One of my heroes is St. Maximilian Kolbe, a priest of the Church in Poland, died bringing the sacraments to his “parishioners” in Auschwitz. He had prepared for that final act of love, taking the place of another man condemned to death, by years of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We enter into those disciplines on Wednesday in the hope that penance will refine our capacity to love deeply. The Epistle for Quinquagesima is St. Paul’s great hymn to Christian love, which most fiancées choose for their wedding Masses: “Love is patient, love is kind; love is not jealous, it is never rude, it is not quick-tempered. Love never fails.” Real love must grow deeper than romance, and most brides, I hope, know quite well that neither they nor their husbands can attain the love described by St. Paul without God’s help and daily discipline.
Today’s Gospel portrays this deeper love. First Jesus tells his apostles he is going to Jerusalem to lay his life in obedience to his Father, and for love of them. But then the Gospel gives us a little side incident. Jesus notices a ragged roadside beggar. He sees the beggar that most of us do not even see. He sees him, he talks to him as a man, and he heals him. In 1948 Mother Teresa noticed a man lying in a Calcutta gutter, one man in a city of 13 million men. She saw the man no one else saw. She picked him up, washed him, fed him, and looked at him. He looked back at her and asked, “why are you doing this?” She replied simply, “Because I love you.” The man smiled, and then died. Another man told her that he had lived like and animal but would die as an angel, in her arms. God makes every one of us capable of divine love, if we pray to him, discipline our bodies, and practice daily acts of charity. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving lay the groundwork for heartfelt love.
Love begins at home, to be sure, and so make quite sure you meet the daily obligations of domestic love—patience with your spouse and children, kindness toward an annoying relative, small acts of thoughtfulness to siblings and grandparents. But we need friends as well, and generally one has only two or three very close friends in a lifetime. I have two very close friends, both priests, without whom I would not have survived as a priest. The first priests with whom I lived did not believe what I believed, and each had an addiction to either alcohol or sex. Was this the priesthood to which I had dedicated my life? I knew of a solid priest about my own age, and I risked a phone call to him: “Fr. Mark, I need a priest support group, or I’m not going to make it.” Fr. Mark agreed to begin praying with me, and we invited a few others. We’ve been brothers for over 30 years now, and without him and some others, I would have long ago abandoned my vocation.
In addition to two or three close friends, we need a supportive community of people who believe what we believe and desire what we desire. Rod Dreher articulates this in his famous book The Benedict Option. If you don’t have the support of a small community of believers, he writes, you will lose your faith. Christian friendship is an obligation, a matter of spiritual life and death. We are made in God’s image, who is himself a community of persons. Christ formed a community of twelve friends while on earth. You too must form authentic friendships with other Catholics if you are to be happy and do God’s work. Pray together, work together, sup together, rest together. Make the effort to build convivium, the Latin word that best describes the Last Supper. So many lonely people pass through these church doors, desperately lonely people, and it need not be so. Ask God to give you friends, and then risk forming deep friendships, and God will give you true love.