Richard Wurmbrand (1909-2001) is a good example of “spiritual blowback”, how hardship and adversity can have the opposite effect to what was intended. Richard was a Christian pastor in Romania, imprisoned by the Communists in 1944 for the crime of being part of an underground Church.
He spent 14 years in prison, three of them in solitary confinement. It was strictly forbidden to preach to other prisoners, under the threatened penalty of a severe beating. Richard decided he would take the risk, and in his book, “Tortured for Christ”, he describes the savage and brutal beatings and torture he endured on many occasions. He suffered burns, knife wounds, broken bones and shattered vertebrae.
At the end of 14 years he emerged from prison as a man of deep conviction, great compassion and profound wisdom. He emigrated to America, and published several books about his experiences. He also founded the international organization Voice of the Martyrs, to publicize religious persecution and to help those being persecuted for their faith.
There are some who can see no meaning or purpose in pain and suffering. Richard Wurmbrand’s life and development as a person show how true character and dedication can be forged in the fire of suffering and adversity. It is just as the Risen Lord explained to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “It was necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things, and so enter into his glory” (Luke 24, 25-26)
There are times in the life of almost everyone when things do not work out as you planned, and you are fearful at the prospect of pain or failure. You feel that life is not fair, and that the pain outweighs the pleasure. I take heart in these words of an unknown author:
“I walked a mile with Pleasure; she chattered all the way, But left me none the wiser for all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow, and not a word spoke she, But Oh the things I learned from her, when Sorrow walked with me”
“No man can serve two masters” (Matthew 6, 24) is a frequently quoted phrase from the Bible. Maybe it was true in the past, but it does not seem to hold true in the modern world. I became aware of that several years ago, when I myself had to serve two masters.
I had the task of organizing training courses for overseas missionaries when I was asked to do some work for a government agency. The government had opened an Overseas Development Agency, and I was asked to help prepare their agents for work overseas. The courses in languages, cultural anthropology, and diversity were similar to the missionary courses, but the context was secular. I was serving a second master. There was no difficulty.
I knew many people who were holding down two jobs, and effectively serving two masters without any difficulty. One good friend was a scientist by day in a hospital lab, and a musician by night in a downtown singing pub. He had no difficulty serving his two masters, and keeping on good terms with both.
So the phrase, “No man can serve two masters” was being contradicted by the ordinary experience of everyday life. It bothered me that this questionable phrase was attributed to the Master whom I believed to be the wisest in all matters, human and divine. I wondered if it could have been attributed falsely, or, since it was not originally spoken in English, could it have suffered in the translation.
Fortunately as a student I had six years study of classical Greek, so I was able to check the Greek text of Saint Matthew’s Gospel. I discovered that the English translation of the Greek should read, “No man can be the slave of two masters”. Now that makes sense.
A slave belongs totally and absolutely to the master. A slave has no free time. The ownership of master over slave is so total that it is hard to believe that some men had the audacity to think they could have such power over a fellow human being. But it makes sense to say that a slave who belongs totally to one master could not belong in any way to another.
The real message is that each of us belongs totally and absolutely to the Creator who keeps us in existence. To the Creator belong our primary loyalty and service. Within that primacy we can serve other causes, provided they are not in conflict with that primary loyalty and are secondary to it. “You cannot be the slave of God and of Mammon” (Luke 16, 13)
I remember meeting a young businessman, a millionaire in the paper business, who gave up his entire business, and devoted his life to promoting the message of Medjugorje. He had a conversion experience on a pilgrimage there that convinced him that he was the slave of his millionaire business. He believed that if he continued on that line he would end up disillusioned and unfulfilled.
I think that is a good example of someone who realized that he could not be the slave of two masters. So he decided against being the slave of a life that might bring wealth but not happiness.
You cannot be the slave of two masters. Ultimately you belong to your Creator. Once you acknowledge that fact in humility and truth, and live by it, you enjoy the freedom of the children of God. “If you remain in my word you will truly be my disciples; you shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8, 31-32)
This morning one of my grandnieces, Ursula, married Gilbert in what was billed as a “Winter Wedding”. The wedding took place three thousand miles away. I was at the ceremony, not physically, but electronically. The church where the wedding took place has a webcam, so I attended the ceremony on my computer, full screen.
My own cousin was the officiating clergyman, and as he welcomed the participants and guests at the beginning of the ceremony, he also greeted me, because he knew I was watching. It was gratifying to hear that greeting, and I hoped it would make the bride and groom feel as if I was actually present for their big occasion.
I was impressed by the ceremony and the way the various participants played their part with quiet confidence and relaxed formality. Mentally I was comparing it with weddings at which I have officiated in my different missions.
When I was in Santiago, Chile, I had one central mission and four satellite missions. There were weddings at the central mission every week, on Saturday afternoon. The satellite missions had weddings once a month. The number of weddings at the central mission was always greater, because it covered a bigger area.
I remember having to officiate at 8 weddings one Saturday before Christmas. That was the most I had on any one day. I mentioned it in a letter to a colleague who was on mission in Japan. He said he smiled when he read it, because that would equal his total for the entire year.
It was a challenge to officiate at several weddings in quick succession. The groom and the guests were usually there on time, but it was understood that the bride would arrive late. In fact I have known of weddings where the bridal party kept driving around killing time, in order to arrive late.
I learned to use that waiting time for a purpose. The guests always came with little bags of rice to shower on the couple as they exited the church door after the wedding. It was a nuisance, because in addition to being a waste of good food, it messed up the entrance for the next wedding party.
So I used to coax the guests to bring their little bags of rice to the altar, where we could have it blessed while they were waiting for the bride to arrive. When I got all the bags of rice on the altar, I would tell them how this rice was their way of wishing the bride and groom abundance and prosperity. Then I would tell them that many poor people came to my door during the week asking for food. So I asked the guests to leave the rice with me for the poor, rather than scatter it on the ground at the door of the church. It always worked.
As I attended the Winter Wedding at my computer this morning, I secretly applauded all the hopeful young couples who give themselves to each other in marriage. Last April the Bishop of London spoke movingly at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in Westminster Abbey. He reminded them that by saying “I will” in marriage, each one promises to help the other become the best that they can be.
He said that marriage is intended to be the way a man and a woman help each other become what God meant each to be. The Bishop quoted Saint Catherine of Siena: “Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire”. That is a worthy project for the bride and groom at any wedding, even a Winter Wedding.
The recent tragedy of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Italy, brought back memories of the Titanic tragedy of 100 years ago. There may be some differences, and some similarities, but the unexpectedness and the mass evacuation must have linked the two events in many people’s mind.
The movie “Titanic”(1997) gave a dramatic account of the last hours of the liner and its passengers. The ship had left Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912 for New York on its maiden voyage, with hopes of breaking the time record for the voyage. As it drew closer to its destination, it gave every sign that it was going to break the record.
Suddenly the night crew on the bridge became aware that they were on collision course with an iceberg, one of the hazards in the North Atlantic in the month of April. Because of the great size of the ship, and its speed of travel, they knew there was little chance they could change course in time to avoid the collision.
While the crew were trying frantically to deal with this emergency, the passengers were enjoying a luxury meal, and preparing for entertainment and dancing. Even the poorer passengers, in the steerage section, enjoyed their own music and dancing, while the ship plowed relentlessly through the freezing waters towards the looming iceberg.
The movie director was able to build tension in the viewers by visually contrasting the three different situations – the ship moving inexorably in the direction of the iceberg, the captain and engineers frantically trying to reduce speed and change course, and the passengers enjoying their meal and entertainment, oblivious of the immediate threat to their safety and survival.
That scene is like a parable of our daily lives. We are often so taken up with things of secondary importance that we fail to notice we are in danger of losing things of primary importance. People can be so intent on getting that home, or getting that car, or getting that education, that they fail to see that they are risking their entire economic freedom until it is too late.
Our recent collision with the economic iceberg in 2008 was a “Titanic moment” for our nation and for our world. That moment has not yet ended, and continues to play out in slow motion.
There are moral and spiritual icebergs too, which are a danger to those who are so engrossed in the entertainment and dancing that they fail to ensure that their voyage is on the right course to reach its destination. This is as old as mankind itself. “In the days before the Flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the Ark. They did not know until the Flood came and carried them all away.” (Matthew 24, 38-39)
The sad fate of the Titanic and the Costa Concordia teach us lessons for life. Do not become so engrossed in what is less important that you lose what is most important. There is an Advent prayer that tries to keep us from making that mistake: “Lord, teach us so to navigate through the passing things of this world, that we never neglect what is permanent and eternal”.
When the bishop placed his ordaining hands on my head many years ago, and told me of my many duties as a priest in the service of God’s people, he said nothing about distributing baby clothes. Yet that is exactly what I found myself doing 35 years later in my mission in Chile. It all began with Sister Ursula.
I met Sister Ursula at Regina Medical Center, a hospital-nursing home-retirement complex in Hastings, Minnesota. I went there because the chaplain, Father Jim Dunne, was a good friend of mine since seminary days. During my years in Chile, I used to visit him about every three years, and often spent a month substituting for him as chaplain while he took a well-earned vacation.
Sister Ursula arrived at Regina in the late 1970’s. She had been teaching at one of her Order’s schools in Connecticut for about 40 years, and moved to Regina so that she could help in the pastoral care of the patients and the retired people living there. Regina Medical Center was an expanding healthcare center which had developed from a small country hospital founded by the Sisters in 1953.
Because of my regular visits to Regina during my time in Chile, the Sisters and staff were interested in my mission work, and wanted to help out in any way they could. They knew that my mission included a lot of young families, so Sister Ursula decided that her way of helping would be to collect baby clothes and send regular shipments to me.
I knew it was not easy work. Collecting the clothes was just the beginning. There were a lot of rules and paperwork to be completed. The receiving Customs insisted on written guarantees that the clothes were clean and sanitized and in good condition. They had to be packed in boxes not heavier than 10 kilograms (just over 20 lbs).
At the receiving end I had to go to the Customs to claim the boxes, and to guarantee that they contained what the labels said they did. It was worth it all, because every box of baby clothes from Sister Ursula brought joy to many young mothers and their children.
I left the sorting and distribution of the clothes to a team of women helpers, but I was there to share the joy and excitement of the mothers and babies. I also learned some new clothing terms, such as “sleep and play”, “sets”. “bibs and burps”, “bodysuits”, and of course the much-coveted “Moses basket”. I kept Sister Ursula informed of how much the young mothers appreciated her gifts of baby clothing, and how worthwhile were her caring and painstaking efforts to help them in their needs.
Sister Ursula went home to her heavenly Father just four months ago, in September 2011. She was 97 years of age, and had become a resident of the nursing home where formerly she had ministered as a Sister. Some of the babies she helped to clothe are now in their twenties. They never knew her, but one day she will meet them, and I know she will thank them because they inspired her to a baby-clothes mission that gave her declining years a new life and sense of purpose.
Monday January 23, 2012, saw the March for Life in Washington D.C. The organizers of the march estimate that tens of thousands took part. I was following it on television, and I was particularly impressed by the large number of young people who were there.
I was also pleased to see that the focus of the group seems to have widened. The issue of legalized abortion has been the focus of the group since its beginning 39 years ago. This year I noticed speakers expand the pro-life concern to include the elderly and the disabled as also being vulnerable and needing protection.
I believe that legalized abortion is one of the great evils of our time. But it is just not enough to condemn abortion without also providing an alternative for those facing this dreadful decision. Fortunately help and support are available through a Catholic agency called the Gabriel Project.
The Gabriel Project began in Texas in 1990. Participating parish communities place a public sign on their properties. The sign states that the members of this parish community offer immediate and practical help to any expectant mother who needs assistance. The parish has trained volunteers to answer the hotline number, or to attend to those who come, to guide them to the physical, medical, pastoral or emotional care that they need.
In the event that the preventive care has not been effective, there is another service to help those who have been part of the deliberate termination of a pregnancy. Project Rachel was founded in 1984 in Milwaukee to provide confidential care for those struggling with the aftermath of an abortion.
The testimony of those who have been through that experience reveals that there is a deep-felt need for inner healing and reconciliation. Project Rachel offers skilled help to women, men, parents, grandparents, and others whose lives have been impacted by an abortion.
This service can now be found in more than 150 dioceses in the United States, and indeed throughout the world. Project Rachel gets its name from the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
“In Ramah is heard the sound of moaning, of bitter weeping.
Rachel mourns her children.
She refuses to be consoled because her children are no more.
“Thus says the Lord: Cease your cries of mourning; wipe the tears from your eyes.
The sorrow you have shown shall have its reward. There is hope for your future”. (Jeremiah 31, 15-17)
One of the speakers yesterday reminded us that our Founding Fathers, in their Declaration of Independence, were pro-life. They stated clearly that all men, all human beings, are endowed by their Creator with the right to life.
As we give testimony of the universal right to life, we know that we are in tune with our Founding Fathers. We also know we are in tune with the Creator, whose words speak to us from the Gospel: “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10, 10)
I first became aware of the “Siege of Jericho” in the summer of 2009, in Mexico. I was helping to staff our mission parish of Corpus Christi in the diocese of Juárez, just south of the U.S. border.
The parish territory occupies about 10 square miles of the desert outskirts of the city. There are very few paved roads, and the majority of the homes have a temporary look about them, as if the residents are planning to build a more permanent structure when they can afford to do so.
The people are poor in the goods of this world, but they are rich in faith and devotion and in care for one another. They express their faith in an impressive way when they come together for the Siege of Jericho.
The Siege consists of a 7-day round the clock prayer vigil which targets some of the evils which are affecting the peace and progress of the community. Evils such as Violence, Drug Abuse, Criminality, Extortion, Materialism, Abortion, Infidelity, and more, are listed on a huge scroll which is hung from the ceiling of the austere concrete church which is the center of the prayer vigil.
Several families accept the responsibility to have people praying in the church all during the 24-hour, 7-day vigil. The prayers consist of Rosaries and hours of adoration, interspersed with hymn singing, and occasional devotional conferences.
On the final day, which is always Sunday, the people march round the church seven times. The vigil concludes with the final blessing of the Mass, after which it is hoped that the walls of evil targeted by the Siege will begin to crumble.
I later learned that the idea of the Siege began in Poland in 1979, not long after Pope John Paul II was elected Pope. The Pope wanted to make a Papal visit to Poland. The Communist government said he could only visit places approved by them. The Pope would not accept this restriction. So there was no permission.
On May 1, 1979, the Polish people began a 7-day prayer vigil in Jasna Gora, at the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. On May 7th the last day of the vigil, the government unexpectedly gave way, allowing the Pope to visit Poland without any restrictions.
The 7-day prayer vigil soon became popularly known as “the Siege of Jericho”, in reference to chapter 6 of the book of Joshua, when Jericho fell on the 7th day of a peaceful prayerful siege.
Saint Augustine used to pray, “Lord, may I also work to attain that for which I pray”. The people of our Mexican mission continue their prayerful Siege year after year. While they grow as a community of faith who care and pray for one another, they also work as a community of action to make their corner of the earth a better place for themselves and for their children.