As we look back at the story of our faith, we recognize graced moments in which women, men, and even children, have made decisions about the course or orientation of their lives that have changed history itself. Like that “shot heard ’round the world” of April 19, 1775, marking the first military action of the American Revolution, certain acts have opened up new pathways and modes of faith that have forever shaped the lives of countless believers through the ages.
Some of these might seem quite simple (perhaps because we know the stories so well): Mary’s fiat, Saint Peter’s decision to get out of his boat to follow the wandering Rabbi, and Saint Matthew leaving his tax collecting post. Others seem, somehow, far away and remote to us: Saint Lawrence presenting the poor, the Church’s true treasure, to an emperor who would kill him; Saint Patrick’s decision to return to Ireland after escaping slavery; Saint Francis stripping off his clothes and family ties to stand naked in the square of Assisi; Saint Angela Merici bringing together a group of women in order to teach girls outside of the walls of a cloister; Saint Aloysius Gonzaga renouncing his titles and princely rank in order to become a Jesuit; or Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s decision to enter the Catholic Church, despite society’s objections, and establish a new community of sisters, laying the foundation for Catholic education in America.
Even contemporary figures—our modern “saints”—had moments in which they made a decision that marked a moment of conversion: the newly canonized Saint Teresa of Kolkata asking permission from her religious superiors to begin working with the poor on her own; Dorothy Day’s recognition of the good work being done on behalf of the poor by the Catholic Church and her desire to unite herself to that work; Saint Maximilian Kolbe volunteering to take the place of a husband and father chosen to be executed by the Nazis; Thomas Merton’s decision to attend a Mass at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan that marked a turning point on his journey to Catholicism and life as a Trappist monk; Martin Luther King’s trip to India in 1959 to learn about non-violent resistance; and Blessed Oscar Romero’s decision to seek justice for his slain priest friend and all the poor of El Salvador.
Regardless of when they lived or their title or state of life, these individuals demonstrated a willingness to make the Gospel the primary focus of their lives. Knowing the cost of discipleship, they willingly took on the burden of faith and set out on a new way, taking the words of Christ at face value: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26-27).
In these tense days, as people around the world struggle to make sense of the terror and violence that have become such a part of daily life, we are reminded that “there is no such thing as low-cost Christianity. Following Jesus means swimming against the tide, renouncing evil and selfishness” (Pope Francis via Twitter, September 5, 2013). We are being invited to trust in providence and to focus our attention on the common good and search for peace, asking for the grace of wisdom and discretion: “Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the LORD intends? For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans … who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high? And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight” (Wis 9:13, 17-18b).
The Church’s liturgy this Sunday remind us that, if we are to be true followers of Jesus, we must be willing to accept the responsibility that comes with discipleship, and part of that responsibility is a commitment to peace and justice, a dedication to building God’s kingdom here and now. And so, we pray, we fast, and we give to the poor. Any one of those acts is good and noble. But the question before each one of us is, “Where is my heart? To whom, or to what, does it belong?” If we continue to hold back, any words we speak or pray, the acts of penance we perform, and the gifts we share will always fall short and will never be what they might be, unless we act out of love for God and a spirit of gratitude for all that God has done for us.
Br. Silas S. Henderson, SDS
O God, by whom we are redeemed and receive adoption,
look graciously upon your beloved sons and daughters,
that those who believe in Christ
may receive true freedom
and an everlasting inheritance.
Through our Lord Jesus, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
—Collect, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time. Excerpt from the English translation of The Roman Missal © 2010, International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc. All rights reserved.