I heard a lovely toast when I was in Ireland last week: “May the Lord keep you in His hand, and never close His fist too tight.”
Those words capture the Irish ability to stay in God’s hands, even when they must have felt His grip was far too tight.
During the International Eucharistic Congress I heard about Margaret Ball, the wife of the Lord Mayor of Dublin back in the 1500s. She was a faithful Catholic and she stayed one when it became a crime, attending and organizing Masses at every opportunity.
Later on, her son renounced the Catholic faith which allowed him to become mayor. He had his mother arrested and paraded through the streets of Dublin in a cart while the crowd hurled abuse at her. Margaret spent more than three years in the cold and damp dungeons of Dublin Castle, crippled by arthritis. She finally died from the dreadful living conditions there, at about 69 or 70.
At any moment, she could have set herself free by denying the Church. Not Christ: just His Church.
The story of Margaret Ball—now Blessed Margaret Ball—is shocking because not just one but two of her sons cooperated in her cruel captivity. But in Ireland it’s not that remarkable a story; she was beatified beside Francis Taylor, a Mayor of Dublin who died fifty years later under the very same circumstances.
Countless others stood fast over centuries of torment and oppression. The strong faith of this great Catholic people could not be snuffed out by persecution or famine.
But today, what poverty and oppression could not do is being accomplished by affluence and indifference. Immediately I must add that the grave sins of priests and religious have played a major part in the recent undermining of the faith in Ireland, but it was well underway before those tragic scandals broke.
I don’t pretend to understand all the factors at play in Irish society, but the end result is shocking: In the 1980s, more than 150 men would enter seminaries each year; now it’s about ten per cent of that. In 1981, 82 per cent of Irish Catholics attended Mass every Sunday, now it is 35 per cent, and as little as 14 per cent in Dublin. (I got the figures from a recent article from Maclean’s, which seemed to be a more balanced account than most.)
We can hardly miss the comparison to Quebec in the nineteen sixties, since today is the feast of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of that province.
And since we live in Canada’s second most secular province, we can hardly avoid asking whether we are ready as a local Church to stand firm against the forces that eroded the practice of the faith in both Ireland and Quebec.
How can we strengthen our faith and fortitude as we hear the marching boots of social decay, secular intolerance, and outright attacks on Christianity? How will we be able to face what lies ahead as euthanasia continues its steady creep into our homes and hospitals, as marriage is undermined and as conscience is ignored by lawmakers and courts alike?
Happily, we find some powerful answers as we celebrate the nativity of St. John the Baptist today. Today’s readings contain the keys to a strong and genuine faith that can withstand the assaults of modern society: because the birth of John the Baptist shows us that God has a plan.
As foretold by Isaiah, John’s birth is not a historical detail; it has supernatural meaning and importance. God had a plan for John, whom He called before he was born, just as he had for His Son. And God has a plan for us.
In his first homily as Pope, Benedict XVI explained the plan in these beautiful words: “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”
He also reminded us that this plan is wonderful; it’s great news: “There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.”
We can see beauty of the encounter with Christ every time we come to church: we see it in the faces around us, in the support of the community, in the welcoming spirit; we hear it in the joyful songs we sing and the prayers we pray. Sometimes we are surprised by the Gospel itself, sometimes by our inner feelings of peace or hope.
But what about the other times—the times when God seems to be squeezing too hard?
All too often we think that hard times—dark times—are sort of a failure on God’s part. But surely John the Baptist—and Margaret Ball, and Francis Taylor, and St. Thomas More (whose feast we celebrated on Friday) can’t have felt that way.
Today we see John “strong in spirit,” and we recall in the first reading and the Psalm the intimacy of his life in God. Yet like those others I’ve just mentioned, he ended his life in a dungeon, a victim of injustice and sin.
Unless we believe that God’s plan has no weak spots, no blind spots, we’ll have trouble hearing the message of salvation. None of us is likely to die in a dudgeon, but all of us can pray the words that St. Thomas More wrote to his daughter Margaret from the Tower of London:
I will not mistrust him, Meg, though I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear. I shall remember how St. Peter at a blast of wind began to sink, and I shall do as he did: call upon Christ and pray for him for help. And then I trust he shall place his holy hand on me and in the story seas hold me up from drowning. …
Nothing can come but what God will. And I am very sure that however bad it may seem, it shall indeed be the best.
It’s tempting to admire faith like that as something quite beyond us, or to tell ourselves we’ll never face that kind of challenge. Both those thoughts are, in my opinion, quite wrong. First, the faith of Thomas, and Margaret and Francis—and John the Baptist—is the only kind of faith worth having. For God didn’t just call John in the womb: he called each of us.
Secondly, beware of taking it for granted that no one in church this morning will suffer greatly for their faith. Consider what Cardinal Francis George, the Archbishop of Chicago, said about the erosion of religious freedom: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr.”
How do we develop in ourselves the convictions and courage that sustained the Irish martyrs, the English martyrs, and the many martyrs of recent decades? After all, we can’t practice sitting in a damp dungeon to test our faith and fortitude.
Two answers occurred to me in Dublin. The first is that we must deepen our love for Christ in the Eucharist. In his video address at the close of the Eucharistic Congress, Pope Benedict said that it was by the power and grace of the Mass that Ireland’s monks, martyrs and missionaries were able to live the faith heroically at home and spread the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness well beyond their shores.
The deeper we go at Mass, the deeper we enter the mystery of our own creation and redemption by God who knows us and forms us. In that intimate relationship, we can face dungeon, fire and sword with the martyrs’ courage.
Second only to that, is sacrifice. It’s an odd truth that the easier the Christian life is, the harder the Christian life is. You don’t need to look at Ireland: look at Poland or the Czech Republic, or any country where persecution has been replaced with prosperity and indifference.
Christians are like salmon: they’re destined to swim against the current.
If you examine your heart—and I have examined mine—you may find that sacrifice is not a word that jumps out at you. If you think hard, belonging to the Catholic Church is slightly less difficult than serving on your condo’s strata council; membership in the parish costs you less time—and money—than belonging to the board of directors of the Capilano Golf Club.
But none of that’s your fault. We don’t go running for persecution or abuse. But we can look for ways to grow stronger through sacrifice. If no-one’s putting the heat on you, maybe you need to turn the heat up on yourself.
The first thing I’d suggest is taking a look at your Catholic identity. Although the Church law about meat on Friday has become flexible, and allows us to substitute other forms of penance, wouldn’t it be better to simply quit eating meat on Friday? It’s a lot easier to remember than the substitute penance, which many of us forget anyway, but more importantly it will cause some awkwardness when you’re out for dinner—awkwardness that toughens us up for greater challenges.
The same goes for praying in public, or when we have guests over. I love my father’s story of the car dealer in Ontario who had the president of General Motors for dinner. When dinner was over, the dealer led the family rosary at the table, for that was what they always did.
A second thing to look at is the sacrifice of time, talent and treasure. We talk so positively about the benefits of stewardship that it almost sounds like fun—and it can be. But we must never lose sight of the sacrifice that life in a parish demands of the serious Catholic.
When we’re asked to help out in the parish, we need to be prudent and to keep our other duties in mind. But we also need to be ready to sacrifice—I’ll even say suffer—by giving up time we really wanted for ourselves. We joke that going to meetings is a modern form of penance, but there’s some truth in it. We sacrifice—we offer to God—something we’d rather keep for ourselves.
Financial sacrifice is another thing. Again, we often talk about money in practical terms, but there’s a spiritual side that’s even more important. It’s true, the parish would have all the money it needs if everyone at Mass gave just an hour’s wage each week. But even if that happened—and there’s no sign of it—it wouldn’t be what we call sacrificial giving.
Sacrificial giving is offering to God some money that you’d rather keep for yourself. Almsgiving is a scriptural way of showing faith in God: we know that from the story of the widow who gave her small coin, all she had, to the temple.
Yesterday the parish council talked about Project Advance, which is down about fifty per cent from last year. Last month the finance council looked at our financial statements for 2011, which show a slight deficit for the first time.
We can fix those problems by talking about minor changes in people’s habits of giving, by spending cuts, or by better promotion of Project Advance. But another way, and a better way, would be to grow in the spirit of sacrifice. That spirit, I hasten to add, is already obvious and admirable in the generosity of many parishioners. But all of us are invited to sacrificial living and giving—to enrich us now, in times of future trouble, and in the life to come.
I am overjoyed to be home, and I want to end this long homily by making that Irish toast my prayer for all of you: “May the Lord keep you in His hand, and never close His fist too tight.”
But don’t think that means God is tight-fisted! He is infinitely generous with us, even when he sometimes seems to ask a lot.