Editor’s note: This article was originally published during Christmas of 2005.
We buried a giant last Easter. John Paul the Great’s death, more than any in recent memory, reminds young Catholics that we stand on the shoulders of spiritual giants, pedestals from which we can view the glory of lives well-lived and imagine the trials and triumphs that await us if we follow their example. They not only remind us of our history, but they point the way forward and give us a glimpse of that eternal Vision in which every tear will be dried and every eye fixed in peace. They have shown us the way home. The great preachers of our day beckon us to take up our cross, to strive for nothing less than spiritual and moral excellence, to stride boldly into the high adventure of orthodoxy. They prod us into battle, arming and comforting us with the sword of the Word.
Let us answer their call. Let us take up the arms of faith, hope and love. Let us put on a breastplate of humility and gird our loins for battle. What man worth his salt desires to take the well-trod path, to duck and run? Let us join the ranks, a long line of martyrs, saints recognized and unrecognized, who urge us on, pleading with us to keep alive their memory by the gift of ourselves. The prosperity of the United States will not last forever, but sainthood is eternal. Like most corpses, the flesh of Trump, Gates, Spears, and Hilton will rot when it is buried, but did you know that the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal recently dug up the incorrupt bodies of long-forgotten religious sisters in the basement of a former convent, now the Franciscan’s Most Blessed Sacrament Friary in Newark, New Jersey? Sanctity has no competitor on earth. No high, no sensual gratification, no act of self-aggrandizement can compare.
The way to sanctity will be a tough slog at times. Run the race! Professional athletes train until they vomit and become incontinent. Is the cloak of eternal life not greater than the glory of the “one shining moment”? What will you do for it? Have we settled for cheap grace, knowing that the debt has been paid once and for all? Have we forgotten the cost of discipleship? Have we nursed too long at breasts of prosperity and taken shelter under the paternalistic state? Have we taken the Church for granted? Do we too conveniently console ourselves with the promise that the gates of hell will not prevail? Have we forgotten that our local parish exists now because humble workers in the vineyard came before us and plowed and planted? It’s high time that we put our hands to the plow.
Martyrdom may not be our crown, and yet in some parts of the world it awaits those would-be missionaries among us who would give their lives. We have been sheltered in the United States, privileged beyond our understanding. For this we thank God, but now we stand accountable for the gift of this long run of relative peace and abundance we have known. Let us not grow soft and plump on the candy of wealth and leisure. The Beatitudes and the Rich Young Man should haunt us. Let us, like so many before us, cast off our excesses, give our savings to the needy and live radically and unreservedly for Christ. The Spirit is groaning again, brothers and sisters, and it cannot be contained. Let Him in, open your heart, and let the Spirit carry you out of your old self to be made anew. He makes all things new. Submit to its stirrings, and the Holy Spirit will propel you through your days on earth until you return to the Source, return home.
Do not grow weary, and do not be afraid. Tears and grief will come your way. Stay the course! The Lord of history will not abandon you, though you may walk in the valley of death. He says, “Run, I will carry you, and I will see you through to the end, and there I will carry you” (Isaiah 46: 4). Your shepherd leads you through misery and ecstasy and has known both. Take comfort and rest in Him. Then, when your spirit renews, go and tell the others the good things the Lord has done for you: that you were lost and are now found, you were a prodigal son and have returned to the embrace of the Father, you went to the well to slake your thirst and came home with living water, you bled and His touch stopped the bleeding, you cheated others and He came calling for you, your demons possessed you and now you weep at His feet, you were knocked from the horse of righteousness and blinded by your own pride and now you see, you denied Him three times and still He asks for your love. Go tell the others of your joy, and then sell what you have and follow Him wherever he leads you.
Perhaps you have read the story of the nobility of the martyrdom of Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions:
The day of the martyrs’ victory dawned. They marched from their cells into the amphitheater, as if into heaven, with cheerful looks and graceful bearing. If they trembled it was for joy and not for fear. Perpetua was the first to be thrown down…she beckoned to her brother and the catechumen, and addressed them in these words: “Stand firm in faith, love one another and do not be tempted to do anything wrong because of our sufferings.” …Without being asked they went where the people wanted them to go; but first they kissed one another, to complete their witness with the customary kiss of peace. The others stood motionless and received the deathblow in silence, especially Saturus, who had gone up first and was first to die; he was helping Perpetua. But Perpetua, that she might experience the pain more deeply, rejoiced over her broken body and guided the shaking hand of the inexperienced gladiator to her throat. Such a woman—one before whom the unclean spirit trembled—could not perhaps have been killed, had she herself not willed it. Bravest and happiest martyrs! You were called and chosen for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ (Office of Readings, March 7)
That is our history. These are the people who have paved the glorious way of sacrifice for us. In gratitude, let us offer our own necks and guide the trembling hand of our persecutors. Let us go with joy to our deaths. We are to be children of light. A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. The gates of hell will not prevail, but can we be counted on to stand firm and repel them? If the promise of eternal union with He who is Being, with Love itself, is too great for our limited minds to understand, remember the promise of one-hundred-fold. You will receive in the measure that you give, and then much, much more. Whatever it is that you do, do it for the Lord. And if you are able, come die for Christ.