“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.
Heart Speaks to Heart