Heroic Virtue and Intercessory Power
The good news of the upcoming beatification of Pope John Paul II on Divine Mercy Sunday, 1 May 2011, got me thinking about my own choice of an image, an icon to express my very own personal understanding of and devotion to this venerable man who has had a remote and proximate impact on my life since I was 28 years of age. There are lots of images to choose from: which one speaks most to my heart? Should it be one of the engaging photographs of the young pope who broke through the isolation which the powers that were (mediatic and otherwise) had imposed on Pope Paul VI? There’s always the windblown image of a not much older pope burying his forehead in the crucifix of bended crossbeam which surmounted his pastoral staff? The other day, on the wall of a bishop’s office here in my region, I saw a kind of “last hour” picture of him very much afflicted by Parkinson’s disease, which obviously spoke to the heart of my confrere? No, I guess I’ve had my picture all along in the one which my predecessor here had enlarged and framed for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Pontificate of John Paul II: he’s radiant but oh so mellow with age! I think I’ll leave that picture right where it is too: on the wall just outside the chapel, where you meet his benevolent gaze each time you leave the Presence of the Lord.
Needless to say, I have an ulterior motive in bringing up my rather personal search for an icon, which has to do less with John Paul II and more to do with all sorts of ideas which have been whirling around in my head partly due to Fr. Barron’s (Word on Fire) video which underlines the world-changing power of the accomplished rhetoric, promoting Christian nonviolence to bring down racial segregation, as practiced by Martin Luther King, Jr., of fond memory, who as Fr. Barron assures us was no saint. How decisive is (or can be) good or great rhetoric (without heroic virtue) to the equation of bringing light to the dark corners of our world? The old toastmasters slogan, about how to win friends and influence people by speaking well, has certainly had its adherents over the years, but it is not so much that I want to take on Fr. Barron as if he had given the impression that good rhetoric is all there is, but rather I am speaking to what must be the more central combat in the real quest for which I should be trying to win people today. Fr. Barron would never say that it is rhetoric which will make up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. We need a world sanctified and united with Christ in deed and in truth, as well as in word.
The Gospel for this the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) comes to my aid expressing clearly the proper focus or the absolute priority as laid down by Christ Himself:
“Hearing that John had been arrested, Jesus went back to Galilee, and leaving Nazareth he went and settled in Capernaum, a lakeside town on the borders of Zebulun and Naphtali. In this way the prophecy of Isaiah was to be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun! Land of Naphtali!
Way of the sea on the far side of Jordan,
Galilee of the nations!
The people that lived in darkness has seen a great light;
on those who dwell in the land and shadow of death
a light has dawned.’
From that moment Jesus began his preaching with the message, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’
He went round the whole of Galilee teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom and curing all kinds of diseases and sickness among the people.”
The life itself of and identification with Our Lord and Savior does count. Eloquent preaching or grand gestures are not what is determinant. Hence my choice of a well-weathered image of John Paul II, his face radiant with that glory in Christ which is not meant to be veiled! The fight or flee image used by Fr. Barron should not be directed primarily toward forces without but toward forces within my soul which must be confronted and subjected to the Will of Christ.
For that reason I get only somewhat of a kick out of the most popular icon at the moment of Blessed Piergiorgio Frassati, which shows him the youthful mountain climber with a pipe in his mouth. The picture says loads about life, health and youth, but little about the heroic virtue of this young man noted for his filial piety (respectful obedience to his parents), his unbounded devotion and love for Holy Mass and the sacraments, not to mention his devotion to friends in need and to the poor and destitute whose service also brought him into contact with the tuberculosis which carried him away before he could launch out on a life’s career. Piergiorgio carried on and won by the grace of God the only struggle which counts, the struggle to place his own heart on the Cross next to that of Christ. The poor of Turin, who came thronging to the young man’s funeral, had been touched not by good rhetoric, but by the love of Christ radiating from this man who sought to do his Lord’s Will in all things.
Tomorrow is the feast of St. Francis de Sales, the great communicator and patron of Catholic journalism. He made significant inroads for the renewal of Catholic faith in the territory of his diocese left fallow so to speak by the Protestant Reformation. He did so not only by winning words but by the holiness of his own life sustaining the clarity of his thought. St. Augustine’s City of God is another monument not only to clear thinking but to such as it pours forth from a once restless heart now firmly attached to Christ. I’m reading a very engaging book by Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory, Spiritual Combat Revisited (Ignatius Press, 2003), which comments on the book of Lorenzo Scupoli from the application made of that little book in the lives of St. Francis de Sales and Blessed John Henry Newman. He makes a marvelous apology for fighting hard to subject our will to that of Christ for the sake of our own salvation and obviously for the sake of the life of the world.
“From that moment Jesus began his preaching with the message, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ … He went round the whole of Galilee teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom and curing all kinds of diseases and sickness among the people.”
The scandals surfacing within the Church attributable to greater or lesser self-indulgence in violation of one or more of the Ten Commandments point out the urgency of rejoining the battle on the only front worthy of the witness to God’s Love given to us by Jesus Himself and namely within my own heart.
‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’