on the beautifully ornate palm weaving that hung from the shop wall; turns out a Catholic customer from the Dominican Republic had given it to her after Palm Sunday. Then, as the conversation proceeded, I discovered the Korean-born shop owner is Catholic and that she and I are parishioners at the same church. She prefers the 8 a.m. Sunday Mass, while my family tends to go at 11 a.m.
This conversation continued as her employee was applying polish to my nails and then, as I waited for my nails to dry. It was a reminder to me during Holy Week of how vast and beautiful the Church is and also of what sacrifices believers have made for our faith.
J. is a third-generation Korean Catholic and she spoke to me about the persecution of Korean Catholics suffered during the late 19th century. Today, the Catholic Church thrives in South Korea; 10 percent of the population is baptized in the Church. It moves me deeply to consider that thousands of Koreans have been willing to die, rather than to renounce Christ.
When I returned home from J’s salon, I read up a bit on the Martyrs of Korea. The first two centuries of Catholicism in Korea riddled with massacres against believing Catholics. The worst happened in 1864, when a new persecution claimed the lives of two bishops, six French missionaries, another Korean priest, and eight thousand Korean Catholics. Pope John Paul II canonized the Korean martyrs of 1839, 1846, and 1867 in 1984 in Seoul. Their feast day is Sept. 20.
He said then:”The splendid flowering of the Church in Korea today is indeed the fruit of the heroic witness of the Martyrs. Even today, their undying spirit sustains the Christians in the Church of silence in the North of this tragically divided land.”
OK, I admit: I went grudgingly. The leader of our School of Community proposed we do a work of charity for the parish monthly. The pastor suggested visiting a local nursing home within our parish boundaries and where he celebrates Mass once a month. And so today seven of us met at the entrance of the nursing home. I kept thinking: I have papers to grade and laundry to do and a kitchen to clean and a garden to plant. And I also thought: I never have been inside a nursing home.
At the door we were greeted by the director of volunteers, a cheery woman who peppered her tour with humor and with practical and wise suggestions. She showed us the cupboard that holds the sign-in sheets and our name tags, the chapel where we’ll spend some time in prayer before spending time with residents, and the rooms where we will play board games with residents. The facility was full of light and plants and a fat cat and older people in wheelchairs and using walkers.
As I walked around, I began to see this work could be enjoyable to me. Yes, I am busy but I do have an hour once a month to enrich my life by becoming part of someone else’s. M, who leads our School of Community, reminded us that when we say we are “volunteering” we are helping someone else. When we understand that we are reaching out in charity, we are acknowledging our own needs, as much as someone else’s.
Father Luigi Giussani, who founded Communion and Liberation, described charity this way:
Life must be total sharing, but disattention, fear, love of comfort, obstacles in the environment, malice, all empty life of the value of charity. To create a mentality of charity, the most humble and effective way is to begin to live some remnant of free time expressly, purposely as a sharing in the life of others. Commitment involving physical sacrifice, moreover, is essential for it to influence our mentality.
Who loved us first? Charity helps us to return that love. This work is a small gesture of my need and my gratitude.
Our catechism teaches: “When charity animates his moral life, the Christian is free from servile fear and lives as a son responding to God who “first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). “If we obey out of love for him who commands, we are in the position of his children” (St. Augustine).
After we closed on our house but before we had left California, Tommy had the brilliant idea to call our one and only neighbor, ostensibly to introduce ourselves, but really because we were scared that the reason our house had been on the market for so long was that it shared a fence with some kind of psycho, like an axe murderer or an amateur metal-band guitarist. Much to our relief, the littler white house is owned by a single, retired army officer who does genealogy reports for families and is the music director at his church. He told us that the storm door on our house was broken and that there were a lot of walnut trees. Whew! Another bullet dodged! And we would have been perfectly content had it ended there, but it didn’t.
Flash forward to Mike-Tyson-punches-you-while-you’re-in-labor-and-have-food-poisoning. Here comes Gordon, his elastic-waist, polyester shorts neatly pressed, white beard trimmed just so, his arms filled with love and kindness. The minute he got off the phone that day with Tommy, you see, he started collecting things for us- event calendars, family activities lists, local newspapers, coupons to nearby restaurants. In another basket was a coffee mug filled with Hershey’s kisses and mints and a wooden pen that he had carved by hand after he found out that Tommy was a woodworker. And rolled up neatly with all the other goodies was this amazing list that he had put together just for us, filled with all his trusted service-people and friends, in case we needed anything when we arrived.
This beautiful list has been used and abused and loved and is still absolutely indispensable to us on this journey, all because of the kindness of a stranger. And to top it off, as if all that wasn’t already enough, we found out that he had his entire congregation praying for our safety and happiness as we drove our silly selves across this great country. Hundreds of people that we didn’t even know had been thinking, hoping, praying that we, a little family from California who they might never know would make it safely to our new home. The light of Christ shown brightly on us that afternoon and we knew everything would be okay.
Saint Isidore of Seville’s life story lets us know that for centuries Christian witnesses have helped to restore the Church by synthesizing contemplation and action. As the Church celebrates his feast day, we can learn a few things about our own lives from his example. In particular, we can understand that a holy life is not one in which we remove ourselves from the world; rather it is a life where we embrace the people and circumstances Christ brings to us.
He’s called the last scholar of the ancient world. His most important work, the 20-volume Etymologaie, is considered the world’s first encyclopedia. It was widely used for 1,000 years. He was an advocate of reading the Bible. “Reading the holy Scriptures confers two benefits. It trains the mind to understand them; it turns man’s attention from the follies of the world and leads him to the love of God.”
But he wasn’t an egg-head academic; he was a man of both thought and action. As an archbishop. St. Isidore also oversaw the Second Synod of Seville (619) and the Fourth National Council of Toledo (633), both meetings that unified Church teaching at a critical time in her history. This, along with St. Isidore’s establishment of schools to study every area of learning, not insignificantly, made Spain a center of culture and learning.
This record of accomplishment is a bit intimidating, yes? Most of us don’t occupy positions of power or authority and won’t have the chance to reform the Church or write works of enduring value. What can we learn from his life?
St. Isidore tells us that only by engaging in the reality before us can we hope to understand God. “Those who seek to attain repose in contemplation must first train in the stadium of active life; and then, free from the dross of sin, they will be able to display that pure heart which alone makes the vision of God possible.”
Earlier this week, a man I’ve known and respected for years slapped me in the face. Hard. Well, he didn’t slap me in the face, he slapped a friend of mine in the face. He didn’t slap her literally, it was a figurative slap and it stung her and it stung me, too.
One very human response to belittlement is to condemn the aggressor, to wish him ill and to begin plotting revenge. But Christ calls us in a different direction: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.”
And so I offered no resistance. I interrupted his cycle of aggression. I emotionally detached myself from this man and reflected that he too, is a child of God. Maybe, just maybe, without my responding in kind, this man might begin to reflect on his own behavior and on why he needed to berate someone else. What emptiness in his own soul was he trying to fill with anger? I asked myself: how can I begin to see him as God does?
Turning the other cheek is not easy, nor does it feel natural to me. The night after the awful slap in the face, I was able to let go of my anger, but I could not take the next step: to pray for my enemy. St. Thomas reminds us: “To pray for another is an act of charity… Wherefore we are bound to pray for our enemies in the same manner as we are bound to love them… We must love in them their nature, not their sin.”
I tried but I simply could not pray for him. That evening, as I drifted off to sleep, I begged God to find someone, anyone, to pray for this man. That was the best I could offer. I’ve discovered God answered my prayers within hours: The friend slapped most directly told me she devoted her morning prayer time to this man.
So while this slap smarted, it taught me too. It showed me some steps in front of me on my journey.