‘The Religion Of Maximum Hope Born Of Despair’

Andrei Sinyavsky was an interesting man. Not the type of “interesting man” who sells us beer as he sits, surrounded by beautiful women. No, Sinyavsky was interesting in that he spoke the truth in a time and place where doing so could cost one’s life.

Sinyavsky was a writer in Soviet Russia. In 1966, he was sentenced to hard labor for “anti-Soviet activities” and for his “pro-Zionist” opinions (he wrote under a Jewish pseudonym.) He considered himself a Christian, but primarily a writer and promoter of freedom. Yet the imprint of faith was found his work. He once said, “The text of the gospels explodes with meaning. It radiates significance, and if we fail to see something, this is not because it is obscure, but because there is so much …”

He writes of faith like that of a foot soldier: one whose faith has been tested and found true. He has no illusions of Christianity being a faith of false cheerfulness or of gripping drama. It is not a play that once seen, sends the audience home thinking that they’ve seen something entertaining, but not terribly meaningful. No, Sinyavsky knows that to be a Christian is to be embattled in this world. Just as some would judge a soldier rushing into battle to be a fool rather than brave, so to the Christian.

Look at them, the heroes of Christendom. You won’t find many prudent ones among them. Their story is a long succession of martyrdoms and deaths … They are soldiers, displaying their scars and wound to the world as decorations.

And who enlists with them? People of all nations, the scum of the earth, even criminals, but always those who have taken the cross. Anyone can join: the ignorant, the sinful – provided he is ready to throw himself into the battle. If is the religion of maximum hope born of despair.

Is there any better symbol of that “hope born of despair” than Christ on the cross? We Christians stand with one foot in the grief and despair of Good Friday and another foot in the bloom of hope on Easter morn.

And so, we rise again to battle the evil of this world. We join the ranks of Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Paul, Dorothy Day: fools for Christ, heroes for Christendom. We dare to hope in a world of despair because we know Christ, and trust in His promise of everlasting life.


Easter 2016: Death, Sorrow, Resurrection

The Easter of 2016 will likely be remembered for the usual things: beautiful liturgies, family get-togethers, sharing of food – both spiritual and traditional. The Easter of 2016 will also be remembered for death, sorrow and resurrection, but perhaps not in the usual way.

Of course, the Church celebrates the Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil) as a way to enter into Christ’s Passion and Death. Then, on Easter, we joyously sing out “Alleluias,” joining the whole world in proclaiming the Resurrection of Our Lord.

This year, there were other deaths that were noteworthy and both, in their own way, give us insight into the Easter miracle.

First, Mother Angelica, the Poor Clare nun who was the founder of the Catholic media outlet EWTN, passed away at the age of 92 on Easter Sunday. Mother Angelica seemed an unlikely candidate for religious life, let alone becoming the founder of a Catholic TV station. She grew up poor and rather tough, raised by a single mother in Canton, OH. Her faith was nominal, perfunctory, until she was healed of a stomach ailment. In 1944, she entered the convent.

Despite the fact that Mother Angelica was a cloistered nun (see an example of cloistered life here), she was a highly requested speaker. By 1978, she believed God was calling her to start a Catholic television studio, where she could reach out to thousands of people. It was, by all accounts, an outrageous idea. First of all, as a Poor Clare, she had taken a vow of poverty. When she told others of her plan, they tried to dissuade her, thinking no one would want to watch a nun talking on tv. However, she trusted God, and in her rather folksy way, reminded others to do the same: “These are the kinds of things, honey, that prove God’s Providence. We never know where the next penny’s coming from. That’s what I’m trying to get through people’s heads: This is an act of God.”

What began as a tiny tv studio became EWTN, carried by more than 220 cable systems and viewed in more than 2 million homes worldwide, and includes a radio and social media presence. Mother Angelica’s own show, “Mother Angelica Live” was a viewer favorite for years. Mother Angelica never spoke in lofty theological terms, but she understood theology. Her manner was almost quaint, but right to the point. She once said, “I’m not afraid to fail … I’m scared to death of dying and having the Lord say to me, ‘Angelica, this is what you might have done had you trusted more.”

The other death that comes to mind reportedly occurred on Good Friday. Fr. Thomas Uzhunnalil, a Salesian priest was exectued by ISIS. Fr. Uzhannalil had been kidnapped during a raid in Yemen at a nursing home run by the Sisters of Charity. Four of the sisters were killed then, along with 16 other workers, and the priest was taken captive. Efforts to obtain his release failed, and the priest was apparently crucified on Good Friday.

In some ways, these two deaths could not be more different. One an elderly nun, surrounded in love by the sisters with whom she shared her life. The other, an Indian priest, alone and afraid, murdered by terrorists. One cloistered, one serving in the world. One an unlikely media mogul, one a simple priest.

Despite the differences, we can learn something from both these deaths that occurred over the Easter holiday. Both Mother Angelica and Fr. Uzhannalil wholly devoted their lives to God. Yes, they served in completely different ways, but both of them were willing to abandon the world in order to serve Jesus Christ. Both are outstanding witnesses to us that God sometimes asks us to do things the world judges as, well, crazy. Both knew that they had to set aside their own wills and desires to follow Christ. And both stand as witness to what it means to be holy, and that holiness can take on such different faces.

Good Friday is all about sorrow and death. Fr. Uzhannalil died a martyr’s death with only his faith to accompany him. Easter is a day of joy and resurrection, new life and triumph over death. Mother Angelica spent her life spreading the joy of the Gospel. Yes, the Easter of 2016 will be remembered for the death of these two. Many mourn them, but we also must trust completely in the Easter message. St. John Paul II, quoting St. Augustine, liked to say,  “We are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!” Life is not all gladness and light; we know sorrow as well. But as Catholics, we must never forget the joy of Easter morning, the empty tomb, the triumph over sin and death. Mother Angelica and Fr. Uzhannalil knew this and lived this.

Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they, and all the faithful departed, rest in peace. Amen.

[Update: While the Associated Press and the Washington Times have reported the priest’s crucifixion, Catholic News Service is saying they have indications he is still alive. We continue to pray.]

Holy Week

10 Quotes For Holy Week

With the celebration of Palm Sunday, we enter Holy Week. Hopefully, this will be a time of peace, reflection, penance and prayer for all Christians. Here are 10 quotes for you to ponder as we prepare for the Passion of Christ.

  1. We give glory to You, Lord, who raised up Your cross to span the jaws of death like a bridge by which souls might pass from the region of the dead to the land of the living. We give glory to You who put on the body of a single mortal man and made it the source of life for every other mortal man. – St. Ephrem of Edessa
  2. Ultimately, in the battle against lies and violence, truth and love have no other weapon than the witness of suffering. – Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
  3. Do you realize that Jesus is there in the tabernacle expressly for you – for you alone? He burns with the desire to come into your heart. – St. Therese’ of Lisieux
  4. Be assured of God’s love for you. Seek by his grace to heal the damage of sin. Seek communion with him and with those who make up his Church and those who are not yet within. His love for all of us is unconditional. His joy is infinite. His mercy overflows. – Deacon Michael Bickerstaff
  5. The washing of the feet and the sacrament of the Eucharist: two expressions of one and the same mystery of love entrusted to the disciples, so that, Jesus says, “as I have done… so also must you do” (Jn 13: 15).  – St. John Paul II
  6. “We adore you and we bless you, Lord Jesus Christ, here and in all the churches which are in the whole world, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.” – Stations of the Cross
  7. Through the stark and solemn Liturgy of the Friday we call “Good”, we stand at the Altar of the Cross where heaven is rejoined to earth and earth to heaven, along with the Mother of the Lord. We enter into the moment that forever changed – and still changes – all human History, the great self gift of the Son of God who did for us what we could never do for ourselves by in the words of the ancient Exultet, “trampling on death by death”. We wait at the tomb and witness the Glory of the Resurrection and the beginning of the New Creation. – Deacon Keith Fournier
  8. The Cross is the word through which God has responded to evil in the world. Sometimes it may seem as though God does not react to evil, as if he is silent. And yet, God has spoken, he has replied, and his answer is the Cross of Christ: a word which is love, mercy, forgiveness. It is also reveals a judgment, namely that God, in judging us, loves us. Remember this: God, in judging us, loves us. If I embrace his love then I am saved, if I refuse it, then I am condemned, not by him, but my own self, because God never condemns, he only loves and saves. – Pope Francis
  9. No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown. – William Penn
  10. Awake, thou wintry earth – Fling off thy sadness! Fair vernal flowers, laugh forth Your ancient gladness! – Thomas Blackburn, “An Easter Hymn”
Holy Week

An Illustrated Guide to the Triduum

This coming Sunday, we celebrate Palm Sunday and with that, enter into Holy Week. Let us begin to prepare for this most blessed time of year.

For Catholics, the three days prior to Easter Sunday are known as the Triduum. These days are truly holy; they bridge Lent and Easter by allowing the faithful to follow the last days of Jesus’ life. The Triduum are full of symbols, special prayers and music, and unique ways to pray as the universal Church. FOCUS.org has created this Illustrated Guide to the Triduum to help us understand all we see and do during the liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil.

Illustrated Guide to Triduum


The Courage of Lent

It is common for children, in their desire to be pious and good, to begin Lent with a long list of “give ups:” “I’m gonna give up candy, and I’m gonna give up TV and I’m gonna give up arguing with my sister…” Adults chuckle, knowing that the child underestimates the stamina and courage that Lent requires.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, the lawyer-father who chooses to defend a black man in the Jim Crow South against the charge of rape, has to explain to his son what “courage” is, as the town divides over the black man’s trial:

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

In a sense, we are all losers – we are sinners in need of God’s grace and redemption. If we look to the lives of saints, men and women who are holy inspiration, we often see a bunch of “losers:”

  • Joan of Arc, burned at the stake as a heretic
  • Lawrence, burned in an iron grill by the Prefect of Rome
  • Margaret of Castello, deformed, rejected by her parents and forced to beg
  • Solanus Casey, ordained a priest, but told by his superiors that he could not preach or hear confessions due to his poor scholarship

We can go on. In fact, as Christians, the one whose name we claim, Christ Jesus, was a failure to most who knew him. He did not become king of the Jews, overthrowing the Romans. He was executed in the most horrific and shameful fashion. He went into the Passion knowing that this terrible cup would not pass from Him.

On that horrible Good Friday, the men of courage appeared to be the government officials, the soldiers with whips and chains, the religious leaders who failed to see God in their midst. We know, however, that courage hung on the Cross. “Real courage,” as Atticus Finch told his son, is doing what is right, what it good, even if you know you’ll “lose” in the eyes of the world.

As we continue on our Lenten journey, we must be courageous. We must continue to act with mercy and love, especially when we do not feel like it. We must pray even more fervently. We must see Lent through, courageously.