Like many others I have been attracted to the trend of finding our ancestral roots. It is important to have a sense of "from whence we have come" and from whom we have descended. Therefore I love to hear stories of my ancestors since it gives me a sense of how my own family evolved, which in turn lends itself to a fuller sense of identity. Last year my husband and I took a trip to Sicily not only to learn a bit about some family roots, but also to have a sense of the land that formed the relatives whose traditions were passed down to us. As much as I enjoyed that, I find it more important to have a deeper sense of our spiritual ancestry; that is, to know of the lives of the saints who came before us who lived the Gospels and handed down the truths of our faith.
Many of our ancestors made sacrifices such that we have a richness of the stories of love that held our families together. But not all families are held together with love, and some have sufferings and deprivations which formed pain rather than a bond of love. This is why it is important to recognize that we are part of a larger family, the communion of saints which comprises the Body of Christ, in which love really is the ‘glue’ which holds us together. This is not just because we are offered love, though we are indeed. It is because Love is at the center of this family; it is its very heart and soul. This Love, who is Jesus Christ, is where we find healing of all the inadequacies and brokenness in our families, and consequently, in ourselves.
Many sacrifices have also gone into this holy family to which we belong by nature of our Baptism. This week we remember two such sacrifices. The first is on the Feast of Christ the King which is also the feast day of Bl. Miguel Pro, a martyr who died crying: "Viva Cristo Rey!" He poured his life out so that those in Mexico at the time (the 1920's) could have free access to their faith and that they could celebrate it the open rather than in hiding. He was accused of partaking in a plot to kill the president, and even though others who were guilty said he had nothing to do with it, Miguel was given no trial, but was taken out and killed by a firing squad.
Miguel Pro gave his life because Catholicism was illegal in Mexico at that time. He persisted in celebrating Mass for the people, an act which was incredibly heroic. Yet what really struck me was his sense of gratitude. Miguel was ordained a priest on August 31, 1925 (in Belgium) where he was ministering to poor miners. On that day he wrote: "How can I explain to you the sweet grace of the Holy Spirit, which invades my poor miner's soul with such heavenly joys? I could not keep back tears on the day of my ordination, above all at the moment when I pronounced, together with the bishop, the words of the consecration. After the ceremony the new priests gave their first blessing to their parents. I went to my room, laid out all the photographs of my family on the table, and then blessed them from the bottom of my heart." * Miguel Pro was overwhelmed with joy and with gratitude for those who went before him. He had a sense of connection with both the poor to whom he ministered and to his family in Mexico. Gratitude to God for his family of birth and the family of the Body of Christ was the deepest reaction he had that day. It was gratitude that powered the love he had which motivated him to follow Christ so completely.
This week we also celebrate St. Catherine of Alexandria. It is said that she was born of a noble family around the year 287, and was converted to Christianity as a young woman. Though we do not have a lot of details about her life as a Christian, one story has it that the emperor tried to bring in the best pagan philosophers to debate with her to convince her that she was wrong in believing in Jesus. It seems that she was so persuasive that many of them converted. Soon after this the emperor, Maxentius, tried to convince her to denounce Jesus first by torturing her and then by proposing marriage. (One could jump to some interesting conclusions here!) But when she refused, he tried to kill her on a spiked wheel. It broke and so he had her beheaded instead. Catherine’s gratitude for the gift of faith was what drove her to share her beliefs even at the cost of her own life. We know she continues to give her support to the communion of saints because in the 15th century she was one of the heavenly visitors who spoke to St. Joan of Arc about the mission she was to undertake.
When a person chooses to sacrifice and make decisions in which they risk much, there has to be a profound sense of knowledge that all they have is gift. Just as Bl. Miguel Pro and St. Catherine of Alexandria were able to receive the gift of faith which propelled them to do heroic things, each of us should also take stock of the gifts we have been given and realize that we were given them for a reason. God wants us to use the gifts not only to better the world we live in, but to also know the joy of being loved by Him. In a world that does not often show love, but rather struggles with brokenness and sin, knowing that we are loved by God is important in no matter what circumstances we find ourselves. He did not promise us an easy life, but He did promise to be with us.
As the liturgical year comes to an end and we are anticipating the Advent season, let us reflect upon the gifts we have been given, especially as we celebrate Thanksgiving Day. The Gospel this Sunday challenged us to let our gratitude move us to action. If we have been given much or little, we can still offer our gratitude to God by sharing something with others. We are one Body headed by one Lord to whom we owe everything.
Ironically, the day after Thanksgiving Day our secular society encourages us to forget that which we have, and are thankful for, and move toward obtaining more things. Perhaps instead of ushering in Advent with a buying frenzy, we can usher it in by sharing with those who do not have. Perhaps we can spend time with others over a meal rather than fighting over things at the Mall. The upcoming season for which we are preparing is about Christ who comes tiny and poor. He comes to thwart the rich and proud and to uplift the lowly. He comes to bring justice to the world. Perhaps in our gratitude we can hear that message more clearly this year, so that when we are buying and preparing for Christmas through the Advent season, we will already begin to make room for Him in our hearts. If we think of the real gifts of Advent we can keep our priorities in line with the Gospel and share in the joy of giving because it is what our Christian lives are about, rather than being caught up in a whirlwind of obligations. In other words, we can still participate, but we can do it with the intention of simplicity and sharing, rather than to be under pressure, forgetting the reason for the season. When we give to the least of our brothers and sisters, we come to see what we have, and we come to value it more. It helps us keep our priorities straight, to set aside greed, and to be filled with gratitude.
Let us keep our eyes on that which really matters: the gifts of family and friends, those who have gone before us and those who are with us today. Let us be grateful for our ancestors who sacrificed for us to be here in this wondrous land, and let us be grateful to the saints and holy ones who are our family in the Body of Christ who continue to pray for us and our world. Let us be most thankful for the gift of our loving God who gives us every good gift.
May we be blessed with the gift of gratitude! May we share that which we have with those who have less than we do, whether it is material, emotional or spiritual! May we have the courage of those who, like Miguel Pro and Catherine of Alexandria, made the sacrifice of their lives so that we might have faith! May we keep our eyes fixed on the true gifts of the upcoming Advent season so that we do not succumb to the demands of the secular world! And may we come to know how loved and blessed we are by our good and gracious God! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Happy Thanksgiving! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* For more information on Bl. Miguel Pro you can go to this website. It is where the quote is foun
The photo at the top is one of mine. It shows the region and city of Palermo, Sicily.
The icon is the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols and it is called Holy New Martyr Padre Miguel Pro. It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/92-holy-new-martyr-padre-miguel-pro.
The painting of Saint Catherine of Alexandria is by Bernardino Luini (16th century). It is in the National Art Museum of Azerbaijan.
Heart Speaks to Heart