St. John Paul II: Be Not Afraid
“Do not be afraid!” Who does not want to hear these words and believe them? With everything we hear in the news it is easy to feel somewhat overwhelmed. Additionally we have to deal with the ‘stuff of our lives,’ the ups and downs, responsibilities and burdens, big and small. Life has always been this way, but there is a temptation to believe that somehow the kind of danger, uncertainty, and confusion which surround us are worse now than ever before. Tempting as it might be, giving in to the evils around us because they are “too big” is not the answer; we do not want to fall into a moral fog, a kind of ‘stupefication’ in which we feel powerless to stand firm in the gospel values we have been taught. In 1978 the world was in similar circumstances. That year, in the midst of all the machinations of worldly powers, our new pope of only 33 days, John Paul I, died suddenly and quite unexpectedly, causing more than just a small ripple in the already chaotic waters in which we perceived ourselves. But then on October 22 of that same year a new voice moved us. Pope John Paul II, in his homily at the Mass of his inauguration as Pope, clearly and firmly said: “Do not be afraid!” These words echoed the very words Jesus repeated over and again to His frightened and bewildered followers. They gave the apostles great comfort, even empowered them, and these words should continue to do the same for us.
The man who would become St. John Paul II, Karol Wojtytla, was born in Poland in 1920 and served the church from the time of his priestly ordination in 1946 until his death in 2005 as Pope John Paul II. Although he died on April 2, the church assigned his feast to October 22, in honor of the day that he was inaugurated as Pope. This is the same day he delivered the homily in which he firmly declared that we should not be afraid. In truth, the quote is often taken out of context: while it is wonderful to be reminded not to be afraid, the full quote has even greater impact. St. John Paul said, “Be not afraid to welcome Christ and accept His power…. Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ.” We have nothing to fear because in welcoming Christ we are also accepting His power. In only a few sentences St. John Paul summed up the heart of the gospel message: Jesus came to save us, He is with us always, and we are empowered to withstand any foe with Him by our side. However, opening wide the doors is something we have to do. Jesus does not force Himself upon us, nor does He hand us everything on a silver platter. Rather, we have to take what He offers and do the work with Him and for Him. It is freely offered and all we have to do is accept.
St. John Paul reminds us to keep our eyes focused on God rather than to be weakened by thoughts of the evils and confusion of our present time. This has always been God’s message: from the beginning God has wanted us to recognize that He is ever present, and in love, He offers His very power (grace) to withstand all which assails us. He does not promise trouble-free lives, but rather promises to be with us as we try to withstand the evils that surround or even attack us. An example of this is found in the Old Testament story of Abraham who needed to go to Sodom to rescue his nephew Lot from the clutches of evil. God seemed set on destroying the evildoers in the Sodom area, but Abram (as he was called then) boldly appealed to God’s mercy, something he knew to be at the heart of who God is. Again and again Abram reminded God that for the sake of the good people in the city He needed to relent. It was an amazing conversation (prayer) because Abram trusted that he could approach God boldly, though respectfully, interceding on behalf of those like his nephew who were in need of being saved. We tend to focus on the end of the story when Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, but the truth is that God did keep His promise to Abram, because He did save the just ones. However, the just ones had to work at it, too; they had to accept God’s power offered to them when He gave specific instructions about their escape. Lot and his retinue were spared for the most part, but those who did not accept God chose destruction instead. These verses are meant to remind us that God is in control, but that this does not always eliminate struggles and pain. Lot had suffering throughout this frightening ordeal and he even lost his wife as they escaped; the passage does not have a storybook happy ending for anyone, because life is not like a storybook. But the reality is that God never stopped being with Lot and the survivors. The story is not about God’s wrath against evildoers, but rather it is about God’s mercy and justice going hand in hand. We cannot have one without the other. God took no pleasure in watching sin get so rampant that it imploded the community of the evildoers. However, in His love He offered to accompany those willing to be on that particularly dangerous journey into freedom. He offered His power to those who would accept and they lived. (See Genesis 18:16 through 19:29 for the entire context)
The point of all this is that we must never despair when life or life-choices seem overwhelming. Not only that, there is always something we can do in the face of evil or confusion. First and foremost we can pray. We can take the gifts and graces which we have been given, no matter how small or large, and apply them to our lives. We can pray to know God better, to recognize Him and His presence, to know the gifts He has given, to have discernment as to how to use them, and to then move outward in action according to our call. Just as the apostles went from being a rather motley crew of faith-filled but ordinary folks with open minds and big hearts, so too can we move forward according to our call and situation in life. Second, through study of Scripture, especially the Gospels, we can learn to trust more intently that God loves us beyond imagining. Through Scripture we see all the acts of gratuitous love that God has offered over and again, but we can also learn how we must take responsibility to accept the power He has offered through the sacraments and through grace. Third, we can turn to one another when we are feeling weak, remembering that Jesus said that where two or three are gathered in His name, there He is. (Matthew 18:20) We do not have to be strong all the time, but if we rely on the faith community to which we belong we will persevere to the end. There is power in numbers!
St. John Paul II also articulated another very important reality. He said: “Redemption is ongoing. Where evil grows, there the hope for good also grows…. There is no evil from which God cannot draw forth a greater good. There is no suffering which He cannot transform into a path leading to Him…..”† There is great wisdom and deep understanding of the gospel in these words. No matter what evil there is in the world, no matter how bad the situation seems, God’s grace is never absent in the midst of His people. We were given the power of faith, hope, and love at baptism and He has provided the daily sustenance found in His Body and Blood. We must remember that we are meant to participate in the work of building up the Kingdom here and therefore He gives us what we need to do so, but the work is ultimately His. And let us not forget that in finding Him and accepting His powerful love is great joy, a joy that is often beyond what we feel, but which lives deep within our hearts. As St. John Paul II has said, “Do not be afraid to welcome Christ and to accept His power.” If we invite Christ into our minds and hearts, allowing ourselves to be totally His like St. John Paul II,* we are never alone. It is only the power of God that can get us through the times in which we live, so let us trust, pray, and open the doors for Christ. Be not afraid to welcome Christ and accept His power.
May we ask for the intercession of St. John Paul II that we would not become captive to fear in the midst of our daily reality! May we persevere in our efforts to remain faithful to Jesus, trusting in the power He has given us in Word and Sacrament! May we trust in God’s power to overcome the evils in the world and to lead us safely home to Him at the end of our journey! May we pray for the courage to use the gifts we have been given by the Holy Spirit and may we have the gift of discernment in how to use them! May we find strength in our brothers and sisters, that united as One Body we may help each other in the work of building the Kingdom! And may we always welcome others into our community, teaching them through word and deed of the transformative love and power of Christ! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: The next post will be on November 7.
† These words were spoken by St. John Paul II during an interview. The quote can be found in a book called Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium by John Paul II. I also saw the quote in the October issue of Magnificat.
* You may have recognized the reference to the motto of St. Pope John Paul II: Totus Tuus, which means 'totally His.'
The first photo is one of mine. It was taken on the coast of Maine. I was standing on the beach and zoomed in on a rock outcropping which was sticking up in the bay. I chose this photo because while the ocean was roiling and the winds were blowing, the gulls seemed rather unfazed by the situation. Many of us would need to hear the words, 'be not afraid' at a time like that, but it seems the birds had already taken it to heart.
Next is a photo (not one of mine!) of the iconographer Fr. William Hart McNichols when he was presenting an original icon to St. Pope John Paul II in Denver in 1993. Fr. Bill described the moment as being life-changing insofar as he had the recognition of being in the presence of a saint the moment he was in the presence of St. Pope John Paul II. I chose this for a number of reasons. First the Pope put his hand on Fr. Bill's shoulder, which to me seems to be a gesture of imparting peace between friends. (They had never met before, so the gesture is incredibly telling of the grace and peace within the Saint.) Second, I use many of the icons of Fr. Bill in my posts so I thought it would be good to show the iconographer whose work my readers see so often. Finally, the icon being given was Our Lady of New Advent The Burning Bush. Our Lady is the Mother of Peace, since she is the Mother of Jesus, who is the Prince of Peace.
Third is one of my photos, this one taken in Alpine, TX. Though it is a modern scene, the photo caused me to think of what it might have been like for Lot at the end of the journey back into civilization after being rescued. In my reflection on the Scripture while choosing a photo, the clouds and the town in the distance in this shot seemed to speak of peace and security. Maybe it was the first time Lot was able to perceive beauty again after being in the darkness, surrounded by evildoers. The beauty had never left, but because of his predicament, perhaps he had lost sight of it.
The stained glass photo which comes next is one I took inside St. Ignatius Church on the campus of Boston College. This is a panel within a type of triptych in one window. You can see that Jesus is on His throne in Heaven and He is holding what appears to be the book of the Scriptures. The word Pax, (peace) is emblazoned upon it. Be at peace! Or similarly, "Be not afraid!"
Next is the icon which Fr. William Hart McNichols is holding in the second photo above. It is Our Lady of the New Advent The Burning Bush. It makes sense to chose this icon so that you can really see it, but there is another reason it is appropriate here: Our Lady is an intercessor who hears our prayers for peace in the world, for wisdom, discernment, protection and all of our intentions. There is no more perfect image to have in this post than one of Mary the Mother of Jesus and Queen of Peace. If you are interested in obtaining a copy in a particular medium you can purchase it at the following link: http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/our-lady-of-the-new-advent-the-burning-bush-024-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Peruse the entire site; there are many beautiful icons of various saints, Jesus, and Mary. Christmas is not far off...you might find a gift there. (Remember: I get nothing from endorsing Fr. Bill's icons and images except for sharing the wealth of beauty in his work.)
The last photo is also one of mine. It was taken at Boothbay Harbor, Maine while eating a delicious lobster dinner outside. The sun was setting, gloriously giving the sense of great peace and beauty. Even in the midst of trying times, we should never forget to find God's presence reflected in that which He has made.
The Holy Duke, St. Francis Borgia
This month is an important one in the history of the Society of Jesus, (commonly known as the Jesuits.) On October 2, 2016 they began General Congregation 36, a convening of Jesuits representing every country and province where they have a presence, to discern the direction of the Society and to elect a new Father General who will be the 30th successor to St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. This new Father General will take up the mantle as spiritual and organizational leader for the thousands of Jesuits in the Society, and the prayerful decisions made at the General Congregation will affect the ministry of Jesuits to millions of people all over the world. In honor of this occasion I would like to highlight St. Francis Borgia, SJ, whose feast day is on October 3. He was the third Father General of the Society of Jesus and is regarded historically as a second founder because of the reforms he secured for the young order during the time of his leadership. St. Francis Borgia was a truly remarkable man, known for demonstrating heroic virtue, referred to in his native Spain as “the holy duke” even before he became a Jesuit.
St. Francis Borgia was born in Valencia, Spain, on October 28, 1510. His father was the third duke of Gandía and consequently both his parents were related to people of stature and wealth from various parts of Europe. At the age of 19 he married Leonore de Castro and they had eight children over the course of the next ten years. Francis was in the service of the king and queen, but when the queen died unexpectedly in 1539, he began to experience a conversion to a much deeper spiritual life. His father died in 1543, and so Francis became the fourth duke of Gandía. He continued to function in various prestigious roles until his wife passed away in 1546, at which point he retired completely from courtly service hoping to pursue a religious life. He already knew St. Peter Favre, SJ, and he had also previously founded a Jesuit college in Gandía, so it seems natural that Francis pursued life as a Jesuit himself.
During a retreat directed by the rector of the college, Francis discerned that he was indeed called to religious life, so he resigned his title, entering the Jesuits in 1551. In 1565, only nine years after St. Ignatius’ death, Francis became the third Father General of the Jesuits. He spent seven years in leadership, “revising the Society’s rules, overseeing its expansion, promoting missions in India, North and South America, and in reading and writing countless letters…. [He] began, the Gesù church in Rome as well as the novitiate of Sant’ Andrea,” (also in Rome).* In short, St. Francis Borgia promoted the growth of the Society of Jesus through its early years, adding reforms as they arose, taking the hopes, dreams and desires of St. Ignatius, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit through his prayer and discernment, and labored tirelessly to promote the work which the original Jesuits began: forming schools, giving retreats, doing missionary work, helping the poor, working for justice, and other important works of service to help anyone who was in need.
St. Francis Borgia had a vast array of lived experience: he had been married, a father, widowed, and had also possessed great material wealth and position. Yet when the opportunity arose he chose to live in religious life with vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty. Francis did not become holy overnight or upon his entrance into the Jesuits. Rather, his holiness grew over the course of his life; despite his lofty pedigree he served humbly and continuously from his courtly life throughout his life as a Jesuit, including his time as Father General. It was such a part of his character that one could make an argument that even his death resulted from his humble service. When the pope requested that Francis return to Spain to secure the Jesuits' help against the Turks, he acquiesced although his preference was not to go. While in Spain he was welcomed as ‘the holy duke,’ especially by the people of Barcelona where he had been viceroy many years previously. He served as requested, but this trip weakened his health and he died a few years later (in 1572), having exhausted himself completely in the service of God.
What comes clear in reflecting upon the life and service of St. Francis Borgia is that he was regarded highly from the time he was a young man serving in courtly life to the time of his death. He grew with the grace given him, especially evident in the virtue of humility he cultivated, which rather than being forgotten among the titles and trappings, increased so that he could act upon his call to serve as a Jesuit priest. Therefore, one of the important lessons he teaches us is that no matter what vocation we are living, the call to discipleship is to be a man or woman of God, giving humble service just as Jesus taught. On the night on which Jesus died, He made it clear that we are to serve one another when He took off His outer garment and washed the feet of His disciples. (John 13:1-17) Similarly, He taught on many occasions that the greatest is the servant of others, (Matthew 20:26-27 and Mark 9:35, for example.) St. Francis Borgia certainly took this teaching to heart. But he also modeled for us the wisdom of being patient and exercising the gift of discernment so that in our life choices we proceed according to the way the Lord guides us.
One of the mistakes people sometimes make, often out of good intention, is to fail to ‘notice’ the vocation they are in, all the while pining for something new and different. Even when the call to something new is real and from the Holy Spirit, we cannot move until the time is right. We can learn a lot from ‘the holy duke:’ we learn that we are to live every day where we are, serving in the present situation, not the one we think we might be in tomorrow. It is impossible to be anywhere but where we are now; we only possess the power to be attentive to the things of today. In the Gospel Jesus said: “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.” (Matthew 6:34 specifically, but the entire context is Matthew 6:19-34) Jesus is warning us that every day has struggles as well as opportunities for growth, service, mercy, and love. Therefore, we need to attend to today before becoming distracted by tomorrow. That is not to say we should never plan or look ahead, but rather we should beware of becoming absorbed in tomorrow when we do not know what today will bring, thereby missing the call appropriate to the people and situations before us now. In fact, it can actually become a temptation which could cause us to become less effective today because we are not truly paying attention to the movements of the Spirit at this moment.
It seems that even in his life before becoming a Jesuit priest St. Francis Borgia understood this truth and so he lived a virtuous life as a marquis, viceroy, and duke. His call during that period of his life had been to serve God as a fair and just leader to his people. But when the time became appropriate, after discernment and prayer, he made the decision to change his lifestyle so as to continue to say ‘yes’ to God. As a Jesuit he served by ministering first as a simple parish priest, then going wherever he was sent by his superiors, always seeking to bring the lost back to God and to help those who were already believers to grow in their faith. When he was the Father General of the Jesuits, he reminded his brother Jesuits to do all for the glory of God, but also to embrace the suffering of the cross so that they would maintain their humility.
While there are many saints, St. Francis Borgia is one in whom we can all find something to which we can relate given that he lived a significant portion of his life as a layperson, (married man, parent, and civic leader of many), and later as a priest and head of the Jesuits. Throughout his entire life, he sought to live the vocation to which he was called at the time, being faithful to the gifts he was given, putting them at the service of his countrymen and always of God. I am sure there will be much written about the 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, but what is important for each of us is that like St. Francis Borgia, we continue to discern our call from God that we might become holier and that we might help make Jesus known and loved in our respective vocation. We can learn to be attentive, to see and hear the call of God to serve His people right where we are. And we can call upon ‘the holy duke,’ St. Francis Borgia, to intercede for us that we might grow in the gift of discernment.
May we pray for the success of the mission of the Society of Jesus as they move into the future! May we imitate the life of St. Francis Borgia, striving to follow the movements of the Holy Spirit each day! May we develop the gifts of discernment and prayerful attentiveness to God’s daily call to us! May we desire to make Jesus known and loved through our word and deed! May we grow in humility and service of God, learning from the gospel of Jesus! And may we be willing to follow Jesus as true disciples, promoting justice and peace through mercy, compassion, and love! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Next post: October 22. (Note that it will be posted earlier than usual, on a Saturday.)
* The quote is from page 333 of Jesuit Saints and Martyrs by Joseph N. Tylenda, SJ Loyola Press, 1998. I also used the following as resources in researching the life of St. Francis Borgia, SJ,:
Also, concerning the General Congregation click here: http://www.gc36.org/
The first image is a painting of St. Francis Borgia. I cannot find the credit for the artist of this painting. But I chose the painting because it depicts St. Francis Borgia holding a crown atop a skull. This is symbolic of his earthly position and the reminder of his humility: the earthly titles and honors are fleeting, but rather he aspired to a life in heaven with God which is eternal. He is clearly wearing his priestly cassock, and looks like any other priest, even though he was the Father General. Indeed he was a man of humility.
Next is a photo of the Gesù in Rome, the magnificent Jesuit church begun by Francis Borgia, (as mentioned above in the quote by Joseph Tylenda, SJ.) Attached to the church is the apartment that was inhabited by St. Ignatius during his life and it contains many artifacts from Ignatius and the early Jesuits.
The next two photos are mine. The first of them was taken in the tiny country of Liechtenstein. You can see the castle which is still occupied by the family of the prince and behind it are the majestic Alps. While this is obviously not Italy or anywhere that St. Francis Borgia was, to my knowledge at least, I chose this photo because it seemed to capture the humility of both the civil aspect and the religious aspect of the service of Francis. The castle seems to signify earthly positions, but the Alps which surround the castle put his role into perspective: his call to serve as a Jesuit was always in the context of humility and the service of our great and mighty God.
The second of my photos is of a loon swimming in Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park, Maine. The photo seems to highlight the loon, but there is much to notice in the frame: the marsh grass, the clarity of the water, the way the light plays on the surface of the pond, the configuration of the rocks, the reflections, etc. I chose this precisely because the loon is a bit occluded by the grass. One has to look intently to see that it is indeed a loon and not a duck or some other water fowl.
Finally I chose to close with an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called St. Ignatius in Prayer Beneath the Stars. I have always loved this icon because St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, seems to be floating about the rock. St. Ignatius had many mystical experiences, but like many who followed him as Jesuits or those who follow in his spirituality as lay people, he had to grow into holiness and humility in some rather dramatic ways. Like his eventual successor, St. Francis Borgia, he had come from courtly life and grew into the call which was presented to him by God. If you wish to obtain a copy in one of many formats, you can find the icon at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-ignatius-in-prayer-beneath-the-stars-137-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Heart Speaks to Heart