Pope John Paul II
Will I Find Any Faith?
The folks “back home” can hardly believe that at TAC we have four Masses a day with confessions before and after each one. Some people assume we are a seminary—“so you don’t have any females on campus?” Rather than an exception for Catholic colleges, this should be the norm, since, Christ tells us in today’s Gospel to “pray without growing weary.”
The comic irony of today’s Gospel never fails to delight me. Jesus speaks of an unjust judge and an “importunate widow.” She keeps at the judge until he breaks down: “I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.” One imagines a little old lady whacking a dignified gentleman with her umbrella, maybe delivering an uppercut with her elbow or a jab in the ribs with her cane. But consider: Jesus portrays our Heavenly Father as an unjust judge. Certainly, he admits, it seems like God is “unjust” at times, that he ignores our prayers. “Why do bad things happen to good people” is the question that has driven many to give up their faith. How can God treat his faithful servants so poorly? Once, when praying about her many trials and sufferings, St. Teresa of Avila heard God say, "But this is how I treat my friends." She replied, "No wonder you have so few of them." If even the great Saint Teresa struggled to keep her faith, what about us? So Jesus asks the terrifying question at the end of today’s gospel: “when the Son of Man returns, will he find any faith on earth?”
Our first reading, from the Book of Exodus, speaks of faith in terms of war. “In those days, Amalek came and waged war against Israel.” We read everything in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, on several levels, the most important of which is the “tropological,” the symbolic or figurative meaning. When we read that Amalek attacks Israel, we understand as the world, the flesh, and the devil attacking us. How often are you minding your own business, studying in the library perhaps, and out of nowhere a lurid and overpowering temptation attacks you? Or, without warning, you get slammed with an insult, a misunderstanding, or a confrontation from someone you love? The struggle to preserve our faith must be total war, and that war begins in this chapel. We carry the fight out into the streets, but only after we have wrestled with God before the Blessed Sacrament. It is here that we struggle to crucify our own lusts and calm our fears, and where we learn to trust Him.
Like Joshua, we can’t afford our enemies—the world, the flesh, and the devil—any quarter. Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.” The Bible is not telling us to slaughter our enemies, but to kill what is evil in our enemies with love, with the “sword of the spirit.” We must wield this sword against evil: in ourselves; in others; in our society.
How do we learn to wield this sword? We wield it in prayer. The battle for eternal life is essentially the “battle for prayer.” Moses kept his hands raised throughout the battle with the Amalekites, with the help of his friends (not even Moses himself could sustain his prayer without help). At all costs, we must keep our hands raised in prayer, all day long, lest the “Amalekites” get the better of the battle.
The Catechism describes prayer as a “battle.” “Our battle has to confront, finally, what we experience as failure in prayer” (2728). This is perhaps the devil’s most devastating tactic, to convince us that we cannot possibly pray, that we are wasting our time, that no one is listening, that we only talking to ourselves, speaking into the void. But we must insist that every minute spent in this chapel, or in our room, or in our car in prayer is full of grace, no matter what it feels like.
John Paul II on Prayer
In an address to young people in 1979, the young Pope John Paul II called them to pray without growing weary. “It must be humbly and realistically recognized that we are poor creatures, confused in ideas, tempted by evil, frail and weak, in continual need of inner strength and consolation. Prayer gives the strength for great ideals…it gives the courage to emerge from indifference and guilt… it gives light to see the events of one’s own life and of history in the salvific perspective of God and eternity. Therefore, do not stop praying. Let not a day pass without your having prayed a little! Prayer is a duty, but it is also a great joy. Every Sunday, Holy Mass; if possible, sometimes during the week. Every day, morning and evening prayers, and at the most suitable moments!”
We do pray a lot here at TAC. We have a beautiful chapel in which to pray, and beautiful people with whom to pray, and an inspiring campus. When I raise my eyes to the mountains that surround our College, my soul naturally gives praise and thanks to God. But we must also take the time, and the trouble, to pray, many times a day. Begin the day with a morning offering, visit the chapel at least once a day between classes, pray the rosary or a part of the rosary each day, and continually lift up your mind and heart to God. Our Lady will teach us to pray. Begin with the rosary, and stay with the rosary, and you will preserve your faith, so that when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on earth.
Pope Francis entrusts the word to the Blessed
Virgin Mary Oct. 13 2013. Credit: Lauren Cater / CNA.
In every culture, and in every age, people admire valiant and virtuous military commanders: men who put their strength, courage, and intelligence at the service of their country. Such was Naaman in the first reading, commander of the military forces of Syria, a giant of a man, expert in battle, loyal to king and people. Valiant though he was, the Bible tells us, he was a leper. A little Jewish slave girl tells him of a man of God in Israel, so Naaman goes with an impressive retinue, loaded with gifts, to Elisha for healing. The man of God, however, refuses even to meet him, but tells him to bathe seven times in the river Jordan. At first Naaman refuses, but then plunges into the waters. “His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child….” If someone asks you why you dip your finger into holy water upon entering a Catholic Church, you tell them this story. It’s to keep your skin as young as that of a little baby. Have you ever seen a nun with wrinkles?
Blessed water is a “sacramental”—a simple element that communicates God’s healing power: a drop of olive oil, a splash of water, a flickering candle flame, a waft of sweet-smelling incense. If we were angels, we would not need sacraments or sacramentals, but we poor human beings learn through our senses, so God gives us these little helps to our faith. In the Gospel, not one but ten lepers come to the Man of God, Jesus Christ, who is God himself. Like Elisha, Jesus does not heal them directly. He tells them to “show themselves to the priests,” to perform the simple sacramental rituals of Jewish law. It was not the ritual that saved them, but their humble obedience, their faith, in God, who gives us these sacramentals. Jesus says to the one grateful leper that returned: “your faith has saved you.”
Many people—Catholics and non-Catholics alike, do not take sacramentals seriously. They don’t put crucifixes and statues in their homes or build little “altarcitos” in their homes. They don’t make the sign of the cross in public, or carry a rosary, or say traditional prayers. But these simple expressions of our faith are most important: at least Jesus thought so; he would not heal without them. My mother used to remove the little holy water font in our house before our Protestant cousins came for dinner so as not to offend, but one day she just left it up and said “I can’t help it if the Catholic Church has all the good stuff!”
Naaman goes back to Elisha, after bathing in the river, to ask for two mule loads of dirt. He intended to bring the soil back to Syria, so he could kneel on holy ground while worshipping the true God. Do we have to go to a consecrated chapel to pray to the living God? Jesus says we should pray not on this mountain nor that mountain but in spirit and truth. And yet Jesus himself goes to Jerusalem for the Passover, and follows traditional rituals, directing his disciples to do the same. Holy things and times and places are important to our faith. Can you pray to God without candles, statues, and rosaries? Yes, but they certainly help. They are biblical, and Jesus uses them.
The simplest and most effective Catholic sacramental is the rosary of the blessed ever-virgin Mary. October is the month of the Holy Rosary (the feast of the Holy Rosary is Oct 7), and a good time to resolve never to leave home without a rosary. If you have a rosary, you are more likely to pray it. It’s a simple prayer, but as John Paul II said, “marvelous in its simplicity and its depth.” In my last parish, I tried many ways to pray with my staff, but nothing worked until we began praying the rosary together once a week.
Pope Consecrates world to Our Lady
Today is “Marian Day” in the Year of Faith, the day the sun danced at the final apparition of Our Lady of Fatima. Today Pope Francis consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Rome. Let us also consecrate our city and our families to the Blessed Mother today, using the words like he used at St. Peter’s today: Holy Mary Virgin of Fatima, with a Mother’s benevolence we beg you to accept our act of consecration today, which we offer before your image, so dear to us. We are certain that each of us is precious in your eyes and that nothing in our hearts is unknown to you. Bring everyone under your protection and entrust everyone to your beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus. Amen.
The Lord’s Prayer
Blessed John Paul II wrote these words to the Church as she embarked on the Third Millennium: “Dear brothers and sisters, our Christian communities must become genuine "schools" of prayer, where the meeting with Christ is expressed … in thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening and ardent devotion, until the heart truly "falls in love".” Thomas Aquinas College, no less than any other Christian community, must be a genuine school of prayer. In our classes we read Aristotle and St. Thomas, Euclid and Shakespeare, but always with our final end in mind: union with the Triune God through authentic prayer. This school is indeed a school of prayer, with its chapel at the head and center of campus, and the curriculum truly culminating in the one thing necessary: knowledge of God.
There is no more authentic prayer than the Lord’s Prayer, given us today in the Gospel. The disciples watched Jesus praying one day, and they realized that up to that moment, they had never really prayed. When he returns from his prayer, they implore him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And so the Lord gives us his own prayer to his Heavenly Father: “Our Father, who art in heaven….” We pray it six times in each rosary, and to prepare ourselves for Holy Communion at every Mass. The Catechism calls this prayer the “the summary of the whole Gospel,” the “fundamental Christian prayer.” In the words of St. Augustine: “Run through all the words of the holy prayers in Scripture, and I do not think that you will find anything in them that is not contained and included in the Lord’s Prayer.” If we learned no other prayer in all our Christian lives, if even we taught our children no other prayer but this one, if a pagan in missionary lands discovered only this prayer, it would be enough. It is the only formal prayer that all Christians can agree on.
Bargaining with God
Let us realize what prayer is: when we pray, we do not talk to God so much as he talks to us. As Fr. Barron observed in his Sunday homily this week, we do not pray to change God’s mind; we pray to change our mind—to align our minds and wills with His. Consider Abraham in the first reading. It seems like he is bargaining with God, which is what many attempt to do in prayer. Deftly but respectfully, our Father in Faith negotiates God down from fifty to ten: “if I find ten good men in Sodom, I will not destroy the city.” (As it turned out, God only found four just people in Sodom, and he gave them a free pass out before he destroyed the city.)
Is Abraham negotiating with God? He is certainly persevering in petitionary prayer to save his kinsmen. But what Abraham actually does is persevere in prayer until his understanding aligns with God’s will. The city must be destroyed, even if good men will suffer, because sin has consequences. (Our own cities too are suffering destruction from sexual perversions, as the breakdown of family and social order result from promiscuity.) Abraham comes to understand this, but he also comes to understand how God wills the salvation of every soul. In prayer, Abraham comes to know and love the mind and will of God. We too learn to know God’s will only in and through disciplined, regular prayer. If we have a problem in our life, or with God’s will for us, only in prayer can we find peace. We may need to spend many hours before the tabernacle to learn to love God’s will, but learn to love Him we will, if we persevere in prayer.
With Jesus, Surrender to the Father
The Lord’s Prayer expresses this “Abrahamic faith” perfectly. First of all, Jesus instructs us to address God both as “Our Father” (immanent) and “in heaven” (transcendent). God is my father, understanding my fragility, but God is also the eternal and omnipotent El Shaddai, ruling the cosmos in perfect justice. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that His kingdom come, not ours—His will, not ours. We pray that we can come to love His will, in every circumstance. When I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I join the Son of God in surrendering my will, my intellect, all that I have and possess, to my Father in Heaven, who alone can bring me to heaven.
So, with Jesus in prayer before his Father, with Our Lady “keeping all these things in the silence of her heart,” let us also put aside distractions and keep silence, listening for God’s still voice. In every time of prayer, following the Church’s own liturgy, let us pray the Our Father, not to change God’s mind, but to change our mind, that it may conform to the mind of God.