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Going about the Business of Becoming a Saint
By Fr. Peter M. J. Stravinskas
Permit me to begin by being a bit personal, autobiographical. Not only have I spent my entire adult life working in and for our beloved Catholic schools (at the elementary, secondary, university, and seminary levels), but everything that I am, I owe to my Catholic education. Not just my priestly vocation, but the Catholic Faith itself, came to me when my non-practicing Catholic parents committed their only child and his education to St. Rose of Lima School in Newark, New Jersey, way back in the last century. You see, I learned not only isolated theological facts or answers to catechism questions; I was introduced to a Catholic culture, a way of life, that gave me the desire for more and instilled a desire for holiness. What we need now is more saints—which means you—so here are three encouragements to that end.
The first thing I want to urge upon you is gratitude. Marcus Tullius Cicero declared, without fear of contradiction: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” A bit closer to our own time, G. K. Chesterton observed: “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” So, for what should you be grateful?
Perhaps you have been blessed with a Catholic education. With that gift comes responsibility. After all, did not Our Lord teach: “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more” (Lk 12:48)? On Judgment Day, you will not be able to plead ignorance. If you were not raised with a Catholic education, there is likely a greater need to study what the Church teaches and why, filling any “gaps” in your education so as to properly form your conscience. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. Everyone must avail himself of the means to form his conscience” (#1798). Today we are blessed with many easily accessible resources about Church teaching for which we ought to be extremely grateful.
Secondly, I want you to appreciate the daring of Pope St. Leo the Great when he challenged his congregation:
Recognize, O Christian, your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.
You received that great dignity on the day of your Baptism. You were strengthened to live up to that dignity on the day of your Confirmation. You are fortified to preserve that dignity in every worthy reception of Holy Communion.
Cardinal Newman, my dear friend and constant guide—and I hope he will become yours as well—penned this beautiful meditation. Give ear to it with an open mind and an open heart:
God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.
Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—still He knows what He is about.
O Adonai, O Ruler of Israel, Thou that guidest Joseph like a flock, O Emmanuel, O Sapientia, I give myself to Thee. I trust Thee wholly. Thou art wiser than I—more loving to me than I myself. Deign to fulfil Thy high purposes in me whatever they be—work in and through me. I am born to serve Thee, to be Thine, to be Thy instrument. Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see—I ask not to know—I ask simply to be used.
That is our noble vocation—to be used by a loving God.
Thirdly, I want to put our calling into the context in which we are living. On October 2, 1873, when Father Newman was invited to preach on what should have been a joyous occasion—the opening of the first seminary in England since the Reformation—he entitled his sermon “The Infidelity of the Future” (by “infidelity,” he meant a lack of faith in the supernatural). To say that the future Cardinal rained on the parade would be an understatement. After tipping his biretta in the direction of the momentous nature of the happy event, Newman used the rest of his time proffering a series of dizzying predictions about what those seminarians would face in the coming years of their priestly ministry. I imagine not a few priests present made a mental note: “Don’t ask Newman to preach for your silver or golden jubilee!”
What Newman said to those seminarians a century-and-a-half ago has great relevance for us today. His kick-off went like this:
The special peril of the time before us is the spread of that plague of infidelity, that the Apostles and our Lord Himself have predicted as the worst calamity of the last times of the Church. And at least a shadow, a typical image of the last times is coming over the world. I do not mean to presume to say that this is the last time, but that it has had the evil prerogative of being like that more terrible season, when it is said that the elect themselves will be in danger of falling away.
He explained that, yes, there have always been atheists, however, something different was on the horizon:
Individuals have put them [such ideas] forth, but they have not been current and popular ideas. Christianity has never yet had experience of a world simply irreligious. . . . [C]onsider what the Roman and Greek world was when Christianity appeared. It was full of superstition, not of infidelity. . . . But there was no casting off the idea of religion, and of unseen powers who governed the world. When they spoke of Fate, even here they considered that there was a great moral governance of the world carried on by fated laws. Their first principles were the same as ours. . . . But we are now coming to a time when the world does not acknowledge our first principles.
Did Newman not accurately predict the coming “infidelity”? But a couple of decades after Newman, G. K. Chesterton, in his inimitable fashion, put it succinctly: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything.” Or, Dostoyevsky, credited with declaring: “If there is no God, then everything is permitted.” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, on the day before his election as Sovereign Pontiff, warned of the emergence of “a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.”
Newman, Chesterton, Dostoyevsky, and Ratzinger have all pointed out the same phenomenon, which we are living, or better, enduring in spades. All the hot-button social issues have their origin, precisely in the desacralization of society—and even of the Church herself in all too many instances. And so, we are treated to the daily media transmission of distressing occurrences of “wilding” rampages destroying property and endangering lives; a high school wrestler sucker-punching his opponent who beat him in the match; six innocents murdered by a man who thought he was a woman; a man defending the lives of fellow strap-hangers from an insane man and ending up accused of homicide.
Such events did not emerge full-blown from the brow of Zeus; they have been aborning for a long time. In the nutty 1960s and 1970s, when open discussions took place regarding contraception, abortion, euthanasia, same-sex relations, and the marginalization of religion, we were only asked to listen and then to be “tolerant.” The goal post has moved now, so that “tolerance” is not acceptable; full-blown acquiescence is demanded. Which means you have to be ready to engage in battle.
With the abysmal state of public education now near-universally acknowledged, it is clear that Catholic school graduates and those who supplement their non-Catholic education will be the only seriously formed players for the foreseeable future, both academically and morally. And those competencies will put you in good stead to stand your ground on the foundational issues of the day—and you may even be heeded!
The inimitable historian Christopher Dawson uttered what he thought little more than a truism: “The survival of a civilization is dependent on the continuity of its educational tradition.” Mary Eberstadt spells out the implications: “The secularized academy has abdicated its vocation. It repudiates continuity. It makes a mockery of the Western patrimony. In the struggle to hold fast to the Cross amid today’s Chaos, counter-cultural scholars are the first line of defense.”
As “counter-cultural scholars,” you will need to be confident witnesses to the truth of the Gospel. Make no mistake about it—this will not be easy; it may involve a kind of martyrdom even. When I was in third grade, we had to read a book a week, write a two-page report, and on Monday give the class a two-minute summary. The first whole book I read was on the North American martyrs. When I finished my little speech, Sister Vera asked, “And now, Peter, what did you learn from that book?” Quickly, I replied: “I want to be a martyr when I grow up!” Very gently, Sister suggested, “Maybe just a confessor!”
Being “just” a confessor, however, has its own challenges because it calls for the mentality of the long-distance runner. Speaking in the third person, that Southern belle par excellence, Flannery O’Connor, with her characteristic droll humor, mused: “She could be a martyr if they killed her quick!”
The picture I have painted is rather bleak, but I do not believe it is hopeless. To be sure, our nation is strongly divided. While I might wish it not to be so, being divided is better than being united in evil or of silence in the face of evil. As you go about your lives, you will be tested.
Hearken to the words of wisdom spoken by Pope Benedict as he concluded the homily to inaugurate his Petrine ministry:
At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in Saint Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!” The Pope was addressing the mighty, the powerful of this world, who feared that Christ might take away something of their power if they were to let him in, if they were to allow the faith to be free. Yes, he would certainly have taken something away from them: the dominion of corruption, the manipulation of law and the freedom to do as they pleased. But he would not have taken away anything that pertains to human freedom or dignity, or to the building of a just society. The Pope was also speaking to everyone, especially the young. Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.
So, yes, have recourse to that bold and consoling mantra of St. John Paul II: “Be not afraid.” No need to fear because you will be doing God’s work. No need to fear because you will be claiming the graces rightfully yours as a son or daughter of God. No need to fear because we have met the “God of the Surprises” many times before in history, and not a few nations have been brought back from the brink by the stalwart efforts of a precious few courageous and convicted souls. No need to fear because, ultimately, lunacy always burns itself out.
As I began this peroration, I suggested that you reflect frequently on Cardinal Newman’s meditation on what is meant by those stirring words: “God has created me to do Him some definite service.” We are all terminal cases, which means we have to live each day “sub specie aeternitatis” (under the aspect of eternity). While it should not cause us terror, it should cause us to be mindful. And help us remember to foster gratitude, to recognize our great calling, and to embrace that calling in a way that witnesses to the truth of the Gospel in our hostile culture. I want to leave you with a prayer of Cardinal Newman that I believe will keep you focused as you go about the business of becoming a saint:
O my Lord and Savior, support me in my last hour in the strong arms of Thy Sacraments and by the fresh fragrance of Thy consolations. Let the absolving words be said over me, and the holy oil sign and seal me; and let Thine own Body be my food, and Thy Blood my sprinkling; and let my sweet Mother, Mary, breathe on me, and my Angel whisper peace to me, and my glorious saints and my own dear patrons smile upon me, that, in them all and through them all, I may receive the gift of perseverance, and die as I desire to live, in Thy faith, in Thy Church, in Thy service, and in Thy love. Amen.
Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., is founder and superior of the Priestly Society of Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association dedicated to holiness through priestly life, the sacred liturgy, and Catholic education. He has authored or edited more than 50 books and 600 articles.
This essay is an adaptation of a commencement address given this year at Our Lady of the Rosary School in Greenville, South Carolina, an authentically Catholic school. The speech was changed to address the varying backgrounds of WWNN readers.
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